Final Curtains: Collin Wilcox and the Old Roxy Theater Building

I wouldn’t have recognized Collin Wilcox’s name except that last year, watching a Hulu presentation of a 1965 Alfred Hitchcock Hour retelling of the classic old horror tale, “The Monkey’s Paw,” I got curious about one particularly alarming actress, performing opposite the young Lee Majors, who played an ill-fated race-car driver. The show had a bizarre cast of pre-hippie bohemians, but this one woman was familiar in a disturbing sort of way. I wondered where she came from.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, her affect might. A blonde with a Southern accent and a fragile face that tended toward the desperate. She was on television a lot in the late ’50s through the late ’70s, usually in supporting roles. She also made a few movies. She may be best-remembered for her role as the woman who falsely accuses a man of rape in the 1962 movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, to be effectively cross-examined by Gregory Peck. She later admitted she had an inside track on the role. She’d grown up knowing some of these wrong-side-of-the-tracks girls, and was pretty good at imitating them. She wore old clothes and rubbed cold cream in her hair to make it look dirty. It was a relatively small role in the film, in terms of screen time, but some critics made particular mention of her “sullen, snarling” characterization.

She was a civil-rights activist herself, in real life, and the story goes that Wilcox suffered some stigma among fellow activists in California who couldn’t separate her from her role as Mayella Violet Ewell.

Knoxville theatergoers of a certain age may remember her as the “resident ingenue” at the University of Tennessee’s Carousel Theatre in the 1950s. She spent her childhood in North Carolina, but had moved here by her teen years, when her father got a job teaching at UT. She went to West High, Class of ’53, and was active in theater there. In her class pictures, she looks happy, confident, and maybe a little like the class brain, not much at all like the slutty, unstable rednecks she often played. In one group photo at West in the early ’50s, she’s posing with a poster for what was apparently a recent West High production, “The Monkey’s Paw.”

By some accounts—sources differ about where she went to college, and when—she majored in theater at UT, then studied further in Chicago and New York, where she wound up in Lee Strasberg’s studio, already famous for method acting.

The Internet Movie Database lists 74 credits for her, and I haven’t seen most of them, but my favorites are her roles in three dramas in the great Hitchcock television series, including some classics, like “The Jar,” and a particularly memorable Twilight Zone episode called “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” She plays Marilyn, the brave woman who refuses to undergo the plastic surgery in a future society where plastic surgery has become routine, even obligatory. In retrospect, it seems prophetic.

After working on Broadway, in her 40s, She retired to her childhood home of Highlands, N.C., where she and her husband Scott Paxton founded the Highlands Studio for the Arts, offering free classes to children.

She emerged occasionally to act, herself, had a recurring role in the TV show Christie, a bit part in 1997’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and a supporting role in the 2003 Teri Hatcher movie, A Touch of Grace.

Some of the few people who remember her here only recently learned of her death, in Highlands, N.C., this past fall, at the age of 74. Her death made some of the big-city papers, but some obituaries of her, three months ago, outlined her career but didn’t mention that she began her interesting career in Knoxville.

Last Friday, a new production of a 2,500-year-old melodrama, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, opened at the 60-year-old Carousel Theatre, where Wilcox began her career. It was a memorable performance of what may have been the first murder mystery with a horror angle, but the guest of honor that night was the lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton, a former Knoxvillian and Central High grad who’s a Tony Award-winner in her technical field and, more recently, a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant. She was Collin Wilcox’s contemporary, and also her second cousin. She remembers her fondly, but echoes what others who knew her say: “You know she was crazy.” She played it well, too.

I’m not sure how many people knew the All-Med building, the fairly functional brick building ruined by the fire on Walker Boulevard off North Broadway a couple of weeks ago, was the old Roxy Theater. Sort of.

The theater is legendary especially to certain men well over 70, who remember the Roxy when it was downtown, on Union Avenue near Walnut. There’s an apartment building there now, with a print shop on the street level. But in the ’30s and ’40s, that was the site of the Roxy Theater. It was a movie theater, but it became better known for its live shows. The word Roxy was often pronounced with a nudge and a wink. The Roxy touted itself as the South’s last vaudeville house. But what they offered cheap burlesque: Girls and Gags, they advertised. Real, grown-up women doing striptease, and manic, ribald clowns, Cotton Watts and Webfoot Watts, who performed broad comedy and passed out mild pornography to the kids. The Roxy makes a cameo in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Suttree.

Eddie Harvey, North Knoxville’s auto-parts magnate and onetime racing promoter, was familiar with the Roxy from his days of working downtown. An extravagant scavenger, he liked the building, and when he heard it was to be torn down, around 1960, he disassembled it and somehow reconstructed it in parts about four miles north, near the edge of Sharp’s Ridge. It actually stood much longer there, near Fountain City, than it did downtown. For the last several years these walls that once resounded with the nervous laughter of inexperienced boys in a big, darkened room, housed a practical medical-supplies store.

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