Ever have one of those days?
Winfield Sheehan certainly did — and it became the defining moment of his life.
The 18-year-old sales clerk was working alone during lunch hour when an Akron housewife strolled into the fabric department at the M. O’Neil Co. store on South Main Street.
Sheehan, who sold dress goods by the yard in 1900, asked the woman whether she needed any assistance.
Why, yes, dearie, she did.
The customer told Sheehan that she was interested in making a dress and wanted to see what material was available.
Sheehan sprang into action, pulling a bolt of fabric from a shelf and placing it on the counter. No, that one wouldn’t do, the housewife said.
How about that material over there? Sheehan pulled another bolt off the shelf and rolled it out for display.
No, not that one either, the customer said. Maybe that fabric below. Or the one beside it.
Sheehan took down bolt after bolt, trying to impress the customer. He scissored small samples of fabric so the woman could compare colors against each other. No, no, no, no, no.
After patiently lugging 25 to 30 bolts of cloth from shelves, the clerk was getting tired.
Finally, the housewife spoke.
“Oh, I don’t think I’ll decide today,” she said. “I’m really just waiting for a friend.”
Sheehan paused for a moment and replied grandly: “If you think your friend is in that last bolt on the top shelf, I’ll gladly get it down for you.”
That was the moment that Sheehan realized he wasn’t cut out for the retail business.
A New York native, Sheehan moved to Akron at the request of his Irish-born father, Jeremiah, who ran J.F. Sheehan & Co., a dry-goods store in Buffalo. The elder Sheehan asked his Akron friend Michael O’Neil, who also hailed from Cork, Ireland, to teach Winfield the merchandising business.
After the run-in with the bored housewife, Sheehan broke the news to his father that he was switching careers.
For someone who lived here only a couple of years, Sheehan made an impression. The blond-haired, chubby-cheeked chap, who stood 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 170 pounds, was a regular at the North End Athletic Club.
“We called him Winnie and kidded him about being fat,” former club secretary Frank Cassidy recalled decades later. “But he took the kidding good-natured and became one of the best-liked fellows around the club.”
Sheehan also was witness to the worst night in Akron’s history: the riot of Aug. 22, 1900.
An angry mob dynamited Akron City Hall and burned down Columbia Hall after failing to lynch a prisoner accused of assaulting a child. Police shot into the Main Street crowd and killed two young spectators.
Sheehan and his pal Pat Tobin saw angry rioters break into a hardware store and steal guns and ammunition.
“Directly in front of us were several men armed with shotguns,” Tobin told the Akron Times-Press years later. “They were shooting at City Hall as coolly as if they were shooting a target. We asked one of the shooters for a shell for a souvenir.
“He gave us one, but a minute later, turned to us and said ‘Give me that shell; I’m going to need it for those blankety-blank so-and-sos. I’ll give you an empty one.’ ”
Sheehan survived that night, but his days in town were numbered. As a sideline, he wrote sports blurbs for the Beacon Journal, Akron Times and Akron Press. He parlayed that talent into a full-time job.
Sheehan moved to the East Coast and became a reporter for the New York World. After slogging on the police beat for years, he was hired as secretary to the New York police commissioner, wheeling and dealing in municipal politics.
The high-profile position earned him a lot of attention.
Movie pioneer William Fox admired Sheehan’s management skills and approached him with a proposition: Would he like to join the film business?
In 1915, Fox formed the Fox Film Corp. with Sheehan as general manager.
Sheehan traveled to dozens of countries in search of talent and helped organize the company’s studio in California. As vice president, the former Akron clerk helped turn Fox into a Hollywood powerhouse over the next two decades.
He is credited with developing movie stars such as Janet Gaynor, Myrna Loy, Victor McLaglen, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Alice Faye, Paul Muni, Margaret Hamilton and Will Rogers.
When William Fox lost financial control of the studio in 1929, Sheehan succeeded him and gained total control over story selection. He insisted on building a sound studio — naysayers initially dubbed it “Winnie’s Folly” — but he proved that talking pictures were the future of film.
“I believe we are going to return to an era of honest stories dealing with human emotions and issues,” Sheehan is quoted as saying in author Aubrey Solomon’s 2011 book The Fox Film Corporation. “Above all, clean stories with wholesome humor will find favor with the public.”
In 1930, the producer approved the hiring of cowboy extra Marion Michael Morrison for the lead role in The Big Trail. After a quick name change, John Wayne enjoyed his first credited role.
In 1934, Sheehan discovered teen beauty Margarita Cansino dancing with her father in a Tijuana nightclub act. She came to Hollywood and changed her name to Rita Hayworth.
Curly-topped bit player Shirley Temple became an overnight star with her song-and-dance routine in Sheehan’s 1934 film Stand Up and Cheer!
The cigar-chomping businessman was a wheeler-dealer who produced some of the highest-grossing movies of the early 20th century. Sheehan lived in a Hollywood mansion and became a millionaire.
His titles included What Price Glory (1926), Seventh Heaven (1927), The Black Witch (1929), State Fair (1933), Change of Heart (1934), Now I’ll Tell (1934), Baby Take a Bow (1934), One More Spring (1935), Curly Top (1935) and The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935).
Academy Award winner
His most celebrated film was Cavalcade (1933), a romantic drama starring Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook, which won three Academy Awards: best picture, best director and best art direction.
After a failed marriage to Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Kay Laurel, Sheehan wed Austrian opera star Maria Jeritza in 1935.
The same year, Sheehan resigned as chief of production when Fox Film Corp. merged with Twentieth Century Pictures, forming 20th Century-Fox. Darryl F. Zanuck succeeded him as studio boss.
As an independent producer, Sheehan’s swan song was the 1945 filming of Captain Eddie, the life story of World War I pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, starring Fred MacMurray.
Sheehan was 61 when he died of post-surgical complications in 1945. After sinking much of his fortune into his last film, he left an estate of only $23,000 (about $293,000 in 2012) to his widow.
One of Hollywood’s greatest moguls is largely forgotten today. If Sheehan had lived longer in Akron, more people here might know his name.
On the other hand, if he had lived here longer, he might have spent the rest of his career retrieving bolts of fabric.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.