From Keokuk to Hollywood
Written by Lauren Zechin and originally published in the Keokuk Daily Gate City on July 30, 2014
The road that led Conrad Nagel to the Hollywood Walk of Fame began, of all places, in Keokuk.
The matinee idol, star of numerous films, television and radio personality, and three-time host of the Academy Awards was born March 16, 1897, in Keokuk to Frances Wright Nagel and musician father Dean “Frank” Nagel. The upper-middle-class family lived at 510 N. Fifth St. in a home which no longer stands.
“He always talked about his Midwestern roots and the discipline he got from that … the strong stock of the people … he was so proud of that,” said Nagel’s grandson, Peter Jones of Los Angeles.
According to the 1968 publication “The History of Hancock County, Illinois,” Nagel’s grandfather Conrad was twice mayor of Warsaw and a prominent businessman, but died four years before the birth of his namesake.
In a 1970 article, the Warsaw Bulletin called Cedarcroft “one of the most spacious, elegant homes in the town, befitting a prominent business man and mayor.”
The home later was owned by Joseph Hubinger, starch manufacturer of Hubinger Brothers Company fame, but according to Janice Vradenburg of the Warsaw Historical Society, Cedarcroft is “long gone.”
Across town, a narrow gravel path leads to the Lutheran Cemetery on the south side of Warsaw’s Oakland Cemetery. There, an ornate grave marker notes the final resting place of Nagel’s grandparents.
Magdalena died in 1916 when her grandson was 19. By then, Conrad already was making a name for himself on stage in New York City.
After receiving his liberal arts education at Highland Park College in Des Moines, the college glee club veteran landed his first stage role as the lead in “Experience.”
“I think he left Iowa and went straight to New York when he was either 18 or 20,” Jones said. “It was kind of extraordinary – straight to the Great White Way from Iowa.”
Nagel was seen as a wholesome Midwesterner with unpretentious charm. At six feet tall, with wavy blond hair, blue eyes and a slightly devilish grin, he quickly won the hearts of audiences.
Before theater unions were established, Nagel was doing 12 shows a week, with a matinee most days, Jones said.
On April 21, 1917, the Daily Gate City wrote of Nagel, “Nobody would much blame a young man still in his 20s for having his head turned by such achievements and so much acclaim … he is the same fine-grained, pleasant, quiet, almost retiring young man he was when he was nothing but a student in a fresh water college. He ignores both wine and women and sends the bundles of mash notes to his mother for her edification.” Mash notes were sentimental or gushy fan mail.
During World War I, Nagel served on an admiral’s staff. The Warsaw Bulletin said he worked during the day and with the permission of the authorities was allowed to perform on stage at night. He was later honorably discharged.
His first screen appearance was in one of the lead roles in William Brady’s 1918 silent film adaptation of “Little Women.” Nagel portrayed young Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence.
“He loved the discipline in the theater, and that made him a good medium for the new motion pictures,” Jones added.
Nagel was leading man opposite Greta Garbo and other stars of the day. He starred in numerous silent films and when the talkies exploded onto the scene, he was highly sought after, partly because of his “beautiful speaking voice,” Jones said.
“In his twenties, he envisioned his profession as worthy, not disreputable as it was then often conceived,” said Nagel’s son, Michael Nagel.
The actor purportedly said that when he first went to Hollywood in 1919, “there wasn’t even a restaurant there.” He not only witnessed, but had a large part in the formation of the motion picture industry.
His name was everywhere.
“Being assigned to 31 pictures in 24 months, I had the opportunity to play every kind of part,” Nagel was quoted as saying. “The variety, though didn’t keep me from being a drug on the market. My wife would say, ‘Well, let’s go out and see a movie tonight.’ We’d get in the car and discover that I’m playing at the Paramount Theater. And I’m playing at the Universal Theater. And I’m playing at the MGM Theater. We couldn’t find a theater where I wasn’t playing, so we’d go back home. I was an epidemic.”
Nagel made several visits to his native soil, but during the height of his popularity, he was in such demand that travel was difficult to fit into his tight schedule.
In 1939, he returned to Keokuk and Warsaw to scatter his father’s ashes in the Mississippi River.
A Daily Gate City article dated June 29, 1939, said “Nagel, motoring west from the New York Fair with his 18-year old daughter Ruth, arrived in Keokuk at mid-afternoon from Burlington and spent a half hour at the home of Mrs. Ruby Hilmer and son Albert at 908 Orleans Ave. Their families, the Dollerys and Nagels, have been closely associated for years, and as a lad, Nagel spent as much time at the Dollery residence as he did in his own home.
“The motion picture star also took time to telephone the Gate City office where he conversed briefly with F.C. Smith, whom he knew in boyhood days. The Gate City and the late Dr. G. Walter Barr, he said, form an important part of his memories of Keokuk.
“In Warsaw, the actor and his daughter called at the home of his cousin Miss Mabel Nagel and her mother Mrs. Louisa Nagel. … Nagel explained the brevity of his visit in this section by saying that he was enroute from New York to Hollywood where he is due Saturday night to begin a new series of radio broadcasts as master of ceremonies. He expected to be in Kansas City last night. That he was indeed pressed for time on this trip is indicated by the fact that he failed to visit his birthplace, the middle house in the row on North Fifth between Franklin and Fulton.
“As a result of his visit in Warsaw, many of the younger girls in that community now boast of possessing both his autograph and that of his daughter, who is a freshman at the University of California. While there (in Warsaw), he also visited Cedarcroft, where he often spent his Christmas vacations with his grandmother.”
In her book “Bringing up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy” (2011, Pegasus Books LLC), Debra Ann Pawlak wrote that Nagel was a married actor and father who enjoyed tennis and swimming.
“Nagel also was known around the Goldwyn lot as a connoisseur of pretzels,” Pawlak wrote. “He liked them so much that he set up a pretzel box in the studio’s cafeteria … all employees were encouraged to help themselves at the actor’s expense.”
His work in film, television and radio earned him three of the coveted stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
“He was one of the few to have three stars on the ‘Walk,’” Jones said.
During the second World War, Nagel directed the “Silver Theatre” and “Radio Reader’s Digest.”
In the television era of his career, he hosted “Celebrity Time” and other shows, and guest starred on “Dr. Kildare,” “Gunsmoke,” “Route 66” and numerous other serials.
Nagel’s film and television credits alone could fill a book, but his involvement in the industry didn’t end with the director’s final cut.
“I consider his work ‘behind the scenes’ on behalf of his profession is his more enduring legacy,” Michael said. “Until a few years before his death, he continued to lead or otherwise serve in the labor movement on behalf of his profession, such as his work with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.”
According to his grandson, Nagel was “instrumental in making Beverly Hills its own city apart from Los Angeles.” He hosted the Academy Awards three times, once as cohost with Bob Hope (Nagel working from New York, while Hope emceed in Los Angeles). He was one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Screen Actors Guild.
Nagel was married and divorced three times.
He died at age 72 on Feb. 24, 1970, in New York City.
“He died on my 14th birthday – you don’t forget that,” Jones said.
Nagel’s ashes were scattered off the coast of Malibu, Calif.
“What I like most to remember about my father is what a good, decent, confident and down-to-earth person he was,” Michael said. “There was nothing frivolous to his everyday manner. The glitter of fame may lead us to forget that beneath the public persona of our celebrities are many extraordinarily good persons.”
Michael and his second wife of 25 years live in Vancouver, Wash. At the age of 52, he retired from a successful career to go into private practice as a counselor/therapist which had been his life-long passion.
Being well spoken was important to Nagel, Jones recalled.
“He always lauded us to speak clearly and distinctly,” Jones said. “When Mother was a little girl, whenever she misspoke or mispronounced a word, she’d have to put a penny in a bank so she would remember the mistake she made.”
Growing up as the grandson of a famous film star didn’t bother Jones.
“To me he was the wonderful grandfather who showed me New York City for the first time when I was 10 years old,” Jones said. “He lived on West 57th Street. I got to see New York City through his eyes. He had also taken my mother around the city when she was a little girl – he was a big, big star then and was shown great respect – to me he was just ‘Gramps’ showing me around his town.”
Nagel sent postcards to his young grandson, writing of the good times they would all have together when he made his yearly visit to California.
Jones began his career as a broadcast journalist, and loved the storytelling aspect of his work. He decided to go a step further and returned to Los Angeles in 1987 to start his own production company. He has two Emmy awards for filmmaking.
“I began by doing stories about the Hollywood picture industry in the Golden era,” Jones said. “It was then I got to know about (Conrad’s) achievements. His name kept coming up time and time again in so many different aspects of the business.”
“All that Heaven Allows” is Jones’ favorite of Nagel’s films, which also starred Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. Jones prefers it because, being a later film in Nagel’s career, the actor “looks a lot like my grandfather.”
Research assistance was provided by Keokuk Public Library Reference Librarian Tonya Boltz.
For information about the 3rd Annual Conrad Nagel Film Festival, click here.