A 1957 visit with ‘Sid’ Blackmer: Salisbury actor always found his way back home
SALISBURY — After a year-long, self-imposed exile from the pages of the Salisbury Post, I return because I have something to share.
Something which was shared with me.
Recently, while having my filamentous outgrowth pruned (I was getting a haircut), long-time friend Davey Overcash mentioned he had been going through an old family storage trunk and had found a stack of newspapers from the fabulous Fifties. Included were several articles about Sidney Blackmer, Salisbury native and renowned actor of stage, radio, movies and television whose career spanned six decades.
“Would I like to have them?” he asked.
Does the sun rise in the east? Of course I would.
Seems Davey’s mom was a Blackmer fan, as am I, and had kept these nearly 60-year-old newspapers. I’m glad she did.
The words are not mine (I was but 6 at the time it was written). They belong to a gentleman who visited the actor at his South Fulton Street home, and Blackmer himself. I find it to be a very insightful and informative discussion and how wonderful it is to discover it now, nearly 60 years after it occurred.
The article which follows was published for the first time in the Feb. 17, 1957 issue of The Daily Independent Magazine and was written by Bill Maultsby.
From Rowan County to Hollywood is a distance of some 3,000 miles — and from Salisbury to New York City is a far piece in itself.
But Sidney Blackmer is one Rowan County resident who makes both trips quite frequently and always manages to find the road back to Salisbury.
That is because Sidney Blackmer loves Rowan County as he loves no other place on this green earth.
It is perhaps the only place in the world where he can relax and be himself — where he can amble down Innes Street like any private citizen, stopping to chat at will with any old friends he happens to meet.
Sidney Blackmer, one of Broadway’s brightest lights and no slouch when it comes to movies and TV either, has been ‘written up’ by the most capable journalists in America.
This piece by a country reporter, however, is concerned primarily not with the actor but with the man who still lives within half a mile of the house where he was born in Salisbury … the father who wants his two fine sons to grow up in the same healthy environment … the man who apparently has more pride in the achievements of his forebears than in his own … and the Salisburian who wants to be buried in his native Rowan when he dies.
That is the Sidney Blackmer I met recently in a rambling and charming, but entirely “un-Hollywood,” old home on Salisbury’s South Fulton Street, for a one-hour interview that stretched into two hours and a half.
The man’s completely casual existence in Salisbury amazed me from the beginning, even before I set out to make his acquaintance.
You ask someone in Salisbury if they know him, and this is the answer you are likely to get:
“Sid Blackmer? Sure … lives over on Fulton Street.”
Just as casually as if you had asked about a local barber or insurance agent.
What kind of person is he?
“Oh, he’s a fine fellow. Don’t know if you’ll find him home or not, though. He’s out of town a lot.”
With some limited experience at interviewing “names” in show business, you know how inaccessible most of them are — unlisted phone numbers, formidable bodyguards and 10-foot fences around their homes, to name just a few of the obstacles to be hurdled.
With Blackmer it’s different. You simply look him up in the phone book and give the operator his number.
In this case the great man himself answered the telephone. In a pleasant, Southern voice that has tempered somewhat by the theatre, he assured me that he would be happy to talk with me at a mutually-agreeable time.
And what a talk it was!
The main question, of course, was why would a man whose chief business interests are in Hollywood and New York maintain a home in Salisbury, where he can spend only a few weeks each year?
The unspoken answer is soon very obvious — Sid Blackmer loves the town where he was born. He never wants to sever the ties that have endeared it to him since childhood.
He loves the people down here, and he knows that his hometown friends like him for himself and not for any measure of fame and fortune he has made elsewhere.
You can talk to him about the theatre for so long and share with him the exciting experiences of his days on the old silent movie screen. When he talks, you can almost see Mae Busch, Will Rogers, Pearl White and the other immortals of the old days come to life before your eyes.
But invariably he comes back to the things you know are dear to his heart.
The large portrait of his late mother — a strikingly handsome woman — smiles down from a wall, and he begins to talk about her and the old days of Salisbury.
He tells about the family home where he was born a few blocks away. It was demolished somewhere along the line when the city was suffering from growing pains.
“They cut down all those beautiful trees that used to line the street,” he recalled sadly.
He tells you about his father, the late Walter Steele Blackmer, who was prominent in mining, real estate and timber interests around the turn of the twentieth century.
Then there’s the oil painting of his grandfather, the late Luke Blackmer, who was one of the state’s more prominent lawyers of his day. (They say he once turned down an appointment to the Supreme Court bench.)
Sidney was sort of expected to perpetulate the family’s place in legal circles. He inherited his grandfather’s law library; and he actually studied law at the University of North Carolina, but that career got side-tracked somewhere along the line.
You get back on the subject of movies and plays and the more recent television roles; and Sid tells how he used to ride the range on Staten Island (many movies were made in New York and New Jersey in the early days). About the time his horse stepped into a gopher hole and knocked him out, and how he woke up in the arms of pioneer movie serial star Pearl White.
They had taken him to Miss White’s dressing room (the star was the only one in those days who rated a dressing room) and he vows that his return to consciousness was one of the first real disillusionments of his career.
“That beautiful blond hair for which she (Pearl White) was noted turned out to be a wig,” he said, “and she had it off when I woke up — a very ordinary mop of brown hair was pulled up in a ball on top of her head.”
He tells about the time another actor fired a blank cartridge right into his face, imbedding powder and wadding in his skin, including his eyelids. There were no studio doctors standing by as they do today, so members of the crew picked out the flecks of powder with a pocket knife.
Then once more the talk comes back to his family, and you learn that his mother was the former Clara DeRoulhac Alderman. Her father was the first and youngest signer at the secessional convention in Florida that led to formation of the Confederate States of America. He was also the last survivor of that convention.
Back to shop talk, Sid tells about the first color movie Warner Bros. ever made (he was in it) entitled “The Great Divide” but changed before release to “Woman Hungry.” That was in 1931. The film is now considered lost.
A desert scene in which the players were supposed to be dying of thirst was shot at the foot of Mt. McKinley. It was so cold, as they were supposedly dying that “our breath came out in a thick fog that you could cut with a knife, and on top of that, some of the actors actually began to turn blue from the cold, which did nothing to help the color film that was used.”
They wound up abandoning their Mt. Whitney location and a set for the scene was built on a Warner Bros. soundstage.
It was during the shooting of this same movie that Sid fell off his horse another time, landing in the middle of a huge cactus. As a result of the piercing thorns, both of his arms swelled until they were as large as his legs, but he had to remain on location and finish the day’s work before he could return to civilization and seek medical help.
During the course of his narration, Mr. Blackmer paused by a photograph of himself, his sons Brewster, 11, and Jonathan, 8; and his lovely wife Suzanne.
“Isn’t she a beautiful woman?” he asked as though he had just discovered it for the first time.
Suzanne Kaaren, whom he married fourteen years ago, is a Broadway star in her own right — as you would know if you have followed the New York stage for a number of years. She was in New York at the time of my visit but was expected back in Salisbury soon.
The Blackmers maintain residences in both places, but they have no home in Hollywood where Sid does a lot of work.
Aside from revealing him as a man with a deep-rooted affection for his childhood home and friends, the interview also proved that Sidney Alderman Blackmer is an individual with a warm personality and a genuine love of life.
It is easy for me to see why the home folks don’t give a hoot whether he can act or not. They consider him a friend who would be as much a friend if he were practicing law in the county courthouse instead of acting in “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.”
He is such an interesting conversationalist with such a wealth of information that no single article can do justice to the story, so in a concluding article next week, you will be told of more of his theatrical experiences, his devotion to his two sons (and their reaction to their father’s position in show business), his politics, his religion, his awards, his stand on Communism in the theatre, and his rebuff of fellow actor Paul Douglas for his infamous attack on the South as a “land of segregation and sow belly.”
Fortunately, Mrs. Overcash also saved “next week’s” issue, so it, too, will be shared.
Thanks, Mrs. Overcash for hanging on to the newspapers. And thank you, Davey, for parting with them.