Astoria has always been a town known for its love of theater. As a stopping point by travelers sailing from Portland to San Francisco, it was a popular place for troupes and companies to get in a show. The Way It Was by Cecil Matson lists the Spiritual Hall, later named Liberty Hall, Ross Opera House and Fisher’s Opera House all holding shows and well attended in the late 19th century. The Fisher’s Opera House, later renamed the Astoria Theatre, is where the infamous ‘King of Hollywood’, William Clark Gable performed in 1922.
The popular actor was born in Ohio at the turn of the century. He lived with his father and stepmother, dropping out of high school at sixteen to work in a tire factory. As a teen he attended the play Bird of Paradise, a love story set in Hawaii, and was fascinated. He began working for a theatre, unpaid to learn the ropes. This didn’t exactly rocket him into showbiz, here he teetered back and forth between small acting gigs and manual labor for the next several years. His first real acting job was with the Jewell Players. The troupe got held up in Montana over a rough winter, however, and broke up. Billy, as he called himself at the time, traveled to Bend for work. He got on at a lumber mill doing, “Probably the toughest work I ever did.” Later in life, this short-lived job at the mill gave him the nickname the “Lumberjack star”, inaccurate as it was.
According to Christopher Spicer’s biography of Clark Gable, Portland was his next stop. Here he joined the Astoria Players Stock Company. He got hired through the connections of his first love, Franz Doerfler. She was twenty-two, older than Billy, and an actress herself. A more successful actress too, it was because of her begging that he was allowed to accompany the troupe to Astoria.
The group traveled down to the mouth of the Columbia to perform. Through an unlikely turn, Billy Gable was given a role in the shows, even though he was originally along for support. Spicer reports that the crowds were favorable toward Billy, even though his director was not. Franz coached him as he took on new roles and thrived, though the company was having a hard time making ends meet. The Morning Astorian covered his role in Blundering Billy at the end of the company’s run where he played, “A typical old salt”. The Astorian claimed the play was, “Guaranteed to dispel the worst case of blues imaginable.” The cast and crew had an incurable case, however. They were struggling to put food on the table. So, in need of a paycheck and a new audience, they planned to travel back up the Columbia,stopping along the way to give shows.
Warren Harris writes in Clark Gable: A Biography, that the group waylaid in Seaside waiting for their tour back up the river to be set. They stayed with the mother of a player, Lucille Schumann. The house wouldn’t hold them all though and hotels hadn’t arrived in Seaside in the early 20’s, says Oregon Coast Beach Connection. So, they took turns sleeping on the beach. Clark remembered his time with the company fondly, despite their hardships. He told the Oregonian in 1934, “I’m always trying the recapture some of the fun and the thrill I knew in those days.”
Upon the company’s return to Portland, Franz and William Clark made plans to marry. This decision was unacceptable to her family and Franz saw the sense in waiting until they could make an easier living. She recommended her fiance take acting lessons to increase his chances at a part, which is how Clark met Josephine Dillon.
Dillon saw a glimmer of a star in Clark and began the process of upgrading his appearance. She fixed his teeth, styled his hair and gave him lessons in speech and movement according to Matson in The Way It Was. Gable and Dillon were married in 1924. He married four more times as his career grew in the coming years. Never did he rekindle his love with Franz, but Astoria will be forever grateful to her for bringing a star to our door.