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The Ebert Archives: I attend the All-American Picnic at the premiere of "Divorce American Style"

We've been porting my old material over to our new website in construction, and sometimes I come across a blast from the past. Here's a story of a kind now rarely written, about a kind of event now rarely held. It was new ground for me; I'd been the paper's film critic for less than three months.

by Roger Ebert / June 25, 1967

"You don't, ah, know anything about a race where you balance beans on a knife, do you?"

Barry Lorie wanted to know. Columbia Pictures had flown him in from Denver to run the whole world premiere and now here he was without any picnic rules.

"You wouldn't get very far with round beans," said Tom Gorman, the public relations man from Balaban & Katz. "Navy beans, maybe . . ."

"What we gotta get is somebody who knows how to run a picnic," Lorie said. "You guys know anything about running a picnic?"

"We were thinking maybe we could get somebody from the Park District," Gorman said. "Or some disk jockeys."

"You know what I think?" said Lorie. "I think this whole country is a full generation away from an old-fashioned American picnic. We're going to go out there and bomb. The kids won't even know what a sack race is."

"We'll get somebody to run the races," Gorman said. "You leave that to us."

This was two weeks ago, right after Lorie got into town to run the world premiere of "Divorce American Style." World premieres used to be big deals, with proclamations from the mayor and crowds surging against the police lines, but in recent years Hollywood hasn't very often really exerted itself.

"But this is going to be a big one," Lorie promised. "This one will be an old-fashioned, all-American premiere. Know what we'll do?"

"No," we said.

"Well, Debbie Reynolds will be here, of course. So we thought, the movie is 'Divorce American Style.' So why not dream up something to dramatize LIVING American style? Maybe a typical American picnic in a typical Chicago suburb."

After they had thought of this, Lorie said, Balaban & Katz chartered a plane and he went flying over Chicago, searching from the air for the typical Chicago suburb. Finally, he found it: Winston Hills! Thirty-six minutes southwest of the Loop! Even from the air you could see how typical it was, he said. So the plan was for Debbie to spend last Monday evening at Winston Hills. She would meet a typical family and then attend the typical picnic.

Monday dawned with a clear sky and cooler weather. Lorie and Gorman were up early to drive out to O'Hare in rented limousines - the Lincoln Continental Executive Model for Debbie, a Cadillac for the back-up car.

At 5 p.m. sharp, Debbie and her hairdresser, Sidney Guilaroff, were to leave the Ambassador East for the picnic. But it wasn't until 5:30 that the limousines finally left.

Debbie and Sidney shared the Lincoln with this reporter, and Lorie had the Cadillac all to himself. Several photographers were originally scheduled to drive out in the Cadillac, but they decided to take their own cars.

The Continental threaded its way down Michigan Ave. and cut across to Lake Shore.

"I will never survive this picnic," Debbie said.

"I don't know why you do it, Debbie, honestly I don't," Guilaroff said. "Why you give so much of yourself?"

"I enjoy it, actually," she said.

The limousine arrived at the assembly point in Winston Hills at 6:34. Miss Reynolds was introduced to Joshua Muss, president of the Hills.

Muss got into the limousine and a police car, lights flashing and siren blowing, led the way to the home of Edward and Rosemary Dobson.

The Dobsons turned out to be a friendly, extroverted couple who invited Debbie into their living room for punch and cookies. "This is Richard, our son, and our own Debbie, our daughter," Mrs. Dobson said. "And here is Mayor Roberts, and the mayor's wife, in yellow. And I'd like you to meet Fr. Mathias Kucera of St. Joan of Arc.

Guilaroff took a cup of punch and went into the kitchen, where one of the Dobson children said, "Like you to meet our cat, and thrust a large cat into Guilaroff's arms.

Then Mrs. Dobson presented Debbie with a large white box. "A little present from the community," she said. Debbie opened it. "Oh, how nice," she said. "A poncho . . . no, a terrycloth . . . is it a beach robe? Yes. How nice. And it would make a great maternity top, too, right?"

The women had a good laugh, and then everybody went back out and got into the cars again to go to the picnic. The picnic grounds were, at the 71st St. Park. When the limousines arrived, there were already 1,500 or 2,000 people at the park, half of them lined-up at the gate waiting for Debbie, the rest lined up for free fried chicken. The Continental was mobbed by youngsters with fried chicken in one hand and autograph books in the other, and Debbie, as she got out of the car, whispered, "I may never see you all again."

Joe Ragann, the Winston Hills chief of police, organized his force into a flying wedge to get Debbie to the bandstand. And there, on the bandstand, a portable microphone in his band and a battery pack over his shoulder and a red tag saying "Official" pinned to his knit shirt, was Tom Gorman.

"I finally figured I might as well run the games myself," he explained, "Who else knows what a sack race is?"

Debbie started to speak into the microphone, but hundreds of pieces of paper were thrust at her for her autograph. She turned to Lorie and said, "Maybe we'd better pass out the autographed pictures and save some time." Lorie's face paled. The autographed pictures. He could see them as clear as day - left behind in B&K's offices.

Guilaroff, who had been standing to one side on the grandstand, now came forward and took the mike.

Debbie said, "Why don't we all go over and start the races? Do you all want to win a prize?" The kids turned and descended on Gorman, whose amplified voice could be heard from somewhere in the middle of the mob.

"All right, here we go." Gorman said. "I need 10 volunteers." A hundred hands shot up. "OK, OK," he said. "Just 10 for this race, and then we'll have another."

The policemen were trying to get the picnickers to back up and clear an area for the race, but without much luck. Finally Chief Ragann had a brainstorm. "Everybody in front sit down!" he shouted. "What an inspiration," said a press agent, "The ones behind won't be able to climb over the prone bodies."

After the sack race, which Debbie won, there was a balloon-blowing contest and a three-legged race. The balloon-blowing contest wasn't much of a success, because half the kids thought the idea was to make your balloon burst first, and the rest thought you were supposed to produce the biggest unburst balloon. Gorman, ever a diplomat, ordered ribbons to be awarded to the winners of both categories.

Then it was time for Debbie and Sidney to have some chicken. Several slightly used drumsticks were offered up by the kids who had been carrying them around during the races, but Lorie fought through the crowd with a plate of white meat and Debbie posed while Sidney, out of the limelight for the moment, gnawed. "Haven't really eaten anything yet today, he explained.

And then, at last, it was 8:15 and the sun was going down. Signing autographs until the end, Debbie worked her way back to the Lincoln. A little boy with a Polaroid kept trying to edge past Chief Ragann and take her picture, and finally Debbie stopped and said, "No, you'll have to back up. You're too close to get a good picture." She turned and whispered to Guilaroff, "I don't know what he's trying to do. He keeps shooting my earlobe and my elbow and things."

The limousine was quiet after the chaos of the picnic. Debbie settled back, her feet propped up, and as the auto began to leave the park someone shouted, "Congratulations on your World Premiere!"

"Oh, dear," Debbie said, "that's not until tomorrow." Here is a link to my review of the film. I gave it 3 1/2 stars. It was better than the picnic.

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