The Night Bette Davis Played Huntsville

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The Night Bette Davis Played Huntsville

by Dex Nilsson

Published in Old Huntsville magazine, No. 156, February 2006
Republished with the permission of the author


You didn’t know that the famous actress, Bette Davis, once played Huntsville?

Maybe it’s because there were 12 inches of snow that night, the roads were shut down, and the place where she performed was supposed to be closed. Here’s the story:

The 1959-1960 season was the 10th for the Huntsville Little Theatre, and it was thought that there should be something special with which to celebrate it. In the mail came an announcement that movie great Bette Davis was going on tour in a show about poet Carl Sandburg. The group decided that sponsoring a performance of it here in Huntsville would be a highlight of the season, and it was able to book the show, called “The World of Carl Sandburg,” for February 1960.

Stars had been coming to Huntsville in plays for several years, sponsored by the Business & Professional Women, a forerunner of what is today known as the Broadway Theater League. Indeed, in December 1959, TV host Hal March appeared in “Two for the Seesaw,” and in March, Joan Blondell would star in “Dark at the Top of the Stairs.” All such shows, along with those of the Little Theatre, were put on in the Huntsville High School Auditorium. Because of a scheduling conflict, though, the Bette Davis play was booked into the new Lee Junior High School Auditorium.

“The World of Carl Sandburg” starred Davis, Barry Sullivan, and guitarist-singer Clark Allen. It was more than a poetry reading, as Davis and Sullivan acted out the poetry, assuming dozens of characters and costumes. The idea for the show came from Norman Corwin, who adapted and directed it. He put the show together in the fall of 1959 in Maine, where Bette and her husband Gary Merrill were living. It was relatively simple to produce, and it was decided to tour the country with it before trying Broadway. It originally starred the couple, but Bette and Gary bickered constantly, and Gary was reportedly drinking heavily - their marriage was nearing an end. On the tour, Gary was replaced by “quick-study” Sullivan.

At this time, Bette Davis had made 68 Hollywood movies. She would go on to make 19 more, plus 14 for television. Her best known may be “Of Human Bondage,” “Jezebel,” and “All About Eve.” The start of her horror movies like “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” was three years away. Barry Sullivan likewise had nearly 50 movies to his credit; he would go on to be in 104, plus another 100 TV shows. He had most recently been directing episodes of the popular TV series, “Highway Patrol.”

The tour happened in a caravan of cars and a series of one-nighters. Bette liked it. In November she commented that producer Armand Deutsch “set up our production that we never have to worry about new lights and mikes in each town. Our own equipment travels right along with us.” Back then, it was innovative. The show eventually reached Broadway in September 1960 with Bette starring with Leif Erickson. He was no replacement for Gary Merrill, or even Barry Sullivan, and the show got mixed reviews. Davis later said, “I wouldn’t have missed that year for a million dollars. There’s an excitement and challenge playing different places that you can’t get in a single theatre.”

Here, at the start of 1960, the Huntsville Little Theatre had great aspirations. HLT had formed an “advisory committee” to see how it could get a theater of its own, instead of performing in the 1,000-seat high school auditorium – big, but with quite limited facilities and restraining rules. The committee consisted of Mrs. William Bradley Baker, Edwin Bartee, Hugh Doak, Jr., Walter Eigenbrod, Emil Hellebrand, Mrs. Tom Jones, Jr., Dr. Alexandria Kates, Rev. Edsel Keith, Will Mickle, Harry Rhett, Jr., Mayor R.B. Searcy, Jimmy Taylor, and J.T. Uptain. With the committee’s encouragement, in January 1960, Nancy Nilsson, HLT’s president, addressed the City Council, saying that HLT would try to raise the funds if the city would give it land on which to build a 400-seat theater. Not much came of this particular request, except that it was the start of lobbying for a facility that later resulted in the small theater that’s in today’s Von Braun Civic Center.

Always the optimist, Nancy wrote a personal letter to Bette Davis, via the producer, asking if she and the cast would like a light supper after the performance, with a small group in a private home. Walter Eigenbrod on the advisory committee had volunteered to play host at his home, which was at 312 Williams Avenue. To her surprise, Nancy received a hand-written note back from Bette saying that they would be delighted. She remarked that no one ever seemed to ask them, and it would be wonderful to go somewhere other than back to a hotel.

Ticket sales were sluggish. As the Tuesday, February 16, date neared, about half the tickets were sold – about 500 or so – leaving HLT hoping that a last minute box office surge would keep it from losing too much money. But then there was a problem:

The Huntsville Times headlines of Sunday, February 14, said it best: “Highways to Huntsville Blocked. Vehicles Stalled. Paralyzed North Alabama Fights to Keep Head Above Heavy Snow.” Snow depths ranged up to 12 inches. By Monday, it was worse. Temperature dropped to a low of 8 degrees. Roads were deemed unsafe for travel, so Superintendent Raymond Christian declared that schools would be closed Monday and Tuesday. Forget box office sales. HLT didn’t know whether Davis and troupe could get here, and if they did, whether they could even get into the school to perform.

The troupe did arrive in the afternoon, checking into the Russel Erskine Hotel. Nancy got the school to open for the performance. The narrow streets to the school and the school parking lot weren’t cleared, and the auditorium wasn’t too well heated - which is a nice way of saying it was cold. But 400 brave souls showed up, and “The World of Carl Sandburg” went on as scheduled.

Afterwards, the cast and their car were led to the Eigenbrod home. The party was given by the advisory committee, who, with officers of HLT, were the only ones present. Jay Fryman, Bill Schwarz, and I were the at-large members of the HLT board that year, and so we were at the party. Jay recalls that his car pulled up behind that of the cast, and he was the first to meet Bette as she got out of her car, helping her, as he put it, climb over a snow bank. He also clearly remembers her white ermine cape.

Refreshments were served buffet style from the dining room table which had a fine floral centerpiece. A Times article the next day described Davis’ dress: black taffeta with a fitted bodice and portrait neckline. She also wore long white gloves and that white ermine cape.

Jay also recalled Bill Schwarz’s wife, Pat, asking Bette how much longer the tour would last – it had been 15 weeks so far. It was to end on Friday she found out. Pat remarked, “Well then you’ll finally be glad to get home to Gary.” Bette frowned and said, “My dear, you’re too big a girl to think that.” It would turn out that Bette would file for divorce from Gary in May.

I remember Bette sitting comfortably and relaxed in a corner chair, many of us seated on the floor at her feet. She was most gracious and talked for hours – in no hurry to fight the snow or return to the hotel. Sullivan, on the other hand, paced back and forth. We were all surprised how tall he was, and he had looked good on stage – but we also all recall that up close his face was wrinkled and pock marked. His biggest interest was getting on – he was to play Nashville and Chattanooga and then leave the tour for an appearance on TV’s biggest dramatic show, “Playhouse 90.”

We kept apologizing for having only 400 people in attendance, in an auditorium that could seat 1,000. Both Bette and Barry thought the audience was very responsive – one of the best to whom they had played. And it was then that Bette Davis taught me something I have always remembered and put to good use. She said, “You worry only about the people who come to see you. If you have one person in the audience, you give that person your best performance. Don’t ever worry about the people who don’t show up.”

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