Monday, December 11, 2006

The Year The Gathering was Filmed at WRA

About this time of year, people in Hudson start asking about The Gathering, the Emmy-award winning Christmas classic that was filmed mostly on our campus early in 1977 and then released as a television film in December of that year. It was shown during the Christmas season for many years, but now is hard to find as it was only issued in VHS and has yet to come out in DVD format. The production brought acclaimed film stars Edward Asner and Maureen Stapleton to Hudson along with Stephanie Zimbalist and several other young actors. The film was written by Academy-award winner James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Lilies of the Field, other credits) and directed by Randal Kleiser. It originally aired on ABC television.

The story of The Gathering takes place during the Christmas season in a small New England town w
here the Thornton family are attempting a reunion with Adam Thornton, who had left his wife and family to pursue a successful career in business. Now terminally ill, he is invited back to his home to be with his estranged wife and four children, some of whom now have children of their own. Asner was cast as the crusty Adam Thornton while Maureen Stapleton portrayed his forgiving wife, Kate.

WRA's Pierce House had a leading role of its own as the family home, and for the month of February, 1977, Headmaster Hunter M. Temple an
d his family needed to move out while the film crew moved in and did some redecorating to meet the the requirements of the story. Several scenes in the film take place in or just outside Pierce House including the climactic moment when the family is reunited for a Christmas dinner served in the dining room with all participants gathered around the table. It's a heart-wrenching scene in this beloved film.

Another scene shows a
group of carolers gathered outside the door singing in the snow. These carolers included WRA's own Frank Longstreth, Rollin Waite, Robert Pryce, Sue Donnelly, Lee Turner, Janet Stone, Jean Conly and others. Even Hal and Sue Donnelly's dog made an unexpected appearance during the caroling scene, and Ed Asner called him "Spot." Hudson resident John Hubbard, father of Mary Hubbard Black '76, had a speaking role as the family minister. Priscilla Graham, mother of James A. Graham '70, and the late Cynthia Longstreth also had bit parts in the film. While the cast was on campus, they took lunch in Ellsworth Hall, and when the film was completed, Asner and Stapleton gave a memorable school assembly in the Chapel. Only a few photos remain from that event, although we suspect that several alumni have personal photos in their collection of the film stars or of that assembly.

In 1997, I taped a segment about The Gathering for Hudson CableTV and tried to get permission to use a moment or two of clips from the film for our public access station, but Warner Brothers denied the use. Earlier this year, Rob Loos '77 of TLC Entertainment presented the John D. Ong Library with a fresh VHS of The Gathering and its sequel. There is no word about whether the movie will ever appear in DVD.

It would be interesting to hear from WRA alumni who were students on campus the year The Gathering was made.

Dutch Newspaper to Publish Story about WRA Bell

Recently a newspaper that serves Wester Souburch in Holland contacted the school to clarify the story about the bell at WRA's Chapel that was cast in their town and which was the catalyst for a relief effort at the end of World War II. The bell itself was cast by Ian Burerhuys in 1611 as the Latin inscription clearly indicates. It was purchased by WRA benefactor James W. Ellsworth probably before 1900 and installed in a bell tower at his Hudson home, Evamere Hall. After his death in 1925, his estate, together with the bell, became the property of WRA.

In the summer of 1944, a crack was discovered in an old bell that had hung in the Chapel tower for nearly 90 years. That particular bell was cast in
Troy, New York, in 1853. Since it needed to be replaced, the decision was made to bring the Wester Souburch bell from Evamere Hall and place it in the Chapel tower. On July 22, 1944, a recording was made of the last striking of the hour and a brief ceremony, presided over by WRA Dean Harlan N. Wood, was held as the old bell was taken down and replaced by the large Dutch bell.

Around t
he same time, the village of Wester Souburch itself was being inundated by water as the result of damaged dikes bombed during a standoff between German and American forces. Mrs. Helen H. Kitzmiller, Reserve's school historian and wife to longtime master, Harrison Kitzmiller, saw the stories about the plight of the people in this village, and because our bell had been made in that town, decided to launch a relief effort on their behalf.

What began as a hands-across-the-sea effort on the part of the WRA community became an effort that involved the whole town of Hudson for a period of about five years. Each spring there
was a kind of fair held on the WRA campus for the benefit of Wester Souburch.

When the Kitzmillers retired from W
RA in 1954, they decided to travel abroad and were invited to Holland to accept honors from the Dutch government and the people of Wester Souburch. They went there in December of 1955 to accept the award, and while traveling in Spain a month later, Mrs. Kitzmiller took ill and died in Barcelona. Mr. Kitzmiller returned to Columbus where he had grown up, and lived there until his death in 1978.

By coincidence, the same week I heard from the Dutch newspaper, I
was contacted by a cousin of Helen Kitzmiller, who will be coming to Hudson next spring to look at the Kitzmiller scrapbooks in the WRA Archives. Meanwhile, the bell article by Franz van der Brink will be published in Holland on or around December 16, 2006.