It has been a mighty long time since Greer Garson, Victor Jory, Don Taylor and Audrey Totter drew big numbers of people at the box office of our local movie theaters. Make it 60 years, in fact. Now generations removed from popularity, some are still able to remember the names of these four movie stars who paid a visit to our area in late April 1952.
That year, the first motion-picture theater was celebrating its 50th anniversary, and numerous movie stars made promotional tours across the nation under what was called "It's Movie Time U.S.A." Talley's Electric Theater of Los Angeles is claimed to be the first U.S. movie theater, opening in April 1902.
The movie star foursome began their day with an appearance in Saratoga Springs on Saturday, April 26. They logged quite a few miles and traveled some of the back roads in getting to Cooperstown and Oneonta.
The Otsego Farmer reported that Taylor and Totter made it to Cooperstown for an appearance around noon that day, but Garson and Jory, traveling in another car, got separated from Taylor and Totter as they passed through Johnstown. The full entourage regrouped later in Oneonta.
About 300 Cooperstown-area residents gathered for the welcoming ceremony on the front steps of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Lawrence J. Doran, manager of Smalley's Cooperstown Theatre, had made the arrangement for the visit. The two movie stars spoke briefly to the crowd and were then given a tour of the museum by Rowan D. Spraker, then the vice president.
Upon arrival in Oneonta, the four movie stars and their producers and directors were greeted by about 1,300 in the area surrounding Oneonta City Hall, then at 242 Main St. Each star appeared upon the balcony over the entrance and spoke to the crowd.
Bob Clemons remembers the day clearly, as at the time he was an usher at the Schine's Oneonta Theatre on Chestnut Street. His manager, Norman Prager, and Harold "Spike" Cary, manager of the Schine's Palace Theatre, had arranged for the movie stars to visit. The Palace once stood at the corner of Main Street and Ford Avenue, where Community Bank is today.
Clemons, an Oneonta High School student at the time before going into the Marines, recalled earning 50 cents an hour. The usher uniforms were gray trousers and maroon jackets, he said. Clemons now lives in Deposit.
The most memorable event of the day came after the stars had spoken from the balcony on the second floor. Taylor, who was best known at the time for his role as the husband-to-be in "The Father of the Bride," spotted the shiny brass fire pole inside city hall. At that time, the fire department was located within the municipal building, and the firefighters lived on the third floor.
"I've always wanted to do this," Taylor said as he slipped away from his protective entourage and straddled the pole.
"Use your elbows, not your hands," yelled an encouraging Totter. Taylor slid right into the hands of a mob of teenagers seeking autographs.
Once back in their motorcade, accompanied by Oneonta Mayor Roger Hughes, the group went for a late lunch at the New Windsor Hotel, found where the NBT Bank is today on Chestnut Street, across from the Oneonta Theatre.
The stars' appearance was just before Clemons was set to go to work at the theater. "I was standing out in front of the theater with my usher's uniform on, as they were going into the hotel for lunch. Jory spotted me standing over there, under the marquee, walked across the street and we struck up a conversation about a movie he'd filmed about nine months earlier. I joked with him about how -- as always -- he got shot, because he always seemed to play the bad guy in the western movies. I also got to meet Audrey Totter and Greer Garson."
The April 1952 visit wasn't the first time in recent years that a big time Hollywood star had visited Oneonta. On Tuesday, June 17, 1947, the star actress in "Stairway to Heaven," Kim Hunter, brought out a crowd of about 1,200 upon her arrival for an appearance at the Oneonta Theatre. She was given a "key to the city" by Mayor Alexander Carson, which she said was the first such token she had ever received.
Hunter was on her way to Stamford for an appearance in a play at the Stamford Legend Playhouse during the next week.
Hunter also made a personal appearance that afternoon, where she presented autographed photos at Bresee's Department Store.
This weekend: A first daily newspaper for Oneonta.
City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.