On a cold, winter night in 1948, a 27-year-old music scout was sitting in a tavern in New York City. All eyes at the bar were turned toward a television broadcast of Ed Sullivan’s The Toast of the Town, in which a portly, unkempt man was performing a dramatic reading from the Bible. The young executive noticed that not only were the bar patrons transfixed by the reading, but that he himself had come under the performer’s spell.
The executive was named Paul Gregory and the reader was the Academy Award-winning British actor Charles Laughton. That moment would mark the beginning of a long and lucrative partnership.
As Laughton finished his reading, Gregory leaped from the bar and hailed a cab for the Mansfield Theater, where Sullivan’s show was just ending. Waiting by the stage door, he soon saw Laughton leaving with a female companion. “I would like to speak to you,” Gregory told him. “What about, old boy?” Laughton replied. “I would like to speak to you about booking you,” Gregory answered.
After being told to talk to Laughton’s agent, Gregory boldly asserted, “You are throwing away a million dollars.” Laughton was intrigued and invited Gregory to tag along to the Algonquin Hotel, where he was staying. When Gregory finally left at 3 a.m., he had a contract with Laughton, written on hotel stationery.
Gregory had convinced Laughton that his future lay in traveling the country performing readings from great literature. It would be a one-man show titled “An Evening with Charles Laughton,” and Gregory would book him into college auditoriums in small towns across the nation. It was a concept that would provide not only financial rewards but also renewed popularity for the middle-aged actor, whose Academy Award for playing Henry VIII had been awarded 15 years previously.
In the fall of 1952, Monmouth College began planning its centennial celebration for the following spring, which would coincide with the inauguration of its new president, Robert Gibson. On the planning committee were music professor Hal Loya and his wife, Eileen, who was secretary to the business manager. Realizing the magnitude of the centennial and the upcoming inauguration, the Loyas and the rest of the committee sought to book a memorable program by a distinguished performer. Laughton perfectly fit that bill and his Monmouth visit would prove so memorable that Eileen Loya would recount it in detail in a 2009 memoir.
On May 26, the evening of the performance, the Loyas with their three children — ages 8, 10 and 12 — had an early dinner, as they were to serve as ticket takers at the performance. As Eileen was finishing the dishes, she heard Hal call from the other room. Wiping her hands on her apron she rushed to see what he wanted. There in her living room stood Charles Laughton.
Eileen continued the account: “As we were introduced, Mr. Laughton said, ‘I see you have children and a cat, so you must have milk. May I have a glass of milk, please?’ As he drank it, he said, ‘I’m very tired and would like to lie down for a rest.’ As we went upstairs (and I hastily changed the sheets), he remarked, ‘I see you have a bathroom — do you mind if I take a bath?’ I think he thought we were such a small town that we might not have indoor plumbing! I rushed across the hall to prepare the room for his use when he followed me and elbowed me out, saying, ‘You go take care of your children, I’ll take care of the bathroom.’”
The Loyas rushed off to the college to prepare for the program, leaving the house in the hands of their children and their distinguished guest.
When Laughton’s program began at 8:15. Galesburg Register-Mail reporter Ace Cecka was in the audience. He describes the scene:
“Laughton got a big applause the moment he stepped out on the stage with a pile of books under his arm. They were pretty much props for he seldom used them. He modestly bowed his head and his first words were ‘Ah shucks!’
“Getting off in a light vein the famed actor began with some zany limericks. He then went on to say he felt that most of the old favorite children’s tales were sadistic and ‘used to scare the pants off me when I was a boy.’
“He illustrated by telling the familiar story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and his rendition was ‘scary’ indeed. He then followed with a modern and more subdued version ‘The Little Girl and the Wolf’ by James Thurber.
“His next rendition was a dramatic selection on women from the motion picture ‘Rembrandt’ of some years back. His own comment on the bit was ‘Soupy but nice.’ He then read a selection from George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman.’
“After a few quotations from Confucius, one of which he described as ‘This is a good one but a stinker,’ Laughton went into a chapter from Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. His comment on Dickens was that he didn’t expect folks to read 1,100 pages of a Dickens novel because about 40 per cent of it was slush, but that portions of the great master were superb.”
Meanwhile, the three Loya children appeared at the back of the auditorium, telling their mother they wanted to see Mr. Laughton. While at the house, Laughton had gotten acquainted with them and the cat, and had asked for more milk. Eileen promised them they could see Laughton at intermission, where they found him sitting alone on the fire escape. When Cecka and other reporters appeared to interview Laughton, he told the children, “Well, I’m coming back to your house later so I’ll see you there.”
While relaxing, the 54-year-old actor told the small gathering on the fire escape that he started lecture tour because “an actor grows old but a reader never does.”
One of the group commented on the fact that despite the fact he had a number of books on stage with him he seldom ever looked at the pages. Laughton replied that that was because of his “freakish memory.”
Laughton declined being photographed until his performance was over because he said the flash bulbs hurt his eyes and he couldn’t see the pages of his books. Just before he went back on stage he asked if his hair was combed and remarked he was “a rather untidy fellow.”
The booking committee had been told in advance that Laughton did not appreciate being fussed over, so it decided against having a traditional post-performance reception. When Laughton indicated he was coming back to the Loyas’, however, Eileen rushed back into the auditorium to find some committee members who could line up some cookies and punch from whatever grocery store was still open.
The second half of Laughton’s program included an interpretation of Gertrude Stein’s “A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose,” followed by his favorite selection from the Bible, the third chapter of Daniel. Laughton brought out a Bible which he said wasn’t his regular one, but an unread one he had “borrowed out of a hotel room. “
Laughton ended the evening with what he called a “binge,” honoring Illinois’ favorite son, Abraham Lincoln, demonstrating how his literary stature had developed from his first political speech to the Gettysburg Address.
Following the performance, Laughton and his three managers returned to the Loya residence to spend the rest of the evening with the committee and the Loya children.
At 1 a.m., Laughton decided it was time to leave for his next engagement at Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was his custom to travel during the night and sleep days whenever he was on a short jaunt. As Laughton walked to the car, he encountered about 50 college students who had stood patiently and silently outdoors waiting for him. Delighted, Laughton spent the next half hour responding to the students’ questions and regaling them with accounts from his career.
Laughton and Paul Gregory’s artistic and business partnership would continue to flower over the following years. Gregory would produce and Laughton would direct the critically acclaimed film The Night of the Hunter in 1955, and they would collaborate on The Caine Mutiny Court Martial stage play, as well as national stage tours of Don Juan in Hell and John Brown’s Body.
Following the death of Gregory in 2015 at age 95, film historian Alan K. Rode wrote, “Paul Gregory and Charles Laughton were one of the more significant entertainment collaborations of the 1950s. During a time of Cold War and the Blacklist, American popular culture was significantly bettered by their work.”
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.