Friday, January 22, 2010

Flint, in the fifties, was the best city to grow up in.

More Flint stories and photos in the book
Coming June 22nd 2010
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ISBN  978-0-615-37758-2

 Earl Berry managed the Capitol. I knew him when he managed the Garden. Art Black managed the Palace. Both were first run Butterfield Theaters. Earl passed away in 2009. He was 90.

I left Hollywood after being there for one year. Nick tried to talk me into staying but I wouldn't change my mind. He even offered to let me live with him, but I just wanted to go back to Flint. I told him I could answer his fan-mail from back there. He drove me to the airport and he bought a newspaper and made me read, out loud, about a plane crash that happened the previous day. I still wouldn't change my mind. (Dumb move). We had breakfast at the airport and then he was paged to the telephone. He said he had to leave and he couldn't see me off. I was starting to change my mind, but was looking forward to returning home to tell of my "adventures." "Why the hell did you want to come back here?," is what I was greeted with, as I have been greeted with here today in Lima. Flint, in those days, was the best city to grow up in. But, it seems as though everyone had wanted to be in my shoes and living "away from Flint."

The Capitol theater was closed for remodeling and the small Garden theater had been reopened, playing the films that the Capitol would have played. I remember, "THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER," was the first film playing when I was hired back by Mr. Berry. I loved that film, and still do today, although it didn't do much business. I even bought the album of Charles Laughton doing a reading of it. (I now have the CD). It was the only film that Laughton had directed. I used to play that album over and over.

The Capitol reopened with, "AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS." It was a reserved seat engagement and we hired the local Demolay, for the extra ushers we needed. I still don't know what Demolay is or was. But we sure had enough ushers to seat people. The film did real well, but I never liked the renovation work. The front entrance looked good but the auditorium had been destroyed. It had been painted a dull gray and salmon pink. The artificial trees were removed as well as the statues that were in the alcoves along the sides of the auditorium. They had goofed because now there was too much reverberation with the sound bouncing off the bare walls. The back wall had to have acoustical material put on it.

When the Capitol was originally built, there was an artificial, blue sky ceiling. Lights looked like small stars. There was also clouds from a cloud making machine. Stuffed birds on wires hung down from the ceiling and of course the theater organ was magnificent, with the pipes and chimes inside the theater walls. I introduced Mr. Berry to some California ideas. Of course we had to wear tuxedos. And when the movie was about to begin, the curtain would close at the end of the previews, then the film would start, on the curtain, and then the curtain would open. A bit of showmanship, from Hollywood. And the ushering was something else. I would put three or four ushers on the "same" aisle and then direct the patrons to that particular aisle, "immediate seating to your right, on aisle three." This was all new to Flint and created a sort of excitement going to the theater, because we got the crowds in and seated people so fast.

It was a 2,000 seat theater. The Capitol just had a different atmosphere than the other theaters. Opening night, I had sprinkled "silver glitter" on the new carpet. This created an theatrical atmosphere as well. I also started glittering lobby posters and used, red crushed plush backgound material for the posters, just like they did at Grauman's. It was like taking a class act to a little city. I was always busy and hardly missed Hollywood. And the movies were the money-makers of that period. They were called the "Hollywood Golden Jubilee of Hits." We played RAINTREE COUNTY, THE APARTMENT, OPERATION PETTICOAT, BABY DOLL and the Rock Hudson/Doris Day films that packed the people in. But, again, after a year or so, I was getting bored again (story of my life).

The Capitol theater's cashier, Peggy, and her boyfriend and I, decided to go to Fairmount, Indiana to visit James Dean's grave. Her boyfriend borrowed his dad's Buick for the trip. It was about three hours from Flint and we had fun driving there. We had limited funds and barely enough for gas.

Marcus and Ortense Winslow raised Jimmy after his mother died in California. We stopped by the farm and they were very friendy toward us and knew I had worked for Nick Adams, who had been James best friend. Nick had hitch-hiked across the country to Jimmy's funeral. I was told he had also written a few bad checks while he was there too. But, this was before Nick's film successes and he was very poor. At one time he had lived in a basement apartment on Hollywood Boulevard near Laurel Canyon, and Natalie Wood had nursed him through a bout of pneumonia. Nick had no money for a doctor or insurance.

While working for Nick, I used to go to Warner Bros, to buy photographs (stills) of Jimmy from their still department. A woman named Lillian managed it. I would go through what they called key sets of the movies, which were numbered photographs of the movie scenes. Then I would write down the number of the photo I wanted to order. They cost twenty-five cents in those days. Lillian would then have a copy printed up and I would go back in a few days and pick them up. I had to take a bus from Hollywood. But, they were cherished items, even though I could only afford to buy a few at a time. So, I took these photographs with us to Fairmount to show to the Winslows and told Ortense to pick out as many as she wanted. She picked out quite a few and I was glad to give them to her. Years later, when I needed a photo for an artist who was going to do a Dean painting for me, she never even responded to my letter to her, requesting one. I guess too many people had wanted pictures and she evidently had forgotten me.

Marcus was flying, I believe to Texas, where he was going to a funeral. I think his brother had passed away. Jimmy's cousin, Markie, was in the front living room watching television. There were some crude, terrible oil paintings of Jimmy hanging on the living room wall. I thought they were so bad that they shouldn't have been displayed.

We got to walk to the barn where Jimmy used to play in the hay loft and where he knocked out his two front teeth while swinging on a rope. Years later, a woman there told me that Jimmy would milk the cows around midnight instead of in the morning or around sundown when cows are usually milked. Everybody remembered Jimmy riding his Norton motorcycle, up and down the country roads making a hell of a racket, at all hours of the night.

Jimmy is buried at a cemetery, not too far from the farm. He has a small, pinkish headstone and fans chipped away pieces of the granite for souvenirs. It would be stolen twice over the years, and a new one was donated. Then the stolen one was found and I hear it is on display at the Fairmount Museum. The James Dean gallery, also there, just filed bankruptcy and is closed.

I know, at that time, years ago, we didn't see the bust of Jimmy that Kenneth Kendall made for the cemetery. I had read that it had been stolen and was gone by the time we made our Fairmount trip. Fairmount, itself is a small town with a few buildings; a bank, theater, (which was closed and is now a bar), a restaurant; fire station and a pharmacy, (where I was told) more drugs go out the back door than the front. There's a local newspaper there, and Phyllis, an employee, said Fairmount is like a little Peyton Place. The town resembles a small movie set. It's near a town called Gas City (where the Dean gallery had moved to), which is between Fairmount and Marion. Marion is where Jimmy was born. Unless you are a farmer, there isn't much to do in Fairmount. Marion is a much larger city and that is where most of the Fairmount kids go for entertainment. Jimmy's death put Fairmount on the map and is now known around the world. On the way back to Flint, a rod blew out on the Buick engine and we could only go about thirty-five miles an hour. It seemed to take forever to get back.

Before we played "GIANT," at the Capitol, I made a lobby display of Jimmy's "things." I threw in the red, nylon, windbreaker I had bought at Mattson's in Hollywood, a pair of broken glasses, from the lost and found, (that resembled Jimmy's), and an audio tape stating "Jimmy's voice is on this tape." And it was too. I had taped it from from one of his television shows. Too bad VCRs weren't around in those days. Next to the jacket I put a sign that read, "Rebel Without a Cause" jacket purchased from Mattsons in Hollywood. I didn't say it was "the" Dean jacket, never-the-less, it was stolen but later recovered by the police. I also had a plastic life mask of Jimmy in the display. A real collectible today. Near the Dean display was a large wall display with numerous Dean stills on it. It attracted everyone's attention when they came through the theater lobby.

"GIANT" had opened in Detroit at the Michigan theater, before we played it. So, I took a Greyhound bus to Detroit and saw it before it played in Flint. When it played in Flint, is when I decided to go to New York for a weekend. Of course GIANT was a hit. In Hollywood it had premiered at Grauman's and was the largest premiere they ever had. People were standing in the street, all the way back to Highland Avenue, a block away. Director, George Stevens, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, had put their hand and footprints in the cement in front of the theater. The klieg lights, instead of moving back and forth as they usually do, were stationary forming a canopy of light over the theater. Large, blown up stills, from the movie, were mounted in display cases and every star, that was a star, was there.

Back in Flint, I was transferred to the Della theater as manager. I was only twenty years old. It was on Welch Boulevard and a long way from downtown, especially if you didn't have a car. It was a large theater on the west side of town, in a residential area but lacked sufficient parking. A small shopping area had opened across the street and took up the parking space.

Being a theater manager in those days, was more for prestige than pay. Not having a car, I often stayed over and slept in the theater. Buses stopped running when we closed and I couldn't afford a cab. Norma Jean Kelly, the secretary at the Capitol, often gave me a ride to work. I had learned to do newspaper layouts at the Capitol and developed a knack for it. I wasn't allowed a large space in the newspaper, like the first run Capitol and Palace, so I had to create ads that would stand out. I'd often put a one column ad in a two column space. This made the ad stand out from the other ads, with the blank space around the ad.

We once played a circus picture and I had baled hay piled up in the front of the theatre and made a deal with a pet shop to borrow a monkey in a cage to be displayed in front of the theater, as well as a python snake in a glass aquarium. I had helium balloons floating around and the doorman and ushers were dressed as circus clowns. I had learned to "eat fire" and used to do that in the box-office as patrons came in. I created a circus like atmosphere. I even played circus calliope music over the speakers out front. It attracted attention as cars passed and we did good business for a "fair" film. But, I had problems, mainly with transportation. And like I said, manager's jobs weren't for the money. I preferred to return to the Capitol as assistant manager but was told they didn't break in assistant managers, to remain as assistants.

Then I was transferred to Battle Creek, Michigan, home of Kellogg Cornflakes. But, I didn't like working with the so called "city" manager. He was lazy. I had to do his concession inventory, as well as my own. He became jealous because my theater would do more business than his, and he was "first run." He stood in front of the theater when we re-ran "GIGI," after it won an Oscar, and we had a long line of people. He yelled at the patrons in line for not seeing it when it played at his theater, the Bijou. He was an ex-school teacher and should have remained one.

I did have fun with one movie and got dressed as a monster and was "on display" across the street from the theater. I had created a similar stunt in Flint and was arrested for Breach of Peace, and spent the night in jail after a woman, allegedly, had a heart attack, when she saw me.

Once, after the theater closed, the cleaning lady suggested that I go to Chicago, with her and her husband. She wanted to visit a relative and I was to share the gas money. I was still in my tuxedo but decided it would be fun. She assured me we would be back in time to get the theater cleaned and opened. It was my first time going to Chicago. Although she was black I didn't even think about where we would be when we arrived. We were in the heart of the black part of the city. There were a lot of poor blacks there and I was "wearing a tuxedo." One of her relatives showed me around and took me into a bar. Then we walked around a little and I decided we had better start back to Battle Creek and get the theater together. Well, we didn't get back in time and the city manager had a fit. But, it was a fun experience. There were a lot of after hour parties in Battle Creek. Since I was under twenty one, this was my bag. A couple of bars did serve me. They felt I must be of legal age, because I was a theater manager. The parties were swell with many musicians coming there from Chicago to have jam sessions in private homes. A local disc jockey would often tape the sessions and then play them the next day on the air. I recall a group called "THE THREE SOUNDS" coming and playing. They had a couple albums out and were very good. But, soon that became boring too.

I phoned Mr. Quann in Hollywood and told him I was thinking about returning. He said he was about to fire his doorman, and that he would hire me right away. So, once again I would be on my way back to Hollywood.

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