30,000 Crowd Streets To View Film Pageantry Colorful Premiere of "Boys Town Draws Throng"
By Irving Greene
Fulfilling a special request Father Flanagan made to MGM President Louis B. Mayer, the movie “Boys Town” held its world premiere in Omaha, Nebraska on September 7, 1938, complete with all the glitz and glamour worthy of such an event. With more than 30,000 fans cheering them on, even the stars attending the gala said Omaha out-shined Hollywood.
Thirty thousand persons jam-packed all streets surrounding the Omaha Theater last night for a fleeting glimpse of a troupe of movie bigwigs who turned the city into Hollywood for a night. The city did more than imitate Hollywood for this - its first world movie premiere. It outdid Hollywood.
There were no seats left in the Omaha theater as the screen flashed the opening reel of “Boys Town,” Omaha-inspired and Omaha-filmed.
There was not an inch of standing room on Douglas Street between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets outside the theater.
Movie Fans Pack Streets
The huge crowd overflowed up Fifteenth Street half way to Farnam Street. It covered another half block toward Dodge Street on Fifteenth. Sidewalks on both sides of Douglas Street all the way to Seventeenth were swarming with people who could neither see nor hear, so far were they from the platform where Spencer Tracy, Maureen O’Sullivan and Mickey Rooney were introduced.
Rabid movie fans lined the roofs of buildings across from the theater. They took advantage of every store window fronting on Douglas Street.
While 110 policemen and 40 firemen worked strenuously but efficiently to keep the crowd in check, impatient persons who had stood in the middle of Douglas Street for more than two hours to see the event strained steel wires holding them back to near the breaking point.
It was something Omaha had never experienced before. What’s more, it was something the film stars themselves had never seen in Hollywood.
“This thing makes a Hollywood premiere look like a dying hog,” Tracy, who plays the role of Father Flanagan in the picture, said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Miss O’Sullivan said.
A 10,000 candle power searchlight visible for 10 or 12 miles played across the sky in true Hollywood style in front of the theater. The light was shipped in by special freight from Hollywood.
As they alighted from limousines, principals mounted a carpeted stairway to a raised platform where they said hello to the huge throng and to listeners over 107 radio stations in a nationwide chain arranged by the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Father Flanagan Cheered
Of the more than a score of persons introduced, the biggest applause was reserved for the movie principals. But loudest cheers of all went to the man who was introduced as “the one who made all this possible,” Msgr. Edward J. Flanagan, director of Father Flanagan’s home at Boys Town.
Plainly showing his emotion, Father Flanagan thanked Hollywood for recognizing his institution and thanked Omaha for “turning out” in such grand style.
“This tribute to the idea of a home for unfortunate boys would not have been possible but for the good citizens of Nebraska who in the beginning made Boys Town possible,” he said. “I am sure that this nationwide publicity will make many more Boys Towns possible for homeless boys all over the United States.”
As those introduced left the platform, they walked along a long, carpeted lane into the theater where they received the additional cheers of 2,000 persons who were able to buy tickets to see the premiere.
The stars and their dignitaries made their entrances unobserved by many in the auditorium. Only a pattering of applause greeted some, but Mickey’s profuse blushing when he entered with an Omaha girl brought him a hand, and the crowd rose as one in an ovation for Father Flanagan.
From the stage, flanked on either side by tall vases of chrysanthemums, Eddie Forester, manager of the theater, welcomed the star-gazing crowd, and introduced J. Francis McDermott, master of ceremonies.
Mr. McDermott summoned up a red-carpeted ramp to the stage for talks, in order, Mayor Dan B. Butler, Francis P. Matthews, president of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce; Governor R.L. Cochran and Most Rev. James H. Ryan, Bishop of Omaha.
Introduced from their seats in the crowd were John Considine, Jr., producer of the film, and Mrs. Considine; two directors of Boys Town, Henry Monsky, international president of B’nai B’rith, and James E. Davidson and Elizabeth Ann Davis, queen of Ak-Sar-Ben.
Boys’ Chorus Sings
After a brief stage appearance by Miss O’Sullivan, the Boys Town acappella choir sang “Vigil” by Christians, and a new composition, “Boys Town,” by Will J. Harris. A telegram was read from Norman Taurog, director of what Master of Ceremonies McDermott termed a film building the simplicity of a story into the majesty of an epic. Then Father Flanagan spoke of the good he hopes the movie production will accomplish, and the film began.
Applause was frequent during “Boys Town,” especially when Omaha buildings were recognized and references were made to Omaha and Omaha addresses. Lincoln also was mentioned a few times.
When the film ended Mr. McDermott asked Father Flanagan to escort Tracy and Rooney to the stage. It was their first official appearance to the crowd in the theater. Tracy stood with his arm around Mickey’s neck, a pose made familiar by his use of it in the film.
“Words fail me for the first time,” said young Mr. Rooney, who most decidedly didn’t have that failing in the picture. He predicted another Academy award for Tracy, for his performance in “Boys Town.”
Tracy Lauds Flanagan
The most dramatic incident of the entire program, including the premiere presentation of the film, was Tracy’s speech to the idolizing crowd. Despite a hush over the auditorium, his first words were inaudible. If he was acting, it was a fine performance as any he gave in “Boys Town.” If he wasn’t, well, then it was tremendous.
“You thanked us for coming here,” exclaimed Hollywood’s outstanding male star. “We should get on our knees to you.”
After referring to Mickey as destined to “become one of the great actors of his day,” he continued:
“I do not like to stand here stripped clean of Father Flanagan,” adding that if the picture is great, it is because “the great goodness and sweetness and beauty of the soul of this man shines even through me to you.”
Father Flanagan sounded a benediction, “Good night, and God bless you,” and after giving time for notables to precede it, the crowd filed out into streets.
Crowd Gathers Early
The crowd began collecting outside the theater before 6 p.m. although the first celebrities were not due to arrive until 7:45 p.m. All traffic was routed away from the theater except cars bearing those with tickets for the show.
At 7:15 the doors of the theater were thrown open and a steady stream of ticketholders continued until 8:30 p.m. Formal attire was rare among early arrivals but when the elite began coming in limousines just before 8 p.m. formal dress appeared the rule.
First to be introduced were Police Commissioner Richard Jepsen, J. M. Harding, assistant publisher of The World-Herald; Morris Jacobs of Bozell and Jacobs, and Msgr. James W. Stenson.
Next came Bert Murphy, king of Ak-Sar-Ben and Mr. McDermott.
Boy Officials Arrive
In two cars came the mayor of Boys Town, Jack Farrald; his chief of police, Bobby Paradise, and Boys Town’s five commissioners, John Waskiewicz, Jesse Ruiz, Clinton Simmons, Tom McGuire and Sam Turner.
Mr. Matthews was presented next and then Mayor Butler and his sister, Miss Margaret, mounted the platform.
“I want to thank the people of Omaha for this splendid welcome,” the Mayor said. “It is a recognition of and a tribute to a great humanitarian, Father Flanagan.”
Miss Davis followed Mayor Butler to the microphone with Governor and Mrs. Cochran and Mr. Davidson.
“All Nebraska is proud of Father Flanagan,” Governor Cochran said.
Other speakers were Harris Wolfberg and Ed Saunders of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, A.H. Blank and G. Ralph Branton, president and general manager of Tri-States Theaters; Bishop Ryan and Mr. Considine.
Then came the actors themselves. They were greeted with cheers which drowned out the words of Bishop Ryan who was speaking at the time.
Mickey approached the microphone with the grin which has helped make him the fastest rising star in Hollywood.
“This is the outstanding event of my young life,” he said, emphasizing the “young” and laughing heartily. “This crowd surpasses anything ever done in Hollywood. And, by the way – if Hollywood is listening in – hello Ma and Pa. It’s swell here in Nebraska.”
Candid camera enthusiasts gave police a few busy moments as they broke through the lines to photograph the three stars. Smiling broadly, Miss O’Sullivan, Mickey and Tracy waved greetings in return for the throng's cheers.
Stars Wire Greetings
Telegrams of congratulations were received form Louis Mayer, president of M.G.M., Robert Taylor, Luise Ranier, Clark Gable, Wallace Beary and Myrna Loy.
The 110 policemen were under active direction of Assistant Chief of Police Robert Munch, assisted by Inspector of Police Paul Haze and Traffic Lieutenant Ray Strong. Forty firemen were in charge of Assistant Chief Jonas Francis.
Persons who thought they would steal a march on the crowd in front of the theater by getting a glimpse of the stars as they left the Fontenelle Hotel were foiled by a throng of several hundred persons who surrounded the hotel entrance for more than an hour.
Each of the 15 official cars bringing principals from the hotel to the theater was preceded by a police motorcycle escort. Despite elaborate police precautions, double parking and persons swarming into the streets all along the four-block route at times completely halted the procession.
Miss O’Sullivan, as was the case Tuesday night, was accompanied to the platform and into the theater by her personal bodyguard, Police Sergeant Agnes Savage, “little chief” of the department.
Despite the shoving and jostling of the crowd in front of the theater, police received no reports up to midnight that a single person had been injured or had fainted.
Mr. Matthews and H. Malcolm Doldridge, who helped in arrangements, paid tribute to the efficiency of the police in handling the crowd.
Miss O’Sullivan, Mickey and Tracy probably will stay in Omaha until 2 a.m. Friday, theater officials said, when they will return to Hollywood. They will visit Boys Town today.
As part of yesterday’s program the mayor and city commissioners of Boys Town took over Omaha’s city government from Mayor Butler and Omaha councilmen for two hours during the morning. Mayor Butler turned over to “mayor” Farrald a check for $7, the mayor’s pay for a half day.
After a brief “council meeting” the boys were taken on a tour of city departments. A tea was given from 4 to 6 p.m. for the Hollywood visitors at the Fairacres home of Bishop Ryan.
Several hundred persons not satisfied with an earlier look at the stars waited for three hours outside the theater until they emerged shortly after 11 p.m. The celebrities returned to the Fontenelle where a party was given in their honor by the Tri-States Theaters company.
Larry Barbier, publicity man for M-G-M, who said he has helped handle premieres for 15 years in all sections of the country, said Omaha’s event was the largest he had ever seen.
Reprinted with permission from the Omaha World-Herald, September 8, 1938