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Richard Widmark: A Princeton legend

Connections — The Apollo Theater and Henri’s Bakery

Published: Friday, June 13, 2014 12:37 p.m. CST

Editor’s note: This is the second part in a three-part series on Richard Widmark’s connections in Princeton.

The Apollo Theater was not the only Princeton movie house in the early years. The Star Theatre was at 428 S. Main for just a few years, 1909-11. The Eagle Theatre was at 416-418 S. Main and became The Orpheum Theatre, the address changing to 414 S. Main. The Orpheum Theatre became The State Theater after remodeling in 1930 at the same address. The State finally gave way to decreasing attendance and merged with The Apollo in 1932.  The manager of the State, Russell Hurt, became the new manager at the Apollo.

The A.C. Best and Son Monument Co. was at 412 S. Main since early in the 1900s.  This was just north of The State Theatre. Tom Best’s father and grandfather had the business, and Tom and Richard Widmark were good friends. It is no stretch to think that Widmark, Best, Lester Peterson, Gail Castner and other friends did not take in a movie or two at the State, even though Widmark was the doorman at the Apollo. 

“Trader Horn” with Harry Carey Sr. played at the State, June 22, 1931. Harry Carey Sr. would die in 1947, and Widmark would buy his ranch off Mandeville Canyon, Calif., in the late 1940s, and go on to make six movies with his son, Harry Carey Jr. 

Gary Cooper starred in “City Streets” at the State, July 12, 1931. Widmark starred with Cooper in “Garden of Evil” in 1954, and they became good friends. “Guilty Hands” with Lionel Barrymore played toward the end of The State Theatre’s run, Oct. 20, 1931, and Widmark co-starred with Barrymore in “Down to the Sea in Ships” in 1949. He could only have imagined that he would have these connections in his dreams.    

Widmark did not renew his contract with 20th Century Fox after completing the movie “Broken Lance” (1954). He was in demand and he also wanted to produce his own movies. He made “The Secret Ways” in 1961 with Sonja Ziemann, Charles Regnier, Howard Vernon and Senta Berger. Widmark produced the movie and directed some of it. He had total control of this film. His wife, Jean Hazelwood, wrote the screen play from a novel of the same name by Allister MacLean, and John Williams did the music. It was filmed in Zurich, Switzerland, and Vienna, Austria, with Vienna also standing-in for Budapest, Hungary. (Widmark visited Kirkudbright, Scotland, the hometown of his maternal grandmother, Mary Barr, before he started filming this movie.) It was a class A production, black and white film noir, with a twist-and-turn espionage plot and a touch of Cold War politics. It was Maclean’s fourth novel and a page turner.

The movie has that same pace. It is 1956, after Soviet tanks have crushed the Hungarian uprising. Widmark plays soldier-of-fortune Mike Reynolds, who is hired in Vienna, to help a Hungarian scientist (Prof. Jansci) escape from Budapest. He and the professor’s daughter cross the border into Hungary and face the dangers behind the Iron Curtain. Reynolds is being watched all of the time. He is tailed from his hotel room and tries to shake the man following him. It is night, and the streets are dark. The camera zooms in and holds on a building. It is a movie theater. The marquee is all lit up. The Apollo. The camera holds on it. Widmark as Reynolds hurries across the street, gets a ticket, enters and sits in a darkened row. He gets up and slips out the side exit. 

This was definitely a scene with a message and not just a coincidence, that said to anyone who knows Widmark’s history, “Hey, I worked at the Apollo Theater in Princeton, Illinois’.” That was more than 50 years ago, and I have never ever read of it in any article or interview. You would have to know about his life in Princeton, and it is a hard movie to find nowadays. I saw the movie for the first time when I finally got a copy of it a few months ago, and it smacked me right in the kisser. I had to stop it and run it back so that I could see it again. I saw the tree fall in the forest, and I heard it too.

There was one more connection with The Apollo in Widmark’s life, and that was Samuel Traynor. Traynor was a friend and promoter of Widmark. He knew the movie star as a former newspaper boy, followed his career on the high school football team, saw him in several school plays, and took note of his job as a doorman at The Apollo. He watched Widmark progress and took an interest in this young phenomenon. Traynor was born Oct. 22, 1906, in Louisville, Ky., and eventually moved to Princeton with his family at a young age. Traynor started working at the Clark Hotel and then managed the Apollo Theater. He was manager of the Bureau County Tribune during Widmark’s high school years, and then in 1939, he managed a string of six movie theaters as the general manager for Bailey Enterprises. Traynor was still with Bailey Enterprises in 1946.

Widmark did five plays on Broadway in New York City from 1943 to 1945 and then went on the road in 1946. Widmark contacted Traynor saying he would be in Chicago, performing in the play “Dream Girl” at the Selwyn Theater, and would he and his family like to drive up and see him on stage? Traynor, his wife Anne, and daughter of 18, Barbara (Hansen), made connections and headed to the Windy City. They saw Widmark in the play, visited with him after, backstage, and then Widmark asked them to dinner with him. He suggested the restaurant at The Ambassador East Hotel. The place was much more expensive than Widmark figured. When he picked up the bill, he was a little stunned and embarrassed. Traynor had to slip him some cash, after a small discussion, to help cover the damage.

Traynor was a promoter, an entertainer, a master of ceremonies at numerous events; he organized war bond drives in the mid 1940s, and even made films about Princeton with another Princeton icon, Bill Lamb. He rubbed shoulders with many different levels of the entertainment spectrum besides Widmark. Ronald Reagan, Gene Autry and Charles Starrett to Jerry Murad’s “Harmonicats” and “RinTinTin” were just a few. He was again manager of The Apollo Theater and Alexander Park Theater in 1965 until his death March 26, 1968.

Traynor’s daughter Barbara, while director of  the Bureau County Historical Museum, received a letter from Widmark. She had written to him about support for a Princeton High School project. Widmark wrote back saying he remembered her father very well and wanted her to know how thankful he was for the efforts her father made in supporting him in the beginnings of his career.

Carl Henry Widmark was born in 1892 in Sioux Falls, S.D., as Carl Henry Oden and orphaned by the age of 5. Soloman and Carrie Widmark became his foster parents and as a sign of respect, he took their name. He married Ethel Mae Barr in Braham, Minn.  They moved to Sunrise Township, Minn., and had clerking jobs at Elias Nordgrens Mercantile. Carl became the manager of the store, and they had a son, Richard Weedt Widmark on Dec. 26, 1914. The Widmark family moved to Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1916.  Son Donald was born, and Carl became a traveling salesman. The Widmarks moved to Henry, Ill., in 1923. Richard had one year of school, and then the family moved to Chillicothe, Mo., where he was in the fifth grade. In 1925, Carl H. Widmark traveled to Princeton, Ill., and reconnected with Henry P. Nelson. He knew him from Sioux Falls.  They decided to become partners and buy a bakery.

Doughnuts and coffee next time at the Widmark bakery and more of those connections.  

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