One of the perks of working in the theater business, besides watching films for free during the run, is to be invited to its premiere before it opens. Oftentimes they are a gala events with celebrities in attendance, be it the mayor or governor etc. But the ones that are really interesting to go to are those with celebrities from the film itself.
One of the more memorable events of this sort, at least for my Father and I, was one that was set for February 1974 at the 7th Avenue Theater in Seattle. The 7th Avenue was one of the old movie palaces in town, having opened in 1929. It was originally going to be called the Mayflower with decor to match, but the property was sold to another concern before it was finished and they did it over in Spanish Baroque (however they kept the Mayflower-like ship’s prows on either side of the auditorium that covered the organ pipes).
The event for which we were all gathered was the Northwest Premiere of the John Wayne film McQ.
The year before Duke had spent the summer of 1973 in Seattle (and the Washington coast) shooting exteriors for the film. He was all over the local news. Seattle Mayor Uhlman had declared the second week in that month John Wayne week, and the governor got into the act too by extending that honor throughout the state.
Little tidbits would pop up in the press about him, other cast members and the crew. Such as, during production Wayne was living on his yacht The Wild Goose which he kept at the Seattle Yacht Club and that he had brought his own chef along. Car ads popped up touting vehicles for sale that had been used in the film itself. And a flurry of stories swirled around the date of June 14, 1973. That was the date that his studio Warner Brothers had selected to hold the World Premiere of another Wayne film “Cahill US Marshal.” Also at the 7th Avenue Theater. We did not make this shindig, but it would have been really interesting if we had. Not only was the cast and crew of McQ on hand, but also those from “Cahill.”
[Aside – in attendance (besides the Duke) were Diana Muldaur, Eddie Albert, Robert Duvall, Clay O’Brien, Michael Wayne, Andrew McLaglen, Marie Windsor, and Jackie Coogan. Members of a third film dropped in too. James Caan and Marsha Mason from Cinderella Liberty were also shooting in Seattle at that time. Their director Mark Rydell came too, and for good reason. He had directed another recent Wayne film “The Cowboys”].
But at this World Premiere for “Cahill” some uninvited guests showed up. The tragic events at Wounded Knee were just two months old, fresh in everyone’s mind. And the American Indian community wanted it to remain there, so they rolled into town to protest this injustice by picketing the film and John Wayne himself, calling him the No 1 Indian killer.
At the time of the McQ premiere I was no longer at the Cinerama, but had switched over to the United Artists Cinemas 150 and 70, moving up to assistant manager. How I ever got a Saturday night off, I do not know, but I was there. I was on the left side section towards the back. My Dad had chosen a seat on the aisle that ran right next to the wall. I don’t recall if there were any other celebrities there that night, I had my eye on one only. And there was no mistaking that six foot four frame and the lumbering gait as John Wayne ambled down that very same aisle. Just before he came abreast of where my Dad was seated, Dad got to his feet and extended his hand to shake his. He was thrilled to have the Duke shake his hand. He had admired his films ever since ushering at the Paramount Theater in Salem, Massachusetts, and saw the likes of The Wake of the Red Witch and The Sands of Iwo Jima.
I asked my Dad about it afterwards. All he said was: “He had one helluva grip!”