With Kirk Douglas passing away in recent weeks, I wonder if many of today’s young people know who he was. Or for that matter, do they know any of the actors that we remember from his early days in Hollywood?
I’m sure this happens through all generations. The younger know those who are famous now and maybe one or two who came before while the older generations know the ones who came before and possibly one or two of the current top actors.
Growing up I was lucky that my mother had keep a scrapbook filled with clippings about movie stars. From that book actors like Jane Mansfield, Susan Hayward, Jane Russell, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Maureen O’Sullivan, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Tyrone Power, Clint Walker, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Victor Mature, and yes, Kirk Douglas. Mom had two scrapbooks that were filled with pictures cut from magazines of these silver screen icons.
During my childhood one would find many of the old movies shown on television. I watched Fred and Ginger glide across the dance floor in effortless grace and Errol as he played the role of a dashing swashbuckler. There was Jane Russell in some of the Bob Hope movies and Randolph Scott in many a western film. Maureen O’Sullivan would be paired with John Wayne in several movies and Clint Walker as Cheyenne Brodie.
There wasn’t CGI in films then, it was mostly the actors who made the films. Their talent and the action – car chases, battle scenes, love scenes, musical performances – held our attention.
Esther Williams will always be a favorite because of the music and romance found in her films. Then there were the comedic actors such as Danny Kaye or Red Skelton who knew how to make us laugh without cussing or being lewd in their language or gestures. They did it through creative songs, jokes, skits and their ironic take on life.
And don’t get me started on the variety shows that would come later – Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Carol Burnett, Andy Williams and of course Red Skelton. I can remember sitting in front of the television as my mother put my hair in curlers while I watched Red Skelton.
I could sit and watch Bobby Darin sing “Mack the Knife,” Elvis Presley win the girl in Blue Hawaii or Debbie Reynolds/ Sandra Dee go through the growing pains of love and relationships in the “Tammy” movies. Then of course there were the “Beach Party” movies with Frankie and Annette. Those early shows hooked me on musicals and when Roger and Hammerstein did Cinderella on television in the mid 1960s I would have been in heaven if there had been a musical on television each and every night.
But seeing their photos in a scrapbook or watching them on television was as close as I figured I’d ever get to these iconic Hollywood names.
However, a chance to meet Red Skelton would come my way later in life as part of my job, and to say I jumped at the chance is putting it mildly. He came to Clearfield County one year to perform at the county fair. I and another jounalist were sent to cover his press conference for the Courier Express. We arrived a few minutes late and quickly found seats. “Red” was already entertaining everyone with his Heathcliff and Gertrude skit but then a television cameraman interrupted him in the middle of his routine. Digital cameras were not around yet and television cameras then used large rolls of film. The cameraman had to replace the film. I can still remember, “Red” stopped and said, “No problem, there are people here I haven’t met yet.” He then came back and stood in front of my chair, held out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Red.”
I’m not even sure if I answered him I was so surprised. It was the last thing I expected but exactly what I should have known he’d do because that was just pure “Red,” humble and kind, not putting on any airs because he was a television personality and an actor who had shared the big screen with such legendary actors as Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Howard Keel, Vincent Price and Ann Rutherford, to name just a few.
Here was this man whom I had watched on television while growing up and he was introducing himself to me. If my life had been a musical, I’m sure I would have burst out in song at that moment.
When the television crew was ready to roll again, “Red” picked up his Heathcliffe and Gertrude skit right where he had left off without missing a beat. To me that was just amazing.
I suppose a few decades from now, those “younger” moviegoers will be wondering the same as I do today – doesn’t anyone remember those great actors from years back. I guess that is the way of the world – even the most famous may someday be forgotten.
For this moment in time, these icons of the silver screen are alive again as I remember their movies that brought such enjoyment and quoting Bob Hope will just say, “Thanks for the memories!”