A rendition of Grant's castle, built by Alexander Grant in an area that now is the site of the Grosse Pointe Academy. Courtesy Grosse Pointe Historical Society
September 19, 2013Marie Carolyn Watson Hamlin's 1883 book, "Legends of le Detroit," is the inspiration for seven historical vignettes to be presented in an hour beginning at 7 p.m. Oct. 4, 5 and 6. The short stories spotlight people who settled along Lake St. Clair from the 17th century to the 20th century.
In cooperation with the Grosse Pointe Historical Society, Grosse Pointe Theatre and Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, the sixth annual Grosse Pointe based stories, "Legends of the Lake," are researched by members of the historical society, penned by volunteer local writers, costumed and brought to life by GPT actors and actresses and staged at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House.
"This is history," said Isabelle Donnelly, the historical society's education director. "It's a rare venue. (Guests) are learning Grosse Pointe history. I want people to know when they drive by the lake who came before them."
Historical society president Elizabeth Soby added, "This is a snapshot of our lives, as it was, and helps us understand who we are today. The stories are compelling . . . ship wrecks, ghosts and a military hero who builds a castle. It reveals who we are and why we are. The vignettes are really well written."
"Legends of the Lake" features dramatic stories of a ship wreck, a haunted site, a castle, epidemics, inventions, a land sale and architecture. The stories begin with a story set on Windmill Pointe and subsequent stories are at recognizable places along the shore with the final vignette at Gaukler Point.
"The vignettes are best experienced out-of-doors, at night with the torches around the stage," Donnelly said.
Janie Burkey from the Grosse Pointe Theatre directs the production. The scripts were written by theatre volunteers: Harry Burkey, Mary Lou Britton, Peter DiSante, Phyllis Reeve, Margie Reins Smith, Mike Trudel and Dennis Wickline.
The vignettes were researched by Donnelly, Susan Bologna, Pam Scanlon, Suzy Berschback and Nancy Paccitto at the Alfred B. and Ruth S. Moran Resource Center, using books, pamphlets, manuscripts, periodicals and clippings from the society's archives. But the legends basis stems from Hamlin's collection of stories heard from her father and grandfathers. She died two years after the publication of the now cherished book, Donnelly said.
Hamlin's character is the evening's narrator providing the stories' backgrounds and she serves as the link among the seven stories. She is portrayed by Patricia O'Brien who will be dressed in period costume.
"We are very careful about dates and the costuming is accurate, said Mickie Pizzimenti, the theater's stage manager. "This venue will be exciting."
"Inspiration is at the core of Edsel & Eleanor Ford House's programming," said Kathleen Mullins, president and CEO of the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House and Henry Ford Estate, " and it's our hope that everyone who attends 'of the Lake' will leave feeling inspired by the stories they hear and by the natural beauty surrounding them."
To add to the atmosphere beginning with the historic Ford grounds, the tales are told under the protection of tent with actors performing on a portable stage illuminated by burning torches reminiscent of old world theater foot lights. Electric lights provide extra illumination.
Donnelly added her excitement about the venue saying, "It will be magical."
"Legends of the Lake" opens with Hamlin and her first conversation will be with René-Robert Cavalier de LaSalle, played by Eddie Tujaka, who talks about the 45-ton barque, Griffin. LaSalle sailed on the first ship on the Great Lakes from Lake Erie to Wisconsin, though cursed by the Native Americans because it didn't have a Christian name. The Griffin sailed away from Wisconsin with a load of furs and was never seen again.
This narrative is followed by "The Devil's Grist Mill."
Donnelly said this tale is concerns a sister and brother, Josette and Jean LeDuc, owners of a windmill.
When she fell ill, the brother wanted Josette's portion of the business. According to written accounts, Josette said all Jean wanted was the money and she would rather sell to the devil. Josette died not long after the verbal exchange and a series of misfortunes fell on the mill.
Another story, "Grant's Castle," features Sal Rubino as Commodore Alexander Grant, a Scotsman in the British navy. He built a castle where the Grosse Pointe Academy stands. Married in 1744 to Detroiter Therese Barthe, Grant was commissioned to secure Canada for the British.
The tales end with the Gaukler Point's accord explaining how the widow Josephine Weber Gaukler sold her land to Henry Ford and a narrative by Albert Kahn, the architect of Ford's Cotswold style house.
GPT actors in this production are: Sydney Anderson, Natalie Boehmer, Perry Calisi, Charly Davis, Jack Fennessy, Bill Giovan, Shawn Henry, Henry Kelsey III, Clif Levin, Robby Mullinger, Cindy and Jerry Nehr, Sal Rubino, Elizabeth Schaefer, Mary Stelmark, Pat Stewart, Beth Teagan and Stella Woitulewicz.
This is the sixth year the historical society and theater have collaborated in telling Grosse Pointe stories. Previously, the stories, "Talking Headstones," were staged in St. Paul Cemetery. There the actors would walk from grave marker to grave maker telling the stories of those early Grosse Pointers.
"We have moved on and up the lake as a way to broaden the range of historical events that we present," said Emmajean Evans, "Legends of the Lake" GPT producer.
The change from personal stories to tales based on the lake, opens the door for varied topics, Donnelly and Evans said. And both are enthusiastic about the Ford House joining the collaboration, as is Mullins.
"The partnership with Grosse Pointe Theatre and Grosse Pointe Historical Society uses the naturally inspiring assets of the historic estate to provide a unique venue for their performances," she said.
"Eleanor Ford left her beloved estate for public benefit," Mullins said, "and we at Ford House continue to be committed to honoring her wishes. Partnerships with important cultural organizations like the Grosse Pointe Theatre and the Grosse Pointe Historical Society help to continue this legacy."
Soby added, "It's pretty unusual for three cultural groups to come together for a production like this. This is a true partnership because each group understands its strengths. The way the three groups work together is amazing. This is a model for how things should happen."
The actors appreciate the change in venue, Evans said, even as being outdoors presents a couple challenges.
Weather is the first consideration and the second being voice projection. Actors are working without microphones so are learning about the strength of their voices. This also limits the audience numbers, she said, because they can only project so far.
Tickets to legends is $10 for members of the historical society, the theater or Ford House.
General admission tickets cost $15.
Tickets are available by calling (313) 881-4004, at the theater's box office, 315 Fisher, City of Grosse Pointe, and the website, gpt.org. A limited number of tickets may be available at the door. Parking is free and lighted near the activities building.
Seating is provided by the Ford House.
Ticket holders are advised to dress for the weather.
Information also available at gphistorical.org or fordhouse.org.