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Lights, camera, Akron!

Clark Gable got his act together in Rubber City before he hit road to Hollywood

Author: Mark J. Price
Source: Akron Beacon Journal, Mon, Sep. 20, 2004

We'd like to take credit for discovering one of Hollywood's biggest stars, but, honestly, we barely noticed the kid when he was here.

Clark Gable was just another small-town boy trying to make good in the city. He was tall, muscle-bound, friendly, polite. Akron's rubber factories were filled with thousands of earnest young men just like him, and thousands more were on the way in search of work.

No one in town had any reason to believe that Gable would ever be famous -- not even Gable. Yet, there definitely was something memorable about him, and it wasn't just those lips, those eyes and those ears.

Gable lived in Akron for only a few years, but the experience changed his life. This is where he got his start in show business.

William Clark Gable was born Feb. 1, 1901, in Cadiz, Ohio. His father, William Henry Gable, was a farmer and oil driller. His mother, Adeline, died when he was 7 months old.

Gable spent most of his childhood in Hopedale, a coal-mining village in Harrison County, but moved with his father and stepmother, Jennie, to Portage County in 1916. The family settled on a farm in Palmyra Township.

``I fed the hogs, the rest of the stock, plowed in the spring until every muscle ached, forked hay in the hot sun until I was sweating crops of calluses,'' Gable later recalled. ``I did what I was expected to do on the farm, but it takes a certain knack for farming in the old-fashioned way. I just didn't have what it takes.''

Nor was he too happy with his education. Gable was an ox of a teen-ager who towered over classmates at Edinburg High. He dropped out of school in 1917.

``I'm not going to ride on that bus every day with a lot of kids half my size,'' he told his father.

Andy Means, a childhood pal from Hopedale, pulled Gable out of the doldrums. Means was moving to Akron to find a job. Gable decided to do the same.

``Akron was the biggest place I'd ever seen... Andy Means and I arrived with our straw suitcases and the big boxes of food my mother had made up for us,'' Gable recalled.

Levi Williamson, another friend from Hopedale, had moved to Akron but was away on military duty. His mother, Mrs. J. Williamson, offered Gable lodging in their home at 1163 Getz St. in south Akron.

``Little did we think when we were kids and young men together that we were training one of the gang to be America's No. 1 movie idol,'' Williamson noted.

By 1919, Gable landed a $95-a-week job as a clerk at the Firestone Steel Products rim plant at Miller and Sweitzer avenues. He stayed there about a year before leaving for bigger bucks at the Miller Rubber Co. on South High Street.

Irene Fess, who worked at Firestone, told an Akron reporter in 1934 that Gable was charming and fun to be around.

``He was just a big, overgrown boy, very fond of playing his ukulele whenever we got together,'' she said. ``He was a great `kidder.' ''

Recently married, Fess was quick to point out that she never was one of Gable's girlfriends.

``In fact, Clark didn't single out any particular girl, but he always went around with our crowd on parties,'' she said.

Who had time for girls? Besides working six days a week, Gable took night classes at the University of Akron because his dad wanted him to be a doctor.

``I never had any full-fledged romances in my youth because I never had time for them,'' Gable once said. ``I was always trying to stay one jump ahead of the bread line in the early days -- and in some of the later ones.''

After Williamson returned from the service, Gable moved to a duplex on Steiner Avenue. He lodged with Lewis J. Grether's family at 24 Steiner while Andy Means stayed with Walton Taylor's family at 22 Steiner.

The next-door neighbor left an impression on Grace Taylor Hockenberry and her stories would be the envy of many fans.

``I could hear him taking his bath in the mornings,'' she later said. ``He always ran downstairs two at a time. He never wore a hat. He was always in a hurry.''

All of South Akron was Gable's stomping grounds. He liked to hang out at Haun Drug Co. on the southwest corner of Main and Miller streets. His landlord, a pharmacist, allowed the youth to volunteer as a soda jerk.

Gable also helped out at Gates & Kittles, a men's clothing store across South Main. He worked part time as a salesman, peddling suits for $18 to $25, and wore snazzy new clothes as a fringe benefit.

``He danced around while he worked,'' tailor George Radoichin recalled with amusement.

The turning point in Gable's life came around 1920 when Andy Means talked him into going to a play. The Bird of Paradise was at Akron's Music Hall, a 2,000-seat auditorium at 44 E. Exchange St., the present-day site of the Beacon Journal.

When the lights dimmed, a new world opened for Gable. The reluctant theatergoer suddenly found himself enjoying the romantic drama.

He wanted to see more.

Gable began skipping his night classes to attend more plays. He started hanging out at the Why Not Eat? restaurant, a local stage hangout, and struck up conversations with actors.

They encouraged him to apply for a job at Music Hall.

Gable accepted a volunteer position as a callboy. His job was to notify actors when it was time to go onstage.

``I got the people out in time for the curtain whether they liked it or not,'' he explained.

Soon the director allowed him to appear as an extra. Sometimes he even had a line or two.

``I decided I would rather be an actor than a doctor or anything else,'' Gable said.

One night, he invited his father to see him at Music Hall. William Henry Gable was sure his son had gone mad. Acting was not a career!

In a bit of revisionist history, the Akron Times-Press reported in 1931 that Gable had been wildly popular among fans.

``His parts grew in size and importance,'' the paper reported. ``His stage appearance `clicked.' Akron liked to watch the husky hill lad more. Audiences heartily approved of his looks.''

In truth, not even his director, Ed Clark Lilley, remembered much about him.

``He was one of hundreds who came to me looking for jobs,'' he said. ``He was hired at the Music Hall as atmosphere.''

Gable's fledgling theater career was cut short in Akron when his stepmother Jennie grew ill with tuberculosis and died on the Palmyra farm. Gable's grief-stricken father decided to move away to Oklahoma and begged his son to follow.

The good son listened.

Mars A. ``Doc'' Parkhill, an old friend, ran into Gable at a shoeshine parlor on South Main.

``I'm going to Tulsa, Okla.,'' Gable told him. ``My father is out there. He has a garage and an oil lease to tend. He needs help.''

Gable had the acting bug, though. He joined a theatrical troupe, toured the West and ended up in Hollywood by 1924.

Akron didn't hear about Gable for a few years. He worked as a movie extra and played bit roles -- basically the same work he did at Music Hall.

The parts grew bigger and by 1931, he was stealing scenes in such movies as Dance, Fools, Dance, The Painted Desert, The Secret Six and A Free Soul.

Akron residents began to line up for his movies and racked their brains trying to recall the amiable rubber worker.

Gable won an Oscar in 1934 for It Happened One Night and achieved screen immortality in 1939 in Gone With the Wind.

He earned the nickname ``The King'' of Hollywood during his 75-movie career.

He never returned to Akron.

Beacon Journal reporter Art Cullison interviewed Gable in 1958 with his fifth wife, Kay, during an appearance in Cleveland.

``I flew over Akron on the way in today and pointed out to Kay where I used to work,'' Gable said. ``But I don't know when I'll ever get back there.''

Clark Gable died of a heart attack in November 1960 after completing The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe. He was 59.

Most of his Akron haunts -- including Music Hall, Haun's, Gates & Kittles, Miller Rubber, Firestone Steel Products and Why Not Eat? -- disappeared over the last 85 years. Even the lodging houses are gone.

No, we can't take credit for discovering a star, but we can claim a supporting role.

Akron gave Clark Gable his first applause.

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