NEXT MEETING: April 20, 2017
Reception at 6:30 p.m. Meeting at 7:00 p.m.
Emmet O’Neal Library, Mountain Brook
SPEAKER: James Lowery
TOPIC: Birmingham Mineral Railroad
—by: Phillip Alford
n 1961, I was as typical a small town southern boy as you could get. I was born in Gadsden. My parents moved to Birmingham when I was a baby and that was where I spent my school years; but my summers were spent in Piedmont, Alabama. That was where my heart was, at my grandmother’s house. Long hot summers spent with my friends, making dirt forts for playing army games, chewing rabbit tobacco, and shooting firecrackers, even though they were forbidden because, "You’ll blow your hand off." Basically, I had never been anywhere or done anything. It was bliss. Then everything changed. I was thrust into the spotlight as a major character in what was to become a classic motion picture. With all the attendant publicity and notoriety.
I had done a play at Town and Gown Theater, in Birmingham, because I had a decent boy soprano voice. However, I had no ambitions to continue with that, and figured that I could get on with being a normal thirteen year old, when my mother asked me, one day, if I would like to go to an interview for a movie being cast by Universal Pictures. This suggestion had come to her from the director of the theater, James Hatcher. The bait was that I would get out of school for half a day. So I bit. What I didn’t know, was that Universal had been touring all over the South, and had interviewed over 2,500 children already.
The interview, with Ms. Alice Boatwright, lasted about five minutes. I was there with several hundred other kids, and I figured my chances were nil for success. Anyway, I had always wanted to be Tarzan, not Johnny Wisemuller. Being an actor wasn’t in my plans.
About a month later, we got a surprise. A call to be at the Town and Gown Theater for another interview. This time, besides Ms. Boatwright, the Producer, Mr. Alan Pakula, was there, with about ten or fifteen other kids for the second interview. We read from the script, did some scenes for him, and generally made fools of ourselves. At least that was how I felt. I left thinking that I, again, was finished with my acting career.
Wrong. About a month later my mom got a call to ask if we would come to New York to do a screen test. I can’t describe the feeling. I was about to go to the biggest city in the world, to do something millions of people would die for. Universal would put us up in a fancy hotel, carry us in limousines, feed us, send us to Broadway Shows, sightseeing, and all for free. Wouldn’t cost us a penny. Wonderful. But, there was a hitch, they wanted us to fly. My mother had never been on an airplane and was scared to death, so they agreed to let us come up on the train. They fixed us up with our own private berth and away we went.
Let me give you some advice. When a major studio wants to take you someplace, go. It was fabulous, and all I had to do was stand in front of a camera for a while and read from a script. In case you haven’t heard, all a screen test does is show how you look and sound on film, as well as to see if you freeze up in front of a camera. We weren’t told how well it went or if I had the job, and frankly, I didn’t care. I had already done more than I expected to, and I was satisfied.
Mr. Pakula and I talked my mom into flying back to Birmingham. The flight was rough and my mother had white knuckles the whole way; but, for me the flight topped off the whole thing.
We didn’t hear anything for a couple of months, and I thought that I hadn’t gotten the role. That was alright with me. The publicity was already too much, and besides, I had stories to tell my friends that would last forever.
On New Years Eve, 1961, a friend of mine was having a party for us eight graders, with the parents as chaperones. My father had stayed at home. A house full of screaming kids wasn’t his cup of tea, and he thought he needed to stay by the phone, in case we got a call from Hollywood. At about 8:00 that evening the phone rang at my friend’s house. It was for my mother.
Mr. Pakula had called our house with the news that I had been chosen for the part, and my dad had given him the phone number of my friend. It became very quiet at the party while my mom talked with him. When she got off the phone, she told me that we would be leaving the next week for California to begin filming. The whole party erupted, and I didn’t get in trouble for carving my initials in the top of a wooden stool belonging to my friend’s mother.
My life was never the same after that. The trip, the filming, the openings and the next nine years of my movie career, all had their moments, both good and bad; but, this period of time, was the most memorable, and will affect my life forever. My role of Jem, in To Kill A Mockingbird is something I’m very proud of, not necessarily for my performance, but because of the impact that the movie has had on a generation of people around the world.
Reprinted with permission from I Wish I Was In Dixie, childhood recollections by prominent Alabamians by Jim Reed & Marie Stokes Jemison, Reed’s Books, Birmingham, Alabama.
Godey's Lady's Book, alternatively known as Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book, was a United States women's magazine published in Philadelphia. It was the most widely circulated magazine in the period before the Civil War. Its circulation rose from 70,000 in the 1840s to 150,000 in 1860. In the 1860s Godey's considered itself the "queen of monthlies." A yearly subscription was fairly expensive, costing $3. Each year the magazine issues would be published in book form. Several famous authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote articles for the magazine.
The Birmingham Americans were members of the four-team Central Division of the World Football League (WFL). The Americans, founded in late December 1973, played in the upstart league's inaugural season in 1974. Financially unstable due to investor reluctance and lavish signing bonuses paid to lure National Football League (NFL) players to the new league, the team folded after only one season.
—by: Dr. Henry M. Edmonds, written in 1960.
n the train one day going to Montgomery I sat down by Robert R. Meyer, an old friend and owner of a string of hotels. I said to him:
"Would you like to spend some money in a way that will leave a good taste in your mouth as long as you live?"
"Yes," he answered. "Tell me how."
"All right; I’ll talk to you later."
I came home and talked with several social workers and doctor friends, asking them to tell me what they considered the greatest social need in Birmingham at that time. They agreed that a fresh-air farm for undernourished children was it.
I went to Mr. Meyer with the report.
He said: "That appeals to me. I’ll furnish the money, if you’ll run it."
I went before the Women’s Organization of the Independent Presbyterian Church and put it up to them. They accepted the assignment.
The first summer, with Mrs. Chalmers Moore as chairman of the committee the Farm was operated in the Shades Valley Grammar School building. Everybody was enthusiastic. The next year Mr. Meyer bought the Sam Perry place on Shades Mountain, ten miles from Birmingham. There was a large house with ten acres lying back of it and around it in the woods. The Perrys were interested in the project and contributed substantially in the low price they asked.
That was the beginning. A big sleeping porch was added at the back. Later a dining room and kitchen with covered way, then dormitories for the boys and girls, then a pavilion for play in bad weather and for the presentation of programs. A wading pool, a chicken-house, a vegetable garden, playgrounds, and a big barbecue pit adjoining the pavilion were built. Mrs. Percy Brower endowed a flower garden in memory of her mother, Mrs. Carrie Lum. Each child had a plot with tools, and there were flowers on every table at every meal, grown by the children themselves.
Miss O. May Jones was the first superintendent. The children had fruit, oatmeal, eggs, fresh vegetables, chicken every day, and an abundance of milk, at meals and between meals. Pretty soon the number was set at 300 a summer, three groups of a hundred each. They were nominated by children’s agencies as undernourished, each child was visited, and the neediest selected.
They were then run through a clinic and for a time, at least, we averaged a hundred operations for bad tonsils, our own doctors performing the operations – William Staggers, Walter Hardy. The day of departure for the Farm, another clinic was run to prevent contagious diseases getting loose. These clinics were held by our Dr. Hughes Kennedy, Jr., children’s specialist. Then he visited the camp once a week. He has of late been succeeded by his son, Hughes Kennedy III, also a pediatrician.
The church matched Mr. Meyer’s annual contribution over the years, though he was constantly making additional gifts, like walk-in refrigerators, new electric stoves.
A beautiful swimming pool was added with dressing rooms adjoining by the Eugene Irelands. Gradually the church stretched the summer months to include the whole year of life for the children. Birthdays were celebrated, books and clothes were secured for school, family difficulties were studied and often resolved.
Mr. Monroe Rooks was made chairman of a committee for visiting in families and reporting the state of affairs. Through his influence, children who showed ambition and promise were pushed on through high school and even to college. Music lessons were provided through the church organist, where talent appeared. The children’s teeth were regularly treated.
The Farm came to be not only a philanthropy for needy children, but a project in religious education. At one time, there were two hundred and ten persons on various committees at work there. And many more. Different departments of the Sunday School accepted certain responsibilities. One group of young people, for example, repainted the furniture every spring in preparation for the three months coming. A number have spent the summer working with the children.
There was a chicken Sunday when everybody brought live hens, to lay eggs as long as they would and then be eaten. One little girl prayed: "O Lord, keep my hen laying so she won’t have to die." Chicken Sunday was discontinued by one of my successors, who regarded it as undignified. Now an offering is taken.