Miss Davis will be missed terribly

newspaper column

          There was no one saddened by the recent death of Bette Davis more than Provo dinner theater owner Duke Major.  He knew her personally.

"I was a die-hard Bette Davis fan, and I'll miss her a lot.

It figures.  Duke grew up around Hollywood in the 1930s.  In fact when he was a young man in the 40s, he worked as a ticket taker for the nationally famous Lux Radio Show.

That allowed him to rub shoulders with such big stars as Davis, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Lana Turner, Rita Hayward, Frank Sinatra and others.

It seems to have colored the rest of his life.  Ever since then he’s has a strong love of the world of entertainment.

Duke has acted in little theater productions and several years ago he purchased two old movie houses, the Villa Theater in Springville and the Alhambra Theater in Pleasant Grove.  He had hoped he could revive live theater in the pair of theaters.

Several productions were staged in them, but after operating too long in the red, he sold the Springville theater and reopened the Alhambra as a family movie House.

            Then there was his return to his roots in radio.  He became the host of an old time radio show on KTALK Radio in Salt Lake City.  He played old radio shows and interview veteran movie stars.  Among those he interviewed were Van Johnson, and Fibber McGee and Molly  (Jim and Mary Jordon).  He also interviewed the Lone Ranger and Duke’s personal friend, Karl Malden.

His latest venture into the world of entertainment is the  Backstage Cafe, a music and dinner theater club in downtown Provo.  Its current production is the musical "Porter Rockwell."

“I believe the time is right for a dinner theater in Provo," he says, adding that he knows the entertainment business can be fickle. 

"It has its upsies and downsies," he says, mentioning the time he lost thousands of dollars on a production of “Damn Yankies.”

<>"We have more talent per square inch than anywhere else
 in the country but we don't have enough theatergoers per square inch," he says.

He jokes that if he were smarter he would get into some real business, but he say’s he can't stop eating and sleeping entertainment.

"I even dream as if my dream was a theater production," Duke,” says.

            It must be that it’s just in his blood.  After all, his grandfather Cluff opened the first theaters in Utah.

It is any surprise that his hobby is collecting photos of Hollywood stars.  They are all over the walls of his new dinner theater and all other the walls of his home in Pleasant Grove.

Looking back to his radio days at the Lux, Duke recalls a day when he ended trying to control crazed girls who came to watch and scream over the young radio star Frank Sinatra who had been on the Lux Radio Show.

He says a crowd of girls had stopped Frank Sinatra's convertible at a stoplight near the theater, and Duke had to help yank them off the singer.

<>           "They had already pulled the convertible top down and by the time we got to him, the girls had almost de-pantsed him.

"He seemed genuinely scared.  Incidents like this may have helped give him the attitude he now has for over-zealous fans and the press," Duke says.

He is still touched by the memory of an unforgettable Lux radio performance by the Swedish star Ingrid Bergman.

He said that because there were no cameras as happened later with television, most radio performers could act only with their voices.

Bergman was doing Hemingway's. "For Whom the Bells Toll."

"She was different," Duke, says."

She was in character the entire time, even as other people read their lines and she was waiting for hers.

"She didn't need them for the radio audience, but she was in tears as she performed her emotional part.

"Everybody in the stilled audience and even the technical crew were significantly moved and knew they had seen a historic performance,” Duke said.

World War II was raging when Duke worked at the Lux Radio Show.  And he says he also ended up volunteering Betty Davis' Hollywood USO Canteen that catered to the soldiers in town.

Regular guys like Duke and movie stars at the canteen were equals, he says.  And he often found himself washing dishes next to  some big star who was drying dishes.

He remembers one time sitting across a table at the canteen consoling a tearful Bette Davis after her dog was killed by a car.

Davis had a royal bearing about her that resulted in everyone calling her Miss Davis and never Bette, although she never demanded it.

     "She had a reputation for being a witch spelled with a 'B,' but she was really just a professional who was always prepared and couldn't stand others who were unprepared," Duke said.

He said he will miss Miss Davis terribly.

(A version of this column was published in The Daily Herald, Provo, Utah.)


© 1999-2005 Pat Christian

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