And the Oscar goes to...

Local children foil kidnappers in 1937 films

Posted: November 2, 2017 at 5 a.m.

Photo courtesy Shiloh Museum Victoria McKinney (left) and her mother, Martha Westberg, watch Kidnappers Foil, a 1937 short movie filmed in Northwest Arkansas. Three movies were made that February by itinerant filmmaker Melton Barker of Dallas. Westberg (then Martha Martin) was one of the local children who had a role in the Bentonville movie. The others were filmed in Fayetteville and Springdale.
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Photo courtesy Shiloh Museum Victoria McKinney (left) and her mother, Martha Westberg, watch Kidnappers Foil, a 1937 short movie filmed in Northwest Arkansas. Three movies were made that February by itinerant filmmaker Melton Barker of Dallas. Westberg (then Martha Martin) was one of the local children who had a role in the Bentonville movie. The others were filmed in Fayetteville and Springdale.

"Gee, I wouldn't want to be her," uttered 10-year-old Rhea Seagraves.

The nearly 90-year-old Rhea Dunegan of Fayetteville remembered the one line she spoke in the 1937 film Kidnappers Foil, shot in Bentonville. Although she had no aspirations for Hollywood, "I wanted to be the star of this film," Dunegan recalled.

Photo courtesy Shiloh Museum James Mashburn (speaking) plays "Butch," who leads the rescuers in the Fayetteville film. With him is his brother William...

Photo courtesy of Shiloh Museum Connie May (in white dress) plays "Betty Davis," the girl who is kidnapped in the Bentonville production of Kidnappers...

Kidnappers Foil

Cast list

BENTONVILLE

Betty Austin, Earlene Austin, Nancy Bautts, Emma Ruth Beasley, Harriett Brandford, Jimmy Craig, Frank DeLouis, Tommy Emanuel, Doris Mae Ericson, Ann Gartside, Dorothy Louise Haxton, Helen Ruth Haxton, Jo Henman, Jim Holder, Barbara Jean Horton, Dorothy Howell, Craig Jackson, Edwin Jackson, Bettie Jo Jones, Alice Jane Knight, Cleo Madison, Naomi Jean Madison, Martha Martin, Connie May, Dorothy Mae McDaniel, Daniel Pickens, James Riddle, Roma Jean Vinson, Jimmie White, Billy White.

FAYETTEVILLE

Dan Charles Allen, Rhea Ash, Annabelle Aumick, Roberta Lee Aumick, Donny Bay Baker, Jack Baker, Mary Ann Barton, Martha Lee Barton, Laura Hill Baxter, John Howard Bayless, Wanda Bean, Larry Bird, Ellen Frances Bradshaw, Vivian Bradshaw, I.W. Brewer, Jr., Edward Brooks, Hugh Brawne, Dorothy Burt, June Buttery, Jeanine Campbell,

William Morris Campbell, Jo Ellen Carlisle, Alma Chaney, Catherine Coleman, Donna Coleman, Billy Compton, Ira Allen Comstock, Edward Wise Cone, Burl E. Davidson, Wilma Jean Davidson, Martha Ellen Dellinger, A.D. Downer, Bobby Eads, Dorine Ediston, Clifton Fichtner, Harry Portis Fletcher, Eugene Furlow, Stella Maris Gary, Mary Bryce Grace, Alene Green, Robert Harris, Clyde Allen Hazlett, Mary Margaret Hooper, Hartman Hotz, Mary Kathleen Huntington, Forrest Kay Huntington, Bobby Huntington, Bob Hunt, George Anna Hurst, Doris Jane Jackson, Frank Jackson, Janice Jacobson, Catherina Kik, Earlene Land, Christine Lansford, Kyle Eugene Lemons, Margaret R. Luke, Treva Mae Luther, James Mashburn, William Mashburn, Glenn Mayer, Billie Jane McCray, Gloria May McCray, Ellis Mills, Glenn Mills, Bob Morse, Carmen Morse, Billy Murphy, Barbara Parrish, Tommy Pearson, Anna Jean Peterson,

Martha Jim Pettigrew, Gayle Marie Phillips, Faye Poole, Billy Porter, Cedric Glenn Pratt, Phillip Pyeatt,

Betty Sue Rich, Danny Roberts, Joe Allen Roberts, Monte Mae Roberts, Dora Bernadine Rothman, Betty Dean Scoggins, Lucretia Ann Schwartz, Freddie Jean Shafer, Bill Sonneman, Raymond Troy Stansbury, Billie Steele, Pat Steele, Annabelle Sullins, Ada Lee Smith, Yvonne Swain, Billy Sweetser, Clifford Leroy Thompson, Gloria Olga Trail, Charlene Troutman, Lawanna Warren, Lucille Welch, Barbara Louis Wester, Barbara Lee Wheeler, Margaret Wilson.

SPRINGDALE

Jack Ames, Wilber Dean Atkinson, Mildred Atkinson, Mary Ann Begley, Patty Bone, Wanda Boone, Madelyn Brogden,

Mary Brown (later Braun), Russell Charlesworth, Betty Sue Curtis, Marguerite Curtis, Arthur Heagler, Jean Heagler, Betty Sue Heerwagen, Albert Hough, Glen David Johnson, Betty Sue Johnson, Wanda Sue Lucas, Link Luckett, Dorothy Mills, Johnny Mincher, Monette Mincher, Howard Overton, Maxine Overton, Gwyn Parrott, Millie Lou Riggs, Kenneth Sisco, Junior Sturdivant, Geraldine Trowbridge, Espen Walters, Margaret Walters, Le Roy Williams, Mary Lou Wobbe, Margaret Ruth Wobbe.

SOURCE: Shiloh Museum of Ozarks HistorY

‘Kidnappers Foil’

What: Screening of 1937-era movies filmed in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Springdale

When: 10 a.m. Saturday

Where: Family Life Center, First United Methodist Church, 206 W. Johnson Ave., Springdale

Sponsor: Shiloh Museum of Ozarks History in Springdale

Information: 750-8165, shilohmuseum.org

Dunegan's film career -- as well as those of about 170 Northwest Arkansas residents -- will be reprised Saturday in the Family Life Center of First United Methodist Church in Springdale. The Shiloh Museum of Ozarks History will screen three versions of Kidnappers Foil -- one shot in Bentonville, one in Fayetteville and one in Springdale.

The films are part of an itinerant "strange, sub-genre," explained George Willeman, nitrate vault manager for the Library of Congress in Culpepper, Va. "A guy traveled with his camera -- to little towns especially -- to shoot a film, and at the end of the week, it would be shown in a local theater, and everyone would come see it."

Melton Barker of Dallas was the most prolific of these itinerant filmmakers, Willeman said, and he made a stop in Northwest Arkansas.

"Barker had one script," said Marie Demeroukas, photo archivist and research librarian at Shiloh Museum. "He would film it using local kids and scenery."

Barker claimed he discovered "Spanky" McFarland, the leader of "Our Gang" in the 1930s movies and "Little Rascals" television series in the 1950s. To help legitimize this claim, he offered two pictures of him holding Spanky -- who also hailed from Dallas, Demeroukas said.

The local films have a definite "Our Gang" feel, and Barker even calls the kids the "Local Gang," Demeroukas said.

NATURAL FIT

Barker made it to Arkansas thanks to William Sonneman, Demeroukas said. At that time, Sonneman was the local "movie mogul." He owned three movie theaters in Fayetteville, one in Springdale and one in Bentonville.

"It was a natural fit," she said. "He had all those theaters at his disposal. That's probably why three films were made here."

Prior to coming to a town, Barker would work with the owners of local movie theaters to publicize the projects and screen the films a few weeks after they were shot.

"In January 1937, a standard press release was printed in newspapers in Fayetteville, Springdale and Bentonville, announcing that Barker was coming 'from Hollywood' to make a film," Demeroukas said, articles which the museum has in its collection. The stories included a casting call.

A Jan. 28, 1937, story in The Springdale News called for children ages 3 to 12 to register for auditions and issued the promise that filming would not interfere with school work. Shooting started Feb. 7.

Martha Martin Hilmean Westberg, now of Fayetteville, remembered her audition in the office of the Palace Theater in Bentonville.

"I was in line by the door," she recalled. "I was wearing a white fur coat." She said the officials called for her. "Well, I knew about waiting my turn, and I didn't think it was mine."

She recalled a microphone standing on a chest. "This was the first encounter I'd ever had with a microphone," she said. "I remember trying to speak slowly and distinctly."

Children were charged a fee to try out. The next week, Barker would come back with his casting director, William D. Patton.

"It was all done on the fly," Demeroukas said. "It was shot in a week's time in early February."

In one scene of Kidnappers Foil, the director's instructions to the children can be heard.

"There were only a couple of lines," Westberg said. "They'd tell us what to say, and we'd say them. They'd move us place to place. I didn't even realize they were filming."

ON THE LOOKOUT

These Kidnappers Foil films were found in 2016 during the renovation of the Apollo Theater in downtown Springdale, Demeroukas said. The Apollo opened in 1949 -- well after the films' screenings -- but was one of the last theaters Sonneman owned, she said. So as he was closing others, he moved things to the remaining theaters.

"It's a miracle the films were saved because they were on their way to the dumpster," Demeroukas said. "There was no indication of what they were on the packaging. They looked like trash. Through the 80 years, the building had been damaged by water, mold and vandalism. The Apollo Theater has sat vacant for decades at a time. The city was going to condemn the building."

Meanwhile, Todd Terpenning of Greenville, S.C., a volunteer in the nitrate lab of the Library of Congress, had been looking for Barker films since about 2002. Terpenning works with Willeman, who showed the volunteer one film.

"There were 280 films, and 30 are known to exist," Terpenning said of Barker's work. "I always thought it would be fun to find one."

After registering with eBay for an auto search and many false leads, in October 2016, he found one he finally thought was worth the risk. "Sure enough, its was a 35 mm print from Springdale, Fayetteville and Bentonville."

Four reels arrived. Terpenning thought something else must be packed with the films, but the Bentonville film had two reels, he said.

When he first watched the films, "I was very excited," Terpenning said. "It was very cool to have one in my possession. It's a once-in-a-lifetime event, and then to find three in one box!

"The tricky part is (the movies) don't say where they're shot."

After donating the films to the Library of Congress, Terpenning researched them himself. He knew the films were found in Springdale, so he turned to Google to find architecture in Northwest Arkansas that matched the films. He found the then-new Harris Hotel, and the Fayetteville film looked like it had been shot at a university, he said.

He Googled and checked newspaper clippings to find a local museum or historical society that might be interested in the films. He found the Shiloh Museum and its archivist, Demeroukas, in December, "and Marie took it from there," he said. "She answered all my questions, and she had plenty of questions for me.

"My information was very basic, and I figured she wouldn't know anything about the films," Terpenning continued. "But, wow! She knew all about them. She said, 'We've been looking for them.' She wanted everything I could provide, and it was fun to see this evolution and premiere of this new art."

Several years ago, Susan Young, outreach coordinator for the Shiloh Museum, came across a mention of the films in a newspaper column written weekly by Sonneman, Demeroukas related. "But she couldn't track them down. And to find out that they were just down the street."

When the museum received copies of the films, research specialist Rachel Whitaker spent the summer searching for the former stars or their families. As of Friday, she had found 13 original cast members, now in their 80s and 90s.

Whitaker started with cast lists printed in area newspapers. She used ancestry.com, census records, voter registration, white pages and Facebook.

"It's something I hadn't thought about in 80 years," child actor Dunegan said of her film. What she remembers is being with her friends. "I don't remember a lot about it, but I remember being with the group. We'd run up and down those steps of the Chi Omega Greek Theater up by the university."

Some of the one-time childhood actors didn't tell their families about the films, perhaps forgetting their roles in the face of adult responsibilities.

"We didn't know about it," said Nancy Hagen of Springdale, daughter of the late Russell Charlesworth. "Mom didn't even know about it. I guess he didn't even remember it later in life."

"It's great for the community to have them back home," said Terpenning, who will speak at the screening Saturday. "Now they can complete the research and tie up some loose ends.

"And if it were my grandparents, I would want to see it."

TALKING PICTURES

Terpenning declined to share the price he paid for the local Barker films, but "the historical value of the films far outweighs the monetary value," he said.

The films' importance is mostly intrinsic to the Arkansas area, Willeman said.

Terpenning donated the films to the Library of Congress, where they will remain part of the permanent collection. The Barker films have been placed on the National Film Registry, which indicates an importance to America's film heritage.

In fact, the Arkansas versions of Kidnappers Foil include a couple of extra scenes, Willeman said.

"It's wonderful that they are able to care for them because nitrate films degrade easily," Demeroukas said. "As far as I am concerned, they are in the perfect place. I'm just so happy we have the information to share."

"I'm glad we've got them," Willeman agreed.

Nitrate film -- used from 1890 to the early 1950s -- was good, strong film stock, Willeman explained. It could take a lot of showings. In early theaters, when the movie was finished, staff would just start it over. So the film was used six or seven times a day for weeks.

But the film is highly flammable, and museums don't want to take the risk of storing it with their collections, Willeman continued.

As the film ages, the nitric acid with which it is made eats the film up. "Amazingly enough, it didn't happen to these films," he said. "Everything affects nitrate film -- temperature, humidity, water. It always amazes me when film like this is found that old and in that good of condition."

The boxes were really nasty and dirty, Willeman said, but the film showed no deterioration. At the Library of Congress, the Barker films from Northwest Arkansas have been cleaned, scanned and stored in special cans and are stored in the state-of-the-art vault, kept at 39 degrees with a relative humidity of 30 percent.

"And that's probably all that will be done with them for now," Willeman said.

Anyone is welcome to see the films via an appointment with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Copies also can be purchased, and someday, Willeman expects the films will be posted online for all to watch, both by the Library and the museum.

"I can't stress enough the importance of these films," Demeroukas said. "They were made 80 years ago, before there were home movies or YouTube or selfies. To see your children up on the screen in local movies ...

"The films were made in 1937 in the middle of the Depression," she continued. "The fact that it had a small 'training fee' would eliminate a lot of families."

To see the films, admission was 25 cents and 10 cents for a child at the theater, Demeroukas said. For that, moviegoers would also see a short "Jungle Jim" serial before the feature movie.

"Weeks (after the filming) in Bentonville, when I saw myself on film, I thought I didn't do well. I wish I'd done better," Westberg said. "But when Marie showed me the film, I thought, 'Well, I was just 9. I was just a little kid,'" she said, self-described as 90 3/4 years.

Newspaper accounts record the films were shown Feb. 26-27 at the Palace Theater in Fayetteville, March 4-5 at the Plaza Theater in Bentonville and March 4-5 at the Concord Theater in Springdale.

"As far as I can tell, the films were only shown that one time," Demeroukas said. "This might be the first time they've been seen in public in 80 years."

LOCAL CELEBRITY

Kidnappers Foil begins with a group of children playing "London Bridge." Two men walk by and say, "Hey, that's Betty Davis. I bet she's worth a lot of money."

"So they kidnap her and throw her in the car," Demeroukas related. "Betty's older sister, Jean, runs to tell their dad and tells him to go call the 'po -- lice.'"

A group of boys decides to search for Betty to earn the reward. Several younger boys ask to join them but are rebuffed. A group of girls wants to join the older boys on the search, and they are reluctantly allowed to go along.

After three days, the group finally hears Betty yell, "Help! Help!"

"The kidnappers had fallen asleep because they'd been drinking 'hooch,'" Demeroukas said. "Betty is released and reunited with her family. The boys get the reward, and the family throws a party in celebration.

"It's very elaborate," she continued. "The kids use some very hokey mannerisms they were probably told to replicate from the 'Little Rascals.' One kid sweeps back his hair very dramatically. Another sticks his tongue out."

Local sites for filming included the stone American Legion Hut in Springdale that stands just east of the museum, the Chi Omega Greek Theater in Fayetteville and the Park Springs Hotel in Bentonville.

At the end of the films, local kids showed off their talents. Earlene Brown Henry, formerly of Springdale, sang "Goody Goody," a song popularized by the era's childhood superstar Shirley Temple.

"I remember going to the Harris Hotel (now home to Haas Hall Academy in Rogers)," she said. "It was real new, and it was the largest building around. We were up on a balcony. It was kind of cold weather."

And the films' master of ceremonies for the talent shows was none other than a 7-year-old Don Tyson, who grew up to become the chairman of Tyson Foods. He also played the leader of the little boys' gang in the Springdale film.

"He was wearing a pair of raggedy, patched pants," Demeroukas said. "I know his mama didn't put those on him at the house. Maybe Barker had a box of props."

Other recognizable names among the children include Link Luckett of Springdale, a helicopter pilot who rescued of a group of climbers in 1960 from Mount McKinley in Alaska. James and William Mashburn of Fayetteville went on to become physicians. Russell Charlesworth operated the Charlesworth Pontiac dealership in Springdale. Connie May, the girl who was kidnapped in the Bentonville film, went on to teach swimming lessons, Demeroukas said.

"They were memorable and famous and well-loved figures in the community."

Terpenning was surprised to discover Don Tyson had a leading role in the Springdale film. "Of course, everybody in America knows Tyson Foods. It's an iconic name.

"Don Tyson was a cute kid. He was eye-catching. When he emceed the talent show, he was funny and personable. He made you aware of his sense of presence even as a young kid. You knew he was going places."

"That was a great catch of sorts," Willeman said. "We know the film 'has a celebrity.' Here's the man from Fortune magazine in a kiddie show."

NAN Our Town on 11/02/2017