The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa


September 10, 2013

The Lillian Russell Movie Premiere

Throngs of people descended upon our railway depot on Wednesday, May 15th, 1940, to catch a first glimpse of four 20th Century Fox movie stars’ arrival. It was perhaps the biggest crowd in Clinton history, and they were enthused with joy at the World Premiere of The Lillian Russell Story being held here.

It was the biggest assemblage of citizenry in Clinton history as the streamliner “Treasure Island” chugged into town at 11:30 a.m., May 15 of 1940. Elsewhere, the world was abuzz with the dark clouds of war hovering ominously. Yet, here all that was briefly brushed aside, as a carnival spirit spread throughout the community. It had begun early the previous weekend and would reach a crescendo this wondrous day. Don Ameche, Alice Faye’s co-starred in The Lillian Russell Story was coming to Clinton, along with Hollywood colleagues Caesar Romero, Arlene Whalen, and Mary Healy.

The famous four were to lead a parade, judge several look-alike contests, rule over a gala premiere evening at both the Capitol and Rialto theaters (so large were the crowds), and then attend a sumptuous celebration at the Coliseum’s elegant Modernistic Ballroom. At length, they led the cotillion in a grand march around The Mod’s parquet dance floor -- before being whisked away again, into the night, by the streamliner.

How did all this come to be? It seems that a group of Clinton promoters had talked Hollywood studio heads into having a world premiere in “Nellie’s” home town. However, Pittsburgh said “me too” and arranged a premiere of its own -- complete with Alice Faye, who played the title role, and some lesser luminaries. These were carried out simultaneously, in addition to one in Hollywood. THIS WAS A VERY BIG MOVIE!

Over the years Don Ameche became known as an arrogant, Hollywood snob who could scarcely stomach being stuck in a “hick town;” however, evidence seems to belie that characterization. He was most cordial at our depot and joked throughout a ceremony there that might otherwise have proved embarrassing. Later, as he sat waving in an open convertible, a lull in the parade’s movement happened to cause then-15-year-old Dick Herrity to cross paths with the star. Herrity, who is over 80, was on his way to the ballpark with his bat and ball and, as he stood on the corner, he noticed Don Ameche sitting right in front of him, and he hollered, “Hi, Don” in the familiar manner a small town boy might meet even someone famous. Ameche called back, “Hey, you going to play some ball? Wish I could come along!”

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