Rumor Check: Errol Flynn Drunk on City Hall Steps

A reader recently asked, “Is the story true: When Errol Flynn was making the movie, Dodge City, that he was found drunk on the steps of City Hall one morning next to local, Robert Lee Christopher?”

I can’t tell you how much I enjoy questions like this! Okay, so I think my reader meant while Flynn was in Dodge for the premiere of Dodge City since the movie wasn’t made here. And I have definitely heard rumors about Flynn’s behavior while he was in town but I started out with zero verifiable facts.

You’re probably already aware that the movie premiere didn’t just fall into our laps. This was a really big ask and really, a genius move. The Kansas contingent reportedly went to Hollywood with a scroll signed by 10,000 Dodge City residents, which honestly seems impossible, but who am I to say.

The Wichita Eagle, February 15, 1939

No, wait…FIFTEEN thousand signatures! This is a tall tale, if I’ve ever seen one. But it worked!

The Wichita Eagle, February 21, 1939

Errol Flynn’s drinking habits were very well-known and it would have been super awkward if Warner Brothers couldn’t locate him for the big show.

The Wichita Eagle (Evening), March 10, 1939

What in the world? “She won him in a raffle.” Can you even imagine?

The Hutchinson News, March 23, 1939

Luckily for Miss Butterfield, Warner Brothers had a plan to ensure Flynn didn’t break their date.

San Francisco Examiner, March 23, 1939

After an unsuccessful search for a yearbook photo, I found this shot of the lucky winner.

Daily News, (Los Angeles) March 30, 1939

With a $2 million budget, this film was kind of a big deal, though I’ve seen estimates anywhere from $1 to $2 million and all points in between.

Hollywood Citizen-News, March 31, 1939
Hollywood Citizen-News, March 31, 1939

And then the worst happened. Miss Butterfield’s date was ruined by her stupid brother and his stupid measles.

The Fresno Bee, April 1, 1939
Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1939

The premiere was shown simultaneously at the Dodge, Crown, and Cozy theaters and even then, there was no way for everyone to get a seat. The movie was shown on repeat all through the night.

Dodge Theatre, Photographer Unknown
The Wichita Sunday Eagle, April 2, 1939
The Wichita Sunday Eagle, April 2, 1939

The turnout was absolutely massive. Crowd estimates ranged from 20,000 to 100,000 and I really don’t think anyone had a good grasp of just how many people flooded the streets. The Santa Fe Railroad set up a kind of pop-up city at the railyard for the cast, crew, and reporters to stay. But we know Errol Flynn stayed at the Lora-Locke Hotel so these accommodations didn’t appear to be for the headliners.

Photo by Frank Locke

There was a police force (probably Santa Fe Railroad Police) assigned to the railyard keep out the riff-raff. In addition to area police and sheriff departments helping out around town, Dodge even had National Guard assistance for crowd control.

The Wichita Eagle, April 3, 1939
The Wichita Eagle, April 3, 1939
Wilmington Press, (Wilmington, Calif.) April 15, 1939

Walter Winchell reported that the journalists who went on the junket consumed 114 cases of Scotch so the rumor about Flynn seemed totally plausible. I asked around and there are people in Dodge who have heard the story many times but it’s become sort of an urban legend. No one knows where the story originated. I haven’t read one article or gossip column that even hinted at Flynn partying outside of the Lora-Locke. One newspaper estimated 78 sets of press credentials were issued so I would think *someone* would have taken notice of Flynn’s whereabouts. All of the papers I’ve located reported most of the stars turned in around midnight because their train was leaving early the following morning. Now Dodge City definitely didn’t do that! The town didn’t sleep at all that night. Most everyone partied until dawn and then saw the special train off at the depot!

Having struck out thus far, I decided to search from another angle. Who was Robert Lee Christopher? The 1930 Federal Census had a Robert L Christopher at 805 Avenue H in Dodge City.

Initially, I had no idea if this was the same person but this is the only newspaper item I’ve been able to find. The age of this child doesn’t jive with the census record above so I had my doubts about whether they later lived in Haskell County.

The Hutchinson News, February 27, 1940

But then I found this 1940 Federal Census with Arlie and children in Satanta (also located in Haskell County) so it is the same family. Census takers made mistakes all the time with names, ages, places of birth, etc. Also, people lie.

I contacted the Dodge City Police Department and was told they do have records for Robert Lee Christopher but nothing during the time of the premiere. They also don’t have any records related to Errol Flynn and yes, that was the name his parents gave him at birth. The Ford County Sheriff Department didn’t have any records. Based on what I’ve learned so far, I’m calling this one busted. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, definitely let me know!

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