She ain’t what she used to be … and that’s not a bad thing!

She ain’t what she used to be … and that’s not a bad thing!

The classic film “Sunset Boulevard” stirs thoughts of Dayton’s past, present and future

By Leo DeLuca

Ranking high upon the American Film Institute’s Greatest Movies list, “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) stars Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter from Dayton, Ohio. Gillis happens upon Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a fading silent film star who bemoans audio in the film industry and the negative impact it’s had on her status. Gillis attempts to aid Desmond.  However, rather than adapt, she insists on reveling in her days as a leading light. There are begrudged attempts to readjust, but Desmond’s efforts run awry, drive her mad and eventually become her downfall.

In watching “Sunset Boulevard,” it appears that Hollywood selected Dayton as Gillis’ hometown because in 1950, American moviegoers were more acquainted with the city. Dayton, Ohio was a household name. The 1950 United States Census had the Gem City at 243,872 and resting well in the top half of the 100 largest U.S. cities. In “Sunset Boulevard,” Dayton served to symbolize everyday metropolitan life in Midwest America.

Nevertheless, akin to Desmond, with changes in industry, Dayton has seen a decline in residents. In some regards, circumstances appear to run parallel. The 2010 United States Census had Dayton at 141, 527 (down 102, 345 from 1950) and ranking as the 177th largest U.S. city. All the while, the United States’ population has increased by nearly 160 million since Sunset Boulevard premiered.

I spoke with Alex Heckman – Director of Education and Museum Operations at Dayton’s Carillon Historical Park – about the city circa 1950.

How was Dayton represented in regard to industry and population circa 1950? 

The Dayton of 1950 was a city at its peak in terms of population and industrial output.  Dayton was known as the “city of a thousand factories.” Everything from cash registers to bicycles to auto parts to radios to air conditioners was made here. Nearly 20,000 people worked at NCR alone by 1960. The city’s population was in the range of 260,000 people. – Alex Heckman

How do you feel the nation, as a whole, viewed Dayton circa 1950? 

I believe that Dayton was viewed as a large, successful Midwestern city. Many came to Dayton from other cities and from more rural areas to gain employment in the many industrial firms located here. Dayton was known as much or more for the cash register than the Wright Brothers in 1950. -AH

Nevertheless, while Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond and Dayton, Ohio share a marked decline in adherents, Dayton differs in the more important regard – its ability to adapt. Undeniably, it’s been a tough row to hoe and there have been obvious setbacks. Even so, after accepting its new surroundings, the Gem City appears to be growing. The United States Census estimates growth in American cities on a yearly basis and Dayton’s population increased from 2010 to 2011. This is obviously a very new and welcomed change for the Gem City.

The key to sustaining this growth, however, rests in Dayton’s ability to continually substantiate itself. I had the opportunity to speak with City of Dayton Planner Tony Kroeger about the aforementioned items and the future of the Gem City.

Dayton has seen a decline in industry and population since the 1970s. How do you feel the city needs to adapt to this setback? How do you feel Dayton can change its image, rebrand itself and continue to grow?  

(This can happen) by speaking confidently about the assets we have here including walkable neighborhoods, an asset-rich downtown where people want to live, affordable and historic housing, an excellent multi-modal transportation network with convenient regional access, and major institutions and employers committed to improving their city.  -Tony Kroeger

What does the future look like for Dayton in regard to industry and population? 

It looks like a city that can offer many of the things that are ushering in a new era of urban popularity. It looks like a city that values a unique quality of place, eventually free of the burden of how-things-used-to-be and what-I-wish-we-had. If we work on improving our built environment and building on our assets the numbers will be in our favor. -TK

The Gem City can absolutely return to the ranking it had when “Sunset Boulevard” premiered. More improbable events have occurred in our own backyard (see Huffman Prairie Flying Field – the site where Dayton, Ohio’s Wright Brothers perfected their flying machine). Nevertheless, this will never happen by subscribing to a despairing attitude.

While wishing for yesteryears is futile, it’s fair to recognize Dayton’s past as an inspiration for future success. It imparts proof that we are a wildly innovative, groundbreaking city and more than capable of reinventing ourselves. As we enter the centennial year of the Great Dayton Flood, we’re also reminded that Dayton has historically met challenges time and again.

Counter to Norma Desmond, let us resolve to celebrate both Dayton’s past and present and look to the future with great optimism. In 1950, the Gem City was notable enough to typify Midwestern metropolitan life in “Sunset Boulevard” – one of the most highly acclaimed films of all-time. Since then, there have been certain setbacks. Nonetheless, if there were ever a city to rise above adversity and return to the limelight, it is the extraordinary city of Dayton, Ohio. Happy 2013 to the Gem City!

For the American Film Institutes 100 Greatest Movies list, please visit afi.com. For more information on the history of Dayton, Ohio, please visit Carillon Historical Park and daytonhistory.org. For more information on the city of Dayton and its downtown, please visit daytonohio.gov and downtowndayton.org. 


Reach DCP freelance writer Leo DeLuca at LeoDeluca@daytoncitypaper.com


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