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Decades ago, ‘Boys Town’ — the movie and its stars — captivated locals far from Hollywood

Boys Town Movie Premiere!

This article is written by Blake Ursch, World-Herald staff writer. It was posted on on October 18, 2017.

The movie stars arrived by train, flashing winning smiles for waiting photographers. Around them, thousands of adoring fans cheered.

It was a glitzy scene, straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. And here it was, happening in Nebraska.

On Sept. 6, 1938, more than 15,000 people packed Omaha's Union Station to watch the arrival of Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, here for the premiere of their movie "Boys Town."

Now, almost 80 years later, the Durham Museum, housed in the former train station, is commemorating the premiere as part of its new exhibit "Let's Go to Town for Boys Town: 100 Years of Saving Children, Healing Families," which traces the history of Father Edward Flanagan's famous children's home.

The exhibit includes several items from Boys Town's Hall of History, some of which have never been seen by the public.

A weathered film canister, displayed in a glass box, is one. The canister once held a roll of nitrate film, an original print of the 1938 movie, said Thomas Lynch, director of community programs at Boys Town.

Since nitrate film has been known to be spontaneously combustible, the canister on display at the museum is empty. The film is housed safely at Boys Town.

"We didn't want to blow up the Durham Museum," Lynch joked.

The movie, which stars Tracy as Flanagan and Rooney as one of the priest's troubled residents, brought Boys Town world fame. It was a critical and commercial hit, earning Tracy an Academy Award for his performance.

And nowhere was it more celebrated than in Omaha.

The movie captivated the city during the summer of 1938. Film crews shot on location at the Boys Town campus and at Union Station over several days in June. When the film made its world premiere in Omaha in September, thousands turned out to greet the stars. The audience, the World-Herald reported, surpassed even those of past visits by presidents.

At the train station, the stars were escorted by a dozen Omaha police officers. They met with then-Mayor Dan Butler, along with the mayor and city council of Boys Town and the reigning queen of Aksarben. A banner billowed over the crowd: "Let's go to town for Boys Town." A replica now hangs in the Durham.

Actress Maureen O'Sullivan, who attended the premiere, said the greeting exceeded any she had ever experienced.

The following night, the film debuted at the Omaha Theater, on Douglas Street between 15th and 16th Streets. People clamored for a look at the stars, flooding the streets outside the theater and crowding nearby rooftops. A powerful searchlight, visible for miles, scanned the sky.

"This thing makes a Hollywood premiere look like a dying hog," Tracy reportedly said.

Flanagan received the strongest applause from the crowd, the newspaper reported. He thanked the city for turning out in droves and for making Boys Town possible in the first place.

The movie itself didn't disappoint either.

"We who know what Boys Town is and to whom the name Father Flanagan is not strange may be too close to the trees to see the forest," wrote one World-Herald film critic. "Then Hollywood discovers Boys Town, sees in it material for a picture, makes that picture and brings back to us something we have lived with and yet never known — the story of Boys Town."

After the movie's release, Lynch said, enrollment at Boys Town exploded. But, perhaps surprisingly, donations plummeted as audiences assumed the children's home received some share of the film's profits. Tracy, who gave his Oscar to Flanagan, wrote letters urging supporters to continue donating to Flanagan's cause. One such letter is on display at the museum.

Today, 79 years later, the film still generates publicity for the children's community, said Lauren Laferla, Boys Town spokeswoman. The film is often shown on television around Christmas, and it crops up in movie trivia, ensuring that the Boys Town name continues to spread.

The movie also still has a presence on campus, said Lynch. It is screened for new residents coming to live at Boys Town.

"We want to show them they're part of the history of Boys Town," Lynch said. "Being a resident, this is their heritage. It's like any family. You want to pass on your history to them."

"Let's Go To Town for Boys Town: 100 Years Of Saving Children, Healing Families"

Dates: Now through Jan. 21

Where: The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday

Regular admission fees apply: $11 for adults, $8 seniors 62 and up, $7 children 3 to 12, children under 2 are free.

For more information: 402-444-5071 or