Glory, W.Va., 1935.
It wasn’t exactly a parade.
It wasn’t a time for celebration.
It was a time to run for your life.
—Movie tagline, The Fools’ Parade
The night was finally here. After months of anticipation and preparation, the streets of Wheeling were packed with more than 12,000 fans awaiting glimpses of their favorite Hollywood stars.  Wheeling’s own Court Theatre was hosting the world premiere of The Fool’s Parade, and an elaborate parade had been staged to lead the stars and other dignitaries through downtown to the corner of 12th and Chapline Streets.
The details of this star-studded night are chronicled in a collection recently acquired by the Ohio County Public Library. The material was collected by the late Thomas Burns, director of the Court Theatre at the time of the premiere, and consists of advertising agreements, clippings, correspondence, photographs, programs, and other promotional material. The photographs in this collection are the real gems, for they capture the excitement and pride of area residents as they hosted some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Jimmy Stewart, Kurt Russell, and Strother Martin.
The Fools’ Parade movie was based on a book of the same name by Moundsville native Davis Grubb, who also wrote The Night of the Hunter. The novel was adapted for the screen by James Lee Barrett, and directed by Andrew McLaglen for Columbia Pictures. Filming for the movie began in September 1970 in Moundsville, with the West Virginia Penitentiary serving as “Glory Prison.” Scenes were also filmed at the Marshall County Courthouse and the vacant Marshall County Bank. 
The comedy-drama tells the story of three released convicts, Mattie Appleyard (Jimmy Stewart), Billy Lee Cottrill (Strother Martin) and Johnny Jesus (Kurt Russell), as they attempt to make a new start with over $25,000 of prison savings. A crooked prison guard (George Kennedy) and his accomplices (including one of Wheeling’s own, Morgan Paull) thwart their efforts, and a caper ensues.
A Fools’ Parade Parade
As soon as the Intelligencer reported that the filming for the movie had begun, Melvin Katz, president of the Wheeling Theatres, Inc. and close associate of Thomas Burns, began a letter writing campaign to host the world premiere of the film in Wheeling. Katz was able to convince the Columbia studio executives and in March 1971, the announcement was made: Wheeling’s own Court Theatre would host the world premiere of The Fools’ Parade.  As reported in The Marshall County Green Tab, the highlight of the evening would be a “fools’ parade,” staged by the city of Wheeling, complete with bands, floats and a host of antique autos in which the visiting dignitaries would ride. 
The Fools’ Parade collection includes the three-page detailed lineup for the parade, listing the make, model and owners of each of the 20 antique automobiles, including the 1924 Dodge Touring that was used as the Prison Car throughout the filming of the movie. On the night of the premiere, Jimmy Stewart himself rode in the car, bringing up the rear of the parade.
The excitement was palpable and the crowds were anxious to catch a glimpse of the stars. The front page of The Wheeling News-Register featured an image of the police attempting to control the crowd, but as the caption suggested, “a mood of happiness prevailed.”
West Virginia’s governor and official host of the world premiere event, Arch A. Moore, Jr. in a letter to Melvin Katz following the festivities, noted that the Court Theatre was a fitting venue for such an anticipated and important event. The theatre, housed in the Board of Trade Building, opened circa 1902 on the site of the former Ohio County Courthouse at 12th and Chapline Streets. The theatre hosted vaudeville shows and plays into the 1930s, featuring legends such as Ethel Barrymore and Frank Mansfield. Though the Board of Trade Building still stands today, the Court Theatre closed its doors in 1982. 
Thanks to Thomas Burns, and his efforts to preserve the history of The Fools’ Parade premiere, we can still catch a glimpse of a glittering night in the Court Theatre’s history, June 17, 1971, when Hollywood came to Wheeling.
1.“12,000 Watch ‘Parade’ Parade,” The Intelligencer, June 18, 1971.
2. Douglass, Thomas “Fools’ Parade.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 15 July 2011. Web. 19 October 2016.
3. “‘Fools’ Parade’ Premiere Added to Court Theatre’s History,” The Intelligencer, June 17, 1971.
4. “‘Fools’ Parade’ World Premiere June 17 in Wheeling,” The Marshall County Green Tab, June 1, 1971.
5. “Preserving ‘The Court,’” Sunday News-Register, June 20, 2004.
Saturday, November 5 at 3 pm
Part of the 2016 Upper Ohio Valley Festival of Books