Editor’s note: This is the first part in a three-part series on Richard Widmark’s connections in Princeton.
Richard Widmark loved making movies. He was a nut about them ever since his grandmother took him to see his first film at the age of 3 in 1917. Looking back at his career, he had this to say, “When I finally came to Hollywood, I thought I was in seventh heaven. I could hardly wait to get to work at (20th Century) Fox in the mornings. Then I lived just a 10-minute drive away in Mandeville Canyon, and I’d whistle as I drove to work thinking, ‘Hot dog, I’m going to make a movie today.’ But it was hard work. Some years, I’d make as many as four movies.”
Mary Barr was the grandmother who introduced him to the movies. She was his maternal grandmother, of Scottish descent (she was from Kirkudbright, a town in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland) and 57 when she took him to see his first film. These were the silent movies, and young Widmark wouldn’t see his first “talkie” until they moved to Princeton and went to The Apollo Theatre.
Barr’s favorite was Tom Mix, and Widmark liked Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Boris Karloff, the Dracula movies, “oaters” and Harold Lloyd. They saw every genre of movie. Widmark collected and read the silent movie magazines. He was a tremendous reader his entire life, anything from the French dramatist Moliere (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) to pulp magazines.
His addiction to the movies continued right into his adult life. When he did theatre and radio in New York City in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he went to the New York Museum of Modern Art and viewed every silent movie in the extensive library.
The Apollo Hall (The Apollo Theater) was brand new in 1884. It was erected in 1883 at a cost of $22,000; it was the largest opera house in Bureau County and had a seating capacity of 1,200. It was host to conventions, social gatherings, minstrel shows, traveling plays, musicals, dances, high school junior-senior proms, vaudeville, roller skating, auto shows and meetings of all kinds.
The first movies, the silent “one- and two-reelers,” were first shown in 1909. There was piano music to accompany the first movies, and then a pipe organ was added in the early 1920s. The sound movies started in 1927, and the first marquee was added in 1931. The theater closed for renovation for a few months at the end of 1930 and reopened in April 1931. The renovation was done by Hal Opperman and Sons of Pontiac, who had the lease. The renovation cost was $125,000 for the new marquee, a larger screen, better sound, and soon to come “air washed cool air.” Opperman subleased the theatre to E.E. Alger of Peru. The Apollo was now one of his chain of seven movie houses. The new ads promoted it as Alger’s Apollo Theatre. The Widmark family arrived in Princeton in 1925 and lived above their bakery at 514 S. Main St. The Apollo Theater is still located at 455 S. Main St., where it continues showing movies today.
Widmark remained a constant movie-goer when his family moved to Princeton. He still went with his grandmother, and as he got older, it was with his younger brother Donald, also. When the brothers went to a movie comedy, Widmark’s laugh could cause an “Uh-oh, the Widmark boys are here” from someone in the audience.
The family moved many times while in Princeton, and the bakery moved to 450 S. Main St. in 1929. Widmark had many jobs for income, besides working in the family bakery, and one was as a doorman at The Apollo Theater while in high school. He got into the movies for free when he had that job. Widmark saw silent films at the Apollo and then the “talkies” when they hit the screen in the late 1920s.
Six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone is six or fewer steps away from any other person in the world, so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps. It was originally written about by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in the short story “Chains” in his book “Everything is Different” (1929) and popularized by American playwright John Guare in his play “Six Degrees of Separation” (1990), an intricately plotted comedy of manners about an African-American confidence man who poses as the son of film star Sidney Poitier, (a good friend of Richard Widmark). In today’s world it is said that now it is three degrees of separation with all of the social-networking in constant use.
It seems that for Widmark you could say it was ALWAYS ... three degrees of separation; himself, the silver screen and the actors on it. The connections must have left him in wonderment and awe. He was absolutely correct to think “he was in seventh heaven” when making movies. Seeing actors on the screen from the age of 3, through his high school years, in New York City whenever he could watch and study, and then to actually share the screen with them. I can only imagine what that must have been like.
“The Lone Star Ranger” played at the Apollo on April 11-12, 1930. “Riders Of The Purple Sage” played at the Apollo on Dec. 4-5, 1931. “The Rainbow Trail” played at the Apollo on March 10-11, 1932. Widmark was the door man at the theater on all these occasions, and he got into the movies free. He saw these movies. All three movies starred George O’Brien, and all were made by Fox Film Corporation (20th Century Fox now, where Widmark had his first contract). Widmark was 16-17 then, and 33 years later, he made “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964) with the very same actor, George O’Brien, filmed mainly over the same Monument Valley landscape. O’Brien played the “by the book” Major Braden; Widmark was the sympathetic Captain Thomas Archer; and they had several scenes together including the tense waiting scene in the first part of the movie. It was great drama and set the stage for the whole film, which I wrote about in my last article. It had to be some kind of déjà vu feeling for Widmark. He saw O’Brien on the screen at the Apollo 33 years ago, and now he was acting with the same man in the same Utah landscape. Edward G. Robinson plays Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz in the movie. Widmark saw him in “Little Caesar” (1931) at The Apollo also, the same year, and here they were on the screen together in “Cheyenne Autumn.” I wrote about Mae Marsh and the scene with Widmark in “Two Rode Together” (1961) in the first part of my article on John Ford and the Careys, and Widmark had seen her many times on the screen since his grandmother started taking him to the movies. Mae Marsh starred with James Dunn (who?) in “Over The Hill” that played at the Apollo on March 13-14, 1932. She made more than 100 movies in her career and was also in “Cheyenne Autumn” with Widmark.
“The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985), “Stay Tuned” (1992), “Last Action Hero” (1993) and “Pleasantville” (1998) are fiction films. These movies have film viewer characters that either end up on the screen with the film characters in the movie or the on screen characters come off the screen and interact with the movie viewer characters. These connections are pure fantasy, but Widmark’s connections with performers on the silver screen became very real for him in his life and career.
I’ll get into more of these real connections with The Apollo, look at some movies that played at The State Theatre across the street, and check out the Widmark bakery next time. The things that happen in real life can be stranger than any fiction. We don’t really control our lives — that’s only our own deception.