Why did the Springer almost sell-out for last night’s showing of the 56-year-old movie The Phenix City Story? No doubt the front-page Ledger-Enquirer story about Rachel and Becca Wiggens, the twin babies in the picture, now adult women, being at the showing had something to do with it. But, I think it was more than that, even more than the fact that the movie is about the murder of attorney Albert Patterson by the Phenix City mob, and how his son John and the good people of the city overcame the crime bosses. Probably the chance to see the “film classic” on the big screen in a theater had a lot to do with it. The first time I saw the movie was in 1955 at a U.S. Army theater at McGraw Kasern in Munich, Germany. What an impression Phenix City and Columbus made on my Army buddies!
Now, I can watch movies on my HDTV, and do, but I still enjoy going to movie theaters. It’s a different dynamic when you are a part of an audience, sharing the same experience with hundreds of others – well, some of the time, since the last time I went to the Screening Room at the Ritz 13 there were two of us in the theater – who are reacting to what they are seeing on the screen.
And last night at the Springer, the audience reaction was the strongest I have seen in a long, long time. No doubt the old black- and-white 1955 movie had strong camp appeal, with people laughing at some of the corny over-acting in some serious scenes not meant to be funny. Still, the story, with its heroes and villains, pulled everyone into it, and the audience broke into enthusiastic applause when the good guys overcame the bad guys. It was really loud when Richard Kiley, portraying future Alabama Attorney General and Governor John Patterson, decked some mob goons, and loudest when Albert Patterson finally gave in and decided to run for Attorney General. That decision was probably the thing that eventually brought down the crime bosses.
And the audience enthusiastically applauded the movie when it was over. Rachel and Becca Wiggins, the twins in the movie, along with Columbus-Phenix City historian Fred Fussell, took the stage after the movie. The charming ladies were immediate hits. They were witty. Although, too young when in the movie to remember anything about it, they learned about it from their parents.
The movie was unique for its time, opening with interviews with some of those involved in the Phenix City clean-up. It wasn’t totally accurate, for instance, as clean-up leader Hugh Bentley’s son Truman told me after the movie, the part about the little African-American girl being run down by a mob car and thrown in the Patterson’s yard was “Hollywood.” It never happened. Nor were any real names of the gang’s bosses used. However, overall, in essence, it did, with a little of Hollywood’s coloring, tell the true story.
Thanks to the folks who run the Springer for keeping alive the Springer as a live performance center, but also for remembering that the grand old opera house was also a movie theater for a while. The Film Classics series will continue with a showing of Jaws next month.