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Monday, 11 January 2010

The Prince Dined At The Palace

By Madonna Dries Christensen of On Worlud Pond


Train Stalled; Roads Plugged As Fourth Storm Strikes NW Iowa During Weekend

So read the headline on the March 22, 1951 edition of the Sibley Gazette-Tribune. But by the time the weekly paper appeared, everyone in our small town knew there was more to the story than a stalled train. My family had gotten the scoop the night it happened from my mother, a cook at the Palace Cafe.

She plodded into the house later than usual, shucked off her coat, headscarf and gloves and stood warming her hands over the oil heater in the dining room. “There's a train stalled at the depot,” she said.

The comment brought only a spark of interest from us kids, until Ma added, “Someone famous was on the train.”

Our collective antenna rose. Someone famous - in Sibley? To my sister Shirley and me, ages 13 and 15 respectively, famous meant movie stars, while my brothers were more inclined to think of sports figures.

Ma fed us more information. “I cooked supper for him.”

Okay, so it was man, but that didn’t narrow the field much.

“Well, guess who it was,” Ma teased.

We tossed out names while she shook her head. Finally she said, “Henry Fonda.”

While we kids gaped at her and began a chorus of questions, my dad scoffed, “So it’s a movie star. No big deal.”

Poppy often told Shirley and me, when we spent our babysitting money on movie magazines, that movie stars were not respectable and should not be idolized. Now, leaning toward the radio, he said, “Pipe down, all of you. I can't hear my program.”

Ma motioned us to the parlor where she explained that the cast of a stage play called Mr. Roberts was on the train headed for Omaha. The train wouldn’t be fixed until morning, so the actors ate at the cafe and then went to the Garberson Hotel for the night. “Henry Fonda was the only famous one,” she said, “but you should've heard people, saying this one or that one was so-and-so.”

“Did you get his autograph?” Shirley asked.

“Gosh, I didn't even think of that. I did carry out the food for his booth while the waitresses were busy. When I put down his plate, I accidentally touched his hand.”

“Accidentally on purpose,” I said, and we three females laughed.

Ma held out her hand. “Anyone want to touch the hand that touched Henry Fonda?”

Shirley and I did; the boys thought we were silly.

“He’s handsome as can be,” Ma continued, “and he seemed nice.”

Poppy appeared in the doorway. “Nice? He’s been divorced several times.”

“Just once, I think,” Ma said.

“More than that.”

Shirley and I exchanged raised eyebrows. Had he been secretly reading the magazines he thought we shouldn’t buy?

“Anyway,” Ma said, “he acted like he was nobody, flashing that big toothy smile and visiting with folks. Lavonne Woodward from the paper came in and interviewed him.”

Poppy yawned. “Kids, time for bed. I'm turning in, too. Movie stars might not have to work tomorrow but I do.”

In school the next day, dozens of kids who I knew weren't downtown on a school night claimed they’d seen Henry Fonda. Or Loretta Young, Dana Andrews, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart. To hear them talk, a cast of hundreds had left their footprints on our snow-packed streets, making us the Midwest's equivalent of Grauman's Chinese Theater.

I said nothing, certain that I, through my mother, had come closer to a movie star than any of the kids.

Before long, a story circulated that Fonda was coming to visit our school looking for teenagers to be in one of his upcoming movies. Boys came back after noon recess wearing letter sweaters and ties and with their hair freshly greased. Girls had freshened their makeup and hair and donned their prettiest angora sweater sets.

But our English teacher burst all dreams of stardom by reporting that the train had left hours ago. “Mister Fonda, never intended to visit our school,” Mrs. Forbes said. “Now let’s get to work.”

In time, the movie star who’d been in our midst became yesterday's news, except at our house. Ma liked to remind us that she had cooked for one of Hollywood's princes. If we complained about having to eat hamburger again, she’d say, “My hamburgers and fries were good enough for Henry Fonda and they're good enough for you.”

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Cute story, I loved it!
Big excitement in a small town staggering towards spring, when
a visit by a movie star was most welcomed.
PS: Your Dad sounds like mine.

Great story! The closest I can come to it was when my family was 'snowed in' along with newscaster, Lowell Thomas, at a ski lodge in Franconia, New Hampshire in the late 1940's. I got to watch him do his weekly newscast live.

Nicely written! Wonderful use of dialog. - Sandy

Great story. I enjoyed it very much! Henry Fonda was certainly a handsome man.

A delicious and well-told story. I learned last year that Henry Fonda and I share the same Norwegian ancestor! 8th cousins!

Neat story! Piper Laurie attended my junior high school in Los Angeles and another budding journalist and I interviewed her for the school paper. We were the overnight celebs of the 8th grade when the story appeared. Even the cliquey girls fawned all over us. Meeting a real-live star was clearly the highlight of our year!

Great writing, I felt like I was at the table..always got in trouble for spending babysitting money on movie magazines in the 50s..lore of our family was that my Mother's cousin, Anne Donnelly, had danced with George Raft at a dance hall on Bway..3 generations of west siders, that was Wow stuff..I love old movies & everytime I see Geo Raft in credits, I watch, thinking, Anne Donnelly danced with him..Dreams are made of less..wonderful waking up to your story on cold day..thank you...Mary Follett

I'm pleased that you all liked my story and took the time to comment. It's a fun story to tell. Thank you.

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