MOVIE TRAIN TOUR: AS I WRITE
AS I WRITE WHAT I WRITE, I will share at least some of it here on this website. This is not meant to be a blog, rather an ongoing journal with notes jotted down as I make discoveries or have insights. The story of Russ and Phyllis Stewart begins with their early years together as they travel the United States with MGM's “Traveling Studio Train” promoting Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films and searching for new screen talent.
Most men, even those who lead extraordinary lives, are forgotten in one generation. People often saw Russ Stewart as 'larger than life,' yet with all his dynamic living, he is already forgotten, by most anyway. That is not a complaint, simply the way life works. And that is why I am writing this. We will all be forgotten (or mis-remembered) soon enough.
RUSS STEWART BEGAN LIFE AS A YOUNG BOY - BUT NOT FOR LONG.
Born in 1909, Russ grew up a poor boy in New England. At the age of 14 he ran away from home to evade an abusive step-father. On his own, he supported himself at the young age of 15 by drawing cartoons for the Bridgeport Herald, and went on from there to a lifetime career in journalism and promotion. He never graduated high school, but he made his way to the top and into Who's Who in America, eventually running 2 of the 4 newspapers in Chicago as Executive Vice President of Field Enterprises - Newspaper division.
This is his story, and my mother's as well. Interestingly enough, my father repeatedly said that he never would have accomplished what he had in his life, without the inspiration and support of my mother. He always said that he owed whatever he had become to her.
I am compelled to write down his story, their story, and the colorful tapestry created by the lives that wove in and out through theirs.
May 26, 2009, Santa Monica, California.
For many years, my bedtime stories consisted of delightful and dramatic, even outrageous, escapades from my parents' time working for MGM. But the family stories and the yellowed old photographs in their album are not enough. They are simply bits of information between the blanks. Who were the men my parents talked about? What are the names that go with all these faces in the old photographs? What was it like then? It was the early thirties, a world recovering from a great depression and devoid of any technological entertainment, except for radio and the newest thing — Talkies.
The Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, film archive for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is a great setting to start my research. The building and rooms are grand. The atmosphere is serious and ultra professional. There is little to nothing available, even here, about the Movie Train and MGM's early 30s World Tour for Screen Talent. I spent my childhood poring over all the fascinating pictures in my parents' tattered scrapbook. To me, this episode in early movie history seemed huge, and defines for me who my parents were. My mother, until she died in 1999, loved reliving the madcap adventures and more scandalous episodes of their colorful years with MGM. Yet no one knows anything about it, even here in the grandest of all film archives.
My primary source of information is The Distributor, MGM's in-house weekly magazine. These magazines, like my parents' old scrapbook at home, are showing signs of age at 77 years and counting. The Distributor issues are bound together in large heavy volumes, and are filled with all manner of hype and ballyhoo about the latest film, that week's newly discovered actor, the latest travel plans for the likes of Thalberg, Mayer, and Strickling, and (at last!) names to go with the faces I have known since childhood: Eddie Carrier, Howard Deitz, Bill Ferguson and more.
I turn a page, and an unprofessional tear slips out as I gaze at a photo I have not seen before. My handsome young parents, captured together forever behind a microphone on the boards at a Loew's Theater somewhere, could be anywhere in the United States.
May 28, 2009 Beverly Hills, California.
There is endless calm and order to things as I sit in the Margaret Herrick Library turning the delicate pages of The Distributor. It is the middle of the afternoon, and I have become almost weary following the Traveling Studio, the crowds, and the publicity campaigns all throughout the Northeast, then the South, then through all the stops west of the Mississippi. I have traveled through time as well: 1932, 1933, and much of 1934. I open a new volume, prepared for more of the same, when my eyes fall on a bold headline.
TRAIN HELD UP!
I read the first few lines below the headline and burst out laughing. I mean — laughing out loud — in the sanctuary of the Margaret Herrick Library. Well, God Bless the Canadians!
In September of 1934, the Traveling Studio finally crossed the border and did a publicity tour in Canada. They went from Niagara Falls to Montreal, stopping at selected towns along the way. The mayor of one little town in Ontario saw the train at St. Catharines, and was thrilled and excited by it. But the little train was not scheduled to stop in his town! It would just roll right by on the road to its next scheduled stop. But why don't you read the story for yourselves.
TRAIN HELD UP!
“En route from St. Catharines, where it had exhibited the night before, to its next stop in Hamilton (Ontario), the crew found the highway blocked with a barrier in the village of Grinsby. The barrier was held by a group of men, and was colorfully decorated with British and American flags. A large crowd was assembled, and as the Studio came to a stop, the Mayor of the town approached the Studio and introduced himself. He declared that he had viewed the Traveling Studio in St. Catharines, and upon learning that his town was not included on the itinerary, decided to take matters in his own hands and stop the train, so that the people of Grinsby might have an opportunity to view it. There was time to spare, so the Studio was parked at the side of the road, and opened for the inspection of the crowd assembled there; departing an hour later on its way to Hamilton, amid the cheers of the entire assemblage.”
The article carries the by-line of Eddie Carrier, head of MGM's Traveling Studio. And it may be no accident that the copy says that the name of the town was Grinsby. I have lived in that part of Ontario, and never heard of a town named Grinsby. I looked it up. The town is there all right, smack dab between St. Catharines and Hamilton, but the town is actually named GRIMSBY. Carrier was not known for making mistakes. He was known for making jokes. No offense to the good citizens of Grimsby, but I would rather live in Grinsby than Grimsby any day, wouldn't you?