From what I know about Carole Lombard's sense of humor, somewhere she's laughing heartily over the following story I'm about to tell. It deals with her hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., and a government center the city is building.
The public has been asked to name the building through an online poll, and so far the clear leader is a man who served as mayor for about 16 years, winning four terms before his death in 1954. While I don't claim to be an expert on Fort Wayne politics, he apparently had no tinge of scandal about him.
So, what's the controversy about? Well, his name happens to be Harry W. Baals. Now, say that without the middle initial.
Therein lies the problem, and why the building probably won't have his name on it.
"We realize that while Harry Baals was a respected mayor, not everyone outside of Fort Wayne will know that," deputy mayor Beth Malloy said Tuesday in a statement to the Associated Press. "We wanted to pick something that would reflect our pride in our community beyond the boundaries of Fort Wayne."
So what does this have to do with Lombard, you may ask? More than you think.
On New Year's Day 1938, a plaque was put up at the home on 704 Rockhill Street where Lombard was born Jane Alice Peters on Oct. 6, 1908. While Carole never saw the plaque at the house, she did view it (the plaque was publicity garnered by the wily Russell Birdwell to promote "Nothing Sacred") before it headed east:
With Lombard is director Mervyn LeRoy, who was beginning work on Carole's next film, "Fools For Scandal." Guess who was Fort Wayne's mayor at the time, and presided over the ceremony that Jan. 1? That's right, Harry W. Baals. In fact, his name is on the plaque, third line from the bottom:
Alas, history has not recorded Lombard's reaction upon seeing the name.
I've seen the plaque, and heretofore thought the mayor's name was pronounced "bahls," similar to Baal, a god worshiped in Old Testament times. Perhaps Lombard thought that, too. But no, he pronounced it "balls"; later generations altered it to "bales."
His great-nephew, Jim Baals, is understandably upset over the likely slight. "Harry served four terms and was a wonderful mayor. I don't know what the problem is," he told the AP. "I understand people are going to poke fun at it. That's OK. I've lived with that name for 51 years now, and I've gotten through it. I think everybody else can, too."
I have no idea whether the mayor ever met Lombard. Her lone trip to Fort Wayne after childhood came in June 1930, and Baals didn't become mayor until 1934. He was mayor in January 1942, so he may have traveled to Indianapolis to meet a hometown heroine at the war bond rally. And it's possible he met Carole if he ever visited southern California, where many Hoosier natives relocated.
No matter what happens, Baals has already been honored by Fort Wayne, as a street was named after him. However, Harry Baals Drive was later renamed H. Baals Drive due to the double entendre. (This begs the question -- why couldn't the building be named the H.W. Baals Center, honoring the man without pandering to the Bart Simpson/Beavis & Butthead crowd?)
But, thanks to the Lombard plaque, at least one place in Fort Wayne will always have...