The day Marilyn Monroe came to town

The planning of the Lincoln/Douglas debates might have been the most important event to occur in Bement, but the Aug. 7, 1955 visit from Marilyn Monroe was probably the biggest.

An estimated 10,000 people waited for her to emerge from the home of Carleton Smith, the Bement man who convinced her to judge a beard contest at the town’s centennial celebration.

Some say the population of the 1,500-person community swelled to over 20,000 by the time Monroe took the makeshift stage that evening to serve as facial hair judge. That crowd estimate came from an article in the Aug. 25, 1955 edition of the Bement Register. The newspaper went on to say “Marilyn Monroe seems amazed at the ‘powerful and masterful bearded Bement.’”

“It’s the biggest thing that happened to Bement, Illinois,” comments Martha (Knapp) Boada, who was seven years old when she and her sister danced as part of the centennial pageant 60 years ago.

“She was very demure and sweet,” she recalls of the appearance that made headlines, including the News-Gazette’s “Blonde Bombshell Bursts Over Bement.”

Marilyn Monroe memorabilia will be on display throughout Bement Aug. 6-9 to commemorate the starlet’s visit to Piatt County. The Bryant Cottage Historic Site will display Monroe artifacts between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Aug. 6-9, while Salon 101 at 101 N. Macon St. will display a portion of owner and Village President Pat Tieman’s extensive Marilyn Monroe holdings from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Aug. 8.

Smith’s former home at 101 E. Wing St., now owned by Tieman, will also be open for tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 8.

Dick Skagenberg was the official photographer for the centennial and recalls that the actress had a mind “as sharp as any girl you’ll ever talk to.”

That doesn’t mean her curvaceous figure went unnoticed as he traveled with the performer to document her trip to central Illinois.

“We were in Carleton Smith’s house, and she came bouncing in, and leaned on the table,” said Skagenberg. “She leaned forward, and oh my gosh.”

The Piatt County Republican in 1955 quoted Centennial General Chairman Clark Plummer as equally awestruck. When asked what his conversation with Monroe from Willard Airport in Urbana entailed, he commented, “I wasn’t listening … I was looking.”

Newspaper clippings from the time claim Marilyn was intrigued by Bement because of its connections to Abraham Lincoln, one of her idols.

But Skagenberg has another light-hearted interpretation.

“That’s just a story,” he said about the Honest Abe references. “The real story is she wanted to meet me. She wanted to meet the guy with the beard.”

The guy with the beard could have been anyone, as nearly every post-pubescent male in town grew facial hair for the centennial beard contest, which Monroe judged.

When she kissed William G. Porter on the check as part of the contest, it made him famous – twice. Famous for fulfilling the dream of most red-blooded American men in obtaining the smooch, then a short time later as he appeared on the “I’ve Got a Secret” television show. He collected $60 when celebrity panelists were unable to guess “I was kissed by Marilyn Monroe – twice.”

Plenty of stories
Stories abound from people who were there when the star of movies including “Some Like it Hot” and “The Seven Year Itch” came to Bement.

Larry Bartram’s tale revolves around his uncle’s horse, “Old Paint,” which Bartram rode in a parade welcoming Marilyn to town. When it came time for the pageant, he decided to amble in for a closer look.

“I thought as long as I’m just sitting there on Old Paint, no one’s going to stop me, so I went up there toward the stage,” said Bartram.

As Monroe left the pageant presentation, she reached out to pat Old Paint on the nose, causing the equine to jump back in surprise.

“She just looked at me and said, ‘is he a nice horsey?’ And I said ‘yes, he is.’ She just smiled at me and walked on down. That was my conversation with Marilyn Monroe,” said Bartram.

Was she as glamorous in person as portrayed on film?

“More so,” commented Skagenberg.

And even if some memories are slipping some 60 years after her Piatt County visit, they all remember her white cotton dress.

“She was pretty. I thought she was a pretty lady. I thought she fit her dress pretty tight …” added Bartram.

It was not Bartram’s last brush with celebrity. A few years later he had a brief conversation with Elvis Presley while both were in the Army, and later on tripped over the feet of a seated Jim Ed Brown, a famous country singer in the 1950s.

Tieman is not old enough to have been there in 1955, but in a way has Monroe to thank for meeting his wife. In 1991, he decided to buy Smith’s former house, which had sat empty and was in disrepair. His realtor knew Marilyn Monroe had spent time there, so brought a fan named Tracy to see it.

Pat and Tracy married the next year. Her love of the movie star rubbed off on Pat, and his Salon 101 business now features a collection of 30 Marilyn Monroe collector plates, along with posters and other memorabilia. More will be brought in for the Aug. 8 display.

Tieman has been a fan of “all things Marilyn” now for two decades a. Why?

“Even young kids today can relate to her. I think she was a character who had her emotional ups and downs, and I think she was very relatable,” he said. Monroe died at the young age of 36 of a suspected drug overdose.

“She was very human, I think,” added Tieman.

People also tend to think of him when they run across Marilyn memorabilia. For example, Doug Edwards of Monticello recently purchased a special ribbon given to Monroe at the centennial, because he felt it should be back in Piatt County. It is on loan for this week’s display.

Who was Carleton Smith?
Who was this Carleton Smith, the man who knew Marilyn Monroe enough to convince her to visit Bement? The Bement man and University of Illinois graduate was a colorful figure who would later found and head up the National Arts Foundation. His love of music included searches to retrieve manuscripts of Mozart, Beethoven and others that had disappeared from German libraries during World War II.

“He got to hob knob with famous people,” said Tieman, noting that author Carl Sandburg was among those who visited his Bement home.


 

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