Storm Lake shines in the spotlight

FILLERS

BY JOHN CULLEN

The release this week of Art Cullen’s book, Storm Lake, A Chronicle of Change, Resilience and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper, shines the national spotlight once again on The City Beautiful.

It’s not the first time our fair city has been in the spotlight. We’ve had a lot of national publicity in recent years, most of it good as we’ve become known as America’s community where immigration works.

But Storm Lake had received national publicity long before the immigrants came.

Bill Bryson’s 1989 book, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, took him on a car trip through 38 states in search of the perfect small town. He never found one, but he visited some that came close, including Storm Lake.

He wrote: “I drove to Storm Lake. Somebody once told me that Storm Lake was a nice little town, so I decided to drive in and have a look. And by golly, it was wonderful. Built around the blue lake from which it takes its name, it is a college town of 8,000 people. Maybe it was the time of year, the mild spring air, the fresh breeze, I don’t know, but it seemed just perfect. The little downtown was solid and unpretentious, full of old brick buildings and family-owned stores. Beyond it a whole series of broad, leafy streets, all of them lined with fine Victorian homes, ran down to the lakefront where a park stood along the water’s edge. I stopped and parked and walked around. There were lots of churches. The whole town was spotless. Across the street, a boy on a bike slung newspapers onto front porches and I would almost swear that in the distance I saw two guys in 1940s suits cross the street without breaking a stride. And somewhere at an open window, Deanna Durbin sang.”

Storm Lake was featured in an episode of the hit TV series M*A*S*H on Nov. 3, 1973. To make some extra money, Corporal Radar O’Reilly was selling mail order black and white Hi-Style wingtip shoes from the Style Right Shoe Company of Storm Lake, Iowa. Colonel Blake was being court-martialed and allowing Radar to sell shoes on the side was one of the charges brought by Blake’s rivals, Frank and Margaret.

I was working as a reporter at The Storm Lake Register and Pilot-Tribune at the time, and wanted to call the M*A*S*H  producers in Hollywood to see why they used Storm Lake. But publisher John Anderson didn’t want to pay for the long distance phone call, and told me it wasn’t worth a story.

Another big spotlight shined on Storm Lake on Dec. 4, 1962. Comedian Jack Benny had one of the top-rated TV shows of the time on CBS and Bob Hope was his guest on this episode. For our readers under age 60, Benny and Hope were the two top comedians of that time.

They did a sketch in which they recalled their vaudeville days when they played small towns, and they mentioned Storm Lake, Iowa, four times. It was good-hearted banter that gently made fun of Storm Lake and other small towns.

Storm Lake native Gordon Linge remembers the episode well. “I remember watching TV alone when Jack Benny and Bob Hope mentioned ‘Storm Lake, Iowa’ four times. I could hardly wait to tell my parents when they got home.

“A few years earlier, while my family bought our Christmas tree at the Earl May Garden Center located next to the alley on West Fifth Street, I spotted the proscenium arch near the back of the store. My dad told me this used to be the Palace Theatre and that Jack Benny had played there (in the 1920s). Connie’s popcorn stand was located on the opposite side of the alley to service theatre-goers,” Gordon recalls.

Gordon and his wife Jill live in New Orleans now but he grew up in Storm Lake. The Palace Theatre, in the middle of the 100 block of West Fifth Street, later became a movie theatre. Today it’s owned by Central Bank and is unoccupied.

You can probably find episodes of both shows on YouTube. Gordon saw the old Jack Benny show a few weeks ago on a cable channel showing old TV shows.