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Made for the Movies

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Like many Southern families, ours spends a lot of time on the porch. My youngest son, during one trip back to my hometown and at the ripe age of seven, told us that all we did was "visit, visit, visit." He wasn't wrong. During those visits, stories get told, and the better ones get retold. As my grandmother approached her hundredth birthday a few years ago, I finally did something I'd been wanting to do for years. Sissy always had so many stories, and there were a few I wanted to know more about as all I'd gotten on porch visits were glimpses, brush strokes, punchlines. Having endured a series of economic crises in my own business--downturns, an oil spill, hurricanes, shutdowns, bridge destruction resulting in traffic isolation--I was also keenly interested in her business story. How a young woman in the 1940's with young children managed to keep a small town Delta theater alive.

One episode I knew I wanted to dive into was a punchline delivered by a famous Western actor named Lash LaRue, who'd nicknamed my grandfather "that educated truck driver." I'd heard that line throughout my life, but I didn't have the context. What I ended up capturing during my interview with Sissy went far beyond Lash and the theater business into a trip back in time I'll always cherish.

After her first husband died from injuries sustained in a plane crash, my grandmother ended up inheriting a theater business. And while she shared the ownership of multiple locations with several partners, the Globe Theater in Drew, Mississippi was her baby. Her baby to run, along with two babies she'd been left to raise as a young widow. To say that Sissy was tenacious would mean you'd underestimated her. Like one of her partners did after she bought a snow cone machine without consulting him. When asked what kind of partner he had, one who would make a purchase like that without asking, she responded simply, she guessed he had one who knew how to make money. By Sissy's account, she made her money back on her first day and by the end of the weekend, the snow cone line was wrapped around the block.

At that time, especially in a small Delta town, theaters weren't just a source of entertainment, they were the source. To get an idea, she said even a blockbuster like Gone With The Wind only ran for a week because by the end of the second weekend, everyone in town had seen the movie as often as they could afford to, a fact which meant she had to constantly supply fresh product. Sissy was the Western film buyer for all the theaters in their group, so she made frequent trips to Film Row on 3rd Street in Memphis and was familiar with all the major players of the day. Not that her position as buyer was why she recognized Errol Flynn on a subsequent trip out west, but it was part of a larger story I knew little about and made the interview more intriguing than I could have imagined.

Sissy was tough, no doubt, but rearing young children while running a business on your own takes a toll. One of Sissy's other partners recognized that she could use a getaway and proposed a trip out West. Sissy agreed and accompanied him and his wife. Colorado was the ultimate destination, but en route they stopped in Flagstaff at a hotel renowned for housing Hollywood stars. Lo and behold, on a stroll through the lobby that evening, Sissy looked up to see none other than Flynn himself. Now I'd heard this story before, about how he'd tipped his hat to her, but somehow that's all I'd gotten. Now, away from the back porch crowd, which demands a certain culling of details, I got the rest of the story. And in case you didn't know, Flynn was a renowned womanizer--hence the phrase “in like Flynn”--and after engaging my grandmother in conversation, he invited her and her friends to his table where he introduced them to the Paramount casting director, even going so far as promising them they'd appear in the upcoming Hole in the Wall if they simply showed up on set the next day.

It was an exciting offer indeed, and one they they had every intention of accepting, that is until they found out that Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne were filming Rio Grande just a few hours away. Emboldened by the encounter with Flynn, they decided to set out at dawn for Moab, and while Sissy's looks had secured their invitation the night before, it was their Mississippi roots that got them in like Flynn this time. Turns out, William Houston Price, Maureen O’Hara’s second husband, was an Ole Miss graduate from Columbia, Mississippi and had been the voice coach for Gone With The Wind, charged with teaching the cast how to “speak Southern.” When word got around that there was a group of theater owners in town from the Mississippi Delta, Maureen O’Hara was the one who made sure they got the red carpet treatment, not only with permission from, but at the encouragement of John Ford, the film’s director. Side note here: Sissy said John Ford's name so casually here I almost spilled coffee all over my laptop . . .

Sissy's nonchalance was certainly noteworthy, but another part of the magic of this moment for me was the detail she was able to recall from a trip she'd taken seventy years prior. She was emphatic about the heat, about how they went “way out into the desert,” to the point that they had to be careful about snakes in their desperation to find shade. She still seemed exasperated with John Ford at how many times he demanded they shoot this one particular scene. When I got home, I researched the film notes from Rio Grande, and it was uncanny. Every account I read echoed her sentiment, especially with the cast being in period costumes in what was a dreadfully hot summer. And they even made mention about shooting this one scene seventeen times. . . Despite the difficulties, the shoot wrapped up, and a day later, they were invited to stay for the party being thrown to celebrate the end of the filming and to thank the town. The Sons of the Pioneers, the most famous of the Western singing groups and one founded in part by Roy Rogers, performed at the party. Maureen O’Hara even sang a tune or two with the band, though Sissy said she was better to look at than to listen to. This was another off-hand comment about a star is a fitting segue to where I started this story.

Not long after her return home from out West, Sissy attended a theater owner’s convention in Biloxi where Lash LaRue was the featured entertainer. LaRue was known in Hollywood for his signature all-black cowboy outfit and for his skills with the bullwhip. He was so good, in fact, that he would later train none other than Harrison Ford for his role in the Indiana Jones series (a fact that never came up on the back porch . . . I only discovered that in my post-interview research). What Sissy saw, just like she had when she saw the snow cone machine on Film Row, was another business opportunity. After his performance, she found a way to meet LaRue, and during their encounter he agreed to come to Drew to do a show at the Globe. Not only did he fulfill his promise, but the show was a huge success as he cracked his whip for a packed house, creating an event people in Drew and beyond would talk about for long after. Another side note: as a small business owner, it's hard to express how cool it is to hear a story like this. She was no longer my Sissy in this moment. She was a beyond-tenacious young widow badass entrepreneur willing to do whatever it took for her business and community.

Anyway, after the success of the show, Lash asked Sissy out for dinner and dancing in nearby Ruleville. She obliged. After all, he had traveled far for this gig and had done a great thing for her business. In fact, her only reason not to accept his invitation was that in the time between their meeting in Biloxi and his show at the Globe, Sissy had met George T. Davis, the man whom I would eventually call Big Daddy. But that night, she wore no ring and she and George T. weren't exclusive, not yet anyway. And according to Sissy she and Lash had a grand time. Such a good time that Lash invited her to breakfast the next morning, which was innocent enough, but she soon found out Lash had much grander plans and was taken aback by his sudden invitation for her to join him in Hollywood. He was leaving soon, and he wanted her to come with him. Sissy had two children and a theater to run. She couldn’t possibly just pick up and leave. Plus, she had met someone. However Sissy described George T. to Lash that morning, all he heard was that he was a truck driver--a job George T. had done at one time, but certainly not what he was doing at this time.

And, from Sissy’s recollection, Lash was just as taken aback at Sissy’s rejection as she was at his offer. Little did he know that Sissy had just gone out West and had mingled with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. And perhaps because she’d hiked out into the desert, had watched up close and personal as John Ford requested a seemingly endless amount of takes just for one scene, had been taken in by several film circles and welcomed to their sets--perhaps that trip had happened just recently enough for her to say, no thank you. Despite Lash’s persistence, right there at a breakfast diner in Ruleville, Mississippi, she would not relent. Lash finally left, reluctantly, but still called her several times on his way to California.

When Sissy turned down Lash LaRue and his promise of a Hollywood experience, it wasn’t just because she had two children and a theater to run. Even when Lash called a few weeks later, recounting his adventures and imploring her to join him, it was an easy no. Just as it had been for her when she met Errol Flynn, but found out John Wayne was filming nearby--something more interesting had come along. I found out during the interview it was on one of these calls that Lash delivered his famous quip about George T. that I had always heard on the back porch--what had really triggered the interview in the first place. At least in the call Lash had upgraded my grandfather to an "educated" truck driver.

While Sissy and George T. did marry fairly quickly after this episode with Lash, we all know the truth about Hollywood endings. Forces beyond my grandparents' control would soon threaten the theater business, and though they managed to hang onto their theater longer than many, in 1965 they finally closed the doors to The Globe. The theater had been such an important part of the town, and of Sissy’s life, but the final years were so tough that she admitted when it was finally over, she couldn’t shed a tear. Bold and shrewd as always, when cable television threatened the theater business, Sissy bought the rights to own the cable company in Drew, which she did.

Even that wouldn't be enough to keep them in the Delta, though. Eventually they migrated south to the Coast in search of new opportunities, later converting a retired Coast Guard cutter to a shrimp boat. But that, of course, is another story. I can just see Lash LaRue shaking his head, knowing Sissy ended up with an educated shrimp boat captain, but for me, I sure am glad that something better came along.

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