Neighborhood resident Ron Davis was fascinated with Hollywood when he was a young boy.
Everyday Saturday he trekked downtown to the Majestic or the Palace or one of the many other movie houses that lined “theater row” decades ago on Elm Street. He watched the matinees, and occasionally found himself so immersed in the images that he stayed for the entire day’s run of five feature films – living vicariously through the big screen fantasies offered by Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy and John Wayne.
He wondered about the whole process of movie making.
How were Hollywood stars created and what were they really like?
Who wrote those classic scripts?
What role did the director play in a great performance?
Today, Davis has the answers. Transforming those childhood fantasies into reality, he has spent the last 20 years creating an audio library on the history of the performing arts.
The collection, part of the DeGolyer Library at SMU, includes 500 audio biographies and interviews with America’s greatest performers, directors, producers, and cinematographers.
“You could say that I have been living out my dreams by spending time talking to and writing about the people who created my fantasy world,” says Davis, who has been a history professor of American culture at SMU for the last 29 years.
The audio collection has been an important tool for students of film and history, as well as the local citizenry of film aficionados. Renowned researchers and writers from across the nation have utilized the collection, he says.
Since 1975 Davis has spent three weeks in Los Angeles every summer averaging 25 interviews a year for the audio collection. On the movie sets of major studio lots and in the homes of the stars, Davis sits face to face with those who influenced him as a child.
“It was frantic behavior, doing so many interviews in such a short period of time,” he says. “But with a limited budget, you do what you have to do.”
Davis wrote a book on Hollywood entitled “Glamour Factory,” recently published by SMU Press. He says a majority of the book was taken directly from the audio collection.
“I realized some years ago that this collection was so rich that I wanted to be one of the writers to use that material,” he says.
“Gregory Peck was perhaps my most outstanding interview, because he was very verbal and insightful,” Davis recalls of the 12-hour talk. “Lucille Ball gave me an incredible three hours and I did three sessions with Gene Kelly.”
Davis says some of the best interviews in the collection are from the behind-the-scenes people who made it all happen, such as the publicity team at Metro Goldwyn Mayor.
Davis is currently doing research for other Tinsel Town books. One is an overview of Hollywood trends since the demise of the big studio system in the mid-40s. Another is a book on director John Ford filled with stories about John Wayne.