Marion Morrison, who later became known as John Wayne, grew up in Glendale and graduated from Glendale High School before gaining fame and fortune in the movie industry.
Morrison was born 100 years ago, on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa, which is celebrating his centennial with the groundbreaking of the new John Wayne Museum. While Winterset can claim him as a native son, we can boast that he grew up here.
When Morrison was just a few years old, the family moved to Lancaster, Calif., to be near Morrison’s paternal grandfather, who soon went into a Glendale sanitarium. While visiting him, Morrison’s mother fell in love with the city’s new homes, the lush landscaping and the many people from Iowa and the Midwest who had settled here, according to historian Michael Morgan, who has intensively researched Morrison.
Recently, Morgan took me on a driving tour of Marion Morrison’s Glendale, relating Morrison stories as we drove from one end of town to another.
According to Morgan, the family moved to Glendale in 1916 and Morrison began attending Doran Street School, now R.D. White. The Morrisons lived in a succession of houses, most of which are no longer standing. For a while, they lived at 129 S. Kenwood St., right around the corner from the old Carnegie Library on Harvard Street.
“He lived there in 1923 in a big two-story house,” Morgan said. “The library was where he learned to love reading,” said Morgan, who told me he had worked at the Carnegie Library in the 1970s with one of Morrison’s schoolmates, Lula Volkman.
Morrison joined the Boy Scouts and the YMCA and attended Wilson Intermediate School, giving a graduation address in 1921.
We drove by the site of the old fire station at 311 E. Broadway, the one Morrison walked by on his way to school and the place where he earned his nickname. Morgan said there are many variations on the story, but related the version he had read.
“Morrison had a dog, an Airedale named ‘Duke,’ which he often left at the firehouse while he was in class. The firemen began calling Morrison ‘Little Duke’ and the dog ‘Big Duke.’ From then on,” Morgan said, “when Morrison introduced himself he would say, ‘just call me Duke.’”
At the corner of present-day Chevy Chase Drive and Verdugo Road, Morgan pointed to the former site of Kalem studios.
“Morrison fell in love with motion pictures right here,” Morgan said.
“Kids would ride their bikes over and watch as Helen Holmes, star of a series, ‘Perils of Helen,’ did her own stunts.”
One day, Morgan told me, Morrison was watching as Holmes was tied to the rails on the old Salt Lake line. When the steam engine, tender and cars traveled right over her, she appeared to be doomed. But, as the train continued on, she rolled out of a specially dug pit and reappeared unscathed.
“Morrison was smitten, with Holmes and with acting,” said Morgan.
“He was so enamored of show business that the producer put him to work at odd jobs.”
Morrison’s father was a pharmacist, but apparently never a successful businessman, so Morrison started working at age 11, leaving home on his bicycle at 4:30 every morning to deliver newspapers. His teachers often noted that he came to school looking tired. Despite that, he had excellent grades.
After he entered high school at the old campus on Harvard Street, he continued to deliver papers before school and prescriptions for his father after school, and played championship football. He graduated in 1925 from the new GHS campus on Broadway and enrolled at USC on a football scholarship, but after he was injured while body surfing, he lost the scholarship. That’s when he returned to his first love: acting. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Jeannette Mazurki Lindner attended Glendale High with Nancy Morrison, Marion Morrison’s younger sister. Their Summer Class of 1939, with nearly 500 graduates, was the largest class to date.
“It was so big they couldn’t have the graduation in the auditorium,” she said.
“We were on the football field and the audience was in the stands. ‘Stagecoach’ had just come out and John Wayne had become a big star. No one was looking at us, the graduates,” she said with a laugh.
“They were looking around to see where John Wayne was.
“Nancy and I had lockers next to each other and we were friends,” she added.
They were both at their lockers when Wayne found his sister and presented her with a graduation gift, an emerald ring.
“We were just coming out of the Depression and we were all very impressed,” Lindner recalled.
Later, in 1945, Lindner married Mike Mazurki.
“He was 6' 4", like Wayne, and became part of Wayne’s group and did several movies with him.”
She recalled a day when she and Nancy Morrison went out to Republic Studios’ back lot.
“They burned a town for a Western movie that they were making,” she said.
Later, Nancy Morrison, her brother and the Mazurkis all had dinner together.