Fifty years ago, MGM Studios and more than 100 actors moved into Danville to shoot Raintree County, the most expensive American film ever made at the time. Relive the excitement and take a step back in time during the two-week Raintree County Festival
Promising to recapture the “Movies, Magic, Memories” made in Danville 50 years ago, the Raintree County Festival beckons Civil War enthusiasts, movie buffs, and anyone interested in seeing how Hollywood transformed a small Kentucky town.
The two-week event will take place in Danville on July 24–August 5, with tours, a dance, several screenings of the Raintree County movie, displays of memorabilia from its filming, and other special events (see listing below).
At the time, the 1957 Civil War romantic drama Raintree County was the most expensive American film ever made at $6 million. It was based on a novel by Ross Lockridge Jr. and starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, earning four Academy Award nominations.
Though the storyline was set in rural Indiana, after MGM movie moguls launched an exhaustive search to find an appropriately picturesque shooting location that they hoped would rival Gone With the Wind, they found it in Danville with the help of resident and Pioneer Playhouse founder Eben Henson.
Henson, who died in 2004, worked on the set of an Esther Williams movie in Florida, where he befriended Eddie Woehler, who became the unit production manager for Raintree County.
Once studio executives saw Danville for themselves at Eben’s behest, they fell in love with it, says Eben’s wife Charlotte Henson, who served as an extra in the movie’s Pedee Academy scene.
“They were quite impressed because it was beautiful, rolling countryside,” she says. “They came in the fall of the year and they took many, many photos.”
Nearly half of the filming took place in Danville in the summer of 1956 with 15,000 pounds of props, 3,500 costumes, 216 tons of equipment, 135 crew members, and 119 speaking roles for a cast that included Eva Marie Saint, Nigel Patrick, Rod Taylor, Agnes Moorehead, and Lee Marvin. The main stars stayed in Danville homes during the six weeks they were there filming, while local telephone operators gleefully eavesdropped on their sometimes scandalous conversations. More than 300 locals served as extras.
At age 16, Stanford resident Elizabeth Taylor Kernen—yes, that’s her real name—doubled for the actress Elizabeth Taylor in a picnic scene of the film, as she bore a striking resemblance to the starlet.
“When they would take her from the set and they had to refresh her hair and makeup and whatever…I took her place,” Kernen says.
Kernen is a part of a trio of area residents who show film clips and answer questions about the movie in presentations for community groups, and they appear in costume at parades and public events to promote the upcoming festival.
Many stories were documented from Danville area residents who were involved with the filming or watched the process with interest, often taking pictures or home movies.
Eleanor McDonald recalls, “Stretch pants had just been invented and we’d never seen them before. They looked like you’d just melt and pour yourself into them. Elizabeth Taylor was wearing them and I thought my husband would fall off the back porch when he saw her. Oh, she was pretty.”
PLOT SUMMARY FOR RAINTREE COUNTY (1957)
Idealist John Wickliff Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) drifts away from his high school sweetheart Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint) and enters into a passionate, but loveless, marriage with Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor), a wealthy New Orleans belle. But John soon learns that Susanna’s mother died in a lunatic asylum and it becomes apparent that Susanna has inherited her family’s curse, for she tricked him into marriage. Frustrated with life, John leaves home by enlisting in the Northern Army and fights in Tennessee and Georgia during the terrible and brutal Civil War, where he does some soul searching for himself and explores his path in life to what may lie in store for him should he return home.
Source: Internet Movie Database—www.imdb.com. Written by Matt Patay.
RAINTREE COUNTY FESTIVAL
July 24–August 5
All locations are in Danville and most are free with the exception of the play, dinner, formal tea, and wine tasting.
If you are from out of town, plan to attend the weekend of July 26-29 when one-time-only events are scheduled.
For hotel or area attraction information, contact the Danville-Boyle County Visitors & Convention Bureau, www.danville-ky.com, (800) 755-0076. Campground available at Pioneer Playhouse, 840 Stanford Road, Danville.
Raintree County Festival has been selected as one of the Top Ten Summer Festivals to attend by the Kentucky Tourism Council.
Raintree County Memorabilia Displays: two locations, Pioneer Playhouse, daily 9 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; and Danville Community Arts Center, Monday–Wednesday 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Thursday 9 a.m.–8 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
A Jarful of Fireflies: An original comedy by Catherine Bush about the filming of Raintree County 50 years ago in Danville, full of nostalgic laughs and forgotten secrets. Produced by Pioneer Playhouse, rated G, performed nightly July 24–August 5, with Sunday matinees, www.pioneerplayhouse.com, reservations (859) 236-2747 or (866) 597-5297, 7:30 p.m. dinner and show $27, 8:30 p.m. show only $15, Sunday 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., July 29 and August 5 (no dinner on Sundays, concessions available).
Self-guided driving tour of movie locations: Danville, purchase a map of movie locations for $3 at Pioneer Playhouse or the Danville Tourism Office.
The Making of Raintree County: daily discussion and video presentation, time/location to be announced.
Raintree County Movie Screening: Charles Vahlkamp Theatre, Centre College campus, Fridays, July 27 and August 3, 7 p.m., and Saturdays, July 28 and August 4, 2 p.m.
Lectures and Presentations of the History and Making of Raintree County: Dr. Charles Vahlkamp, Stephen V. Russell, and Holly Henson, time/location to be announced.
Civil War Living History Displays: Enjoy living-history shopkeepers, Civil War soldiers, and authentic re-enactments of Civil War life at Pioneer Playhouse, Saturdays and Sundays, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., July 28–29 and August 4–5.
Raintree County Formal Tea: A two-hour elegant tea each Saturday, hosted by Old Crow Inn, www.oldcrowinn.com, $16, prepaid reservations are required and seating is limited. For reservations call (859) 236-1808, Saturday, July 28 and August 4, 2 p.m. seating.
Formal Wine Tasting: Old Crow Inn, www.oldcrowinn.com, is home of Chateau du Vieux Corbeau Vineyard & Winery, drop in during regular hours. Sample six wines with complimentary wine glass, plus cheese and crackers. $10, prepaid reservations required; reservations (859) 236-1808, Fridays and Saturdays, 6 p.m., July 27–28, August 3–4.
Whimsey/Street Dance: sponsored by Heart of Danville, with picnic dinners, farmers market, dancing demonstrations, look-alike contests. Stores will stay open late; Main Street, in front of courthouse, Danville. Thursday, July 26, 6 p.m.–9 p.m.
Discussion of Novel Raintree County: The History & Hysteria: led by Sarah Vahlkamp, location to be announced, Friday, July 27, 2 p.m.
Opening Night Celebration/World Premiere of A Jarful of Fireflies: Pioneer Playhouse, Tuesday, July 24, reception at 7 p.m., dinner and show $27, 8:30 show only $15, after-show party and reception; meet the cast and playwright. For reservations call (859) 236-2747 or (866) 597-5297.
Porch Tours: 3rd Street (a.k.a. Beaten Biscuit Road), pre-Civil War homes and bed and breakfasts will be open, serving lemonade and featuring live banjo music, leading to Nelson Rodes mansion (Elizabeth Taylor’s home in the film) along a block and a half stretch. Sunday, July 29, 1–5 p.m.
Thanks to Holly Henson, project and publicity director of Raintree County Festival, for this listing.