Monday, January 5, 2009

The Lions in Winter...

By Jim Heffernan

Actor Pat Hingle is dead of natural causes, the New York Times reported on Monday (Jan. 5). He was not – repeat NOT – devoured by Lions (upper-case L intended).

Hingle, who was 84, had a distinguished career on Broadway and in movies, but he was far from a household name. Yet he was on the tip of everyone’s tongue in Duluth some 40 years ago when he gave a fine performance before the local unit of the Lions Club in the Hotel Duluth ballroom.

Hardly a man (there were no women in the Lions Club in those days) is still alive who remembers the infamous day when Hingle stood before them and gave a rousing speech, as his service-club audience of businessmen cheered.

What’s a well-respected Broadway actor doing performing before a service club in Duluth? Maybe he was between shows like “J.B.” or “Dark at the Top of the Stairs” or “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” some of the plays he appeared in in New York.

In any event, Hingle took up an offer by CBS to come to Duluth and give a speech – actually recite a speech – while a film crew recorded the performance and the audience’s reaction. The local Lions were delighted to have such a distinguished speaker, although you wonder how many of the men had heard of him. And CBS television, too. That was Ed Sullivan’s network, for crying out loud. (There would be plenty of crying out loud before this was over.)

So Hingle showed up at the noontime meeting, the CBS crew showed up, the Lions showed up, and after a fine meal Hingle got up to speak. And speak he did. Witnesses said he was a spellbinder in a speech containing the verities and convictions of your average businessmen of the day.

Audience members didn’t know Hingle was acting as he presented the George F. Babbitt speech from Sinclair Lewis’ acclaimed novel, “Babbitt.” Lewis was a Duluth resident for a couple of years shortly after World War II but he didn’t write “Babbitt” here. Still, many people think the city called Zenith in the book was based on our own Zenith City – a nickname for Duluth you don’t hear much anymore.

The fictional character of Babbitt became so well known it became part of the American lexicon. Here’s how a recent Webster’s collegiate describes the noun Babbitt: “A member of the American middle class whose unthinking attachment to its business and social ideals is such as to make him a model of narrow-mindedness and self-satisfaction.”

Hmmm. As Hingle spoke, the CBS film crew captured Duluth Lions enraptured by the speaker’s words, not realizing they were hearing Sinclair Lewis’ words. Then, on the weekend, the CBS film crew joined the Lions on a club-sponsored train junket to see a Vikings game in the Twin Cities. Duluth had trains in those days.

A few local Lions, as Lions will occasionally do, imbibed a bit on the train ride, some spilling the beans on camera about the joys of extra-marital affairs (wink-wink) and the like. Words were slurred, along with reputations.

After everybody sobered up, though, it became known in Duluth that everything – the Babbitt speech and its rousing applause, the train trip – would be shown on CBS television – for God and everybody in the United States tuned to the Tiffany Network to see.

Hoo, boy. Not good. Not a bit good. Lions, of course, are a national, if not international, organization, and a contingent of national Lions officials visited CBS headquarters in New York to tell – well, maybe ask – CBS not to air the program. Word got out and widely read newspapers ran stories with punny headlines about Lions being thrown to lions and the like.

CBS declined to kill the broadcast. Everyone who was anyone in Duluth – oh heck, that’s everyone isn’t it? – tuned in when it ran. I tuned in. As a reporter for the Duluth newspapers at the time, I had been involved in some of the coverage of this all-too-human comedy, which Lions found to be decidedly unfunny.

Sad to say, careers were altered as a result. Well-meaning, capable businessmen working their way up corporate ladders were halted mid-ladder, never to make it to the top, or anywhere near it. I could name names.

You wonder what Pat Hingle might have been thinking as his life passed before him in his last moments: Perhaps about his movies, like “Splendor in the Grass,” his plays, like “J.B.,” a modernization of the Biblical story of Job, or that day in Duluth when he played George F. Babbitt in a solo performance before a Lions Club.

He should have received a Tony for the performance. That’d be Tony the Tiger.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OMG–Babbit lives in Duluth!