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ACADEMY AWARD WINNER ASKED
FOR MILK AND A BATH
On a cold, winter night in
1948, a 27-year-old talent scout for Music Corporation of America was sitting
in a tavern in New York City, watching television. All eyes at the bar were
turned toward a broadcast of Ed Sullivan’s “The Toast of the Town,” in which a
portly, unkempt man was performing a dramatic reading from the Bible. The young
executive noticed that not only were the bar patrons transfixed by the reading,
but that he himself had come under the performer’s spell.
The executive was named Paul
Gregory and the reader was the Academy Award-winning British actor Charles
Laughton. That moment would mark the beginning of a long partnership.
As Laughton finished his
reading, Gregory leaped from the bar and hailed a cab for the theater where
Sullivan’s show was just ending. Waiting by the stage door, he soon saw
Laughton leaving with a female companion. “I would like to speak to you,”
Gregory told him. “What about, old boy?” Laughton replied. “I would like to
speak to you about booking you,” Gregory answered.
After being told to talk to
Laughton’s agent, Gregory boldly asserted, “You are throwing away a million
dollars.” Laughton was intrigued and invited Gregory to tag along to the
Algonquin Hotel, where he was staying. When Gregory finally left at 3 a.m., he
had a contract with Laughton, written on hotel stationery.
Gregory had convinced
Laughton that his future lay in going around the country performing readings
from great literature. It would be a one-man show titled “An Evening with
Charles Laughton,” and Gregory would book him into college auditoriums in small
towns across the nation. It was a concept that would provide not only financial
rewards but also renewed popularity for the middle-aged actor, whose Academy
Award for playing Henry VIII had been awarded 15 years previously.
In the fall of 1952, Monmouth
College began planning its centennial celebration for the following spring,
which would coincide with the inauguration of its new president, Robert Gibson.
On the planning committee were music professor Hal Loya and his wife, Eileen,
who was secretary to the business manager. Realizing the magnitude of the
centennial and the upcoming inauguration, the Loyas and the rest of the
committee sought to book a memorable program by a distinguished performer.
Laughton perfectly fit that bill and his Monmouth visit would prove so
memorable that Eileen Loya would recount it in detail in a 2009 memoir.
On the evening of the
performance, the Loyas with their three children—ages 8, 10 and 12—had an early
dinner, as they were to serve as ticket takers at the performance. As Eileen
was finishing the dishes, she heard Hal call from the other room. Wiping her
hands on her apron she rushed to see what he wanted. There in her living room
stood Charles Laughton.
Eileen continued the account:
“As we were introduced, Mr. Laughton said, ‘I see you have children and a cat,
so you must have milk. May I have a glass of milk, please?’ As he drank it, he
said, ‘I’m very tired and would like to lie down for a rest.’ As we went
upstairs (and I hastily changed the sheets), he remarked, ‘I see you have a
bathroom—do you mind if I take a bath?’ I think he thought we were such a small
town that we might not have indoor plumbing! I rushed across the hall to prepare
the room for his use when he followed me and elbowed me out, saying, ‘You go
take care of your children, I’ll take care of the bathroom.’”
The Loyas rushed off to the
college to prepare for the program, leaving the house in the hands of their
children and their distinguished guest.
When Laughton’s program
began, Galesburg Register-Mail reporter Ace Cecka was in the audience. He
described the scene:
“Laughton got a big applause
the moment he stepped out on the stage with a pile of books under his arm. They
were pretty much props for he seldom used them. He modestly bowed his head and
his first words were ‘Ah shucks!’
Cecka continued: “Getting off
in a light vein the famed actor began with some zany limericks. He then went on
to say he felt that most of the old favorite children’s tales were sadistic and
‘used to scare the pants off me when I was a boy.’
“He illustrated by telling
the familiar story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and his rendition was ‘scary’
indeed. He then followed with a modern and more subdued version ‘The Little
Girl and the Wolf’ by James Thurber.
Meanwhile, the three Loya
children appeared at the back of the auditorium, telling their mother they
wanted to see Mr. Laughton. While at the house, Laughton had gotten acquainted
with them and the cat, and had asked for more milk. Eileen promised them they
could see Laughton at intermission, where they found him sitting alone on the
fire escape. When Cecka and other reporters appeared to interview Laughton, he
told the children, “Well, I’m coming back to your house later so I’ll see you
While relaxing, the
54-year-old actor told the small gathering on the fire escape that he started
lecture tour because “an actor grows old but a reader never does.”
One of the group commented on
the fact that despite the fact he had a number of books on stage with him he
seldom ever looked at the pages. Laughton replied that that was because of his
Laughton declined being
photographed until his performance was over because he said the flash bulbs
hurt his eyes and he couldn’t see the pages of his books. Just before he went
back on stage he asked if his hair was combed and remarked he was “a rather
The booking committee had
been told in advance that Laughton did not appreciate being fussed over, so it
decided against having a traditional post-performance reception. When Laughton
indicated he was coming back to the Loyas’, however, Eileen rushed back into
the auditorium to find some committee members who could line up some cookies
and punch from whatever grocery store was still open.
Following the performance,
Laughton returned to the Loya residence to spend the rest of the evening with
the committee and the Loya children.
At 1 a.m., Laughton decided it was time to leave for his next engagement at
Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was his custom to travel during the night and sleep days
whenever he was on a short jaunt. As Laughton walked to the car, he encountered
about 50 college students who had stood patiently and silently outdoors waiting
for him. Delighted, Laughton spent the next half hour responding to the
students’ questions and regaling them with accounts from his career.