Still Fresh as the Dew on the Grass
Saranac Lake's favorite raconteur tells his story
It's eight o'clock on a Friday night, and Happy Hour is in full swing at Morgan's 11. Practically every table at the Saranac Lake, N.Y., pizza parlor is filled, as are the stools bordering the square-shaped bar. Drinks and conversation flow freely. Pizza sizzles in the wood-fire oven. White-apron-clad waiters scurry from customer to customer, razzing the regulars and politely welcoming less-familiar guests. Noise level and spirits rise with every passing moment.
Suddenly, the din drops. Heads turn toward the open door. Fingers point to the tall white-haired man, elegantly attired in starched white shirt and forest-green bow tie, whose frame fills the entrance. A whisper goes around, picking up into a rising buzz: "There he is! Look! There's Dew Drop! Dew Drop's here!" People rush toward the door, slap the man on the back, shower him with their greetings and praises. Women kiss him on both cheeks. Men crowd around for the privilege of shaking his hand. From table to table, smiles of approval fill the faces of the locals, some of whom have been waiting for more than an hour for the guest of honor to arrive.
"After knocking me around a bit, he said `You're as fresh as the dew on the grass. I christen thee Dew Drop.'"
Forrest "Dew Drop" Morgan smiles, drinks in the atmosphere like he would a dry martini. Slowly but steadily, his 84-year-old legs carry him to the broad wooden bar. Two minutes later, a Scotch and water materializes in front of him, compliments of the house, of course. Dew Drop slowly stirs the drink, wets his lips with a sip, sighs, and asks slowly, "Well, where should we begin?"
Where indeed. With eight decades of stories to tell, it's hard to find a jumping-off point. So he starts with something obvious: Why Dew Drop? "That nickname started in eighth grade," he smiles wryly. "An upperclassman got pushy with me, and I decided to push back." He pauses, grimacing slightly at the memory. "He got the better of me, of course. After knocking me around a bit, he said 'You're as fresh as the dew on the grass. I christen thee Dew Drop.' Naturally, the name stuck, and the madder I got, the more they used it. By the time I graduated high school, even the parents were calling me Dew Drop."
The nickname disappeared after high school. Enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Force, he was just plain old "Morgan" to his superior officers. Serving in World War II, the young airman saw North Africa, Italy, and Poland from the gunner's seat of a B-24. He also had a closer-than-desired view the Polish countryside when Axis fire splintered his plane, forcing an emergency parachute jump behind enemy lines. Taken to a prison camp in Russia, Dew Drop found himself wishing he was back in Saranac Lake. "The situation," he grimly recalls, "did not look very good."
Fortunately for the young gunner, an American appeal led to the release of several airmen, and Morgan returned to the United States unscathed in 1945. After convalescing at Plattsburgh Barracks Hospital, it was time for a triumphant Adirondack homecoming. The news spread like wildfire throughout Saranac Lake: Dew Drop's back! Dew Drop wasn't so thrilled. "I had spent years overseas fighting a war," he sighs, "but I still hated that silly nickname."
Yet that "silly nickname" proved useful two years later, when the veteran decided to open his own business, a "shot-and-beer joint" on 31 Broadway. He needed a name, something unique to attract customers to his establishment. What to call the newest bar in town? Why, the "Dew Drop Inn," of course. If people wanted to call him "fresh as a dew drop" for the rest of his life, he was going to make some money off it. He stocked his bar with the best liquor in town and an oversized personality to match it, and waited for the customers to come.
They came in droves. They came from Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Loon Lake—from countless small towns throughout the Adirondacks. They came from Plattsburgh, from Champlain, even from across the border in Quebec. As Dew Drop's bartending reputation grew, so did business. "I didn't expect all the attention," he says, "but I was happy to take it. After all, I needed the customers. I had a family to feed."
Ah, yes—the family. What a family. It began with marriage to Shelia O'Riley, a Montreal native he met the same year he opened his bar. Even before they were wed, she was joining him behind the counter, pouring drinks and serving food with an infectious enthusiasm Dew Drop says she never lost. To this day, friends tell Dew Drop he wouldn't have amounted to anything without Shelia's guidance. "And you know what?" he says, punching his fist against his leg for emphasis. "They're absolutely right."
"We always wanted a big family, so I guess we got our wish.”
The couple didn't remain a couple for long. A year later, Shelia gave birth to their first child. "Before long," Dew Drop grins slyly, "we had 10 more. We always wanted a big family, so I guess we got our wish." Add two adopted nieces to the fold, and the Morgans were a family to test the ability of any photographer. Those willing to take the challenge, however, must have enjoyed a steady stream of employment. Family pictures canvas the walls of Morgan's 11, black-and-white memories of Dew Drop, Shelia, and thirteen beaming children. To this day, Dew Drop's broadest smiles are reserved for conversations about his children. He describes their jobs, their families, and their accomplishments in great detail, forever the epitome of a proud father. "They are," he says simply, "the thirteen highlights of my life."
For most people, running a thriving business and raising thirteen kids would be more than enough to occupy their time. Not Dew Drop. In the early-1950s, the man with the enduring nickname began leading a double life. At the age of nine, his father had taken him to watch the 1932 Olympic bobsledding competition in Lake Placid, a day that ended with a ride on the shoulders of gold medalist Billy Fiske. Now, with his brother Jerry, he began living out the dream he had harbored since that day, training as a brakeman on that same Lake Placid track. Dew Drop turned out to be a fast learner. Less than a decade later, he was standing on a podium, accepting the gold medal in the U.S. National Bobsledding Championships.
When he tired of life on the track, Dew Drop was hired as manager of the U.S. National Bobsled Team. American 'sledders won three world championships under his watchful eye. Yet Dew Drop's prize sports moment came in 1976, when he watched his oldest son, Jimmy, turn in the best showing of any U.S. bobsledder at the Innsbruck Winter Olympics. "Watching your son succeed on such a large stage — there's no greater feeling in the world," Dew Drop remembers. Since that day, he's had plenty of opportunities to enjoy this feeling, with six other Morgan children competing in bobsled or luge on the national stage.
In the meantime, the Dew Drop Inn had blossomed from hole-in-the-wall bar to revered pizza shop. The transition, Dew Drop recalls, wasn't easy. "We threw away a thousand pizzas, and probably should have thrown away a thousand more," he chuckles, "and listened to a thousand suggestions about how we could do better." Yet nothing improved until Dew Drop struck out on his own, making "scouting trips" to pizza shops in New York City and fashioning a secret pizza recipe of his own. "Suddenly," he says, "people really started liking us."
The newfound success had its perks. Improved business allowed Dew Drop to hire a larger staff, including a young girl from Florida State University. In the summers of 1960 and 1961, she tended bar and waited table under Dew Drop's supervision, then suddenly announced she was leaving to study theatre at Boston University. Last year, one of Dew Drop's sons ran into her during the Sundance Film Festival. Forty-six years (and one Academy Award) after leaving Saranac Lake, Faye Dunaway says she still remembered her former boss, a fond reminder of her humble summers as an Adirondack waitress.
Years went by, and business continued to boom for Dew Drop. Capitalizing on his golden touch, he opened two new restaurants, "13 Morgans" in Plattsburgh and "Dew Drop Up" in Potsdam. Yet in the late-1980s, the ambitious entrepreneur decided it was time for a break. "I hated to sell any of those businesses," Dew Drop says, "but people kept insisting that I should retire, so I finally gave it a try."
It was a dismal failure. For the first time in his life, Dew Drop had found something he just couldn't do. Restless and bored out of his mind, he began searching for work at the age of 77. Within a month, he found his calling: private bartender at the historic Lake Placid Lodge. Today, he remains on their staff as the resort's chief ambassador and resident raconteur. Twice a week (or more of the hotel needs him), he leaves his second-story Saranac Lake apartment and drives to Lake Placid, always returning in time to poke his head into Morgan's 11 and ensure two of his sons, the co-owners, are running their business "the Morgan way."
"So that's how I'll leave you, by wishing you a happy night and God Bless."
Which brings us to tonight, with Dew Drop done with his drink and ready for his favorite Margarite Pizza. He stands, stiffly but solidly, preparing for his trip to the back of the room. "Red Skeleton was my favorite comedian," he suddenly announces. "He always ended his show the same way: God Bless. So that's how I'll leave you, by wishing you a happy night and God Bless."
With that, Dew Drop Morgan turns and heads for a table. A few feet away, the bartender waits with a freshly poured Scotch, on the house as always. People rise from their seats as he passes by, reach out to shake his hand, ask him questions to which they already know the answers. They're waiting to hear his story, a beloved and remarkable tale that still remains as fresh as the dew on the grass.
Waitress Today, Actress Tomorrow
Forrest “Dew Drop” Morgan still recalls the young waitress named Dorothy who spent two summers under his watchful eye at the Dew Drop Inn. He remembers being somewhat annoyed when she suddenly announced she was leaving his employ to study theatre at Boston University. And he remembers being absolutely stunned when watching his former waitress/bartender as the heroine of Bonnie and Clyde just six years after leaving Saranac Lake.
Dorothy Faye Dunaway — award-winning actress, star of blockbuster films over a five-decade career…and onetime waitress in a town that didn't even know she could act. Quite likely, Faye Dunaway didn't know she could act, either. Dew Drop doesn't recall her ever even mentioning acting until the day she left to go to Boston. Yet one year after leaving the Dew Drop Inn, she dropped in on Broadway as the daughter of Thomas Moore in A Man for All Seasons. Her first screen role came five years later, in 1967, playing the part of Lou McDowell in Hurry Sundown. Later that year, she landed the female lead in Bonnie and Clyde, and earned an Oscar nomination for her performance opposite Warren Beatty. The waitress turned actress was on her way to stardom.
There was no looking back for Faye Dunaway. As the new decade rolled around, Dunaway became revered as one of the most compelling screen actresses of her generation. Leading roles in films such as Three Days of the Condor, Little Big Man, Chinatown, Eyes of Laura Mars and Network, for which she won the 1976 Academy Award for Best Actress, catapulted her into worldwide stardom. Even while her personal life was rocked by turmoil, marked by two marriages and various romantic linkings to men ranging from comedian Lenny Bruce to actor Marcello Mastroianni, Dunaway's rising star seemed to earn in permanent place in Hollywood's sky.
In 1981, Dunaway portrayed actress Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, the film she now claims ruins her career. “I was too good at Crawford,” she frequently tells drama writers today. Still, some prize roles still came her way, most notably in Barfly opposite Mickey Rourke and in Don Juan DeMarco, a 1995 film in which she co-starred with Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando.
Today, with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a starring role in the recently released DVD of Rain, a movie based on V.C. Andrews' novel of the same name, the name of Faye Dunaway remains on the tip of the tongue of film aficionados around the world. One of her biggest fans, though, remains in Saranac Lake. Dew Drop is a devoted follower of Dunaway's career, watching with a unique perspective as his former employee lives at the pinnacle of celebrity success. Annoyed when she left the Inn to study drama, he finally is glad that his young waitress quit her job.
|Copyright © 2001-2008 All Points North. All Rights Reserved. Opening slideshow music written and performed by Ivan Wohner.|