By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – When the lights went down on long-ago Saturdays, Terry Swindol was right where he belonged.
“They called us ‘front row kids,’” he said.
The movies pulled him back week after week, which was by design.
“There were serials or cliffhangers at the end of each reel,” the 66-year-old Tupelo resident said. “Some guy would fall off a cliff or have a car accident, and you’d have to come back next week to see what happened to him. I followed the serials faithfully.”
A 15-minute serial usually got things started, and a big Hollywood film ended the night. Between them was a B-movie.
“They were cheaply made. That’s why they were called B-movies. They were Westerns. They were Tarzan movies. I loved Tarzan movies,” he said. “Some of the B-movie stars are collectible. You get on eBay and certain actors – not necessarily top actors – they have a cult following.”
He grew up to be a band teacher, first at Lawhon Junior High School then at Shannon High School.
During his summers, he transformed into a front row kid for real.
He traveled to film festivals in Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta and more, where he met face to face with the men and women who used to shine on his Saturdays.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of them personally, and made friends with some of them,” he said. “It’s unreal. I sat there watching them on the big screen, then here I am next to them and asking questions about certain movies.”
Some might not recognize the name Clayton Moore, but a good clue is the silver bullet the former Lone Ranger gave to Swindol.
Anna May Wong might not trigger everyone’s memory, but there are places on eBay where anything connected to her is the next best thing to gold.
“She always signed her name in English then signed in Chinese under it,” Swindol said. “She’s said to have had the most beautiful hands in Hollywood.”
Carolina Cotton would be a nearly impossible answer in Trivial Pursuit, but she was someone extra special in Swindol’s world.
“She was in a group called Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and she sang in movies,” Swindol said. “After the movies, she went into teaching, and I was a teacher. We hit it off great and we became friends. When she was off from school, she’d go overseas to Europe. I was a band director, so she’d bring me back some type of musical instrument.”
Swindol’s passion for the movies is on display at Oren Dunn City Museum. The exhibit is called “Hollywood: The Golden Era,” and it features mementos from Moore, Wong and Cotton – including some of the instruments she gave Swindol – as well as items from big stars like Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford and Vivien Leigh.
The exhibit features all manner of big-screen cowboys, including Roy Rogers, Paladin, Marshal Dillon and Hopalong Cassidy.
Don’t forget Swindol’s love for Tarzan. A movie poster hanging on the wall has an autograph from The Ape Man himself, Johnny Weissmuller.
The walls and shelves at Swindol’s home will be bare until Oct. 25, when the exhibit closes. He brought all his best stuff, the stuff he wouldn’t think of selling.
His wife, Karen, tolerates his fascination for the movies.
“I guess I like Roy Rogers and a few of the others,” she said. “If I know them, I like them. If I don’t know anything about them, I don’t care anything about them.”
She probably knows a lot more than most. She’s been attending film festivals with her husband since they got married in 1975. Their son, Tommy, was 6 weeks old when he attended his first event in the early 1980s.
“I think it was Spanky from ‘The Little Rascals’ who held Tommy in his hands when he was a little baby,” Karen Swindol said.
Her husband said Sunset Carson and other stars also held Tommy during that trip.
“People were lining up to get their autographs,” Swindol said, “and they were lined up wanting to hold Tommy. That was 1982, and they were all wanting to get pictures made with him.”
Tommy Swindol has no memory of that star-studded day, but his dad’s enthusiasm proved a powerful draw.
“He’s 32 now, and he still loves old movies,” Swindol said. “When I go see him, he says, ‘Dad, bring me Sherlock Holmes or Charlie Chan.’”
Swindol works in an official capacity at the Memphis Film Festival, where he videos question-and-answer sessions with the actors and actresses. No matter how much in awe he might get, he has to be a professional on the job.
Sometimes, he captures magic.
“Rex Reason was there, and Beverly Garland. She was on ‘My Three Sons.’ She played Fred MacMurray’s wife,” he said. “They asked Rex which leading lady he enjoyed kissing the most. He said, ‘I don’t know.’
“Well, Beverly Garland jumped to her feet with her hands on her hips. ‘What?’
“She was one of his leading ladies. She just planted a kiss on him right there. It was one of those great moments.”
Looking behind the movie screen and into real life doesn’t always reveal something so dear. Allan “Rocky” Lane was a movie cowboy, then he became the voice of TV’s talking horse, Mr. Ed, of course.
“I liked him,” Swindol said, “but I asked people at the film festivals and nobody liked him that worked with him.”
Some actors refuse to mention former co-stars.
“It’s not always what we think it was on the screen,” he said.
On the flip side, it turns out Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz,” was a very nice lady.
Even with all Swindol knows – or maybe because of it – the glamour remains.
He’s proud to have Jean Harlow’s hairbrush and fingernail file, and thinks it’s a tragedy she died so young.
He takes genuine pleasure in Hopalong Cassidy’s success. After television put him out of business, Cassidy sold everything he owned to buy the rights to his old movies, then made a fortune by renting those movies to television stations.
“The very thing that put him out, he turned it into a big success,” Swindol said.
With Cotton from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, there’s no distance between fan and star because, in the end, they were friends.
“Carolina would call me or I would call her,” he said. “We’d be on the phone for an hour and a half. We’d have a good time. I miss her.”
He’s got Kathleen Turner’s lab coat from “Undercover Blues,” a piece of Dorothy Lamour’s sarong from one of her trips “On the Road” with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, a check signed by Butterfly McQueen from “Gone with the Wind,” and a sweater worn by Swedish import and Hollywood icon Greta Garbo.
“There’s a story with everything in here,” Swindol said.
And the autographs, movie posters, magazines, props and personal items all combine to help tell Swindol’s story.
“It’s hard to explain to somebody,” he said. “It goes back to watching those movies. I wondered what the actors were really like, and over the years, I’ve had the chance to find out.”