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Although most people describe Lake Charles as small, quiet, and out-of-the-way, we occasionally play host to famous visitors – from Hollywood actors to presidents and presidential candidates. Today we may not recognize these famous names, but in their heyday they were as famous as Meryl Streep, Dua Lipa, and Jason Aldean are today... [see link below for full introduction.]
On February 8, 1960, Bette Davis appeared in “The World of Carl Sandburg” at the McNeese Auditorium. The stage presentation featured selections from the poetry and prose of the famous poet. Lake Charles Little Theatre director Rosa Hart played hostess to the visiting actress who sent a thank-you note from Beaumont, the next stop on the tour.
In 1960, Davis’ career was in a lull and her personal life was chaotic. Her most famous movie roles occurred in the 1940s and 1950s, including “The Little Foxes,” “Now, Voyager,” “Jezebel,” and “All About Eve.” Davis and her husband, Gary Merrill, began touring in “The World of Carl Sandburg,” but ended up divorcing before the tour reached Lake Charles. In the 1960s Davis came out of her semi-retirement to star in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” films which cemented her cult status.
In 1953 the Lake Charles Little Theatre began a tradition of inviting famous actors to guest star in local productions. Stage, screen, radio, and television actor Jeffery Lynn visited Lake Charles to perform as “Mr. Roberts.” Lynn appeared in dozens of feature films, including “A Letter to Three Wives,” “All This, and Heaven Too,” “Four Daughters,” “The Roaring Twenties,” “Black Bart,” and “Underground.” During World War II, Lynn served in the Air Force, earning a Bronze Star. After the war, Lynn preferred working on stage and in television, including appearances in “Murder, She Wrote,” “Knots Landing,” and “Simon & Simon.” While in Southwest Louisiana, Lynn met with local dignitaries, including Ex-Governor and Mrs. Sam Jones (pictured here).
Little Theatre director Rosa Hart also arranged various events with actor Jeffrey Lynn, such as lectures at McNeese and Lake Charles High School, visiting Little Pecan Island where “Louisiana Story” was filmed, and trawling for shrimp. Seen here is Hart's handwritten itinerary for Lynn's visit.
In 1954, Rosa Hart and the Lake Charles Little Theatre again hosted a celebrity guest star. Steve Cochran, known for playing sexy, cold-hearted villains, arrived in Lake Charles to play the lead role in “Detective Story.” Cochran was equally at home on stage and screen, with stage performances ranging from Shakespeare to starring opposite Mae West in “Diamond Lil.” His films include White Heat,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Chase,” and “The Kid from Brooklyn.” Cochran’s schnauzer, Ralph, accompanied him to Lake Charles.
Agnes Moorehead visited Lake Charles several times, including performing her one-woman show "Fabulous Redhead" at McNeese in April 1954. Moorehead worked in radio, stage, film, and television. She is best known for her role as Endora on the television series “Bewitched,” but she also had notable roles in films, including “Citizen Kane,” “All That Heaven Allows,” “Show Boat,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” Moorehead is seated on the right and Rosa Hart is standing behind her.
In 1964, veteran actor Jack Lord visited Lake Charles for the annual Southwest Louisiana Fat Stock Show and Rodeo. Lord had just completed filming “Stoney Burke” and vowed never to act in a television series again. He must have changed his mind, as four years later he became the star of the hit television series “Hawaii Five-O.” Here Lord poses with Log Sports Editor Linda Lemoine, Miss Lake Charles Becky Simpson, and Log Editor Carl McPherson.
Singer Ronnie Milsap was one of country music's most popular and influential performers of the 1970s and 1980s. He became a versatile "crossover" singer, appealing to both country and pop music fans. His biggest hits include "It Was Almost Like a Song," "Smoky Mountain Rain," "(There's) No Gettin' Over Me," "I Wouldn't Have Missed It for the World," "Any Day Now," and "Stranger in My House." He won six Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014. In September 1979, Milsap performed at the McNeese Auditorium to a sold-out crowd.
Country singer Hank Williams performed at the McNeese Auditorium in 1949 and at Legion Field in 1952. The “performance” in 1949 did not go very well. Williams sauntered on stage, completely inebriated, and proceeded to demonstrate how to eat a biscuit and syrup. Using his thumb, he mashed a hole in the top of the biscuit, filled it with syrup, and managed to eat it without spilling a drop. He stumbled off the stage without ever playing a note.
The 1952 performance was more successful, with the audience getting to actually hear some songs. After the set, McNeese professor Miller Williams struck up a conversation with the singer, using their shared last name as a connection. Miller Williams became famous in his own right, winning many prestigious prizes in poetry and for reading his poem “Of History and Hope” at President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration. Miller Williams is the father of singer Lucinda Williams.
In the Spring of 1963, actors Lorne Greene and Michael Landon were the featured guests at the Southwest Louisiana Fat Stock Show and Rodeo. Their wildly successful television series “Bonanza” depicted the Cartwright family and their Nevada ranch, the Ponderosa. The two actors are pictured here with Log Editor Howard Melton, Student Body President Donald Cornett, and another student.
Donald Cornett later served in the Army and was killed in action in the Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam in 1965. He rose to the rank of First Lieutenant and received the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and many other honors.
In October 1959, John F. Kennedy was a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts with higher aspirations. Although he was a war veteran and part of a prominent family, Kennedy was a Roman Catholic. Until then, all U.S. Presidents had been Protestants. Kennedy’s religion could be an issue in his quest for the White House. Kennedy decided to travel to south Louisiana, one of the largest Catholic enclaves in the nation, to test the waters. His visit to Louisiana proved to be a great success, helping him to win the state and, ultimately, the presidency.
Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, made several stops across south Louisiana. In Crowley, at the Rice Festival, the senator urged his wife to say a few words. Jacqueline was reluctant, but ultimately recounted a story, in French, about how when she was a little girl, her father had told her that “Louisiana was way down south, but it … was a little part of France, and she had been in love with it ever since.” The Cajun crowd, of course, went wild, sealing Kennedy’s reputation in the state. The final stop on the tour was a television press conference in Lake Charles followed by dinner at the Pioneer Club.
Sometimes celebrities visit Southwest Louisiana for reasons other than entertainment. In 2006, former President George H.W. Bush and actor George Clooney arrived in Cameron to celebrate the rededication of South Cameron Memorial Hospital. The hospital received a $2 million grant from the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund to rebuild after Hurricane Rita. Although the day was cold and wet, hundreds of fans waited for a glimpse of the famous actor and the former President. Photo by Brad Puckett of the Lake Charles American Press.
In August 1992 Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton stopped for a short press conference at Chennault International Airport. Later that year he won the election, becoming the 42nd President.
In 1959, at the tender age of 11, Dolly Parton and her grandmother, Rena Owens, took a 30-hour bus trip to the GoldBand recording studio in Lake Charles. They made the trip to record “Puppy Love,” written by Parton and her Uncle, Bill Owens, who worked in the local petrochemical industry.
Gerstner Field was a large World War I fighter pilot training camp that once stood near Holmwood about 15 miles southeast of Lake Charles. Gerstner Field was in operation from 1917 through 1920 and was widely recognized for its contributions to the development of airplanes as air ambulances and radio-controlled tactical flying techniques. In 1918, John Purroy Mitchel, a former mayor of New York City, was training at Gerstner Field when his plane went into a nose dive. Mitchel had failed to secure his safety belt and fell to his death from the open cockpit of his Thomas-Morse SB-4.
In November 1920, failed vice-presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt took a vacation to Louisiana. Mr. and Mrs. W.B. Conover of Lake Charles had met FDR’s brother-in-law George Hall Roosevelt when he was stationed at Gerstner Air Field. The Conovers invited the Roosevelts to hunt at their Illinois Plantation southwest of Lake Arthur.
Traveling first to New Orleans, the future president visited with M.L. Alexander, the Conservation Commissioner of Louisiana, and his family. The two Roosevelts then traveled by train to Lake Charles, enjoying a dinner with local leaders C.O. Noble, Walter Goos, G.A. Courtney, A.P. Pujo, Frank Roberts, T.H. Watkins, and J.W. Gardner. The next day the Conovers and Roosevelts traveled to Cameron Parish for a bird hunting expedition. The hunt was interrupted because a young boy went missing in the marsh. After searching for several hours, FDR came upon the boy and brought him to safety.
Celebrated actor Charles Laughton visited Lake Charles in 1950 to perform dramatic readings from the Bible, Shakespeare, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and other great works of literature. The Lake Charles Little Theatre sponsored the program at the McNeese Auditorium. An article in the Lake Charles American Press noted, “Since the performance is on the day of the LSU-Tulane game, theatre officials stressed the fact that that date was the only one available.”
In 1942, a young amateur musician named Eddie Shuler moved from Texas to Lake Charles to work in the construction industry. Shuler began playing with a local band, the Hackberry Ramblers, and his own band, the Reveliers. In 1944, he opened a small music store and began recording his band and a few other local musicians. Shuler’s recordings of one of these musicians, accordion player Iry LeJune, led to a national and international interest in Cajun music that continues today. Other artists who recorded at Goldband include Dolly Parton, Freddie Fender, Jimmy C. Newman, Rockin' Sidney, Boozoo Chavis, Al Ferrier, Gene Terry, Juke Boy Bonner, Guitar Junior, J. B. Fusilier, Alphee Bergeron, Ron Bertrand, Sidney Brown, Shorty LeBlanc, Big Chenier, Katie Webster, Cleveland Crochet and the Sugar Bees, Cookie and the Cupcakes, and Phil Phillips. Phillips’ famous “Sea of Love” reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1959.
Sonny & Cher performed at the Lake Charles Civic Center on October 2, 1972. The duo was at the height of their fame, starring in a weekly variety show in addition to recording and live performances. The Lake Charles performance suffered many problems, starting with the performers arriving late with malfunctioning sound equipment.
Comedian David Brenner was the opening act.
Elvis Presley performed two shows at the Lake Charles Civic Center on May 4, 1975. The event was such big news that a press conference was held simply to announce the concert date. The star was past his prime, no longer able to bump and grind with gusto, which had caused the Ed Sullivan Show to censor his movements. He died two years later on August 16, 1977.