Whether you’re a regular or occasional visitor to this blog you have by now probably noticed that I like to write about Nebraskans in Film. That is a function of my being a Nebraskan, a film buff who just happens to be a journalist. Naturally, I seek every opportunity I can find to write about fellow natives of this place who have and are doing great things in the world of cinema. It’s not only filmmakers and actors I profile either. You’ll find pieces about many different aspects of the industry as well as about people who don’t make films but instead showcase them for our entertainment and education. Take the subject of this profile, Dena Krupinski, for example. When I wrote this article seven or eight years ago she was a producer at Turner Classic Movies in Atlanta, where she was one of the key figures behind those Private Screenings Q&A’s that host Robert Osborne does with legends. It was a dream job for her because she’s been in love with the movies for as long as she can remember and that gig put her in close contact with some of the biggest names in Hollywood history. She’s since moved on to teach at a university but her cinema obsession remains intact. I too have had the distinct pleasure of interviewing and in some cases meeting Hollywood royalty, past and present, including Robert Wise, Patricia Neal, Debbie Rynolds, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Danny Glover. I am hoping for an interview with Jane Fonda in the near future because she’s coming to Omaha for a July program at Film Streams that will have Alexander Payne interview her live on stage. Of course, Payne is someone I’ve interviewed dozens of times over the years and because of that relationship I’ve had the chance to interview Laura Dern, Matthew Broderick, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen, producers Michael London, Albert Berger, and Jim Burke, screenwriter Jim Taylor, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.
Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Orignally appeared in the Jewish Press
For most of us, childhood dreams remain just that — the unfulfilled musings of our starry-eyed youth. But for Omaha native Dena Krupinsky, an associate director with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in Atlanta, her long-harbored fantasy of working with Hollywood greats has become reality. Since joining TCM in 1994, the year the national cable network launched, Krupinsky has produced dozens of special programs featuring stars and other notables from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Even a cursory glance at her producing credits reveals a Who’s-Who of movie royalty she has worked with — from Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, James Garner and Rod Steiger to June Allyson, Leslie Caron and Liza Minnelli.
Whether in a digital editing suite or in a sound recording booth or in a television studio, she gets on intimate terms with some of the very luminaries she’s idolized. She might be producing a Private Screenings session in which James Garner recalls his career or she might be pruning a feature with Liza Minnelli discussing her father and his films or she might be recording a voice-over track in which Carol Burnett pays homage to Lucille Ball. “Do I wake up in the morning excited to go to work? Yeah,” Krupinsky said. “I feel like I’m doing exactly what I knew I’d be doing. It is a dream come true.” She has, in the course of putting together various programs, met dozens of Hollywood legends as well as many more obscure but no less significant film industry professionals. “I do feel lucky meeting these people. They were part of that Old Hollywood, which was an exclusive, elite world. And now that I’m part of it, I’m so excited. When I watch the Oscars I’ll see these people up there and go, ‘Yeah, know him, met him. Nice guy.’” That goes for screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a 2001 honorary Oscar recipient whom Krupinsky met while taping a program in which Lehman discussed how scenes from his script for North By Northwest were brought to inspired life by director Alfred Hitchcock.
Somehow, even as a little girl, Krupinsky knew she was destined to work in film or television. Growing up in the Rockbrook Park neighborhood, she was the oddball kid on her block who much preferred watching TV hour upon hour to playing outside with her friends. So enamored was she with whatever the magic box displayed that she would kvetch with her mother for extra viewing privileges. Although her parents, Jean Ann and Jerry Krupinsky, could not then see how such a steady diet of old movies, sitcoms, dramas, game shows, variety shows, soap operas and commercials could possibly benefit their daughter, it undoubtedtly has — embuing in her a deep affinity for popular entertainment that, if not a prerequisite for working at TCM, certainly helps. “It does. It definitely does,” said the perky Krupinsky during a June visit to Omaha for her 20th high school class reunion. She is a 1981 graduate of Westside High School and a former student at Temple Israel Synagogue. “I just always loved television and movies and I’ve just always known I wanted to be in them.”
During her recent visit from her home in Decatur, GA., a community near Atlanta, where she works, Krupinsky, who is single, wore a bright red dress that matched the burning intensity she has for her job. That job entails producing segments for the network’s (Channel 55 on Cox) Private Screenings, Star of the Month, Director of the Month and Spotlight features as well as producing special projects related to individual films, figures or themes, such as a new half-hour documentary, Memories of Oz, which has been well-reviewed in the national press for its informative and fun take on the making of The Wizard of Oz. She has worked with everyone from impish Mickey Rooney to serious method actor Rod Steiger and tackled themes from Religion in the Movies to the Art of the Con. Her work has been recognized in the industry with Telly awards for Private Screenings segments on Tony Curtis and Leslie Caron. a 1999 Gracie Allen Award for a Carol Burnett On Lucille Ball special and the 21st Annual American Women in Radio and Television Award for a series of interstitials (promotional links) on women in film.
Many of the stars that Krupinsky, a graduate of the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism, has worked with have since passed away, most recently Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. A Private Screenings installment she did with Lemmon and Matthau remains one of her favorites, if for no other reason than she was enchanted with the man who originated the role of Oscar Madison on stage and on screen. “That was something that I loved to do. Walter Matthau was the greatest, funniest guy I ever met. I loved him. At one point, I was walking with him to show him where the Green Room is and he grabbed my hand. He was so sweet. He called me Charlotte the whole time. I’d be like, ‘No, it’s Dena.’ And he’d go, ‘No, no, I had a girlfriend named Charlotte, and you’re just like her.’ When he died I remembered this line he said that I loved during our taping session: ‘Dear, oh dear, I have a queer feeling they’ll be a strange face in heaven in the morning.’ And I thought of him and that line. Bless his heart.” Krupinsky invited her parents to attend the Lemmon-Matthau taping. She said she often tries sharing her Insider’s position with less experienced co-workers by letting them listen in on phone interviews. “I always like to have people listen because it’s too great a learning experience not to have your co-workers there.”
On one occasion, Krupinsky gathered a phalanx of Liza Minnelli fans in her office for a scheduled phone interview with the star only to have the diva surprise everyone by inviting the producer up to her place instead. “She said, ‘I’d love it if you could come to my house — I really don’t like to do phone interviews.’ And I was like, ‘Well, Liza, I’m in Atlanta and you’re in New York.’ She goes, ‘I’ll fly you up.’ So, I checked with my bosses and they said, ‘Go for it.’ I went to her house in New York and hanging on the walls were these big Andy Warhol prints — one of her, one of her mother and one of her father. Staring at those prints reminded me I was with a member of Hollywood royalty, and that her mother really was Judy Garland and her father really was Vincente Minnelli. She was as easy as an old friend, but I was in awe the whole time. It was great.”
Not at all jaded even after hobnobbing with scores of celebrities, the star struck Krupinsky said she still gets butterflies every time she meets one. “I’m always a little nervous, but the minute they start talking you kind of forget you’re scared.”
She said the stars are real troopers who go out of their way to make her and her colleagues feel comfortable being around them. “So far, they’ve all been so easy to work with and I think it’s because they want to tell their stories. They’re proud. They don’t do it for the money. They do it because they want to do it.” She said stars are put through their paces on a typical Private Screenings production day, which entails a three to three-and-a-half hour taping session, promotional intros and press interviews. “It’s an exhausting process, but never have we had problems. I’ve never had anyone complaining that it’s taking too long or demanding star treatment. They’re totally professional. When we bring them on to the set, they’re not worried or anxious. They just say, ‘I got it. I know what to do.’ And they love it. I feel like they have as much fun with us as we do with them. I mean, they even sit with the crew and eat lunch.”
With stars flying in to Atlanta for the tapings, opportunities abound for Krupinsky to hang with the screen legends. “We usually take them out to dinner the night before. Tony Curtis, whom we’ve worked with a lot, came with his wife Jill. We took them to dinner and shopping. Tony is a lot of fun. This is a guy who doesn’t want to rest. He wants to go out at night. He has fun with his celebrity. He gladly signs autographs.” Following a Private Screenings session with Best Actor Oscar winner Rod Steiger, Krupinsky was asked to escort the actor to a Florida film festival in his honor and she witnessed first-hand the respect and adulation audiences feel for this “very intense and very passionate” man.
One of the toughest parts of her job, she said, is trying to whittle down the star interviews from several hours to the one hour or less allotted for airing. For several months now she has been working on the edit for an August 2 scheduled James Garner Private Screenings segment. “James Garner’s has been one of the hardest to cut because he told so many good stories. I cut and cut on paper first and when I went to edit I thought for sure I‘d be fine but it was still too long. Cutting stories is the hardest part. Editing is a long process.” In preparing to tape a Private Screenings or to produce a special project like the Memories of Oz documentary, Krupinsky immerses herself in the project, gathering and reviewing reams of materials on the subject, including published interviews, biographies, tapes of movies and archival photos, with the help of staff researchers. “I become totally absorbed in my subject. For three months I can tell you everything about Tony Curtis or James Garner because I study them and I learn about these guys. I’ll know everything — dates, times, movies – you name it. But then once a project’s done that information goes away as I move on to the next one. The thing I love about my job is that I’m learning all the time. I feel like I’m still in school. It’s like having advanced film classes with experts talking about how they approach screenwriting or directing or acting.”
Krupinsky followed a logical route to TCM, working in local television promotion before graduating to the network level. Once out of college — and with her sights dead set on a career in TV — she took an entry-level job, as a secretary, at CBS affiliate WAGA-TV in Atlanta, where she was soon promoted to associate producer status — developing image campaigns and teasers for the station’s news and entertainment divisions. Even with the new position, she said, it was hard to get by on her small salary. “I was broke. I ate a lot at Taco Bell.” After a brief stint with a station in Knoxville, TN, she landed a spot as a writer-producer with Turner Network Television Latin America, which equaled a step-up on her career path but which also presented a dead-end since she did not speak a word of Spanish or Portugese. Then, in 1994, she heard about the formation of TCM and promptly applied for and won her current post. When she began at TCM, media mogul Ted Turner was still taking a hands-on approach with the fledgling network unlike today, when various mergers have taken Ted’s folksy presence out of the picture and replaced it with corporate suits. “Ted would always come by. One day, we had a meeting with him and he was wearing a cartoon tie and he was just hilarious,” she recalled. “Other times, he’d walk by the office and say, ‘Hey guys, what are you doing?’ Everyone who worked for Ted has this feeling for him because he did a great job. Thank God I was there for that regime.”
Before joining the ranks of film buffs and cinephiles at TCM, Krupinsky acknowledges she was a bit out-of-step with her workmates because even though she loved movies, she lacked a deep knowledge of their history and lore. As an example, she points to Warner Brothers tough guy John Garfield, someone she was assigned to do a feature piece on and knew next to nothing about. “Before I did John Garfield I didn’t know who he was to be honest. I told my mom who I was profiling and she said, ‘Oh, John Garfield, he’s great. You’ll fall in love with him.’ I said, I will?’ And sure, enough, I did. You almost fall in love with all these people.”
The Garfield project led Krupinsky to the late actor’s daughter Julie Garfield, an actress, who provided personal insights into the man, and to former director Vincent Sherman, who directed Garfield in the 1943 drama Saturday’s Children and who worked with many other Warners greats in the 1930s and ‘40s. Krupinsky played matchmaker of sorts when she arranged for the two to meet. “I brought Julie and Vincent together for lunch and it was great to sit back and let him tell her stories about her dad that she didn’t know. I was kind of proud myself because I brought these two together.” Krupinsky feels privileged getting the inside scoop from veterans like Sherman, who at 95, is one of the last surviving directors from Hollywood’s classic studio era. Sherman knew everyone on the Warners lot and hearing him talk about the old days and the old stars is like getting the Holy Scripture from the prophet himself. “I had lunch with him and he was telling me stories about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’m sitting here with a man who worked with these legends.’ I mean, it is very cool. Vincent’s become a friend of our network’s.”
A large part of her producing chores involves developing scripts, which generally include narration read by a star or stars who have some relationship with or enthusiasm for the subject. For example, to promote a month-long salute to the late producer-director Stanley Kramer, Krupinsky hit upon the idea of having comic Jonathan Winters, who appeared in Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, wax nostalgic about the filmmaker, with whom he was quite close. She interviewed Winters by phone and developed a script from his comments that adhered very closely to his own words. The resulting Winters’ salute was a surprisingly sober, reflective and personal reminiscence. When it comes time for the star to record the narration, as in the case of Winters, leeway is given for the star to go off-script and improvise. “They’ll paraphrase and add their own little things,” Krupinsky said, “and so it almost sounds like it’s off-the-cuff, and a lot of times it is.”
Among new and proposed projects, Krupinsky is now brainstorming ideas to promote TCM’s scheduled Coming of Age theme in October. She would like to get a Matt Dillon or Diane Lane or Reese Witherspoon to host the Coming of Age festival. Another idea she has is to get Dustin Hoffman alone or as part of a reunion of the cast of The Graduate. Other projects she would like to see happen range from a special on the Marx Brothers (she recently interviewed Carl Reiner on that comedy team) to Private Screenings segments with Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Taylor, James Coburn and Jerry Lewis. She is also busy thinking of some project that would be a good fit for Steve Martin to host/narrate.
Pitching projects is part of what Krupinsky or any producer does. She feels fortunate having superiors who value her input. “The cool part about my job is that as producers we have a lot to say. It’s not like, ‘Hey, Dena, your next assignment is…’ It’s more like, ‘Hey, Dena, here’s the programming we’re thinking of doing and we want you to come up with ideas.’ I can come back and say, ‘Let’s try this,’ and they’ll say yes or no, but a lot of times they say yes. That’s why I love my job. Like the Lemmon-Matthau Private Screenings. That was mine. I wanted to do something on comedy teams and I thought of Lemmon-Matthau and I did it. And the cool thing is you get to do this stuff with people you’ve always admired and wanted to meet.”
For now, Krupinsky is content at TCM, but she can see herself moving on, perhaps to produce feature-length documentaries. “I think about it all the time and I do feel like I am making a slow progression towards it. I’m doing great stuff now but I always feel like there’s something else I could be doing out there. I don’t want to ever get away from this work. Even if I moved on I still want something to do with Older Hollywood. Right now, though, I’m happy where I am.”
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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.
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