“Listen to the people who are saying you can for once, instead of all the ones who have told you that you can’t.” Amelia C. Gormley, “Saugatuck Summer”
Toni and I went to the gala premier of an hour-long PBS documentary, “Michigan Hometown Stories,” about the towns of Saugatuck and Douglas, that son Phil has been working on for four years as producer/director, editor and chief photographer. In the 1830s the first settlers lived in a community called Singapore, doomed to become a ghost town after the area was deforested. Once boasting three sawmills, two hotels, a bank, and Michigan’s first school, Singapore’s buildings were either moved or quickly became enveloped by sand dunes. A legend has it that one resident refused to move until rescued from his roof.
Located near where the Kalamazopo River flows into Lake Michigan, Saugatuck is a Potawatomi word meaning “river’s mouth.” After the brief lumber boom, Saugatuck’s chief export became apples and peaches, shipped in crates made locally. Saugatuck has been a popular tourist attraction since early in the twentieth century, with a beautiful beach and dunelands on Lake Michigan, and many shops and galleries. For over 50 years until it burned down in 1960, a huge waterfront dance hall known as the Big Pavilion was the venue for big bands and dancers from as far away as Chicago. Some elderly ladies interviewed for the documentary exclaimed that’s where they’d met their husbands. A woman recalled seeing it burn down in 1960 when she was in kindergarten.
Among the many historic photos Phil utilized was one of an interurban railway bringing passengers to Saugatuck from Holland and other western Michigan communities. Unlike most nineteenth century towns, Saugatuck never suffered a catastrophic fire that would have consumed the original wooden buildings, so one can find homes and commercial structures that date well back into the nineteenth century.
The 400 people on hand at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts laughed appreciatively at shots of the Douglas Halloween adult parade (Phiol especially enjoyed that shoot) and at mention of the successful effort to keep MacDonald’s from opening a franchise in Saugatuck. As one person said, you can easily find a painting for $10,000 but not a dollar hamburger. Another described the towns as a gay friendly enclave in an otherwise conservative area. Indeed Phil and collaborators Steve Mottram and Jon Helmrich, credited with writing the script, interviewed two guys who opened in 1970 the Dunes Gay Hotel and Resort; it has grown exponentially and bills itself as the “a pinnacle of the gay Saugatuck-Douglas community.” In his witty introduction on stage, Phil quipped that he was hit on when at the Dunes Hotel to film a Sunday “tea party” dance. A guy called him “Tripod,” a nickname that Steve and John adopted and that we all used liberally at dinner at “The Butler,” located on the site of the century-old Butler Hotel.
above, Steve, Phil, Jon; below, guests at Dunes Gay Hotel
The documentary also focused on the Ox-Bow School of Art, founded in 1910 by Chicago Art Institute faculty as a summer retreat for artists of all types. On the day Phil filmed an interview with the director, it was raining. Steve explained the excruciating editing process Phil went through to excise the sound of raindrops. On another occasion a person walked behind an artist being interviewed, and Phil somehow removed all traces of it. On an outdoors shoot someone could be heard cursing until Phil dubbed in seagull sounds. Taping while on a “Star of Saugatuck” boat cruise, Phil was so impressed with the narrator the tour that he outfitted the guy with a microphone. After filming a theater troupe rehearsing, Phil realized the music was of poor quality so he substituted one of better quality but spent hours coordinating the music with the actors snapping their fingers. Steve and Jon teased Phil about seeking a perfect shot of dune grass – symbol of the beauty and fragile nature of the natural environment. Before Jon met Steve in London, he joked, his dad had warned him to look out for forward gay Englishmen.
above, The Butler; below, Wickwood Inn
Toni and I have been enjoying Saugatuck for over 30 years and loved scenes of places we’d visited, such as Ox-Bow, Oval Beach (where niece Mary Ann enjoyed dunking me), the Chain Ferry (which various grandkids operated), and the Dunes Buggy Ride. Mother-in-law Blanche loved going there every time she visited. My mother and stepfather Howard spent a week at Wickwood Inn, one of the bread and breakfasts sighted in the film. They loved the experience, but Howard thought it pricy, not realizing he was paying just half the total, Midge having sent a check for half when she made the reservations. We wondered if at age 91 Howard was up to the dune buggy ride, but he declared it was the most fun he’d had in years. When Phil’s boss Ken heard that he’d taken the WGVU station’s $75,000 high definition camera on the ride, he feigned shock but laughed when I quipped, “That’s why they call him Tripod.” Ken asked where Phil got his patience (from Toni and her dad, Anthony) and bragged what a great teacher he is, saying, “You should see his student reviews.”
Jimbo, Toni, Phil, Alissa, Josh
Holi, Andrea, Ashley, Jasmine, Libby, Arianna
Phil’s daughter Miranda was disappointed she couldn’t attend due to a wedding rehearsal dinner. Alissa came with Josh even though taking off early the next morning to see Beth, her mom. Outwardly relaxed and confident throughout the reception, Phil was very gratified at the accolades from virtually everyone who saw the film. The applause went on for five minutes. As I learned doing a history of Cedar Lake, it is hard to please everyone, but he pulled it off. The town historian gushed, “I knew it was going to be good, but it was a thousands times better than I had expected.” Earlier, historical society members had seen a promo and worried the film would be too like a Chamber of Commerce type piece, understandable given the many sponsors. I knew my son wouldn’t produce something ahistorical. Evidently stressing the gay friendly atmosphere caused nary a ripple of discontent. Saugatuck is what Miller Beach has the potential to become; most of the ingredients are already present.
The predicted rain held off until we were leaving “The Butler.” Not the best night driver, I drove the 100 miles home through patches of fog on I-96 and an especially hard downpour on 80/94 just before the Chesterton exit. Too exhausted even for a beer nightcap, I went to bed after hearing that the Cubs had won, 7-6, and the Bulls had beaten Cleveland on a last-second Derrick Rose three-pointer and slept soundly.
At IUN the next morning I ran into Fred McColly working on the community garden. Like me, my former student is a hard worker who finds it hard to delegate. Fred works at Gary Steel products in a building near I-65 and Fifth Avenue in Gary once owned by Republic Steel. He calls himself an industrial, unionized dinosaur and concluded, given recent trends:
Manufacturing has moved east and south. It’s always had a migratory history - looking for cheaper labor - it’s why RCA moved from Camden, New Jersey to Bloomington, Indiana and then on to Mexico. Chinese and Indian steel are beating the local mills into submission. From a unionist standpoint the outlook on a living wage is grim. I can retire soon but worry about my kids...and theirs.