By Heidi Baumstark
Film and history enthusiasts pulled up a chair at Old Ox Brewery to enjoy a free program titled History on Tap: Hollywood Comes to Middleburg presented by Mosby Heritage Area Association (MHAA) on Oct. 17.
The local organization whose mission is to advocate for the historic preservation of landscape in the area had an audience sipping local brews, listening to stories and juicy gossip from a forgotten era.
“MHAA has always prided itself on offering a variety of programs. Our new partnership with Old Ox Brewing and Loudoun County Public Library (LCPL) is fantastic because it lets us reach a whole new audience in a relaxed atmosphere,” said MHAA Public Programs Coordinator Travis Shaw who shared the emcee job with his coworker.
Shaw and MHAA Director of Education Anne Marie Paquette took turns telling tales of prominent people who brought the glitz of Hollywood to the town of Middleburg. “When Anne Marie suggested that we schedule the talk to coincide with the Middleburg Film Festival, we knew we could come up with some fun, historical stories,” he added. And they certainly did.
When the early 20th century ushered in the golden age of theater, Middleburg was certainly in the loop, attracting famous figures. Many wealthy New Yorkers were coming to the Middleburg area in the 1920s. One of them was John Hay “Jock” Whitney (1904-1982), a U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, and president of the Museum of Modern Art, who was also an equestrian and an outstanding polo player.
Whitney purchased the 2,234-acre Llangollen estate in Upperville as a wedding gift for his fiancée, Mary Elizabeth “Liz” Altemus, whom he married in 1930. She was a champion horsewoman, socialite, philanthropist, and was active in equestrian and cinema circles like her husband who on March 27, 1933 made the cover of Time magazine.
During his college days at Yale, Jock met Fred Astaire and got him his first film contract. The Whitneys’ Llangollen country estate was known for wild parties. It’s been reported that Fred Astaire even visited Llangollen and may have even danced on the tables.
According to Paquette, Liz Whitney reopened a theater called Middleburg Hollywood Theater next to the Red Fox Inn in downtown Middleburg in 1932. The new theater was actually a successor to the Red Fox Theater of the 1920s that was a casualty of the Great Depression. “Jock” was a key player in the production company that made the 1939 American epic historical romance Gone with the Wind.
When this classic film opened at Middleburg Hollywood Theater, the couple hosted a black-tie event that included the star actor—Clark Gable—in the audience. An old black-and-white theater playbill reads: “Announcing the Opening of Perfect Sound and Talking Pictures.” Evening admission for these “talking pictures” was 30 cents, higher than all area prices, maybe because it was the first air-conditioned public building in Loudoun County.
Unfortunately, a flung cigar caused a fire which burned down the theater in 1941. The stone steps leading up to the theater survived, and can still be seen near the Red Fox Inn, Middleburg’s 1728-built flagship stone inn. The discussion included sightings of a Hollywood actors like local legend Robert Duvall, and Sean Connery who was spotted here while filming the 1964 Alfred Hitchcock psychological thriller Marnie.
After the lecture, one audience member shared a story of when she was a young girl at Middleburg’s local pharmacy, eating a tuna sandwich. A lady came in with her dog. The dog dragged her sandwich off and ate it. The lady with the dog? Jacqueline Kennedy.
She came to the table, apologized for her dog, and bought the girl a new tuna sandwich. A perfect ending to the night’s storytelling. The October program was a result of a partnership between MHAA and Middleburg Museum, Loudoun Museum, and Loudoun County Public Library.
Next month, the MHAA program features a walking tour of Middleburg’s oldest churches. The “Legends by Lanternlight: Early Churches of Middleburg” walking tour is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 13. Attendees will learn about the booming Middleburg population in the 1840s and 50s.
The tour will begin with a rare peek into Asbury Methodist Church, progress to Sharon Cemetery outside of the Baptist Church, and will conclude at Emmanuel Episcopal with a traditional carol and informal reception. This event will be held rain or shine. Tickets are $15 (adults) and $8 (students) and can be purchased at the door or online. Visit the MHAA website for more information, www.mosbyheritagearea.org. ML
This article first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.