Springfield’s Kenny Miller is forever young

Our very own B-movie idol reflects on being both a juvenile delinquent and a senior citizen

But as I was rifling through a stack of vintage movie posters a few weeks ago at one of the antiques stores near the Clark County Fairgrounds, I instantly recognized the face of Kenny Miller.

The Springfield native had gone off to Hollywood in the early 1950s, so he was well into his 70s when he became a dear friend to me and my wife.

The guy pictured on the poster for a 1958 Columbia Pictures teen comedy called “Going Steady” is clearly him — the 79-year-old who’s eaten my grilled chicken marinated in Italian dressing, who’s split a bottle of wine with my wife on more than one occasion and who seemed totally unbothered last summer when my 1½-year-old son fed him a tortilla chip that just seconds earlier had been in my son’s own mouth.

The 26-year-old Kenny on the 53-year-old poster for a movie in which he played a 16-year-old high school junior looks almost exactly like the 79-year-old Kenny I’ve only ever known — which bodes well for those of us with baby faces.

I fully realize that’s a long way of saying not only has Kenny aged well, but it’s not often you see someone you know from Springfield emblazoned on an old movie poster in an antiques store in the same town.

And as it turns out, that’s not even the ironic part.

“You have a poster from one of the only movies that was banned in Springfield,” Kenny recently revealed about my new, $30 keepsake.

Produced and directed by the duo of Sam Katzman and Fred F. Sears — the guys responsible for “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers” two years earlier — “Going Steady” is a little-remembered B-picture that dared to use teen pregnancy as a source of chuckles.

Kenny recalled being scheduled to come home at the time and sign autographs to promote “Going Steady,” but that was ditched when Springfield decided it wasn’t going to allow such debauchery within the city limits.

As far as Kenny remembers, Springfield ended up being the only city to take such a moral stand against what was actually a squeaky clean comedy starring Molly Bee, the gal who had come to prominence in 1952 at age 13 with the song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

“How stupid can they be?” he wondered all these years after the fact.

I fired up the ol’ microfilm in our archives this week in an unsuccessful attempt at finding the apparent news story that detailed the minor brouhaha.

But what I found instead only confirmed that Kenny had arrived in Hollywood at the best possible time for a guy with a baby face.

To the west of town in the spring of ’58, the Stardust drive-in on Ohio 4 had a triple-bill of “Young and Dangerous,” “Rockabilly Baby” and, then, at the stroke of midnight, “The Girl Can’t Help It” with Jayne Mansfield — soon to be followed by “Dragstrip Riot” and “The Cool and the Crazy.”

Kenny, by the way, also appeared in “Rockabilly Baby.”

To the east of town, the still-operational Melody Cruise-In on U.S. 40 had “Jailhouse Rock” — soon to be followed by “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.”

In the center of town, the Majestic had a double-bill of “The Brain From Planet Arous” and “Teenage Monster” — soon to be followed by “Live Fast, Die Young” and “Girls on the Loose.”

The front page of the Springfield Daily News howled regularly with headlines about wayward youth.

“Jerry Lee Lewis, rock ‘n’ roll singer, marries his cousin,” the News observed on Page 1 of the May 24, 1958, edition, which presumably didn’t help the cause.

Elsewhere at local theaters, Sal Mineo played a juvie in “Dino.”

Kenny appeared in that one, too.

“For a few years,” he explained, “I worked my ass off. It was wonderful, from one B-movie to another.

“I was really lucky. Up until that point, there wasn’t a big box office for teens. I still felt like, and certainly looked like, a teenager. That’s all that really mattered. The wrinkles hadn’t appeared yet.”

A 1949 Springfield High grad, he blames the dry, desert air of his Palm Springs home for a proliferation of lines in recent years.

But with the way Kenny thinks and acts, it’s awfully hard to regard him as, well, elderly.

It’s almost startling to realize that, in less than six months, he turns 80.

“It’s hard for me to even say. Eighty,” he said. “Ain’t no way in hell I can be 80 years old. I don’t feel it. Even when I don’t feel good, I don’t feel bad.

“It’s a state of mind anyway. I don’t believe in age.”

In other words, this is what it looks like to grow old in the years since the advent of rock ‘n’ roll and the initial mass-marketing of youth culture.

Like an Army Ranger at Normandy, Kenny was part of the first wave to hit the beach — only to stick around to have a surf party.

He danced on screen with the luscious Mamie Van Doren to “Razzle Dazzle” by Bill Haley and His Comets in “Running Wild,” a 1955 Universal flick that dared to present, “The stark brutal truth about today’s lost generation!”

“She was a sexy, sexy girl,” Kenny said, “and had a mouth like a truck driver.”

He played a juvenile delinquent everywhere from the big screen to an episode of “Dragnet.”

“I was anything but a delinquent,” he said. “I tried everything, because I like to live on the edge, but fortunately, my upbringing was utmost in the back of my mind.”

And he learned to love mashed potatoes with sauerkraut on top after having lunch one day in ’58 with Elvis on the Paramount lot.

The King, making “King Creole” at the time, recognized Kenny from “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and called out to him.

Wild.

Elvis apparently had screened “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” at Graceland numerous times, and even knew all the words to the song Kenny sings in it, “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo.”

Again. Wild.

While he rarely got billing on a poster, Kenny is the kind of supporting player whose name could’ve been lost forever when times inevitably changed.

He had the good fortune, I suppose, of being from Springfield.

After all, I most certainly didn’t recognize anybody else’s name or face on the multitude of B-movie posters at the antiques store.

“We thought it would last forever,” he said. “They stopped making teenager movies, but I still looked like a teenager.”

“I was a has-been,” he half-joked, “by the time I was almost 30.”

But, ultimately, Kenny has seen more in life than James Dean, that generational icon whom he periodically shared a booth with at a Sunset Strip diner.

Dean would’ve been 80 this year, too, had he not been killed in a 1955 car wreck just weeks before the premiere of “Rebel Without a Cause.”

“I can’t imagine Jimmy being 80,” Kenny said.

Kenny initially had been cast in “Rebel” as one of the high school punks before the size of the gang was scaled back.

In fact, there’s footage of him doing a wardrobe test with Dean on the two-disc special edition of “Rebel” that came out in 2005.

But watching “Rebel Without a Cause” — that era’s most definitive movie — is admittedly hard for Kenny these days.

“All those people are dead,” he said, “and I’m very much alive.”

Contact this reporter at amcginn@coxohio.com.

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