News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 27, 2008

B-Sides: Steve Martin and Terre Hauteans have a crazy tale to tell

By Mark Bennett


An ideal chance to chuckle, completely free of charge, arrives in unique fashion today inside the Indiana Theatre. The crew from 3Docs Productions wants to film any local folks willing to reminisce about comedian Steve Martin’s fascination with Terre Haute in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Participants will be featured in an upcoming documentary movie titled “One Wild and Crazy City.”

Producer Gary Wood thinks the possibly 90-minute flick could make the elite Cannes or Sundance film festivals in 2009.

Imagine that, Terre Haute in the Cannes Film Festival.

First, though, the cameras must begin rolling. That process starts this morning at 8 o’clock in the lobby of the Indiana, and will continue until 2 p.m. People who’d like to share memories of Steve Martin will register with a team of volunteers from Indiana State University in the lobby. Then participants will head to the theater stage, where Wood and co-producer Justin Escue will interview them on camera.

Participants won’t get paid, but will get their names in the film’s credits, Wood said. And while they’re waiting for their turn on stage, Indianapolis comedian “Otto” is scheduled to entertain them, Wood added.

After enduring a June filled with flood damage and $4-a-gallon gas, the opportunity to appear in “One Wild and Crazy City” offers a refreshing respite from headaches and frustration.

“It definitely gives everybody a chance to get away from their troubles,” Wood said Friday, “and be in a movie, maybe with Steve Martin.”

The producers hope Martin will agree to be interviewed — at any location around the country he wishes — about that wacky era, when he used Terre Haute as a running joke. Wood also hopes Carl Reiner, who produced Martin’s Terre Haute-connected movies “The Jerk” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” would be willing to be interviewed, too.

Martin, Reiner and Terre Hauteans have a crazy tale to tell.

It all started Nov. 18, 1978, when Martin entertained a crowd of 7,348 in Hulman Center. Later the next year, when a Playboy writer asked Martin which city was the most “nowhere place in America,” he chose Terre Haute, and complained he couldn’t find any places open downtown to eat or shop, his hotel TV was on the fritz, and when the tube did work it was filled with fertilizer commercials.

When The Associated Press heard about Martin’s dig at the city, a wire service reporter called Mayor Bill Brighton’s office for comment. At first, Brighton was miffed. Then, after being counseled by his assistant Vicki Weger, Brighton invited Martin to revisit Terre Haute on a personalized tour. On Dec. 7, 1979, Martin took up Brighton’s offer, and got led from a greasy spoon diner to a car wash in a jalopy, a fertilizer plant, a farm implement store and City Hall, where 2,000 people greeted him with signs like “Welcome, Billy Martin.”

Contrite, Martin recanted his portrayal of Terre Haute, and vowed to stage the world premier of “The Jerk” in Terre Haute, which indeed happened just days later. He also immortalized the city in later films, including “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” in which a villain’s plot to dominate the world with a deadly cheese mold claimed, alas, only Terre Haute.

When Martin’s hero character responded by saying, “Damn, and they were about to get a public library,” were you watching in a movie theater? If so, Wood and the documentary producers hope you’ll show up at the Indiana today.

Were you in the Hulman Center crowd for Martin’s concert? If so, they want you, too.

Were you in Terre Haute’s Shuffle Inn, where Martin dined while escorted by two Playboy bunnies? If so, you’re wanted, too.

If you liked or disliked his comedy albums, movies or comments about Terre Haute, the producers want you.

The ISU Foundation is a primary sponsor of the film. Current Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett gave the documentary his blessing and, according to Wood, has agreed to appear in it. The mayor even hinted at inviting Martin back for a return visit, Wood said.

For the mayor or local folks participating, Wood promised to try to keep his onstage interviews “light-hearted.”

“I’ll want to have everybody smiling on camera,” he said.

Smiles are a valuable commodity around Terre Haute these days. They’re available for free today in the Indiana, and could be preserved on film for years to come.

Mark Bennett can be reached at or (812) 231-4377.