We jaunted off to Louisville, Kentucky, last week for a few days' respite from the holiday blues, hoping to recapture our enchantment with the city from a previous visit years before. While this year's trip had its hits and misses, one unexpected treat was an exhibit about classic Hollywood and the Kentucky Derby at the Kentucky Derby Museum. The exhibit, called "Stars of the Stands," included photographs and movie clips that demonstrated the long standing fascination of Tinseltown types with the glamorous gambling at Churchill Downs.
The exhibit introduced its topic by talking about the simultaneous growth of the Derby and Hollywood in the 1930s, when actors and studio heads began to flock to the Kentucky Derby in greater numbers. The allure was partly the spectacle and the chance to be seen by reporters and the public, but the interest of the stars and the moguls also led to movies being made about the Derby and horse racing in general. At the same time, the adoration of celebrities for jockeys helped to make the jockeys themselves into celebrities.
Stars featured in the exhibit included Joe E. Brown, Ann Sheridan, Bob Hope, and Jayne Mansfield, all of whom attended the Derby. According to Jim Bolus, author of the book, Derby Fever, Brown was a regular Derby attendee who liked to joke that the Kentucky Derby was his "favorite charity." Photos depicted stars watching the race, celebrating or lamenting their gambling luck, and hobnobbing with favorite jockeys, trainers, and owners.
In a small theater area, a string of newsreel clips revealed dozens of other stars at the Derby, from Claudette Colbert to Ronald Reagan (although by the time he was shown attending Reagan had already moved on to politics). Movie clips showed bits of pictures with a local racing angle like In Old Kentucky (1935), starring Will Rogers, and Kentucky (1938), starring Loretta Young, Richard Greene, and Walter Brennan, Other movies about horse racing in general also got some play, including Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937), starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. There were also shorts on display, with Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen turning up for At the Races (1934). Among the featured cartoons were Gallopin' Gals (1940) and the Goofy short, They're Off (1948).
While the exhibit constituted only a small part of the Kentucky Derby Museum, it was really fascinating to see how the history of the race had influenced and been impacted by Golden Age Hollywood. It's always fun to discover a tribute to classic movies and their stars where you don't expect it, and the Stars of the Stands exhibit elevated my experience at the museum and made it even more memorable. If you happen to visit Louisville anytime soon, do drop by the Kentucky Derby Museum and enjoy the Stars of the Stands as well as the many other excellent exhibits.