CV’s Own Movie Star
Being so close to Hollywood, the Crescenta-Cañada area has always been home to stars. From silent great Francis X. Bushman to Victor MacLaglen, Kevin Costner, all the way up to Miley Cyrus – those and others have all lived in the area. But none of them embraced the community and became part of the fabric of our town like ’40s leading man Dennis Morgan did.
Although largely forgotten today, Dennis Morgan was the top leading man with Warner Bros. in the ’40s, and was the star of such iconic movies as “God Is My Co-Pilot,” “Christmas in Connecticut” and “My Wild Irish Rose.” He had started as a singer, touring the country in light opera productions, until he arrived in Hollywood where his good looks, charm and beautiful singing voice got him signed at MGM. He languished there for a few years, overshadowed by Nelson Eddy. When fans began to notice him, Warner Bros. picked him up and his career took off. His peak years were from 1943 to 1949, after which he slowed his work down in order to enjoy life and concentrate on his family and community.
Fortunately for us, his community was the Crescenta Valley and from the mid- ’40s to the end of the ’50s, he was a mainstay of community activism and volunteerism. His home, located on the southeast corner of Alta Canyada and Hacienda in La Cañada, was the center of many community service activities. (The house is still there, virtually unchanged, and is worth a drive-by.) He could always be counted on for promo at the kickoff of a local blood drive or Scouting event. His activism landed him the “job” of honorary mayor of the Crescenta Valley, and so he did all the public appearances associated with that.
Morgan was honestly a good person, the antithesis of the classic “star.” He was a family man, married for 60 years and father of three kids. He was an outgoing guy with lots of friends, and was a common sight out in the community, having a beer with the guys at Barru in Montrose, or tickling the ivory at a steak house in La Cañada.
His two greatest contributions to the community are still with us today – the Montrose Christmas Parade and Two Strike Park.
Morgan started the Christmas Parade in the early ’50s as a daytime event, and he would recruit stars such as Jackie Cooper to serve as grand marshal. The parade transitioned to the nighttime event we know today in the ’70s.
Two Strike Park has a great story, which I covered in a previous column, but to summarize: Morgan was a huge baseball fan, and he noticed that the booming housing tracts of postwar CV had few parks with baseball diamonds Kids mostly played ball out in the street. Morgan was struck by a public service campaign that talked about the dangers of kids playing baseball in traffic. It stated that a kid forced to play ball in traffic started out with two strikes against him, and the third strike would be getting hit by a car. Morgan thought, “Why not keep it at two strikes by taking the kids off the street and putting them in parks where they’re safe?” He conceived the idea of creating a new baseball park for the kids of CV, and added, “Why not have some community fun creating it?”
And so began the Two Strike celebrity baseball games. Several benefit “comedy” ball games were put on locally in the late ’40s/early ’50s, pitting pro ball players such as Leo Durocher, Babe Herman and Peanuts Lowery against top Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn, Mickey Rooney, Roy Rogers and Gene Kelly. The proceeds went to create Two Strike Park on Rosemont above Foothill.
By the late ’50s, Morgan was almost fully retired and he transitioned to his ranch near Yosemite. He spent his remaining years enjoying trips to his small hometown in Wisconsin where he acted in community theater.
He was a good man, with a great career, who made lasting contributions to CV. We were lucky to have him!