A “White Christmas” at the Upcountry History Museum

The Upcountry History Museum follows COVID-19 protocols, including limited capacity, requiring facemasks and no contact ticket purchasing through their website. Read more.

Learn how to book a virtual tour or visit in person.

You may be dreaming of a white Christmas, but it may not be likely that you’ll see cold precipitation in your area — especially if you live in the South like me.

The Upcountry History Museum offers the next best thing:  The Greenville, S.C. museum has brought a “White Christmas” to the Upstate of South Carolina through an exhibit. On loan from the Rosemary Clooney House in Augusta, Ky, the exhibit will be on display in Greenville until Jan. 30, 2021.

“White Christmas” (1954) is a holiday favorite starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. The film begins during World War II and then covers 10 years to show Crosby and Kaye’s characters are now entertainment successes. They meet two sisters (Clooney, Ellen), and the four travel to Pine Tree, Vermont, where they find their World War II leader, General Waverly (Dean Jagger), is running a failing inn. The group tries to figure out a way to help business while also honoring General Waverly’s service.

This is a rare time when the “White Christmas” exhibit has traveled away from its Kentucky home, said museum owner and former Miss America, Heather French Henry.

“This benefits the Upcountry History Museum because we can take our exhibit to people who may never travel to Augusta,” Henry said.

A peak into the exhibit room from the entrance.

My visit

The exhibit includes Edith Head-designed costumes, film props, and other memorabilia, such as a special lighter with Bing Crosby on it that he gifted that Christmas. The costumes include the blue lace and tulle “Sisters” dresses worn by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, the white wool dress and green velvet that Clooney and Ellen wore at the Christmas party,  the black pants George Chakiris wore in “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and Ellen’s white “Mandy” costume.

After watching “White Christmas” since I was a child, it was amazing to see Edith Head’s iconic costumes up close and in person. I went with my parents, sister and four-year-old niece, who particularly loved the “Sisters” costumes and the “Mandy” white outfit.

With COVID-19 in mind, I felt comfortable at the Upcountry History Museum throughout my visit. My family was masked, and there were only one or two other small families there, making it very easy social distance.

The dresses worn by Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Mary Wickes at the Christmas party. Henry said that the white dress was one of the most delicate, because it is wool. (Photo/Jessica P.)

Moving history across states

To move all of these pieces from Kentucky to South Carolina, each item must be carefully cataloged. To avoid any wear or damage to the costumes, the costumes remain on the mannequins, and most travel upright.

The exhibit also includes items that aren’t displayed at the Rosemary Clooney House due to space, like the sleigh. The only replicas in the exhibit are the red finale dresses made by Henry’s mother, Diana French. Paramount has not been able to locate the red dresses, which are either owned by a private collector or were altered and repurposed after the film, according to the exhibit.

Since many of the costumes are now 66 years old, the condition can be a concern, but with Edith Head and her team’s great work, many are in excellent condition.

“That’s what makes it so crazy. Not only do we have a phenomenal collection, but they are also all Edith Head designs,” Henry said. “Even if you aren’t interested in the film, you may be interested in the design.”

The blue “Sisters” dresses, worn by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in “White Christmas.” Vera-Ellen’s dress on the right was restored by Paramount and the lace was hand-created. (Photo/Jessica P.)

Clooney and Vera-Ellen in the dresses, for comparison.

From Miss America to Museum Founder

Like so many people, Henry grew up watching “White Christmas,” and says being part of this is unexpected.

After Henry won Miss America in 1999, fellow Kentucky-native Rosemary Clooney was one of the first phone calls she received. The two later performed together.

Rosemary Clooney moved to Augusta, Ky, in 1980, and after Clooney died in 2002, her children reached out to Henry and her husband, Dr. Steve Henry, about purchasing her home. The Henrys enthusiastically agreed and preserved the home, creating a museum to celebrate the life and career of Rosemary Clooney.

Since the Rosemary Clooney House opened in 2005, the Henrys started working to collect memorabilia and costumes over the years, including “White Christmas.”

“Each costume has its own story about its journey,” Henry said. “In fact, when we first started, we didn’t even think we would find but maybe one or two pieces.”

Henry first was connected with Paramount when she reached out for a sketch or pattern to recreate the red finale Christmas dresses for a “White Christmas” stage show she was performing in.

“They (Paramount) realized for the first time that they didn’t know where any of the costumes were,” Henry said. “After the show, I called them back and asked if they found anything.”

It was a “snowball effect” as collectors began to contact them. The “Mandy” ivory dance outfit was their first big auction item.

“Rosemary’s ‘Sisters dress’ was on eBay labeled ‘vintage 1950s party dress,” Henry said. “Vera’s companion dress was with a collector in Texas.”

Vera-Ellen’s dress had been altered into a sleeveless dress and was resorted for two years by Betsey Potter of Paramount, who hand-created the dress’s lace.

Costumes from the “Mandy” number in “White Christmas,” including Vera-Ellen’s white costume. The exhibit said the red/orange costume may look different in the film due to the Techcnicolor process, and due to age. Photo/Jessica P.

The “Mandy” number for comparison

A Multi-Generational Tradition

“White Christmas” was the top box office hit in 1954 but has continued to be a holiday favorite for the past 66 years.

“White Christmas is a movie I have watched since I was born. My mother had us watch it and now our girls watch it,” Henry said. “What’s so great is you see that multi-generational tradition with this film.”

Henry says her favorite number is “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” but she also loves “Choreography.”

“When she comes down in the hot pink tap dress, I just love it,” Henry said. “Vera-Ellen is one of the most underappreciated dancers of her time.”

Plan your visit

The film and exhibit also tie in with her military veteran advocacy, and in connection with the Greenville exhibit, Henry partnered with the museum to create launching Operation Waverly.  Through this initiative, the museum will be collecting supplies to benefit Fellow Countrymen, a community-based non-profit committed to ending Veteran homelessness within the Upstate of South Carolina. When you visit, you can donate one of the following items for an area veteran.

Learn more about planning your visit to the Upcountry History Museum or how to take a virtual tour of the exhibit. The exhibit will return to the Rosemary Clooney House in February.

Your humble writer in front of the sleigh and replica dresses at the exhibit, located at the Upcountry History Museum.

Classics in the Carolinas: Burt Lancaster and Clemson University

Comet Over Hollywood is doing a mini-series of “Classics in the Carolinas.” I’ll be spotlighting classic movie related topics in South Carolina (my home state) and North Carolina (where I currently live and work).

posterClemson University has a long history in my family.

My great-grandfather graduated from there in 1918, my paternal grandfather went there, my maternal grandfather was the Dean of Science, both my parents attended the school and so did both of my sisters.

But Clemson also has a touch of film history.

In 1973, Clemson, SC and Anderson, SC were the filming locations for the movie “The Midnight Man,” starring and co-directed by actor Burt Lancaster.

In the film, Lancaster plays ex-con Jim Slade who starts working as a night watchman at a local university, Jordan College. The film also stars Cameron Mitchell, Susan Clark and Catharine Bach has a small role.

My mother grew up in Clemson and was a junior at Daniel High School in Clemson during the filming of “The Midnight Man.”

“I remember when the news came out that they were looking at Clemson and a few other places for filming, everyone thought it was very exciting,” said Lisa Pickens, mother of Comet Over Hollywood.

Burt Lancaster filming scenes from "Midnight Man" on the campus of Clemson University. Source: Clemson archives

Burt Lancaster filming scenes from “Midnight Man” on the campus of Clemson University. Source: Clemson archives

Filming locations included areas:

-The campus of Clemson University such as inside Tillman Hall

-Driving down Highway 123 and goes into a bar in Anderson, SC

-The Anderson, SC courthouse

-Cameron Mitchell exercises in Riggs Field, which was Clemson’s second football field from 1915 to 1941 and now is the university’s soccer stadium

-Lancaster gets off the bus in front of Clemson’s post office which is now Mell Hall, Clemson’s Housing Office.

-Swimming pool scenes were filmed in Holtzendorff Hall

“A lot of people thought they should use the balcony of our house,” said Barbara Evers, writer and aunt of Comet Over Hollywood. “I don’t remember why. As far as I know, they never considered it.”

Several locals were used in the filming, including classmates of my mother, Lisa Vogel Pickens, and my uncle Henry Vogel.

“Your Mom heard they were holding auditions in the basement of the Post Office (Mell Hall). She got permission, and we went,” Evers said. “We never found the place where auditions were being held. Your Mom was sure excited, though.  She ran down the stairs of the Post Office.”

Lancaster and Mitchell in a press conference. Source: Clemson TAPS Yearbook 1972-1973

Lancaster and Mitchell in a press conference. Source: Clemson TAPS Yearbook 1972-1973

During the filming of “Midnight Man,” Lancaster was heavily drinking and getting up at 5 a.m. to start filming, according to the Kate Buford book “Burt Lancaster: An American Life.”

“I remember Burt Lancaster stayed in the penthouse of the Clemson House, Clemson’s nicest hotel which now is a dorm for students,” Pickens said. “He complained about the mattress and wanted a king size bed. Friends of my parents, the Whitlocks, let them use their king size mattress. I have no idea why they would do that.”

Filming took six weeks, according to “Burt Lancaster Excites Clemson Campus,” a Feb. 25, 1973, article from the Herald-Journal.

At the time, the Town of Clemson had approximately 5,500 people living there and the university had 9,700 students, according to the article.

Filming on the campus of Clemson University. Source: Clemson TAPS Yearbook 1972-1973

Filming on the campus of Clemson University. Source: Clemson TAPS Yearbook 1972-1973

“Boys at the dormitory window applauded at the end of the scene. Lancaster responded with a smile and then pointed out that one of the boys had a woman with him,” said the Herald-Journal article.

Unfortunately, “Midnight Man” didn’t do well. Both Evers and Pickens recall being disappointed that the film received bad reviews.

“You hope it will do well since it was filmed in your hometown, but it didn’t,” Pickens said.

Other movies filmed in the Upstate of South Carolina include the George Clooney comedy “Leatherheads” (2008), filmed in my hometown of Greenville, SC, and “Radio” (2003) filmed in Walterboro, SC.

“The Midnight Man” was shot from February 1973 until March 1973 and was released on June 10, 1974.

There was a premiere at the Astro Theater in Clemson on March 14, 1974.

“I thought it would be exciting to go to the premiere but Lancaster didn’t show up, so I didn’t go,” Pickens said. “Even in small Clemson, I never ran across the actors.”

Filming crews at Clemson University. Source: Clemson TAPS Yearbook 1972-1973

Filming crews at Clemson University. Source: Clemson TAPS Yearbook 1972-1973

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Classics in the Carolinas: Stanley Donen

Comet Over Hollywood is doing a mini-series of “Classics in the Carolinas.” I’ll be spotlighting classic movie related topics in South Carolina (my home state) and North Carolina (where I currently live and work).

Updated Feb. 23, 2019.

Stanley Donen in 1950

Stanley Donen in 1950

He directed and choreographed some of the most famous musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, including “Singin’ in the Rain.”

And he’s from my birthplace

Stanley Donen was born in 1924 in Columbia, S.C.-the capital of South Carolina.

He left the south for New York when he was a teenager.

Donen described his childhood as an unhappy one in a 1983 book by Joseph Andrew Casper.

His parents were of the Jewish faith. Though Donen did not identify with the religion, he was taunted by anti-Semitic classmates in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Due to the bullying he endured in his youth, Donen did not recall the city fondly in interviews.

“It was sleepy, it was awful, I hated growing up there, and I couldn’t wait to get out,” Donen said in the book Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies.

In his 2006 Turner Classic Movies Private Screenings interview with Robert Osborne, Donen described Columbia as a “small town.” At the time, Columbia was probably a small, but now, is the largest city in South Carolina.

“My family and I were Southerners,” Donen said in Silverman’s book. “Really, really Southern, and really, really American. My mother was born in Columbia, SC. My father was born in Augusta, GA, which is just over the border. His father died in Beaufort, SC, and my mother’s mother and father–that is, my maternal grandparents–are buried in the same town where they were born, Columbia, SC.”

Donen and Gene Kelly watch Michael Kidd sing in "It's Always Fair Weather"

Donen and Gene Kelly watch Michael Kidd sing in “It’s Always Fair Weather”

Donen would have been named after his grandfather, Issac, but his mother felt Issac would make for a bad life in the south, so he was named Stanley instead, according to the book.

“Columbia was a town with a wonderful group of Jewish people. It’s just that there weren’t too many of them,” said a childhood neighbor, Betty Walker in Silverman’s book. “They were really outnumbered.”

After school to escape from his unhappiness, Donen went to the movies.

“I saw Fred Astaire in ‘Flying Down to Rio’ when I was nine years old, and it changed my life,” he said in the Casper biography. “It just seemed wonderful, and my life wasn’t wonderful. The joy of dancing to music! And Fred was so amazing, and Ginger— oh, God! Ginger!”

After watching Astaire and Rogers, he started taking dance lessons in Columbia and performed at the Town Theater.

His mother encouraged him to move to New York and in 1940, at the age of 16, he found himself as a chorus boy in “Pal Joey” with Gene Kelly as the lead. Kelly asked him to be the assistant choreographer and the show’s stage manager.

In 1943, Donen went to Hollywood and helped choreograph the film “Best Foot Forward” starring Lucille Ball. Donen was the stage manager for the play on Broadway, which starred Rosemary Lane. When the film rights were bought by MGM for the play, Donen went to Hollywood along with some of the play cast which included June Allyson and Nancy Walker, according to Allyson’s autobiography.

Donen’s Hollywood choreography career continued with movies like “Cover Girl” and “Living in a Big Way.”

The first film he directed in Hollywood was “On the Town” (1948). He continued on directing some of the most famous Hollywood films including “Singin’ In the Rain” (1952), “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) and “Charade” (1963). Stars he directed include Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Sophia Loren.

Deborah Kerr, Stanley Donen,  and Robert Mitchum

With Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum for “The Grass is Greener”

Though Donen’s life in Columbia wasn’t a happy one, he influenced one woman with her dance career. Naomi Calvert, who co-owned the Columbia dance institution Calvert-Brodie dance studio, studied under Donen as well as Tim McCoy, who helped Vera-Ellen.

She co-owned a reputable dance studio in Columbia called Calvert-Brodie, along with Ann Brodie, for over 30 years. Calvert passed away in 2016.

My oldest sister attended Calvert-Brodie and looking back on home videos of dance recitals, the recitals were like a mini “revue” or “follies.”

These weren’t children bouncing their hip and shaking their finger at the audience. These were themed dance recitals, such as a patriotic theme and a circus theme. They would begin with an opening number. The circus show was complete with a person on a trapeze, and the patriotic show had little girls tap dancing with drums. My oldest sister, Erin, had a tap solo.

Clearly, Mr. Donen influenced her craft.

Though my father grew up in Columbia as an Army brat and we lived there as a family for six years, it isn’t the Pickens family’s favorite place either.

Though it’s the capital of the state, many people call Columbia “the arm-pit of the South.”

While Donen didn’t remember his hometown fondly, I’m also disheartened to see that he often isn’t remembered by his birthplace either. For his 90th birthday in 2014, a non-profit movie theater held a film retrospective, and in 2017 he was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. Otherwise, any recognition is few and far between, even by The State newspaper on the day of his death.

The town that mistreated him in his youth has also unfortunately forgotten one of the most vibrant film directors of film history.


The end. On the set of "Indiscreet" with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant

The end. On the set of “Indiscreet” with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant

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Classics in the Carolinas: Arthur Freed

Comet Over Hollywood is doing a mini-series of “Classics in the Carolinas.” I’ll be spotlighting classic movie related topics in South Carolina (my home state) and North Carolina (where I currently live and work).

Annie Get Your Gun, Bandwagon, Singin' in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis are just a few MGM musicals Arthur Freed produced.

Annie Get Your Gun, Bandwagon, Singin’ in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis are just a few MGM musicals Arthur Freed produced.

Singin in the Rain” (1952), “Show Boat” (1950) and “Meet Me in St Louis” (1944)

These are just a few of the well-known, Technicolor MGM musicals that producer Arthur Freed produced.

But before working with some of Hollywood’s most talented stars, Freed was born down south.

Freed, real name Arthur Grossman, was born in 1894 in Charleston, S.C.

His parents, sister and brothers were a musical family. Freed’s father, Max, emigrated from Budapest in the 1880s.

Max Freed sold zithers and encouraged his children’s musical talents. Arthur’s brother Walter became an organist, Sydney and Clarence had recording businesses in Hollywood, Ralph was a songwriter and Ruth also wrote several songs, according to M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit by Hugh Fordin.

Nacio Herb Brown (left) and Arthur Freed (right) in 1929. The two wrote several songs together.

Nacio Herb Brown (left) and Arthur Freed (right) in 1929. The two wrote several songs together.

Though Freed was born in Charleston, he was raised in Seattle, Washington, educated in New Hampshire and started his music career as a song plugger in Chicago.

In Chicago, Minnie Marx, mother of the Marx Brothers, discovered Freed who sang and wrote material for the brothers in vaudeville shows, according to Billboard Aug. 1950.

In 1928, Freed got a job at MGM studios where he wrote songs with Nacio Herb Brown such as “Broadway Melody,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “You are My Lucky Star” and “Temptation.”

Freed began producing films in the late 1930s and became interested in helping promote Judy Garland’s career.

Judy Garland and Arthur Freed

Judy Garland and Arthur Freed

From 1939 to 1960, Arthur Freed produced 44 films. It’s safe to say I have seen every Freed production.

After working with  some of MGM’s top talents and winning an Academy Award for Best Picture for “Gigi,” Freed left the studio in 1961.

Freed died at the age of 78 in 1973 and was buried in Culver City, California.

Although Freed did not spend much of his life in Charleston, I felt it important that one of Hollywood’s most prolific producers was born in my birth state of South Carolina.

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