Hoosier History Live! features host Nelson Price, Saturdays at noon on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis.

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Oct. 6 show

Hollywood icons Red Skelton, Robert Wise and Irene Dunne

Irene Dunne.Aside from being icons of Hollywood with links to Indiana, what could three luminaries - comedian Red Skelton, acclaimed director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music and West Side Story) and 1930s and '40s movie star Irene Dunne - have in common?

All three are the subjects of biographies written by movie historian Wes Gehring, a film professor at Ball State University who will be Nelson's guest. Wes' newest book is the just-released Robert Wise Shadowlands (Indiana Historical Society Press), a biography of the Academy Award-winning director who was born in Winchester and grew up in Connersville.

With Wes in studio, not only will we focus on the life and career of Robert Wise (1914-2005), we also will explore the Hoosier roots and careers of Red Skelton, a native of Vincennes, and Irene Dunne, who grew up in Madison.

Wes delved into their lives in Red Skelton: The Mask Behind the Mask (IHS Press, 2008), which explores, as Wes puts it, the comedian's "hardscrabble beginnings with a shockingly dysfunctional family in southern Indiana" and Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood (Scarecrow Press, 2003). Robert Wise, director, at his desk at RKO studios in Hollywood, mid-to-late 1940s. Wes D. Gehring Stills Collection.It's a look at the versatile actress, who won critical acclaim for her roles in genres ranging from musicals like Show Boat (1936) to comedies (including The Awful Truth in 1937 with Cary Grant) and dramas such as I Remember Mama (1948).

Like Irene Dunne (1898-1990), Robert Wise was known for astonishing versatility, directing movies ranging from the science fiction cult classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and the horror movie The Haunting (1963), which is set in a spooky New England mansion, to the two musicals for which Wise won Oscars as Best Director, The Sound of Music (1965) and West Side Story (1961).

In fact, many film historians contend Wise's versatility explains why he never quite became a household name like fellow directors Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg, who are associated with specific genres.

Certainly Red Skelton (1913-1997) became a household name, achieving major stardom in movies, TV, radio and on Broadway after getting his start in vaudeville shows and, before that, in burlesque.

On his enormously popular TV series, which enjoyed a run of nearly 20 years (1951-1971), Skelton delighted audiences with the antics of characters such as Clem Kadiddlehopper, a confused bumpkin, and Freddie the Freeloader, a hobo who never spoke.

Indiana native Red Skelton performs as “Clem Kadiddlehopper,” circa 1951.Like Freddie, Skelton endured dire poverty. As Wes recounts in his biography, Skelton, the youngest of four brothers, was born two months after the death of his father. Years later, Skelton claimed his father had been a circus clown, but Wes disputes that with extensive research indicating the elder Skelton was an alcoholic grocer in Vincennes.

Although Red (real name: Richard) Skelton worked his way up to stardom, he continued to cope with, as Wes puts it, a "sometimes tragic personal life" that included three marriages, the death of his 9-year-old son from leukemia in 1958, the suicide of his second wife and his lingering bitterness at the entertainment industry after the cancellation of his TV series.

Robert Wise and Irene Dunne had more stable personal lives, although her father, a steam vessel supervisor, also died when she was a child. She had been born in Louisville, Ky., but moved with her widowed mother to Madison. In the Ohio River town, she attended St. Michael's Catholic Church, graduated from Madison High School and sang at civic gatherings.

Her talent resulted in a scholarship to study music at a conservatory in Indianapolis; eventually, she landed roles in touring stage shows.

Wes Gehring at his Ball State University office, surrounded by film memorabilia.At Connersville High School, the auditorium has been renamed in Wise's honor. In his biography of the filmmaker, Wes quotes from columns (titled "Wise Crax") he wrote for the high school newspaper.

After graduation, Wise attended Franklin College. Short of money, he left school during the Depression and followed an older brother to Hollywood. One of his big breaks involved working as a film editor for Orson Welles on the classic Citizen Kane (1941).

Long before The Haunting, Wise had experience directing horror and thriller movies. His credits included The Cure of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945) with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

Some fun facts:

  • Irene Dunne was nominated five times for an Academy Award but never won. She also served one term as a delegate to the United Nations. According to Wes' biography, she called her appointment to the U.N. in 1957 by President Eisenhower "the highlight of my life."
  • During Robert Wise's boyhood in the 1920s, his father ran a meat-packing plant in Connersville. Dazzled by silent movies, young Robert often saw three per week at the town's three theaters, which all were in walking distance of the family's home, according to Robert Wise Shadowlands.
  • In Vincennes, Skelton, a poor student, dropped out of school when he was about 13. His gigs included touring with traveling medicine shows that sold "magic" bottles of elixir.

After years of pratfalls in his famous slapstick routines, Skelton needed to wear leg braces, although he concealed that from his fans.

History Mystery

In 1966, Robert Wise directed an epic movie that starred an actor who, like the director, was an Indiana native. Set in China during the 1920s, the critically acclaimed movie had an antiwar theme and a running time of about three hours; it was filmed on location in Asia. The USS Isabel gunboat patrols Chinese waters, 1920s.For his leading role as a machinist in the U.S. Navy on a gunboat, the Hoosier-born actor earned his only Academy Award nomination; he did not go on to win the Oscar.

Question: Name the Indiana-born actor and the epic movie in 1966 in which he starred that Robert Wise directed.

To win the prize, you must call in with the correct answer during the live show and be willing to be placed on the air. Please do not call if you have won a prize from any WICR show during the last two months. The call-in number is (317) 788-3314, and please do not call until you hear Nelson pose the question on the air.

This week's prize is a gift certificate to Dave and Buster's restaurant in Castleton in Indianapolis and a pair of tickets to a public tour of Crown Hill Cemetery, given by the Crown Hill Heritage Foundation. These prizes are courtesy of Visit Indy.

Roadtrip: Heartland Film Festival Oct. 18-27

Our charismatic Roadtripper, Chris Gahl of Visit Indy, returns to our airwaves this week to remind us that one of Indy's premier events, the Heartland Film Festival, is just around the corner, October 18-27.

Man climbing mountain with snow and rocks around him. Eleven veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan join an expedition to climb the 20,000-foot Himalayan giant Mount Lobuche in the documentary High Ground. Courtesy Heartland Film Festival.A little "history" ... In 1991 a group of Indianapolis film lovers united to create a unique film festival to honor beautifully made films that celebrate the positive aspects of life. The Heartland Film Festival started in 1992 as a small event in Indianapolis and has expanded over time to become one of the fastest-growing film festivals in the country.

Today, the annual film festival is a 10-day event full of independent films and a variety of special events for film enthusiasts of all ages.

This year's movies will screen at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12 and AMC Castleton Square 14. Opening night is Thursday night, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for a screening of High Ground.

For our enewsletter readers, a sneak preview of Heartland trailers will be shown First Friday, Oct. 5, at 6 p.m. at Heartland's headquarters at 1043 Virginia Ave. in the Fountain Square neighborhood of downtown Indianapolis.

Admission is free, and popcorn, beer, soda and wine are available for purchase. Tickets for all events may be purchased online at Heartland Film Festival.

Your Hoosier History Live! team,

Nelson Price, host and creative director
Molly Head, producer, (317) 927-9101
Chris Gahl, Roadtripper
Richard Sullivan, webmaster and tech director

Pam Fraizer, graphic designer
Garry Chilluffo, creative consultant
Michele Goodrich, Jed Duvall, grant consultants
Joan Hostetler, photo historian
Dana Waddell, volunteer-at-large


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Facebook logo links to the Hoosier History Live! page.Acknowledgments to Print Resources, Monomedia, Indiana Humanities, Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, WICR-FM, Fraizer Designs, Heritage Photo and Research Services, Conner Prairie, Derrick Lowhorn and many other individuals and organizations. We are an independently produced program and are self-supporting through organizational sponsorships, grants and through individual tax-deductible contributions through Indiana Humanities. Visit our website to learn how you can support us financially.

Oct. 13 show

If a town is on the state map, he's been there

On state maps of Indiana, there are about 2,099 cities and towns, according to a count by John Bower, an award-winning photographer.

He's counted them because John, who specializes in black-and-white photography, has an unusual distinction: He has visited every city and town. With his artist wife Lynn, he owns Studio Indiana near Bloomington, the base for their travels.

An old grain elevator in Plymouth, Ind., appeared in After the Harvest, one of photographer John Bower’s Indiana books.His photos - which often, as he puts it, depict "the ignored, forgotten or cast aside" - have been collected in several books, each with a different focus.

Nearly two years ago, John was Nelson's guest to share insights and anecdotes from his journeys. They have included stops to photograph courthouse attics, barn roofs with advertising, historic jails, monasteries, abandoned lodges and houses of worship in cities like South Bend in northern Indiana, as well as towns like Vevay on the Ohio River.

Now John will return to share more stories, which he and Lynn (who often writes the text) recount in photo books such as The Common Good (2010). Not only does that book include photos of historic jails in Nashville and Vevay, it includes a close-up image of "Old Sparky," a onetime electric chair at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

"It was constructed of worn, dark wood that had been carefully crafted, with dovetail joints used in some places," John writes. "A small sign explained that the wood had been salvaged from Indiana's old gallows. ... Overall, it was an eerie combination of antique, mundane and grisly.

Other photos are evocative for far different reasons. His book 2nd Stories (2005), which explores "what's upstairs, on top and overhead," includes photos of the attics in the Hancock County Courthouse in Greenfield and the Monroe County Courthouse in Bloomington.

John Bower, photographer, with photographic equipment.It also features several photos of the Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, known as the "Castle on the Hill." Built between 1915 and 1924 (work was suspended during World War I) and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the monastery is the home of the Sisters of St. Benedict. John and Lynn Bower visited during an extensive renovation designed to give the monastery, as a nun explained to them, a "feminine feel."

He also photographed an abandoned synagogue in South Bend that was built in 1901, as well as a massive vacant Knights of the Pythias Lodge in Shelbyville. (Its first floor once had been occupied by a Murphy's Dime Store.) John and Lynn were struck by the "once majestic" Lodge Ballroom on an upper floor.

The couple met when they were teachers more than 35 years ago in Kendallville. After school, they often would hop into a car and travel an unfamiliar route.

On their journeys, John has taken photos of barns with "billboard" advertising on their roofs in Orange County and Martin County. And his book After the Harvest (2007) focuses on historic grain elevators and feed mills.

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