Thursday, August 19, 2010

Roz Russell's Waterbury Premiere

Rosalind Russell experienced a very special, but precarious, movie premiere when her comedy “The Girl Rush” (1955) premiered in her hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut. What began as an exciting and poignant celebration of, as the newsreel narration put it, “hometown girl makes good”, ended in a frightening disaster when an unforeseen flood nearly obliterated Waterbury that night.

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.”

Mayor Snyder, Rosland Russell, and Gloria DeHaven.

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?)”

In “Life is a Banquet” she puts us right in the middle of the scenario, “Before the rains came, I rode in a parade in a white satin dress that was all beaded, with a matching little thing that sat on my head, being Princess Grace all over the joint.”

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.

After a luncheon, the Hollywood contingent were then to be whisked away to City Hall where Mayor Raymond E. Snyder, Sr. (who incidentally had bought Rosalind Russell’s parent’s home a couple of decades before and turned it into a funeral parlor, which it remains), would present her with the key to the city. They were also to get a tour of town, including some of the Brass City’s famous industries, and Roz’s birthplace.

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.

The evening of the 18th, they all headed over to the State Theater, which had just been re-named the Rosalind Russell State Theater, to watch the premiere of “The Girl Rush.” The Mattatuck Drum Band and a U.S. Marine Color provided escort.

Roz writes in her autobiography that, “there was a drum and fife corps - that’s very big in Connecticut; they always wear tricorne hats.”

The shots of Roz accompanying this post are all from a newsreel. Here is the plaque Roz unveiled marking the occasion.

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.

Astonishing was the suddenness of the event. To be sure, Hurricane Diane had spent a couple of weeks sliding up the Eastern seaboard, but it made a sharp right turn out to sea before ever entering New England. It, and Hurricane Connie, dropped more rain than the already sodden ground could take, and what had begun as a gloomy day became a fearful night of torrential downpour, causing destruction no one could have predicted.

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.


Java Bean Rush said...

Wow! That was interesting and very detailed. Thanks.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Java Bean.

Java Bean Rush said...

Totally ironic name - Waterbury.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Indeed. Better than, oh, say "Floodville", though. A name like that, you're just asking for it.

joem18b said...

I used to drive down from Boston to Waterbury every weekend to visit my girlfriend. We took in more than one movie at the State. On the other hand, I wasn't aware while there that Waterbury had swollen tributaries.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much for stopping by, joem. Nice to hear from someone's who's actually been to that theater. As for the swollen tributaries, fortunately, it does not seem to be a chronic condition.

joem18b said...

My girlfriend and I were going to the movies in Waterbury in 1967-1968. Alas, the State was torn down in 1962. There were still a lot of old single-screen theaters around in those days. Looks like we were going to some other one.

When I was a kid, there were two theaters that we'd go to, the Onslow and the State, so maybe I was half-remembering that one.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I don't know how long the State was open, but this Cinema Treasures site: ( mentions that the building was still standing, though vacant, at least until the early 1980s. Maybe somebody else out there can give us more info.

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