John Barrymore, star of stage, screen and drinking establishments, blew into Omaha in May of 1939 -- still long on talent but, alas, rather short on cash.
"The Great Profile" was bringing his latest stage vehicle, My Dear Children, to the Tech High auditorium in a triumphal homecoming for one of his co-stars, Dorothy McGuire. Thing is, that homecoming turned out to be more than a little mortifying for the Nebraska ingenue -- being that the great actor turned out to be an even greater drunk, not to mention a supreme offender of polite Omaha society.
And then somebody let him on the radio, an apparently bibulous session with KOIL where he rambled and snorted through listeners' written questions.
UH . . . YEAH. It's pretty evident the poor man was as plowed as the nearby cornfields that first of May. Reportedly, Omahans were offended.
Not half as much as the local theater guild, however. Even Time magazine took note:
Soon the Barrymores' acting gave strong hints of their home life. With gusto John shouted at Elaine such stage lines as "You damned selfish brat." In the play he spanked her harder, she fanged his wrist more savagely, than was necessary.THE 'ENCHANTING' Dorothy McGuire -- she who had the hot mom -- wouldn't be taking in the spectacle much longer:
Fortnight ago their quarrel burst like a boil: Elaine quit the show in a spuming huff. A few days later, performing before Omaha's highbusted Drama League, John was royally pickled. Up & down traveled his voice, to a bull-like bellow, to a bird-like whisper. Scandalized were Omaha's great ladies when he ad-libbed such lines as "Albert, you look like a pregnant string bean." Afterwards Barrymore's press-agent offered the excuse that he had been "very tired." Concurred the Drama League's lady president: "He must have been very, very, VERY tired."
"Mr. Barrymore was a great disappointment to Dorothy," reported a November 1941 profile on the young actress in Life:
She toured with him for eight months, and was particularly embarrassed on the occasion of a one-night stand in Omaha, where his classic vocabulary and uninhibited stage presence made a shocking impression of old family friends of hers in the audience. By the fall of 1939 she found the Great Profile's shenanigans so taxing that she abandoned the troupe in Chicago, thus missing the New York opening. "I'd come blissful and starry-eyed from Our Town into this roughhouse," she said later. "I really and truly was shocked."IN THE biography John Barrymore, Shakespearean Actor, Michael A. Morrison has this account of the Omaha tour stop:
As the tour progressed through the South and Midwest, however, Barrymore soon came to resent the play and his fourth wife. Again there were much-publicized quarrels with Elaine Barrie; Barrymore showed up in an inebriated state and made unprintable comments at a luncheon in Omaha designed to promote the play. He improvised on the script whenever his memory failed or the impulse arose , and on at least one occasion resorted to four-letter words. After further marital tumult, Elaine Barrie agreed to be replaced and left the tour in St. Louis.I GUESS you could say a lot of things about my "damned town," Omaha. If you're paying attention, though, you'd know one of them wouldn't be "boring."
And you don't have to be well and properly plowed -- or, for that matter, as high as an elephant's eye -- to know "it's one of the most enchanting places" you've ever been in.