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Lifelong Lillian Gish fan donates collection to BGSU
BOWLING GREEN, O.-Exclamations of surprise and discovery arose from around a table in Bowling Green State University's Center for Archival Collections at Jerome Library recently as Dr. Ralph Haven Wolfe, Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of English and Gish Professor of Film Studies, and Dr. Brett Holden, an assistant professor of theatre and film and associate curator of the University's Gish Film Theater, looked over items recently donated to the Gish Collection, along with University conservator Frederick Honneffer.
Honneffer was in the process of cataloging the 555-piece collection provided by Todd Light, of Arlington, Texas, an avid fan of Lillian Gish since the age of 12. Included is a newspaper clipping from the early 1970s showing an adoring, teenaged Light seated next to Gish when she visited his hometown in Connecticut to promote her book "Dorothy and Lillian Gish." There is also a page from a 1979 TV Guide with an appearance of Lillian Gish on the Dick Cavett show circled.
"Here's a poster from 'Hearts of the World,'" said Wolfe, referring to a World War I story from 1918. Another discovery was a 1958 film called "Orders to Kill" that was unfamiliar to the three, and a scrapbook of Bobby Herron memorabilia. "He was a major co-star of Lillian's in the silent films," Holden explained.
Wolfe, the curator of the Gish Gallery, Holden and Honneffer are all deeply knowledgeable about the careers of Ohio-born actresses Dorothy and Lillian Gish; however, even they found new information in the collection to marvel over. "There are poses here I've never seen," Honneffer said, looking at promotional photos of the iconic actress.
"It's exciting stuff," Holden remarked. "Light's contributions significantly add to an already impressive collection of Gish memorabilia donated to the Gish Film Theater, and to Bowling Green State University, over the years that helps chronicle the important contributions Lillian and Dorothy Gish made to film."
Light said by telephone that he remembers well the day he first met Lillian Gish, at an event at which several authors were speaking. She spent a good deal of time with him and his friend. "I was trembling; I couldn't believe it was happening," he recalled. "But she just put me at my ease. She was always extremely gracious and kind."
He had fallen in love with silent films when PBS began showing them in 1968, he said, and his mother bought him a large book called "A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen."
"I was looking at a beautiful picture of Lillian Gish and something inside me just clicked. I was thunderstruck with the conviction that she was the greatest actress who ever lived," he said, "and she was!" He came to appreciate her subtle and nuanced performances, "the simplest scenes in which she brings a character to life."
After that, he began collecting every bit of memorabilia he could and even maintained a correspondence with the legendary actress for many years. "It grew out of my love and respect for Miss Gish," he said.
When in 1976 he learned of the establishment of BGSU's film theater and gallery, he wrote and received back a program from the dedication event along with a photo of Lillian Gish unveiling the plaque in her honor.
"It's so gratifying now to see the materials going to an archive Miss Gish cared about and where they will be used in an educational way and be well cared for. I want others to have that moment of lightning where they realize she's the greatest ever," he said. "And Miss Gish would be so appreciative of what people are doing to keep her memory alive."
The timing of the donation coincides with the hundredth anniversary of the Gish sisters' film debut in 1912. Their first film, "An Unseen Enemy," will be shown at 3 p.m. in the Gish Film Theater on Oct. 14, Lillian Gish's birthday. Her longtime manager, James Frasher, will also be on hand to present the only recorded film version of "Lillian Gish and the Movies"(1975), the program in which Frasher toured with her throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. Seen by Wolfe in 1975, the program inspired him to make the Gish Film Theater and Gallery a reality at BGSU in 1976.
Also in attendance will be actress Eva Marie Saint and her husband, producer/director Jeffrey Hayden. Mayor Dick Edwards will issue a proclamation naming it Lillian Gish Day in Bowling Green.
While a variety of the University's holdings, including textiles, playbills and movie posters, are displayed in the gallery in Hanna Hall, the majority is in storage in the University Archives, Honneffer said. Thanks to collection's website, "we have a national reputation and work with scholars and researchers across the country," he said. "It draws in donors and interested people."
"With this collection, in addition to what we already have, the Gish Collection is the best collection of Gish materials between the coasts," Wolfe said, noting that other Gish collections are in the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress.