By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald
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!”
1940 was a transition time all over America. The Great Depression was ending, war was on the horizon, automobiles now flooded the streets, and special events had become commonplace, although this one was unique.
Bill Nesbitt from NBC was on hand to describe the festivities for a nationwide radio audience, and everyone was dressed in their best rendition of the Gay Nineties. People scoured through trunks for weeks resurrecting old clothes (especially gowns like Lillian wore) and antiques. Numerous horse and buggies also reappeared. Those things were not exceedingly rare, as Victorian days were only 50 years removed. Many parents or grand-parents remembered, and young people were suddenly thrilled to learn of that era and pleaded to be allowed to sit in a buggy behind a horse, to get a feel for olden times.
During the day, the stars got scarcely any rest, as they willingly signed autographs for thousands of admirers who waited to stand on the running boards of their automobiles. Indeed, they seemed pleased, for the city’s excitement was contagious.
As evening set in and anticipation of viewing the fabulous film escalated, everyone assembled at the theaters on 6th Avenue South, where they were called to attention by Leo McEleney, manager of the event. Then, dapper George Dulany was called upon to perform introductions. He said, “I have been called upon to add a bit of local color. Accordingly, I obtained this costume -- which makes me look like Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio!” After which, he introduced Bourke Hickenlooper, soon to be an Iowa Senator, who came from Des Moines to give the official welcome. Mayor Harry Pape spoke, and important guests were introduced from their special balcony seats in the old Capitol.
Finally, the curtain went up, a hush came over the crowd, and the magnificent movie appeared on the screen. One could hear the audience gasp in awe, as radiant Alice Faye brought Lillian Russell to life before their eyes. They chortled with amusement at the rotund Diamond Jim, played by Edward Arnold, and the rollicking nightclub entrepreneur, Tony Pastor, played by much-noticed Leo Carrillo. Little Ernest Truex played Lillian’s long suffering father, first editor of The Clinton Herald. Weber and Fields were still in show business in 1940, and appeared as themselves in “The Lillian Russell Story” -- fully forty years after first working with Lillian!
The movie’s main theme song was “After the Party’s Over,” which Lillian probably never introduced. Her most famous song was written by John Stromberg, “Come Down, My Evening Star.” Several other of the movie’s songs were especially written, in the style of the era, to highlight the lovely voice of Alice Faye -- actually nonpareil that of Lillian’s!
And so, like Lillian’s evening star, our town came to rest after its exhausting week. Gone were the Marions and the Mann Brothers, who entertained thousands with their street programs. Gone, back to the road, were the Clinton Giants who’d played baseball every night during the big week -- against Moline and Evansville of the Three I League. All of the hoopla and street dances were over, but it all has echoed down through the decades as one helluva celebration …. which every Clintonian alive then recalls in vivid detail!
Note: Be sure to see The Lillian Russell Story whenever it is shown at the Clinton County Historical Museum.