You stay classy, Terre Haute.
This city has an opportunity to reveal that quality in grand fashion this week. In decades past, such a moment might have been unthinkable.
If all goes as planned, at least 800 local folks will fill Woodrow Wilson Middle School’s gymnasium on Friday to serve as extras in the pivotal scene of a movie based on the legacy of Eugene Debs. It could mark a turning point for Terre Haute — a sign of maturity as a community.
The town hasn’t always embraced Debs, the pioneer of organized labor in America and a champion of women’s rights, racial desegregation, Social Security and child-labor laws long before those “radical” ideas became mainstream. The arm’s-length relationship between Terre Haute and its internationally known native son primarily stems from another label Debs wore — five-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party.
Thus, since his death in 1926, the community has confined his memory to his home-turned-museum on North Eighth Street.
That situation doesn’t make Terre Haute unique. Few places in middle America would name streets or civic centers after a socialist.
Yet, Terre Haute can distinguish itself with an enthusiastic turnout Friday at Woodrow Wilson.
Two born-and-raised Hauteans — William Tanoos and Paul Fleschner — are co-writers and co-directors of the upcoming film “The Drunk.” Tanoos and Fleschner also act in the movie, which centers on Joe Debs, the fictional grandson of Eugene. (The elder Debs actually had no children.) Tanoos plays Joe, a hard drinker who becomes the improbable Democratic Party nominee in the 2012 Indiana governor’s race. Veteran Hollywood actor Tom Sizemore (“Saving Private Ryan” and “Blackhawk Down”) plays a corrupt prosecutor running against Joe.
On Friday at Woodrow Wilson, Tanoos’ and Sizemore’s characters will square off in a debate. Tanoos and Fleschner need approximately 800 local people to fill the gymnasium’s seats as the debate audience. Those faces-in-the-crowd actors will need to bring a couple of extra shirts, games to pass the time, and patience to stick around all day.
Their presence will also show the world that Terre Haute accepts Debs as a fascinating, iconic and definitive personality in the city’s heritage, even though most people nowadays oppose his politics. His hometown can embrace Debs’ passionate concern for those who lacked influence in his day — the working class, women, minorities, the elderly and children. We can study the details of his imprisonment under the Espionage Act during World War I. We can read his historic speeches.
But we shouldn’t just ignore Debs. After all, Life magazine chose him in 1990 as one of its “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.”
Preserving Debs’ memory has long been a mission for retired Indiana State University professor Charles King, who’s served as secretary of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation since 1985. The nonprofit organization endorsed the movie project, despite the plot’s creative twisting of history. “The Drunk” could raise awareness of Debs, especially if the low-budget, independent flick catches eyes in film festivals such as Cannes or Sundance.
“We hope the movie will show the contemporary relevance of Debs, and that issues he supported are still important,” King said.
The 82-year-old King and the foundation have offered Fleschner and Tanoos historical tips on phrases commonly used in Debs’ era, but left the script fully up to the filmmakers. “Which is really incredible artistic license,” said Fleschner, 31.
That includes the movie’s title and the premise of character Joe Debs’ persistent drinking. Eugene Debs also “had a little bit of trouble with the bottle,” King explained. “It kind of came with the traffic back then. People would want to buy him a drink.” Even as a controversial, lightning-rod of American politics, Debs remained “almost universally liked,” as Tanoos put it. Terre Haute bankers — the local titans of capitalism — would invite the engaging Debs to deliver the toasts at parties and wedding receptions.
Such open-minded affection did not apparently extend to President Woodrow Wilson, who repeatedly refused to release the elderly Debs from prison. It took the 1920 election — in which Debs received almost 1 million votes from his cell in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary — to free Debs. The winner of that election, Warren G. Harding, replaced Wilson and commuted Debs’ 10-year sentence.
Likewise, Terre Haute’s stance on Debs evolved during his three years in prison. After his 1918 speech alleging that capitalism triggered World War I, a local newspaper essentially called for Debs to be jailed. By 1921, though, the Terre Haute Post encouraged its readers to join an amnesty campaign in his behalf “if you feel that free speech is worth preserving in America.” Sixty percent of the city’s citizens signed the petition.
Upon his return to Terre Haute, Debs was greeted by a large crowd, brass bands, the ringing of church bells and signs such as “Debs the humanitarian.”
Ninety years later, filmmakers hope a similar throng will show up for Friday. It’s ironic that the setting for the dramatic debate scene involving Debs’ cinematic grandson is a school that Debs’ hometown named in honor of Wilson. Yet, while reminders of Debs are less prominent here, his memory lingers.
During filming late Tuesday night in the museum, noise from passing trains disrupted work five times. Tanoos and Fleschner — well aware that Debs rose to global notoriety by organizing railroad workers — exchanged grins. “I think Eugene is trying to tell us something,” Fleschner said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.