Photography, Stories Told

The time I accidentally wandered onto the set of Forrest Gump

There’s a scene at the Lincoln Memorial in the movie Forrest Gump. It’s the one where Forrest and Jenny run through the reflecting pool to embrace. Here’s a still:

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Unbelievably, on my 1993 trip to DC I came upon what remained of the shoot. I didn’t know what movie it was for at the time, of course. But I did photograph enough of the scene to prove now that it was Forrest Gump. Check the TV truck in the lower right of the photo above. It’s in my photo below, lower left.

Lincoln Memorial, 1993

It sports a logo of WTOP-TV, an actual Washington, DC, television station (that has since changed call letters to WUSA). It’s a period-correct logo. Here is a video of an ID and the opening minutes of a newscast from this period:

On the ground that summer day in 1993, I wondered why a television station would use such an old truck. And then I noticed the construction debris, and wondered if I’d wandered onto a set being struck.

Lincoln Memorial, 1993

It was exciting to see Forrest Gump in the theater and realize I’d missed this scene’s filming by probably only a couple of days.

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Time has come today

Sometimes I noodle around with my Canon S95 or my iPhone while I’m watching TV. I’m not sure why I do it, but I have captured my TV screen dozens upon dozens of times. I think I’m fascinated that my digital camera can capture a crisp image off my flat-screen TV.

One evening I was watching some 1960s spy flick. I forget what it was called. I liked the look of these clocks. Because I wasn’t sitting right in front of the TV, the original photo shows my entire TV screen at a wacky angle. So I set my crop to 16×9 and expanded it to capture as much of the movie image as it could but leave everything else out. This image is my computer’s desktop background right now.

Photography

Captured: Time has come today

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History, Preservation

Only the State and the Palace remain

When I was a small boy, South Bend’s five downtown movie theaters clung precariously to solvency: the Palace, the State, the Granada, the Colfax, and the Avon. Times were difficult for them then, as the 1960s crossfaded into the 1970s, because more and more people were charmed by recently built suburban shopping-center theaters for their convenience and ample parking. The story was much the same for all of downtown South Bend’s businesses.

As was the case in cities and towns all over the United States, at one time downtown was the place to be. My mother remembers, and can still be coaxed into telling stories of shopping downtown in South Bend during her 1950s childhood. Her parents would even have experienced the October night in 1940 when the film Knute Rockne, All Americanhad its world premeire at four of South Bend’s theaters simultaneously. Here, people crowd around the Colfax.

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Photo source: CineWiki

This is probably the more famous photo from that autumn night: Michigan Street, US 31, filled with people between the Palace and the Granada.

RocknePalaceGranada

Photo source: St. Joseph County Public Library

Here are these two theaters again, photographed in 1927. The Granada was brand new. This photo shows another little theater, the Orpheum, which I gather closed in about 1931.

Cinematreasures photo

Photo source: Cinema Treasures

I don’t remember the Granada. I was alive in 1971 when it was demolished, but I wasn’t quite four years old and memories of those days are very dim. Here’s what it looked like in its final years. It opened in 1927.

Granada

Photo source: unknown

I think that the Granada’s demise was related to a downtown revitalization project called The Associates Superblock. I learned about it in a high-school civics class 30 years ago. The Associates was a national investment company founded and headquartered in South Bend. In the wake of Studebaker’s failure, the company wanted to build a new headquarters and revitalize downtown at the same time. Until that time, US 31 followed Michigan St. through downtown. I’m pretty sure it was the Superblock that led to US 31 being rerouted. Southbound lanes were routed one block west onto Main Street, and the northbound lanes followed Michigan Street except for five blocks downtown, where they were routed one block east onto St. Joseph Street. St. Joseph and Michigan meet at either end of downtown; the Granada stood where these two roads now merge on the north end of downtown. Then in 1975, The Associates relocated to Chicago, leaving the Superblock a shambles. The project’s legacy was holes in the ground where proud buildings once stood.

Granada7-4-71

Photo source: unknown

The Colfax, which opened in 1928, was on Main Street. All of the other theaters lined Michigan Street, one block to the east. (Curiously, Michigan Street is South Bend’s main street – not Main Street.) Here’s a photo of the Colfax in its context. Judging by the cars in the photo, this was taken in the early 1980s.

ColfaxBlock1982

Photo source: Keith Wilson

I have a memory of my mother telling me she took me inside once before it closed, but I don’t recall the visit. I only remember the Colfax shuttered and looking terrible, like this. The Colfax closed in 1977 and was demolished in about 1991.

ColfaxTheater

Photo source: Keith Wilson

The Avon, which opened in 1926, was the smallest of South Bend’s theaters when I was a boy. I never set foot in the place, for it showed “art films.” In those days, that was the polite name for smut. The theater began its life as the Strand.

Photo source: Strand Theater Shelbyville

Photo source: Strand Theater Shelbyville

The theater changed its name to Avon in 1949. I remember it only as the Avon, but this photo from about the late 1970s shows it was known as the Mall Theater for awhile, probably referencing the disastrous pedestrian mall built on Michigan Street in the wake of the Superblock failure.

Mall

Photo source: unknown

Inevitably, the Avon closed. It looked like this for probably twenty years. Bits of the terra cotta facade began falling onto the sidewalk in about 2012, hastening the theater’s demolition that year.

Avon

Photo source: Indiana Economic Digest

At least the State and the Palace still stand. The State’s wonderful marquee is a South Bend icon. The theater opened in 1921 as the Blackstone. I saw two films here, both Disney feature cartoons: Bambi, in about 1975, the first film I saw at a theater; and Fantasia, in about 1977. Here’s a photo of the State that I took in 2007.

State2007

I was about ten the last time I was inside. What I remember most was that the rich, dark colors in which the interior was painted creeped me out. This photo from 2011 backs up my memory! The State stood empty for many years before being reused as a church, a night club, and now as a cultural center.

Source: The South Bend Tribune

Source: The South Bend Tribune

South Bend’s greatest downtown theater is the Palace. It opened in 1921 as a vaudeville house, but like so many other theaters it converted to showing movies after vaudeville died. Here’s a photo of the Palace from its vaudeville days.

Photo source: unknown

Photo source: unknown

The Palace almost met the wrecking ball in 1959 thanks to declining revenue. But Ella Morris, a local philanthropist, bought the theater and sold it to the city for a dollar. It then reopened as the Morris Civic Auditorium and hosted plays and concerts for many years. However, the building fell into decline and was in sorry condition by the late 1990s. Fortunately, it underwent a complete restoration, reopening in 2000 as the Morris Performing Arts Center. Here’s a photo I took of it in 2007.

Palace2007

I’ve been to two events here: a showing of the film It’s a Wonderful Life in 1988, and a concert by the rock band Heart in 2006. I was shocked by the building’s poor condition in 1988 – but just look at it now. Here’s its lobby.

Photo source: Cinema Treasures

Photo source: Cinema Treasures

Here’s the view of the stage from the balcony. When I saw Heart play here, I stood in the area between the stage and the front row of seats. What a vantage point!

Photo source: Cinema Treasures

Photo source: Cinema Treasures

South Bend is certainly not alone in having lost so many grand buildings, including theaters, starting in the 1970s. Urban renewal and suburban sprawl touched so many communities in this way. But South Bend is especially fortunate that the State survives and the Palace thrives.

See a recent photo I took of the Palace here.

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Stories Told

It’s a wonderful Christmas tradition

What’s your favorite personal Christmas tradition?

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Mine is to watch the film It’s a Wonderful Life. It is my favorite movie – and has been for so long that I’ve watched it pass from obscurity to being discovered and well loved. Now I’m seeing it start to be considered cliché and passé. But that won’t deter me from watching it.

I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life when I was 11 or 12. I was spending Christmas with my grandparents at their home in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa’s big antenna picked up stations all over Michigan, and I liked to watch the late shows after everyone else had gone to bed. I came upon this film while flipping channels. I was quickly drawn into the story of George Bailey, a well-known and -loved little guy of modest means who plays the hero against a wealthy and patently evil man named Potter. It’s simplistic and sentimental, but I’m a sentimental man. I fell in love with the film.

TV made It’s a Wonderful Life popular. Even though the film was nominated for several Academy Awards after its 1946 release, it did poorly at the box office and lost money. But after a 1974 copyright snafu put the film in the public domain, television stations everywhere began airing it each Christmas and the film caught on. By the late 1980s it had become an enduring classic.

Through the 1980s I searched for it on TV every Christmas season. Some years I came upon it, and some years I didn’t. Then I received a VHS copy as a gift, and later I bought a DVD copy, and now I never miss it. Meanwhile, a court decision placed the film back under copyright, and now the only place you can see it on TV is NBC every Christmas Eve.

My most bittersweet memory of watching this film was at Christmas in 1987. A beautiful old theater in my hometown was showing the film one night. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see the film in such a wonderful environment on a big screen and share it with an audience. But then my grandmother died suddenly and unexpectedly. I had been very close to her, and her death tore me up something fierce. I wanted to be alone, but I went to see the film anyway. I found a seat near the back and tried to put away my grief for a little while. It worked right up until the end, when George Bailey is rescued by all of this friends. I always tear up a little, but that night I sobbed openly.

I love how watching the film puts me in touch with my memories of my grandparents, who have been gone for more than a quarter century now. They were of the same era as fictional George Bailey; when this film was released, they has been married ten years and their third child, a daughter, my mother, was still in diapers.

If you have a Christmas tradition that holds special meaning for you or that is something you do just for yourself, please tell about it in the comments.

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It’s not Christmas at my house until we
break out the Johnny Mathis. Read about it.

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