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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Natchez Pilgrimage, 1939

  For the past couple of weeks, a little-known short film about the Natchez Pilgrimage has gone viral among present and former Natchezians. At eight minutes long, it's a brief but fascinating look back to the origins of those wonderful, strange and touching rituals known as the Natchez Pilgrimage and the Tableaux.

Watching this film, I realized not only how much Natchez and many of its traditions have remained constant over the years, but also how much has changed. Yes, little boys and girls still dance around the Maypole for tourists to the same music they did 60 years ago, but no longer does anyone give credence the stereotypical, dancing, lighthearted Negro portrayed in the film. There's something good in both of those things.

A few days after seeing it, I ran into one of my parents' contemporaries, Kathie Blankenstein. I asked if she'd seen it. Not only had she seen it, she'd participated in it. I asked her if she would mind sending me any information she might have about the movie.

"I do, in fact, know a good bit about this film," she said in a follow-up email.

It was Kathie's mother, Lillie Vidal Boatner, who was largely responsible for getting the film made.

"This was at a time when the Natchez Garden Club and the Pilgrimage Garden Club were sparring with each other," said Kathie. "Each had half of the month to present the Pilgrimage. Mother was the executive secretary for the Natchez Garden Club, and she and the president of the club, Mrs. Joseph (Harriette) Dixon were in charge of getting publicity to have tourists visit during their club’s dates of Pilgrimage.

James A. Fitzpatrick was a movie producer, director, writer, and narrator, who specialized in filming travel documentaries, which MGM distributed as a series called "Fitzpatrick Traveltalks" and "Voice of the Globe." They were entertaining shorts that usually played just before the feature film in movie houses all over the United States and abroad.

"They dared ask Metro Goldwyn Mayer to include Natchez in its Voice of the Globe series," said Kathie. "As a result of the badgering by these intrepid ladies, MGM agreed to send Fitzpatrick and his crew to Natchez."

According to Kathie, the resulting movie was recorded in five different languages and was shown in 17,000 theaters throughout the world.

Fitzpatrick was so impressed with Natchez he persuaded Hollywood to return him here to film background scenes for Gone With The Wind.

In 1982, Kathie's mother wrote MGM and asked if they would lend her a copy of the film so that she chould show it at a Natchez Garden Club meeting. After much correspondence they agreed to lend her a copy.

"I remember how excited we were to open the package," said Kathie. "We found that film was only able to be shown on regular movie theatre projectors, so she had to arrange for it to be shown at the local cinema."

Years later, Turner Broadcasting obtained the rights to all of Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks from MGM.

"In 2002 I obtained a video copy from someone I knew who worked for Turner. I used it, along with several other films of the Pilgrimage, including some of Dr. Benoist’s home movies, for a Natchez Garden Club program I was responsible for."

Thanks to Kathie's generosity, all of you who've been wondering who these long-ago participants are can satisfy your curiosity with a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film.   If anyone knows who might be able to give us the identities of the African-Americans in the film, please let me know.  Enjoy.

OPENING SCENES: Mississippi River; Learned’s Lumber Yard; Ferryboat before bridge was built;

DOWNTOWN: Court House (red roof); Notice Priest’s House across Market St. before NGC moved it; Salvo & Berdon Candy Co., now gone; Main St. toward river – old Fire Station now gone.

SCENES OF HOMES: “Dunleith” ; “Rosalie”; “Ravenna”; “The House on Ellicott Hill” then called “Connelly’s Tavern” - lady raising flag and saluting is Blanche Robinson. Couldn’t identify others.

“Edgewood” – PICNIC SCENE with children. TEAPARTY SCENE Left to Right: standing – Jeff Lambdin, Waldo Lambdin; seated -Harriet Geisenberger Shields, Kathie Boatner Blankenstein (serving tea); Clare Geisenberger Eidt (walking up w/cookies); couldn’t identify other children playing “Ring Around the Rosie”.

“Inglewood” front steps- couldn’t identify ladies; “The Briars” exterior, interior with stairway & piano; “Melrose” interior. Elderly African American (seated) in red bandana with child is Jane Johnson who lived and worked at “Melrose” for many years.


“The Hunt” – Hounds used in those days usually were those of Mr. Toto Passavanti. Many Natchez businessmen participated in the Hunt tableau.

Martha Hootsell dancing as “Audubon, the Dancing Master.”

Other dancers are the “Royal Ballet” trained by Miss Treeby Poole. Dancers include Marie Zuccaro Perkins, Agnes Whit, Catherine Ashford, Mary Regina Prothero, Margaret Laub Cooper, Willie May Nichols, Helen Feltus; Children coming down steps include Harriet Geisenberger Shields (in hat) & Ann Metcalfe Lanneau (dark curls). King and Queen (called “Bride and Groom) are Marjorie Hogue Hodges and Hicks Parker. Page was Albert Metcalfe. Margaret White in court.

FINAL SCENE - Sunset over Mississippi River. Couple are Tom Green and his sister Isabelle.

Okay that last scene was of siblings?  That’s just wrong in so many ways. No wonder everybody wonders whether you’ll still be cousins after the divorce.