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    Local News
    Friday, September 22, 2023

    Local History: Keeping track of major happenings and Hollywood films

    The Old Oaken Bucket, US lobbycard, from left: Mary Beth Barnelle, Bobby Connelly, 1921. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

    The following is the second in a series of stories that will run occasionally this year to honor the 50th anniversary of the Mystic River Historical Society.

    In the early days of the Mystic River Historical Society, before the age of the Internet and cable television, the society had two avenues for sharing the contents of its growing archive of Mystic-related history: in-person programs and its newsletter.

    Programs covered a wide range of topics, including local and regional families, places, events, maritime-related histories and even movies filmed locally. While the programs were typically accompanied by slides, several of them featured film and many employed professional storytellers who recreated figures from Mystic history and beyond.

    Two very popular programs covered the Hurricane of ’38 and Union Baptist Church’s history.

    To mark the 40th anniversary of the 1938 hurricane in September 1978, the society offered a program based on photos of the storm from an album donated to the society. Then-President Joyce Everett declared the lecture an “outstanding success.” In the newsletter, she wrote “Over 200 people crowded the Congregational Church parish hall … to hear Marilyn Comrie’s excellent accompanying narration.”

    In the April 1985 newsletter, President Forrest Mitchell lauded the slide lecture highlighting the history of the Union Baptist Church. The program, presented by Marilyn Comrie and Carol W. Kimball, celebrated the publication of a 120-page book by the two women, on the history of the church.

    “Our meeting on 29 March was indeed a most successful one. It rivaled the meeting on the 40th anniversary of the hurricane of ’38 in both attendance and local interest,” Mitchell wrote.

    Beyond providing updates on projects and acquisitions, early newsletters often included excerpts from early residents’ letters, diaries and other first-person accounts. The topics for these stories included: doomed Civil War soldiers, successful rum runners and hapless ‘49ers (one local resident had some success but was ultimately hoodwinked and robbed; another came away after months of exertion - including the arduous boat voyage around Cape Horn - with just enough gold to “plate a watch!”)

    Carol Kimball, Groton’s first town historian, elevated the content of the newsletter when she began writing the “Historian’s Corner.” She used the column to highlight interesting Mystic history as well to call attention to local historical areas of need, such as the upkeep of Lower Mystic (Fishtown) Cemetery, a historic burial ground on Route 1 that had fallen into disrepair.

    Spurred by the 1988 filming of “Mystic Pizza,” in her January 1989 column, Kimball asked for information about early movies filmed in Mystic. While “Mystic Pizza” helped put Mystic on the tourist map, it was not our first brush with Hollywood. Portions of two “lost films” (no copies survive) were filmed here, and residents provided fascinating accounts which were featured in our newsletters.

    “The Old Oaken Bucket,” a silent film released in 1921, told the story of a beleaguered Wall Street financier who returns to his childhood homestead and neighborhood for comfort and cheer. One of the movie’s taglines was: “A challenge to all who think they cannot cry,” which sounds like an old-fashioned way of describing a “tearjerker.”

    In her column, Kimball retold Old Mystic resident Anson Morgan’s brush with stardom.

    “Anson was a student in Hazel Bucklyn’s class at the Old Mystic School. The cameraman needed a dozen young boys to stage a ballgame, and a group of Old Mystic lads played a team from St. Michael’s School in Westerly (sic). In this scene the movie’s hero and chauffeur watched from a stone wall, enjoying every minute.

    “Anson remembered the hand-held cameras cranking away to record the scene and all the extras being rewarded with hot dogs and soda, which were passed out from the company’s trailer. The scenes involving the homestead and well with its old oaken bucket were filmed at the Brown Farm at Fishtown on Route 1, a beautiful early farmhouse that was torn down to make way for the Bel Aire development.”

    “Homeward Bound,” a silent film released by Paramount Pictures in July 1923, was described as a drama and romance that took place on the sea and featured two popular stars of the day: Thomas Meighan and Lila Lee. It is believed filming took place near today’s Steamboat Wharf.

    Resident Betty Law gave Kimball an account.

    “Betty was a little girl at the time (born in 1915) but remembers all the excitement of having Hollywood stars right in Mystic. Betty’s grandmother, Kate Perry, lived at 6 Water Street. The star, handsome Tom Meighan, came down Water Street on his way to work one morning and saw the lilacs in bloom in the Perry’s yard. He wanted some for his leading lady, Lila Lee.

    Betty’s uncle, Tom Perry, picked him a great big bouquet. Mrs. Perry refused pay for the lilacs, but Tom Meighan gave Tom Perry 50 cents and a visiting nephew from Providence a quarter, big money in those days!”

    At the end of her column, Kimball noted that information about “Mystic Pizza” will be filed in the archives “which may be of interest to future generations.” Little did she know how prophetic that statement was. The society was also prescient regarding future Hollywood productions. The last program of the 1980s featured the Amistad - eight years before filming took place hereabouts and more than a decade prior to the replica being built and launched at the Mystic Seaport.

    Lynn Schroder is a member of the board of trustees of the Mystic River Historical Society.

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