So I'm writing the introduction of the Springfield post card history book and I come across this piece I did in '99 for Steve Murphy's late and lamented – at least I lament it – V Mag.
Hey two postings in one day...I think it's my personal best!
When I attended UMass in the mid-Seventies, Bill Cosby was working on his graduate degrees, and the buzz around campus was a legitimate famous guy was indeed walking around just like one of us. I never saw him nor did any of friends, but we kept hearing about sightings down at the tennis courts. It was like my belief in the Loch Ness Monster. I didn't have to see the beast to have faith in the reports I read, and I did believe that Fat Albert himself was dodging the falling bricks from the library like the rest of us.
You just don't expect to see celebrities in your backyard. I don't why people are always confounded to find out that so many famous people have a connection to western Massachusetts. I suppose it's the notion that nothing ever happens in your home town, and all the celebrities must come from Los Angeles or New York.
Here's an example. I was standing in the Montague Bookmill last fall and I noticed a woman who appeared very familiar. When she began to speak I knew who she was...television actress and slut monkey Golden Girl Rue McCalahan. I snuck over to my wife and our friend and furtively told them. We all then peeked and made a determined effort to allow her to buy her used books without gawkers hanging on her move.
I should know better. Famous folks do get their start in the real world. He routinely reports on people such as Uma Thurman, John Shea, Paige Turco, Taj Mahal, Bill Pullman, and even Richard Gere (who attended UMass and dropped out his junior year).
The most interesting Favorite Daughter, in my opinion, is Springfield's own June Foray whose family left their home on Orange Street and traveled to California where she eventually became the voice for Rocky in Rocky and Bullwinkle and a dozen other characters.
But what about those who came before them? Western Massachusetts is practically crawling with connections to famous dead people, and at this time of year, it's appropriate to discuss a few of them.
Some, of course, are tenuous. Springfield has an interesting connection to the great swashbuckler Errol Flynn. Flynn's last girlfriend was indeed a girl. Beverly Aadland was only 15 when she met Flynn. They made a very bad film together, Cuban Rebel Girl, a pro-Castro drive-in epic, and created a lot of nasty headlines before his death in 1959. The western Massachusetts connection? Aadland lived in Springfield in the late Sixties as she pursued a supper club singing career. Although one interviewer believed "a single girl couldn't settle down in a small town Like Springfield," Aadland said that "at my house Springfield swings." Aadland's whereabouts today are not known.
Okay, so that one is not unlike the Six Degree of Kevin Bacon. Here's the real thing.
My good friend Dave Mackie once told me of an illuminating moment in his high school career well over twenty years ago. As he was sitting in a class in the long-gone Classical High in Springfield, he noticed that among the graffiti carved in his ancient desk was a name. "Timothy Leary...1938" read the inscription. Much to Dave's surprise the fact was later confirmed that indeed one of the founders of the counter culture had been a graduate of Classical High.
Many people in Springfield didn't realize Leary's connection with the city until he died and the Union-News dutifully hunted down some of his high school classmates who all had good things to say about him. Unlike Dr. Suess, the most famous Springfield native son, no one in officialdom seems too comfortable with Leary's legacy and there's no talk of a Leary Memorial here. Too bad, it might pull more people off of I-91 than an IMAX theater on the riverfront.
We all know about Emily Dickinson's and Robert Frost's connection to Amherst, but what about William Cullen Bryant, the poet who made his home in Cummington? Or the fact that Moby Dick author Herman Melville was a resident of Pittsfield? While horrormeister H.P. Lovecraft was practically a recluse in his native Providence, a trip to Monson to visit a huge boulder that had been the site of colonial church services gave him inspiration for some of his stories.
Look back into old newspapers from twenty-five years ago and you'll find the Paramount Theater in downtown Springfield had a different name. Known as the "Julia Sanderson Theater," the performing venue had been re-opened and named as a tribute to Twenties and Thirties Broadway and radio star Julia Sanderson who hailed from Springfield. The theater later reverted to its original name.
Next time you're in a video store, check out such classic musicals as Born to Dance, Broadway Melody of 1940 and you'll see another Valley Girl, Eleanor Powell. The beautiful and athletic dancer was a native of Springfield and was a star at MGM. She was married to actor Glenn Ford for a number of years and by the end of her life she turned her energies to religion.
What about dead Presidents? Northampton was home to Calvin Coolidge, the Vermont-born lawyer who was mayor of Northampton, governor of Massachusetts and than president. You can still see his law office door in the same building as Fitzwilly's.
Lawrence O'Brien, Kennedy family supporter, postmaster general, head of the Democratic Party, and commissioner of the National Basketball Association, was another Springfield boy. His father had a tavern where the Springfield Civic Center now stands and he received his law degree from Western New England College.
So cut this story out and carefully fold into your billfold for quick reference the next time some wiseacre from Connecticut or New York yaks about nothing ever happening here. And remember, this list will grow really impressive when in another twenty-five or thirty years some of today's famous western Massachusetts folks head off to the big Happy Valley in the sky.
© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs