TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is asking viewers to write in and tell stories about when Hollywood came to their hometown. In that spirit, I am reminded of perhaps the biggest film event in the history of my hometown, Omaha, Neb., and for that matter in the history of this state.
In my opinion Omaha and Nebraska have never embraced or claimed their film heritage to the extent that they should. Many Hollywood greats have come from here. Some significant films have been made here. One of those pictures was Boys Town (1938), the MGM classic that while hardly a great film was a great success for its studio and for its subject, Boys Town, and for the home’s founder Father Edward Flanagan. Spencer Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Flangan and he donated the statuette to Boys Town, where it’s on display in the Hall of History. There can be no overstating what a big deal it was for Hollywood’s top studio, MGM, to come to Omaha to make a major motion picture starring two of its biggest stars, Tracy and Mickey Rooney. The picture has to be one of the most powerful marketing tools that’s ever been produced in terms of drawing attention to an organization, in this case a home for boys.
The following story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons in conjunction with the film’s 70th anniversary, details just what a phenomenon the film’s production was in Omaha and then what a spectacle its world premiere became here, too. I trust you’ll find the behind-the-scenes stories surrounding it all as fascinating as I did.
When Boys Town Became the Center of the Film World
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Hollywood rarely comes to Nebraska. On those infrequent occasions when Tinsel Town ventures far afield to shoot a movie here it naturally creates a stir. Alexander Payne’s first three features made in his hometown of Omaha caused a sensation, especially when Jack Nicholson came to star in About Schmidt. Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner had the same effect on Plattsmouth. Terms of Endearment earlier turned Lincoln upside down.
A handful of major Hollywood productions set up shop in state over the years. Some others, notably Cecil B. DeMille’s 1939 Union Pacific, premiered here.
But no picture became a phenomenon the way 1938’s Boys Town did. For a solid year the real life subject of the title — Father Edward Flanagan’s haven for homeless youths in Nebraska — became the center of the film world.
When the movie ended up a popular moneymaker, critical hit and Oscar-winner, Boys Town enjoyed a publicity boon and Flanagan turned icon. Always a savvy marketer, Flanagan had faith the film would pay off far beyond the small rights fee MGM paid the home. In a letter he wrote:
“The picture has given us wonderful publicity and while we receive no direct aid from the picture, other than the $5,000 paid us for the use of our name and the grounds, I feel that eventually we will benefit from it because of the many friends we will make.”
Before the movie Boys Town was little known outside the Midwest. The same was true of Flanagan. The movie’s success changed all that.
“The movie had the impact of making Father Flanagan the authority on child care in the world. His child care philosophy were soon very much in demand. He began to consult numerous private and government agencies,” said Boys Town archivist Tom Lynch. “Demands for him to speak across the country poured in and soon he would be gone several weeks at a time…
“The name Boys Town was soon known throughout the world as the movie was shown in various countries. It inspired people in these countries to start their own Boys Towns. Also, the number of boys wanting to live at Boys Town exploded. Every week hundreds of letters arrived from people wishing to place a boy at the home.”
So how did Hollywood get wind of Boys Town?
The studios aggressively searched for source material, scouring newspapers, magazines, reading galleys of new books, catching all the Broadway shows. The story goes that MGM producer John Considine Jr. happened upon a small item in an L.A. paper about the 1936 “city” election at Boys Town. Apparently he was intrigued by an incorporated village of 200 boys who elected a mayor and six commissioners from their own ranks.
The home already operated a well-oiled publicity machine courtesy Flanagan and three Omaha PR men, Byron Reed, Morris Jacobs and Frank Miller. In a letter to Considine prior to the movie being made Flanagan referred to how Boys Town “has developed important publicity contacts” covering practically every newspaper or magazine of consequence in the U.S. Boys Town also sent out its choir and band as ambassadors for the home, netting much press wherever they performed. Flanagan had already taken to inviting prominent figures to Boys Town. When celebrities like Will Rogers and Admiral Richard Byrd visited it made national news. Pathe News featured Boys Town in 1933.
That foundation paid dividends when the movie blew up. Story after story in print and on radio detailed the film and the real life village and priest it depicted. Lynch said the movie made Boys Town and Flanagan “household names.”
The enduring popularity of this classic has introduced Boys Town and Flanagan, who died in 1948, to succeeding generations of viewers. The film provides Boys Town exposure it could never afford to buy. With the passage of time the movie only further reinforces and embellishes the legacy of that place and the man who started it, making Boys Town the stuff of legend.
In its time Boys Town was the rare motion picture that not only chronicled an actual institution still in operation but the leader who still ran it. The timing of the movie was perfect. With America still reeling from the Great Depression inspirational stories of triumph over hard times were in vogue. The uplifting message of Flanagan — “There’s no such thing as a bad boy” — resonated with the New Deal’s optimism. The self-governing boys home appealed to the democratic ideals of a nation warily eying communism’s and facism’s hold around the world.
Lynch said the movie also came at a crossroads moment in the village’s history: “When the movie project began the home had just barely survived the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years. The home had no money and the offer of a movie was a dream come true. Just a few years before the movie Boys Town was on the verge of closing and just a few years later it was an American institution.”
Everything about the project aligned to make it front page news in 1938.
For starters, the movie told the sentimental story of one of Nebraska’s own beloved institutions. Further heightening interest was the fact the movie was partially shot on location at Boys Town. The production used the campus buildings and green spaces, along with the rural backdrop and adjoining highway, as local color. Most authentically, the film utilized several resident boys as extras.
Adding luster were the principals behind the production. The company making Boys Town, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, ruled the Hollywood roost as the biggest studio with the most prestigious pictures and the greatest roster of stars under contract.
Two of MGM’s hottest actors, Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, headlined the cast. Tracy was not only an A-list matinee idol and sure-fire box office draw but perhaps the most respected screen actor of his generation. He started Boys Town mere months after winning the Best Actor Oscar for his dramatic turn in Captains Courageous. One of Tracy’s co-stars in that picture was Rooney, a fast-rising juvenile star thanks to the popular Andy Hardy series he appeared in opposite Judy Garland. Boys Town director Norman Taurog brought solid credits behind him, especially helming children’s fare (Skippy, Tom Sawyer).
Spencer Tracy’s Best Actor Oscar at the Boys Town Hall of History
The company of actors and crew of technicians spent two weeks on location in Omaha. Tracy was a boozer then and Rooney a carouser but reportedly each stayed on his best behavior.
The presence of Hollywood royalty made the company’s base headquarters at the Fontenelle Hotel and the film’s location on the Boys Town campus popular destination stops for hordes of fans and the merely curious.
The hoopla started long before the cameras rolled or the movie premiered.
MGM script writers J.C. Dull, Eleanor Griffin, William Rankin, John Meehan and Dore Schary, who all contributed to various drafts of the screenplay, visited Boys Town on research trips. The director originally assigned the pic, J. Walter Ruben, also visited. The only way these artists could get a real feel for Flanagan and his boys was to spend time with them. The scenarists soaked up the atmosphere, took stills, interviewed residents, all of which helped give the film a sense of verismilitude.
Flanagan was hardly a passive figure in the script process. He nixed several drafts before one finally suited him to his satisfaction. Even after giving his blessing to the final draft he received script updates right up to and through the film’s making.
Early drafts took an odd slant, even positing British child actor Freddie Bartholomew as the lead. The original emphasis on wayward boys and their misadventures transitioned into a story focusing on the priest and his methods.
Flanagan made clear he didn’t want a sentimental “Oliver Twist orphanage picture.” He pushed instead for a picture that showed in clear-eyed terms his way of handling boys, which was to treat each as “a definite individual”…He chafed at any representation of Boys Town as a reformatory:
“Boys Town is NOT an institution. It is a township where fine little men live and work, study and play, govern themselves and mold…the strength of character essential to a good life.”
MGM went out of its way to please him. Flanagan wrote a critic: “I was surprised at the great amount of pains exerted to get authentic facts, to be accurate…”
Norman Taurog replaced Ruben as director after Ruben was diagnosed with a heart ailment. Taurog had the disadvantage of having never been to Boys Town but he was able to draw on a mountain of research.
By the time production began Flanagan was convinced that Schary and Meehan, who shared the script credit and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, “captured the feel of the township, its spirit, ends and aims.”
Flanagan considered the movie “a real welfare picture” whose “results will be far-reaching in the amount of good it will do throughout the country for youth.”
Throughout the preproduction phase Boys Town’s founder kept up a steady correspondence with several MGM figures, particularly producer Considine, but also with studio chief Louis B. Mayer and fixer Eddie Mannix.
The monsignor visited Hollywood, where he was accorded special attention. His correspondence mentions meeting Clark Gable, Wallace Berry, Maureen O’Sullivan and other stars. He also met with Mayer himself.
Fr. Flanagan with Mickey Rooney
In an article Flanagan wrote entitled “I Meet Myself” he described an encounter with his screen alter-ego:
“I have just returned from Hollywood where I enjoyed a unique experience — that of meeting myself. It is a strange feeling to meet, face to face and for the first time, the man who is to play the part of one’s self…my alter ego, my screen personality…Spencer Tracy. Yes, I sat across the table from him on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot at Culver City the other day and did just that…”
Tracy apparently expressed qualms about playing the priest. To reassure Tracy Flanagan wrote him: “Your name is written in gold in the heart of every homeless boy in Boys Town…and every boy here and all of our alumni are talking about you, thinking about you and praying for you…You should feel happy that you have decided to be cast in a role of such a picture and Boys Town feels honored that it has such a noble representative.”
On that same trip the priest met Rooney, well-cast as Whitey Marsh, the hard-case who softens under Flanagan’s gentle but firm hand. Flanagan noted:
“Mickey, who incidentally reminded me strongly of one of our young city commissioners at Boys Town, gave me my most lasting impression of Hollywood, a town where — to borrow a journalistic phrase — a ‘man might bite a dog’ without creating a scene…Mickey astonished me by asking for, of all things, my autograph immediately after we were introduced.”
“I think everybody was impressed by this wonderful Irish gentleman,” Rooney said by phone from his Calif. home. “He was a gentle, kind Irishman.”
Attention and accolades followed Flanagan wherever he went after the movie.
Flanagan, as prone as anyone to being starstruck, found Hollywood “not the city of idleness and riotous living contained in so many reports but…a hard-working, sincere group of actors, actresses, directors and working men creating in a new but powerfully effective medium…” He referred to “my most interesting trip” in a letter to Considine thanking him for the hospitality the studio extended.
He was also pleased to find “much enthusiasm all over the Metro-Goldwyn lot about Boys Town.” He received frequent progress reports from MGM.
Before the main company arrived in Omaha MGM producer Frank Whitbeck came in the spring to film a March of Time newsreel-style short, The City of Little Men, as a promotional-educational teaser for the feature. The one-reeler was a key part in the studio’s exhaustive exploitation campaign.
Flanagan and Jacobs were themselves not above looking for angles. They lobbied MGM to test a pair of residents, brothers Jimmy and Andy Cain, for speaking parts in the feature. MGM did. Flanagan wanted the younger of the two, Andy, to play the part of Pee Wee that Bobs Watson eventually landed.
In letters to MGM brass Flanagan flatly pointed out “publicity possibilities” News of the film netted Boys Town a steady stream of positive press and goodwill. In a letter to Schary Flanagan noted “people here are very enthusiastic over it and every mail brings questions about it.”
The film began production in Hollywood June 6. Tracy and Rooney were hard at work. Then Rooney left for a couple weeks to complete a new Andy Hardy picture. He rejoined the Boys Town company in late June on the train caravan to Omaha.
Considine wrote Flanagan the company sent to Nebraska “believed the largest and most important motion picture group ever sent to Middle West for location work.”
Despite a telegram from MGM asking the lid be kept on the cast-crew’s arrival — “so as to keep crowds away” — word leaked out. Press accounts estimate some 7,000 people greeted the stars when they arrived at Omaha’s Union Station on June 23. Once filming commenced crowds daily made the pilgrimage to Boys Town, surrounded by farmland then, just for the chance to glimpse Tracy or Rooney. Smaller but no less excited crowds milled about the Fontenelle Hotel.
Fans not only trekked to the country but braved the harsh elements, as the shoot coincided with a hot spell. Making matters worse, the campus on the former Overbrook Farm was mostly barren of trees, leaving onlookers scant shade to take refuge in. Flanagan and Tracy wore straw hats to ward off the sun.
As filming proceeded on a tight schedule Flanagan took an active interest in events by serving as the defacto technical adviser. Much of the filming took place right outside his residence’s front yard, making his presence, even when not on set, keenly felt. Hollywood was on his turf now. He often had Tracy as his dinner guest.
Most days the crew began setting up the first shot at dawn. Owing to the heat the company usually wrapped by mid-afternoon, when cast and crew packed up and headed back downtown. Each day’s exposed film was air-expressed overnight to Hollywood. The rushes returned the next day for Taurog and Considine to view.
Boys Town alum Ed Novotny was a resident there when, he said, “the movie people came out with all their paraphenelia. It was just a new experience for us. It was quite an exciting time really.” He and buddy John Anthony were impressed by the crew’s efficiency and intrigued by the tricks they used. To simulate the evening in daytime they covered a large building in canvas to block out the sun for Whitey’s nighttime escape down a firescape.
If boys were needed for a group shot they’d be let out of class. “Sometimes we’d stand there an hour-and-a-half before the sun was right” or until crew adjusted lights, laid down dolly tracks, reloaded film, adjusted lenses, Novotny said. Multiple takes might be made. Tracy and Rooney rarely needed more than a single take.
The boys were expected to make up whatever lessons they missed while on set.
They found the stars accessible. “They were always around and so you could visit with them.” Novotny said. “They were very companionable. Of course, Mickey Rooney as young as he was had quite a clientel following him around all the time. Afternoons Spencer Tracy would dish out ice cream at a stand the studio set up. Smoking his pipe. I can still him…” Cast and crew played catch on their down time.
Spencer Tracy as Fr. Flanagan and Mickey Rooney as Whitey Marsh
After 12 days in Nebraska the traveling circus that’s a film unit left to finish the picture on MGM sound stages and back lots. The first inkling Boys Town was something special came in a telegram from Considine to Flanagan in August:
“Happy to report first sneak preview most successful…Audience received picture enthusiastically…We all feel sure we have great entertainment in Boys Town…”
When the studio planned the world premiere for Washington, D.C. Nebraskans protested. Flanagan used his leverage to make Omaha the site. He wrote Frank Whitbeck about the “caustic” comments MGM’s plans were eliciting here: “For example, I have heard that a campaign might be established by the newspapers…in Nebraska denouncing the move…”
He suggested separating the movie from “the mother city of Boys Town” would be unfortunate. He laid on the guilt and the pressure by noting the Bishop of Omaha, Rev. James Ryan, disapproved of a D.C. premiere.
Flanagan added: “I had thought at one time Washington was the place because I was sold on the idea by certain people here but the more I think about it the less I think of the idea. I would favor Omaha than any other place. In reality Omaha gave us our first start and gave us our first building, and paid for it, and it is now our chance to pay back our debt to Omaha by having the premiere here.”
The priest sealed the deal in Calif., where he and Bishop Ryan were invited to attend a sneak preview of the film in Inglewood. It went over like gangbusters.
As soon as word reached town that Flanagan secured the premiere for the Omaha Theatre elaborate arrangements got under way. The preparations befitted what an official with Tri-States Theatre Corporation, operator of the theater, called “an important civic event.” The official assured Flanagan his office was “leaving no stone unturned to make this the outstanding occasion it so richly deserves.”
The crowd that flocked to greet the movie company back in June was dwarfed by the multitude gathered at Union Station on Sept. 6 to witness the arrival of the Los Angeles Limited. En route the train made whistle stops in burgs like Grand Island so that Tracy, Rooney and Flanagan could acknowledge the assembled fans. Once in Omaha the movie party saw a station and downtown festooned with streamers and banners declaring “Home of Boys Town” and Welcome Father Flanagan.”
An even larger turnout filled the streets and sidewalks for the Sept. 7 world premiere at the Omaha Theatre. Reports put the throng at 30,000.
“I never saw so many people in my life,” said Novotny, who had the privilege of being there as a member of Boys Town’s a cappella choir, which performed there. “It was a tremendous welcome. It was a big deal for Omaha.”
The Omaha World-Herald’s Irving Green wrote:
“There was not an inch of standing room on Douglas Street between 15th and 16th outside the theater. The huge crowd overflowed up 15th Street half way to Farnam…It covered another half block toward Dodge Street on 15th. Sidewalks on both sides of Douglas…all the way to 17th were swarming with people who could neither see nor hear, so far were they from the platform where Spencer Tracy, Maureen O’Sullivan and Mickey Rooney were introduced.
“Rabid movie fans lined the roofs of buildings across from the theater. They took advantage of every store window fronting on Douglas…While 110 policemen and 40 firemen worked strenuously but efficiently to keep the crowd in check, impatient persons who had stood in the middle of Douglas…for more than two hours to see the event strained steel wires holding them back to near the breaking point.”
Green described the gala, pull-out-all-the-stops scene, including a live national radio hookup that broadcast the festivities to listeners from coast to coast:
“A 10,000 candle power searchlight visible for 10 or 12 miles played across the sky in true Hollywood style in front of the theater. The light was shipped in by special freight from Hollywood. As they alighted from limousines, principals mounted a carpeted stairway to a raised platform where they said hello to the huge throng and to listeners over 107 radio stations in a nationwide chain arranged by the Mutual Broadcasting System.”
In his breathless style Green opined:
“It was something Omaha had never experienced before. What’s more, it was something the film stars themselves had never seen in Hollywood.’ He backed up his claim with quotes: “‘This thing makes a Hollywood premiere look like a dying hog, Tracy, who plays the role of Father Flanagan in the picture, said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ Miss O’Sullivan said.”
It’s hard to imagine a crowd that size for a movie premiere. But this was the Golden Age of Hollywood, a full decade before TV invaded people’s homes, and Americans flocked to theaters in far greater numbers then now. Besides, movie stars were the closest thing to American royalty and with three stars the magnitude of Tracy, Rooney and O’Sullivan on hand fans queued up the way loyal, adoring subjects do.
The Herald’s Green captured how far the adoration went:
“The crowd began collecting outside the theater before 6 p.m. although the first celebrities were not due to arrive until 7:45 p.m. All traffic was routed away from the theater except cars bearing those with tickets for the show. At 7:15 the doors of the theater were thrown open and a steady stream of ticketholders continued until 8:30 p.m. Formal attire was rare among early arrivals but when the elite began coming in limousines just before 8 p.m. formal dress appeared the rule.
“In two cars came the mayor of Boys Town, Jack Farrald; his chief of police, Bobby Paradise, and Boys Town’s five commissioners, John Waskiewicz, Jesse Ruiz, Clinton Simmons, Tom McGuire and Sam Turner. ‘I want to thank the people of Omaha for this splendid welcome,’ the Mayor said. ‘It is a recognition of and a tribute to a great humanitarian, Father Flanagan.’”
Some overzealous fans caused a minor ruckus, Green noted:
“Candid camera enthusiasts gave police a few busy moments as they broke through the lines to photograph the three stars. Smiling broadly, Miss O’Sullivan, Mickey and Tracy waved greetings in return for the throng’s cheers.”
Nebraska dignitaries turned out en masse, led by the state’s governor, Ed Cochran. “All Nebraska is proud of Father Flanagan,” Cochran told the crowd. Bishop Ryan also addressed the gathering.
MGM officials spoke a few words, including producer John Considine.
Green wrote: “Then came the actors themselves. They were greeted with cheers which drowned out the words of Bishop Ryan who was speaking at the time. Mickey approached the microphone with the grin which has helped make him the fastest rising star in Hollywood. ‘This is the outstanding event of my young life,’ he said, emphasizing the ‘young’ and laughing heartily. ‘This crowd surpasses anything ever done in Hollywood. And, by the way –- if Hollywood is listening in -– hello Ma and Pa. It’s swell here in Nebraska.’”
The scene inside the theater was just as surreal.
“…Mickey’s profuse blushing when he entered with an Omaha girl brought him a hand, and the crowd rose as one in an ovation for Father Flanagan. From the stage, flanked on either side by tall vases of chrysanthemums, Eddie Forester, manager of the theater, welcomed the star-gazing crowd, and introduced J. Francis McDermott, master of ceremonies…McDermott summoned up a red-carpeted ramp to the stage for talks…” by Omaha’s mayor, Nebraska’s governor and Bishop Ryan.
Among the special guests was Henry Monsky, the Omaha attorney whose loan of $90 a quarter century earlier enabled Flanagan to open Boys Town. Monsky remained a loyal friend, board member and legal adviser until his death in 1947. The pawnbroker character of Dave Morris wa loosely based on Monsky, who asked MGM to keep his identity secret. Years later Walter Winchell broke the true story.
“After a brief stage appearance by Miss O’Sullivan, the Boys Town acappella choir sang ‘Vigil’ by Christians, and a new composition, ‘Boys Town,’ by Will J. Harris. A telegram was read from Norman Taurog, director…Then Father Flanagan spoke of the good he hopes the movie production will accomplish, and the film began.
“Applause was frequent during Boys Town, especially when Omaha buildings were recognized and references were made to Omaha…When the film ended Mr. McDermott asked Father Flanagan to escort Tracy and Rooney to the stage. It was their first official appearance to the crowd in the theater. Tracy stood with his arm around Mickey’s neck, a pose made familiar by his use of it in the film. ‘Words fail me for the first time,’ said young Mr. Rooney…He predicted another Academy award for Tracy, for his performance in Boys Town.”
Rooney’s prediction came true six months later.
Novotny gave the film a thumbs up then. He sums it up this way today: “It was a continuation of Father Flanagan’s dream. Boys Town came on the map with that.”
The Herald’s Green completed the opening night scene:
“The most dramatic incident of the entire program…was Tracy’s speech to the idolizing crowd. Despite a hush over the auditorium, his first words were inaudible. ‘You thanked us for coming here,’ exclaimed Hollywood’s outstanding male star. ‘We should get on our knees to you.’ After referring to Mickey as destined to ‘become one of the great actors of his day,’ he continued: ‘I do not like to stand here stripped clean of Father Flanagan,’ adding that if the picture is great, it is because ‘the great goodness and sweetness and beauty of the soul of this man shines even through me to you.’
“Father Flanagan sounded a benediction, ‘Good night, and God bless you,’ and…the crowd filed out into streets.”
The film went on to play equally well across America.
A legend persists that MGM boss Louis B. Mayer lacked confidence in the property. Some suggest he shelved the picture for a time, only releasing it at the urging of Tracy-Rooney. The record doesn’t support the claim. Boys Town fit the MGM program of good clean entertainment to a tee; besides, the film’s strong previews and extensive press build up boded well for its box office.
The studio expected a hit and it got one.
The capstone came when Tracy won the Oscar and dedicated it to Flanagan. MGM publicity head Howard Strickling cabled Flanagan, “You would have been very proud as we were to hear the address Spencer made before the Academy in which he told them that all credit for the award was due to you…”
Flanagan, who’d grown close to Tracy, sent along his congratulations and gratitude to the actor, “Everyone at Boys Town rejoices with you today in the great honor that has been conferred on you…I need hardly tell you how happy everyone here is and my only regret is that I am not there to shake your hand…but my heart and spirit is with you — and it will always remain so.”
Tracy added to the lore of the film and his/its association with Flanagan and the village when he gave his Oscar to Boys Town. It just arrived one day via air express in 1939. He inscribed on the statuette: “To Father Edward J. Flanagan, whose great human qualities, kindly simplicity and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble efforts, Spencer Tracy.”
Flanagan wrote Tracy, “How can I thank you for this beautiful expression of your consideration of me and Boys Town? From the bottom of my heart I thank you for that magnanimous spirit which you have shown in sending this award to me.”
During an assembly the boys lined up single file to gawk at and touch the Oscar, much like they might a holy relic, Novotny recalled. The Oscar sat in Flanagan’s office for a time. A tradition arose in which boys rubbed it for good luck.
For years now the Oscar’s occupied an honored spot in the Boys Town Hall of History, which features several displays on the film.
The movie’s success had an unintended effect at first. Donations dried up as the public assumed Boys Town made a killing on it, not realizing the home saw nothing of the proceeds. A desperate Flanagan asked MGM and Spencer Tracy, his alter ego, to get the word out that Boys Town needed help. Tracy signed a personal appeal letter sent donors. The money eventually flooded in.
MGM, perhaps feeling guilty for having short-changed Boys Town on the ledger sheet, gave $250,000 for the construction of a dormitory.
Boys Town further capitalized on the film when a nationally broadcast radio serial aired weekly dramatizations based on the lives of residents there. The Hollywood contacts Boys Town made led to the school’s football team playing the Black Foxe Military Institute of Los Angeles in a 1939 benefit game at L.A.’s Gilmore Stadium attended by 10,000. Numerous Hollywood stars turned out. Boys Town won 20-12. That began a tradition of Boys Town’s gridiron gang traveling the country.
The film’s success led to a sequel, MGM’s 1941 Men of Boys Town, with Tracy and Rooney reprising their roles and Considine producing. It was not as well received but it still carried the home’s message and name. Where Flanagan-Monsky erred in securing a small rights fee the first time, they negotiated $100,000 for the sequel.
When Considine broached the idea for a third pic, Flanagan shot it down, writing, “Men of Boys Town fell far below the standard of Boys Town.” Unless a strong script could be crafted Flanagan preferred another film not be made. It wasn’t.
Mickey Rooney returned to Boys Town in 1988 for the 1938 original’s 50th anniversary. He recently said of the film: “It’s real. Anything that’s real is worth doing. And I’m certainly happy that I was fortunate enough to be associated with a great company (MGM) and a great outlet for children (Boys Town). Boys Town’s very dear to my heart.” The actor is the home’s honorary mayor for life.
Inquiries about a new movie on the modern Boys Town sometimes surface. But as time’s shown, the original’s tough to beat. “The movie Boys Town had a major impact on the home. Still today many visitors comment on their memories of watching the movie,” said Tom Lynch. “On TCM the movie’s still shown each holiday season. Many people are still introduced to the home by watching the movie. All new residents of the home watch Boys Town as part of their orientation.”
For more on the film visit www.boystownmovie.org.
- Top Five Philip French (guardian.co.uk)
- Great dynasties of the world: The Selznicks/Mayers (guardian.co.uk)
- Ryan Kavanaugh: Hollywood’s Newest Studio Mogul (huffingtonpost.com)
- Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning Expose on Boys Town (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
I remember as a kid learning about the rich sports legacy at Boys Town, the youth development center founded by Father Edward Flanagan and forever immortalized in the MGM movie classic. When I looked into that athletic history a few years ago for a story I was struck by the amazing success Boys Town teams enjoyed for several decades and by how the football team in particular became a national powerhouse that actually traveled coast to cosat to play games against elite prep teams before big crowds in college and professional stadiums. Flanagan and his immediate successor seized upon athletics as a healthy outlet and socialization model for residents and as a promotional tool for the campus. The story of the football team’s many triumphs and travels would make a good movie itself. Football was the school’s poster sport, but Boys Town enjoyed tremendous success and followings in basketball, baseball, wrestling, and track and field as well. All the changes that came down at Boys Town beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s resulted in the athletic program suffering several lean years. It’s only in the last decade that there’s been a resurgence in Boys Town sports, not to the heights of its former glory perhaps, but enough to link this era to that earlier Golden Age.
If you’re interested in another Boys Town sports story, then check out my story, “A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops” on this blog. More o f my Boys Town stories on this site cover various topics, including the classic 1938 MGM film Boys Town, the friendship of Fr. Edward Flanagan and Jewish attorney Henry Monsky, and the 1972 Sun Newspapers Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Boys Town finances.
The following story originally appeared in Nebraska Life Magazine. Look for more Boys Town stories in future posts.
Rich Boys Town Sports Legacy Recalled
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine
“I didn’t know a jock strap from a toothbrush,” said alumnus George Pfeifer of his arrival at Boys Town from a Kansas farm in 1939. Like some of the finest athletes at Rev. Edward Flanagan’s home for “lost” boys, the future coach had never played organized sports before coming there. Most of the boys were either poor inner city or rural kids who’d played only sandlot ball or street ball. They came from all parts of the country, boys with different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and on their shoulders was built an athletic dynasty that became the envy of the nation.
From the Great Depression through the 1960s, the Boys Town football team played elite Catholic prep schools and military academies in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, Miami and other cites. The games attracted dignitaries and made headlines. Playing against the nation’s toughest competition in large stadiums before tens of thousands of fans, the Cowboys won more than twice as often as they lost.
During the same era, Boys Town won multiple state championships in football and basketball, and produced scores of all-state athletes and individual champions, even some high school All-Americans. Its great track-and-field athletes include two-time Olympian Charles “Deacon” Jones (1956 and 1960) and quarter-miler Jimmy Johnson, who won the Pan Am Games only a few years after graduating.
It began with the dream of Boys Town’s founder, Father Flanagan, who was a fair soccer and handball player in his day, and a vocal champion of sports. He made sports an integral, even compulsory part of residents’ experience at Boys Town. Intramural athletics became a big deal. In those days, the boys lived in dorms and staged competitions between their respective buildings to see who were kings of the field or the court. By the mid-1930s, Flanagan hired a coach and pushed for Boys Town to compete in sanctioned interscholastic events.
Born and raised in Ireland, Flanagan made his long-held dream for Boys Town a reality through conviction, blarney and bluff. With his silver-tongued brogue and big sad eyes, he elicited sympathy and loosened purse strings for the plight of America’s orphaned. With his politician’s ability to build consensus, he got people of all persuasions and faiths to contribute to the home.
It didn’t hurt that Flanagan harbored a bit of P.T. Barnum in his soul. Almost from the start of the home in 1917, he made use of the media to further the cause of children’s care and rights. In the 1920s he hosted a nationally syndicated Sunday radio program, “Links of Love,” broadcast from the old WOW studios in Omaha. On a larger scale, there was the 1938 MGM box office smash “Boys Town,” starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Flanagan.
The movie made Flanagan and BT household names. He used his and the home’s growing reputation to bring national figures, including sports stars, to “the city of little men.” The BT archives detail visits by such sports icons as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Hollywood celebrities were also frequent visitors. “Deacon” Jones, then learning the barber trade at BT, recalls being summoned with his clippers to the quarters of Flanagan’s successor, Rev. Nicholas Wegner, where he found Spencer Tracy in need of a haircut. Jones complied.
Just as Flanagan earlier made the school band and choir ambassadors for BT, so he did with football. The same year the movie “Boys Town” was released, the football squad boarded the Challenger super liner at Omaha’s Union Station for a trip west, where they played a benefit game against Black Foxe Military Institute of Los Angeles. The film’s producer, John Considine, Jr., made it happen. Among the 10,000 or so in attendance at Gilmore Stadium were numerous Hollywood stars. Boys Town won, 20-12.
The good turnout seems to have convinced Flanagan to take his football team on the road as a gypsy, bring-on-all-comers sideshow featuring orphans from the world-famous Boys Town. The bigger the stage, the tougher the opponent, the more Flanagan liked it.
He would often wend his way to wherever the football team appeared, posing for photos, making pre-game or halftime on-the-field speeches, and generally getting the Boys Town name in the press. A big banquet, often in his honor, usually preceded or followed the game, giving Flanagan another chance to spread the gospel.
BT alum Ed Novotny of Omaha, who played for Boys Town in the early 1940s, recalls the time Flanagan was on the field during pre-game festivities in New Jersey. Novotny says a press photographer asked to snap a few pictures of the famous priest doing a mock kickoff. Sensing a good photo op, Flanagan obliged. As he lined up for the kick, Novotny turned to an opposing player and said, “He’s in a bad spot” – meaning the photographer crouched in front of the ball, holding a Speed Graphic camera overhead.
“What do you mean?” the other player said.
“Father Flanagan can kick. He’ll blast that thing right over the goal post.”
“Really? A priest?”
Novotny will never forget what happened next. “No sooner did I say, ‘Yeah,’ than he kicked that ball and knocked that camera right out of the guy’s hands.”
Novotny recalls Flanagan as an enthusiastic presence on the sideline or in the locker room. The priest stood in the players’ circle to lead pre-game prayers. At basketball games he sat on the end of the bench with players and coaches. He greeted guys by name or with his favorite terms of endearment, “Dear” or “Laddie.”
“When you were in his presence you were the most important person in that room,” Novotny said. The padre fired up the troops and fussed over injured players. “He would tell us, ‘good job’ whether we were winning or losing.” More than a spectator, Novotny said, “he was a participant.”
To compete with the nation’s best, Flanagan hired Maurice “Skip” Palrang, who came to Boys Town after successful stints at Omaha Creighton Prep and Creighton University. Over his 29-year career at Boys Town, he led Cowboy teams to football, basketball and baseball titles. He won National Coach of the Year honors from the Pop Warner Foundation of Philadelphia, Pa., and Nebraska High School coaching plaudits from the Omaha World-Herald.
As athletic director, Palrang oversaw construction of a mammoth field house, modeled after those at Purdue and Michigan State. Its classic brick facade features sculpted panels of Greek-like figures in various athletic poses, stained glass windows and a vast arched metal roof that spans the length of a football field. Great facilities like these helped set BT apart.
Palrang hired coaches to carry BT’s dominance into other sports, but it was best known for football. “It wasn’t like Boys Town would play the weakest teams we could find – we’d play the baddest teams we could find,” said ’50s star halfback “Deacon” Jones. “We knew we played the best teams Skip could get to play. A lot of the players we played against went on to make All-American in college. Some went to the pros. We traveled to play Aquinas in Rochester, N.Y. That was like a Notre Dame prep school. And, whew, they had some tough players.”
Under Palrang, the Cowboys went 75-33-6 in these intersectional matchups. BT also participated in intersectional basketball and baseball contests, but on a far more limited basis.
Jones said players got “five dollars per trip for eating and fun money.” For some, like him, it was their first time on a train, a big deal for “kids that didn’t have anything,” he added. Seeing the sights was part of the experience – Chicago’s Field Museum, New York’s Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. But the road trips, which lasted up to three weeks, were not all fun and games. An instructor traveled with the team and made sure they kept up on their schoolwork.
Lessons of another kind came on the few road trips south of the Mason-Dixon Line. “We would go to some areas where they wouldn’t allow the black kids on our team to stay in the same hotel as the whites,” Pfeifer said. “A few times we had to arrange for those kids to stay with some people in the community. It was a terrible blow to Fr. Flanagan. That’s probably why we didn’t play that much in the South.”
Wilburn Hollis was among a black contingent denied access to a hotel. Although from the Jim Crow South, he’d been shielded from the worst of segregation – the same at color-blind Boys Town. “We were buddies, but even more than that we felt like we were brothers and we just lived like that,” said Hollis, a Possum Trot, Miss. native who became a high school All America quarterback at Boys Town and a signal caller for an Iowa University team that won a share of the Big 10 title. “I never heard anything racial.”
Wilburn Hollis, right, receiving honor from Iowa U.
“At Boys Town I never thought about ethnicity or race,” said Ken Geddes, who grew up in Florida and went on to play for Nebraska and in the National Football League. “…We were all part of a family.”
Within that family of athletes, Palrang was the unchallenged head of household. “He was about six-four and probably 220 pounds and he was mean as a goat,” Hollis said. “But he was a wonderful coach. He loved the kids, he loved Boys Town….”
Hollis told of an incident involving Flanagan’s successor, Rev. Nicholas Wegner. (Flanagan died in 1948 on a goodwill mission in Berlin, Germany). Like his predecessor, Wegner was a sports booster, but apparently didn’t share Skip Palrang’s competitive philosophy. Once when BT was losing a football game, the priest tried to deliver a halftime pep talk. Wegner advised the team to do their best, Hollis recalls, “and honestly he used that old cliché, ‘It’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.’ Well, Skip was pretty hot and he said, ‘Bulls__t. We’re going to win this game.’ Monsignor was like, Oh-oh. And we went out and won the game.”
But Palrang’s success was based on more than force of will. Stern but fair, he was known for his precise preparation, a quality that fit his favorite hobby of watch repair. Ex-sportscaster Jack Payne of Omaha recalls Palrang in his field house office “hovered over a well-lighted table…wearing an eye shade, jeweler’s glasses, meticulously at work on a watch.”
An innovator, Palrang used his vast contacts to learn new offensive and defensive schemes from college and professional colleagues, often implementing packages years before anyone else at the prep level. He’d get reels of game or practice film with the latest sets to study. Sought out for his expertise, he often conducted clinics around the country. Pfeifer said that once, at the request of an old buddy, Palrang sent BT quarterback Jimmy Mitchell to Kansas State to help Wildcat signal callers learn the T-formation Skip helped initiate in high school.
The Cowboys often played far from home, so Palrang sent an assistant ahead to scout. Palrang’s protégé, George Pfeifer, inherited the thankless job. In order to see distant teams, he traveled by plane, train, automobile or any available mode of transport. He once flew into Chicago’s Midway Airport on his way to see an opponent that night in Wisconsin. In Chicago he was bumped from the last connecting flight north. With only a few hours until game time and hundreds of miles between him and the stadium, he was stuck. Desperate, he asked, “Is there any other way?” He was directed to a helicopter pad. For $15 and a slight case of nausea, he arrived “just about the time they were kicking off.”
Skip Palrang’s physician son, Art, who played for his father one year at BT, said besides the advantage Palrang got by scouting opponents “the Boys Town kids in those days… were really tough, tough boys. They weren’t very big but they were tough… There weren’t a lot of distractions out there, like girls. He had kind of a captive audience.”
Palrang also had the advantage of working with kids who came out of BT pee-wee, freshman and junior varsity programs imbued with his coaching systems. By the time they made varsity, kids were well-schooled in the Palrang way. It led to potent team chemistry.
Despite offers to leave, Palrang remained loyal to Boys Town. Art Palrang believes this allegiance stemmed from Skip being an orphan himself. “His mother died when he was two and left his father with three boys and three girls,” he said. “He was always sympathetic to the Boys Town kids, although he was typical Irish in that he would not show his emotions.”
Today, Palrang’s accomplishments are commemorated in a big memorial just inside the field house dedicated in his honor. The memorial is next to a long row of display cases reserved for trophies and plaques won by Boys Town coaches, athletes and teams. There are hundreds of items. There’d be more, except Palrang made a habit of giving them away to kids.
By the time Palrang retired in 1972, he was only coaching his main passion, football. Years earlier, he’d entrusted the basketball program to Pfeifer, another coach often described as a “no-nonsense father figure.” Pfeifer’s basketball teams went 202-45 (two state titles), and his track teams (two titles) were always a threat. He recently joined his mentor in the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Like his predecessor, Pfeifer encountered racist attitudes toward his players, as when he started five black players on his state championship basketball teams of 1965 and 1966. One morning after a game, a caller demanded, “Why you playing all them n_____s?”
“Because they’re my five best players,” Pfeifer replied.
Boys Town’s barnstorming era was prompted by publicity and the guaranteed payoff for its football games. But BT was also compelled to travel for another reason. Once it became a winner, it could find only a handful of area schools willing to schedule games.
Despite many attempts, BT was long denied membership in the Omaha Inter-City League, comprised of large Omaha area schools. Pfeifer said Wegner reportedly had to threaten to withdraw funds from local banks to gain admittance. It finally happened when the Inter-City League was disbanded and the new Metropolitan High School Activities Association was created in 1964.
Everyone has a theory about the blacklisting. Speculation ranges from envy over BT’s athletic riches to rumors, denied by BT alums, that it practiced off-season, suited older student-athletes, or recruited prospects. An image of BT suiting up juvenile delinquents, true or not, may have also accounted for schools not wanting to schedule the Cowboys. BT athletic equipment manager and head baseball coach Jim Bayly said that when he was a player at Omaha South, “we were afraid of Boys Town.”
Shane Hankins, quarterback for BT this past season, senses that the “jail” or “criminal” perception still haunts BT. But far from intimidating foes, he said it makes them “want to fight us even harder to prove we’re not tougher.” He concedes BT has some rough players, but points out that the Cowboys win sportsmanship awards.
Even without conference membership, Boys Town had a metro rival. “In the middle ’40s, when Boys Town was really taking off,” Art Palrang said, “Creighton Prep was also in its heyday and they played bitter, bitter battles. Rumor has it the archbishop said, ‘Hey, you guys have got to stop this. We can’t have two Catholic teams fighting each other.’” Adding fuel to the fire was the fact Palrang once coached Prep. There was no one he enjoyed beating more.
Aside from Prep, Palrang said, “Boys Town was obviously cleaning up on everybody and Omaha didn’t want ’em in their league because… Boys Town would have won everything.” By contrast, Prep had long been a conference member. And once let in, BT proved as dominant as feared by soon piling up Metro titles.
Perhaps nothing explains the ostracism better than what one alum called BT being “an island unto itself.” A certain arrogance surely came with all that independence, winning and notoriety. Besides, there was the perception – if not reality – that BT didn’t really need to be in a local athletic league. In fact, cross-country travel was expensive and eventually became cost-prohibitive.
By the time Boys Town’s reign ended in the mid-1970s, BT had evolved from a place where boys lived in dormitories to a family housing model where residents – girls too – live with teacher parents. Changes in the way BT works with youth lowered the number of residents from a high of about a thousand (elementary and high school combined) to about half that today, and decreased the average stay from six or eight years to about 18 months. The smaller enrollment forced BT to drop from the big school to small school ranks, and the shorter stays gave coaches less time to develop athletes and mold teams. For years, BT athletic prowess declined.
Today’s BT coaches are again turning out winning teams and top athletes, their job complicated by kids who present complex behavioral disorders. BT teams again compete for titles, but in Class C1, not Class A. The football team has its rivals, but a road trip today is an hour by bus, not overnight by train.
Girls and Boys Town (as the institution has been known since 2000) still uses athletics to further its mission of helping at-risk youth develop life skills that prepare them for adulthood. Head football coach Kevin Kush sets a high bar for his players, and makes no exceptions in holding them accountable. By late September 2006, he’d already let a few of his best players go for violating team rules, which brought his varsity squad down to 26. He could have supplemented the varsity by promoting JV players, but he refused, saying, “They haven’t paid the price. I’m not going to change my philosophy. I’m not going to lower my standards. See, these kids have standards lowered for them for their whole lives. We don’t do that. We want our kids to be committed to something and a lot of them have never been committed to anything.”
This past season’s star quarterback, Shane Hankins, said he appreciates that coaches and others care enough to make football special again. “Our goal is to achieve, to shoot for something in our lives some people say is impossible for us to do since we’re here. But we prove them wrong. We want to bring more winning to this campus because before we came here, most of us weren’t recognized as winners.”
All last basketball season, head boys basketball coach Tom Krehbiel relied heavily on an unofficial assistant, the 81-year-old George Pfeifer who, despite health woes, came to practices weekly to distill some of his wisdom to players young enough to be his great-grandchildren. Pfeifer’s championship teams of 1965 and ’66 are still regarded as two of Nebraska’s best high school basketball teams ever.
“I wanted to get him involved in the program,” Krehbiel said of Pfeifer. “I reached out to him. We ate lunch, hit it off and he’s been a big part of our program ever since. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we started winning since then. Coach has been a great mentor to me and just a great resource for us. For our current players he’s a link to success.”
After last year’s team won Boys Town’s first state basketball championship in 40 years, guard Dwaine Wright dedicated the victory to Pfeifer live on Nebraska Educational Television.
Pfeifer said that after a period of adjustment, he and the team forged a strong bond. “When I’d come out there, some of the kids warming up before the game would come over and say, ‘God, we’re glad to see you coach. You feeling alright? We’re going to play hard for you.’ That last night when they accepted the trophy the one kid held it up and said, ‘This is for you, Coach Pfeifer…’ Those are the kind of kids….” Choked with emotion, Pfeifer’s voice trailed off.
The experience brought him full circle to how as a kid he was welcomed and encouraged by Father Flanagan, Skip Palrang and others, and how he did the same for kids as a BT coach, vocational education teacher and middle school principal. “I knew I wanted to be there to help those type of kids,” Pfeifer said of Boys Town students past and present. “You know, they come there with a hole in their heart. Nobody cares about them, nobody encourages them – they just think there’s no way they can make it. We set up goals and objectives. We praise them when they succeed. When a kid comes up to you and says, ‘God, I wish you were my dad’…then you know you made a difference.”
Note: The Boys Town Hall of History features displays and a film that relive some of BT’s glory years in football.
- Valor Christian’s athletic excellence has arrived quickly (denverpost.com)
- Many college football dynasties have roots in strength training (sports.espn.go.com)
- Top 15 Traditions in All of Sports: A Closer Look at the Best of the Best (bleacherreport.com)
- The George Steinbrenner of junior football (theglobeandmail.com)
- Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning Expose on Boys Town (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)