Ann Robinson at Cinecon 2019
November 19, 2019
If I could listen to one classic Hollywood film star tell me stories for a day, it would be Ann Robinson. (Normally, I’d pick Marsha Hunt, but I think I’ve heard a lot of her tales already!) Robinson was one of three recipients of the Cinecon Legacy Award at this year’s Cinecon Classic Film Festival. I’ve heard her speak a few times before, interviewed her on the TCMFF red carpet, and I would now like to be her best friend, please.
Cinecon programmed one of her favorite films, The Glass Wall (1953), on Friday afternoon of the fest. I wasn’t originally able to attend due to work, but luckily, I was given the day off—and the chance to be regaled by Robinson’s yarns once again.
Ann Robinson today.
And boy, she did not disappoint. Before even getting into her film career, Robinson lovingly recalled childhood memories of the historic theater we were all sitting in. The Egyptian, she told us, was her father’s favorite theatrical venue, and she visited often when she was very young. She reminisced about feeding monkeys in cages by Pig 'N Whistle and riding elephants in the theater’s forecourt. “Hollywood Boulevard really was a boulevard of dreams,” she remembered fondly. She’d see wonderful characters stroll up and down the street, including movie stars like John Carradine (fully dressed in top hat and tails!), and her father would always point out Charlie Chaplin’s delicatessen, which was located just west of Hollywood and Vine.
In addition to the lovely anecdotes Robinson recalled around the Egyptian, she holds special memories from inside the theater, particularly when she helped celebrate the 50th anniversary of The War of the Worlds (1953) there in September 2003, a night she’ll never forget.
Robinson with Gene Barry in a still for The War of the Worlds.
Though she draws enthusiastic audiences that come to see her, Robinson is still a big movie fan at heart. Cinecon President Stan Taffel told us that each year Robinson calls him up to ask if she’s invited to Cinecon. Of course, his wife reminded him, “she IS one of us!" Taffel’s wife asked him why Cinecon hadn’t honored her; he didn’t have an answer, which is why that oversight was quickly corrected this year. “I felt like one of you,” Robinson said. “I didn’t feel like a celebrity whatsoever, I wanted to come and see the movie stars!” This is why I’d like to be best friends with this woman. We’re both big film fans, but, you know, she actually knew and worked with some of the stars I fangirl over!
Undoubtedly, Robinson is best known for The War of the Worlds. But because Cinecon is different, they wanted to celebrate her in a different way and chose a rarer title to show, The Glass Wall, released the same year as her signature film. As opposed to the sci-fi War of the Worlds, The Glass Wall was much more grounded in reality—so much so that Robinson confirmed the people on those New York streets weren’t extras; they were real people going about their lives. She also shared memories of the cast, including co-star Jerry Paris, who she dated for a while. Paris took her to Shelley Winters’ house, and the two actresses became friends. (Interestingly, Robinson had met Winters previously: She was her stunt double in 1950’s Frenchie. Yes, Robinson started her career as a stunt woman.)
One of the first times I heard Robinson speak was at a Noir City Hollywood screening of Dragnet (1956). I didn’t know there was a movie adaptation, nor did I know that Robinson almost wasn’t in the picture. When she went in for her test, she was told that the role was already cast. But, since she made the trek out, she was asked to read anyway, in case there was another part she could fit. Since she had nothing to go off of, she simply copied the way Jack Webb spoke. Well, it worked, because afterwards she was told that they wanted her instead!
Robinson with Jack Webb (left) in the film adaptation of Dragnet.
Like another Cinecon Legacy recipient, Gigi Perreau, Robinson also guest-starred on many TV shows during the 1950s and 1960s. One of her weirder roles came on Rocky Jones: Space Ranger, in which she appeared as Queen Juliandra. “It’s really wild; I played twins!” she recalled. (Note to self: Look up those episodes.)
She also discussed her War of the Worlds co-star Gene Barry, who was a tough interview, according to Taffel. Robinson confirmed that, but she also held many fond memories of him. For instance, after Barry’s wife passed away, Marvin Paige told Robinson that he was worried Barry wasn’t getting out of the house. So, Robinson gave him a call and invited him to his favorite restaurant. Everyone there was so happy to see him again, and she helped lift his spirits. When they celebrated the 50th anniversary of The War of the Worlds, Robinson said being there and seeing the enthusiastic crowd made Barry feel like a star. “It made him feel important again,” she told us.
Robinson being given her award by past recipient Cora Sue Collins (left) as Stan Taffel looks on and Mike Cahill snaps a photo.
Speaking of feeling important, Robinson made Cinecon President Stan Taffel feel just that after she was presented her award by Cora Sue Collins (which was the definition of adorable, by the way) with a special presentation she had for Taffel. But first, background: When Robinson was under contract to Paramount during the McCarthy era, studios sent stars to different states to help spread goodwill and boast Hollywood’s image, because the Red Scare really made folks weary of the film industry. Paramount sent actors to Texas, and Robinson toured the state for two weeks on a bus with John Wayne, Chill Wills, Jeff Chandler, Jesse Lasky Jr., Keenan Wynn, and Greer Garson. (Well, Garson wasn’t on the bus, but she was on the tour.) Recently, Robinson came across an autographed itinerary of the trip, which she had framed and presented to Taffel, who was in utter shock at the thoughtful present. “I just wanted you to have something to remember me by,” she told him. Cue the tears! Really, how can you not want to be best friends with this woman?!