When celebrities visited Sibley’s downtown
Marcia Greenwood Rochester Democrat and Chronicle USA TODAY NETWORK
Throughout its history, Sibley’s brought in celebrities to drive traffic to its flagship location downtown at 228 E. Main St. In November 1956, five years after an Oscar nomination for her performance as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” Gloria Swanson visited the store to promote her fashion line, Forever Young. And when it came to backstage demands, Van Halen had nothing on Gloria. “First of all, she wanted to stay at the best hotel near the store, and I picked the Sheraton, which was right down the street, and I figured that was a good one,” longtime Sibley’s executive Margaret Lapp Thirtle explained during a talk she gave in 2007 at the Scottsville Free Library. In a letter sent to Sibley’s in advance of her appearance, Swanson also demanded that her room be on the hotel’s top floor and directly across from the elevators, said Thirtle, who arranged more than 170 celebrity appearances at Sibley’s before retiring in 1985 and who died in 2017 at age 101. Swanson also required that the room two doors down from hers on the left be reserved for her assistant and the room two doors down on the right be made available for her manager — never mind that it would entail relocating already booked guests. Swanson also wanted the hotel to have a bright red carpet for the doorman to “snap out when she drove up in her limousine,” and she wanted him to be “dressed to the nines,” said Thirtle, who had the doorman’s measurements taken and ordered him an ivory suit from Brooks Brothers. In her hotel suite, Swanson wanted lavender carnations in the living room and coral carnations in the bedroom. The floral arrangements were not to be mixed up “because it would disturb her dream sequence,” Thirtle said. The actress also demanded that a bowl of organic fruit be placed in her suite’s living room (and she refused to partake of the beef tenderloin at a VIP luncheon at Sibley’s Tower Restaurant, instead picking at a serving of seaweed delivered by her assistant). But in the end, she never set foot in the hotel, Thirtle said. After visiting Sibley’s, where she did a headstand to give her face a rosy glow and would appear only under pink light, Swanson went directly to what was then called the Rochester-Monroe County Airport, where a plane owned by Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., patriarch of the Kennedy political dynasty, was waiting to take her to her next appearance in Akron, Ohio.
Professional golfer Lee Trevino was infinitely more gracious when he visited the store in June 1968, Thirtle said during her 2007 talk. He had been booked by Sibley’s to give fans golf tips the day after the U.S. Open concluded at Pittsford’s Oak Hill Country Club. When Trevino ended up winning the tournament, defeating defending champion Jack Nicklaus, Thirtle thought he might bail. He did not and actually declined an invitation from President Lyndon B. Johnson so he could meet his obligation to Sibley’s. Shortly after his victory, Trevino got a call from Johnson, who said Air Force One was ready to pick him up in Rochester and fly him to the Capitol for a special lunch and Rose Garden ceremony the next day. But, as Trevino told Thirtle, “I said to the president, ‘Hold on, Mr. President. I have a commitment in Rochester with a little store on Main Street, and I can’t break my word. Listen sir, another time, count on it — I’ll be there.’”
Also in the magnanimous celebrity category was author Alex Haley. “He was the most engaging, the nicest man you could have met,” Thirtle said during her presentation. Haley visited the store in November 1976 to sign copies of his bestseller “Roots.” By that time, he had been doing promotional appearances nationwide for six weeks solid. The events were drawing huge crowds of “Roots” fans, and Haley told the “Democrat and Chronicle” he was immensely moved by their reaction to his book, but he also said he felt like he was running on batteries. His itinerary had been so jam-packed and his journey so fast-paced that he’d been toting his belongings in a department-store bag. Sibley’s fixed that. “He’d left such a wonderful impression,” Thirtle said, so the store gave him a fivepiece set of Samsonite luggage.
In October 1978, legendary Broadway star Mary Martin (”The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific,” “Peter Pan”) visited the store to promote a line of bed linens she created for Fieldcrest. After her appearance, Sibley’s threw a party for her at the Strathallan hotel, where she was staying. Thirtle recounted how at 9 p.m., Martin stood up and said she had to leave for a while because primetime soap opera “Dallas,” on which her son Larry Hagman played fiendish Texas oil baron J.R. Ewing, was starting. “I have to watch it because I call him and critique it,” Martin told partygoers. “He expects a call from me shortly after 10, so if you will excuse me, I’ll be back.” She kept her word and later returned to the party, Thirtle said.
In January 1984, short-tempered tennis champion John McEnroe signed autographs at Sibley’s before a Tennis Over America tour stop, in which he played an exhibition match against Guillermo Vilas at what was known then as the Rochester War Memorial. McEnroe “was visibly embarrassed when he entered Sibley’s, faced with a crowd of almost 900 autograph seekers,” the Democrat and Chronicle reported. So a bunch of Rochesterians made John McEnroe blush. That couldn’t have been easy to do.
In June 1987, retired Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer appeared at Sibley’s on behalf of Jockey International, for whom he had become an underwear model and representative. “There are a lot of people who only know me for pitching but don’t know me for the underwear,” the three-time Cy Young Award winner told the Democrat and Chronicle just prior to the event. “And there are a lot of people who don’t know that I played and won 268 games. They think this (underwear) is what I’m known for.” In fact, a photo paired with the newspaper’s story about his visit shows a number of women in the crowd of 200 appearing to lose their minds when Palmer peels off his sport coat before sitting down to sign autographs. One was quoted as saying disappointedly, “He’s wearing clothes. I thought he’d be wearing underwear. ”Reporter Marcia Greenwood covers general assignments. Send story tips to mgreenwood@gannett. com. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaGreenwood