Listen to Hoosier History Live! at 11:30 a.m. each Saturday on WICR 88.7 FM. The Saturday show airs again at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. You also can listen online at the WICR website during the broadcast.
Also, you can join us at the Central Library on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. to listen to the live show.
Oct. 24, 2009 show - James Still on Lincoln, Grief and Emancipation
DURING THIS YEAR OF LINCOLN, celebrating the bicentennial of the Great Emancipator’s birth in 1809, Hoosier History Live! continues our periodic, special programming by tapping the insights of the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s acclaimed playwright-in-residence, James Still. His play The Heavens Are Hung in Black, which is on stage at the IRT through Sunday (Oct. 25), was commissioned by Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., where it premiered last February and was seen by the Obamas as well as other political leaders.
Nelson will talk with James about the complicated character of Abraham Lincoln and the agonizing decisions that confronted him during the era depicted in the play. It’s set during the spring and summer of 1862, when the Civil War was raging (with an uncertain outcome) and the Lincolns were mourning the death in the White House of their beloved son Willie. During the play, President Lincoln reflects on his nighttime habit of staring at the stars “when I was a boy in Indiana”; as Hoosier history lovers know, he lived here from age 8 through 21. In James’ play, Lincoln interacts, in fictionalized sequences, with famous 19th-century figures such as poet Walt Whitman, Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, abolitionist John Brown, civil rights icon Dred Scott, political rival Stephen Douglas, and actor Edwin Booth.
According to James, the title for The Heavens Are Hung in Black is taken from one of Lincoln’s speeches. Nelson plans to ask the playwright about the challenges in writing about an iconic figure, his creative choices, how and why he has reshaped the play for the IRT after its performance at Ford’s Theatre, and his historic research. (FYI: Some of James's groupies from Indiana even trekked to the nation’s capital last February to catch the play in its premiere run.)
“One thing that was quickly apparent: The cult of celebrity existed in the 19th century just as it does now,” James writes in an ongoing blog about the play that he’s been contributing to irtlive.com. Then as now, James writes, people attempted to “cash in” on their relationships with a charismatic president, meaning whenever James uncovered a compelling anecdote, he always sought verification from a second source.
Although he grew up in Kansas, where his father was a high-school history teacher, James is based primarily on the west coast these days. He escaped to Italy to write the Lincoln play. James has been an influential figure on the central Indiana art scene for more than a decade. Now in his 11th year as the IRT’s playwright-in-residence, he frequently tackles topics with Hoosier connections. For example, he was our studio guest in May during the run of Interpreting William, a play that analyzed the character of pioneer entrepreneur William Conner, of Conner Prairie fame. This time ‘round, James will be Nelson’s guest by long-distance phone, although he continually makes trips to Indy during the reshaping of (and rehearsals for) The Heavens Are Hung in Black. As James notes in his blog, the play premiered just two weeks after Barack Obama was inaugurated “with his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible.”
Even aside from the Year of Lincoln, this has been quite a year for James, who in August received a national award in a ceremony at New York’s fabled Sardi’s Restaurant. Standing in front of the rows of caricatures of theatrical legends that adorn Sardi’s walls, he received the Medallion of the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America.
History Mystery question
OUR HISTORY MYSTERY QUESTION is as follows: When Abraham Lincoln was a 19-year-old Hoosier in 1828, he was hired, along with a friend, to take a cargo of goods on a flatboat to a city inthe deep South. Lincoln and his friend, Allen Gentry, embarked on the flatboat trip from Rockport, Ind. The three-month adventure was said to be eye-opening for young Abe, who for the first time witnessed slavery in the deep South city that was his destination.
Question: Name the Southern city where Abraham Lincoln and Allen Gentry took the goods on the 65-foot-long flatboat. If you have the answer, call (317) 788-3314. The prize is a pair of tickets to the Eiteljorg Museum, plus a pair of tickets to Conner Prairie (must be used by Oct. 31!), courtesy of the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association.
CHRIS GAHL of the ICVA will call in with a surprise road trip.
Nelson to emcee May Wright Sewall Leadership Award banquet
LOOK TO OUR TIRELESS and distinguished host Nelson Price to emcee the annual May Wright Sewall Leadership Award banquet on Thursday, Oct. 29. The Historic Propylaeum Foundation annually honors a group of outstanding women at the event, and the civic leadership award is named for May Wright Sewall, an Indianapolis educator, arts advocate and suffragette who became a nationally known leader of women's organizations at the turn of the last century. More information from the Indianapolis Propylaeum at 317-638-7881.
Your friends in Hoosierdom,
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Acknowledgments to Print Resources, Indianapolis Marion County Public Library, Monomedia Inc., Indiana Humanities Council, Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, WICR-FM, Fraizer Designs, Drew Pastorek, and many other individuals and organizations. We are an independently produced program and are self-supporting through sponsorships and through individual tax-deductible contributions through the Indiana Humanities Council. We thank Patricia Rooney, Barb and Steve Tegarden, Theresa and Dave Berghoff, and several "anonymous" people for their donations through the Indiana Humanities Council. Visit our website to learn more.
Coming up on Hoosier History Live!
Oct. 31 — Mike Ahern on The House of Blue Lights
FOR NEARLY 50 YEARS, The House of Blue Lights was regarded as the creepiest place in Indianapolis. Sneaking around the secluded estate of eccentric millionaire Skiles Test became a Halloween-season rite of passage for thousands of high school and college students from the 1920s through the 1960s. The hordes of frightened gawkers (hoping to glimpse the corpse of Test's beautiful, dead wife, which he may have enclosed in a glass coffin) included a Cathedral High School teenager who would grow up to become famous in local broadcasting.
Our guest, Mike Ahern, not only ventured up to the estate night after night with his Cathedral buddies, he went on, as the longtime news anchor at WISH-TV/Channel 8, to cover the demolition of The House of Blue Lights. As a Halloween Day treat, Ahern will return to the air to join Nelson, who for years has written feature stories and columns about The House of Blue Lights that included rare interviews with Skiles Test's relatives. Tune in to find out what was fact – and what was myth – about the hilly estate, which was located near Fall Creek Road and Shadeland Avenue.
The fascinating story – which became perhaps the biggest urban legend in state history – involved everything from a pet cemetery to an unusual swimming pool to and an assortment of animals to an amateur inventor-architect from a wealthy family who, sadly, eventually felt terrorized to spend the night in his sprawling home because of the throngs of trespassers.