Mike Cline: Sidney Blackmer stayed rooted in Rowan County

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 19, 2015

My good friend Davey Overcash came across a stash of newspapers his mother had saved since the 1950s, a couple of which contained a profile of Salisbury’s own Sidney Blackmer.

Blackmer chose acting for his career a century ago and during his 60 years in show business, conquered every aspect — radio, motion pictures, television and the legitimate stage. It was live theater he enjoyed the most.

I thank Davey for passing the newspapers on to me, and I’m happy to pass them on to you.

The two-part article was first published in the Feb. 17 and 24, 1957, editions of The Daily Independent Magazine and was written by Bill Maultsby.

Part One appeared in last Sunday’s Salisbury Post. What follows is the concluding half of that interview which took place nearly 60 years ago.

•  •  •

When Broadway, television and motion picture star Sidney Blackmer walks down the streets of his native Salisbury, he is always recognized by young and old alike — but no one ever makes a fuss over him.

“Good morning, Mr. Blackmer,” is the polite greeting he usually gets from the youngsters.

“Hello, Sid,” is the way the older people speak.

This is the procedure if the people are acquaintances, or if they are total strangers.

When the veteran of the New York stage (and of the old silent movies) attends a local meeting of Rotary, Civitan or other civic groups as a guest, he is recognized in the usual way among other visitors present.

They never single him out as a famous personality of stage, screen or television (which he certainly is); and they never ask him to make a speech.

This casual treatment is one of the things that makes Sid Blackmer’s old Southern estate on Fulton Street a refuge from the bustling, complicated life of Hollywood and New York.

It is one reason he has taken the time to see that both of his children were born in Rowan County and will grow to manhood here.

It also has a bearing on his continued membership in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Salisbury and the fact that he always comes home to vote.

Although he would probably be reluctant to say so, it is likely that Sidney Blackmer has signed more autographs over the years than Elvis Pressley, Pat Boone and Bill Haley combined — yet he says he can’t remember ever having signed one in Salisbury.

In New York he can’t step into an elevator or a taxi without being asked for an autograph by the operator.

Some of these people can spiel off all the roles he has ever played on Broadway and television, and he finds himself wondering how they ever get the time to see so many shows.

Once in the Arizona desert he stopped at a lonely gas station at 2 a.m. to make a phone call. As he stepped into the booth he became apprehensive as he realized the attendant was alone and might mistake him for a holdup man and slug him with a wrench.

Suddenly a greasy hand snatched open the door of the booth, the other thrust a piece of paper into his hand. “Sign this please,” the attendant demanded. The actor complied, and as soon as the attendant read the signature, he said, “I thought so!”

At home in Salisbury where the pace is a little slower, Sidney takes great pride in his home and children — and in various mementoes, some of which have been handed down from past generations.

Treasured family possessions include a military pass signed by George Washington, a paper signed by Daniel Boone and a press account of the Gettysburg Address which concludes with “… Mr. Lincoln also spoke.”

The Salisbury native attended prep school in Pennsylvania before entering UNC to study law. While at Carolina he was a member of the old University Dramatics club, forerunner of the present day Carolina Playmakers. He also belonged to the glee club, was associate editor of The Tar Heel and would have played on the football team had it not been for an injury.

But probably the most significant thing about those four years was that he ran off to New York every chance he got to do bit parts in the silent movies. The better known ones in which he appeared were “The Perils of Pauline” and “Million Dollar Mystery.”

When he finished at Carolina, he was too far gone to enter anything so tame as a law practice, so he moved to New York and “lived in a trunk” for a few years, taking whatever roles he could get and gradually building a name for himself.

Blackmer: “They were pretty lean years at times. There were no actors’ unions as there are today, and there were many abuses by the industry. You rehearsed on your own time, and then on opening night you weren’t sure whether you would actually open or whether the manager would throw in an understudy at half the salary you were to get. You tried to stay one jump ahead of the landlord, and you wore out shoe leather to save on carfare.”

Once while on tour Sid lost an entire wardrobe when theatre workmen dropped his trunk on the street — smashing it and allowing a drenching rain to soak the clothing. The theatre manager refused even to consider reimbursement.

But they were not all bad years. In the 1920s he got big roles in “The Mountain Man,” “The Social Register” and some others. He learned a valuable lesson too — never argue with a critic. He had been receiving rave notices from every critic in New York, except Alexander Wolcott of the New York Times. Wolcott said he gave a “vicious performance.”

Sid answered the criticism with a letter taking Wolcott to task, and the critic published the letter. This was all right except the word vicious came out “viscus.” Wolcott commented in print that “the man can’t spell any better than he can act,” or words to that effect.

In 1928 he met and married Broadway actress Lenore Ulrich. He had a part in David Belasco’s “Mima” in which she was the feminine lead when they met. They divorced in 1939.

Over the years Sidney Blackmer has garnered more honors in the theatre but finds it difficult to choose any single play that he considers his greatest work. However, he seems to have enjoyed as much as any part his portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt in an early story about the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, and he admits this is quite a concession for a staunch Democrat like himself.

His greatest challenge came when he played the male lead in “Come Back Little Sheba” on Broadway. For his performance he scored a “first” in the theatre by taking all three of the coveted honors of Broadway. These were the “Tony,” the Billboard Donaldson award and the Broadway equivalent of the motion picture academy award. The Donaldson is rated highest of all.

With all his honors, though, he treasures as much as any an honorary membership in the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce — presented because of his loyalty to his own community.

Some years back he was honored nationally as Father of the Year — a title he says he doesn’t deserve.

“I am the world’s worst father,” he declares, pointing to the fact that he started rearing a family late in life because he had “lived in a suitcase” for so many years, and he is still is not able to spend as much time with his two sons as he would like. His boys, Jonathan and Brewster, will dispute his claim to the “world’s worst” title, however. They think he’s “the most.”

Jonnie busted in while we talked, fresh from a Cub Scout meeting and in full uniform. He dropped a piece of paper into his dad’s hand with the announcement: “Dad, you gotta buy me a wolf book.” The actor looked at the paper and in mock amazement commented that “this is going to cost me two dollars and forty cents — besides what do you want with a wolf book? Isn’t that the little black book for girls’ addresses and phone numbers? You Boy Scouts are starting early.”

The fatherly twinkle in Blackmer’s eye — for all his years on the stage — gave away his stern countenance.

Are the boys overly impressed with their father’s prominence in show business? Apparently not. As Sid put it, “I think it all just bounces off them.”

The boys attend the public schools in Salisbury because they like the friendships and the activities. They did attend a private school in New York one year, and Sid said that it cost him more than his own college education.

While Brewster’s life ambition is still an unknown quantity, Jonathan makes no bones about his — and it has nothing to do with acting. Like many other eight-year-olds, he wants to join the Air Force and be a pilot.

Notable among Blackmer’s movie performances was that given in “The View From Pompey’s Head.” During rehearsals for that one, he was often mistaken for the story’s author. While recuperating from an illness just prior to the rehearsals, he had grown a beard.

If you saw “Beyond A Reasonable Doubt” when it played in Salisbury a couple of weeks ago, you may remember Sid in the part of newspaper publisher Austin Spencer. That was one of his excellent supporting roles, which is the only type Hollywood part he seeks. Broadway is his main cup of tea; and he says he has never sought stardom in films — they are convenient potboilers that keep a live theatre actor eating between plays.

One of his pet peeves is the speaker or writer who refers to him as a “movie and television star.”

“They seldom mention the theatre,” he complains.

When one of Sidney’s movies opens nearby, it is treated just as casually as are his personal appearances. It probably never occurs to the movie goer that the two youngsters seated down in the “peanut gallery” might be the sons of the man on the screen.

Sidney Blackmer’s attachment for his native Rowan County has been rather expensive at times — and amusing in a way. He took great pains to see that both of the boys were born here — this meant that actress Suzanne Kaaren (Mrs. Blackmer) had to run a close race with the stork to make it on one occasion.

Then there was the the time the couple came home from New York to vote in the Presidential election. He cast his ballot for Adlai Stevenson and she voted for President Eisenhower. The irony is that both could have stayed in New York, and the overall result would have been the same.

While he finds “co-existence” quite workable with a wife who “likes Ike,” he is personally the staunchest of Democrats. He did a turnabout on Stevenson and obtained an autographed portrait of the two-time presidential candidate.

From the old days of pioneering in the silent “shoot-em-ups,” to his more recent pioneering in television, there has been one part above all others he has wanted to play. That role is the life of Robert E. Lee. Symbolic of his loyalty to the South in general and Rowan County in particular is his admiration for the late valiant leader of the Army of the Confederacy.

It is easy to understand, then, why he was more than a little upset when fellow actor Paul Douglas lambasted the South over in Greensboro a couple of years ago as “a land of segregation and sow belly.” Blackmer was one of the first people to see Douglas (a close friend, by the way) after the actor’s statement. He cornered him in a dressing room and gave Douglas a pretty good piece of his mind. Among other things (including some that aren’t printable) he asked Douglas what he knew about the South other than what he had seen at airport waiting rooms and train stations.

Like many celebrities of show business, Sidney Blackmer has found that a famous name has its drawbacks. He was once threatened with a paternity suit and actually had to go to court on another. In both instances the alleged victims were perpetrating hoaxes, and fortunately he was able to prove it.

The Salisburian has some rather outspoken opinions about Communists in show business and elsewhere. To say that he doesn’t like them would be putting it mildly. He serves as chairman of the blacklisting committee of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the committee takes some strong stands on the subject of Reds within the ranks of the organization. One standing policy is that any member who hides behind the Fifth Amendment is kicked out.

Blackmer is not under contract with any film or theatrical company and does not plan to tie himself up. As a free lance, he is able to accept or reject any parts offered. He is not stereotyped to any particular role either. While mature enough to take on practically any part where age is an asset, he is still youthful enough in appearance and outlook to play a romantic lead.

At present he is reading for a part in a proposed Broadway play about Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss to be titled “Labyrinth.” He would have the part of Hiss if the play is eventually produced.

Outside his own acting career he has one business interest — half ownership in a theatre in Hinsdale, Illinois.

One of his fondest memories is of an opening night on Broadway when his son Brewster was about seven years old. Brewster and brother Jonathan were seated in the audience, and attendants were delivering messages backstage from well wishers. Among them Sid found a standard sheet of paper with a diploma-like border etched in crayon, and the following scrawled note: “Dear Daddy, I will be out front with Jonnie applauding the greatest star in the world and also the greatest Daddy, Good luck, I love you. P.S. Will you join me in an ice cream soda after the show with Jonnie. Your loving Son, Brewster.”

There was an opening night party scheduled at the Stork Club following the performance, but you may be sure Sidney first made a trip to a nearby soda fountain with his two favorite admirers.

There has been no attempt in this story to write the life of Sidney Blackmer — it would take volumes to do that. What has been attempted is a personality sketch of one of Rowan County’s favorite sons, and your reporter hopes you have found this neighbor as warm and human as he did.

•  •  •

Some may not agree with Mr. Blackmer’s statements and beliefs he gave in this interview. But keep in mind that Blackmer was born in 1895, just 30 years after the end of the Civil War. He, like all of us, was a man of his time. Our society and political climate was a lot different when he grew up than it is today. The same can be said for 1957, when Bill Maultsby spoke with the actor.

I had the pleasure to spend a little time with Sidney Blackmer four times, all in his final years. I wish I could have spent more.

Mike Cline lives in Rowan County, and his website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents every movie played in Rowan County from January 1920 through September 2014.


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