Mike Cline: Memories of Blackmer

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 31, 2011

By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
I believe I am safe in saying that most ministers would agree with me when I say incredible things can happen while at church.
After Salisbury-born actor Sidney Blackmer passed away in October 1973, I didn’t see his widow, the former Suzanne Kaaren, for seven years. And I didn’t expect to see her the night that she reappeared in my life.
The night was in early 1980. Someone at First Presbyterian Church asked me to speak about the movie business in the Fellowship Hall one Sunday evening. I was also asked to bring a 20- to 30-minute film program with me to show after my big speech. The free meal sealed the deal. Wife Julie was also invited, so she accompanied me.
Being very careful that the film program would be appropriate for the surroundings, and entertaining as well, I put together a 20-minute reel of previews of coming attractions (called “trailers” in the business) of well-known MGM color musicals from the 1940s and ’50s: “Show Boat,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Annie Get Your Gun” … movies such as that.
So the lights were dimmed and the program began. About halfway through the trailer for the Judy Garland musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” someone now standing in front of the screen was yelling, “There I am! That’s me! That’s me!”
I thought something like, “What in the world!” or worse. Had to remember I was in a church.
After Judy Garland finished singing, “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley,” the invader disappeared, and the show continued to the end without further incident.
As soon as the lights came up, the person in charge bid everyone a pleasant evening, and the room emptied. I was packing up my equipment when Suzanne Blackmer re-entered the room and approached me, apparently excited having seen herself on the screen.
“That was me, you know,” she said. “I was in that scene. I remember the day we shot it. I was supposed to have a bigger part, but Mr. Mayer took it away from me.”
(Mr. Mayer was Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM and the most powerful man in the entire motion picture industry. Many used to say, in his day, he was more powerful than the governor of California.)
Naturally, her comment grabbed my interest, so I began asking her questions. Maybe she sucked me into the trap, and if so, I didn’t care. We talked a few minutes before I reminded her we had met back in 1971. She said she remembered. Who knows? She probably did, considering our meetings involved a couple of public appearances which would have been her late husband’s last.
• • •
All packed, my wife and I headed toward the door when she invited me to her home so we could talk about the “business.” She turned to Julie and said something like, “Honey, by all means, you come, too.”
I told her I’d love to visit, so she gave me her telephone number and told me to call in a day or two. So I did. Suzanne told us to come over, I’ll say, next Tuesday evening about 7.
The big night arrived, finding Julie and me standing at the front gate of the Blackmer house. I remember it being much colder than the average January or February Salisbury night, and the wind was blowing very hard, cutting right through us. Before opening the gate, I looked straight ahead at the old colonial house and thought how it must have been for young men to bring Marilyn Munster home after a date.
We proceeded to the front door and knocked. Suzanne opened the door and gave us a big “hello.” “Come in,” she instructed, attired in a full-length fur coat (mink, if I recall correctly). I thought the fur coat was a bit tacky until we were in the living room. Then I realized she was wearing it for warmth. It was as cold inside as it was on the street. The fireplace was roaring but unable to comfortably heat the place.
Julie and I looked around the living room, thinking we had entered a storage warehouse by mistake. Stuff piled everywhere. Just like the final scene from “Citizen Kane.” Stacks of old newspapers stood 5 feet high right next to the fireplace. It’s incredible the place didn’t burn until four years later.
“Excuse the mess, I didn’t have time to tidy up,” she said. “That’s OK,” I answered, not knowing anything else to say. It would have taken a crew of 50 an entire month to “tidy up” that room. We never saw any of the other rooms.
• • •
As we started to chat, we noticed a large piece of plywood on top of a table. It was covered with what appeared to be a miniature village, with streets, trees and people. This was a work-in-progress for Suzanne.
“Welcome to Turkey Trot,” she said, identifying the buildings for us. The school, the church, people’s homes. “This is Thumper’s house. He’s the main character.”
Julie and I then noticed that all of the characters on the board were made of turkey bones. Suzanne had made clothes for all of them.
The Turkey Trot ladies wore bonnets, the men wore hats. Thumper had his own bicycle. She made that, too.
Suzanne explained that during those days, she was sleeping mostly during the day and working on her projects throughout the night. She got all of the turkey bones from the then-Kroger on East Innes Street.
“The meat manager is a good friend. He saves all the turkey bones for me. He gives me a call when he has a boxful, and I drive down and pick them up.” Nice to have friends in high places, I guess.
Then, without warning, Suzanne sat down at the piano and began playing the various themes from “Turkey Trot.” She had composed a complete soundtrack. Most were cheerful tunes, but suddenly the tempo slowed and she was playing a very morose tune. (Spoiler alert) “This will be the music when Thumper dies,” she said. “He gets killed. It tears up the entire town.” Well, of course it would.
Somehow, I managed to channel our hostess from Turkey Trot to her movie career.
I first mentioned The Three Stooges, with whom she made three comedy shorts. “I was the leading lady with them three times… ‘Disorder in the Court,’ ‘Yes, We Have No Bonanza’ and ‘What’s the Matador?’ ”
She rattled them off.
“I liked all of the boys. The one with bangs (Moe) handled all of their business, the one with frizzy hair (Larry) was always playing pinochle with one of the crew and the bald one (Curly) was very quiet except when we were shooting.”
I asked Suzanne about the low-budget 1940 horror feature “The Devil Bat,” in which she was the leading lady opposite horror legend Bela Lugosi. “We shot it in about a week, and Mr. Lugosi was a very kind and giving man, unlike many of the roles he played on screen.”
To be honest, working with the Stooges and Lugosi was about all I knew about her film career at that time, but that was about to change when I asked her about how she got into the business. At this point, she took full-control (which is what I wanted).
Much of what I learned from this point in our visit, my follow-up visit and my final encounter with Suzanne I’ll share the next time we get together.
Mike Cline lives just outside of Salisbury. His website, Mike Cline’s Then Playing (www.mikeclinesthenplaying.com) documents the movies shown in Rowan County from 1920 through 1979.