Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Camp Parks, like every U.S. military base, was a busy place during World War II. Located 28 miles east of Oakland, Calif., Camp Parks housed as many as 20,000 servicemen at any given time.
Dispersed throughout all the hard work going on, the troops also had time for play. The organized playing was the responsibility of my wife’s father, James M. Storie, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. As the recreation and athletic director, my father-in-law brought the stars from Hollywood to Camp Parks for personal appearances and stage performances.
The list of performers who visited was a “Who’s Who” of the entertainment industry. Jack Benny, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Danny Kaye, two of the Marx Brothers (Harpo and Chico), Peggy Lee, Jack Dempsey and The Three Stooges are but a few. Many of the big band orchestras appeared on stage there as well. Harry James, Carmen Cavallaro, Charlie Barnet, Spike Jones, Freddy Martin, Xavier Cugat, Jan Garber and Ted Lewis all had the base “a swinging” to the music of the day.
Lt. Storie brought them all to Camp Parks. And while the guests were there, he and his staff were in charge of seeing they were taken care of and shown a good time.
One of my father-in-law’s favorite visitors was actress Joan Blondell. Joan had been in movies since 1930 and was one of the busiest actors of the entire decade. Under contract to Warner Bros., Joan appeared in a number of the studio’s classic gangster features, such as “The Public Enemy” and “Bullets or Ballots” and was a regular in the great Busby Berkeley musicals, including “Gold Diggers of 1933,” “Dames” and “Footlight Parade.”
Joan, along with her 9-year-old son, Norman Powell, visited Camp Parks for a day of entertaining on Aug. 27, 1944. Also in the acting troop that day were 15-year-old Roddy McDowell, who had just finished working on “The Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck. The singer/dancer Carmen Miranda, known as “The Lady with the Tutti-Fruitti Hat” in the Technicolor musicals of the 1940s, was also a guest.
My in-laws both told me how much they liked Joan Blondell. She was a really nice lady who was very much involved in the war effort. She signed autographs and posed for pictures with the servicemen for hours, then performed as part of an acting troop several times during the evening.
Lt. Storie promised to send her copies of photographs of her visit, and upon boarding the plane back to Los Angeles, she told him if he ever got down to L.A., to please give her a call, and they would get together. He said he would, probably assuming nothing would come of the offer.
Turns out, Lt. Storie found himself in Hollywoodland during early November, so he pulled the telephone number out of his wallet and called Ms. Blondell, who was recently divorced from superstar Dick Powell. She was glad to hear from him and insisted he come to dinner at 8 the following evening.
So my wife’s dad borrowed someone’s car and drove out to 7919 Selma Ave. in Hollywood. Joan answered the door in a bit of a flurry. She had gotten home later than expected from the 20th Century Fox studio where she was filming “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
She apologized for her frenzy and informed her guest that to keep things “proper,” she had invited friend (and actor) Chester Morris to join them as a “chaperone.” Morris had previously visited Camp Parks as well, so he and Lt. Storie were acquaintances.
Upon the Morris arrival, the trio had cocktails and hor d’oeuvres in the living room, then moved into the dining room to eat.
At this point, Jim was in for a bit of a shock. The entire decor of the dining room was black. The walls, the ceiling, the tablecloth and the carpeting on the floor. Only the silver chandelier, the crystal, china and silver settings were exceptions.
He commented that he had never seen such a room. “Not many dining rooms like this back in Boone.”
Young Norman Powell entered to say hello, then excused himself.
The dinner conversation centered on each of their upbringings and early lives. The war was set aside for a few hours.
Lt. Storie enjoyed himself, telling me it was a most memorable evening with two really nice people. He failed to inform me what they had to eat — black beans perhaps?
Young Norman Powell is now 79 and retired from the television industry in which he served as production manager of such series as “Wanted: Dead or Alive” with Steve McQueen, “The Dick Powell Theater,” “Burke’s Law” with Gene Barry, “Honey West” with Anne Francis and “The Big Valley” with Barbara Stanwyck.
His final projects were three “Gunsmoke” TV movies with James Arness in the early 1990s.
Joan Blondell later married and divorced Mike Todd, who later married Elizabeth Taylor. This is Hollywood, so a scorecard is helpful. Joan made six movies with James Cagney, who said that the only woman he ever loved other than his wife was Blondell. She continued in movies and later television right up to her Christmas Day passing in 1979.
Chester Morris made his first movie in 1917 at the age of sixteen. His career lasted as long as his life, which ended in 1970.
James Storie left the U.S. Navy after World War II, returning to the Boone/Blowing Rock/Statesville areas and spent his post-service career in education, as a public school principal and college admissions director. He passed away in 2004.
Oh, to have been a fly on the black wall that night.
Mike Cline’s website “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents the movies played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1989.