TERRE HAUTE — Thank goodness Americans pinched their buttocks correctly.
Otherwise, Terre Haute could’ve been forever immortalized in a movie called “Manure for the Millions.”
If you understand those two sentences, Gary Wood and his cohorts want to talk with you. (Counselors may, also.) The Indianapolis independent filmmaker is exploring the bizarre, long-lost connection between comedian Steve Martin and Terre Haute. Soon, Wood intends to begin filming a documentary called “One Wild and Crazy City” right here.
Many of you are probably still hung up on those first two sentences, so let’s clarify it all.
On Nov. 18, 1978, Martin rode a wave of rock-star popularity into Terre Haute for a comedy concert in Hulman Center. A throng of 7,348 fans laughed along with his wacky arrow-through-the-head, banjo-playing routine. Steve, though, apparently didn’t enjoy his stay. A few months later, when a Playboy magazine interviewer asked Martin to pick the most nowhere city in America, he answered, “Terre Haute, Indiana.”
Why? How could he say such a thing?
Well, Steve had a long list of gripes. When he ventured out of his hotel room, he found no shops or restaurants open downtown. When he returned to the hotel, he tried to watch TV, but the horizontal hold was on the fritz. Even after it cleared up, Martin couldn’t get used to seeing fertilizer commercials. “They say you can always tell that you’re somewhere when they have manure ads on TV,” he told Playboy.
Terre Haute responded by inviting Martin to return for a full-fledged tour of the city. He accepted, and on Dec. 7, 1979, it happened. Then-Mayor Bill Brighton led Martin — joined by a Playboy entourage — from a meal at the Shuffle Inn diner to a tour of CF Industries (a fertilizer plant), a ride in a jalopy through a car wash, a visit to a tractor supply shop (where he received a toy fertilizer spreader and a birdhouse), and an appearance at City Hall before 2,000 Hauteans (waving signs like “Welcome, Billy Martin” and “Stan, We’re Your Biggest Fans”).
Martin recanted his “Nowhere” jab and vowed to premier his movie “The Jerk” in Terre Haute, which it did a few days later.
Terre Haute remained a running joke for him, though. In his 1982 movie “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” the only town destroyed by an evil villain’s toxic cheese mold was, alas, Terre Haute. Martin, trying to foil the plot as a crime-fighting private eye, feigned his dismay, saying, “Damn, they were just about to get a public library.”
One of the previews to “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” featured Martin asking theatergoers to choose whether he should release that film or another titled “Manure for the Millions: The Story of Terre Haute, Indiana.” He asked fans to vote by pinching one side of their buttocks or the other.
Wood, a 44-year-old who grew up in Cloverdale, remembers seeing that trailer in the Indiana Theatre. Wood was a student, briefly, at Indiana State University at the time.
More than a quarter-century later, Wood wants to relive the tongue-in-cheek feud between Martin and Terre Haute in a documentary.
“It’s going to be pro-Terre Haute, but it’s going to be quirky,” he explained.
Wood intends to interview people involved in that saga, or saw it unfold. He also wants to shoot footage of Terre Haute this winter to give it the look of November 1978 and December 1979. Once that’s done, Wood hopes to interview Martin himself and promises to make it as painless as possible for the star of major movies such as “Father of the Bride,” “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
“Hopefully, this will be something Steve Martin says, ‘Yeah, it sounds like fun. I’ll do it,’” Wood said.
“It’ll be lighthearted,” he added, “and we’re not doing a hatchet job on Terre Haute or on Steve Martin.”
It should appeal to film lovers everywhere, Wood speculated, because “unless you’re from Terre Haute or that area, it’s a story that’s never been told.”
That’s Wood’s niche. “One Wild and Crazy City” is one of three documentaries he’s pursuing now. Thus, his company is called 3Docs Productions. The others include “My Kid Brother’s Band” and “Sissies.” The former centers on a visit by guitarist George Harrison to his sister’s home in Benton, Ill., in 1963, a year before he and The Beatles “invaded” the United States. Despite other legends, a tiny Benton radio station was actually the first to play a Beatles record in ’63, after considerable begging by George and his sis, Louise. “Sissies” depicts two sisters living totally different lifestyles.
Wood thinks all three — particularly “One Wild and Crazy City” and “My Kid Brother’s Band” — could earn a spot in renowned film festivals.
“Our plan is for these to be very Sundance-friendly, very Toronto-friendly and maybe even Cannes-friendly,” he said. “I really think with these concepts, as long as the quality’s there, we’re not going to have any trouble.”
Wood first dabbled in screenwriting during a six-year stint in the Navy. Long days aboard the U.S.S. Nassau gave him time to hone his writing. Once out of the Navy, he kept on writing, whenever possible, while working in a variety of businesses. In 2001, he wrote a script for “Saving Star Wars,” which became a cult movie hit about two “Star Wars” fans who accidentally kidnap George Lucas. Later, Wood penned another film “Open Mic’Rs.”
That resume, modest as it is, could help Wood’s new project. “We’ve got a track record now,” he said.
With those credentials, Wood would like to hear from people who experienced Martin’s visits in 1978 and ’79. Relax, this film is “One Wild and Crazy City,” not “Manure for the Millions.” No buttocks pinching is necessary.
Mark Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (812) 231-4377.
TERRE HAUTE — Thank goodness Americans pinched their buttocks correctly.
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