When we left off last week, Robert Mitchum had assembled an all star movie cast, found the ultimate stunt driver in Carey Loftin to perform incredible feats behind the wheel and a fleet of real bootleg cars. Let's travel further into the making of Thunder Road and follow Mitchum as he tramps around Western North Carolina to find just the right locations to tell his story....
With the crew, cast and a fleet of automobiles assembled, Mitchum and his directors began scouting locations for filming. Al Dowtin, who had been helping Mitchum with his research in Asheville took Mitchum from the ABC office to Hoyle’s Office Supply Store, which had been a former car dealership (Brown Brothers Hudson dealer at 21 N. Market street) that included its own parking garage, where they made an arrangement with the owner, Red Hoyle to use the garage and part of his outdoor parking lot. They also built an office set in the back of his store. Hoyle remembered Mitchum walking into his store and saying “We’d like to film a movin’ picture in your parking area,” with Red giving his seal of approval. They made the Hoyle’s parking garage into the set for the speed and hot rod shop belonging to gang kingpin, Carl Kogan. This is where the famous scene was filmed of Mitchum jumping out of the building onto a dump truck full of sand, where he then reaches street level. Both the Hoyle’s neon sign and the neon sign of Sam’s Lincoln Mercury burn brightly and reflected their glow onto the dimly lit North Market Street in downtown Asheville, during several scenes in the movie.
Strangely, Hoyle’s Office Supplies remained open while they were filming and people would come in to buy their pencils and stationary while Mitchum and the others walked in and out making the picture. Red Hoyle seemed to have fond memories of Robert Mitchum and remembered him treating him well. Hoyle was quoted as saying “He was a fine fellow Robert Mitchum. He treated me fine. They were there for some weeks and he brought a lot of people to the store ‘cause he would come on in when he took a break, and walk around, sit down on the office furniture and say hello to people, so forth and so on. And people came around, two three hundred women there all the time. Those ladies would come up and see him shoot scenes. I thought they were coming to see me, but they really came to see him.”
After a couple of weeks of filming, DRM Productions began to settle into Asheville. Mitchum encouraged the actors and crew to mix and mingle with locals to get to know them better. It was said that it was the locals that had trouble acting naturally, as they gathered in crowds for hours at a time watching the filming or just froze in place, mouth agape as they saw Mitchum and Keely Smith breeze past them down Broadway in an open convertible. At night, it was said that most of the movie actors were to be found at the infamous nightclub and prohibition hot spot, The Sky Club. The Sky Club was located inside an old manor home on the top of Beaucatcher Mountain and was known for liquor, easy women and good jazz music. Part of the movie was filmed there too, when Mitchum was said to be visiting his girlfriend, Francie (Keely Smith) while she tries to make it through singing a set of jazz music, before being interrupted by a rude and drunk patron.
Mitchum with Emma Adler at The Sky Club
The Sky Club was run by locals, Emma and Gus Adler. It served as the set for “The Hi-Hat club” scenes in the movie as well as the gathering place for much after work socializing of the cast and crew. When Mitchum walks into the club to see Keely Smith singing “Won’t You Come home Bill Bailey,” a group of local Asheville musicians are the house band backing her up. The band on stage consists of local Asheville musicians Frank Jackson on piano, Robert E. Lee (Bob) on the upright bass (who was a Biltmore Dairy milkman and a salesman at Dunham's Music House), Sam Butera on Sax, Louis Prima on trumpet, Woody Rhodes on guitar and what is believed to be Tom Wrenn on drums. Woody Rhodes played guitar on the recording of “The Ballad of Thunder Road” that was recorded with Randy Sparks and featured in the opening sequence of the movie. Woody was not star struck by Mitchum and found him to be condescending to mountain people, believing them to be “hillbillies.”
The Sky Club has an interesting history that only added more color to the movie. It was constructed as the Oliver Cromwell Hamilton Estate, also called “Ardimon” in the 1890s. O.C. Hamilton died in 1916 from pulmonary issues and his family continued to use it occasionally until the Great Depression hit Asheville particularly hard and it was auctioned off on the courthouse steps in 1935. It was purchased by Gus and Emma Alder who had moved up from Florida. They had a restaurant in East Asheville called the Old Heidelberg after Gus’s hometown in Germany. After buying the Hamilton manor, they closed their original restaurant and opened a new Old Heidelberg in the mansion. Emma was known as a “hostess with the mostess” and Gus was the “genius in the kitchen” according to his stepson John Hunter. Old Heidelberg’s reputation started to grow a reputation for its fine dining, dancing, spectacular mountain views and great atmosphere. When WWII broke, the restaurant’s sign became a target for anti-Nazi graffiti, which caused them to change the name of the restaurant to The Sky Club in 1942. The Adlers lived in Beau Castle, which was thought to be the former estate stables that were converted to a residence near the former mansion. Sadly, Gus died there in a fire in 1952, when his cigarette ignited the bed he was sleeping on. Although Emma was devastated, she kept the Sky Club going and while charming, ruled it with an iron fist.
At this time, Buncombe County did not allow sales of liquor, so patrons of the Sky Club would bring their own bottles and pay a storage fee to keep their liquor at the club. The restaurant charged a dollar for a bucket of ice and drink mixers like Coke and 7 Up. These were called “setups” and were a cover for sales of illegal liquor, for which Emma was busted several times. This probably added to the allure for Mitchum, who adored Emma Adler and invited her to come visit him in Hollywood, with Adler taking him up on his offer. In addition to Thunder Road, The Sky Club and Adlers hosted the crews from movies that were filmed in Asheville during the 1940s and 50s including Tap Roots, The Swan, The Great Locomotive Chase that had scenes filmed around the city. Emma catered the on-location meals for Thunder Road and later hosted the cast and crews for nightlife at the Sky Club. Besides Mitchum, some of the other stars that visited were Fess Parker, Grace Kelly, Louis Jordan and Ward Bond. It was said that Susan Hayward (Stars of the Swan) would dine early on the first floor terrace dining room to avoid the crowd. Ward Bond was said to never drink alcohol, just iced coffee. Thunder Road actors also visited the nightclubs Casa Loma above the Plaza Theater in Pack Square, in downtown Asheville and Chez Paul on Merrimon avenue.
Emma sold the Sky Club in November of 1957 after filming had wrapped for Thunder Road to Castle in the Sky Corporation for $65,000. It would go through several different iterations of night club and restaurants before closing down in the late 1960s and sitting vacant for a number of years. It was remodeled in 1983 by Pat Whalen and Steven Brady into luxury condos, which it still exists as today. The property is also said to have a lot of supernatural activity.
Thunder Road Film Crew and vehicles at The Sky Club
With the actors fed and entertained daily, progress still needed to be made on the film. What was supposed to be a somewhat compressed filming schedule unraveled fairly quickly. The director Arthur Ripley would certainly not be making Thunder Road in his proposed 4 days. The working pace of the movie was very relaxed and Mitchum ran a very loose ship. Gene Barry who played Treasury Agent Troy Barrett arrived at the set thinking he would have a 3 week stay and discovered that it would last much longer. Barry was quoted as saying “I got there and - it was a nice little town, Asheville - I found they were making it up as they went along. Arthur Ripley was an elderly man, very intelligent, very articulate, knew camera angles, all the technical aspects. But he was very slow. And Jim Phillips would say to me, ‘Don’t Go, I’ve written a great scene for you.’ And my three weeks came and went and they kept me for another six weeks. And my wife would call and say, ‘when are you coming home?’ And I said, ‘Don’t complain, they’re changing my role!”
Mitchum encouraged his actors to go out and really soak up the mountain culture to better fit into their roles. Mitchum sent Gene Barry out to go with some of the real Treasury agents to go on a raid into the hills. Barry remembered “this group of tough-looking guys came up to the hotel, said ‘OK we’re here.’ And first they gave me a pair of boots to wear. Then they shoved a gun in my hand. I said, ‘What’s this for?’ They said, ‘you may have to protect yourself where we’re going.’ And we drove around the back roads up above Hendersonville, and then we went into the woods on foot. And then we came charging into this still someone had built there in the woods. But the moonshiners had been tipped off and got away with their goods. Somebody told them we were coming. It was very clannish around there. Or maybe Mitchum tipped them off, you never know!”
Filming took the crews out to Reems Creek, where they filmed many of the driving sequences. While there, they also filmed all of the scenes at the old farm homestead (Rillow Valley) where Mitchum is seen on the old farm. He also spends the night at the Log Cabin Motor Court on Weaverville Highway, while he is waiting on repairs to his 1957 Ford after smashing through the police barricade. Other chase scenes were filmed off of Clingman avenue, where there is a roundabout that fronts the former Famer’s Federation building, now the Wedge Brewery, as well as the Phil Mechanic construction building. The crew also went north of downtown Asheville to a small Esso station, which is now the site of the EnMark gas station close to Harris Teeter. The location of the former Play World pool hall adjacent to City Foreign auto supply appears as an A&P grocery store adjoining the gas station, which is blown up in the movie when they find that Lucas Doolin’s car has been rigged with explosives that detonate when the car is started with another bootlegger and a treasury agent take the car away.
For the exploding gas station scene, the movie crew worked with local man Lee Trent at his Merrimon avenue Atlantic gas station. The movie crew built a mock up Atlantic station that exactly duplicated Trent’s station to be blown up with TNT. Live scenes were shot at Trent’s station, which was selected by Mitchum. While filming occurred, police detoured traffic from Merrimon and had to keep curious onlookers back. The film crew turned Trent’s sales office into a make-up room where actors were rouged, mascaraed and powdered for their roles. The 38 year old actor/dealer was reimbursed by DRM productions for the time that was needed to film the scenes at the station. Lee Trent was also on the payroll for his role in the scene before the explosion. After the filming, Trent reported a sharp increase in business from folks who were anxious to buy from a station that appeared on the nation’s movie screens. The movie crew were also customers of Trent’s too. Atlantic issued them all temporary credit cards so they could do business with Trent while on location in Asheville. He did all of the service work on some 15 trucks the company used during production. Trent was quoted in an Atlantic monthly newsletter about the film, saying “I didn’t get excited - nothing excited me, although just about everybody in town pulled into the station to ask if I was going to be in the picture.” He went on to say about Mitchum “Bob is a regular, down to earth fellow. In fact, the entire cast, producers and directors were wonderful to work with.” The site of this former gas station is not the EnMark gas station at 203 Merrimon avenue.
The set used for the exploding gas station scene in Thunder Road
Filming even went out to Transylvania county, where one of the crash scenes was filmed at Toxaway Falls. Interior scenes of the ATU office were filmed in the Asheville Federal Building on O’Henry Avenue. Many scenes were also filmed in the Mundy Cove area of Reems Creek.
Mitchum, although distracted by much attention from adoring female fans until his wife showed up, still managed to work hard and show up for filming every day. He could be out all night partying up at the Sky Club, show up and put a little bit of makeup on his face and turn it on for the movie. He also was known to sample his share of moonshine while making the film. While the movie was going on, he also made appearances at local events like the Hendersonville Apple Festival parade, riding in the back of a convertible. After the movie had concluded its filming in Asheville, Mitchum had his secretary Reva Frederick post an ad in the Asheville Citizen Times, thanking all of the locals for their hospitality and making his production crew feel so welcome. He even listed several of the cars for sale after the filming had concluded which included the following:
-1951 Ford 2 door with Thunderbird engine
-1950 Ford six cylinder, two door
-1950 Ford V-8, two door
One of the local mysteries that persists to this day is what actually happened to the 1951 Ford with the Thunderbird engine that served as the hero car of the movie. Many including Jim Mitchum say that he took it back to Hollywood with him and drove it to high school for several years and then kept it for another twenty or thirty years, before selling it to another hot rodder in the 1980s or 1990s that turned it into a drag racing car and painted it candy apple red. Some say the car exists in a garage over in West Asheville, rotting away and waiting to be discovered. It was also rumored that the Edsels that Mitchum purchased down on Coxe at Deppe Motors avenue still exist in Asheville, but no one knows for sure. Many remembered that the 1957 Ford that Carey Loftin wrecked during the infamous crash scene remained in Asheville, on display as a showpiece above Jerry Sternberg’s junkyard, Edaco down on Amboy road in the River Arts District, close to the New Asheville Motor Speedway.
After filming was completed on the movie, reviewers had choice words about Thunder Road and what they termed “B movie dramatics.” Some reviewers were quoted as saying it had “certain zombielike performances and flat, even primitive visuals (of which they did not discount director Arthur Ripley’s random moments of surrealism and poetic images, including the final short cutaway shot of the nocturnal road, with distant car beams dancing like fireflies at the absolute edge of the screen). Many people don’t remember Thunder Road as one of Robert Mitchum’s greatest works of film, but its real distinction is more personal than that. Taking into account Mitchum’s bohemian life and vagabond upbringing, the movie simply contains more of Robert Mitchum - more of his actual creative participation along with his heart, soul and mind than any other movie. Arthur Ripley was asked to comment on the film, but declined as he said he was too busy grading papers and setting up exams for his students at UCLA. He said no one would want to hear what his opinion was as he had nothing good to say about the film and that “they” wouldn’t let him make it how he wanted to.
There are many elements that parallel Mitchum’s own life which include high octane alcohol, fast cars and an existential character that doesn’t care if he lives or dies because he feels most alive when he is doing what he loves. There are many parallels to beat writers like Jack Kerouac that are in search of meaning by going through moments in life as quickly and intensely as possible. Prior to Steve McQueen in Bullitt, Mitchum embodies the anti-hero character: someone alienated, outside the law who feels without a home, even in his mother’s kitchen. There are glimpses in the movie of a close, yet dysfunctional family along with the film’s almost religious belief in a certain rugged individualism. Mitchum entertained an obsession with the Deep South, along with a fetish for high speed cars and lonely open roads where they could be wrung out for all of the punishment their V8 engines could take. Whereas other movies contained a diluted Mitchum character, this movie contained the most pure and high proof version of Mitchum’s brooding, fatalistic character that he poured out of himself onto the screen.
Thunder Road made its premiere in London on April 10, 1958, which was prior to the US opening in May of 1958. The movie made its way to other countries like Germany and Japan, where it became a cult classic. In Asheville, it played in movie theaters like the Plaza Theatre in Pack Square to an enthusiastic and crowded audience for many years after the movie was filmed. It was also a popular movie at drive-in theaters like the Dreamland Theatre off of Tunnel Road. It premiered in Asheville in May of 1958, where it smashed previous attendance records and was said to draw over 20,000 patrons at the Imperial Theater in downtown Asheville. Jim Mitchum may have helped boost these numbers, as he was in attendance at the Imperial Theater premier. In the movie's first 4 days of showing, it brought in $7,451 in ticket sales at the Imperial Theater. It was later confirmed that between the opening day of Thunder Road’s release at the Imperial Theater on May 9th and its closing on May 23 1958, a record 23,000 people bought tickets to see it. Asheville’s total population in 1958 was only around 65,000, so this represented around 34% of the local population alone at this one theater! It then went on to premier in over 600 different openings throughout the southeast.