Over the years, among the 15 million annual visitors to Niagara Falls there have been a number of Hollywood legends. Often times, they sneak in with little fanfare and sneak out almost unnoticed. Other times, celebrities arrive with more publicity, temporarily—and sometimes unintentionally—detracting attention away from the Falls and onto themselves.
Awkward yet charming, modest yet successful, quiet yet courageous, actor James “Jimmy” Stewart embodied America at its best. Yet, when he visited Niagara Falls for a pair of days in 1940, he was embraced by Canadian fans as one of our own. His was the most celebrated visit of a movie star to date.
By 1939, with a string of hits that included 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 for best actor. Each of the films was a hit, but the gruelling schedule of the past few years left Stewart exhausted physically and emotionally. 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 and hiking.
On the return trip, the Stewart’s paid a visit to Niagara Falls on September 6 and 7, booking rooms at the General Brock Hotel (now the Crowne Plaza Hotel). Built in 1927 for the then astronomical cost of $1.5 million, the General Brock 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.
Stewart’s impending arrival at the General Brock Hotel was the worst-kept secret around. The result was that when the actor arrived to check-in that afternoon, he was met by a large crowd of eager fans. 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.
Later that day, Stewart and his family viewed the falls. He was like any other tourist, taking photographs and marvelling at the sights. Stewart was delighted with what he saw, later telling a reporter he thought the Falls were “the most picturesque sight he had ever seen.”
Stewart left the hotel on the second day to find the entrance once again crowded with fans eager for a chance to see their idol. There were dozens of them, each one demanding a piece of the star’s attention, and yet Stewart 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. Later that day, he and his family left Niagara Falls to return home to the States.
The Canadian vacation, short though it may have been, reinvigorated Stewart and gave him the energy and passion to film three more movies in 1941 before enlisted in the Army Air Force and becoming a decorated bomber pilot in World War Two.
For about three weeks during June 1952, Niagara Falls had an extra attraction beyond the raging falls themselves: Marilyn Monroe, soon to be Hollywood’s most glamorous star, was in town filming her first starring role in the thriller Niagara.
Director Henry Hathaway would take full advantage of the magical setting by using a number of local landmarks in the film. But Niagara Falls, attractive as it is, didn’t have everything the filmmaker required to make his dream a reality. The script called for a motel overlooking the Falls, but there simply wasn’t one because Queen Victoria Park occupied all of the lands alongside the river’s shore. As a result, a makeshift motel was constructed in the park, directly opposite the American Falls and with a view towards the Horseshoe Falls. Named the Rainbow Motel, the six-unit building (most of which was false-fronted) would be the setting for many of the most important scenes of the movie.
While Hathaway kept the young star on a short leash and largely away from the distracting public, Monroe was able to enjoy herself in Niagara Falls with sightseeing, included a stroll through Queen Victoria Park, shopping at the Table Rock Gift Shop, trips to Niagara-on-the-Lake with lover Joe DiMaggio, and a ride on the Maid of the Mist tour boat.
Marilyn stayed at the exclusive General Brock Hotel in room 801 and somehow managed to juggle two relationships between takes. One of her suitors was Joe DiMaggio, who stayed on the American side in the Hotel Niagara but slipped across to rendezvous with her several time a week. At the same time, Marilyn was growing close to her long-time friend Bob Slatzer, and the two shared adjoining rooms. There, with the Falls as a stunning backdrop, Slatzer proposed and Marilyn accepted (the magic of Niagara did not endure long, however: they married in Tijuana, Mexico, on June 18 and were divorced just four days later).
None of this personal drama was known to Monroe’s adoring fans, who eagerly awaited the arrival of Niagara in theatres. The world premiere was shown simultaneously at Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Niagara Falls, New York on January 28, 1953. In Niagara Falls, Ontario, the film was shown at the Seneca Theatre, and despite a seating capacity of more than 1,000 the demand was so great the movie had to be shown five times a day for more than a week. In the end, Niagara was one of the biggest movies of the year and catapulted Marilyn Monroe to stardom.
Niagara was soon overshadowed by Monroe’s more famous films, but the impact of the movie immense. Niagara helped cement Niagara Falls’ reputation as the Honeymoon Capital of the World. For years, the local Chamber of Commerce would receive hundreds of letters from people inquiring about rooms at the Rainbow Motel featured in the movie. There was, of course, no Rainbow Motel; the set had been hastily torn-down as soon as filming was completed. Nevertheless, in the wake of the movie’s release hordes of lovers and sightseers flocked to the Falls every year, transforming the economy.
Thanks to Marilyn Monroe’s charm and beauty, Niagara had changed Niagara Falls forever.
With her famous blond ringlets and deep dimples, the child star Shirley Temple charmed and entertained theatre audiences during the Depression years, her singing and dancing captivated millions and helping to raise the people’s spirits during a difficult period. She was so essential to public morale during this trying period that President Franklin Roosevelt famously remarked, “As long as we have Shirley Temple we’ll be alright.” The hopes of an entire nation rested on the tiny shoulders of a young child.
During World War Two, with two brothers fighting with the United States Marine Corps, the young woman concentrated more on raising wartime morale than acting. Temple boosted moral by visited wounded men in the hospitals and appearing at military bases to chat and dance with the men.
It was in this goodwill capacity that Shirley Temple graced Canada with her presence in October 1944. Her first stop was the nation’s capital, Ottawa, where she was scheduled for several appearances to help promote the sales of war bonds. Then, on October 22, accompanied by her parents and publicity agent, she arrived in Niagara Falls to participate in more charitable work. Once settled in the General Brock Hotel, the 16-year old enjoyed the sights along the Niagara River, including the famous Spanish Aero Car. She also visited Oak Hall, which at the time was being used as a RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) convalescent home, raising the spirits of the ill and wounded airmen
Later, she visited Queen Victoria Park where a huge crowd anxiously awaited her arrival. She was to be the guest of honour in a ceremony that had two purposes: in addition to raising funds through Victory Bonds to support the war, it saw the re-lighting of the falls, dark since 1939 to conserve electricity for war production purposes. Amongst the large crowd that night were two young Air Force men who managed to strike up a conversation with Temple and summon the courage to ask for her autograph. While chatting, they just happened to mention that they were about to hitchhike to Hamilton when the lighting ceremony was over. Temple realized she was going to the same city to catch a train to Chicago, so she graciously offered the two surprised men a ride.
With her selflessness and graciousness, Shirley Temple wrote herself into Niagara lore. For years after, residents would warmly recall her visit.
Written by: Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva