I had a wonderful Memorial Day weekend in Winterset, IA at the John Wayne Birthday Celebration. The weekend was a billed as “A Tribute to Maureen O’Hara” and the great lady appeared in person, in what was billed as her last public appearance. It was a real thrill to see and hear her in person.
Before I go any further, a few caveats. I did not get to meet her and I didn’t take any pictures. I’m not a picture person and don’t own a camera. But there are some wonderful pictures of the weekend online, in far better quality than I could have taken. Please visit the John Wayne Birthplace site http://www.johnwaynebirthplace.org/news.html for a vast array of wonderful pictures of the entire weekend.
Also, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, I didn’t think about blogging about the event until I was driving home, so I didn’t take notes or anything like that. Bad, bad blogger.
Because of the 5.5-hour drive from Chicago’s western suburbs to Winterset, I missed Friday morning’s ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony for the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, which Ms. O’Hara attended, along with John Wayne’s daughter Aissa.
I didn’t arrive in Winterset, IA until Friday night for the square dance where Ms. O’Hara put in an appearance. She’s 92 years old and in a wheelchair, but looks as lively as ever and when she spoke at Saturday night’s dinner the voice was sure and strong, with no hesitation or shakiness at all. And that brogue was as vibrant as ever. One can’t mistake Maureen O’Hara’s voice for anyone else’s.
There were lots of people in line to have their picture taken with Ms. O’Hara, but after awhile they were asked to stop, as the constant flashes irritated her eyes. I didn’t have a camera with me and thought about going over there just to say hello, but there were so many people around her I didn’t want to add to the crowd.
Besides, what could I say to her that she hasn’t heard a million times already? The only thing I could think of that she may not have heard so much is she is one of my favorite swashbucklers. Sure she’s known for the movies she made with John Wayne and John Ford, and “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) and “The Parent Trap” (1961), but I have a fondness for those adventure movies she made at RKO and Universal. Watch her dueling scenes as a Musketeer’s daughter in “At Sword’s Point” (1952) or alongside Errol Flynn in “Against All Flags” (1952). She’s an absolute natural and looks to be doing her own fighting. What a gal! So I could have told her how much I enjoy her swashbuckling movies, which she probably didn’t hear that weekend, but I just didn’t feel like bothering her.
Concurrently, I thought about saying hello to John Wayne’s daughter Aissa, also in attendance, but again, so many people had crowded around her to talk to her that I didn’t feel like adding to the situation. It was just a pleasure to be there.
Instead, I enjoyed the live music that evening and conversations I had with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara fans from around the country. A walk through the parking lot saw license plates from as far away as Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Georgia. Over the course of the weekend I had conversations from people in those states, along with Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio.
Speaking to these people, I thought about Wayne’s and O’Hara’s continuing appeal. True, the crowd skewered older, but there were lots of families there, along with people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. I’d be hard pressed to think of any actor who has been dead for more than 30 years, or any actress who has not made a movie in more than 20 years, to generate this kind of affection and to have people get in their cars and drive hundreds of miles to be a part of a weekend.
The weather throughout the weekend wasn’t particularly pleasant, being rainy, cold and overcast most of the weekend. One would think that the Duke, of all people, would have enough pull with The Man Upstairs to arrange some nice weather for his birthday celebration weekend, but it was not to be.
The Iowa Theater, located in downtown Winterset, showed all five John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara movies daily Friday through Sunday. I attended an 11:30 a.m. Saturday showing of “The Quiet Man” (1952). I got there at 11:10 and had to sit in the front row, the only seats available. The entire audience, represented by children and senior citizens and everyone in between, laughed and cheered throughout. John Wayne’s first appearance got a round of applause, but Maureen O’Hara’s unforgettable entrance in the movie doubled the Duke’s appearance by a wide margin. I don’t think the Duke would have minded that at all.
Composer Victor Young’s name had one person cheering for him – it wasn’t me. I suspect it was someone who has responded to the score, not realizing the background score is made of up Irish folk songs and music. (I think the cue for the horse race – a marvelous cue – is original to Young, but I could be wrong).
After visiting the John Wayne boyhood home and visiting the gift shop (I picked up an “Old Guys Rule” T-shirt with a picture of John Wayne on the back), I drove back to West Des Moines to my hotel where I showered and suited up for the big night. At $125 a plate (proceeds going to the John Wayne Birthplace Museum), and with Ms. O’Hara attending in person, I didn’t want to slack off.
It was a wonderful dinner, with a sell-out crowd of more than 800 people in attendance.
Singer Catherine O’Connell traveled from Chicago to sing several of the songs featured in “The Quiet Man”. Chicago was also represented by the Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band, who accompanied Irish dancers the McKay Sisters.
An auction netted more than $30,000 for the John Wayne Birthplace Museum. Some amazing items were auctioned off including a jacket worn by Wayne in “Hellfighters” (1969) and a shirt worn by Wayne throughout most of “The Cowboys” (1972).
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad declared May 25, 2013 as Maureen O’Hara Day in Iowa and the Greater Madison County Community Foundation presented a check for $25,000 to the Birthplace Museum. Construction on the Museum is expected to take place soon.
There was a very nice video tribute given showcasing Ms. O’Hara’s career (no swashbuckling scenes, alas) and then one of Ms. O’Hara’s family members (yep, should have taken notes) read a statement thanking everyone for their kindness to the family during the long weekend. He said Maureen had been looking forward to it for a long time and they thanked everyone in the room, and the state of Iowa, for being so friendly and welcoming to them.
And then the lady herself was presented with a microphone and speaking from her wheelchair, mentioned her great love for Wayne, who she called her best friend. Director John Ford was singled out. She said he was very tough and could be very mean, but one put up with it because they knew they were making something great. Everyone was eager to sign on to the next project he was involved in.
All in all, I had a most marvelous weekend. I got to see and hear Maureen O’Hara in person, contributed to a most worthwhile cause, met a lot of very nice people and got to see “The Quiet Man” on the big screen.
If anything was a disappointment it was I really didn’t get to see Maureen O’Hara up close and that was my fault.
I was seated at one of the table’s upfront and an announcement was made that dinner would start in 10 minutes. I thought this would be a good time to use the bathroom. I made my way to the other side of the room – a far piece – and was just finishing washing my hands when I heard this loud roar of cheers and applause. Sure enough it was Maureen’s arrival from a side entrance and while she didn’t go right past our table, she came fairly close.
When the dinner was over some three-and-a-half hours later, and everyone was milling around, I again took the opportunity to use the bathroom. Once more, coming out I heard cheering and the clapping of hands. Yep, Maureen O’Hara was leaving the building.
To learn more about the John Wayne boyhood home and progress on the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, visit http://www.johnwaynebirthplace.org/