The Road from Lockport to Hollywood
Most of Niagara County remembers Clark Gable, the swashbuckling leading man of stage and screen. But how many remember his diminutive co-star, Lillian Bronson? She was a member of the Bronson family of Lockport, once a prosperous and prominent family that traced its roots back several generations to a “horse and buggy” works, the Bronson Carriage Company.
Ira Bronson founded the carriage company in 1851 from his home on West Avenue and later moved to the corner of Transit and New Main streets, a building that would later become the Park Hotel. The company grew in prominence and by the 1890s had gained the reputation as one of the best carriage and sleigh makers in the country and some of their handiworks were displayed in the Paris World Exposition. Styles of carriages included the Dexter Buck Wagon with leather upholstery and the Dexter Queen with a collapsible roof. There was also the Phaeton and the two-seated Phaeton with a seamless roof, with or without side curtains. The two-seated Portland came standard with Mohair Upholstery.
Fast forward two generations and the Bronson name found fame once again, but this time through the fortune of a leading character actress, Lillian Bronson, who left her home on West Avenue next to DeFlippo’s, to stand in the bright lights of Broadway and Hollywood. While in Lockport, she graduated from the Lockport Union School Class of 1921. Encouraged to attend acting school by her teacher, Lillian’s acting career included over 80 feature films and even more television shows. After graduating from Bryn Mawr College and the University of Michigan, she got her first big break in “Camille” with Lillian Gish. She played women of society and family characters-the mother, the grandmother, the aunt, and the teacher. She hit the silver screen for the first time in Lockport, at the Palace Schine Theater in “Happy Land,” starring Don Ameche in January 1944. She played Clark Gable’s secretary in “The Huckster,” Henry Fonda’s mother in “Spencer’s Mountain,” James Whitmore’s aunt in “The Next Voice You Hear,” and Claudette Colbert’ sister in “Family Honeymoon.” Not so many years ago, Lillian Bronson played the roll of the Bird Lady in “Dragnet,” and Fonzie’s grandmother on the hit series, “Happy Days.”
For over 20 years, Lillian Bronson’s received additional visibility and notoriety as the subject of “The Old Lady of the Freeway,” a three-story-tall mural visible to motorists on the northbound Hollywood Freeway. Lillian was honored once again in her own hometown in 1977, when the City of Lockport proclaimed “Lillian Bronson Day,” to recognize the achievement of their favorite “grandmother.” After a life and career of truly happy days, spanning over 50 years, Miss Bronson took her final “curtain call” on August 3, 1995 and died in Laguna Beach, California at the age of 92.
Douglas Farley, Director
Ann Marie Linnabery
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094