By Mark J. Price, republished from Akron's The Beacon Journal, July 22, 2002
itchy housewife Samantha Stephens didn't even have to twitch her nose.
The Akron crowd already was spellbound.
Actress Elizabeth Montgomery, who played the domestic sorceress on ABC television's Bewitched, gazed in awe at the bubbling cauldron of humanity on South Main Street.
Thousands of cheering fans had gathered downtown to welcome Montgomery and her Bewitched co-stars Dick York (who portrayed her mere-mortal husband, Darrin) and Agnes Moorehead (who played her magical, meddling mother, Endora).
"Thank you thank you,'' Montgomery said, waving to the confetti-covered crowd.
"Everybody in Akron must be here,'' Moorehead gasped.
"I'm stunned,'' York agreed.
The 1966 guest appearance by the Bewitched cast was a magical moment at the 29th annual All-American Soap Box Derby.
A Derby Scene from #90
"The Bewitched group was very popular there,'' recalled Mason Bell, 85, general manager of the derby from 1965 to 1972, who now lives in Indianapolis. "Everybody loved them, but they really earned that love because they were right down to earth and mixed in with the crowd.''
In the mid-1960s, Bewitched was one of the highest-rated programs. Although the three actors were big stars, they graciously signed autographs, posed for photos and chatted with fans.
"They loved Akron, and they were tremendously impressed by the downtown parade,'' Bell said. "Weren't those great days?'' Chevrolet sponsored the TV show and the derby, so it was no mystery why such famous folks were in town. Also appearing in 1966 were F Troop cast members Forrest Tucker, Larry Storch and Ken Berry, who hammed it up in their cavalry outfits while competing in the Oil Can Derby. Montgomery served as official flagwoman of the celebrity race.
"Elizabeth Montgomery was very popular with the drivers of the derby cars,'' Bell said. "She spent a lot of time with them, and out at camp and that sort of thing.''
TV husband York was a real trouper in Akron, but he suffered from a chronic back ailment that eventually forced him to give up the role of Darrin in 1969 to actor Dick Sargent. "Dick York was sick for most of the time he was here,'' said Tony DeLuca, 65, executive director of the derby. "He spent a lot of time in his room. He was ailing pretty well. He made some of the appearances, but he didn't make all of them.''
At the parade, York pulled out a movie camera and captured footage of the crowd. "My kids at home expect me to produce,'' he explained.
Agnes Moorehead, who stayed with the Firestone family in Akron, carried a parasol to shield herself from the sun. Although more reserved than her costars, she was kind, courteous and quite dissimilar from her flamboyant character.
Moorehead patiently agreed to repeat a five-minute interview with a novice reporter after he discovered his tape recorder had malfunctioned. Endora, with a wave of the hand, would have banished him to the North Pole.
"Agnes was a very interesting person,'' Bell said. "Of course, she was an actress from the old school. I was able to talk to her about some of her plays and things she had been in, in the classic vein, and she liked that.''
Young racers swooned over the golden-haired Montgomery. "She was a very marvelous person,'' Bell said. "She really was.''
"Just as sweet as can be,'' DeLuca said. "She was a beautiful lady.''
Montgomery was staying at the Yankee Clipper with her real-life husband, William Asher, the producer of Bewitched.
A day before the race, the celebrities were being driven by caravan to Derby Downs when Montgomery asked her driver how his children had enjoyed the derby party the night before.
"They couldn't be there because my wife is ill and I left the children with my mother to take care of them,'' he replied.
"My goodness, I didn't get to meet them then,'' she said. "Well, we'll go meet them now.''
The plans changed faster than the twitch of a nose. Derby Downs would have to wait.
"She had him break out of the caravan and go to their home,'' Bell said. "The children were playing, and she got down on the floor and played with the kids.''
As it turned out, Akron charmed the actors as much as the actors charmed Akron. The derby experience served as an inspiration for Bewitched.
Soap Box Racing Is the Theme of the Show in #90
"The one thing I remember is right before they left,'' DeLuca said. "Bill Asher told us: 'As soon as we get back to California, we're going to put together a show about the All-American Soap Box Derby.'
''Before the year was out, the nation would see what he meant. On Dec. 29, 1966, the 90th episode of Bewitched aired on ABC. It was titled "Soapbox Derby.''
Written by James Henerson and directed by Alan Jay Factor, the episode is a loving tribute to Akron. Its plot involves Samantha helping a derby kid who must race against nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz's bratty nephew.
Samantha and Gladys at the Derby in #90
There are several such references to Akron in the episode. The All-American logo is plastered on shirts, helmets and banners. The derby couldn't have bought a better advertisement.
At the end of the episode, footage of the 1966 event is featured, including champion David Krussow, 12, of Tacoma, Wash.
Jeff Iula, general manager of the derby, was a 14-year-old substitute racer at the 1966 contest. He can spot himself -- a blue smudge -- in the derby footage.
"I was on national TV for two seconds,'' he said with a laugh.
Darrin and Samantha Watched Footage of the Actual 1966 All-American Derby
Bewitched originally aired on ABC from 1964 to 1972, but its episodes are still shown in syndication. The derby episode pops up in regular rotation.
Unfortunately, the stars are no longer with us. Agnes Moorehead died in 1974. Dick York died in 1992. Elizabeth Montgomery died in 1995.
But somewhere, someplace, their show is on television at this precise moment.
"They were just fine people,'' DeLuca said. "I think they were good people in real life. We had a lot of fun with them.''