Friday, December 09, 2011

A couple of follow-ups on Foundation for the Carolinas

Two quick notes following up on my story last Sunday on the Foundation for the Carolinas' new building:

-- In the story, I quoted from an essay by former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl. The essay ran in the Observer, and our version noted that it originally ran (in a longer form) on the Charlotte Viewpoint website. I didn't notice that, and didn't give Charlotte Viewpoint proper credit in my story. Here's the original version on their site.

-- My story also mentioned the mystery of the wrought-iron letters "KB" over the entrance to the building, which used to be Montaldo's department store. Charlotte architect David Furman wrote in to say he thinks the "KB" stands for King Bostrom, a clothing store that occupied the building at 220 N. Tryon St. in the late '80s.

If anybody has more details -- or a different story -- holler and I'll update.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

From the vault: Daisy and Violet Hilton

I spent a little time with a documentary filmmaker Wednesday. Leslie Zemeckis was in town working on her new project, a film about Daisy and Violet Hilton.

If you lived here in the '60s you knew about the Hilton sisters. They were conjoined twins (what used to be called Siamese twins) who were well-known performers for a time -- among other things, they co-starred in the cult classic "Freaks." They spent the last years of their lives in Charlotte. I wrote about them back in 1997. I dug out that story and re-read it so I could at least attempt to make sense on camera with Zemeckis. So while I've got the story in front of me, I thought I'd share.

A story of 2 sisters, together, always
Dec. 7, 1997

Side by side the two sisters walked into the Park-N-Shop on Wilkinson Boulevard on a warm winter day in 1962.

Charles Reid owned the grocery store. He knew what the women wanted. It scared him half to death.

Daisy and Violet Hilton had troweled on the makeup. Red toenails poked out from their sandals. Their hair was dirty and their clothes looked like they had been slept in.

They wanted Charles Reid to give them a job.

They would both work, they said, but Reid would only have to pay for one.

Because of their situation.

They were fused at the hip.

Siamese twins.

They had been in the Park-N-Shop a couple of times that week, buying groceries, and the day before they had called Reid and asked if they could come in and talk to him.

At the time Reid didn't know about the history of Daisy and Violet Hilton.

How they were displayed in freak shows before they were old enough for school.

How they became vaudeville performers who once made thousands of dollars a week - nearly all of it snatched away by their managers.

How their show business career had faded, then crumbled just a few weeks before when their manager stranded them in Monroe, broke and desperate.

Reid didn't know any of that. All he could see was the need in their eyes.

After they called that day, he prayed that night.

Lord, I know you want me to do something with these people. What in the world would I do with them?

What he did was this: He gave them a job. (He paid them both.) He found them a house and showed them a church.

And the Hilton twins quietly spent the rest of their lives in Charlotte, no one but a few friends and co-workers ever knowing that Siamese twins lived in town.

Now, nearly 30 years after their deaths, the Hilton twins are stars again. A new Broadway musical called "Side Show" is based on the Hiltons' show-business careers.

But what the Broadway show doesn't tell is the story of the Hiltons' lives in Charlotte.

The only normal lives they ever had.


Stranded in North Carolina

As they faced you, Violet Hilton was on the left, Daisy on the right. Violet's left hip joined Daisy's right at a 45-degree angle; they moved in a permanent V, like a flock of geese.

They didn't share any organs, but their blood flowed through both bodies. Some people say they shared each other's thoughts. At the very least, they shared instincts.

"They never said Let's go over yonder' or anything like that, " says Charles Reid, who is now 76. "They just got up and started walking."

They were barely scraping out a living as 1961 bled into '62. They had given up show business once before, to run a snack bar in Miami, but the snack bar folded and they ended up back on the road.

They were over 50 years old when they swung through North Carolina in January 1962 to promote the horror movie "Freaks." The Hiltons had appeared in "Freaks" 30 years before, and now it was making a run through the drive-ins.

How they ended up in Monroe isn't clear - a lot about the Hiltons' lives isn't clear - but what is clear is that their manager, who had traveled with them, suddenly left them behind.

They stayed in a Monroe hotel for a couple of weeks, trying to find work. The hotel bill mounted. Finally some businesspeople raised enough money to send the Hiltons to Charlotte. Everybody figured they could blend in better in the city.

Daisy and Violet rented a place at Tanzy's Trailer Park on Wilkinson Boulevard. Soon after, they asked Charles Reid for a job.

They offered to scrub floors, but Reid couldn't imagine what his customers would do if they saw that. He had just one job he thought they could easily do together.

The Park-N-Shop had a long produce section at the back of the store. At the end of the section, there were two counters where people lined up to have their produce weighed and priced.

The two counters ran parallel, but it was easy enough to turn them into a V.

Reid had a couple of conditions. They had to get rid of the makeup and the long nails and the whole show-biz look. And their hair had to be the same color - Violet's was her natural brunet, but Daisy had dyed hers red.

Reid's wife, Larue, took the Hiltons to get their hair fixed and buy some new clothes. The twins bought three pair of skirts they could alter at home, ripping the seams apart and sewing two skirts into one.

Reid gave them two red-and-white checked shirts, just like everyone else at Park-N-Shop wore.

The next Monday they came to work. For the next seven years they worked the same shift, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Most of the people who came through the produce lines never knew their apples and potatoes were being weighed by Siamese twins.


Making a life in Charlotte

After a few months in Charlotte they asked Reid for another favor - help in finding a house.

Reid knew just the place. His church, Purcell United Methodist over on Weyland Avenue, had bought several pieces of land around the church to turn into parking lots. They didn't need all the land right then, and a couple of the lots still had houses on them. After getting the OK from the church elders, the Hiltons moved into a house kitty-corner from the church.

"It had two bedrooms, " Reid says, "but of course they only needed one."

They also needed furniture. Reid made a call to Archie Moore, who ran Clinton's Furniture Co. on Brevard Street uptown. He got them a couch and a bed and a dinette set.

They got a dog, a mixed breed with lots of Lab in him. Leo Wingate used to buy rubber rats - two dozen at a time - for the dog to chew on.

Wingate was a bread salesman for Merita who made deliveries to the Park-N-Shop and got to be friends with the Hiltons. Sometimes he'd be on his route and see them walking to work and pull over to give them a ride. They were tiny - 4 feet 10, about 90 pounds apiece - and they could slip in and out of a car just as easy as you please.

Wingate also went to Purcell United Methodist, where the twins attended from time to time. The church had a do-good box, where they collected money for charity projects, and the twins always put money in the do-good box on top of their regular tithe.

When they went to Sunday school they attended the men's class. Wingate thinks they were more comfortable around men, that women asked too many questions. The Rev. Ernest Fitzgerald, their pastor from 1962 to 1964, figures it was because the men's class was on ground level and the women's was down in the basement.

Either way, they kept to themselves.

"Daisy's the one that did most of the talking, " Wingate says. "The other one didn't have anything to say, except once in a while Daisy would be talking about somewhere she had been, and Violet would poke her in the ribs and say, I was there too!' "

They would chat with customers at the Park-N-Shop, but they refused to do interviews or have their picture taken for the paper. An Illinois doctor known as an expert on Siamese twins came to Charlotte in 1967 to talk to the Hiltons. They turned him down.

Daisy and Violet hated doctors.

"Every doctor that put their hands on them, the first thing they wanted to do was cut them apart, " Reid says. "They could have been separated, even back then. But they didn't want to.

"They said to me, Mr. Reid, we've been together our whole life. We don't ever want to be apart.' "


Taken by the Hong Kong flu

And so they lived, never making a fuss, until 1968 bled into '69. Then Violet caught the Hong Kong flu. And just as Violet got better, Daisy caught it.

They were gone from work for a couple of weeks. The Reids called every day to check on them. If Daisy and Violet didn't want to be bothered, they would take the phone off the hook.

But one day the phone rang and rang and nobody answered.

Reid waited until the next morning - Jan. 4, 1969 - and called every hour. Still no answer. So he and his wife drove to the little house across from the church. They banged on the door and nobody came. They called the police.

An officer came and asked Reid what he wanted to do. Reid asked the policeman to pry open the door.

The rooms in the house on Weyland Avenue were connected by a little hallway in the middle of the house. The house was heated through a grate in the hallway floor.

Daisy and Violet lay dead on the grate.

Reid figures they were trying to stay warm as the Hong Kong flu took them away.

Their death certificates estimated they were 60 years old.

There were 23 flower arrangements at the funeral at Hankins and Whittington funeral home on South Boulevard. The crowd was mostly friends and co-workers; Charles Reid saw only one family he didn't recognize.

They were buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery off Freedom Drive. "It was just like an ordinary funeral, " Leo Wingate says, "except for there being two in one casket and all."

The Hiltons share a tombstone with a Vietnam vet named Troy Thompson, and they have a simple marker in the ground:

Daisy and Violet Hilton


"Beloved Siamese Twins"

It was Charles Reid's job to clean out the house on Weyland Avenue.

The only thing out of the ordinary was a dresser, four or five drawers, and every drawer filled with pocketbooks. And every pocketbook had three or four dollars inside.

"The only thing I can figure, " Charles Reid says, "is that they took lots of taxicabs, and they could just grab a pocketbook on the way out and know there was cab fare in it."

Reid found a bunch of photos and newspaper clippings from the Hiltons' show-biz days. But they were all stowed away. None of their movie posters on the walls. None of their publicity photos on the dressers.

Just a normal little house where two sisters lived out their lives together.