News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 14, 2011

MARK BENNETT: What would Debs think?

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Pretend it’s the year 2111. Crews of light and sound technicians, makeup artists, production assistants, actors and directors are walking through your house — a century later — making a movie based on your legacy.

If you’re playing along, a few concerns are probably swirling through your brain.

What will my pad look like a hundred years from now?

Will these strangers from another time and place take their shoes off before walking on the carpet?

What exactly is my legacy?

While climbing the narrow, steep staircase to the third floor of the Debs Museum last week, I wondered what the namesake of this historic, three-story house on North Eighth Street — Terre Haute-born social activist Eugene V. Debs — would think of the cinematic beehive of activity buzzing inside his former home this month.

In addition to other locations around his hometown, several significant scenes in the upcoming independent movie “The Drunk” were filmed inside the quaint, well-preserved rooms of the Victorian-style structure that was Debs’ residence from its completion in 1890 until his death in 1926.

He probably wouldn’t have recognized the third floor. First of all, that level was barely used while Debs and his wife lived there. Nearly 40 years later, the Debs Foundation — an organization dedicated to keeping alive his fight against social injustices — restored the home, which then became a museum and one of just 11 National Historic Landmarks in Indiana. The walls of the previously overlooked third floor were adorned with vivid murals of Debs’ life, drawn by Terre Haute artist John Laska and paid for by philanthropist Tony Hulman.

(Yes, Tony Hulman, the wealthiest Hautean ever, funded this tribute to America’s most famous “radical.” Hulman’s grandfather and Debs were friends.)

Secondly, the implements of filmmaking present in the top rooms of Debs’ home would have baffled him. “Talkies” — the term people in the early 20th century used to describe those new-fangled movies with sound — didn’t emerge nationwide until 1926 and ’27. The technological and fine-detail preparations for each scene of “The Drunk” didn’t exist during the lifetime of Debs, who was born in 1855.

Before filming a scene between lead character Joe Debs (the hard-drinking, fictional grandson of Eugene) and his mother, Maggie, a technician tweaked knobs on a control panel resting on a table in front of a full-sized bust of Debs. A woman carefully mixed tea and water in a bottle to resemble whiskey. Crew members — ranging in size from broad-shouldered guys to petite women — quickly ascended and descended the cramped stairway. Debs stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall, so the hassle of maneuvering his lanky legs up and down those stairs probably was the reason he seldom visited the third floor.

Undoubtedly, Debs never imagined the place would serve as the setting for a theatrical interpretation of his legacy. The political comedy created by Terre Haute natives Paul Fleschner and William Tanoos pits Debs’ alcoholic grandson (played by Tanoos) against a corrupt prosecutor (portrayed by noted Hollywood actor Tom Sizemore) in an improbable duel for the Indiana governorship in 2012. Meanwhile, the incumbent Hoosier governor is played by the actual former governor of Minnesota, ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura. The script includes references to the causes championed by Eugene Debs, his imprisonment under the Espionage Act, and his five presidential campaigns atop the Socialist Party ticket.

What would Debs say of all of this lights-camera-action treatment in his humble abode and birthplace?

“I think he’d be flattered by it,” said Charles King, longtime secretary of the Debs Foundation.

He liked the limelight. At the height of Debs’ prominence, an actor recorded one of his speeches. “When somebody played it for [Debs], he was quite flattered by it,” King explained.

Karen Brown, curator and director of the Debs Home and Museum since 2002, thinks Debs would appreciate the notoriety the film could bring to his efforts to empower workers, women, minorities, the elderly and children. “I think he’d be pretty excited that the movie’s being made about someone who’s attempting to carry on his legacy,” she said.

A good legacy gives future generations a reason to say, “Thanks.” A few of Debs’ ideas are worthy of that — 40-hour work weeks, women’s voting rights, the end of segregation, child-labor laws.

“I think Debs’ legacy has been kind of pushed under the rug by mainstream historians,” Fleschner said. “The Drunk” employs much creative license, because, in reality, Eugene Debs had no children. Nonetheless, the causes he parented fill the background of the film.

“It’s about Debs’ values, at the core,” Fleschner said.

Values not forgotten. A legacy. That’s as much as any of us could hope for, should a movie crew show up at our old homestead 10 decades from now.



Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.