Bette Davis in Skaneateles, 1935

 Bette Davis, photographed by Maurice Goldberg in 1935 for Vanity Fair

On Thursday, August 15, 1935, Bette Davis had lunch at the Kan-Ya-To Inn (today’s Sherwood Inn). On the lake, the Central New York Yacht Racing Association’s regatta was in its first day, and Miss Davis was delighted by the sight of more than 80 sails. Before leaving, she signed a menu for proprietor Bert Sellen. Newspaper accounts noted that she was accompanied by C. Harold Lewis, said to be her “manager,” and a cameraman; the three had been in Cazenovia earlier in the day, scouting locations, and were on their way to Fall Creek in Ithaca to shoot outdoor scenes for a film.

Although Bette Davis had been making films for just four years, at least two of her movies had already graced the screen of the Huxford Theatre at Legg Hall, and others had played at the Jefferson and the Palace in Auburn; she was easily famous enough to be recognized here, and she was. But the published account, virtually the same in Auburn, Rochester, Syracuse and Skaneateles newspapers, left many questions unanswered. Bette Davis made five films in 1935; which one was this? All of her films that year were based in Hollywood; why had they come so far east for location shots? Who was C. Harold Lewis, besides someone who wanted to be sure the reporter got his name right? Who was the unnamed cameraman? And, least of my curiosities but still a cause for wonder: Was there any special reason they stopped at the Kan-Ya-To for lunch?

None of the answers were to be found in the seven biographies of Bette Davis I studied. This story was a jigsaw puzzle, but when the last piece fell into place, I was very satisfied that I’d found the right answers.

The film for which they were shooting was Dangerous, and Davis’s co-star was Franchot Tone. The producer, or “supervisor,” of the film was Harry Joe Brown, and he was feeling decidedly uncomfortable with his stars. Davis, who was married, had a crush on Tone, who was engaged to Joan Crawford. And neither actor seemed to care what anyone else thought. During shooting, Brown stepped into Tone’s dressing room to discover Davis putting a dreamy smile on Tone’s face, and all Tone said, while laughing, was, “Close the door on your way out.”

Bette Davis and Franchot Tone in Dangerous (1935)

Perhaps it was Tone who suggested Ithaca for the exteriors of Dangerous. The scenes were supposed to be set on a “gentleman’s farm” in Connecticut. One scene took place on a bridge over a gorge. Ithaca has gorges. Franchot Tone was an alum of Cornell University, Class of ’27, and may have seen a chance to visit his alma mater while getting away from Los Angeles with his current flame.

One can see how Brown might have been uneasy with the road trip. And how he might have reached out to someone he could trust, an old friend, someone with some free time, someone who owed him a favor, someone who knew upstate New York. And that, in every way, was C. Harold Lewis.

Their friendship began at Syracuse University, where both men, Harry Joe Brown, Class of 1914, and C. Harold Lewis, Class of ‘15, were in Tambourine and Bones, a campus organization devoted to music and dramatics. Lewis was a piano player and composer, and by every account an extraordinary talent. Known on campus as Lefty Lewis (a nickname possibly picked up from Louis “Lefty Louis” Rosenberg, a New York gangster of the era), he was written up as “the Hill composer and poet,” “the crack piano player” and “the ragtime artist.” If there was a skit, a show, a banquet or a pep rally, Lefty Lewis was conducting, playing or leading the cheers. With fellow Tambourine and Bones member Ralph Murphy providing the lyrics, Lewis wrote “Down the Field,” a pep song that is still played at Syracuse University.

During World War I, a correspondent for the Syracuse Journal wrote from France, “At present the writer is enjoying a passing visit from ‘Lefty’ Lewis who is here resting after some strenuous work up in one of the most lively sectors. It seems like old times to hear the Lieutenant ‘tickle the ivories’ even though the piano is sadly in need of tuning and is of the vintage of ‘76.”

After the war, Tambourine and Bones put on one more play, “I’ll Say She Does,” written by Ralph Murphy with “musical interruptions” by C. Harold Lewis  and William R. Mills. And then Harry Joe Brown, now a producer working with Darryl F. Zanuck, swept Ralph Murphy and Lefty Lewis off to Hollywood and the movies. Brown was a prolific producer; Murphy directed; Lefty Lewis wrote music for the movies, composing scores, songs and playing on the soundtracks of more than 25 films.

And in 1935, Lefty Lewis came to the aid of an old friend. But he was not working as Betty Davis’ manager — he was her minder, her chaperone, Harry Joe Brown’s insurance policy.

The anonymous third man was, almost without a doubt, Ernest Haller, the cameraman on 14 of Bette Davis’ pictures, including Dangerous. “Ernie” Haller was her favorite, and she won Oscars for Dangerous and Jezebel (1938), both shot by Haller. He did well on other films as well, including Captain Blood (1935), Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Lilies of the Field (1966). He won an Oscar for his cinematography on Gone with the Wind (1939).

So there were two future Oscar winners at the table, and Lefty Lewis. And why did they stop at the Kan-Ya-To Inn? Here’s my guess: Because Lefty Lewis had been there before. In 1916, when the Syracuse University football team was about to take on Walter Camp’s mighty Pittsburgh gridiron eleven, the Syracuse coach decided to prepare by taking his team to Skaneateles. They practiced at the high school football field, and then were ushered into the Packwood House for a banquet and entertainment by Lefty Lewis, followed by an early bed-check. The practice went well, and Lefty was, as always, fabulous. (Unfortunately, the team was doomed to lose the next day, 30-0.)

But Lefty Lewis had done his best and because he had no curfew, he chose to take to the streets of Skaneateles with a ukulele. Joined by “Speed” Ellis, a Varsity hurdler, and Jake Vandish, he serenaded the village. The Packwood House, of course, became the Kan-Ya-To Inn, and one afternoon at lunchtime hosted Bette Davis, Ernie Haller and a figure from its past, Lefty Lewis. What fun to have watched and listened from a nearby table.

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5 thoughts on “Bette Davis in Skaneateles, 1935

  1. Thank you, Alan. Seven books, two movies and about 50 newspaper articles later, I got to Harry Joe Brown and it all fell into place. I love the thrill of the hunt.

  2. Excellent work. I love to think of Davis putting a dreamy smile on someone’s face. So racey. And it’s only Wednesday. I can’t wait to see what friday brings.

  3. Excellent work. I love to think of Davis putting a dreamy smile on someone’s face. So racey. And it’s only Wednesday. I can’t wait to see what friday brings.

  4. Pingback: Delightfully Different | Skaneateles

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