News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

January 11, 2014

MARK BENNETT: The Drunk: Making peace

Film premiere offers chance for town to reconcile with its most colorful character

TERRE HAUTE — Terre Haute grew fond of Eugene Debs.

The process took time.

America’s most famous “radical” aggravated many folks in his Indiana hometown with his political views in the early 20th century. Debs spent three years in a Georgia penitentiary for a 1918 speech alleging that capitalist greed motivated World War I. A Terre Haute newspaper endorsed Debs’ arrest on federal sedition charges. Yet, by 1921, hearts softened here. The Terre Haute Post organized a petition to free Debs, urging locals to sign it “if you feel that free speech is worth preserving in America.”

Sixty percent of Hauteans did so.

Sixty percent.

By contrast, just 52 percent of registered voters in Vigo County showed up at the polls in the 2012 general election.

As church bells rang and brass bands played, a crowd of 50,000, according to the New York Times, greeted Debs as the social activist and labor leader returned to this city from prison, frail and 65 years old, after President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence on Christmas Day 1921.

Fifty-thousand.

Ten-thousand people cheered Larry Bird and his Indiana State Sycamores teammates when they came back to Terre Haute after reaching the 1979 NCAA Finals.

Somehow, lots of Debs’ fellow Terre Hauteans made peace with the fact that the city’s most internationally known native son was an unabashed socialist. If they could, so can 21st-century Terre Haute. As in 1921, reconciliation today wouldn’t require an endorsement of his politics. Instead, the community can simply see Debs as the railroad fireman, Terre Haute city clerk and Indiana state representative who became a national voice for the overlooked people of his time — the working class, women, minorities, children and the elderly. Imperfect, but good-hearted. A champion of “radical” causes that are now mainstream, such as Social Security, child labor laws and voting rights for women. The man who said, “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired not by maudlin sentimentality, but by the higher duty I owe myself.”

Since his death in 1926, that bond faded. A Debs-phobia crept in its place, leaving many unable to get past the label of “five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate.”

Basically, it’s time to lighten up. Debs was, and arguably is, the most colorful, charismatic and quoted figure ever to call this place “home.”

Like John, Bird gatherings

He’s also giving us another chance to celebrate our Hauteanality, just as we did in October when Tommy John came home to see a city ballpark named in his honor and in November when Larry Bird returned for the unveiling of his bronze statue in front of Hulman Center. A feature-length movie, loosely based on Debs’ legacy, will premiere in the Indiana Theatre on Saturday night, Feb. 15. It’s full of local people, places and history, stars Hollywood veteran Tom Sizemore and political personality Jesse Ventura, and is the brainchild of Terre Haute-raised filmmakers William Tanoos and Paul Fleschner.

The cinematic debut of “The Drunk” should bring the community together for a fun night, a purely Hautean experience.

“If you’re in Terre Haute, there’s a real reason to see this movie,” said Fleschner, who with Tanoos co-wrote, co-directed and acted in the film.

Their cinematic adventure began in October 2010, when Tanoos sent Fleschner a first draft of a screenplay about a hard-drinking man who gets arrested for a DUI and then launches an improbable campaign for Indiana governor against a corrupt prosecutor. Fleschner added a transformative twist, linking the young candidate to the iconic Eugene Victor Debs. The character became Joe Debs, Eugene’s fictional grandson. (In reality, Debs had no children.)

Debs’ legacy looms in the background of the present-day storyline.

“For me, Debs is the DNA of this movie,” Fleschner said by telephone from Chicago, where he now lives with his wife and works as an actor and audiobook narrator.

Pieces of Debs’ 70-year lifetime, from 1855 to 1926, crop up in scenes shot inside the Debs home, now a museum on North Eighth Street in Terre Haute, preserved by the Debs Foundation. “The Drunk” was filmed entirely in Terre Haute in summer 2011 and spring 2012. The settings will be familiar to locals — Woodrow Wilson Middle School, Union Hospital, Ohio Boulevard, the Saratoga and Moggers restaurants, the Vigo County Courthouse, the now-closed Coffee Grounds, the Vigo County jail and courthouse, Indiana State University and, fittingly, its theatrical destination, the Indiana Theatre.

That theater opened in 1922, the year after Debs came home from prison. Perhaps he watched a few movies there himself.

“To have a premiere in Terre Haute was a given,” said Tanoos, who joined the interview by conference call from southern California, where he lives and works as a disability-law attorney.

“It needs to premiere in Terre Haute,” Fleschner added.

A hollywood touch

Both noted the theater’s recent revitalization under new owner Rob Lundstrom. The place likely looks as spectacular as it has since its heyday. The screening of “The Drunk” will feature slices of that style. The $10 general-admission tickets will include a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers after the viewing. The $40 VIP tickets include a red-carpet walk where “everybody can do their best paparazzi pose,” Tanoos said.

The film’s destiny from Terre Haute will be guided by Green Apple Entertainment, with details of its national release due by April, Fleschner said. They signed a distribution deal with Green Apple on Sept. 27, the day Fleschner got married. They’ll market to various formats a film that received its finishing touches from Hollywood-experienced experts. The sound mix occurred at 20th Century Fox facilities. Veteran editor Ross Albert honed its final look.

Though Tanoos, 34, and Fleschner, 30, are first-timers, they’re surrounded by seasoned movie makers. Sizemore, of “Blackhawk Down” and “Saving Private Ryan” fame, plays Joe Debs’ campaign opponent, Bruce Frye.

“This is a real movie, and it looks like it,” Tanoos said.

They’re hoping it entertains viewers, fascinates critics, turns a profit for the film’s investors, and serves as a springboard to bigger ventures for the two.

Most of all, “it’s telling a story,” Fleschner said, “and you do it to share it with people.”

The premiere here could be enlightening. “I think people will walk away from this film really being interested and intrigued by this historical figure,” Fleschner said.

Like Joe Debs, Terre Hauteans may see Eugene Debs through fresh eyes, and finally consider him as one of us.

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

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