Those were the days

by Terry Hogan

Yes, ''those were the days.'' Back in the good old days, back when Galesburg and Knox College were at the center of the movie business. Those were the days! Surely he jests, you think, as you read these lines. Hogan has surely passed by the credibility line on this one. But alas, no. Please read on.

There really was a time in Galesburg when ''those were the days.'' In fact, Paramount Pictures made a movie known by that name, as well as by ''At Good Old Siwash'' and ''Good Old School Days'' and filmed portions of it in Galesburg. Not only that, but Galesburg became the site of the ''World Premiere'' of ''Those Were the Days,'' starring William Holden, Ezra Stone, Bonita Granville, Alan Ladd, Richard Denning, Judith Barrett, Lucien Littlefield, James Seay, and Vaughan Glaser. The world premier gala event occurred on Tuesday May 21, 1940.

But how did this come to be? Galesburg is not in California, or even the West Coast. Galesburg is part of the Midwest, generally considered by those who live on the two coasts as being the necessary evil the connects the two. The Midwest is America's ''Outback,'' ask any New Yorker. It is an area of rural customs, boring flatness, lacking of arts and entertainment, and home of the ''Bible belt'' (frankly, I've never seen a Bible on a belt, though I've seen many other things on, or attached to, belts).

Well, it all started with a guy from Galva who came to the big city (Galesburg Š all things are relative) to get a better education. I don't know how well he did on the education bit, but he did discover a small Midwestern college -- Knox. George Fitch used Knox as the basis for his fictitious ''Old Siwash'' stories. His tales about Old Siwash became the basis for a Paramount Pictures movie that looked at a simpler time of college romance in the early 1900s.

So, Paramount Pictures, being run by reasonably bright guys at the time, I suppose, decided that it made sense to come to Galesburg, to Knox College, the site of the inspiration, ''to shoot'' portions of the movie. Old Main, Whiting Hall, Alumni Hall, were there when Fitch attended Knox and were there, waiting for their 30 seconds of fame, when Paramount arrived. The Knox campus became alive with Knox students, now ''extras'' for the movie, sporting attire for the period.

A contemporary newspaper article about the filming at Knox reported: '''At Good Old Siwash' will have a modern prologue and epilogue, with the main splot (sic) laid in 1904 when Petey Simmons, to be played by William Holden goes to college. There is nothing 'hey hey' about the Fitch burlesque of campus incidents, fraternity intrigues and traditional escapades centering about PeteyŠ'' No, I'm a little vague on the meaning of ''hey hey,'' but my guess is that we have more ''hey hey'' in most of our contemporary movies than there was in the 1940s.

Most of the movie was filmed back in Hollywood, thereby minimizing the need to spend time in the great unknown of the Midwest. However, some essential character of Galesburg, of Knox, of the Midwest was shipped back to Hollywood to help maintain realism. What, you may ask. Why of course, leaves -- oak and maple leaves. Kinda makes you want to find a copy of the movie to watch it for the scattering of Galesburg's leaves in the scenes not filmed on Knox campus. Now if you think I am making the leaves story up, not so. The local newspaper dutifully captured what appears to be a slightly less than candid photo of young men and women (Evelyn Thomas, Sidney Jamieson, Dorothy Soles, and Charles White) shoveling leaves (yepŠ at least one shovel in use, judging from the handle) into what appears to be a large, rectangular wire-mesh container.

Some of the local Knox student extras who were filmed were Laura Henry of Peoria, Frances Tracy of Galesburg, Elizabeth Meyer of Peoria, and Hugh Robertson of Keokuk, Iowa. So Galesburg, Knox College, and some of its best maple and oak leaves became part of Hollywood history. But, of course, it did not end there.

Galesburg became the center of the universe, more or less, when Paramount came back to Galesburg, to the Orpheum Theater for the World Premiere of the movie. Even this was not done with a simple showing of the movie. Instead, it became part of a weeklong event for Galesburg. Well, I exaggerate, it was actually only a four-day celebration (May 18-21). There was a ''community sing'' on the Knox Campus on May 19. A variety of groups were represented including the combined bands of Knox College and Galesburg High School. Vocal groups included Galesburg Civic Chorus, High School A Cappella Choir, and the Galesburg Negro Chorus. A number of period songs were sang, including ''Let Me Call You Sweetheart'', ''The Bells of St. Mary's'', ''Daisy Bell'' and ''Sweet Rosie O'Grady.''

Souvenir drinking glasses of the world premier showing of the movie were produced and distributed. I believe the are decorated in the Knox colors (purple and gold). The glasses are now uncommon and are collector items, at least locally, appearing from time to time in antique stores. I don't know if they were given away at the movie's showing (I'd like to think so), or sold as I could find no mention of them in my limited research. But I know they exist as I have a few, picked up over the years.

Yep, those were the days -- Galesburg, the movie capitol of the world and custom made souvenir-drinking glasses. And, of course, Good Old Siwash. Who could ask for anything more?

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online April 4, 2001

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