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FLASHBACK: MEETING GINGER ROGERS

The prospect of meeting a legendary movie star was daunting to me at the age of 16, but I wasn’t going to let nervousness intrude on such a great opportunity. My benefactor was Raymond Rohauer, whose work in the field of film preservation earned him a terrible reputation. But in the late 1960s he was the curator of film programming at the Huntington Hartford Museum in Manhattan and was very kind to me, treating me as a legitimate member of the press. That’s how I got to attend the opening night of his Ginger Rogers tribute.

For reasons I can’t remember, or explain, I decided to write up the evening in the style of New Journalism, popularized by Tom Wolfe. Rex Reed was turning out lively articles in this mode for the New York Times and I thought I would try to emulate him…and maybe even submit my piece for publication. Re-reading it today I can only smile at my youthful efforts, but I thought you might enjoy this time capsule. I can’t believe it’s fifty years old! The photos accompanying the piece were taken by my friend and schoolmate Barry Gottlieb:

There are about fifty people in the dimly-lit eighth floor lounge of the Gallery of Modern Art including the Huntington Hartford Collection (that’s the full billing—most people find “The Huntington Hartford Museum” easier) awaiting the arrival of Miss Ginger Rogers, who is being honored with a film festival at the Gallery. The occasion is called a “gals press reception” but there are very few representatives of the press to be seen. Everyone is talking and drinking, and wondering why there are no lights in this place.

Then, suddenly, an elevator door opens and out steps Miss Rogers and her entourage. She is surrounded by about twenty people as she emerges from the elevator, but there is no chance of missing her. Within a radius of ten feet she radiates the magic glow of a Star. Others have been honored at the Gallery, but it was not quite the same. Ruby Keeler and Jessie Matthews are well-remembered, but their heyday was in the 1930’s. Today they are celebrities, or personalities. But Ginger Rogers is a Star and you can’t forget that if you are standing near her.

Ginger reads one of her congratulatory telegrams with her then brother-in-law, publisher and bon vivant Bennett Cerf

Just as she is about to be enveloped by the throng she tells her husband, former actor William Marshall, to be sure she leaves by 7:45 (it’s now 7) to prepare for tonight’s performance of Hello, Dolly! Marshall, a towering man with a deep, rich voice, assures her he will. That is the last he sees of her for forty-five minutes, for tonight she is not Mrs. William Marshall, she is the Star, Miss Ginger Rogers.

Miss Rogers has been a Star for over thirty years and she knows just how to project the image which has made her so popular. Somebody hands her a drink—“Oh good. My orange juice!” she exclaims. She clutches a bunch of telegrams from people like David Merrick and Fred Astaire (“Dear Gin—Another smash success for Rogers—Fred A.”), with which she seems pleased.

Raymond Rohauer, the Film Curator and Program Director of the Gallery, is trying to keep things under control. It isn’t easy with one hundred-fifty people now crowding the room, every one, it seems, trying to meet Miss Rogers. Rohauer lines up some pictures with Ginger and Eddie Bracken (“You’re the only person I’d stand in line to see.”) and Bennett Cerf (Miss Rogers’ brother-in-law). Among the other luminaries present are Anita Louise, who looks simply gorgeous but is overshadowed by the Star of the evening, Vincent Youmans Jr., Joy Hodges, who sang with Miss Rogers in Follow the Fleet, and Joe Franklin, host of the Memory Lane television show.

Then there are all these others who are desperately trying to talk to Miss Rogers. Someone ‘who met her on the road in the Midwest (“Oh yes!  How are you?”) and another who saw her at the stage door of Dolly (“I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize you but the light in here…”). If these remarks sound phony on paper, they do not coming from Miss Rogers, who is not where she is by accident. She has such a beguiling charm and a sweet voice (with more than a slight Southern accent), she sounds completely sincere, no matter what she is saying. Flashbulbs pop and programs are shoved in front of Miss Rogers to autograph, but she remains unperturbed. She has obviously had experience.

This mystery novel for young readers was actually written by Ginger’s mother Lela Rogers

Men and women alike gawk at the Star. Most of the men have been in love with her since their ‘teens. Most of the women wonder at her striking countenance which belies her age.

“What do you think when you watch your old films?” one woman asks.

“I haven’t seen them in years,” she replies. “Like looking at an old friend, except when you remember some of the heartaches that you experienced while they were being made.”

Downstairs in the auditorium there has been a screening of segments from some of Ginger Rogers’ seventy-three films. It begins with a 1930 short, Office Blues. This is not the Ginger we have seen upstairs. She has dark hair and a high, squawky voice. Then there is Ginger singing “We’re in the Money” from Gold Diggers of 1933. She is draped with coins and nothing much else as she warbles this Depression song, doing one chorus in Pig-Latin. This is followed by a few numbers with Fred Astaire. What delightful scenes they are, from some of the gayest films ever made. And what wonderful songs: “The Way you Look Tonight,” “The Continental,” “The Carioca,” and “Let Yourself Go,” sung by Ginger in a fetching sailor suit, backed up by a chorus which includes Betty Grable. Now we see Ginger Rogers the actress. She and Dennis Morgan are a enjoyable duo in Kitty Foyle, for which she won the Academy Award in 1940. Her vivacity makes her role of Dolly Madison seem incongruous in The Magnificent Doll (don’t you love that title?). She is more at home in Tom, Dick and Harry. The scenes that are shown with Alan Marshall are delicious, and this brief excerpt whets many an appetite to see the entire film. When the scene comes to an abrupt end, there is a mass groan. The entire audience is captivated by Ginger Rogers. She is naive, but far from dumb. She is beautiful, but wholesome. She projects an image of the girl-next-door, but she manages to spice it up. No wonder everyone loves her.

Ah, wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit and watch her all night. But, alas, it’s a quarter to eight and Miss Rogers must leave to entertain a jammed audience who have paid as much as twelve dollars to see her in Hello, Dolly! She bids her friends and admirers good-bye, and departs into the elevator. After the door has closed, there is a lingering smile on everyone’s lips. They have seen the Star.

[I was fortunate enough to meet Miss Rogers several times again over the years. On the first occasion I brought an 8×10 and asked her to sign it “To Leonard…” then realized I should have added “…and Alice.” She gave me a steely look and said, “It should say to Alice and Leonard.” Embarrassed, I said, “I know. I’ll hear about this later.” To which she responded, “You’re hearing about it now.”

The photo Ginger signed for Jessie in 1991

Then in 1991 I visited her at her home in Oregon, shortly after publication of her autobiography. She had broken her hip but, following her mother’s path, she was a practicing Christian Scientist and had not had surgery. She was in a wheelchair, but managed to stand up for a shot of us leaning on the ledge of her veranda. We had a lively conversation and as the crew was packing up I noticed a copy of the hardcover book Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak on her shelf. This was one of a series of Nancy Drew-like novels aimed at young readers in the 1940s. “My mother wrote that,” she said proudly. I checked the title page and indeed, it was true! I later sent her a copy which she graciously signed. And when I told her that my six-year-old daughter was a fan of hers, she signed a photo of herself with Fred Astaire from Swing Time and said, pointedly, “Because this is for your daughter…” before adding the word “love” to her inscription.]

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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