Stately Wayne Manner

I've never been one for anniversaries or other annual remembrances, but as I was plowing through material on an unrelated project, I happened to notice it's been 100 years since the birth of Marrion Robert Morrison…better known as John Wayne.

I haven't seen many of Wayne's films, but I remember when I was just entering middle school my father took me to the "Head Shed" (the school district administration building) one summer day and rolled a bunch of 8mm school district films from the 1960s and 70s for me. (He must have been stuck minding me for the day.) I remember being kinda fascinated by a film which featured a gigantic modular Moog synthesizer; another was a documentary narrated by John Wayne in support of the Vietnam war—it was probably John Ford's No Substitute for Victory.

My father wasn't much of a movie fan—he didn't care for television, either—but he liked John Wayne's onscreen persona. My father was born in Ely, Nevada, just as the Great Depression hit high gear, went through his formative teenage years there during World War II. In many ways, he saw himself as part of the American West—emphasis on both words—and its traits of self-reliance and hard moral fiber. I don't know if my father ever saw The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—and I don't know how he would have responded to Wayne's more complex roles. (Well, I can guess: he probably would have liked Wayne, but found the movies lacking.) I do remember he liked Wayne in True Grit and, of course, Stagecoach.

That day at the Head Shed, as he was changing out the Vietnam documentary, he said something odd: "Movie actors die when they make a movie in Nevada," and went on to describe how Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe had both made their final movie around Reno. I later figured out he was referring to The Misfits, parts of which were shot around northern Nevada. Gable died of a heart attack a few days after filming completed, and director John Huston actually shut down production to send Monroe to rehab—probably called detox in the day—although she her eventual death was about a year and a half after filming ended. The movie must have been a big deal for Reno: I remember my mother saying the cast and crew stayed at the Mapes, an elegant art deco hotel that had fallen into disrepair by my day—it was torn down in 2000, and I think the site is now an outdoor ice skating rink).

As my father was changing the film, he went on to explain that John Wayne's final film, The Shootist, had been shot near Carson City, which is about 30 miles from Reno. Wayne died three years after completing The Shootist,, although the way my father told it there was a distinct cause-and-effect relationship. Wayne hadn't been in great health during filming, and the common (but inaccurate) wisdom was that Wayne, like his character in the film, had been suffering from cancer the entire time.

Even though I was just a kid, there was something in the tone of my father's voice in that moment which was respectful, almost elegiac: I could tell this meant something to him, although I wasn't old enough to understand what that might be. And that moment, in that darkened room in the Washoe County school district administration building, is as clear in my mind today as it was all those years ago.

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