May 29, 2007
By ANN MARIE SOMMA, Courant Staff Writer
Young and hungry for success, actor Charles Nelson Reilly, who died Friday, left Hartford for a bright future in Los Angeles decades ago.
But those who remember him as a young kid growing up on Enfield Street, as an usher at the Bushnell Theater and a survivor of the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, say the zany stage and television actor never forgot the city that shaped his career and life.
"He had fond memories of Hartford," said Don Massey, the author of two books on the fire, including "A Matter of Degree, The Hartford Circus Fire and the Mystery of Little Miss 1565," co-authored with Hartford Fire Lt. Rick Davey.
Massey interviewed Reilly in July 2005, days before the dedication of a memorial to the circus fire, which claimed 168 lives.
On the telephone from his home in Los Angeles, Reilly described to Massey the fear he felt as a young boy trying to get out of the burning circus tent. In fact, the experience made Reilly fearful of sitting in an audience. He preferred to be backstage or part of a show, Massey said.
"He felt that the fire was a part of him. It would never leave him. He was remorseful he couldn't come to the dedication because he was ill," said Massey of Simsbury.
Reilly died Friday in Los Angeles of complications from pneumonia. He was 76.
He leaves behind a long career as a distinguished stage and television actor. He won a Tony Award, but is most remembered for his appearances as a panelist on game shows in the 1970s and '80s, most memorably "Hollywood Squares" and "Match Game."
Born in the Bronx, Reilly moved to Hartford in the 1940s with his Swedish-born mother and his father, a film studio poster artist.
John Darrow, a cousin and retired New Britain High School history teacher, said Reilly never forgot Hartford. Before Reilly's mother passed away in the late 1970s, Reilly would visit her in Hartford and later at the Jerome Home in New Britain where she died.
Through the years, he kept in touch with family members in the state and friends from Weaver High School.
"He was a wonderful human being. He brought so much joy and happiness to the family. He could literally entertain for four hours straight," said Darrow, a Berlin resident.
Darrow said Reilly's work as a balcony usher at the Bushnell paid $1.25 per show and inspired him to become a Broadway star.
"Growing up he used to put on puppet shows, but his mother and uncle wanted him to find a secure job. They preferred that he work at a Hartford insurance company, but he opted for a different life," Darrow said.
In 2005, Reilly returned to the Bushnell with his one-man show. "Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly" chronicled his 50-year acting career with stories about his family life growing up in the Bronx and Hartford.
The stage production was made into a 2006 feature film called "The Life of Reilly."
Massey likes to believe that Reilly is united with Little Miss 1565, who remained for years the last unidentified victim of the 1944 Hartford circus fire. In 1991, Davey identified her as Eleanor Emily Cook, although some dispute that identification.
"Spiritually he is connected with Little Miss 1565. Wherever they are, they are there together," Massey said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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