Fr. Robert Pelton began Notre Dame as a lay student in 1939, and after world wide travels, is living on campus in Corby Hall at the ripe old age of 93. He’s the only priest on campus that was there for the 1940 Knute Rockne: All American filming, and for the World Premiere in October 1940. He was also the only man, other than Rockne’s son, at the 2005 dedication of the Jerry McKenna statue in Downtown South Bend who had seen Rockne in his lifetime. Fr. Bob’s career was renowned for his humanitarian work and publications, but his face lit up with the memories of Rockne and his undergraduate years at Notre Dame.
Fr. Bob came to Notre Dame from Chicago where his father worked at Northwestern. At the age of 9 Fr. Bob and a friend managed to sneak past the barricades for the Notre Dame vs. Northwestern football game at Northwestern. Although he wasn’t cheering for ND, he fondly remembers seeing Rockne on the sidelines. An animated coach in his trademark fedora, he led the Irish to victory over Northwestern disappointing the two young boys watching from beneath the bleachers. Flash forward 10 years and Bob Pelton, a first year a lay student at the time, is given the opportunity of a lifetime as a member of the Glee Club. Warner Brothers was filming Knute Rockne: All American on the Notre Dame campus and selected the Glee Club to sing the fight song throughout the film, and provide the music for the funeral mass that concludes the movie. Fr. Bob is not bashful to admit it was exciting to be in a real Hollywood movie.
That excitement was later amplified when South Bend was chosen for the October 4th world premiere of the movie, to bring all the pomp and circumstance of a true Hollywood fete to the community and the tiny ND campus of 3000 students. Truly a collaborative effort between the city and the college, the Premiere involved events at venues around the city and at Notre Dame. Fr. Bob especially remembers the thrill of meeting Pat O’Brien, the star of the movie, in an elevator at the Joyce Center. Although he stuttered when trying to speak to O’Brien, he recalled that he was a “stand-out” guy, and a “really nice fellow”.
The other highlight of the great Premiere week for Fr. Bob was performing at South Dining Hall with the Glee Club on the Kate Smith radio show. A popular entertainer in Chicago, Kate Smith brought her show on the road and broadcast it live from the Notre Dame campus. With his family and friends back home listening, Fr. Bob and the Glee Club performed as part of the program, and were blown away by the beauty of Kate Smith’s performance of God Bless America, “she was something else!”. The shadow of WWII was stretching to the United States and the event celebrated the patriotism of the US, an echo of the “All-American” image portrayed of Knute Rockne in the film.
“This was a big deal for South Bend and Notre Dame, to have all these movie stars come to town, and all the people!” It was the place to be Friday night as 200,000 people flooded the streets of downtown South Bend (population 100,000) to catch glimpses of the stars. Bob Hope emceed, Ronald Reagan, Pat O’Brien and Gale Page spoke to the crowd and the iconic photo below was snapped by the South Bend Tribune’s staff Photographer. When I asked if he saw the movie downtown Fr. Bob replied, “Sure… that’s what you did, everyone did. We couldn’t go to the fancy events, all those tuxedo events but it was a really exciting time.”
This is what we hope to re-create this Friday night as part of Vintage First Friday. An exciting time that highlights the energy of the city and creates memories for generations to come. Fr. Bob noted that “the world premiere of a movie was a great way for Notre Dame and South Bend to come together. Like today, we have another great chance with this young Mayor (South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg_). It’s a good time for it.”
We look forward to sharing these memories 70 years from now with grandchildren, students and anyone who will listen. Join us for the photo, and stay for the movie if only to hear the sweet songs of the Glee club performed. No matter what accomplishments we achieve, or wherever we may travel, we will have a picture of our community- brought together- and fondly remember that #weareSouthBend.