Yesterday's Magazette

3 – The Prince Dined At The Palace

The Prince Dined At The Palace


By Madonna Dries Christensen

Train Stalled; Roads Plugged As Fourth Storm
Strikes NW Iowa During Weekend.


That was the headline on the March 22, 1951 edition of the Sibley Gazette-Tribune. But by the time the weekly paper came out, everyone in our small town knew there was more to the story than a stalled train. My family had gotten the scoop the night it happened, from my mother, a cook at the Palace Cafe.
She plodded into the house later than usual, shucked off her coat, headscarf, and gloves and stood warming her hands over the oil heater in the dining room.
“There’s a train stalled at the depot,” she said.
The comment brought only a spark of interest from us kids, but my dad said, “Oh, yeah?” He had an interest in trains; family lore said he had wanted to be a train engineer.
“Someone famous was on the train,” Ma added.
Our collective antenna rose. Someone famous … in Sibley? To my sister Shirley and me, ages thirteen and fifteen respectively, famous meant movie stars, while my brothers were more inclined to think of sports figures.
Ma fed us more information. “I cooked supper for him.”
Okay, so it was man, but that didn’t narrow the field much.“Guess who it was?” Ma teased.

We tossed around names, while she kept shaking her head.

Finally she said, “Henry Fonda.”

While we kids gaped at her and began a chorus of questions, my dad scoffed, “So it’s a movie star. No big deal.” Poppy often told Shirley and me, when we spent our babysitting money on movie magazines, that actors and actresses were not respectable and should not be idolized. Now, leaning toward the radio, he added, “Pipe down, all of you. I can’t hear my program.”

Ma motioned us to the parlor, where she explained that the cast of a play called Mr. Roberts was on the train, headed for Omaha. The train wouldn’t be fixed until morning, so the actors ate at the cafe and then went to the Garberson Hotel for the night. “Henry Fonda was the only famous one,” she said, “but you should’ve heard people, saying this one or that one was so-and-so.”

“Did you get his autograph? Shirley asked.

“Gosh, I didn’t even think of that. Anyway, we were too busy for me to stop. I did carry out the food for his booth while the waitresses were busy. When I put down his plate, I accidentally touched his hand.”

“Accidentally on purpose,” I said, and we three females laughed.

“Anyone want to touch the hand that touched Henry Fonda?”

Shirley and I did; the boys thought we were silly.

“He’s real handsome,” Ma continued, “and he seemed nice.”

Poppy had appeared in the doorway. “Nice? He’s been divorced several times.””

“Just once, I think,” Ma said.

“More than that.”

Shirley and I exchanged raised eyebrows. How did he know so much about Henry Fonda? Had he been secretly reading the magazines he thought we shouldn’t buy?

“Anyway,”Ma said, “he acted like he was nobody, just visiting with folks. Then Lavonne Woodward from the paper came in and interviewed him.”

Poppy yawned. “Kids, time for bed. I’m turning in, too. Movie stars might not have to work tomorrow but I do.”

In school the next day, dozens of kids who I knew weren’t downtown on a school night claimed they’d seen Henry Fonda. Or Loretta Young, Dana Andrews, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart. To hear them talk, a cast of hundreds had left their footprints on our snowy streets, making us the Midwest’s equivalent of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I said nothing, certain that I, through my mother, had come closer to a movie star than any of the kids.

Before long, a story circulated that Fonda was coming to visit our school, looking for teenagers to be in one of his upcoming movies. Boys came back after noon recess wearing letter sweaters and ties, and with their hair freshly greased. Girls had freshened their makeup and hair and donned their prettiest angora sweater sets. Our English teacher burst all dreams of stardom by reporting that the train had left hours ago. “Mister Fonda, never intended to visit our school,” Mrs. Forbes said. “Now let’s get to work.”

In time, the movie star who’d been in our midst became yesterday’s news, except at our house. Ma liked to remind us that she had cooked for one of Hollywood’s princes. If we complained about having to eat hamburger, again, she’d say, “My hamburgers and fries were good enough for Henry Fonda, and they’re good enough for you.”

*Story appeared in Weeds Corner previously.

(Madonna lives far from the cold and snow now, in Sarasota, Florida. She’s the author of “Swinging Sisters” and “Masquerade: The Swindler Who Conned J. Edgar Hoover.”
See her Website:


1 Comment »

  1. Madonna’s view brings me into her family settings. I smell the hamburgers and fries, and I watch as her mother touches the hand of Henry Fonda.

    Comment by McClaren Malcolm — February 22, 2008 @ 7:31 am | Reply

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