Churchill, Church & Charm

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They were the best sliders I ever ate. Smoked to a moist perfection, the brisket slices draped off the toasted bun, almost dripping the barbecue sauce onto my plate. And those sliders were on my mind as Erifnus, my car, rolled into Fulton.

No doubt about it, Beks knows how to serve up sumptuous fare inside the warm ambiance of this charming restaurant in the historic Brick District of Fulton. So Erifnus beat a path to the Brick District and let me graze. I’d had the sliders before, so today the black and blue tilapia jumped off the menu, blackened with bleu cheese crumbles.

Across the old brick street from Beks, the tailor to your brain beckons. Well Read Books, an independent bookstore, fills its 120-year-old space with book smells and good light, easychairs and cats.

Fulton tells a good story. It’s the setting for a pair of dramatic portrayals by the world’s two top conservative icons. Ronald Reagan calls King’s Row his best movie. Filmed in 1942, it’s a fictional story about folks in Fulton. Four years later, Winston Churchill delivered his Iron Curtain Speech on the campus of Fulton’s Westminster College and set in motion the American visual of the Cold War, which consumed the attention of an octet of presidents, including Reagan.

The Winston Churchill National Museum sits in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury. The old church gets around. It was built nearly 900 years ago in the middle of London. Sir Christopher Wren redesigned the chapel after the 1666 Great Fire of London gutted its interior. The blitzkriegs of 1941 destroyed the old church, again. But it survived enough that in the mother of all pilgrimages, loving hands picked up the church, jumped the pond and plopped it down in Fulton. They disassembled and reassembled it using a numbering system that’s part paint-by-number, part Rubik’s Cube. Having undergone a facelift worthy of Wren, the church houses a museum celebrating Churchill’s life and achievements. Outside sits just enough of the Berlin Wall to give you a creepy feel for the reality of the Cold War standoff.

In a way, this place has become the American Westminster Abbey—without all the dead bodies. But it’s real, and presented tastefully. Before the old church made its big leap, before the tragic fire and the awful bombs, it was the place where William Shakespeare prayed for good reviews and where John Milton got married. I think Milton talks about his marriage in his autobiography, Paradise Lost. Maybe not. During an earlier visit to Fulton, I searched in vain throughout the college for a Paradise Lost and Found. The Kingdom holds no such treasure.

The town also treasures its most famous resident that nobody talks about. Henry Bellamann was born and raised in Fulton, and when he moved away to teach music at Julliard and Vassar, he dabbled in psychology and poetry. But his lasting legacy is a dark description of psychological terror and taboo, the seed for the modern soap opera. It’s the novel, King’s Row–the same book that later boosted Ronald Reagan’s career—about a small town with whitewashed fences and whitewashed reputations hiding dirty little corners and the seamy underbelly of its residents’ obsessions with money and status, class and racism, sex and sadomasochism, profit and plunder, and a cornucopia of mental afflictions.

The novel begins by advising readers that the story is fictional and could be about any town anywhere. To be fair, that statement is true. But there’s little doubt that Bellamann’s setting is Fulton. In the acutely sanitized movie adaptation of the book, Ronald Reagan received accolades for his performance. But the movie bears little resemblance to the novel’s deep disturbing Dostoyevsky-like themes and subplots. Literary critics call this book the blueprint for Peyton Place—and every soap opera since.

The above is an excerpt from John Robinson’s third book, Pioneers Need Pants, to be published in 2017. Read more of the author’s stories at JohnDrakeRobinson.com. His previous books, Coastal Missouri and A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart are available at independent bookstores and online booksellers everywhere.

Something Old, Something New

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Missourians can’t help it. They keep tearing Lawrence down.

Apologies to the good people of Lawrence, Kansas—both of them—but there’s bad blood between them and us. In fact, the Civil War really began along the border between Missouri and Kansas, long before the first shots rang out at Fort Sumter.

The first time Lawrence got torched was in 1856 during the Bleeding Kansas conflict. Jesse James was only eight years old, so it’s doubtful his mom let him make the trip. Seven years later, he likely missed the second burning of Lawrence, too. But brother Frank was there, along with William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, Archie Clement and a cadre of Bushwhackers.

Ang Lee’s movie, “Ride with the Devil,” wasn’t the first celluloid treatment of the 1863 burning of Lawrence. But Lee was the first to use an old abandoned Missouri town as the movie set. Lee found the perfect torchable town in Old Pattonsburg, Missouri, a town so ravaged by floods that the inhabitants moved out of the Grand River valley, up the hill and established a new Pattonsburg. Left behind, venerable old brick buildings—a church, a post office, mercantile stores—stood empty along Old Pattonsburg’s main street.

With Hollywood skill, Lee transformed the old ghost town, made it look like Lawrence, and torched it again. Ang Lee’s circus of actors and technicians and trailers added a cash infusion to the local economy. Motel rooms sold out for weeks as movie crews spent money in local stores on food and booze and gas and stuff.

After Lee’s movie, folks were excited that a burgeoning movie industry might take a foothold in this old ghost town, which could be dressed up to look like Anytown main street from the 1850s to the 1950s.

With low overhead that would compete with the Canadian film industry, the town was poised to nickname itself Movie Set, Missouri. Instead, local authorities finished off what Bushwhacker actors had left standing. After Ang Lee’s carnival left the old ghost town, locals razed the solid old buildings on Main Street. They just tore them down. According to more than one source, the county couldn’t afford liability insurance. Plus, law enforcement authorities worried that kids would party in the empty streets and buildings.

Legitimate concerns.

But with one big movie under its belt, Old Pattonsburg had street cred. It could have provided the small-town backdrop for movies about any era from Twain to Truman. Film a movie on the lot once every ten years, and you could reap enough income for liability insurance, two deputies to chase out the vagrants and enough money left over to pay a few teachers’ salaries.

It was a forfeiture of forward thinking.

Kansans had the last laugh. They rebuilt Lawrence. Old Pattonsburg bit the dust.

But if there’s ever a living testament to the phrase “Life goes on,” it’s new Pattonsburg. When the citizens of Old Pattonsburg got tired of the floods and planned their new shining city on a hill, they designed a new school in the shape of a geodesic dome. They built a modern business district, with artifacts from Old Pattonsburg.

In a new Pattonsburg at the Old Memorie Cafe I found a mural commemorating “Ride with the Devil.” The scene, painted by Elanor McMahall, is a reminder of Old Pattonsburg’s last days, when Ang Lee brought his Hollywood carnival to town, dressed her up like Lawrence and set her ablaze.

It’s a vivid story of a tragic time set in a Missouri ghost town that had endured her own turbulence.

The above is an excerpt from John Robinson’s third book, Pioneers Need Pants, to be published in 2017. Read more of the author’s stories at JohnDrakeRobinson.com. His previous books, Coastal Missouri and A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart are available at independent bookstores and online booksellers everywhere.

The Tuscumbia/Beverly Hills Pipeline

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On a hilltop overlooking the Osage River, a part of your history sleeps. And I’ll wager a fancy leather lunchbox full of Texas tea that most Americans probably have spent more hours absorbing this history than they did learning about Osage Chief James Bigheart or the slaughter of the bison in Missouri.

Most locals can tell you about this unique history, spawned by Tuscumbia’s most famous permanent residents. You might not know them, but you know their stories. On the edge of town, Paul and Ruth Henning sleep the eternal sleep. They’re in Tuscumbia Cemetery now, their unassuming gravestones in the shade of a giant cedar tree. There’s no pronouncement carved in granite that “Here lie the maw and paw of the Beverly Hillbillies.”

But their stories live on in celluloid. Although they made their mark in Hollywood, they made their final resting place in the land that produced the rich fabric of their stories, some of them only a stone’s throw from this plot.

Ruth grew up here, and when she got a job at a Kansas City radio station and met her city-boy beau Paul, she enriched his life with her rural stories.

As a fledgling songbird at KMBZ, Paul’s television hits were still over the horizon—and might not have happened at all if it weren’t for two important life choices.

His first key decision came after a brush with greatness. He was a child when his family moved from his Blue Ridge, Missouri, birthplace to nearby Independence. As a student at William Chrisman High School, Paul earned extra money as a soda jerk in the hours after school. There’s a legend around the Independence square that back in 1929, Harry Truman sat at the soda fountain at Pendleton’s Drugstore and offered advice to Henning: “Become a lawyer.”

Henning went to law school. But his heart followed another script, a path that led him to KMBZ, where he met the love of his life. Ruth Barth was a young singer who shared a microphone with Paul in those days of live radio theater.

That was Paul’s second important choice: He focused on Ruth. They eventually married, and like all good husbands, he listened to her stories and her advice. She became his inspiration and perhaps the biggest reason for his sitcom success. Many of Paul’s television scripts spring from the Miller County hills where Ruth spent much of her childhood.

Case in point: Hooterville sprouted from Paul’s mind, inspired by Ruth’s childhood memories.

If the Hooterville sisters’ names ring a bell—Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo and Betty Jo—you’re already familiar with my home town of Eldon, just down the road from Tuscumbia. The long-running TV tandem Petticoat Junction and Green Acres got much of their inspiration from a hotel in Eldon, where the old Rock Island railroad would deliver Ruth for summer visits. There, Ruth and her summer girlfriends engaged in the time-honored art of attracting boys.

Of course you can sing the words to Paul Henning’s most famous song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.”

Not only did Henning write “The Beverly Hillbillies” themesong and create the TV spinoffs “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres,” his very first TV hit has roots in Missouri, too. The Bob Cummings Show featured a trendy photographer who migrated to Hollywood from Joplin, Missouri.

Throughout his television career, Henning produced a gusher of scripts with more footprints in Missouri than a cement pond full o’ possums.

As I stood beside their graves, it struck me that more people have formed their impressions of Ozarks hill people from Ruth and Paul and their Beverly Hillbillies, than from any history of the region. That’s not surprising. Most people get their knowledge of classical music from Looney Tunes.

Read more of the author’s stories at
JohnDrakeRobinson.com. His books, Coastal Missouri and A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart are available at independent bookstores and online booksellers everywhere.

Saluda and The Dean of Tunes

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Erifnus, my car, took me across the Missouri River to Lexington. Nowadays the new bridge offers a stress-free ride, unlike its predecessor, the second-scariest Missouri River bridge ever, now relegated to the scrap heap of history.

The old bridge was so narrow that it was difficult to squeeze a death certificate between passing vehicles. The ride could get even scarier at the south bank where the river bluff forced a tight turn. The new bridge is spacious and safe, a tribute to engineering progress, except for one thing. Unlike the iron railings of that old bridge, through which I could see the river, the new bridge has solid concrete walls that rise just high enough to impede my view from Erifnus’ low-slung cockpit, forcing me to pay attention to the highway.

Up the hill, Lexington is a history book. Even before the Civil War’s legendary Battle of the Hemp Bales, this picturesque town bled tales of triumph and tragedy. Many stories rise from the hallowed grounds of the oldest continually-operated corporation in Missouri. This business isn’t going overseas, and it won’t change its name in a corporate takeover. Macpelah Cemetery did a brisk business during America’s westward expansion, burying pioneers who succumbed to disease and boiler explosions and drowning. Within the cemetery’s walls are thousands of tragic pioneer stories, mostly forgotten, buried by time.

A whole section of the cemetery contains scores of Mormon pilgrims scalded to death when the steamer Saluda’s boiler blew them onto the river bank. It was Good Friday, a cold day in 1852. The river delivered chunks of ice through a narrow chute just upriver from Lexington. The Saluda’s Captain Francis Belt had tried for two days to power his ship through the chute, and on this morning, he was determined to make it around that bend, to continue steaming toward his destination in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He ordered more steam, and within seconds the boilers exploded, throwing a hundred bodies onto the banks and into the river, which swept them away. The recovered bodies, many of them children, were laid to rest at Macpelah.

I had dinner that evening with local historians. Byron Nicodemus told me about one of Lexington’s brightest stars. Back in the days before talking movies, Carl Stalling played a mean piano around the local theaters. He was so good he gravitated to Kansas City, where a young artist named Disney heard Carl playing and hired him as musical director at his fledgling Laff-O-Gram Studios. Moving west to L.A. with Walt, Carl later left Disney Studios—a move some people questioned at the time—and went to work for Warner Brothers. There, Carl became “the dean of tunes,” an innovative musical director for the soundtrack of America’s childhood, some 700 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.

Carl arranged a Dave Franklin song, “The Merry Go Round Broke Down,” for a 1937 cartoon called “Rover’s Rival.” The song became the theme for Looney Tunes. You’ve heard it as many times as you’ve sang “Happy Birthday.” But that’s not Carl Stalling’s most important contribution to civilization. His most lasting legacy happens every time a child sees a Warner Brothers cartoon. Daffy Duck. Bugs Bunny...it doesn’t matter. Behind every visual is a musical score that bathes the viewer in classical music. His scores dig deeper than the obvious classical greatest hits. Yes, he uses the William Tell Overture. But his works blend in Chopin and Grieg and Mendelssohn, Rossini and Mozart, and Irving Berlin.

It’s a safe bet that if your next door neighbor hums a classical tune while washing his car, he learned it not in school, but after school, watching Porky Pig.

I tried to find Carl Stalling’s house in old Lexington. It’s a paradox: In a town that boasts more historic homes per capita than anywhere, the sad fate of Carl’s house remains unknown. In a town with layers of rich history, mostly well-preserved, there isn’t much remaining from Carl Stalling. My car didn’t care. Erifnus shouts Carl’s classics from her cd player, while avoiding the fate of his last name.

Improvising

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I went to an old church the other day and got inspired.

Oh, it’s not quite what the builders had envisioned, this new role for an old sanctuary. But inspirational nonetheless.

Three decades ago the congregation left the aging church for a new building. The property sat empty, forlorn, expecting the wrecking ball any day. But an inspiring thing happened, and the good people of Rolla began to fill the old place with music and laughter. And children.

They turned the building into the Cedar Street Playhouse. Years ago I played a concert there with a group called Herisen, a phenomenal ensemble of songbirds who shook the rafters with inspiration. Since then, the Ozark Actors Theatre has roosted in the old hall, and live performances have brought theater center-stage to my fellow Ozarkians.

Especially younger generations.

A few weeks ago my most recent visit left me inspired all over again. I dropped in to see Stop Making Sense, a talented imrov troupe of comedians with day jobs...jobs that transplanted them to Rolla for one reason or another.

Stop Making Sense hit the mark with their brand of hilarity, all of it family-friendly.

A member of that improv troupe, Adrian Davey, has been one of my floating buddies every Spring for the better part of three decades. That’s when 50 or so Ozark Free Thinkers—fathers and sons and grandsons—gather at the headwaters of the Jacks Fork River and paddle 30 miles over three days.

So I’d heard Adrian’s stories around the campfire. But I’d never seen his humor onstage. The troupe’s comedy was fresh, the timing crisp, and the show’s pace moved quickly through the two-hour performance.

Stop Making Sense was fine and funny and fun. And I left that old church grinning from ear to ear. For I had been inspired by an unexpected source. Sitting all around us in that crowd of a hundred were several dozen children, grade school age, mostly. They laughed and shouted and hooted and hollered out suggested scenarios to the comedians who obliged enthusiastically.

It reminded me that even on my best day, I’d be a poor match to outwit a roomful of fourth graders.

Meanwhile the comedians set a pace and a rapport that kept those kids spellbound, entertained by an art form as old as Aeschylus, older, certainly, than the iPhones that idled in patrons’ pockets. Even during intermission, when the adults brought out their personal electronic devices and texted and tweeted ‘til the second act, the kids romped and play-acted and didn’t seem to care if there was Wi-Fi or not.

When the lights dimmed, I got nervous; the lady next to me texted right up to the second act’s opening riff. Then I found out she was a surgeon checking on patients. It was a wake-up call to me, sitting in that old church, that maybe I should be a little more tolerant, a little less judgmental and work on a better bedside manner with a bit more “love thy neighbor.”

It made my heart swell, sitting on and surrounded by ancient wooden pews among folks who came together and breathed life back into this old house of worship and filled it with laughter and love and community.

And children.

Bravo, Rolla, and all the communities who find ways to bring joy back into our old abandoned buildings and revel in live performances. After all, it was the only way Thomas Edison saw shows when he was a kid.