When I first came to Gallipolis some 38 years ago this summer, one of the first things asked of me, as a college student studying journalism, was if I was familiar with Oscar Odd “O.O.” McIntyre. I confessed that I was not and was informed that he was one of the pre-eminent of what they used to call Broadway columnists of that golden period of popular newspaper content in the 1920s and ’30s. Although born in Plattsburg, Mo., McIntyre spent his formative years in Gallipolis under the care of his grandmother, Mary Jones McIntyre. His first newspaper job, on the Gallipolis Journal, was the first step in a career that eventually took him to New York and a new vocation as a chronicler of life in the Big City, not only its world of entertainment but also of its sights and sounds. That he wrote about these with a slant toward the “folks back home” in a primarily rural America of the time gave him an edge over his emerging contemporaries in the field, as well as a celebrity that equalled such flashier brethren as Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan and Earl Wilson.
I was long aware of Winchell (1897-1972), whose star had dimmed in the ’60s but who had become one of the more recognizable names among gossip writers because he had embraced radio and television, mediums denied McIntyre due to his passing on Valentine’s Day 1938, four days prior to his 54th birthday. I soon learned that McIntyre’s legacy lasted longer than one would imagine, as some casual pieces of popular culture I encountered in later years told me. As an example, the 1937 musical film “On The Avenue,” produced by Twentieth Century-Fox and starring Dick Powell, Madeleine Carroll and Alice Faye, opened with a montage of major newspaper columns, including McIntyre’s “New York Day-By-Day” when the column’s popularity was at its zenith.
More than two decades later, the TV series “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer” referenced McIntyre’s commentary on old Broadway in an episode dealing with a “Phantom of the Opera”-type mystery in a landmark theater probed by the titular hero, played by Darren McGavin. By the time I saw that show on DVD there was no doubt in my mind that “Odd” McIntyre was not for nothing an institution in journalism but also national life for 26 years. His observations on the rich and famous in the Big Apple and heartfelt thoughts on life in the Ohio River town where he grew up still had fans decades after his passing, as fresh as the mint copy of the Tribune’s special section on the man someone (very possibly Hobart Wilson Jr. or J. Sherman Porter) left on my desk.
It was that category of his writing that helped familiarize a nation with Gallipolis. Readers in New York and elsewhere learned of the personalities with whom McIntyre connected as he grew into manhood. In “That Was a Happy New Year,” the columnist reflects on what’s new in the Old French City: “Back Street has been paved. A new bridge spans the Chickamauga. The Park Central has a mosaic floor. There are concrete walks in the public square and Billy Schartz’s cigar store is now ‘The Smoke Shop.’”
He adds: “I want to go back again, but I hope there have not been too many changes. I like to think of the tolling evening church bells, the cows being driven home from the pasture, the shrill whistle of the Hocking Valley train at six-fifteen as she rounded the curve at Fox’s dairy.” The piece is chock full of such imagery cast in the words of a lord of the language, as well as an aching nostalgia that touched McIntyre even as he and his wife, Maybelle Small McIntyre, had long installed themselves in New York society. “That Was a Happy New Year” was not the last of such commentaries on a simpler time in McIntyre’s life. At the time of his death, McIntyre planned a renovation of Maybelle’s State Street home in Gallipolis, Gatewood (see “My Little Dream Home in the West” from 1935), and it was there she resided for many years before her own passing at 101 on April 27, 1985, in a Point Pleasant, W.Va., nursing home.
More recently I’ve been asked if the current generation knows anything of O.O. McIntyre and what he accomplished. If they don’t, it’s a shame because of his prominence and his promotion of the old hometown. Yet this deficit in knowledge can be readily addressed on April 22 when the Ariel-Ann Carson Dater Theatre hosts R. Scott Williams, author of “An Odd Book,” a new full-length biography of McIntyre, for a 4:30 p.m. book signing and Q&A session. Williams, chief executive officer and senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Washington, D.C.-based Newseum, examines McIntyre as the first American celebrity journalist, a credible thesis since little if anything existed in that field when McIntyre began freelancing his column to newspapers in 1912.
He does not ignore, though, the down home touch McIntyre brought to his more diverse writings about the people and places of his own upbringing. “As we grow older those of us who came from the crossroads acquire a deeper appreciation of what the home town has meant to us through the stretch of years,” McIntyre wrote in “Impressing the Folks Back Home” on the occasion of the city placing a marker on the Court Street residence of his grandmother.
The Ariel will also present a musical evening on the same date featuring the local premiere of “The O.O. McIntyre Suite,” a piece composed expressly for the columnist in 1934 by his friend Meredith Willson, who later gave us “The Music Man.” Gallia County native Philip Keith Armstrong comes home to entertain on the same program, beginning at 7:30 p.m.
I may have known nothing about O.O. McIntyre back in the day, but can now certainly attest that the man was a big deal not only in what was his hometown, but to the world as a whole.
(The McIntyre quotes utilized in this piece are from “The ‘Odd’ Book: Selected Short Stories and Columns of O.O. McIntyre,” compiled and annotated by Dr. Laura E. Kratz and published by the Gallia County Historical Society in 1989.)
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.