September 22, 2022 marks a special day; as noted on the marquee of the Orpheum theater at 57 Kellogg Street in downtown Galesburg is a reminder of the 100th birthday of William Oliver Clark. He was born September 22, 1922. Clark was a lifelong fan of the Orpheum.
In 1932 the Orpheum Theater, centerpiece of Galesburg, Illinois entertainment, was an exciting element in the life of city folks and, also, residents of rural Knox and Warren County. For ten- year- old William Oliver Clark, who lived in Alexis, the Orpheum was beyond wonderful. For young Clark the Orpheum opened the world beyond Alexis, Galesburg, and Illinois.
Clark’s father Floyd, former Sheriff of Mercer County, Illinois, a lifelong resident of Alexis, owned
the Essex, Velie, and Pontiac automotive dealership in his hometown. He was also a successful
auctioneer and real Este entrepreneur. Mrs. Merle Stoner Clark, William’s mother, a registered nurse, could certainly drive. And multiple automobiles were always available. The fourteen- mile trip to Galesburg was, as today, only hindered by an occasional farm implement . There was plenty of dust on the unpaved roads and from year to year possibly a washed- out bridge that might interrupt traffic on the “hard road.”
Merle Stoner Clark shared her son’s enthusiasm for the Orpheum and the two of them -mother and son- were frequently in the audience. By the time Bill was twelve or thirteen Billy (as he was called) was the driver for the Galesburg Orpheum excursions.
Bill memorized the performers names, their special achievements, understood their circuits (where they had just performed and where they would go next). He kept track of where they stayed in Galesburg (most often at the nearby Custer Hotel) and was “tuned in” to costumes, traveling companions and the whereabouts of their families.
Alexis was and still is the location of an authentic “opera house” – a name representing more hope than truth. Located in the center of town on Main Street, the Alexis Opera House featured entertainers on the performance circuit of such towns as London Mills, Aledo, Canton and other smaller Illinois and Iowa villages. Performers coming to Alexis contrasted in talent and fame with Galesburg Orpheum’s caliber entertainment, nevertheless, Clark was equally fascinated with the Alexis Opera House and its role in Alexis history.
The Alexis Opera House was opened on November 21, 1889 and served the community as a theater and space for public events for three decades. The opera house was closed as a theater on June 17, 1920. Then the stage was briefly reopened around the time of the Alexis centennial for a performance by the local high school students.
The original stage curtain and scenery flats are still in situ although in a considerably deteriorated condition. The curtain still bears the signature of scenic designer H.B. Keller of Ohio and one of the flats points to local landmark Shanghai City. The ticket booth still has tally marks on the walls and the curtains and dressing rooms are covered with the names of those who performed on the stage. There is an admonition written on the wall that says, “do not spit on the floor.” The writing on the door of the woman’s dressing room declares, “No peeking! This means you!” The theater was originally lit by kerosene lanterns the hooks of which can still be seen on the ceiling, but was later converted to knob and tube electricity. Two large interior windows are
located high in the theater wall and could be opened to provide cross ventilation.
According to a book published in honor of the Alexis sesquicentennial the May Bretonne Company were the first out of town performers at the opera house followed in later years by the Crow Sisters, Blind Boom, Comedian John Thomas, Lyceum Theatre Co., C. Tube, Hazel Adams, Ella Gladman, and the Georgia Troubadours among many others lost to time. The opera house played host to high school graduations, local theatrical productions, political and religious meetings, poetry readings, and many community gatherings.
Movies and movie stars also intrigued Clark; the movie houses in Alexis, Monmouth, and Aledo provided additional insight for Bill and his insatiable California silver screen curiosity.
Anchored by his love of the glamour of the Orpheum (he never forgot the “pretty girls”), bolstered as an undying fan of all movies of the era, and growing up within a few blocks of the
Alexis Opera House gave impetus to Bill’s sense of adventure.
Calling upon his dream, at the onset of World War II Clark relocated to Hollywood, California.
He was employed by Columbia Records and appeared as an extra in at least one Walt Disney film. The film was created to support the war effort. He never cashed the check from Walt Disney.
When Bill Clark returned to Alexis he began a radio repair business – radio was entertainment.
Radio was also an important source of market information, weather reports, and local programming. Within a year he married Elizabeth McCreary Cox; he had known her his entire life. “Bobbity,” as she was known, and Bill were distant cousins.
As the war wound down both Bobbity and Bill realized television was the opportunity of the century. At the earliest moment, as pioneers, they opened a Motorola TV store. Wisely, Bill also assumed responsibility for TV repair for both Mercer and Warren counties. Bobbity kept books for the business, and she supported the TV sales and service enterprise by hosting small luncheons for her area acquaintances. Always, at these parties, the conversation would involve discussion of current TV shows. “It just seemed natural that all of our friends would buy Motorola TVs,” she smiled as she told the story.
Bill recounting his role in owning and managing a TV repair business said it was akin to rock star status. In the early years when a TV was out of commission all agony prevailed. “Dad couldn’t watch wrestling, mom was missing soap operas, and the kids could not watch the Mickey Mouse Club. So, I would arrive and just like magic I would fix the TV. I was a real hero.”
In later years Bill Clark was a hero of a different sort, he adopted feral cats, fed them, paid for veterinarian care, and volunteered to maintain food and weekend coverages for pets boarded at neighboring Dr. Petersons veterinarian clinic.
But entertainment was never far from Bill Clark. Over the years he collected thousands of vinyl records focusing primarily on the big band era he also collected an extensive library of biographies of families entertainers and a sizable college of movies.