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November 8, 2010

I Was Just Thinking: Hollywood rugged leading man came to Bresee's


Daily Star

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How many remember actor Robert Taylor?

This famous movie star from the 1940s and 1950s defined the word "rugged." Jet-black hair, slicked back and perfectly trimmed. Coal-black eyes. Square, muscular shoulders.

He came from an era when male actors either sat tall in the saddle, cast a giant shadow or spoke with their fists first and asked questions later. And the ladies loved them. Wayne. Gable. Ladd. Mitchum. Errol Flynn. Rugged, to a man.

Today's actors? Well, I believe you would be hard-pressed to find the word "rugged" in the Internet Movie Database biographies of Leonardo De Caprio, Johnny Depp, Adam Sandler or Brad Pitt. All top-tier actors. Box office boffo, yes. Box office brawn?

Nope.

It just seems that somewhere between the volcanic virility of Marlon Brando and the simmering sensitivity of James Dean, male actors have careened over their manly edge.

Robert Taylor was a man's man through and through. He was a tough leading man who also cut a wide swath through the forests of femininity. He starred in one of my favorite war movies, "Bataan" (1943); one of my favorite "sandals and toga" movies, "Quo Vadis" (1951); and was pitch perfect as William Bonney in 1941's "Billy the Kid." Critics called him "the most handsome movie star of all time."

He romanced Lana Turner in 1942's "Johnny Eager," ignited a young Elizabeth Taylor in "Ivanhoe" (1951) and battled royally with screen siren Barbara Stanwyck in back-to-back mid-1930s movies, "His Brothers Wife" and "This is My Affair." Apparently the "affair" took off, because Taylor married Stanwyck following the film's debut.

Taylor also had a long career on television, including his own detective show in 1959.

In the 1960s, before he died in 1969 at the age of 57, Robert Taylor came to Oneonta for a personal appearance at Bresee's Department Store. Why? We don't know.

Muriel Ross, a 35-year Health Bar employee, recently brought me a color photograph of the actor in the store. It is a great picture.

It shows Taylor, rugged, swarthy and definitely "Hollywood handsome," even though the end of his life was approaching. With Taylor are the senior Bresee brothers and staff sharing a chat near the top of the escalator in the store. Ross, in her iconic Health Bar waitress uniform, is smiling in the photo. It's a picture in the style of TV's "Mad Men." All the guys are in dark suits with skinny neckties. Many are wearing black horn-rimmed glasses. They are all smoking.

My question is this? What was it like that day when movie star Robert Taylor rode into town to hug the ladies and slap the backs of the male shoppers at Bresee's? Did the rope lines along Main Street bulge with giddy fans? Did Oneonta Police Chief Robert Simmons have to call in extra "security" to control the frenzied crowd?

Did Mayor Sam Nader present Taylor with a key to the city? Did The Oneonta Star blare out the headline: "Hollywood Legend Comes to Town!" How exciting it all must've been. Did my station, WDOS, send Joe Campbell and his microphone down for a man-on-the-street interview?

A similar occurrence happened at almost that same time when Debbie Reynolds came to Sidney to make a personal appearance at the Family Bargain Center. Her then-husband, creepy ol' Harry "The Shoe Man" Karl, sold his footwear there, and Debbie was out trying to pull his financial chestnuts out of the fire (she failed).

So, at around the same time we have two of Hollywood's biggest stars heading for two tiny map dots in upstate New York. Taylor no doubt landed at the Oneonta Airport with great fanfare in a private jet. Debbie came to Sidney by helicopter. I know. I was there.

Certainly, they were friends. In 1952, they both starred in major box-office hits. Taylor essayed Col. Paul Tibbetts, the man who dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima, in "Above and Beyond." That same year Debbie glowed in "Singin' in the Rain." In 1953, they actually appeared in the same flick, "I Love Melvin."

And here they were in rural New York, 20 miles apart around the same time, a half century ago. I know the buzz Debbie Reynolds caused in Sidney. I can only wonder what "The Man With the Perfect Profile" stirred up here in Oneonta.

I also wonder what Robert Taylor ordered for lunch at the old Health Bar that day?

The "Shopper's Special," which was $1.05?

I'll catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.