Let's Put on a Show!

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, April 15, 2014.

As often happens in the research room of the Exeter Historical Society, one project leads to another. This past week, we were visited by Larry Benaquist, Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at Keene State College, who was seeking some assistance with identifying locations in recently discovered film footage produced in 1943 by Louis de Rochemont Associates. De Rochemont was the director of many “March of Time” newsreel films including “New England’s Eight Million Yankees,” which features scenes of Exeter in 1941. Although none of the stills or scenes he brought seem to be from Exeter, our newspaper index search led us to a different – and completely unrelated – film project that took place in Exeter in 1940- the “Movie Queen.”

While announcing the arrival of de Rochemont’s newsreel project, the Exeter News-Letter commented, “Unlike the never-to-be-forgotten fiasco, ‘Movie Queen,’ which descended upon Exeter not too many months ago, our little town is to play an important role in a ‘March of Time’ production.” “March of Time” newsreels, however much they leaned toward propaganda at times, were a well-respected source of news for most people. But what of “Movie Queen” and why did the News-Letter refer to it as a “fiasco?”

We first found an announcement on March 7th, that a parade would be held two days later. Imagine throwing together a parade in a matter of days, but this seems to be what happened. “On Saturday, March 9 at the Railroad Station at 12:30, the mysterious Hollywood movie queen will be presented the key to the town by the selectmen. Immediately thereafter a parade will commence, headed by the ‘Movie Queen’ and the selectmen.” More interesting was the next sentence: “Movies will be taken of all in the parade as well as lookers on. The movie will be screened at the Town Hall on March 19th and 20th, at the same time as the three-act play, ‘Movie Queen,’ is presented.”

By the following week, more information made its way into the press. The parade, it seems, was a great success. The Exeter News-Letter gushed, “townspeople of Exeter avow they haven’t seen such a turnout on the streets and station at Exeter as at the station last Saturday when charming Ruth Colby, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. C.W. Colby, alighted from a train and was revealed as Exeter’s ‘Movie Queen.’” The parade was also covered by the Portsmouth Herald, which provided far more details, “the parade formed at the Boston & Maine railroad station and proceeded down Main Street to the town hall. The parade was headed by the Junior Legion Drum Corps and the ‘movie queen,’ Miss Ruth Colby rode in a car with C.C. Russell, the Republican nominee for selectman. The parade also included several pieces of the local fire apparatus, as well as automobiles displayed by local dealers. This was the first activity in connection with the show, which is being sponsored by the Daughters of Suzanna of the Methodist church and the welfare department of the Exeter Lions club.”

There is more to this story, and it extends far outside Exeter and a multi-media production of local talent. The “Movie Queen” was a production of the Amateur Theatre Guild of Boston and the production crews travelled around the country staging essentially the same show from town to town. The business model shared profits from the show with local civic organizations on a 50/50 basis and counted on the excitement of the local population – especially those caught on film – to draw an audience. To pull this off, there had to be only goodwill between the crew and the townspeople. This is probably why the same edition of the News-Letter that reported on the parade also had a large ad which read, in part, “We apologize to the High School and Mr. McBride for seeming to want to compete with the school play. To prove our cooperation we have set back the date of our 3-act play ‘Movie Queen’ to March 25th and 26th. Help Mr. McBride get his athletic supplies – then come over to see yourself in the movies with the Movie Queen”

The program’s director, Dorothy Stone, was the organizer of the entire event. Women were commonly used by the Amateur Theatre Guild to promote their projects. It was probably felt that local people would be less suspicious if a woman was in charge. These were days when outsiders were still suspected of suspicious intent. The job must have been a mammoth one, considering everyone involved in the show – the News-Letter listed the cast as, “Miss Ruth Colby, Mr. George S. Carhart of the Academy faculty, Mr. George Knox and Mr. Thomas Norris of the high school faculty, Mr. and Mrs. Brown, Mr. Albert Taylor, Rev. Howard P. Weatherbee, Mr. Otis E. Hoyt, Mr. Gerald Chick, Manager Lothrop of the Atlantic & Pacific store, Mrs. Mabel E. Reed, County Commissioner Alvin E. Foss, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Wentworth; dancing chorus from the Seminary, and baby dancing chorus of 4-H girls. There will also be a swanky fashion show.”

After several delays, which may have been why it was later called a ‘fiasco’ along with the obvious courting of local vanity and capitalist motive, the show was finally presented on March 29th – several weeks after its initially scheduled debut.

Many towns in New England still have the reels of film associated with their own “Movie Queen” productions. The plot of these films is always the same; a local girl who has become famous is welcomed back to town arriving by train or boat. She is feted by the local businessmen and given the key to the town. Then there is a high-action sequence of attempted kidnapping thwarted by the local police. Where Exeter’s original film has gone is anyone’s guess. With any luck, it will turn up – as it has in many other towns – languishing in someone’s attic. If found, this little gem should provide us with the same thrill that people got when watching this earliest of ‘selfies’ back in 1940.

Image: This ad for a production of “Movie Queen” ran in the Exeter News-Letter on March 21, 1940. The film and stage show were the products of an itinerant film company called the Amateur Theatre Guild of Boston. By including scenes of townspeople and local businesses, the production was guaranteed a rapt audience.


Copies of Movie Queen films from Bar Harbor, Lincoln, Lubec, Newport, Maine, and Middlebury, Vermont, are available from Northeast Historic Film’s loan program, http://oldfilm.org/content/video-loan-catalog. These and four more Movie Queens may be viewed on site at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, Maine. www.oldfilm.org

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