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Lila Lee

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The crowds of Rock Islanders and invited guests who filled every one of the 1,800 seats on opening night at the Fort Armstrong Theater on January 18th, 1921, were more than satisfied by everything they saw. With its panels of rich woods, marble, and plaster, the theater looked more like a temple than a place to show moving pictures. The program, too, more than lived up to expectations, from the organ recital, the orchestra concert, the Harold Lloyd comedy to the feature film, "Midsummer Madness," starring Lila Lee.

When the evening ended, there was only one nagging question. Had Lila Lee, the silent movie star, actually showed up for the opening, or had she not?

A few weeks earlier, Miss Lee had been a guest at the Rosenfield mansion on 7th Avenue in Rock Island. Walter Rosenfield, who owned the theater, had taken the star on a tour of the building under construction, and invited her back for the opening night. "Oh my," she replied, "How I wish I could be here."

The Rock Island Argus hinted that she might be coming, and there may have been a few people in the audience who tried to spot her.

But when the curtain pulled aside, and the first flickering shadows of "Midsummer Madness" lit the screen, there she was, larger than life. And more real. The audience was lost in the magic of the silent moving picture, trying to guess what she was saying, worried about what was going to happen to her. When the camera panned in, Lila Lee was closer to the audience than she ever would have been as a distant person across the street. When she looked out at the audience, it was as if she were looking at each individual face. For a few minutes on that cold January evening, each person there was transported to Midsummer, and its madness.

The crowd left the Fort Armstrong Theater satisfied that Lila Lee had indeed been there—the real Lila Lee, the star, not the mere human being who pretended to be Lila in real life, and who could never compete with the image on the screen.

"Yes," the Argus concluded. "Our charming guest did attend the opening in Rock Island."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.