WINCHESTER – 75 years ago, Winchester residents looking at the local newspaper read not only about former and current residents who had gone off to war, but also about those who were helping Hollywood with its war-time missions of education, training, and morale-boosting entertainment.
On Jan. 1, 1943, for example, under the headline “Former Winchester Boy in Pictures,” townspeople learned that Bowen Tufts III, billed as Sonny Tufts, had gotten a lead role in the picture “So Proudly We Hail,” along with Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake.
From an old Massachusetts family which included the man who donated the land for Tufts College, Sonny Tufts was born in 1912 in Boston. In 1917 his family moved to Winchester, living first at 316 Highland Ave. but moving in 1923 to 7 Stratford Road.
From an early age Tufts wanted to be a singer. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, he went to Yale, where he formed bands and studied opera, as well as played football. Moving to New York City, he found roles in Broadway shows, sang in nightclubs, and played in bands.
On breaking into moving pictures, Tufts was reported as saying in 1943, “It was the funniest thing. They just signed me. I thought you had to have a high-powered agent with a sales talk. I thought they’d demand some tests. None of that. They just put me in the picture.”
But it was war time, and many leading men were simply not available, having joined the services. (A college injury kept Tufts out.)
The movie tells the story of army nurses stationed in the Philippines during the Battle of the Philippines (1941–42). When Bataan and Corregidor fell, 77 nurses were captured and imprisoned in and around Manila.
The film was premiered locally that October in Medford, with Tufts hailed as “The New Screen Adonis.” A showing at the Winchester Theater followed later in the month.
The story would have particularly hit home for at least one Winchester resident, Ruth W. Kelley, whose sister Lt. Evelyn Whitlow was one of the real nurses of Bataan and spent nearly three years as a prisoner on the Island of Mindinao and later in the Santo Tomas University Internment Camp. Lt. Whitlow was one of six family members in the services, including another sister in the Army Nurses Corps, Lt. Elizabeth Whitlow, who once nursed at Winchester Hospital.
The “Angels of Bataan” continued to serve as a nursing unit while prisoners of war and were finally liberated in February 1945. That April, Evelyn was in Winchester and told her story in person.
“Lt. Whitlow’s tales of the epic days that followed the Japs’ capture of the Philippines beggar description,” the Star reported. “She gave a thrilling account of her adventures” to the Rotary Club.
Meanwhile, the “new Adonis” soared to great (if fleeting) popularity during the war. It was thus quite a thrill when he assisted Winchester’s campaign for the United War Fund in 1943. The highlight of this campaign was a radio show, which featured both local and national talent. In Nov. 1943, Town Hall was packed, and others clustered around their radios for a show which included the high school chorus, bell ringers, and others on the stage. Tufts participated, speaking via the medium of a “special high fidelity orthacoustic record” made at his studio just for this broadcast.
Bette Davis also contributed a recording. As a child, Davis, the leading lady among former Winchester residents in Hollywood, lived in Winchester and attended the Wyman School, while her family was living on Cambridge Street from about 1910 until 1918 when her parents divorced. She was known to have returned occasionally. When the Winchester Theatre opened in 1937, she sent a congratulatory telegram. In 1943, that same theater showed her war-themed picture, “Watch on the Rhine.”
The March of Time
Another former Winchester resident making the local news in 1943 was Louis De Rochemont, producer of the March of Time news films and known as “father of the docu-drama” for his films based on actual events.
Born in Chelsea in 1899, de Rochemont lived with his family at 21 Foxcroft Road about 1914-16 and, after moving to Boston for a few years, at 1 Rangeley Road from 1921 until 1932 when the family moved to Cambridge. According to a New York Times story, de Rochemont’s “interest in film making dated back to his childhood when, attending public schools in Winchester, Mass., he took ‘newsreels’ in the streets of neighboring towns and sold them to local neighborhood movie houses.”
During his service with the Navy, he continued to have opportunities for filming, and afterward went to work for International Newsreel and later for Pathé News. In 1935, he began producing the March of Time news documentary series.
Understandably, a number of his films focused on the war. In 1938, de Rochemont produced a short documentary, “Inside Nazi Germany.” “Crisis in the Pacific” appeared in 1939 and more followed, including “Show-Business at War” in 1943 (viewable on YouTube).
The March of Times was a companion to a radio news series of the same name. In April, 1943, The Winchester Star told readers that de Rochemont spoke to listeners from inside a submarine submerged near the Portsmouth Navy Yard about how a U.S. “pigboat” destroyed 30,000 tons of Japanese shipping in the Pacific.
“Mr. de Rochemont described the actions of the captain and crew members in a simulated attack on enemy vessels. Included in the maneuvers of the submarine were crash-diving antics.”
The March of Times film series was, of course, shown at the Winchester Theatre. So also was de Rochemont’s “The Fighting Lady” in technicolor, billed as a “U.S. Navy Masterpiece” in 1945.
In addition to showing films, the theatre itself also did its bit for the war effort by offering its space for war-bond sales, clothing collections to aid destitute war victims, and other events, such as a theater party in September featuring a special showing of “Stage Door Canteen” and a performance by the 24-piece Royal Marine Band. Tickets were free, if you bought a bond.
With or without the glamor of Hollywood, Winchester residents pitched in with the nation’s various home-front programs. It added a little excitement, however, when stars “formerly of this town” pitched in with them.