Banned Books, Palm Trees & Hollywood

Today marks the end of National Banned Book Week. I’m disappointed that I was not organized enough to have put together an exhibit here at the Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library. I might have done something related to Storm Center, the 1956 film directed by Daniel Taradash that stars Bette Davis as a librarian who is asked by her city council, lead by a character played by Brian Keith, (remember Family Affair?!), to remove a book about Communism from the shelves of her library. The film was shot in Santa Rosa with most of the action taking place at the old Carnegie Library.

Santa Rosa librarian, Ruth Hall with Bette Davis – September 12, 1955. Photo taken by John LeBaron. SCL Photo No. 5193

In anticipation of next year I pulled out our “Storm Center” vertical file and came across some interesting bits of information including a short article that appeared in Modern Screen Magazine in which Bette is quoted as saying that “librarians almost always have been pictured as dowdy. Movies, novels, and short stories haven’t done right by librarians, and it is time somebody did something about it.” I love this – having just finished reading about stereotypes and librarians (fact, fiction or something in between?) for a school assignment.

The article goes on to say how in preparation for playing the part of head librarian, Alicia Hull, Ms. Davis spent three months meeting with every librarian she could find and had come to the conclusion that librarians on the whole were not dowdy, but smart. Whether she meant smart in intellect or appearance or both is not clear, but she did question where the “dowdy librarian” cliché had originated. If Bette was here today I could tell her.

It was Santa Rosa librarian Ruth Hall who Bette Davis modeled her character after. Ms. Hall describes the experience of working with a Hollywood star and the film making process in an article she wrote called Behind the Scenes of “Storm Center” that appears in the January 1956 edition of the California Librarian – a copy of which is in the vertical file as well as in the Rare Book Room.

Post card view of the Santa Rosa Carnegie Library that stood at the southwest corner of Fourth and E Streets – 1910. SCL Photo No. 4833

Ruth Hall tells a story that I didn’t see in any of the other newspaper clippings. At the time the library was constructed two palm trees were planted near the front entrance. As the trees matured some Santa Rosans, including Ms. Hall, found them unsightly. When the folks from Columbia Pictures asked if there was any civic improvement they might help with in exchange for permission to film, it was suggested that they pay to have trees removed.

It’s hard to imagine just how unsightly those trees were given that the only photos I can find in the Library’s catalog are from when they were just sprouts.

Today of course not only are the trees gone, but the old stone library as well. As far as I know Bette Davis never returned to Santa Rosa, but Santa Rosa continues to be a draw for Hollywood. For more on this check the Sonoma County Film Office web site.

Meanwhile should you be interested, A DVD copy of Storm Center is available for loan from the Library.

About Katherine J. Rinehart

Katherine J. Rinehart received a MA in History from Sonoma State University in 1994. For the past 19 years, Ms. Rinehart has worked in various positions within the fields of Cultural Resource Management and Historic Preservation and is currently employed by the Sonoma County Library where she has worked in the Sonoma County History and Genealogy Department since 2002. Katherine is the author of Petaluma: A History in Architecture, a contributor to Celebrating Petaluma published by the Petaluma Sesquicentennial Committee and the Petaluma Visitors Program. Ms. Rinehart is an occasional contributor to the Press Democrat and is proud to be a Petaluma Good Egg.
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