How I Met Ginger Rogers

I suppose, at this long last, I hope I don’t need to nudge people to remember who Ginger Rogers was. She was a movie star. She danced with Fred Astaire in movie, after movie, after movie, and she also appeared in wonderful films such as Stage Door, Vivacious Lady, Kitty Foyle, Tom, Dick and Harry, and Roxie Hart. All of those were made after she danced first with Mr. Astaire in Flying Down to Rio. Prior to that she was already a star appearing in many films including 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. In Gold Diggers she stopped the show by singing “We’re in the Money” in Pig Latin. Because she knew how.

In 1973 I became a projectionist at The Movie House in Seattle, working my way through the University of Washington. It was a great job for a student. While the reels rolled, I could read or study anything I wanted. A lot of that time it was UW work. The Movie House was owned by Randy Finley. This is before he owned Seven Gables Theatres. Back then he owned The Movie House in Seattle and a second The Movie House in Portland. The Portland movie house had just opened in 1973.

About the time of this story he had bought a building at 50th and Roosevelt in Seattle. That would become The Seven Gables Theatre. It got its name because I knew a guy who, like many others I knew, wanted to own a movie theatre. He told me his dream was to own a revival theatre that would have seven pictures of Clark Gable in the lobby and would be called The House of Seven Gables.

When I looked at Randy’s new building, I noticed that by chance, the outside design featured seven gables. I mentioned that to Randy. I didn’t mention Clark Gable at all. The next thing I knew, the building had become the Seven Gables Theatre and Seven Gables became the name of his company.

It was a fun time to be involved in the art movie business. Movies were boom or bust, with enough booms to pay the bills. One day Randy and I were returning a 35mm print to the distribution business on Maynard Street in Chinatown near downtown Seattle. On the floor were dozens of 35mm film prints that each once could be rented for fifty bucks flat a week. That meant two weeks would be a flat one hundred bucks, although few films on that floor ever ran for more than a week once they’d arrived there. Randy asked me to look over the pile to see if anything might have legs in it. I noticed the film Harold and Maude. I saw it when it came out, during a brief first run at the Fine Arts Theatre in Portland. I liked it, but it then sank without a trace.

I said to Randy “That one’s good for two weeks.” Was it? It did have legs. It ran and ran. Before the word got out Randy purchased the US Distribution rights and it became one of the best revival films of all time. It and King of Hearts, both distributed by Randy’s Specialty Films company, made buying the Seven Gables building possible. It was a fun time.

Randy had a distinguished family. His dad Robert C. Finley was on the Washington State Supreme Court. His sister Pat was an actress who at the time played Ellen Hartley, Bob’s sister on the The Bob Newhart Show, and at the time was also a regular on The Rockford Files. She had even been a panelist on Match Game. Earlier Pat had been on Broadway, as Pattie Finley, appearing in Hello Dolly. Her time in that war horse happened to be the same time as it starred Ginger Rogers.

When I read that Ginger Rogers was going appear as a solo performer in Seattle at the Space Needle in an act called Will You Be My Fred? I came up with an idea to meet her. I would tell her that Pattie Finley had sent me. This was not really a reach. On several occasions I had represented Randy or Seven Gables at events that Randy had been invited to. If they weren’t of interest to him, he would hand me the invite and tell me to “dress nice” and represent the company. It was a hand-off invite like that which put me at the opening night of the Moore Egyptian Theatre wearing a white tie and tails, an evening which ended up with me working there and later getting into the projectionist union. You can read about that in my story about Dan Ireland here.

Of course, saying that Pat had sent me was leagues beyond a handed invite, but I really didn’t give it much thought. For all I knew Pat was in New York or Los Angeles. Besides, buying dinner and ticket for the shows was well beyond me in my student days.

On the gala night I put on a tuxedo with black tie and took along a date and was soon whooshing up the elevator to the fabulous Space Needle Restaurant. I had been there before, just to see the view, but I also have a family connection. During the Seattle World’s Fair my aunt Janice worked there as a waitress. She said it was great job. She told me that one night she had walked toward a booth to hand out menus and was soon looking into the blue eyes of Peter O’Toole and the brown eyes of Omar Sharif. She said they were the most beautiful men she had ever seen. They must have been on tour at the time with Lawrence of Arabia.

At the restaurant entrance we were greeted by the concierge, who was a lovely woman. I gave her the pitch that I was representing Pat who had appeared in Hello Dolly with Ginger. The concierge walked away and came back shortly. She said, “Miss Rogers will be delighted to see you.” She then gave me an amused smile that I had no idea what for. She led us into the restaurant, across the dance floor, and to a booth where Ginger was sitting. Sitting with her — was Pat Finley.

Well, what could I do but soldier on? I introduced my date to Pat and Ginger. I asked Ginger to autograph a production still from her Oscar-winning role in Kitty Foyle. She graciously inscribed it to me. We then chatted a bit. It was clear Ginger thought my ruse to meet her was cute. I don’t think Pat did. They didn’t ask us to join them. We exited the restaurant and whooshed back to down to reality.

It was fun.

Categories History

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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