Can anything be written about a legend?
Lillian Gish, famous the world over for her work in silent films, stage productions and sound motion pictures, has probably been asked more questions by more reporters than any other actor or actress in America. And with good reason, because no other actor or actress alive today has appeared in as many productions, in every decade of this century, as Lillian Gish.
Despite her fame and abundant talent, this wisp of a woman with the strong, rich voice is disarmingly humble. The actress seems delighted to be honored by Bowling Green, the university only 20 miles from the site of her professional debut in Risingsun. An Ohio native, Miss Gish has been officially recognized several times by the university. She, in turn, has unofficially adopted Bowling Green as her favorite university – endowing a scholarship fund, presenting her lecture series, visiting campus four times since 1976 and delighting the University community with her spunky comments and vivid recollections of a long-ago era. The occasion of her most recent visit was the October dedication of an impressive collection of photographs in the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Film Theater in Hanna Hall. Commemorating the enduring career of the pioneer cinema star, the collection was originally displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for the 1980 Lillian Gish Retrospective.
Elegantly dressed in a black velvet suit and a lacy white blouse, Miss Gish relaxes in a loveseat in the University Guest House before the evening ceremony in Hanna Hall begins. Her manager, James Frasher checks last minute details as special invited guest Eva Marie Saint arrives, back from a tour of the campus, which she had not seen for 36 years.
Gish returns. She is an impressive woman at 5’7″ and carries herself with dignity. Always attractive, her delicate features radiate an inner joy, retaining the beauty of the young actress who played opposite such leading men as Lionel Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, John Gielgud, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster and others.
“Oh, tell them how happy and proud they’ve made me,” she instructs when asked how she felt about the University’s acquisition of the photo collection. “Of all theaters, if I could have my choice, it would be this one.”
Her pride in the theater is obvious, mainly because it also honors her sister Dorothy and her mother, Mary McConnell Gish, as well as Lillian. She is devoted to their memories.
“I like people from Ohio,” Gish declares. “Of course, since I was born here, I may be prejudiced, but I do think they have the best manners and are more considerate of the other fellow than most people are. I got my start just down the road here, in Risingsun, so I really feel like I’ve come home when I come here.”
Ralph Wolfe, a University English professor, first suggested naming the theater in honor of Miss Gish, to commemorate her first performance in Wood County at the age of five. Then-University President Hollis Moore was in favor of the idea, so Wolfe contacted Miss Gish’s agent, Frasher, and she accepted, on the condition that the theater be named not only for her but also for her sister. Thus the “Dorothy and Lillian Gish Film Theater” was dedicated on June 11,1976. The next day Moore presented Miss Gish an honorary Doctor of Performing Arts degree during spring commencement exercises.
Since that first visit, Miss Gish has shown true interest in the University, especially the Film Studies Program. When Wolfe established a scholarship for the annual film, studies award, Gish endowed it. She returned to Bowling Green in the fall of 1976 for the theater’s opening and again in 1979 to accept the Popular Culture Association Achievement Award and speak at a campus film restrospective at the theater.
The first phase of the theater renovation project included the construction of a marquee, an improved movie projection area and a lobby for featuring the Gish photographs. The improvements were made possible through private funding. Alumni Howard Beplat, James R. Good and Ronald Cohen of New York City, and Wolfe, who lives in nearby North Baltimore, donated the funds to obtain the photographic collection from the Museum of Modern Art. Wolfe had been invited to the 1980 retrospective and contacted the curators about the possibility of adding the Gish photos to the University theater. Through the joint efforts of Moore, Wolfe, the alumni office and the Museum of Art, Bowling Green now owns the collection, which includes stills from some of the Gishes’ most famous films.
Dedicated at BGSU on June 11, 1976, The Gish Film Theater and Gallery was originally located in Hanna Hall, and was named to commemorate the achievements of Ohio natives Dorothy and Lillian Gish in the history of American film. In May 2019 the university decided to remove the Gish name from the theater and call it “The BGSU Film Theater,” while retaining the endowment and Lillian’s personal memorabilia. For a university to dishonor her by singling out just one film, however offensive it is, is unfortunate and unjust.
Doing so makes her a scapegoat in a broader political debate. A university should be a bastion of free speech. This is a supreme “teachable moment” if it can be handled with a more nuanced sense of history.