Thursday, August 19, 2010
Roz Russell's Waterbury Premiere
She wrote in her autobiography, “Life is a Banquet” (with Chris Chase, Random House, NY, 1977) “Nineteen fifty-five was my year for attracting natural disasters.”
The festivities were scheduled for August 18th. Roz (as she was referred in the local paper), was due to arrive by train along with her co-stars from the film, Fernando Lamas, Eddie Albert, and Gloria DeHaven (who we last saw in this post on “Summer Stock” - 1950)
According to author Bernard F. Dick’s biography, “Forever Mame - The Life of Rosalind Russell” (University Press of Mississippi, 2006), Miss Russell arrived the day before, visited with siblings and her elderly mother, and prepared to take on the public mantle of hometown hero.
Miss Russell remarks in her autobiography, “Waterbury authorities explained that I was the only motion picture star to have a theatre named for her (I don’t know whether they meant in Waterbury or in the United States or in the entire world, but how could such a declaration not go to a girl’s head?)”
The stars, along with the flock of Paramount newsreel men, the inevitable publicity department, and some 10,000 townspeople straggling on the sidewalks to watch the parade, would be taken from the railroad station to the Elton Hotel, the swank spot in town.
Dave Garroway (who is mentioned as having a problem with chimpanzees on the set of The Today Show in this post from Monday), showed up with his Today Show crew to film the festivities live on television from the Elton Hotel.
Roz’s take: “There was a big dinner at the great snob Waterbury Club, and my brother had to make a speech, and everything was to be televised - crews had been there for a week, setting up cameras all over the Waterbury green.”
They were in the right place to broadcast an even bigger surprise story the next day.
Roz writes in her autobiography that, “there was a drum and fife corps - that’s very big in Connecticut; they always wear tricorne hats.”
Limos downtown, and powerful spotlights sweeping the cloud-covered night sky. Nothing like it had ever been seen in this factory town. Nothing ever would again. By morning, the Rosalind Russell State Theater, like much of the downtown, would be under several feet of water.
That cloud-covered sky. It had been raining pretty steadily all day during the celebrations on the 18th. By late that evening, smaller brooks in the Naugatuck River valley would jump their banks. The mighty Naugatuck itself, which powered so much industry in Waterbury, would morph in the wee hours to a monstrous thing that scraped factories, stores, and homes to rubble before morning, and leave some 30 people dead in Waterbury and over 90 people dead or missing and presumed dead total in the towns of the Naugatuck Valley.
Roz fortuitously left right after the premiere, rented a car with her maid and a driver, and they made their way to New Haven while the bridges were being washed out in Waterbury.
From Roz’s autobiography: “I directed the driver - ‘Go up this hill, go down that lane, I know this town’ - because I realized if we could get to New Haven, we could get from there to New York. There was no hope of driving along the Naugatuck Valley toward Bridgeport; the Naugatuck River had overflowed.”
Her intention was to make it to the next publicity chore, the Ed Sullivan Show in New York City on the 21st, for an appearance with co-star Gloria DeHaven to promote “The Girl Rush.”
According to Mr. Dick's book, Miss DeHaven, however, got stuck in Waterbury temporarily until train service resumed.
Recovery took weeks, months, even years for some people. Some businesses, and people, never did recover.
According to this Cinema Treasures information, the State Theater had at various times, been called the Broadway, the Bijou, or the Rialto. It was torn down a couple decades ago. Currently, it is a parking lot.
This remarkable event was the last time Rosalind Russell ever visited Waterbury. Truly, the dual theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy were worn on this night.
For more on the New England Flood of 1955, have a look at tomorrow’s “New England Travels” blog.