A Hollywood Legend’s Visit to Niagara

By: Andrew Hind

Niagara Falls can hardly be said to be star struck. Ever since Marilyn Monroe’s 1952 blockbuster film Niagara, which not only made her career but cemented Niagara Falls’ reputation as the ‘Honeymoon Capital of the World’, Hollywood has been enraptured with the natural spectacle. Some of moviedom’s biggest stars have vacationed here, and a number of movies—most notably 1979’s Superman, starring Christopher Reeve—have been shot with the thundering Falls as a backdrop.

But it wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t until 1940 when legendary actor James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart came to town for two memorable days that Hollywood took any notice of Niagara. Previously, actors may have slipped unceremoniously into town for a bit of sightseeing, but this was the first time Niagara Falls and Hollywood were linked. It was an important date in Niagara’s history. After this date, Hollywood took notice of Niagara Falls and all that it offered.

James Stewart was born in small-town Pennsylvania in 1908, and initially had no aspirations of stardom. Instead, he took architecture at University and only considered the theatre classes he enrolled in there as an amusing pastime. Fate had other plans in store for the unassuming young man, however. He was discovered by a Hollywood gossip columnist who touted his wholesome appeal, effortless acting and obvious stage presence to MGM studios. Soon, Stewart had a screen test and was signed to a contract, and in 1935 made his first film appearance. By 1939, with a string of hits that included Vivacious Lady (1938), the Shopworn Angel (1938), You Can’t Take it with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Stewart had solidified a position as one of the most bankable young stars in Tinseltown.

Determined to make the most of their asset, MGM cast Stewart in three more films in 1940: The Shop Around the Corner, The Mortal Storm, and The Philadelphia Story, for which he won his one and only Oscar as Best Actor. Each of the films was a hit, but the gruelling schedule of the past few years left Stewart exhausted physically and emotionally. He was ground down by the demands of Hollywood and needed a break from being in front of the cameras and the stress of having to carry a film. Jimmy Stewart needed a vacation.

Determined to get as far away from the Hollywood lifestyle as possible, Stewart avoided the hot spots of the rich and famous and instead decided to head for the unspoiled wilderness of Lake Temagami, in northern Ontario. Unmarried at the time, he invited his parents and two sisters along for two weeks of fishing, hiking and tranquility. There were no frills and whistles here, only modest food and accommodations, and perks came in the form not of attentive service or complementary gifts, but rather endless solitude, fresh air, a refreshing simplicity to life. The time off seemed to have rejuvenated Stewart.

On the way home after his too-short respite, the Stewart’s paid a visit to Niagara Falls on September 6 and 7, booking rooms at the General Brock Hotel (now the recently refurbished Crowne Plaza Hotel). The General Brock was the place to stay in Niagara. Built in 1927 for the then astronomical cost of $1.5 million, it was the first luxury hotel in the area and, due in part to its elegant ballroom and rooftop garden, was at the time considered among the most majestic and celebrated hotels in Ontario. At its opening, the Niagara Falls Review raved that the new hotel, “gleaming white in the sunshine, classic in appearance, looming over the Niagara River”, was without question “the last word in comfort and beauty.”

Guests who stayed at the General Brock during its golden years included Walt Disney, Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe, Gene Autry, and later, a young Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. More recently, guests have included Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Jackie Chan. But though the ledger would boast many recognizable names, Jimmy Stewart was the first big name celebrity to enjoy the hospitality of this fine hotel.

Jimmy Stewart’s impending arrival at the General Brock Hotel was the worst-kept secret around and it wasn’t long before the word had spread all over Niagara Falls. As a result, when the actor arrived to check-in on the afternoon of the 6th, he was met by a large crowd of eager autograph seekers. Though on vacation and badly in need of escape from the demands of stardom, Stewart was gracious with the fans and lingered to sign autographs. Such affability was typical of the man, and was undeniably part of his charm. Few fans left disappointed.

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Later that day, Stewart and his family viewed the falls and toured along the Niagara River, taking in the majestic gorge and riding over the churning whirlpool in the aerial car. He was like any other tourist, taking photographs, marvelling at the sights, asking questions. Stewart was delighted with what he saw, later telling a reporter he thought the Falls were “the most picturesque sight he had ever seen.” The awestruck actor was also “thrilled to death” with the scenery along the river. That evening, Stewart, his parents, and his sisters were guests of the General Brock’s manager, Ronald Peck, and his wife for dinner. During the course of the evening, the party ventured up to the rooftop garden to enjoy the panorama. At ten storeys in height, the General Brock was a Niagara Falls skyscraper for its day, so the view from here would have been the best in town.

The following morning, as the Stewart’s stepped out of the General Brock elevator, they were greeted by a reporter from the Niagara Falls Review who, to his astonishment, “received a warm and cordial welcome from the family.” Stewart further surprised the reporter by granting him time for a rather lengthy, if informal, interview. Clearly, James Stewart was no ordinary Hollywood star.

The Review reporter found that Stewart’s reputation of having an easy charm and down-to-earth manner wasn’t misplaced. “Mr. Stewart is a modest chap,” wrote the impressed journalist. “He refuses to discuss his success in pictures and does not make out to be different than any ordinary person. An interesting point about him is his desire to stand and chat with admirers.” The reporter noted, in a manner that suggested surprise, that Stewart looked in person “exactly as he does on screen.”

Stewart was nothing but effusive in his praise for Canada and Canadians. He said that Canadians were friendly and hospitable, and that he was particularly impressed with the beauty of the Lake Temagami area in which he had vacationed.

When at last the informal and impromptu interview was over, Stewart bade the reporter farewell and made for the hotel’s front door. Once again, the entrance was crowded with fans eager for a chance to see their idol and perhaps gain an autograph. There were dozens of them, each one demanding a piece of the star’s attention, and yet the unflappable star took it all in stride, lingered long enough to send most of his fans home happy with a signature or the memory of a brief conversation with a screen legend. He noted that he never got tired of signing his name and that he was amazed at how many people recognized him.

Later that day, Jimmy Stewart and family left Niagara Falls to return home to the States. The Canadian vacation, short though it may have been, reinvigorated the young actor and gave him the energy and passion to star in three more movies in 1941. These would be his final films for more than five years because, in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941, Stewart enlisted for service in the Second World War. While he was flying bomber missions over Germany, many of his acting brothers remained in the lap of luxury in Hollywood, having opted out of military duty. Stewart was a decorated war hero and rose to the rank of Brigadier-General in the Air Force. Once again, Stewart proved he was hardly the typical Hollywood star.

It was this down-to-earth, every-man persona that made Jimmy Stewart such a hit with the people during his two days in Niagara Falls in 1940. Unlike other stars who demanded special treatment, and who saw the sights under a screen of heavy protection or under a shroud of secrecy, Stewart went out of his way to be approachable and accommodating. As a result, hundreds of Niagara residents were left with treasured memories of having seen and met one of Hollywood’s greatest treasures.

Soon, and perhaps due in some small part to the high-profile nature of Stewart’s brief visit, Hollywood would soon take notice of Niagara Falls as well.