Stage for the great and famous

Posted

Saturday July 2, 2011

While Berkshire County has been a magnet for notables and celebrities over the past 250 years, Pittsfield has hosted an impressive list of political leaders, entertainers and other famed personalities.

One of the early special occasions documented by the Berkshire Historical Society was a visit by French Gen. Marquis de Lafayette on June 15, 1825, during a tour that included a stop in Albany, N.Y.

More than 75 years later, an ill-fated carriage ride taking President Theodore Roosevelt to Stockbridge from a visit to Gov. Winthrop Crane in Dalton was well-chronicled in the nation's major newspapers.

As the New York World reported on Sept. 3, 1902, "A trolley car traveling at 30 m.p.h. collided with the carriage, killing the President's Secret Service bodyguard, William Craig, and hurling Teddy to the ground, resulting in painful bruises and scratches. The carriage driver, liveryman David J. Pratt of Dalton, was seriously injured. The accident took place near the Pittsfield Country Club."

Not surprisingly, when Roosevelt passed through Pittsfield by train in 1905, he did not leave the Union Station platform. Later, he was reported to have told an audience: "If you're set on risking your life, go to Pittsfield, Mass., and take a trolley ride."

Undeterred, President William Howard Taft visited briefly on July 2, 1911, during the celebration of the city's 150th anniversary. Traveling aboard the Boston & Albany Railroad's Presidential Special, he spoke briefly and, as The Eagle reported "in excellent taste, pleasing the populace immensely."

In 1956, after his acting career wound down but before he entered politics, Ronald Reagan -- GE's "Goodwill Ambassador" and host of "GE Theater" on CBS-TV -- stopped at the GE complex that then employed more than 10,000 people.

Before Union Station was torn down in 1968, presidents and their challengers often stopped for brief campaign visits in Pittsfield.

In October 1952, candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Democratic challenger, Adlai Stevenson, made whistle-stop visits. According to an Eagle account, an aide equipped Ike with a piece of paper with "Pittsfield" written in large letters, presumably to prompt him during his campaign speech with local references.

The most dramatic appearance by a first lady came on July 14, 1998, when Hillary Clinton visited the Colonial Theatre -- when renovation was still in the discussion stage -- as well as The Mount in Lenox.

Some 20,000 Pittsfielders waited for her, according to local police and Secret Service estimates.

The visit, part of her Save America's Treasures tour, helped jump-start the Colonial project. She termed the theater "a rare jewel of architecture."

Show-business visitors are well-remembered by Milton Bass, a Pittsfield native and longtime Eagle entertainment editor.

In 1962, folk singer Joan Baez, on tour, was well into her concert at the Pittsfield Boys' Club when she stopped the show to introduce "a young friend of mine," Bass said.

The friend, actually her paramour, was the little-known Bob Dylan.

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"I was excited by him and thought he was great," Bass noted, adding that the crowd seemed somewhat annoyed since they wanted to hear more Baez.

Dylan returned to Pittsfield, accompanied by Willie Nelson, performing at Wahconah Park on June 23, 2005.

Long before Tanglewood opened in Lenox in 1937, the Colonial Theatre was hosting stage performances by leading artists.

In the years between its opening on Sept. 28, 1903, and its conversion to a movie theater in 1937, the Colonial's celebrity performers included actors John and Ethel Barrymore and Sarah Bernhardt, and humorist Will Rogers.

Although a dozen major films have been shot in the Berkshires over the past half-century, one of the few that included footage shot in Pittsfield was "Before and After," starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson, filmed in 1995 primarily in Lee.

Other notable visitors to Pittsfield

1908: Four years before he was elected president, Woodrow Wilson addressed the city's Wednesday Morning Club.

1918: Calvin Coolidge, newly elected governor of Massachusetts, made his second visit to Pittsfield. He returned in 1924 to campaign for the presidency, but chose Stockbridge's Red Lion Inn for dinner.

1920: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then campaigning for the second spot on what turned out to be the losing Democratic presidential ticket, spoke at the Wendell Hotel.

1931: Eleanor Roosevelt, one year before her husband, FDR, was elected president, addressed the Pittsfield College Club. She returned to campaign for Democratic candidates in 1956, and she attended her granddaughter's graduation from Miss Hall's School in 1960.

1938: Gerald Ford, then a Yale Law student, skied with buddies at Bousquet.

1948: President Harry Truman campaigned for re-election against New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, who was the favorite. Both whistle-stopped at Union Station; Truman was greeted by 7,000 cheering locals on Oct. 27 and met with then-Congressman John F. Kennedy. The next day, Dewey was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of 20,000. According to The Eagle, Truman was humble about his prospects, telling Mayor Robert T. Capeless: "I hope I won't hurt the ticket in Massachusetts." Capeless later told the newspaper: "This is the president of the United States, and he's concerned about hurting the ticket!"

1958: In September, Sen. John F. Kennedy campaigned for re-election at Bousquet with his wife, Jackie.

1966: First lady Lady Bird Johnson made the first of several visits to Hancock Shaker Village.

1976: Rosalynn Carter, campaigning for her husband, Jimmy, for president, spoke at the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Jimmy visited The Eagle, meeting with reporters
and editors.

1991: First lady Barbara Bush made an autumn visit to support Republican Congressional candidate Steven Pierce.

-- Clarence Fanto


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