Like many boys, young John Wayne had a dog, a big Airedale terrier named Duke. He took Duke everywhere, including the Glendale fire station on the way to school. The firefighters started calling Wayne, whose real name was Marion Morrison, “Little Duke,” since the dog was bigger than the boy. The name stuck, and so did Glendale’s imprint on his youth.
“People see John Wayne as this larger-than-life character, but he was really just this little kid, Duke Morrison from Glendale,” says local historian Michael Morgan. Morgan sits on the Glendale Historic Preservation Commission and has lectured on John Wayne’s legacy in Glendale.
John Wayne was born May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa, but his family soon moved to Palmdale, California, where his druggist father decided to try his hand at ranching, an ill-fated endeavor that failed within two years. During that period, the family would visit Glendale on Sundays, mainly at the urging of Wayne’s mother who preferred the city to Palmdale because of its large population of former Iowans. So in 1915, when Little Duke was 9 years old, his family resettled in Glendale. His father again found work as a pharmacist, while Wayne attended Woodrow Wilson Middle School (formerly called the Third Street Intermediate School when it opened its doors in 1911).
But the Waynes remained transient, moving 10 times around Glendale between 1915 and 1925 because money was tight, according to Morgan. Yet it was also an “optimistic time,” he notes. The city was growing exponentially, creating more opportunities, and Wayne’s father even had his own pharmacy, Baird and Morrison; the younger Wayne would often make deliveries for his dad on his bike. In 1915 there were some 12,000 people in Glendale. By the end of 1920 there were 30,000. Despite the constant uprooting, the popular Wayne always did well in school and avoided trouble.
At Glendale Union High School, Wayne performed well in both academics and sports, particularly football — the latter not surprising, given his 6-foot, 4-inch frame. Wayne was on his high school debate team, served as president of the Latin Society and contributed to the school newspaper’s sports column. The energetic Wayne also served as senior class president and chairperson of the senior dance and he performed in several plays. The youth was so active that he is pictured half a dozen times in his 1925 student yearbook. Yet only one pursuit determined his life’s work. As Wayne’s son Ethan Wayne told the Los Angeles Times in 2014, Glendale High was “where his path in drama really started.” Wayne was also part of the school’s football team when it won the 1924 league championship. On graduating, Wayne applied to the U.S. Naval Academy but wasn’t accepted. So he attended USC, majoring in pre-law and playing on its football team. But a broken collarbone from a bodysurfing mishap changed his course. He lost his athletic scholarship and left USC.
But that’s when Hollywood found him, first as a prop man in films, and then as a stand-in at Fox Film Corporation, before legendary director John Ford cast him in a small but pivotal part in the forgettable 1928 film Mother Machree.
Curiously, hardly anyone knows that John Wayne spent his youth in Glendale. There are no streets named after him, no plaques or memorials, only one building (more on that later). In 2008, when a 21-foot-tall bronze statue of Wayne on a horse needed to be moved from Beverly Hills, Morgan petitioned the Glendale City Council to relocate it in Glendale — but nada. “There was no political will,” Morgan says. Instead, Newport Beach, where Wayne lived as an adult, acquired the nearly six-ton monument. In June 1979 the Orange County Board of Supervisors renamed the Orange County Airport John Wayne Airport, but it wasn’t until 2014 that Glendale’s most famous resident gained even the slightest recognition locally. Glendale High’s 1,559-seat auditorium was crowned the John Wayne Performing Arts Center. “I think it’s really nice,” Ethan Wayne told the L.A. Times. “Dad liked learning, he liked sports, he liked activities.” So, why a veritable void of acknowledgment? “A lot of people have no institutional memory of Glendale,” Morgan tells Arroyo Monthly. He points out the disconnect between an American hero like John Wayne and Glendale’s large Armenian community, which succeeded him. Part of Wayne’s absence was also political. The Vietnam War was a defining issue for a generation and Wayne, a staunch conservative and friend of Ronald Reagan’s, riled many to his left. “Regardless, he’s Mom, Dad and apple pie,” Morgan says of Wayne’s wholesome, independent spirit.
“I’ve always followed my father’s advice,” Wayne once said. “He told me, first, to always keep my word and, second, to never insult anybody unintentionally. And, third, he told me not to go around looking for trouble.” But trouble did find John Wayne. During the last 15 years of his life, he fought various battles with cancer — he was a smoker — and in 1965 underwent surgery for lung cancer. But it was a form of stomach cancer that stopped the Duke in his tracks. He died from complications in June 1979. Just a month before his death, he made his last public appearance at the 51st Academy Awards ceremony where he handed out the Oscar for Best Picture. The Music Center audience erupted into a standing ovation. “That’s just about the only medicine a fellow would ever need,” Wayne told the crowd.
But love and admiration go only so far; time dissolves memories, the strong become weak. These days, kids at Glendale High School may have to Google John Wayne because they don’t know who he was or why a building has his name on it. Yet the city’s memory of Duke lives on. Says Morgan: “John Wayne embodies all the good things about Glendale.”