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July 13, 2017

A New York Attitude

A New York Attitude

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Whenever there is a random mention of incidents in Hamilton County that appear in the national news, it’s a good reason for further exploration.  This information has the potential for a fun look at the area or to get a sense of the impact we may have on the rest of the country.  That’s why it’s unnerving when the story turns out to be condescending and vicious.

An article in the New York Evening Telegram of October 26, 1921, has a headline of “Noblesville, Indiana, on New York Stage!”  The piece concerns the New York stage production of the play based on Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” and describes actor McKay Morris buying the clothes that he wore onstage.   He purchased them at a Noblesville store while his theater company was in Indianapolis doing tryouts for the New York production.

The article could be deceiving if one didn’t know something about the background of the play.  “Main Street” was a satirical novel about small town life – it could be described as bitter.  It’s about the fictional town of Gopher Prairie, based on Lewis’ hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota.  Most of the characters in the novel are small minded people leading dull lives, with no taste or sophistication.  Morris played the lead character of Dr. Kennicott in the stage version.

The article in the Telegraph said Morris was driving around one day and stopped in Noblesville, where he saw a pair of pink striped pajamas and a green patterned bathrobe in a local store.  He immediately thought they would be perfect for his character.  He said the bathrobe was on mannequin of a kind “which are the pride and joy of every general store in towns like Noblesville and Gopher Prairie”.  He went to another store and bought the rest of his stage outfit.

There were several clothing and dry goods stores in town at the time, so we don’t know which one he stopped at.  The ones listed in the 1920 city directory were: Theo Becker; Clarke, Brock & Co.; Craycraft Dry Goods; Osbon Dry Goods; H. Williams; David Dorman; M. Haas & Son; J. G. Heinzmann; J. Joseph & Son; and J. R. Sperry.

The writer of the Telegram article said of the pieces of clothing, “They are as typically provincial and small townish as to say an emphatic ‘No’ to the question, Were they purchased in the city?  They most certainly were not!”

The production went to Broadway and was successful.  Morris apparently wore his Noblesville clothing for the run of the show.  Photographs and sketches of him in costume were used in newspaper articles and promotional material for the play.

The final paragraph of the article is dripping with sarcasm.  “Thus great is the glory which Noblesville has had thrust upon it!  Little did that hitherto unheralded and unsung village realize that it was furnishing the wardrobe for the leading man in a Main Street, New York, drama.”

I suspect that the writer never thought that anyone from Noblesville would see the article (and probably didn’t care).  It’s not pleasant to see your town being used as a template for tastelessness.  Today a smear like this might have gone viral.  Thanks to the Internet, it can be found at a database of scanned newspapers called “Old Fulton New York Postcards”.

Ironically, this article came out at a time when Noblesville’s own Norman Norell was preparing to start his fashion career, the city librarian was receiving national recognition for her development of a bookmobile program, and the city Shakespeare Club had been in existence for three decades.