When A Hollywood Star Was Our Mayor
Dennis Morgan is a movie star mostly forgotten today, but in the biggest years of his career, the 1940s, he was one of the top stars. He was born as Stanley Morner in a small town in Wisconsin, where he married his high school sweetheart. He had the acting bug early, acting in plays all through high school and college. He toured the country doing light opera, finally ending up in Hollywood in the late ’30s. He was signed to MGM for three years, cranking out a number of supporting roles, and served another year at Paramount.
But it was when he signed with Warner Bros. in 1942 that his career really took off. He starred in the 1943 operetta “The Desert Song” and he shot to the top spot as Warner Bros.’ most popular leading man. He followed this success with starring roles in such iconic movies as “God Is My Co-Pilot,” “Christmas in Connecticut” and “My Wild Irish Rose.” He was tall, handsome and athletic, stable and friendly in personality, with a clean-cut image and a beautiful voice. What made Morgan different from some other Hollywood stars was that he was a genuinely nice guy. He was charming, outgoing and liked by everyone. That was part of his success. He had friends everywhere.
In 1945 he moved to La Cañada to a shaded 4½-acre estate on the corner of Alta Canyada and Hacienda. (The house is virtually unchanged in appearance today.) He brought with him to our valley his winning personality and ability to make friends. He threw himself into local volunteerism, first showing up in local newspapers at local blood drives near the end of the war. He became a regular sight in town, having a beer with locals at the Barru Bar in Montrose, or entertaining at the piano for patrons of a La Cañada steak house.
In 1947, the Chambers of Commerce of La Crescenta, La Cañada and Montrose banded together in a moment of unity and elected Dennis Morgan as mayor of the Crescenta-Cañada Valley, to be thereafter referred to as “Hizzoner” (His Honor). Dennis took his role seriously, and organized and headlined many community events, often lending his name and energies to charities such as the Red Cross and Boy Scouts.
In the 1950s Morgan began to throttle back on his career to spend more time with his family. He was still happily married to his high school sweetheart and raising his three kids. As mayor in the early ’50s, “Hizzoner” started the still popular Montrose Christmas Parade, enlisting his movie star friends to act as grand marshals and as entries in the daytime Christmas parade (it switched to a nighttime event in the ’70s). “Hizzoner” also championed the creation of Two Strike Park, which he funded with proceeds of celebrity baseball games, called the “Two Strike Series.”
This is where Morgan’s likability came into play. He had an amazing number of movie star friends and an equal number of friends in professional baseball. He created all-star teams of baseball legends such as Leo Durocher, Babe Herman and Peanuts Lowery, and pitted them in comedic ball games against top Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn, Mickey Rooney, Roy Rogers and Gene Kelly. The proceeds of ticket sales funded Two Strike Park as we know it today.
But Dennis Morgan had since his youth harbored a desire for the rural life. In the late ’50s he retired from Hollywood entirely and bought a ranch in northern California near Yosemite. He relinquished his title as mayor to less famous local merchants and minor politicians. For over a decade the Crescenta-Cañada Valley had enjoyed a period of unity under the leadership of “Hizzoner” basking in the warmth and fame of a real Hollywood star.
As a post script, here’s some commentary on living in the town you grew up in. I just received an email from my old high school English teacher, correcting a point of grammar in my column last week. Forty years after graduation and she’s still trying to make me write right! Thanks, Ms. Morris!