Native son: STAR STRUCK - Remembering Joan Davis

by Charles Novak -

Growing up in Ely in the 1940s and 50s our main source of entertainment was the movies. Before my time there were two movie theaters in Ely – the Opera House at 100 Camp Street where the bowling alley is now located and the Elcor Theater on Chapman Street, the site of the old JCPenny Store. Born in the ’40s I had two theaters to choose from - the larger and more modern looking Ely Theater which was the first to get Cinemascope and the State Theater which opened in 1937 with 500 seats and a beautiful art deco interior. I didn’t know what art deco meant at the time but I liked what I saw and christened it my favorite theater. We should all be grateful to the Ott family who just renovated this historic landmark so we can enjoy movies once again in Ely. I can’t wait for opening night!
Besides going to the movies I discovered in the movie magazines that if you wrote a letter to your favorite star in care of “Hollywood” they might send you a picture. It worked! Collecting these photographs became an obsession with me until I ended up with the largest number of photos in town.
Then one day disaster struck when a female classmate informed me that “boys” don’t collect movie star pictures. It’s something for girls only. Not wanting to tarnish my reputation I reluctantly gave her my shoebox full of pictures. If you are out there and still have the pictures, you are sitting on a small fortune!
To compensate I continued collecting baseball cards which I started doing in the late ’40s and right through the ’50s. They were a penny apiece and came with a slab of gum. The early 1900 cards came with a pack of cigarettes!
By the time I graduated from high school I had two shoeboxes of cards. Since I was leaving home to go away to school, I started to clean out things I thought I wouldn’t need anymore. Guess what was thrown away? According to my nephew Mike, a diehard baseball fan, a Mickey Mantle card from the ’50s is now worth $220,000! I’m sure I had his card in my collection because he was so popular at the time. Excuse me while I go back to dummy school!
Years went by before I once again started collecting pictures of current stars. This time you didn’t need to send letters to Hollywood. They were easy to get in person from the celebrities themselves who ran around the country promoting their newest movies. They were happy to sign an autograph no matter what gender you were. I wish to share some of my pictures and stories with you starting in this column and in future columns as interest dictates. My first story is unique because I met my first BIG star in ELY!!
Joan Davis was born on June 29, 1912 in St Paul, Minnesota and was the star of the blockbuster 1950’s television series I Married Joan.
At the time I was a 50 cents an hour busboy at Vertin’s Café located in the Forest Hotel building on Sheridan Street. On a very busy 1955 summer day, two people walked in the door and sat in the booth by the window. I brought my aluminum dirty dish cart to an emergency stop and looked and then looked again. No, it can’t be! I rubbed my eyes with the towel I used to wipe the tables. It had to be! I slowly pushed my cart towards their table and the closer I got the more she looked like Joan Davis who I had seen on television numerous times. But what was superstar Joan Davis doing in Ely?
I circled the restaurant floor once more until I finally got up the nerve to approach her table. In a very high pitched nervous voice I asked “Are you Joan Davis?” The heavens parted when she answered “yes.” Happy to be recognized she said she was vacationing at Burntside Lodge with her friend. We immediately jumped into a conversation about her TV show I Married Joan. I finally stopped talking and asking questions to give her a chance to ask me about my life as a busboy (just kidding).
I continued “Do you have a picture you could autograph for me?” She looked at me with a puzzled look followed by a big smile. “No!” she replied. “I usually don’t carry pictures with me!” My heart sank. What a missed opportunity. But I wasn’t about to give up. I grabbed a napkin from the dispenser and asked for her autograph. “Oh I can do better than a napkin” she said and out of nowhere produced a piece of stationery from Burntside Lodge. She tore off a corner of the paper, signed her name and handed it to me.
She stood up and the next thing I knew I was getting a hug from Joan Davis! I swooned. Is it okay for boys to swoon when a beautiful female movie star puts her arms around you? I noticed my boss Matt Vertin standing by the cash register looking in my direction. When I wheeled my cart past him he asked, “Do you know those people?” and I said “No! She was just giving me a tip!”
I was heartbroken when it was announced on May 22, 1961 that Joan Davis, age 48, had died of a heart attack. It was just six years after our unforgettable encounter. With her passing the old Hollywood of black and white pictures was coming to an end. I loved them all but most of all I will remember Joan.
If you want to know more about this wonderful star, I highly recommend the book Hold That Joan. It’s full of amazing pictures and wonderful antidotes of her life. The only movie available from 1950, now on DVD, is Traveling Saleswoman. Both items can be purchased at