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The Strange Journey of Bringing Lillian Smith’s ‘Strange Fruit’ Back to Life

Posted by | October 17, 2014

Reviving a Play That Was Ahead of It’s Time and Long Thought Lost

Thom Fogarty (c) Anja HirtzenbergerPlease welcome guest author Thom Fogarty. Fogarty, a director, playwright and producer, is currently the Artistic Director of 360repco. Thom was a dancer/choreographer in NYC’s ”downtown” modern dance scene for over 30 years. He began directing in 2010. To date he has directed 13 showcase code productions (including Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief, and Lulu Fogarty’s Lillian Smith: Being Heard), producing 7 of them. One has toured to 7 Fringe Festivals in the U.S. and Canada. This year he secured the rights from Carole Bayer Sager to create The Carole Bayer Sager Project: Album One, a cabaret song for song of her first solo album, presented at The Duplex and Judson Church, NYC. In August he directed and produced the Off Broadway run of Lancelot, his third collaboration with the playwright Steven Fechter (The Woodsman – stage and screen).

 

BACKGROUND

Lillian E. Smith (December 12, 1897 – September 28, 1966) was a writer born and raised in Jasper, FL. For many years she served as the director of the Laurel Falls Camp for girls in Clayton, GA. She was an unapologetic Southern liberal who took controversial stances on matters of race and gender inequalities, at a time that brought her much social discomfort, as she bucked the Jim Crow laws that were still very much alive. She is currently part of the Southern Literary Trail, with her brilliant, ahead of their time works on race and Southern tradition. Her works include Strange Fruit (1944), Killers of the Dream (1949), The Journey (1954), Now Is the Time (1955), and the collection – How Am I To Be Heard? :Letters of Lillian Smith (1993).

One of her most famous writings was the 1944 novel Strange Fruit, which depicted an interracial romance, between a Negro college-educated woman and a White man from a prominent family in a small Southern town, that ends in murder and a lynching. Riding the wave of excitement that attended the largest selling book by a woman to date, Broadway came calling and she rather quickly adapted the novel into a play.

It began a whirlwind tour, opening in Montreal, then Toronto, Boston, and Philadelphia, before arriving in New York City and opening at the Royale Theatre on Broadway, on November 29, 1945.

Broadway production of 'Strange Fruit.'

Broadway production of ‘Strange Fruit.’

The arduous task of trimming over one hour from her original vision (which is the script that opened in Montreal and the one I used—more about that later), along with the daily demands for rewrites by the director, Jose Ferrer, and his co-producer, Arthur S. Friend, left Ms. Smith with a rather sour impression of the commercial aspects of the theatrical world.

In retrospect, it was a fast moving train that Lillian was asked to jump on, with the constant changes and ever shifting demands of the rotating cavernous sets (which recreated spot-on black and white sections of a small southern town), in addition to her perceived resentment by the stagehands, it is no wonder she became less and less enthused about the original production.

The play had the misfortune of opening less than a month after another interracial romance play, Deep Are The Roots (by Arnaud d’Usseau and James Gow), which starred Barbara Bel Geddes as a Mississippi woman who falls in love with her cook, a Negro war veteran.

Strange Fruit’s reviews were mixed. Lillian felt that the liberal critics and stage unions had it in for her, because of her anti-Communist stance in some of her earlier writings and appearances. Lillian felt the stagehands purposely sabotaged her show and recounted as much in Autobiographical Narrative, saying that the actors saw stagehands intentionally drop large pieces of the set during performances, slow down scene changes and make their presence known in other ways in attempts to distract the performance.

“The girl should have been white,” she stated, “for of course that is the Commie line.” (Autobiographical Narrative). In Carson McCullers, Lillian Smith and the Politics of Broadway, Judith Giblin James said “She no doubt referred to the tendency of socialist fiction and art to portray the proletariat as masculine – downtrodden, but innately strong, and the bourgeoisie as feminine – effete and emasculated.”

'Strange Fruit' Broadway playbill cover.

Strange Fruit‘ Broadway playbill cover.

After a total of 60 performances, the Broadway production closed on January 19, 1946, and Ms. Smith was swift to pronounce that Strange Fruit was to never again be produced. That was 69 years ago.

And true to her word, her literary agents and the Estate have never allowed it to be produced. They have been approached on numerous occasions over the years for the rights to either produce or write new treatments, and turned down all but three.

First, a new play based on the book, by Jeff Lewis, which was ‘shopped around’ as both a play and possible screenplay, has yet to be either published or produced. Second, an opera based on the book that premiered June 15, 2007, composed by Chandler Carter with libretto by Joan Ross Sorkin and commissioned for the Long Leaf Opera Festival in Chapel Hill, NC. And lastly, the only known copy of the Broadway script still available to the public, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, was included in the anthology Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women (Indiana University Press 1998, Edited by Kathy A. Perkins and Judith L. Stephens).

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

While attending Syracuse University for drama, my daughter, Lulu Fogarty, came across one of Lillian’s articles in the textbook for a class on intellectual writings. As Lulu says “Lillian spoke to me in a way I had not known before.” Using Lillian Smith’s own words to tell Lillian’s story in a unique and uncompromising way by updating it through her own experiences, Lulu wrote a one-woman show Lillian Smith: Being Heard, which demonstrates both how much and how little has changed – when it comes to our obsession with the other.

With the script completed we came to the Lillian E. Smith Foundation to obtain the rights to use Ms. Smith’s words. Lulu was granted the rights to continue to perform her piece, as well as given open access to the Smith archives, housed at the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

In dealing with the Foundation, which then handled all affairs of the estate, I began to have conversations with the current executor and Lillian’s niece, Nancy Smith Fichter, about the disposition of the play Strange Fruit. She reiterated what she had known – that it was still not allowed to be produced for public performances.

Lulu Fogarty in her one woman show 'Lillian Smith: Being Heard'.

Lulu Fogarty in her one woman show ‘Lillian Smith: Being Heard’.

However, she had always thought it could and should be done again, under the right circumstances. So, it seemed there was a possibility—but the fact remained, “the play was never to be performed again.”

That was until some sleuthing in the Lillian Smith Archives, in the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, changed everything. With the help of my wife, Leslie Dennis (yes, it is now a family affair!), who has been an archivist at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, we spent the next two summers going through the Smith Archives, both at the Hargrett and in the closet of Lillian’s cottage (which has been preserved at the Center). What we discovered in letters from Esther Smith and Annie Peeler, who both held the position of executor during the estate years, was a true find in both honoring what had long been held as Lillian’s wishes, and in allowing us to go forward.

In response to a letter dated May 29, 1990, from Professor Judith Haig, who was working on a book-length study about American novels turned into plays, Esther Smith wrote:

My sister, Lillian, did not want the play of Strange Fruit circulated in any way. She was not happy with the version produced on Broadway. It was not the dramatization she originally wrote (that version was lost when her home burned). This being her first venture on Broadway, she listened to the urgency of the producer and director to change and rewrite scenes. In fact she was writing up until the opening of the Broadway run. It turned out to be heavily realistic and an enormously expensive production, and it actually died of overweight. The best reviews complimented the author on the beauty of the lines, which were taken verbatim from the novel.

Lillian talked with me a couple of years later about the play. She said if she did it again, she would do it so differently. She said that the heart of the plot would come directly from the novel, but would lead one to consider the greater problems of hate and separation which exist in the world at large. She felt the play could be a symbol of universal tragedy rather than just a melodramatic specific situation in a small southern town. I did not ask her how she would do this, but knowing my sister I knew she could do it, if the so-called ‘professionals’ would leave her alone.

You see, Ms. Haig, Lillian and I were novices thrust too quickly into the midst of “old Broadway hands”. We did not have the experience or courage to fight for what we wanted. We knew the play would necessitate many different scenes, so we dreamed of settings that were almost skeletal facades so that the lighting and action could flow smoothly and quickly from scene to scene. We felt the words were so important that the action should move like music. ‘They’ thought this idea was unusual and no doubt a little crazy and completely unworkable. So the curtain went up on beautiful realistic sets which were heavy and unwieldy, taking forever to change. In order to manipulate the sets at all an old turntable which squeaked was used. My sister and I were sick about it, but we had no control over backstage.

…It would take the art and craft of a playwright plus a producer and director all with vision and compassion.

And in a letter from Annie Laurie Peeler, then Literary Executor to the Estate, to Lillian’s agent, Evva Pryor, at McIntosh and Otis, Inc., dated June 9, 2000, Ms. Peeler stated:

As far as the 1944 agreement with José Ferrer and Arthur Friend, I have not seen a copy of the agreement. The play opened in Montreal in October 1945 and moved from there to Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia before opening at the Royale Theater on Broadway on November 29th. The run on Broadway ended January 19, 1946. I also know that Lil later told Esther that she did not want the play produced again as written. She liked the original play (a copy of which we cannot find). Esther’s copy and the one in the New York Public Library are one of those that were changed almost daily even after hitting Broadway and Lil disliked it.

A NEW LIFE

Which brings me to this adaptation and today. Thanks to the sleuthing and working from a copy of a manuscript found in Esther Smith’s archive, which she claimed, in her own handwriting, was a copy of the original that could be found “in Lillian’s hamper”, I have redacted as closely as possible from the original, while incorporating Lillian’s handwritten suggestions and changes.

This is in no way the same script that was produced and opened on Broadway at the Royale Theater in New York, and thus fits the parameters set down by Lillian Smith herself.

Part of what made Ms. Smith hide this incredible indictment of a period of our not-so-distant past was forced upon her by the economic nature of commercial theater. While some of what she encountered was indeed due to the subject matter and our collective discomfort in dealing with such matters, this work proves to be as volatile and relevant today as it was in 1945.

I am pleased to present this as the original work of Lillian Smith, with minor alterations to make it more producible for a modern audience. And it is with great pleasure that we restored the original name that it first opened under – Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit.

I made changes taken directly from her handwritten notes on pages of the script, or in letters, or on papers that she filed away (such as restoring the Prologue; it had become a flashback – think memory play in the style of Tennessee Williams – by the time it opened on Broadway; and the Epilogue to their right places). The only other change has been to make it playable by an ensemble of eight actors instead of the original 36.

Lilian Smith's writing desk.

Lilian Smith’s writing desk.

In making this a more viable production for regional and community theaters, I felt the need to recast this piece for 8 actors. As a result there are several very fast changes of character, but this only makes it more exciting for actor, director, and yes, the audience as well. This updating calls for 4 white actors and 4 actors of color. I feel it is necessary to keep this directive, as the dual casting only enhances Lillian’s efforts in pushing color-blindness in all aspects of life. In this case it is needed to make the very point she so hoped would one day be obliterated.

I have deleted many of the original directives, as I know being a director, it is much more exciting to discover these aspects on one’s own with the cast and designers. We are in a different time from when Lillian originally worked – which was the heyday of Eugene O’Neill (whom she clearly admired – she copied his style of overly abundant descriptions of the mise en scene), the beginnings of Tennessee Williams and that other soon to be very famous southern writer, Lillian Hellman.

THE JOURNEY CONTINUES

This new work has the blessing of the Lillian Smith Foundation and its Board, which since last year has become part of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College, as I have been given the go ahead with pursuing publication. I have sent the script to the Samuel French publishing house, and they are waiting for it to actually be produced before making a commitment.

The planned production by Piedmont College, in Demorest, GA, in October of 2015, should go a long way in helping get this exciting work back on the boards – where it belongs. As 2015 will be the 70th Anniversary of the original Broadway production, it seems fitting that this vital indictment of our life and times, that has been kept from production due to a misunderstanding of Lillian Smith’s wish and her well-known displeasure with her one and only Broadway foray, will live and give yet another generation hope.

The Swanson Center for Performing Arts & Communications at Piedmont College in Demorest, GA will host the new 'Strange Fruit' production.

The Swanson Center for Performing Arts & Communications at Piedmont College in Demorest, GA will host the new ‘Strange Fruit‘ production.

As Lillian Smith’s popularity is experiencing a rebirth, thanks to her inclusion in numerous syllabuses for Southern Literature, Women’s Studies, and Gender Studies courses, it is time for this amazing play to takes its place in the pantheon of works that were ahead of their time. As a southern woman she took on race and gender politics well before they were popular or being discussed. She was an original.

In full disclosure, I have promised the Lillian Smith Foundation that the publication deal I will be seeking is for 95% of the proceeds to be earmarked for the Lillian Smith Foundation, so they may continue the work of keeping her legacy alive for generations to come.

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The three restless spirits of Sarah, Will, and Clem

Posted by | October 16, 2014

The city of Ringgold, GA sponsors tours of its train depot each Halloween based on ‘The Legend of the Haunted Depot:’

Clem and Will Jackson grew up in Ringgold doing all the things brothers did, swimming in the Chickamauga Creek, hunting in the woods, and generally enjoying the pleasures of young men in the Old South.

The boys were very close and never imagined the War would separate them. However; Clem, the younger brother, was anxious to join the fighting, but his father refused him permission. In order to join in the Confederate fight, Clem ran off to Alabama and joined the 33rd Alabama Regiment. The 33rd Alabama Infantry Regiment was officially organized and outfitted in Pensacola, Florida in April 1862.

After dismounting heavy artillery from obsolete Fort McRee, the Regiment was sent to Corinth, Mississippi, arriving just after the Battle of Shiloh. Its baptism under fire occurred at Perryville, Kentucky in October, 1862 where it captured a battery, but suffered heavy casualties, including every field officer.

Ringgold Haunted DepotThe next month the Army of Tennessee was organized, and the history of this great army is the history of the 33rd. The Regiment was placed in General Patrick Cleburne’s Division, and contributed to his reputation of possessing the best assault troops in the Army of Tennessee. The 33rd drove the enemy before it in Hardee’s dawn assault at Murfreesboro; it prevailed against the 6th Indiana at Chickamauga; it helped hold the flank at Missionary Ridge; and it helped bring the Federal pursuit to a bloody end at Ringgold Gap.

In the three years Clem was gone, Will fell in love and married Sarah Johnson, a great friend of Clem’s. Although newly married, because the Confederate cause became so desperate, Will felt compelled to enlist under the command of General Patrick Cleburne.

Sarah corresponded with Clem throughout the War and wrote him telling about her marriage to Will and of his enlistment. The two brothers were reunited during the War, but were both tragically killed at the Battle of Ringgold Gap, so close to home. Their bodies were never properly buried, so their spirits were doomed to roam the earth forever.

Unaware that her beloved had been so close, Sarah waited and met every returning troop train hoping to be reunited with her husband and her friend. Upon hearing the news of their death, Sarah took her own life by sneaking into the Depot in the dark of the night and hanging herself. Because she had taken her own life, Sarah also was doomed to roam the earth without rest. The three restless spirits of Sarah, Will, and Clem finally found each other and made the Depot their home.

More than a hundred years had passed when construction workers found Clem’s body at Ringgold Gap and gave him a proper burial, freeing his spirit to ascend. Left behind, the spirits of Sarah and Will roam the streets of Ringgold in search of Clem. Legend has it that on a dark moonlit night Sarah can be seen standing on the back deck at the Depot watching for the brother that Will refuses to leave.

Source: http://ringgoldhaunteddepot.com

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Book Excerpt: ‘Memory of a Miner’

Posted by | October 15, 2014

Dr Michael W RuthPlease welcome guest author Dr. Michael Ruth. Dr. Ruth has just released Memory of a Miner: A True-Life Story from Harlan County’s Heyday. This book is the story of his dad’s life as an old-time coal miner in “bloody Harlan” (Harlan County, KY) in the early to mid 1900s, told in his own words and dialect.

“Reading the book,” says Dr. Ruth, “is somewhat akin to listening to a captivating storyteller tell some very intriguing – yet true – tales from a first-hand account of life in a southern Appalachian mining town.”

After earning a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Oxford Graduate School, Dayton, TN, Dr. Ruth went on to publish his first book, Shadow Work: A New Guide to Spiritual and Psychological Growth, in 1999. Since then he has written on the subject of personal growth, as well as the developmental stages of childhood. He is on the book review board for The Family, a professional family therapy journal. Dr. Ruth is a counselor/psychotherapist, in private practice for more than 23 years. We’re pleased to present this excerpt from Memory of a Miner:

 

Dad grew from child to adolescent while living in Draper. These were the years of the Great Depression (though Dad’s running joke was “I never could figure out what was so great about it!”). The Depression years were hard for Dad. He would often say, “The Democrats blamed Hoover and the Republicans blamed Roosevelt. I don’t know who it was, but somebody liked to starved me to death!”

3D Book Cover-Virtue

Necessity brought creativity, and Dad found a way to get a little money in his pocket while a Depression-era boy in Draper. A neighbor woman would frequently give Dad money to go to the store and buy her fifty cents worth of new potatoes. Dad would pocket the fifty cents and go to a nearby potato patch a man owned and stealthily dig up roughly fifty cents worth of new potatoes.

He would clean them good, put them in a “poke” and take them to the neighbor, fifty cents the richer!

Dad caught and ate a lot of fish during the Depression. He didn’t need a fishing rod, he would just cut him a sapling for that, and make him a “fishin’ pole.” But tackle was costly and he either didn’t have or didn’t want to waste money on that. Ingenious, even when young, he would make a hook out of a safety pin and would plait sewing thread for line. Dad says:

Buddy, that was hard fishin’. Of course a safety pin don’t have a barb on it like a hook and wasn’t strong metal, and that sewin’ thread was easy to break. You had to really work a fish to get it in!

Nobe Farley was the night watchman at the mines. Me and him had us a deal. I’d catch him a mess of fish when I was a-catchin’ mine, and he’d give me enough grease [lard] to fry mine in. We’d trade fish for grease, you see. I was about twelve or fourteen at the time.

To his dying day Dad absolutely hated to wait in line for anything, and he simply would not do it at all if avoidable. Here’s why:

In the Depression we’d get commodities. Word would get out that they was a load of commodities comin’ in. They’d ship ‘em to the depot in Harlan, you see. They’d come in maybe every two or three weeks, I think. I don’t remember now. Everybody down through there from Harlan to Evarts would take off to Harlan, buddy. We’d walk down there, walk from Draper to Harlan. It’s about eight miles.

You’d finally get there and Lord have mercy they’d be a big line. I’ve lined up from up past the New Harlan Theater [South Main Street] just to get in line. That line would go from there, down across the bridge, to that big building there on the right [Hackney Distributors] close to the railroad crossin’. That buildin’ is where they’d give out the commodities. I’d say that line would be about a quarter of a mile!

Carl Ruth as a young man. Courtesy the author.

Carl Ruth as a young man. Courtesy the author.

When you finally got in the building you’d get the allotment of whatever stuff they had. You didn’t pass on nothin’, buddy! I carried mine home in a grass [burlap] sack I’d bring with me. Once I got what I could, I’d take off a-walkin’ then, them eight miles back home. We walked the tracks most of the time, you see, for that was the shortest distance. It’d cut out all them hills and curves.

They’s been many a time I’ve got right up there near the door, buddy, and they’d be give out of stuff. See, they’d just have so much of this or that – fruit, rice, cheese, powdered milk, dried beans, sugar, flour, meal, stuff like that – and when they give out of each of what they had, well, that was that! They’d be run out. They’d say come back on such-and such a day and we’ll have more in. They’d just give out. You’ve walked all that way and pulled that long line for nothin’! That’s why I say, buddy, I ain’t standin’ in no more lines! I’ve pulled that shift! [In the last quarter of his life, Dad hated to go to a restaurant for lunch after church. There is usually a line to stand in.]

You could tell when they’d give out grapefruit. [He starts laughing as he tells this, recalling memories.] You’d see a few hulls scattered here and there as you walked back home. The further you got, the deeper them grapefruit hulls got along there. People’d get tempered to ‘em, you see. We didn’t eat a lot of grapefruit up in there and it took ‘em one or two to get tempered to ‘em. Once they did, they’d just eat the whole bag! You could tell when they’d eat up all the grapefruit because the hulls would go to thinning out along the track or road again til they was plumb gone, buddy!

I asked what he would do if he got near the building and they had run out of everything? Dad laughingly says, “You’d just turn and walk sadly away.”

Following is another of those stories which shows the better angels of Dad’s nature. He was about thirteen at the time of its unfolding.

Later on they got to deliverin’ the commodities to the Evarts depot, so those of us that lived down that way didn’t have to make that long haul afoot into Harlan. When they come in, I’d walk to the depot from Draper [about a mile] and get mine. I’d bring it home in a grass sack just like I did when I’d go to Harlan.

Our neighbor was Paris Parr. He was in his mid-thirties and he was crippled and couldn’t walk. He couldn’t get out to get his commodities. Well, when I got back with mine, I’d then go get his identification card [required, or one could simply loop through the line two or three times] and then head back to the Evarts depot to pick his up for him.

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The Great Pandemic of 1918, part 2

Posted by | October 14, 2014

continued…

1918 Spanish flu victimsKENTUCKY: On October 6, the Kentucky State Board of Health announced the closing of “all places of amusement, schools, churches and other places of assembly.”

Because they were almost certainly simply overwhelmed with combating the disease, Kentucky officials did not even report influenza cases to the U.S. Public Health Service until late October. Likewise in Alabama: it is impossible to know for sure exactly how many Alabamans were affected by the flu, since regular reports to the U.S. Public Health Service were never made.

At that point, KY state officials reported more than 5,000 cases of the flu. Over the next three weeks, they reported over 8,000 more.

In Pike County, KY, a miner named Teamus Bartley called the epidemic “The saddest lookin’ time then that ever you saw in your life.”

He and his brother worked at a coal mine when his brother’s entire family came down with the disease. Teamus visited his brother every night, and reported on what he saw:

“…every, nearly every porch, every porch that I’d look at had–would have a casket box a sittin’ on it. And men a diggin’ graves just as hard as they could and the mines had to shut down there wasn’t a nary a man, there wasn’t a, there wasn’t a mine arunnin’ a lump of coal or runnin’ no work. Stayed that away for about six weeks.”

Teamus later said that each night, he saw four or five miners and family members die in the camps.

VIRGINIA: John Brinkley, a sharecropper in Max Meadows, VA, believed that “a little fresh air could be fatal.” So he sealed his family in his living room around a fire in a wood stove. For seven days the family remained in the room with the fire. On the eighth day, the house caught fire and the Brinkleys were forced to evacuate. By mid-October, Virginia had seen more than 200,000 cases of influenza. By the end of the year, more than 15,000 Virginians would die.

WEST VIRGINIA: Charleston saw its first cases of influenza on September 28th when 7 cases occurred. Over the next five weeks, there were more than 2,300 cases, and more than 200 deaths.

More cases followed, but they were not recorded. Around the middle of November, Charleston authorities stopped reporting to the U.S. Public Health Service. It’s likely that they were simply too overwhelmed.

In Martinsburg, WV, so many people were either sick themselves or were caring for people suffering that a local committee estimated that only two out of every ten people were able to attend to their normal duties.

Gravediggers could not keep up with the demands for their services in Martinsburg. For several weeks, gravediggers maintained a backlog of at least two-dozen graves, which needed to be dug each day.

Burials themselves were quick. Funerals were banned, as were all other public meetings, churches were closed and theaters were shut.

The local Martinsburg newspaper published a list of “Some Don’ts that Should be Followed: Don’t Worry, Stop Talking about it, Stop Thinking about it, Avoid People who have it.”

Such Don’ts were hard to do. For instance, a James Horvatt was brought to trial before the Martinsburg-area county court on September 27, 1918 for allegedly forging a $40 check. Horvatt had contracted the flu while in jail waiting his trial, and was very ill from the disease when he appeared in court.

The disease spread among those who were in the courtroom with him that day. Three lawyers who engaged in proceedings contracted influenza and died within three days after Horvatt’s trial was concluded. Three others, the judge, the county clerk and the assistant prosecuting attorney in the Horvatt case, all contracted the disease and came close to death. So did their immediate families.

It was said that nearly every family lost someone. One family that experienced such a loss was that of an infant who would grow up to become one of the Nation’s longest-serving Senators. The mother of Senator Robert Byrd was actually a North Carolinian. She died of influenza when he was just one year old, and an aunt and uncle from West Virginia took him in.

MARYLAND: By September 28th, more than 1,700 cases were reported across the state. In Cumberland, 41% of the population became ill. City officials converted buildings on the city’s main street into emergency hospitals but there were only three nurses to staff these hospitals. Officials asked the Maryland Board of Health for additional nurses but the nurses never appeared.

OHIO: The state outlawed spitting. Influenza was not confined to the cities. Rural communities across the state also experienced high rates of influenza as well as significant numbers of deaths from influenza or pneumonia. By the last week of October, Ohio reported 125,000 cases of the Spanish flu. That week, more than 1,500 Ohioans died.

By the end of December 1918, the worst was over.

Sources: www.pandemicflu.gov/general/greatpandemic2.html

http://1918.pandemicflu.gov/index.htm

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New Documentary Film: “Earl Hamner Storyteller”

Posted by | October 13, 2014

Please welcome guest authors Michael McGreevey, Ray Castro & Tim McAbee. McGreevey—actor, director, producer, writer, and life-long friend of Earl Hamner and his family–has joined Castro and McAbee to produce a documentary about Hamner. Earl Hamner Storyteller explores the life and works of one of America’s best writers. For over seventy years Earl’s writing has entertained and inspired people all over the world. Their mutual respect and admiration for Mr. Hamner’s writing is what brought the three producers together for the project.

 

Producers Michael McGreevey, Ray Castro, Earl Hamner and Tim McAbee at the Waltons Mountain Museum in Schuyler, VA.

Producers Michael McGreevey, Ray Castro, Earl Hamner and Tim McAbee at the Waltons Mountain Museum in Schuyler, VA.

 

This documentary film celebrates Earl Hamner the man, the storyteller, and how he has enriched our lives through his writing. A diverse group of actors, directors, producers, family and friends have all come together to share their memories of Earl Hamner, Jr. and of working on various shows and movies he has written. Television shows including The Twilight Zone, Falcon Crest, Appalachian Autumn, Nanny and the Professor and The Waltons are highlighted. Movies such as Spencer’s Mountain, Palm Springs Weekend, Heidi and Charlotte’s Web are also included.

Earl Hamner’s family was the model for The Waltons television show. The character of John-Boy was based on Earl, the oldest of eight children. It is Earl’s voice that we hear as the narrator at the beginning and at the end of each episode. “There were eight of us,” Earl recalls. “Tall, lean, fine-boned, red-headed youngsters growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Depression. My father called us ‘his thoroughbreds,’ and put us on a pedestal. CBS called us The Waltons, and put us on television.”

In the film, Earl travels back to his childhood home in Schuyler, VA to visit with his siblings. He takes us to one of his fishing holes, to the Baptist Church he attended as a youngster, and to several other special places. Actors including Richard Thomas, Susan Sullivan, Judy Norton, Carole Cook, Michael Learned, James Best, Mary McDonough, Bill Mumy, Eric Scott, Lorenzo Lamas, Ronnie Claire Edwards, Veronica Cartwright and many others who worked with Earl, share their comments and great stories about him.

Earl back home in his Schuyler, VA bedroom writing in his journal.

Earl back home in his Schuyler, VA bedroom writing in his journal.

Doris and Earl Sr. strongly encouraged all the children in their growing family to excel, and Earl Jr. became interested in writing at an early age.

He was writing his numbers at the age of two and reading at four. His poem “My Dog” was published on the children’s page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch when he was six. Earl claims he knew from that day he’d become a writer.

Schuyler was a company town, the home of The Alberene Stone Corporation, which quarried and milled soapstone. “Our town was located in that part of the Blue Ridge known as The Ragged Mountains,” says Earl. “We were six miles from Route 29, the main artery connecting the great cities of the north to the south. We reached 29 along a country road, the most beautiful stretch of rural road known to man, the Rockfish River Road.

“We lived in company-built houses and bought our goods from the company store. Schuyler had been a prosperous little village, but, when the Great Depression came, the mill closed. My father found work in Waynesboro and could only be home with his family on holidays and weekends. We missed him, and, on Fridays, even before the sun went down, my mother could be seen at the window looking down the road.”

Poster highlights Earl Hamner's boyhood home in Schuyler, VA, where he first put pencil to paper and began the journey that forever enriched our lives with his inspirational writing.

Poster highlights Earl Hamner’s boyhood home in Schuyler, VA, where he first put pencil to paper and began the journey that forever enriched our lives with his inspirational writing.

Earl Hamner’s boyhood home in Schuyler, VA, is where he put pencil to paper and began the journey that forever enriched our lives with his inspirational writing.

Michael McGreevey, one of the producers of the film, recalls one of his favorite experiences during the filming. “On our recent visit together to his hometown of Schuyler, VA, Earl Hamner taught me the fine art of ‘porch-sitting.’ The key is to relax, take your time, savor the moment. The silences are just as important as the conversation. Sitting with me on the porch of his family’s home, Earl reminisced about the many evenings he spent there with his parents and siblings.”

His talent for storytelling was certainly developed and nurtured on that porch as he would listen to his father, grandmother, uncles, and family friends entertain one another with tales about their life experiences in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Years later, Earl would write “porch-sitting” scenes into the storylines of The Waltons, such as the very memorable episodes “The Achievement” and “Grandma Comes Home.”

“I was raised on folk songs and folk stories,” says Earl, “and I suppose it was inevitable that this kind of material worked its way into my writing.”

“Virginia Dreams, they always take me back
Virginia Dreams, there’s no other place like that
No matter where life takes me or how far away it seems
I keep going back to my Virginia Dreams”

– Jimmy Fortune/ Justin Peters, songwriters

In the documentary, another legendary Nelson County native, Country/Gospel artist Jimmy Fortune (formerly of The Statler Brothers), pays tribute by performing and dedicating the song “Virginia Dreams” to Earl.

“When I was growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression,” Earl observes, “we always had friends and neighbors stopping by. My mother or father would meet them at the door and say: ‘Come on in and sit till bedtime!’”

Earl, Paul, Audrey and Nancy Hamner welcomed our crew into their childhood home and shared their memories of growing up in this house. Later, our filming wrapped appropriately with the Hamner siblings saying “GOODNIGHT” to each other as they did so many years before. Viewers of The Waltons are very familiar with this iconic closing to each episode, which was a nightly ritual at the Hamner home.

From left to right, Paul Hamner, Earl Hamner and son Scott Hamner, Audrey Hamner and Nancy Jamerson.

From left to right, Paul Hamner, Earl Hamner and son Scott Hamner, Audrey Hamner and Nancy Jamerson.

“The Conflict” episode of The Waltons originally aired September 12, 1974. Written by Jeb Rosebrook and directed by Ralph Senensky, this episode is still one of the most popular of the series. It tells the story of how Aunt Martha Corinne Walton’s home is in danger of being torn down because of the right-of-way for the Blue Ridge Parkway. The entire Walton family comes to her aid and tries to stop the construction.

In reality, many families in the area were forcefully evicted from their mountain homes in the Blue Ridge to pave the way for the Skyline Drive. In the early years of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term as president, the Blue Ridge Parkway was designed to run from the southern end of Skyline Drive at Rockfish Gap, Virginia, into North Carolina and, in Virginia, was a part of the Shenandoah National Forest. Work was done by the Works Progress Administration, the Emergency Relief Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

In the documentary, Jeb Rosebrook recalls writing this episode and also shares comments about his long friendship with Earl: “In the summer of 1952, while working for the Buildings and Grounds Department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a coworker told me the story of his family having been forcefully evicted from their mountain home in the Blue Ridge to pave the way for the Skyline Drive.

“Twenty years later when I remembered this story, a mountain matriarch named Martha Corinne came to mind (I named her after two of my aunts). She was magnificently portrayed by Beulah Bondi, and the honesty of the story was made possible in part by research provided by Earl Hamner’s mother. All in all this was a special writing experience, one that went so beautifully from the page to film.”

Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas

In EARL HAMNER STORYTELLER, Richard Thomas’ genuine love for Earl, as well as his Walton siblings, was evident as he talked with the crew, mentioning favorite episodes and guest stars. Thomas discussed his decision to leave the show after five years, when his original contract expired and his theater roots were calling him to broaden his horizons.

It is a decision he does not regret, although he did miss his Walton family and was delighted to reprise his role as John-Boy in the reunion movies. He still keeps framed mementos from his last episode. Richard also discussed how Earl’s writing touched his life beyond portraying him as John-Boy.

“I have to say that no one—I’ve been doing this now for 55, 56 years and there’s not another single person, anywhere, with us or no longer with us—that has contributed more to my life as an artist, as an actor, who’s given me greater opportunities. To provide an actor with a role like John-Boy is a greater gift than you can possibly know. It’s a gift that I still appreciate till this day and I always will. I can never thank you enough.”

In the closing narration of “The Achievement” episode, Earl says, “I did leave Walton’s Mountain to live and work in New York City. I wrote more novels and raised a family of my own. Today, we live in California, but no matter where I am, the call of a night bird, the rumble of a train crossing a trestle, the scent of crab apple, the lowing of a sleepy cow can call me home again. In memory I stand before that small white house, and I can still hear those sweet voices.”

It has been a year-long labor of love and we’re happy to report that the EARL HAMNER STORYTELLER documentary has been filmed. Many of you have asked when and where the documentary will be available. The film has entered post production and we will have more information about its availability in the near future. Some of you have asked how you can be involved in the project and offered your support. You can get involved; have a look at our IndieGoGo page.  We greatly appreciate your help.

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