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!