Local history: Akron legend about Sammy Davis Jr. turns out to be true

By Mark J. Price
Beacon Journal staff writer

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American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. poses in this October 1955 photo. (AP Photo)

Urban legends aren’t supposed to be true.

For generations, Summit County residents have handed down a strange tale about entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and a fateful incident involving an Akron motorist.

When we tried to debunk the story, however, we were surprised to learn that it isn’t a legend. It really happened.

In November 1954, Davis was a nightclub performer on the rise. The 29-year-old had appeared on NBC-TV’s The Colgate Comedy Hour as a singer and dancer with the Will Mastin Trio and had just released his first hit song, Hey There, on the Decca label.

Following a late show at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, Davis decided to drive back to Hollywood, where he had a recording session scheduled, instead of reserving a room for the night. He and his valet, Charley Head, took turns steering Davis’ new Cadillac Eldorado on U.S. 66 as it snaked through the starlit desert.

The valet finished his shift, climbed into the back seat and dozed off while Davis drove the black convertible south in the predawn gloom.

Somewhere in the distance, an Akron woman was trying not to get lost.

Helen S. Boss, 72, was the widow of Frank Boss, who had served as Akron police chief from 1930 to 1938. After her husband died in 1944, Mrs. Boss moved out of their Brown Street home to a smaller residence on Birdland Avenue in Coventry Township.

Her lasting legacy was selling nearly 2 acres to the city to establish Boss Park between Allyn and Sumner streets. She also donated $500 in playground equipment.

Mrs. Boss liked to spend winters in Van Nuys, Calif., but the cross-country trip was too long to drive on her own. She took out a Beacon Journal classified ad for travel companions to share the ride and expenses.

Practical nurse Bessie Roth, 69, of Good Street, Akron, responded to the ad, thinking that a vacation in sunny California would be the perfect anti­dote to another Ohio winter.

Thomas McDonald, 22, of Crouse Street, Akron, also responded. He wanted to go to Lancaster, Calif., to visit his brother, Eugene, at Edwards Air Force Base.

The older women let McDonald handle the bulk of the driving in Boss’ Chrysler. The vehicle rumbled west to Chicago and veered south on U.S. 66 toward Southern California.

Several days later, McDonald reached his stop. He stepped out of the car and bid farewell to the women, who continued the drive to Van Nuys.

Mrs. Boss pulled the car onto the highway. As the sun rose Nov. 19 over San Bernardino, Calif., she realized she had missed her turn at the infamous fork at Cajon Boulevard (U.S. 66) and Kendall Drive.

She stopped the car and began to back up. She didn’t see the Cadillac in her rearview mirror.

Weary Davis was almost home after a long night’s drive. He arrived at the fork in the road but didn’t notice the other car backing up into his lane. There was no time to swerve.

“The grinding, steel-twisting, glass-shattering noise screamed all around me,” Davis wrote in his 1989 Why Me? “I had no control. I was just there, totally consumed by it, unable to believe I was really in an automobile crash. I saw the impact spin the other car completely around and hurl it out of sight, then my forehead slammed into my steering wheel.”

The impact catapulted Davis’ sleeping valet, who suffered a broken jaw among other injuries. The Akron women were thrown into their back seat and suffered broken bones.

Seat belts were not yet standard equipment in cars. It’s a miracle that no one was killed.

Davis wanted to make sure the other crash victims were OK, but horror-stricken onlookers held him back, saying he had to go to a hospital. Only then did he realize that his left eye was mangled.

He lost consciousness.

Davis woke up in San Bernardino Community Hospital, not knowing where he was. His head was wrapped in bandages. He called out for help.

Dr. Frederick Hull stepped into the room to discuss the crash with the patient.

“Doctor, please,” Davis pleaded. “Will I be able to dance? Am I blind?”

The doctor replied: “You’re not blind. You’re going to see. You’ll be able to dance and sing and do everything you ever did. But I removed your left eye.”

A one-eyed entertainer? Davis thought his career was over.

Worried celebrities rushed to the hospital, including Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Eddie Cantor. Nurses swooned when Frank Sinatra arrived.

“You’re going to be all right,” Sinatra told Davis.

Davis didn’t know that the crash had been front-page news across the country. Press agent Jess Rand kidded him: “This was a great little publicity stunt you dreamed up.”

A rabbi chaplain stopped by to offer comfort to the entertainer. The visit was more inspirational than expected.

“Lying flat on your back in the hospital for eight days, you are bound to think about serious things,” Davis later told the Associated Press. “And I couldn’t get over how lucky I was. God must have had his arms around me. Otherwise, I would be blind today.”

While recuperating from his injuries, the entertainer converted to Judaism.

In December, Davis filed a $150,000 lawsuit, alleging that Mrs. Boss’ reckless driving caused the crash. He wanted compensation for medical bills, damages and lost earnings.

Mrs. Boss responded with a $120,000 countersuit, alleging she suffered severe shock and injuries when Davis crashed into her car. Mrs. Roth sued Davis for $75,000.

Jurors cleared Davis of any wrongdoing in the crash.

Wearing a silver eye patch, Davis made his first public appearance a month after the crash, joking with Marilyn Monroe and Mel Torme at a ritzy Hollywood nightclub.

He returned to the stage in a one-man show in January 1955, performing for a crowded house that included Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Donna Reed, Liberace, Dick Powell and Ricardo Montalban.

“This is more than wonderful,” he told the applauding audience. “Only in show business could it happen.”

After he was fitted for an artificial eye, Davis stopped wearing the patch.

His career hadn’t ended. It was just beginning.

Davis appeared in movies, musicals and TV shows, recorded dozens of hit songs, toured the country, became a top draw in Las Vegas and joined Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” with Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.

In Northeast Ohio, he appeared at Kent State University, Blossom Music Center, the Richfield Coliseum and Front Row Theater, performing more than 50 shows.

When he died of throat cancer in 1990, Davis was praised as a show-business legend.

Las Vegas dimmed its lights.

The Akron women in the car crash had quiet farewells.

Mrs. Roth passed away in her sleep in December 1955, a little more than a year after the accident. She was 72. Mrs. Boss was 84 when she died at Middlebury Manor in 1966.

Their lives all briefly intersected on a desert highway in California, turning an up-and-coming star into a household name and creating an Akron legend that endures to this day.

Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.


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