In her splendid work The Southern Hospitality Cookbook Jackson native Winifred Green Cheney includes this savory and unusual tribute to Eudora Welty. I always include more curry and sauté the livers with some onion; it’s delicious. The crab variation needs a lighter touch, a white sauce, and citrus. Winifred writes:
“A tribute in the field of cookery is called a ‘signature recipe.’ Squash Eudora is just such a tribute—a toast to my friend and neighbor Eudora Welty for her perfection in expressing the written word in both the novel and the short story. ‘In these dark days,’ writes Martha Graham, the great dancer, in the 1969 Spring issue of the Washington and Lee University’s Shenandoah, ‘it is all the clearer that Miss Welty’s novels and stories are a national treasure. We must guard it zealously for such a glory as Eudora does not often come to look at us, study us, and sing about us. For those who would enjoy an unforgettable meal using Squash Eudora as an entrée, serve a chilled garden tomato, peeled and stuffed with cottage cheese mixed with well-seasoned mayonnaise; tender Kentucky Wonder pole beans cooked with ham nubbins; a pickled peach; hot buttered biscuits; and your own blackberry jelly.”
2 pounds tender yellow squash
3 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried green onion
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon paprika
¾ pound chicken livers
3 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon curry powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
Grated Parmesan cheese
Wash squash but do not peel. Slice as thinly as possible, and place slices in a saucepan with 3 tablespoons butter, ½ tablespoon salt, dried green onion, ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and paprika. Simmer over low heat about 25 minutes or until squash is tender when tested with a fork. Wash chicken livers and cut in halves. Melt 3 tablespoons butter; put in a 2-quart baking dish and add Worcestershire sauce, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Marinate livers in this mixture for 20 minutes. Bake, uncovered, in a preheated 350̊ oven about 25 minutes. Turn livers after 10 minutes. Add cooked chicken livers to cooked squash, celery seeds, curry powder, and lightly beaten egg. Mix lightly and taste to see if more salt is needed. Place mixture in the same baking dish. Sprinkle top with grated Parmesan cheese, and bake in a 350̊ oven about 25 minutes. Yield: 6 to 8 servings. Variation: You may substitute 1 pound lump crab meat for the chicken livers. Carefully pick through crab meat for bits of shell. Delete marinating ingredients and add crab meat directly to cooked squash.
Welty’s introductory essay to The Jackson Cookbook (Symphony League of Jackson: 1971), “The Flavor of Jackson,” is a savory nougat of Southern culinary exposition. The editor of a local publication once expressed surprise that Jackson had a culinary history “worth writing about”, but like every other editor in Jackson, she was unfamiliar with Welty’s work. Eudora’s essay is a finely-seasoned piece with a wonderful flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking, of course, since restaurants here were rather much a novelty until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. In this passage, Miss Welty explains to a “t” just how exotic a modern kitchen staple once was.
“As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph. Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch.”
Let’s note that while those of a pretentious nature will swear undying allegiance to Duke’s mayonnaise because of its upscale marketing ploys, homemade mayonnaise is–and always has been–the best there is to be had.
In 1951, author S. Skip Farrington, Jr., bestirred himself to see how America’s railroads were faring in the years following World War Two. What he found was a thriving industry open to innovation and dedicated to customer service. In his classic Railroading the Modern Way (Coward-McCann, 1951), Farrington extolled the virtues of the great companies whose heralds, maps, lists of officers, and intricate schedules fattened The Official Guide to the Railways, that indispensable yearly publication, the size of a Chicago phone book, that every ticket clerk and agent in the Republic consulted for the routing of freight and passengers. Farrington raised hymns to powerful diesel locomotives, all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), cushion couplings, centralized traffic control, end-to-end radio communication, and luxurious new passenger equipment. Reading Farrington’s work now, one is struck by his implicit conclusion: everything about the railroad was going to stay the same, but it would all be faster, safer, and shinier than ever before. The traveling public could rejoice, and small shippers could rub their hands in glee.
Two decades later, Farrington’s cheery prophecy had collapsed like a washed-out trestle. Those of us who were railroading in those twilight days witnessed changes in the industry far more radical than anything Farrington could have imagined in the money-green glow of the ‘Fifties. From our decrepit yard offices, grimy locomotive cabs, and generic all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), we watched as the old resounding road names celebrated in Farrington’s book were gobbled up by mergers. We saw the sale or abandonment of entire districts, the consolidation of agencies, the ruthless encroachment of job-killing technology, and the surgical excision of labor-intensive commodities like perishable fruit and passengers. The government got involved, then it got uninvolved, and then–well, who knows? Traffic agents like my old man– those stalwart, hard-drinking, fiercely loyal drummers who pounded the pavements in search of business–became as anachronistic as link-and-pin couplers and finally disappeared altogether, their once-busy offices abandoned or used for storage.
Railroads, it seemed, had found other interests. Our beloved Illinois Central, for example–once the Main Line of Mid-America–yearned for greater profits, so it redefined itself as Illinois Central Industries and wrapped its tentacles around Pepsi Cola and Whitman Candies and left the now-unprofitable railroad property to wither on the vine. By the mid-Seventies, the Official Guide had shrunk to the size of an L.L. Bean catalog. On our Gulfport District, the maximum main line speed of freight trains had been reduced to ten miles an hour over crumbling lightweight 1930s rail affixed to ties that could be pulled apart in the hand. Three-man crews, with radios that rarely worked, risked their lives trying to switch behemoth tank cars and piggyback flats in yards designed in the 1890s. Almost overnight, the old craft became unrecognizable to persons like myself, who remembered footboards and forty-foot cars and coal-oil switch targets, who had penciled switch lists in the rain, who had passed lantern- and hand signals along a cut of cars and waved at pretty girls from the cupola of a caboose or the cab window of a growling GP-9.
But surely some revelation was at hand. Surely the Second Coming was at hand. The new railroad model, slouching toward solvency with relentless efficiency, was a desperate attempt to survive in a world that had swiftly left Farrington’s ideal behind.
In due season–another ten years perhaps–the railroads accomplished their vision and their survival. The result, as John R. Stilgoe so beautifully illustrates in Train Time (U of Virginia P, 2007), was a tectonic shift in the American industrial landscape. Stilgoe’s book, in perfect counterpoint to Farrington’s, demonstrates how, in less than a half-century, the old clanking, colorful, individualistic railroad companies of folklore and romance vanished like a dream, and in their place rose a new paradigm: the single trunk line, a silvery welded-rail turnpike over which computer-controlled trains with two-man crews hauled inter-modals or bulk commodities. Yard switching became a matter of mere pulling and shoving, and along the main line, switching was minimal or nonexistent. Depots were sold for restaurants or gift shops, freight houses were demolished, and only the most reluctant accommodation was made for Amtrak passenger trains.
Out of the chaos, finally, rose a single indisputable Gibraltar of fact: for the Post-Modern age, no better method exists for the transportation of bulk commodities than a well-maintained, high-speed, computer-controlled, heavy-rail corridor over which fuel-efficient motive power hauls the goods. American mega-railroads have achieved their goal, and American mega-business–not to mention highways and Interstates choked with eighteen-wheelers–will be the better for it.
Like most revolutions, however, that which I have just described was not without its cost. A way of life disappeared, and with it the loyalty men and women felt for the companies that had sustained them, often for generations. Countless jobs were abolished as shops and yards “modernized,” trains were cut off, and maintenance and damage control were hired out to private companies. Small shippers found they were no longer courted; indeed, they were ignored, even bypassed, as the railroad companies pulled up branch lines and spur tracks. Train crews no longer learned on the job, but attended centralized schools like truck drivers or heavy-equipment operators. People, especially poor ones, who still found it expedient to travel by rail were shuffled off to poor old Amtrak, for years the red-headed stepchild of the new empire.
Today, railroads have all but disappeared from the American imagination, where they once held center stage. Through four years of Naval service, I was sustained by the idea that, when I was released at last, I could go and be a railroad brakeman–somewhere, anywhere. I would walk the tops gaily and ride the caboose; I might even get to wear the uniform of a passenger trainman. I could do it for as long as I wanted, for the railroads, of course, would never change, a prodigious delusion as it turned out. In latter years, I have met not a single young person whose ambition was to work for the railroad.
When the family SUV is inconveniently blocked at a grade crossing–OMG! Josh will be late for soccer practice!–or when a derailed ninety-foot tank car of ammonia exterminates a congregation, then the citizens pay attention, a little. Otherwise, most people are only dimly aware of the big, graffiti-plastered objects that lumber past on the edge of their vision. In an age when, for example, the Canadian National operates in Mississippi and Louisiana, the public can hardly be blamed for losing their sense of regional affiliation. Crewpersons, buttoned up tight in their air-conditioned locomotive cabs, do not wave much anymore, and the caboose, the public’s most cherished railroad icon, has long been replaced by FRED, the Federal Rear End Device. FRED is an air-pressure gauge with a blinking red light fixed to the last knuckle of the last car. FRED does not wave, he cares nothing for pretty girls, and trains pass like sentences without punctuation, gliding on their way toward destinations no one can name.
With the exception of amateur rail enthusiasts, most people born after 1970–even most contemporary railroad persons, I expect–have little sense or patience for what the old craft meant, or how important it was in the daily life of generations. My students do not know what a caboose is. They have never heard of the Panama Limited or the Pan American. They think The City of New Orleans is a corny old song their grandparents listened to. This is our collective consciousness now. It is where we need to be if we are to have a viable rail system in the context of the Twenty-First Century. A hard truth, perhaps, but, as old Major R.K. Cross used to say, the truth is a stubborn thing.
And yet. And yet. Some ghosts are hard to shrive from blood memory, and not for nothing do people have a sense of something lost, though they may no longer be able to articulate just what the loss involves. When a person, by chance meeting, discovers that I was once a railroad man, he or she will more often than not voice a familiar lament. “Isn’t it a shame,” the person will say, “that we let our railroads go.” Then, inevitably, he will press on to sing of the supposed glories of European systems, or how, as a child, he rode to grandma’s house on the beautiful Sunset Limited and drank from Waterford crystal in the dining car as the scenery reeled past like illustrations on an SP calendar. I never know how to answer the complaint, nor how to respond to the memoir, so I nod my head and remain silent, wondering if the person understands what he is saying. He is unaware, I think, that the guilty collective pronoun included the railroads themselves. He forgets, perhaps, that the complexities of modern life offer no alternative. He forgets, most of all, that one can no longer expect Waterford crystal in a culture that has agreed unanimously on the Styrofoam cup.
Nostalgia has little virtue save for them who have earned it. In the end, Nostalgia, and its consort Romance, are an insult to the old ones who spent half their lives in cheap hotels; who saw their comrades cut in half or mangled under the wheels; who felt the loneliness and isolation of flagging behind in a ghostly fog; who understood that a steam engine, for all the mournful poignancy of its whistle, was a hard taskmaster and a deadly one. Nostalgia and Romance conceal, and therefore dishonor, the fact that old-time railroading was a real bitch, a dangerous and lonely and demanding craft, and those who followed it, especially in train or engine service, dwelt always on the edge of catastrophe. To paraphrase my old friend Frank Smith, a switch engine foreman of thirty years service, if you got home after the job without having killed someone or turned something over, your day was a success.
And yet, for those of us who lived the old craft, no coldly efficient, high-speed computer game can replace it. Perhaps too much happened for too many years out there in the night when the old trains ran. There was too much death, too much honor and meanness, too much tragedy and glory and fun, and too many souls were moved by the distant cry of a locomotive–steam whistle or diesel horn, no matter–for it all to be erased by corporate ukase. Something of the old life remains, something deeply human and therefore messy and dramatic, to haunt the memory of the Race.
Once, Frank Smith and I were talking to a gentleman who had worked his whole life on the now-vanished Columbus and Greenville Railroad. Beside him sat his wife, a gentle, silver-haired lady whose eyes glowed with the knowledge that she and this old rascal had been married sixty-one years and had made it work. The old man patted her knee. “Ever’ time I’d leave on the job,” he said, “my wife would make me a bucket of fried chicken. I used to throw the bones right out the cab window, a lot of bones all down the main line, years and years.” He thought a moment, then smiled. “Lord,” he said, “wouldn’t it be funny if them bones was to rise again.”
Funny, indeed, and an irresistible image: hundreds of white leghorns rising from the dust, gazing about, puzzling how in the world they ever got there, all wandering forlorn along the weed-choked iron of the old C&G. Meanwhile, all across the Republic, outside the trembling windowpanes of restored depots and freight house museums, the big anonymous trains roll on, the cone of their headlights pointed toward tomorrow.
It was the third of June, another hot and dusty Delta day. I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was bailin’ hay.
So begins Mississippi’s most familiar ballad, “Ode to Billy Joe,” a plaintive tune about Billy Joe McAllister’s suicide in the Tallahatchie River, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967.
Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she attended school. Gentry moved to Arcadia, California at age thirteen to live with her mother and stepfather. They relocated to Palm Springs two years later, where Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Gentry briefly attended UCLA and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, then drifted between secretarial and nightclub jobs and eventually found herself in Las Vegas working as a showgirl.
Gentry approached Capitol Records in early 1967 with two tunes, “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Mississippi Delta,” which she recorded. “Mississippi Delta” was made the B-side, and despite its lengthy four minutes and thirteen seconds, “Ode to Billy Joe,” the featured song. The recording was released on July 10 and became an immediate hit. By the end of summer 1967, “Ode to Billy Joe” had climbed to the number one position on all three major American music charts–Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World. The album was No. 1 on the US Billboard Top LP’s chart, the only album to displace the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from its 15-week reign at the top of the chart. It also peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the US Billboard Top Selling R&B Albums chart.
“The burning question of the day,” wrote Jackson Daily News arts editor Frank Hains, “is not how to un-snarl ourselves from Vietnam or how to un-uppity H. Rap Brown…. It’s what did Billy Joe and that girl throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
“People are trying to read social comment into the song, but none is intended,” Gentry said at the time. The song was simply about human indifference. And she wasn’t even protesting indifference in “Billy Joe,” just describing it. “I’m not so sure indifference isn’t a good thing,” she said. “If we were all totally affected by tragedy, we’d be afraid to go anywhere or do anything.”
Gentry insisted that the “Ode to Billy Joe” narrative, despite its perceived genuineness and its use of actual place-names, was “not true;” however, she conceded that, of all the bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, she referred in her song to the one just outside Greenwood. She also said that Choctaw Ridge was also located in Leflore County, she noted, near the former home of “Greenwood LeFlore (sic).” Print media outside the South commented on both the song and Gentry’s authenticity. Newsweek called her “a true daughter of the Mississippi Delta who can vividly evoke its pace and poetry and smells and style.” Time reported that “Ode to Billie Joe” was “based on (Gentry’s) recollection of life around Greenwood, Miss.,” and that “millions of puzzled Americans coast to coast [were ready to start dragging] the Tallahatchie.”
Gentry appeared on the most popular variety shows (the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Carol Burnett) and piloted a BBC series that had some success in other countries. Eventually, Gentry’s fame subsided. She married renowned casino owner William Harrah in late 1969; news reports focused on the couple’s thirty-year age difference and on the bride’s $150,000 pear-shaped diamond ring. The marriage lasted four months.
Gentry eventually signed away rights for both a film adaptation and novelization of “Ode to Billy Joe.” When they both appeared in 1976, nine years after the hit single, they were extremely popular. The book, issued exclusively in paperback by Dell, enjoyed over a dozen print runs that year, and the movie grossed over $10.4 million, placing it fifteenth in earnings among films released in the U.S. in 1976.
The film premiered in Jackson, Mississippi, with much hoopla on June 3, the anniversary of Billy Joe’s swan dive. Mississippi governor Cliff Finch proclaimed it “Bobbie Gentry Day,” and Lieutenant Evelyn Gandy presided over a dedication ceremony at one particular bridge over the Tallahatchie, which Boxoffice magazine claimed was designated as “the official Billy Joe McAllister leap site.”
The picture opened as well in 550 theaters across the South, followed by national distribution. The concern with specifying the exact date and the precise site of Billy Joe’s demise ironically eclipsed the questionable truthfulness of the story. Janet Maslin pointed out in Newsweek that, though the beginning of the film included a title explaining it was shot on location in the Mississippi Delta, “where this story actually took place,” the final frames contained the standard disclaimer that all individuals and incidents depicted were fictitious.
Most reviews and promotional materials stressed the film’s perceived authenticity and its successful evocation of setting. Most of this was due largely to the producer-director. Max Baer, Jr. Born in 1937, in Oakland, California, Baer was best known for his role as the lumpish Jethro in the popular television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” New Englander Herman Raucher was chosen to write the screenplay and novel. The characters Baer and Raucher created were certainly not “free of cliché,” as Variety asserted. These figures were nothing more than a confusing crowd of Southern stereotypes, and the place depictions were just a mishmash of rural images. Robbie Benson and Glynnis O’Connor played the young leads, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee, with awkward accents, and though the film was set in the Mississippi Delta, which has a majority black population, the film had not one African American character. Most surprising, for a film based on a song, the music also was displaced; when characters attended a jamboree, they were treated not to Delta blues but rather to upcountry bluegrass.
For all its awkwardness, the film did give a reason for his suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt at intercourse, Bobbie Lee tries to assure Billy Joe that “it’s alright,” but he insists: “It ain’t alright. I ain’t alright. Bobbie Lee, I have been with a man, did you hear me?— which is a sin against nature, a sin against God. I don’t know how I could have done it, I swear.”
Was this reason for Billy Joe’s suicide, the resolution to the question unanswered by “Ode to Billy Joe,” the invention of Herman Raucher, or was the character of Billy Joe McAllister somehow based in reality? Herman Raucher confided in a Jackson Daily News reporter that “the song’s lyric is not quite all fiction. We’ve got an odd combination of fact and fiction in it.”
Gentry’s final public appearance was at the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1982. Since that time, she has not recorded, performed or been interviewed. On May 14, 2012, BBC Radio 2 in the UK broadcast a documentary titled Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? presented by country music artist Rosanne Cash. One 2016 news report stated that Gentry lives near Memphis, Tennessee, but according to another, she lives in Los Angeles.
Bobbie Lee has become as much a mystery as Billy Joe.
Novelist, scholar, humanitarian and gentleman, Howard Bahr also has a poet’s hand and ear, eye and heart.
For A Girl I Know, That She Might Not Grieve
When I am dead,
you must not think me dead,
but gone ahead on a two-lane desert blacktop
road, doing eighty with the top down
in a cream-colored ’40 Ford coupe
stroked and bored in Tucumcari.
Route 66 is a blue arrow to the mountains,
and the desert no dead place, but strewn
with flowers only Indians have the names to;
hawks aloft, and lizards legging it
over the hot sand, bellies raised; roadrunners
racing the hopped-up Ford through the Creosote
brush; shrikes perched on the telephone lines; and
an SP freight train running fast westbound–
a flat plume of smoke, all signals green.
Then mountains passed, the western slope kissed
with morning shadow, the fir trees dusted with snow.
The pastel desert towns lay behind me now,
and below a green valley, orange groves,
the distant glittering sea.
Now, after dark, in a bungalow in Elysian Park,
I labor as of old, trying to find the words to tell
of why we do the things we do: why we love;
why we strive in vain; why we let the rain beguile our hearts
with longing and desire.
And here, from time to time, I rise, go to the window,
pull the curtains by and raise the blinds,
and gaze upon the palms and Oleander
and the haze around the moon.
All is well. My heart’s alive.
I watch for your twin headlights in the drive.
In apartments stuffed of furniture no one wants,
where children grown and gone
smile down from every horizontal place,
the old ones listen for the mail.
And when at last the postman brings the mail around,
he creaks the boxes open, creaks them shut again.
The old ones peer into the hall, then shuffle in their slippers
to the boxes on the wall: church bulletins, bills,
catalogs from a world no longer theirs.
But how is Judith faring in the city?
And Donny on the oil rig in the Gulf–
is he safe? Did he marry the girl from Lafayette?
What of young Alyssa at her college in the North?
Those lives are silent.
In the catalogs: plush counterpanes, support hose,
baths to sooth the feet, and means
to keep the patio insect-free.
The water bill is high this month.
Behind their curtains, the old ones open checkbooks,
Next day, the mail comes round again.
A Parable for My Students
Last night, my neighbor Pitts
Set out a Havahart for cats
That fell his birds. No luck.
Instead, today by early light,
I kenned a possum caught.
Unkempt he was, and fat, and pacing
To and fro. He rose to press his paws
Against the wire, then paced again: a turn,
And turn, and rise, and turn, and rise,
And turn, and rise to naught.
A ghostly, wedge-faced possum,
Rat du Bois, no good in stir to anyone
Except himself perhaps, or Johnny Cross
Who fattens one each year to bake
With sweet potatoes–God forbid the thought!
Anon, I rambled out and crossed
The dewy grass, took hold the door
And lifted it, and propped it with a stick.
“Now, scram,” said I. But, no, he hunkered down,
And bared his yellow teeth, and curled his tail
Just as his mama taught.
Thus he remained, like unto Death,
A mockery of Life, when all the while
The door stood open, beckoning him quit
The bars, and flee, and brave the morning
As a creature ought.
In early afternoon, old Pitts came out
And puzzled at his prize, and scratched his head,
And gazed suspicious at the stick. He shrugged at last
And took his snub-nosed .22 in hand:
Pop! Pop! it said, and so the possum bought.
Take heed, my Little Ones: the gate is raised;
Go hence and seek the morning. God be praised!
God bless Uncle Daniel! If anyone can be generous to a fault it’s him, though Grandpa called it an open disposition and claimed that within the realm of reason there were people who would take advantage of such, which is how Uncle Daniel, attracting love and friendship with the best will and the lightest heart in the world, ended up with Grandpa in his new Studebaker sitting with old Judge Tip Calahan driving through the country on his way to the asylum in Jackson. From the word go Uncle Daniel got more vacations than anyone because they couldn’t find a thing in the world wrong with him, and he was so precious all he had to do was ask and he’d be on the branch-line train headed back to Clay County. Everybody missed Uncle Daniel so bad when he was gone that they spent all their time at the post office sending him things to eat. Divinity travels perfectly, if you ever need to know.
Three cups of sugar, one-half cup of Karo corn syrup, three-fourths cup of water, 2 eggs (whites), 1 cup of nuts, one-half teaspoon of salt, vanilla. Boil the sugar, syrup and water until it becomes hard in cold water; beat the whites of eggs until stiff, with the salt. Pour the syrup over the eggs and beat in the nuts and vanilla. When it begins to harden drop by spoonfuls onto wax paper or pour into a pan to cut into squares.
Kenneth Tobey appeared in hundreds of feature films and television shows of almost every genre, but to Monster Kids he is best remembered as the romantic figure of a career military man who never backed down from a monster fight.
I guess I should explain what a “Monster Kid” is to those not familiar with the term. A Monster Kid is someone who grew up watching classic science fiction and horror movies produced prior to 1970. Many Monster Kid’s first exposure to Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and all the Cold War creatures representing our fear of the nuclear bomb and communism came from late night local television. At that time, every television market had a “Creature Feature” movie program with its own unique host.
Now back to Kenneth Tobey and a 1985 interview from my archives. With his leather flight-slash-monster fighting jacket, Kenneth Tobey tangled with a giant carrot creature from outer space at the North Pole, the radioactive Rhedosaurus that stomped through Lower Manhattan, and a nuclear-powered octopus that crushed the Golden Gate Bridge.
In 1949, Tobey had a bit part in I Was a Male War Bride and director Howard Hawks saw something he liked in the 32-year old actor. Hawks cast him as Captain Patrick Hendry, United States Air Force and the lead in The Thing from Another World (1951), but first Tobey had to impress studio boss Howard Hughes.
“I got a call when I came in slightly tipsy one night about 2 in the morning and the caller said, ‘Mr. Hughes wants to meet you,’” Tobey recalls. “I told the caller I’d be in first thing Monday morning, but the caller said, ‘No. No. No. No. Mr. Hughes wants to meet you right now.’ So, I drove over to his bungalow and met him. You can’t turn down Howard Hughes.”
The Thing from Another World and The Man from Planet X both went into general release on April 27, 1951. Both films mark the first-time people on Earth fought invading space aliens in an American feature film. The Man from Planet X is somewhat adorable in its simplicity and comic book visuals, but The Thing from Another World is terrifying and sophisticated even today.
Going into the 19-week shoot, Tobey said he thought it was just another adventure film. The Thing from Another World turned out to be far more than just an adventure film. It was ground-breaking cinema thanks in large part to the over-lapping dialog which brought a tense pace and sense of reality to the film.
“I’m going to take a little credit for that and give Howard Hawks a great deal of credit for using it,” Tobey said. “I had just come from the stage in New York and on the stage we overlap, so I automatically did that because I hadn’t done many pictures. Hawks liked it and got the whole cast to do it and we had a lot of fun doing that.”
The box office success of The Thing from Another World made Kenneth Tobey a gainfully employed film actor and a reliable frequent fighter of giant movie monsters. However, his next venture into science fiction was not the starring role. That spot was already taken by the title character, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Before there was Godzilla, there was Rhedosaurus, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms…although he actually came from deep in the ice of the Arctic Circle during a nuclear bomb test dubbed “Operation Experiment.” Maybe it isn’t the most original title for a government operation or an experiment, but Kenneth Tobey is there to do his duty for his country. This time he is Colonel Jack Evans, United States Army and the monster is classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion animation. It is one of the first films to tap into our Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation.
“Ray Harryhausen is the best. Some of the movements of the giant brontosaurus…uh, whatever the hell it was, looked very real,” Tobey said. In science fiction pictures with monsters and things like that, the most important thing is for the actors to believe that that’s a creature. The audience will take the actor’s word for it. If the actor is truly scared or takes the creature seriously, then the audience will.”
Tobey would again face a Harryhausen creation in 1955 when It Came from Beneath the Sea. “It” being a gigantic octopus driven from its natural habitat and food supply by hydrogen bomb tests. This time Kenneth Tobey crosses over into his third branch of the military. He is Commander Pete Mathews, captain of a nuclear submarine and traditional 1950s American male who doesn’t understand “these modern women these days.” While the giant radioactive octopus is wrapping its tentacles around the Golden Gate Bridge, Commander Mathews is trying to wrap his big paws around Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) of Harvard University.
“I liked It Came from Beneath the Sea because I had love scenes and I had a longer part than in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and I starred in it,” Tobey said.
Before the end of the 1950s, Kenneth Tobey would fight one more sci-fi monster…a pill-popping vampire in The Vampire (1957) of course, and once again Tobey was in an innovative, albeit low budget film. Unlike previous movie vampires created by pure evil, the devil, a bat, or a bite from Count Dracula, this vampire was created by science out of control and playing God. It was another common fear in our new Nuclear Age and a new kind of Kenneth Tobey, Monster Fighter. He is now a civilian, somewhat anyway. He is Sheriff Buck Donnelly of “Any Small Town, U.S.A.”, and he’s got a grotesque blood-sucker terrorizing his county.
Tobey’s talents shifted to television late in 1957 when he starred as the co-owner of a helicopter charter service in the series Whirlybirds until 1960. It was a major success worldwide and remained in syndication for decades. There was even a reunion of sorts with the Thing. Tobey was a guest actor on a 1960 episode of Gunsmoke starring James Arness who played the giant carrot creature from outer space in 1951.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Tobey would pop-up in small supporting roles in some of the biggest box office hits. Including Billy Jack (1971), Airplane! (1980), The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), and Big Top Pee-wee (1988). He even tried to kill the real-life, somewhat mythical giant figure of legendary Tennessee lawman Buford Pusser in the original Walking Tall (1973).
Kenneth Tobey passed away in 2002 and didn’t live to see his final film released. It was film done on a bet to see if director Ted Newsom could produce a movie for $2,500. It began shooting as an 8mm film in 1984 and switched to videotape in the 1990s. It was finally released straight to DVD in 2005 as The Naked Monster, a spoof/tribute to the classic sci-fi horror films of the 50s. Kenneth Tobey reprised his role as Captain Patrick Hendry from The Thing from Another World. For the last time, Kenneth Tobey would don his leather flight-slash-monster fighting jacket. It is a film only Monster Kids will understand and appreciate.
“I enjoy acting,” Tobey said. “Whatever the genre is, I love it. Of all the science fiction films I’ve done, The Thing is my favorite because it brought me the most fame and I’ve gotten my last 10 parts because of The Thing, which was 30 years ago.”
Mykki Newton is a grown-up “Monster Kid”, a connoisseur of cinema schlock and a videographer/editor at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.