Famous guests sign Columbus man's walk-in closet

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 2, 2014 

Clason Kyle doesn't remember how the tradition started, but he is clear about what it means to him.

He sighed as he gazed at the signatures and thank-you notes scrawled on the walls of the walk-in closet in his guest cottage.

"I'm saddened that some are fading and some I can't really place," said Kyle, 84. "They said really lovely things about me, and I have no idea who it is sometimes. That's a problem."

Then he brightened and added with a smile, "But I can come out here and wallow in gratitude."

Indeed, Franklin Garrett, historian for the city of Atlanta and Coca-Cola, and his wife, Frances, summed up the sentiment when they signed this note after staying with Kyle: "A perfect pad and a genial host."

Or, as classical music radio host Karl Haas wrote, "I love to deface walls in good company."

What seems to be graffiti at first glance amounts to a monument to some of the notable folks who have visited Columbus.

"About half have slept here," Kyle said, "and half have just been here for a party or something of that sort."

John Wayne is perhaps the most famous among the more than 100 signatures documenting their appearance at Kyle's midtown Columbus home on Blandford Avenue.

Parts of the 1968 film "The Green Berets," starring Wayne, were filmed in Columbus and Fort Benning.

"He was here for many months," Kyle said. "I served as sort of a liaison between the company and the city, trying to find him locations."

Wayne was especially fond of chatting with Kyle's mother, Elizabeth.

"My mother had a supply of bourbon, and she provided him with that," Kyle said. "They were worlds apart. He said, 'Sh-t,' and Mother said, 'Again?' But she became more earthy, and he became more civilized. … Mother was quite a lady, even if she did talk back to John Wayne."

Kyle was born to appreciate history. He is a descendent of one of the five original city commissioners when Columbus was founded in 1828. For about 20 years, he wrote for the Ledger and Enquirer newspapers and became associate editor of the Ledger-Enquirer Sunday Magazine and its travel editor before retiring in 1985. He has been a prominent supporter of the local arts scene, serving on the boards of the Three Arts League, the Springer Opera House, the Historic Columbus Foundation, Historic Westville and the Columbus Museum.

He isn't sure, but Kyle guessed the first to sign the walk-in closet was, fittingly, William J. Murtagh, the first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, who came in 1967 to aid the restoration movement in Columbus.

The bulk of the signatures are from the late 1960s to the 1990s because, Kyle explained, "there was not a hotel in Columbus then good enough for the people who were appearing here as a star."

But thanks to the development of the downtown hotel now called the Columbus Marriott and the renovation of guest rooms in the Springer Opera House, visiting performers don't need to stay with Kyle as often.

"It's more convenient for them to stay downtown now," he said.

Perhaps the second-most famous guest in Kyle's home was author Truman Capote, who performed a one-man show to benefit the Springer in 1979.

"Truman was a wonderful guest, but it was at a time when he was having troubles with drink, and he didn't do too well in the first part of his program," Kyle said. "People whispered to each other, 'Truman is drunk!' Then after intermission, he came back, and I don't know what he had done - supposedly he was on Diet Rite - but whatever he had taken during intermission, possibly some drug of choice - an aspirin! -- he read 'A Christmas Memory,' and people rose with tears in their eyes. I mean, he redeemed himself."

Capote didn't sign the walk-in closet, so Kyle had a plaque made. It declares, "Truman Capote slept here," but another guest stole it, Kyle said. The plaque on the other guest bed remains, noting playwright Edward Albee slept there, although he also didn't sign the walk-in closet.

A photograph supports Kyle's assertion that Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler learned to do the twist during his visit.

Kyle recalled picking up actor Ann Sothern at the airport.

"She was dreadful-looking," he said. "But five hours later, she walked on the Springer stage, and it was Ann Sothern. Makeup, adhesive tape, I mean, it was just amazing."

And then there is the signature of another famous actor, Mae West, which Kyle calls the only fake in the collection. He shook his head, laughed and said, "One of my drinking friends -- not drunken friends -- thought it would be funny to do that."NOTABLE GUESTS

Whether they are considered famous or simply honorable, the notable folks who have signed the walk-in closet in Clason Kyle's guest cottage include:

• Sandra Church, actor

• Jim Drahos, captain of CIA ship Glomar Explorer

• Archie Eason, hat designer

• Abe Feder, lighting designer

• Janet Fish, artist

• Eileen Farrell, soprano

• Arthur Fiedler, conductor

• Franklin Garrett, historian for Atlanta and Coca-Cola

• Karl Haas, classical music radio host

• Duane Henson, sculptor

• Gavin Lambert, writer

• Neva Jane Langley, Miss America 1953

• Patrice Munsel, soprano

• Roberta Peters, soprano

• Penny Singleton, actor

• Ann Sothern, actor

• John Wayne, actor

• Freddy Wittop, costume designer

• The Hon. Desmond Guinness, author and conservationist

• The cast of "Hair," a Broadway musical

• The Alexander String Quartet

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