HELLO AMERICA!—Since there is a major film in the planning based on my book “Hollywood Through the Back Door,” one of the highlighted scenes, of course, will focus on the fire-bombing of my dorm room when first attending Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana during the early 50s. Should it be decided to that the focus of “Hollywood Through the Back Door” will be produced as a miniseries, then it is recommended that you get ready for tons of action, adventure, sex, and secrets about the rich and famous and all the rest of it.
Going to Earlham College should be considered an interlude. In retrospect, I left my life in Morton and Swarthmore and, even with my achievements in television and radio, I was seriously wounded emotionally, and totally lost as to who I really was. I didn’t want to be identified or reminded of anything to do with my earlier years before coming to Earlham. I listened to the stories many of my classmates shared about their lives, and I made up stories about mine, especially when discussing my home life.
Of course, I found it was to my advantage when I described experiences about my performances on television and radio. It highlighted my presence and popularity on campus and attracted most of the student body to whatever I was doing. It was as though I was being born again: no matter where I turned, I was met with smiles and acceptance. I was assigned to a dorm of guys who came from every country on the globe. My roommate, Harold Visino, was from Ithaca, New York. Fortunately, he was a lover of classical and Broadway music. Earlham, like Swarthmore, was built and influenced by Quakers. So, the gathering at the meeting house on Sunday was nothing new to me. I was glad there was no preaching or collection during the service. I welcomed the serenity and simplicity.
There were only three other Black students in my class and our presence on the campus was quite obvious. It was also a time of ‘I Like Ike’ and ‘Kilroy Was Here.’ The entire atmosphere seemed right from a Judy Garland or Mickey Rooney musical—and I lived that fantasy every single day. I enjoyed the idea of going to practice piano or singing in one of the rehearsal rooms, as I had watched some of the Swarthmore College students do at the close of a day of classes. Even though I played the bass violin in the high school orchestra, actually being a part of a large, instrumental ensemble on the Earlham campus was quite overwhelming. I felt as though I had arrived!
I quickly made two very close friends in the class: Tony Collenbach from Boalsburg, PA, and John Ruchderschel who hailed from the Main Line, not too far from Swarthmore. We did everything and went everywhere together. All three of us loved soccer, and when there was a free moment we were kicking the hell out of a ball on the athletic field. Music, of all types, was constantly heard in one of our rooms. Mantovani, Ravel and Debussy were definite favorites with most of the music students. And, oh yes, Edith Piaf the French singer who wore no makeup, and stood wearing a simple dress while singing her heart out. Wherever there was a piano, that’s where I would be playing some of the current songs from a Broadway or film musical, and always with a chorus of students who enjoyed singing as much as I did.
Suddenly, I had a tremendous student following which led to my being nominated class president, to the dismay and total surprise of one, very wealthy classmate, Peter Vanderkamp, who was from one of those very well-to-do families, on the Main Line near Philadelphia. He was used to getting whatever he wanted, and had an air of superiority, with an almost cinematic posture of arrogance. He was rather comic in a way: he spoke with an exaggerated English accent—after all he had attended private schools in England.
Naturally, he chose his friends very carefully. Whenever he approached you or spoke with you, it was as though he was giving an official command. At various times, I noticed Peter staring at me, as if he was utterly amazed, that I was there at the same school as himself. His buddies offered his name up as president of the class, and that’s when Tony and John did the same for me. Now, I was definitely on Peter’s list of enemies.
The campaign was heated, yet fun and revealing as well. There were signs with my name and picture on every window and building on the campus. It was as if I was experiencing a dream. This had to be the MGM movie of the decade. Something like this doesn’t happen in real life, but it was happening to me! I gave speeches whenever possible and there was always a large crowd. As for Peter, he didn’t know how to create excitement and, as a result, his drawing power was minimal, something he could not understand. He attempted to attract more students his way by throwing big parties in the dorm dining hall. Naturally large numbers of students showed up, but a party of any kind attracts students regardless of what it is for.
In a way, I welcomed his challenge, watching him not knowing how to make a quick and easy escape when a group of students followed me into the recreation hall or dining room was a thrill. I knew I had Peter running scared. He had no answer to any of our campaign strategies or activities. He had never had to deal with a real challenge. He didn’t have the fighting instinct. He actually believed his family name was enough. I had had enough experience at Swarthmore to control the situation. When it came time for the election, I won overwhelmingly. In a way, it was the beginning of the end.
Once the semester got underway, there wasn’t a free moment. Along with all the class work, I had orchestra rehearsals, and piano and singing lessons. The college had requests for singers and musicians to perform in the Richmond community. This was one way many of the students earned extra money for the semester. When it was learned that I had been a regular on the TV Teen Club Show in Philadelphia, the campus administration office was inundated with requests for me to perform. As a result, I had very little time for myself. Not only that, but the class had to organize for the annual Homecoming Parade. Each class was responsible for creating a float. We decided to build a ‘Kilroy Was Here’ float.
Everyone worked through the night to create the Kilroy float. It was teamwork all the way. It was the first project that we, as a class, undertook and we began to feel a real unity. Once the project was complete, we marveled at the final result. The class was excited to do their thing in the big Homecoming Parade. The night before the big celebration, I was scheduled to appear at the main hotel in downtown Richmond.
When I got there, I was surprised to see the Hollywood-western legend, Hopalong Cassidy— dressed in white from head to toe—arrive with his entourage of western performers. As if he and I had been old friends, I simply walked up to him, shook his hand and introduced myself and mentioned that I hoped that he and his company would have a good show in Richmond. He looked rather amused, put his arm around me and asked what I was doing there. I told him that I was a singer performing at a reception at the hotel and, of course, attending Earlham College. He wished me luck and mentioned that if I ever came to Hollywood I should look him up. I responded with, “I’d like that.”
The plan for the parade was that I, as the president, would lead the float and class down Market Street, the main street in the town. The parade was to finish back on the college campus and a grand reception was scheduled to take place in the college arena. The prospect was exhilarating and everybody involved looked forward to the final celebration. However, on the day of the parade, when we were marching down the main street with the girls in the class flanking me on each side, a group of young hoodlums began to yell racial insults and threw bottles and garbage at me and the class. When Tony and John spotted one of them with a bat, they quickly pulled me from the group and rushed me back to the campus, but not to the dorm. Tony felt it was best to take me to the Dean’s house where I could wait until he returned home.
When Dean Curtis finally returned home he was very disturbed by some of the threats he had been made aware of and, determined to keep me safe, decided it would be best for me to stay in his attic for the night. Then he would see that I got to the Greyhound depot to get out of Richmond. It was a wise decision because a few hours later a huge explosion erupted from my dorm. It had been fire-bombed.
Within hours the Dean had arranged with Chancellor von KleinSmid at USC in Los Angeles for me to continue my education there. With his connection at the university he also arranged for a special scholarship that would cover all of my expenses. As if preordained, everything was falling into place.