Local lore lures history, theater buffs to ‘Legends of the Lake’

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published October 2, 2013

 Like past years’ “Talking Headstones” — as featured in this photo — local actors will don period costumes to perform historical vignettes during “Legends of the Lake,” a joint effort put together by Grosse Pointe Theatre, the Grosse Pointe Historical Society and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House.

Like past years’ “Talking Headstones” — as featured in this photo — local actors will don period costumes to perform historical vignettes during “Legends of the Lake,” a joint effort put together by Grosse Pointe Theatre, the Grosse Pointe Historical Society and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House.

Photo courtesy of Grosse Pointe Theatre

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GROSSE POINTE SHORES — From trade to food to irrigation, Lake St. Clair played a pivotal role in the decision of early settlers to take up residence in the area now known as the Grosse Pointes.

The stories of some of the most significant people and places that once occupied the area will be at the heart of “Legends of the Lake,” a joint venture among Grosse Pointe Theatre, the Grosse Pointe Historical Society and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House. Formerly “Talking Headstones,” “Legends of the Lake” will feature local actors in period costumes performing original vignettes written by local playwrights about regional history. This year, the setting for these performances has moved from St. Paul Cemetery in Grosse Pointe Farms to the lakefront grounds of the Ford House, although the shows will still be produced outdoors by torchlight. Performances are at 7 p.m. Oct. 4-6.

Producer Emmajean Evans said this is the sixth year for this program, and audiences who’ve enjoyed past productions will see all new stories this year.

“We’re talking about people who lived along the lake and structures along the lake,” as well as who built and designed them, Evans said.

Director Jane Burkey said audiences will see seven vignettes that travel from Windmill Pointe in Grosse Pointe Park to Gaukler Point in Grosse Pointe Shores.

“It’s a geographic tour,” she said.

Isabelle “Izzy” Donnelly, GPHS director of education, said the stories start with the baptism of Lake St. Clair. The stories go in chronological and geographic order, leading Donnelly to call the show “a journey up the coast of Lake St. Clair.” Audiences will learn about a cursed ship that disappeared, the castle of an English officer, a haunted local site, inventions and more. Research materials for the stories came from the GPHS’s Alfred B. and Ruth S. Moran Resource Center, and a couple of the anecdotes are from Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin’s 1883 book, “Legends of Le Detroit.” Hamlin will “narrate” the production.

“It’s a unique experience, being outside,” Burkey said. “And you get a history lesson that’s entertaining.”

Burkey said historic figures who’ll appear in the vignettes include architect Albert Kahn, who designed the Ford House; automaker Henry Ford; Josephine Gaukler, a philanthropist who sold Gaukler Point to Henry Ford, who then gave it to his son, Edsel, where it became Edsel’s family estate; and Pierre and Euphemia Provencal, who took in dozens of orphans during the cholera epidemic, and whose preserved Provencal-Weir House is now the site of tours and other GPHS programs.

The production is family-friendly — there are even a couple of children in the show — but it might be more entertaining for adults, Evans said. Still, she said most audience members find it compelling.

“You’re surrounded by trees that were probably here for some of these stories,” Donnelly said of the Ford House’s mature landscaping. “It is just a magnificent way to learn history. … If we leave having a sense of our past, we leave feeling better about the future.”

Volunteer scriptwriters include Mary Lou Britton, Harry Burkey, Peter DiSante, Phyllis Reeve, Margie Reins Smith, Mike Trudel and Dennis Wickline.

Actors appearing this year are Sydney Anderson, Natalie Boehmer, Perry Calisi, Charly Davis, Jack Fennessy, Bill Giovan, Shawn Henry, Henry Kelsey III, Clif Levin, Robby Mullinger, Cindy Nehr, Jerry Nehr, Patricia O’Brien, Sal Rubino, Elizabeth Schaefer, Mary Stelmark, Pat Stewart, Beth Teagan, Eddie Tujaka and Stella Woitulewicz.

Among the differences this year from past productions is that attendees don’t need to bring chairs — the Ford House is providing seating — and attendees can leave the flashlights at home. Still, because the productions are outside, “We always ask people to dress warmly,” Evans said.

Donnelly said the three local nonprofits are thrilled to be able to work together to stage this production for the community.

“It’s such a delightful event which highlights what makes Grosse Pointe unique,” she said. “We really have great stories.”

The Ford House is located at 1100 Lake Shore. At press time, the shows were almost completely sold out, so attendees should try to purchase tickets in advance, as there may not be any at the gate. Tickets are $15. For tickets or more information, call GPT at (313) 881-4004 or visit www.gpt.org.

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