Friday, November 2

Cleo at the Palace

Picture it.  Peoria, Illinois, circa 1956.  Peoria was the town of my birth and had been so for a dozen years. In those days it was the second largest city in Illinois and it made itself out to be pretty important.  It puffed itself up, stretched along the banks of the Illinois River and looked down on the little cities that bordered it.  My grandmother always assured me I was quite the lucky boy to live in Peoria and not some of those other little mere villages, as she was given to calling them in her imperious manner.

The other side of the river was not Peoria, but never mind, my grandfather bought some land there anyway, constructed a little shed, the only structure for a number of years, and all us youngins thought it was the Taj Mahal.  We frolicked in the river, went on our uncle's boat, enjoyed family cookouts and then complained that there was never anything to do.  My life was different from everyone else's, I told myself, away from the river, because I discovered the movies.  It seemed like I never missed one.   I was the lucky boy.

I could hop a bus and go downtown by myself.  Actually, I had been doing it for a couple of years, often alone.  In those days there was no worry about a child being stolen or in any way harmed.  Off I went on my merry way to either the Madison, Rialto, Apollo or Palace Theaters where I would while away the day watching not only a double feature, but cartoons, previews and News of the World.  The Rialto hooked me with serials and staged prize events to entice the kiddies.  The Madison seemed more for older folks and often showed only one movie.  I always remember seeing crime movies at the Apollo.  It was the first to close.

The Palace was my favorite.  It was large and ornate with winding staircases and I recall everything being a whole lot of red.  For years I thought I was in some magical fairyland and besides, I liked their popcorn the best.  The Palace was built in 1921 and of course was originally a vaudeville theater but remodeled a few years later as a movie house which it remained until 1963 when it was sold. I thought it was a grandest place I'd ever seen and in no time at all I felt as though I belonged there.   

Up on the bluff in our ordinary little house my family of four grabbed sections of the newspaper when it arrived.  My bratty brother went for the comics, the old man needed his daily fix of sports, I went for the movie section.  My mom looked at the obits and society stuff.  When the guys were through, we all neatly put the paper back together, handed it over to Mom who would then sit down, light up a Raleigh cigarette and read in peace as the rest of us scattered.

I sprang to life during one of these reading sessions and bellowed CLEO MOORE IS COMING TO THE PALACE.  My mother jumped out of her skin at my explosion, my brother rolled his horrid little eyes and my father met my bellow with who in the hell is Cleo Moore?

Who is Cleo Moore?  Indeed.  I pretended his question was rhetorical and kept reading.  I hadn't felt this kind of excitement since I sent in a name for one of Lassie's puppies in the hope I would win one in a contest.  Cleo Moore was coming to little ole Peoria.  Maybe we were bigger than I thought.  Discounting visits to local arenas by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, I couldn't remember a movie star coming to town.   She would be at the Palace to publicize a movie opening called Hold Back Tomorrow.  It was a week and a half away and would be on a Saturday.  Guess who was going?

An interesting tidbit to my 12-year mind was Cleo Moore looked exactly like our trampy neighbor across the street, Nicki what's-her-name, the one my father was always talking to when I got home from school.  She had the same shade of blonde hair, same style, same round, even a bit chunky, face, and the same too-red lips.  One time I took a movie magazine to Nicki who was sunbathing on her front porch.  Shoving the magazine in her face, I chirped I think you look like her, don't you?  The above picture is what she saw.  She bolted upright, removing her bejeweled sunglasses and screeched oh yes, I do, I certainly do.  Who is this?  So, of course, I told her everything I knew.  She looked at me askance a few times and returned to sunbathing but I soldiered on.

A few days before the film opened, I came busting in the door with a new shirt my grandmother had given me for the big occasion of her grandson meeting a bigtime movie star.  My mother was in the living room, reading one of my movie magazines.  My father was 10 feet away cleaning something at the dining room table.

"Oh my God, you're not going to this movie," my mother blurts out.  Do you know what this movie is about, Honey?" she says to the old man.

"What movie?" he half-heartedly asks.

"The one with Cleo Moore," I busted in.

"Who's Cleo Moore?" he says, never looking up from his project.

"It's about a prisoner who asks for a woman to visit him on the last night of his life," says my mother, eyebrow raised.

"Yeah?" he says, putting his stuff aside.  "Maybe we should all go."

"Don't be funny.  Well, you're not going," she snarls, looking me square in the eye.

Moore had made another prison movie that same year called Women's Prison.  Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter, Phyllis Thaxter and Moore (in a rather small role) were prisoners being mistreated by cruel warden Ida Lupino.  Man, I ate that stuff up.  I couldn't wait to see this new film.  It costarred John Agar, who I thought was a handsome actor and not as bad of one as I heard people say, but his career was certainly on a downward spiral from the heady days when he courted and then married Shirley Temple.

I knew Cleo Moore was not rivalling Marilyn Monroe.  I put her in the same company as Jayne Mansfield or Mamie Van Doren or Joi Lansing.  I knew Hold Back Tomorrow wasn't going to be nominated for best picture and I didn't care.  I also knew in a few months we were moving to Los Angeles and the way I looked at it, Cleo Moore would just be my first in-person meeting with a movie star.  Out west movie stars were probably standing on every corner.

And there she was in the center of the lobby.  The white-blonde hair, the form-fitting dress showing just a touch of cleavage and a white, fuzzy thing hung around her shoulders.  She wore these very high, big-girl shoes.  When she walked, she took itty-bitty little steps and occasionally pushed out a little giggle.

I was surprised there weren't many people there.  I expected screaming fans, like I'd seen in some of the News of the World premieres in New York.  I guess not.  There were about 40 people around her.  I recognized the solicitous theater manager.  There was a photographer and an older man watching over Miss Moore.  Kids were few.  Mostly there were women gawking and studying her.  I hopped on a carpeted stair leading to the balcony and soaked it all in.

Suddenly the lights flashed on and off, something I had never seen there before. indicating it was time to start the film.  I hadn't gotten an autograph I wanted and started to rush over to her when she began walking toward me.

"Hi, Ma'am, can I get your autograph?" I said as she stepped on the stair I was on.

"Miss Moore, Honey, Miss Moore.  No wait, make it Cleo.  Never Ma'am," she cooed, giggling and grabbing my hand with both of hers.  The man accompanying her and the theater manager were ahead of us, where she had just shooed them.  "And what's your name?  My, aren't you the tall and handsome one?"  It was true that at 12 I was taller than she was but no one had ever said I was handsome except my mother and grandmother and they didn't count.  I felt my face redden.

I told her I was Bobby.  "You here with your folks?" she asked, dartingly looking around.  When I said I was alone, she hummed, "Your folks don't mind you seeing a movie like this?"

She smiled and smiled as I told her I had seen Women's Prison and how much I liked it.  As we climbed the stairs I added that I had even seen Bait earlier still and when I told her I knew that John Agar was also in Bait and so was Hugo Haas and that I knew Haas was the director of Hold Back Tomorrow.

She placed her hand above her cleavage as though she was catching her breath and said, "My dear, you sure do know a lot about movies for a kid your age.  You 15?  16?"

As we reached the top of the stairs, I said I was 12.  She got pretty actressy as she leaned over and twisted her body and squealed nooooooThe two men came over to her and said they should get in the theater.

"It was nice meeting you, Miss Moore."

"Oh, no, you're coming with us," she cooed, grabbing my hand again.  An entire row had been roped off for her and I sat right next to her while we watched the film with only her man and the theater manager.  Every once in awhile, she would lean over and say "Watch this, watch this," as her character would have some particularly dramatic moment.

When it was over-- and I don't remember the movie at all and have not seen it since-- she walked me to the landing, pulled my head down, pressed her cheek next to mine and gently kissed me.  She smiled so sweetly as she told me it was a privilege meeting me and that maybe she would see me in Hollywood.

Grandma was right.  I really was a lucky boy.  Cleo Moore at the Palace.  In Peoria, Illinois.  Circa 1956.

NEXT POSTING:  Review of Flight