Monday, January 30, 2017

"Theatre Guild on the Air" in Birmingham in 1947

In a couple of recent posts on this blog I've covered two world movie premiers that took place in Birmingham in 1947 and 1952. I've also done a blog post on Birmingham native and film star Mary Anderson. As noted in the article below, Anderson had returned to Birmingham in November 1947 for the world premier of her film Whispering City and a public appearance at Pizitz. The film premier benefited the Crippled Children's Clinic and was held at the Empire Theater on Third Avenue North.

I noticed some other interesting activities in this piece as well. Anderson had accepted a role in an episode of the "Theatre Guild on the Air" radio program to be broadcast from the city's Municipal Auditorium on November 23. She and other celebrities, including her co-star in that episode, Robert Mitchum, also accepted an invitation to watch the Crippled Children's Clinic football game played at Legion Field on Thanksgiving Day. Others who watched included sports broadcaster Harry Wismer and opera star Helen Jepson. Anderson then convinced her studio bosses to also have her new film's world premier in Birmingham.

Let's take a look at the football game and the radio production.

The web site of the Alabama High School Football Historical Society has a history of the "Crippled Children's Classic" game played annually at Legion Field for many years. The game started in 1935 as a contest between local college freshman teams, but by 1943 local high school teams played in the game. In 1947 Ramsey defeated Woodlawn 25-0. All proceeds went to support the clinic.

Founded in New York City in 1918, the Theatre Guild was an organization dedicated to the production of non-commercial plays. The Guild mounted over 200 productions and was a major player on Broadway into the 1970's. The group first tried radio in 1943-4, and on September 9, 1945 launched "Theatre Guild on the Air". The series continued on radio until June, 1953, when it moved to television. The radio version featured many famous plays and actors during its run. 

The hour-long episode broadcast in Birmingham that November evening was no. 94, "The Straw" written in 1922 by Eugene O'Neill. The story follows two characters during their stay at a tuberculosis sanitarium. 

Robert Mitchum returned to Alabama in August 1987 for a few days of filming aboard the USS Alabama for the TV miniseries War and Remembrance

According to a log of episodes, this one was Mitchum's only appearance in Theatre Guild on the Air. Anderson appeared in at least two other productions. Huntsville native Tallulah Bankhead also appeared in an episode broadcast in 1952.

Birmingham News 9 November 1947

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections

Robert Mitchum in July 1949

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Listal

Friday, January 27, 2017

Another Lunch at the Helena Depot

Eating a good meal in the midst of some history is always fun. Recently Dianne and I had lunch at The Depot Deli & Grill in Helena. We've eaten there several times and always enjoyed it, and this lunch was no exception. Since The Depot is an historic location, and Helena has some interesting history, I thought I would post a little bit about both. 

Helena began as a community known as Cove in the mid-1840's and then renamed Hillsboro in 1856 when a rolling mill was built in the area. That mill provided arms for Confederate forces during the Civil War. Railroads pushed into the area during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the town was renamed again after an engineer's sweetheart. 

The town boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Steel mills, a cotton gin, and coal mines all contributed to the growth that also included hotels and many stores and residences. Helena survived a devastating fire in 1895, but in 1920 decline began. The coal mines closed and the steel mill moved. The Great Depression hit hard and in 1933 a tornado killed 14 people and destroyed over 100 homes. Helena remained a small community in rural Shelby County until late in the 20th century, when suburban growth south of Birmingham exploded.

Several historical structures remain, and the entire downtown, known as Old Town Helena, is a pleasant place with various shops and restaurants. Read some more below the photos.  

You can find many historical photos of Helena in a book by Ken Penhale and Martin Everse, Helena, Alabama [Images of America Series, Arcadia Press, 1998]. 

UPDATE 19 April 2019

You can read an article about the 20th anniversary of the restaurant here.

The Depot is a modest looking place, but culinary delights can be found within.

There is a definite railroad theme to the place.

As this large sign near the entrance notes, the Depot building has been moved twice. The second move brought it to its current location in 1999, when the eatery opened. This structure was the railroad depot and freight house from 1872 until 1905.

The interior retains the look and feel of a waiting room from another time. Part of the decor includes dollar bills; you can see many of them above the counter.

Hey, kids! Know what this item is? Many great works of literature were pounded out on similar machines. Lots of other stuff, too.

Here we have an old cash register and various trinkets and an old photo.

This caboose greets you from across the street as you enter and leave the Depot. Railroads lost some of their magic when they stopped using these. 

There are some pleasant views from the patio.

This plaque is just outside the Depot and across the street next to the caboose.

Just down the road from the Depot is the Penhale Museum, devoted to history of the area. The Museum, which celebrated its fifth anniversary last year, is open most Saturdays, but call ahead to make sure. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Film Actresses from Alabama before 1960 (6): Lottice Howell

Lottice Howell is a bit different from the other actresses I've covered so far in this series. Her film career was much less substantial, and she returned to Alabama to live for the last several decades of her life. Let's investigate.

Howell was born in Kentucky on October 14, 1897 [some sources say November 14]; various sources list the place as Bowling Green. Her parents were John Eli and Clara Howell. By the time the 1910 U.S. Census was taken, she and her family were living in Moundville. Howell's father reported his occupation as operator of a lumber mill. Lottice had an older brother Ottis and two younger brothers, Harry and Ely. She is listed in that census as "Lottis Howel." The family lived on Market Street in Moundville. 

After graduating from high school in Moundville around 1913, she entered Huntingdon College. That school, founded in Tuskegee in 1856, had just relocated to its current Montgomery campus in 1910. Howell graduated with a degree in music and remained at the school as an instructor until she had saved enough money to move to New York City in 1918 to study under voice instructor Sergei Klibanski.

We can assume a couple of things from this narrative of Howell's life so far. Her family must have been fairly well off if they could afford to send the one daughter out of four children to a private college. And Lottice's soprano voice must have been good enough for her to have the confidence to move to New York to study.

When her money ran out, Howell returned to Alabama and taught school long enough to save funds for a return. By 1920 she had joined the cast of Irving Berlin's "Music Box Revue", and soon appeared in shows alongside Fannie Brice and the Marx Brothers. She played a role in a production of Verdi's opera "Rigoletto", and then the lead in Mozart's "Impressario". She appeared with Charlie Chaplin in an RKO vaudeville show. In 1926 she was in the play "Deep River" at the Plymouth Theater on Broadway, and after that in the musical comedy "My Maryland" produced by Sigmund Romberg. In 1927 she acted and sang in the musical comedy "Bye, Bye Bonnie"

After such success in New York, Hollywood began to notice. She accepted an offer from MGM and moved to the west coast in October 1929. An early film role is apparently an uncredited one as "Vocalist" in Estrellados with Buster Keaton. Perhaps she was able to mingle with some of the other stars of the day in the film, including Jackie Coogan, Robert Montgomery, Fred Niblo, Anita Page and Lionel Barrymore. The film was released in July 1930.

A few months previously Howell made the film with her biggest role, In Gay Madrid. Heartthrob Ramon Navarro was the male lead, but as the poster below indicates, Howell got equal billing with the other female star, Dorothy Jordan. Howell plays Goyita, the former love of Navarro's character. Released in May 1930, the musical comedy is set in Spain and based on a novel by Alejandro Perez Lugin.

That film is Howell's only major appearance in a full-length Hollywood production. She did appear in some shorts, such as 1930's The Flower Garden and the 1933 Nertsery Rhymes noted below. Another Buster Keaton film, the 1930 Free and Easy, featured Lottice in a musical number, "It Must Be You," with Robert Montgomery and Anita Page. You can hear her sing in a video on YouTube. 

MGM apparently considered her an up and coming star for some period; her dressing room on the studio lot was between those of Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. Perhaps they did not know what to do with a woman who had both a wonderful soprano voice and smoldering beauty. 

Although MGM refused to loan her to other studios, they did allow her to continue her singing career when not required to be on set. She had a regular program on NBC Radio and toured widely, including an appearance at the London Palladium. The 1940 U.S. Census lists her as living in a house with two other women at 28 East 56th Street in New York City.

When World War II, started, Howell toured the South and gave half the proceeds to the Red Cross. Her father had died in the mid-1930's and by 1942 her mother was too elderly to run the family cattle farm in Hale County. Howell moved home, kept the farm and continued her musical activities locally until her death on October 24, 1982. She died in Tuscaloosa's Druid City Hospital and as noted below is buried in Moundville. She has been inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame


Source: BhamWiki

Source: subztv

Source: subztv

Howell in In Gay Madrid

Source: Dr. Macro's 

Howell made an uncredited appearance in this 1933 short film featuring Ted Healy and His Stooges, soon to become known as the Three Stooges.

Source: Wikipedia

This compilation film was released in 1974 to celebrate MGM's 50th anniversary. Howell's musical number from Free and Easy is included. 

Source: subztv

Source: IMDB

Howell is buried in the cemetery at the Carthage Presbyterian Church in Moundville.

Source: Find-A-Grave

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Family Vacation at the Beach in May 1956

This post is another in a series featuring old family photographs that give me an opportunity to discuss both family and other history. Let's see what's happening here.

I've been scanning a lot of these photos recently and at mom's house in Huntsville came across several batches of "Super Pak Snaps" with photos developed at "H and H Walgreen Agency Drugs". Interestingly I found nothing related to this phrase in the Walgreen company's rather lengthy history on its website, its Wikipedia entry or via a general Google search. 

Anyway, mom wrote inside the front cover of this one "Vacation 1956 (May, St. Teresa, Fla.)". She describes the place then as a fishing camp with little for her and a four year-old son to do but walk the beach and try to avoid all the trash in the dunes to get there. 

There is a funny family story attached to this trip. Dad would go fishing at night, often returning pretty late. Mom and I would go to bed until some of those massive flying Florida roaches appeared and tried to carry us away. Each night when he returned mom would tell dad about these things, but he would just scoff at her tales. About the fourth night, though, just after he had come home and gotten in bed, he felt one. Mom says he hopped out of bed, turned on the light and started packing. She kids that he might have left the two of us behind if she had not packed fast enough.

St. Teresa is on U.S. 98 east of Carabelle. The place is not too far from St. George Island where we have spent many vacations over the years. We've driven past Carabelle, but never as far as St. Teresa. Might have to do it this year and see what's there now.  

More comments are below some of the photos. 

Dad and I and the pier

Here and in the next two photos I'm exploring the shark-infested waters

Dad and I are having some more fun. Mom always claims she never knew how to work cameras, but she did a pretty good job here.

Now for some work on the beach

Mom and I and younger brother Richard, who would be born that October

And here are the cabins; I guess ours is the one in the foreground

St. Teresa is about 37 miles from Apalachicola, which is not visible on this map but is just west of Eastpoint. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Let's Connect an Author, Actress & Film Director to Alabama!

On a blog by author BV Lawson called In Reference to Murder, I recently read a review of Hugh Cosgro Weir's 1914 short story collection, Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective. I do such things on long winter evenings. The five stories describe cases of one of the early American female detectives in fiction and her pal, reporter Nora Noraker. At the end of the review Lawson notes that two silent films had been made from the stories and starred Alice Joyce as Madelyn Mack.

Well, as I often do in these situations, I wondered if there was an Alabama connection buried in here somewhere. Lawson says author Weir was born in Illinois and worked as a journalist in Ohio. He also wrote stories for the pulp magazines. The FictionMags Index lists a number of stories for Weir and gives his dates as 1884 to 1934. Some brief searching produced nothing more on Weir, so I moved along.

What about Alice Joyce? From her Wikipedia page we learn that she appeared in more than 200 films between 1910 and 1930; she died in 1955. Joyce was born in Kansas City, so no Alabama link there. But wait--what do I see? Her third husband, from 1942 until 1945, was none other than film director Clarence Brown. And there you have it--the Alabama connection.

Say what? It's like this. Born in Massachusetts, Brown developed an interest in films as a young man. He served in World War I and by 1920 he was directing and continued in that role into the early 1950's. Brown's films were nominated for some 38 Oscars; he was nominated for best director five times, but never won. He directed Joan Crawford in six films and Greta Garbo in seven. He also worked with Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart and directed Intruder in the Dust based on the novel by William Faulkner. 

Brown died in 1987 at the age of 97. So where's the Alabama link? Brown's family moved to Tennessee when he was 11, and he graduated from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville at age 19 with two engineering degrees. He worked briefly for the Stevens-Duryea car manufacturer in Massachusetts, and then moved to Birmingham to set up an auto dealership, the Brown Motor Car Company. Brown later said after visiting a nearby nickelodeon on lunch break, he decided to enter the film business. In 1913 he went to work for Peerless Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, then a center of silent movie production.

Brown is one of three prominent film directors with Birmingham connections. I'll be doing a blog post on all of them one of these days. 

Alice Joyce [1890-1955] in Photoplay magazine in 1917

Source: Wikipedia 

Clarence Brown [1890-1987]

Source: Wikipedia 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Birmingham Photo of the Day (54): World Newspaper & Cotton Club

This photograph shows a block of businesses along 17th Street North and was taken by the Jefferson County Board of Equalization for purposes of property appraisal. A large number of these photographs are in the Board's collections covering 1938-1977 at the Birmingham Public Library. The block is between 4th Avenue North and the 3rd Avenue North Alley. 

Five African-American businesses are shown in this photograph taken sometime after 1936. On the far left, at 312 17th Street North, is the office of the Birmingham World. This newspaper began publication in 1930 and continued until at least early 1998. The Birmingham Public Library's "last issue received" was February 26 of that year. Whether the World remained at this location that entire time is currently unknown to me.

Next is the Poro School of Beauty and Culture. This business was probably a franchise of the Poro School founded by Annie Malone in St. Louis in 1917 and then moved to Chicago in 1930. The schools trained black women as sales agents for Malone's very successful line of beauty products. 

The next two businesses appear to be Kelley's Barber Shop and Ashjoy Bakery. I've so far been unable to locate any more information on these two shops. That may be the bakery's delivery truck parked out front. 

The last business on the right is the Cotton Club, presumably named after the famous Cotton Club in Harlem that operated during the 1920's and 1930's. On October 15, 1936, the club was registered as an Alabama Domestic Corporation. The three men named in the filing were James W. Aird, Brett George and Brett Martie. In the 1930 census we find James W. Aird to be a 25 year-old lawyer living with his parents and possibly an older sister. His father James. B. Aird was also an attorney. I've yet to research the other two men. 

Photographs like this one give us a snapshot in time of a block of African-American businesses in Birmingham decades ago. Follow the link below the photograph to a version which you can make larger to see more details.

Also below is an aerial view of the block today. Appropriately enough, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame is located on the former site of the Cotton Club. 

Source: Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections

Here's the block today; the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame is on the upper corner where the Cotton Club was located. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Visit to Fort Payne (2)

In the fall of 2012 Dianne and I visited the Fort Payne area and stayed a few days in DeSoto State Park. The first blog post about that trip can be found here. In that post I discussed a bit about the history of Fort Payne and the surrounding area.  I've written earlier about our visit during this trip to the fascinating Sallie Howard Memorial Baptist Chapel just outside the state park.

When you visit this area of Alabama you can take a lot of spectacular photos, and I want to share a few more here. I also want to mention some specific places in downtown Fort Payne.  

The drive around Little River Canyon provides many spots for great views.

From various places on the drive you can spot several mansions close to the canyon's edge. 

Just like the big cities, rural America and small towns are full of the signs of past lives.

The hosiery industry in Fort Payne has it's own museum, which is fitting for a place known so long as the "sock capital of the world." 

Next door to the Hosiery Museum on Gault Street North is the Opera House, opened in 1890 during the area's brief industrial boom in the late 19th century. 

A downtown park has this monument to the "Confederate Soldiers". 

The Fort Payne Depot Museum is a gorgeous building constructed in 1891. The Depot was saved in 1985 when a group of citizens purchased it from the Norfolk-Southern Railway before the planned demolition. The Depot is one of the few surviving in Alabama from the 19th century.