Mike Cline: Brush with local stars

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 17, 2011

By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
If I dwell upon it, it’s difficult to believe that it is 40 years nearly to the day that I became a Salisbury citizen.
Transported all the way from Statesville, I came here to manage the Capitol Theatre, formerly on West Innes Street. The Capitol, in its day, was considered one of the top five movie theaters in North Carolina in terms of glamour. By June 1971, the glamour was long gone, but a kid just out of college starting his first full-time job had to start some place.
Being brought up in the movie theater business, running a theater of my own had been a dream for 10 years. I probably would have been happy assigned to a theater that still showed only silent pictures. Fortunately, the Capitol ran the “talkies” and had been doing so since Oct. 29, 1928, and was the first theater in Rowan County to do so.
So here I was, the first week at my new career, in “my” office late in the evening doing the daily reports when came a “rapping at my chamber door. ‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door -— only this, and nothing more.’ ”
Thanks, Mr. Poe.
So I opened the door, just a crack, and was looking into the face of a lady.
“Mr. Cline?” she asked. “May I speak with you for a minute?”
“Sure,” I said, motioning for her to step in.
I didn’t know who the lady was, but I immediately recognized the gentleman who followed her into the office.
“Sidney Blackmer!” I exclaimed. He seemed flattered.
Even though I hadn’t been born in Salisbury, I certainly knew Sidney Blackmer had been. Statesville didn’t have a stage and screen actor of Blackmer’s caliber among its ranks, so I had earlier in my life considered him sort of an honorary Statesville citizen.
I used to tell friends and classmates about having seen him recently in a movie or TV show, tell them he was from Salisbury, and they’d look at me like “you feel OK?” They didn’t understand.
There weren’t enough chairs in the room for us all to sit down, so we just stood. Suzanne explained they had heard there was a new Capitol manager in town and just wanted to pay a friendly call to welcome me to town. Now I was flattered.
She continued to tell me (she did virtually all the talking — Mr. Blackmer rarely spoke) how Mr. Blackmer and Mr. Phillips, Salisbury’s well-known and well-loved, long-time theater manager (nicknamed The Wizard of Innes Street), had been close friends for many years.
In fact, at its 1969 opening, the Terrace Theatre in Towne Mall was dedicated to Paul Phillips. She went on to say that Phillips had long ago established the tradition that the Blackmer family were always welcome to the Capitol as his guests, and that she hoped we could continue that tradition. (Gee, is that why they really stopped by?)
I assured them both that the tradition would carry on. They thanked me and turned to leave. But before exiting, Suzanne spun around and in her best on-camera thespian diction said, “After all, charging Sidney Blackmer to enter a theater would be like charging Clarence Darrow to enter a courtroom.”
And they made their exit, stage right.
I soon began to pick up on stories about this little lady. But something I didn’t know about her until recently was that Suzanne was one of the original Rockettes at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and appeared in their show the night the palace opened in 1932.
Strangely enough, the second week I was in Salisbury, the Terrace Theatre brought back the 1965 movie “Joy in the Morning,” in which Sidney had a very large role. I had told my boss about meeting the Blackmers, so he, knowing Blackmer was in the film, asked me if I could try and get him to come to the Terrace on opening night and speak to the audience before the show.
The next morning, before I was going to make the phone call, I needed to walk down to the Salisbury Post to turn in some upcoming advertising. As I opened the door to go in, incredibly, Sidney and Suzanne were coming out. So we exchanged pleasantries, and I got right to the point.
I explained the situation and asked if Sidney Blackmer would be willing to appear the coming Friday night and speak briefly about making “Joy in the Morning.”
Before he could answer, Suzanne explained that Blackmer’s health was fragile and the appearance might be too stressful for him. “Will it be in the newspaper?” he interrupted her.
“If I can get your commitment now, I can take care of that right now while I’m here,” I answered.
“7 o’clock, you say? I’ll be there at 6:30. Let’s go, dear,” and they headed home.
Though in failing health, he was still the professional actor who wouldn’t pass up the chance to appear before an audience.
The Friday night came and went without a hitch. The hit movie of the spring had been “Love Story,” so “Joy to the Morning” had been brought back to sort of ride the other film’s coattails. It rode them very well.
I went down to the Terrace that night, and right on time, the black Lincoln Continental pulled up to the side door of the theater, and we helped Blackmer inside. Suzanne parked the car and joined us. At 7 p.m., my boss introduced Blackmer, and he spoke to the near-capacity audience for 15 to 20 minutes about the movie they were about to see. Then he exited through the side door and went home.
The next afternoon, I was told, they both came back to catch the matinee, as they had not seen the movie since it originally came out six years earlier.
Basically, the entire procedure was repeated about six months later when Blackmer’s final film, “Rosemary’s Baby,” returned. After this, he wasn’t physically able to do things such as this any longer.
Until his death, Blackmer and Suzanne spent considerable time in Salisbury. Being downtown every day, I would see them either heading up Innes Street in the memorable black Lincoln or walking down the street. We would speak when we passed, but since they often had their Doberman with them while strolling, I seldom got very close.
Sidney Blackmer passed away Oct. 6, 1973. I wouldn’t see Suzanne for some time. But that changed one Sunday evening at a church near the Blackmer home, a place to which I would soon be an invited guest.
Stay tuned.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” is a history of movies shown in Rowan County from 1920 through 1979.