The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather


    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower


    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships


    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

15 hours ago

Auburn’s David Housel tackles more than sports in ‘From the Backbooth at Chappy’s’

(David Housel/Contributed)

When David Housel retired from Auburn University in 2006, after a legendary career as athletics director for the Tigers, it wasn’t long before his wife urged him to get busy again – and a deli on Glenn Avenue in Auburn was the beneficiary.

“Susan wanted me to do something to get out of the house,” Housel recalls. “I started going to Chappy’s to drink coffee, read the paper. Pretty soon, Kenny Howard would meet me there, and it just kind of grew from there.”

In short order, friends of Housel began to gather, first a few one day a week and then, just prior to the pandemic, 12-16 people nearly every day of the week.

They meet at Chappy’s, where a plaque commemorates Housel’s booth, and they talk – about sports, of course, but about pretty much anything that’s on their minds.


Housel began to write essays about those mornings, posting them to Facebook. He’s now compiled more than 100 of those pieces into a new book, “From the Backbooth at Chappy’s: Stories of the South: Football, Politics, Religion, and More.” It’s officially released next week at a series of book signings at Chappy’s in the Auburn area from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. each day: Tuesday in Auburn, Wednesday in Montgomery and Thursday in Prattville.

“Consider this Housel unleashed,” the author says. “Most of the stuff I’ve written in my life has been about Auburn on an Auburn platform. Even after I retired, I was a representative of Auburn, even though I wasn’t working there. This is not an Auburn book. It’s about football, politics, religion and more.”

“From the Backbooth at Chappy’s,” with a foreword by Auburn graduate and acclaimed journalist Rheta Grimsley Johnson, evolved as Housel’s morning gatherings at Chappy’s evolved, though he began writing the essays fairly early in the process.

“When something is in your mind, in your heart, in your head, if you’re a writer, it just has to come out, and it just comes through your fingers,” Housel says. “Turns out people like to read it, so I got the Facebook page. I shared thoughts and essays and that kind of thing. It was not a planned thing.”

When COVID-19 came along, Housel decided to listen to a few folks who told him his musings would make a good book.

“I had been thinking a lot about it, and it was time to do it,” Housel says.

Housel has written six other books. Most have to do with Auburn sports history, but one, “From the Desk of David Housel,” is similar to “From the Backbooth at Chappy’s.”

“That one was primarily sports, but it had some other things in it,” Housel says. “This one is about the other stuff, but it has some sports in it.”

Though the three topics in his book’s title – football, politics and religion  – are often the subjects people are warned not to bring up if they want to keep the peace, Housel and his friends don’t shy away from any of them. Housel especially gravitates toward religious topics.

“I like the ones that I hope make people think,” he says of his essays. “The good Lord gave us a mind, and we’re supposed to use it. Too few people who call themselves Christians do what the Lord said and use their minds. … Faith has got to be built not on challenging God but questioning God. I think God likes that, because it shows we’re engaged and that we care.”

Now that the pandemic is ending, the Backbooth at Chappy’s events are slowly but surely returning to normal. On Mondays, Housel eats two eggs scrambled, lean bacon and a helium biscuit; on Tuesdays maybe a parfait with granola; on Wednesdays, it’s blueberry pancakes, and Fridays a waffle.

What remains constant is the conversation. And the writing.

“I’m still writing the Backbooth, and since the first of the year, I’ve written a couple I think are book-worthy,” Housel says. “I started out doing maybe one a week, but I’m old enough that I don’t have to meet a self-imposed deadline. When the spirit moves me, I write.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Alabama Symphony’s Carlos Izcaray composes virtual symphony for ASFA students

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, Carlos Izcaray, music director of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, composed a piece for the American Youth Symphony, where he’s also music director.

“It was written for a virtually recorded ensemble,” the maestro says. “We recorded it remotely.”

As the pandemic continued, administrators and faculty at the Alabama School of Fine Arts were looking for ways to engage their students, and they reached out to Izcaray for ideas involving their music students.

“I said, ‘Well, I just did this kind of project,’” he recalls. “’We could do something similar with ASFA and explore this new way of generating something for this internet medium that we’re all watching now.”

And “Symphony of Colors,” a virtual piece involving all 53 of ASFA’s music students, was born.


Izcaray composed the eight-minute piece with the virtual nature of its performance in mind.

“Breaking them up a little bit into teams made sense, otherwise you’d be looking at 50 different screens,” Izcaray says. “So I thought of ‘Symphony of Colors.’ A rainbow has seven colors, so we divided the piece into seven sections, each one a color. We had six musical teams – red, yellow, orange, green, blue, indigo – and the last one, violet, I put them all together. … Each color has a mood and a personality.”

The piece was also composed with the 53 ASFA students in mind – each and every one of them.

“They have students from age 12 to seniors in high school, so there’s a wide range of where each student is musically,” Izcaray says. “That was a challenge, but it was fun, too. It is 100% custom-built for this student body at this time. For example, right now they have a number of pianists and guitarists, a couple of violinists. There’s a specific number of players per instrument, so I wrote it like that.”

The process gave Izcaray, the conductor, composer and performer, the opportunity to become teacher.

“It gave me a chance to be didactical, to teach through the music,” he says. “It’s a traditional approach. Bach and Beethoven would write pieces for students at their level. I’m a huge fan of other composers from the past who took this approach of writing for their students.”

Students rehearsed and recorded their parts at home, and Paxeros, a Los Angeles video production company, put it all together in a video. (The video will be available on the school’s social media and YouTube channel beginning April 8).

For the students involved, “Symphony of Colors” was a way to hone their musical skills with an acclaimed conductor, but it was also a way to keep up their playing while they were studying from home.

“This was a great experience,” says Clarisse Nacilla, a senior who plays the piano. “It was nice to learn music outside of my piano repertoire and collaborate with other musicians. It was also interesting to work with Maestro Izcaray. He was so supportive in the process, and his enthusiasm for the project was inspiring and motivating.”

Lujue’la McEntyre, a ninth grade bassoonist, called the project “amazing.”

“It was definitely challenging, but I fortunately had amazing musicians surround me and amazing music faculty who supported us every step of the way,” she says.

Izcaray, for his part, called the process inspiring.

“There’s that uncertainty with anything new, but I was very, very inspired by the students, the school and the faculty,” he says. “How lucky we are as a community to have such a great asset like the Alabama School of Fine Arts. … We’re very lucky to have great, great music teachers there and to have this fantastic school. This was with the music department, but I know the other departments are very vibrant, too, and that’s something we should all feel good about.”

Izcaray hopes “Symphony of Colors” brought some brightness to the darkness of the past year.

“I just wanted to be sure we did something meaningful during a dark period we were all facing,” he says. “What better way to bring us out of this grey feeling than with a lot of colors.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Alabama author Patti Callahan explores ‘Titanic of the South’ in ‘Surviving Savannah’

(Patti Callahan/Contributed)

About 75 years before the Titanic set sail from England for the first time and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean, something eerily similar happened in the Atlantic Ocean much closer to home.

At 11:04 p.m. on the night of June 14, 1838, the steamship Pulaski had an explosion in its boiler room.

It sank 45 minutes later, as passengers, including some of the elite of Charleston and Savannah headed north for the summer, scrambled for safety, hampered by the lack of working lifeboats on the ship. About 200 people were on board, and more than half of them died.

The tragedy provides the basis for Patti Callahan’s new book, “Surviving Savannah,” which comes out on Tuesday. Callahan is participating in a number of virtual events to kick off publication of the book about a shipwreck that is largely forgotten.


“They call it the ‘Titanic of the South,’” says Callahan, who lives in Birmingham but whose family has a second home in Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, near Savannah. “But it was pretty much lost to time.”

That is until Boo Harrell, a mariner in Palmetto Bluff, brought it to Callahan’s attention.

“Years and years ago, he told me about it and gave me an article about it,” says Callahan, the author of 15 best-selling novels (some as Patti Callahan, some as Patti Callahan Henry). “I put it in my bag and didn’t read it.”

About a year later, he mentioned it again, and the same thing happened. Finally, after the third time, Callahan finally read the article while walking from the marina to her home.

“I thought, whoa, this is really fascinating, but I don’t know if I write about shipwrecks,” she recalls. “But there’s this myth about this shipwreck, about this man and woman who floated together for five days and five nights and fell in love. I thought that was going to be my story, but it turns out it wasn’t true. But I was starting to get interested in the real people on this ship.”

About three weeks into her research, before the Auburn University graduate and former nurse had even decided she was going to pursue the book, something happened that sealed the deal – the wreckage of the ship was found in late 2017 and excavation began of what remained on the ocean floor.

“So, unbeknownst to me, while I was looking for the story, someone was looking for the treasure and artifacts at the exact same time,” Callahan says. “I worked with them when I was writing this.”

“Surviving Savannah” takes place in the 19th century and in present day as a researcher named Everly Winthrop curates a collection of artifacts found from the Pulaski. Winthrop’s research focuses on a family of 11 sailing together, including a survivor, Augusta Longstreet, and her niece, Lilly Forsyth, who was never found.

Like her 2018 book “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” based on the life of C.S. Lewis’ wife, “Surviving Savannah” is based on fact, with some fictional elements – including a modern-day storyline – from the author.

“The question isn’t so much what’s real and what’s made up,” Callahan says. “For me, it’s what’s fact and what’s imagined. All the facts are legit. I didn’t make up a single fact. The actual facts I spent years researching – when it sank, why it sank, how long it took to sink. The family is inspired by the real family. I didn’t want this to be a biography, but I wanted that family of 11 who boarded together, I wanted us to follow them.”

One of the author’s major sources was an account of the wreck by passenger Rebecca Lamar, who in Callahan’s book is Augusta Longstreet.

“The craziest thing happened,” Callahan says of the divers combing the shipwreck. “They have found one luggage tag from the wreckage. One. It has the name Rebecca Lamar on it. That’s my main character. I had been writing about her.”

Callahan is as perplexed as anyone why the Pulaski disaster isn’t more well-known. She suspects it has something to do with Savannah’s pre-Civil War history. Some slaves and slave owners were on the Pulaski, and some of the wealthy people on board were cotton plantation owners.

“It’s complicated,” Callahan says.

Case in point: Charles Lamar, a 15-year-old survivor who earned the nickname “Noble Boy” for his actions helping others while the Pulaski was going down.

“Twenty years later, he had an entirely new nickname – the Red Devil,” Callahan says. “He was a horrific slave trader, and, coincidentally, was the last Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War.

“That complicated history maybe helped bury the story,” the author adds. “It’s not romantic. It doesn’t look good. But it completely changed the face of Savannah. They say there wasn’t a family in Savannah who wasn’t affected by a loss. The entire city of Savannah went into mourning for months. It changed maritime law. Yet, I had never heard of it.”

For her next book, Callahan is returning to the world of C.S. Lewis. Her “Once Upon a Wardrobe,” due out Oct. 19, is the first book under HarperCollins’ new HarperMuse imprint.

“It’s about a sister and her brother in the countryside of England in 1950 and the power of Narnia to change their lives,” she says. “’The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ was the only book in the series out then. … In the book, we see the seven seminal events in C.S. Lewis’ life that fed into ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.’”

It’s just another real-life story that has caught Callahan’s attention.

“I got fascinated about this idea of where do books come from,” she says. “I make up stories, but to make up a whole other land, like Middle Earth or Narnia, how does that happen? What are the things that happened in his life that led to this?”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Alabama actress, singer, songwriter Abigail Barlow scores with her musical ‘Bridgerton’

(Abigail Barlow/Contributed)

“OK, but what if ‘Bridgerton’ was a musical?”

That’s the question that Abigail Barlow, who grew up in Birmingham and lives in Los Angeles, posed to her TikTok followers in early January. The post included “Daphne’s Song,” the first song Barlow wrote based on the hit Netflix series about debutantes in Regency-era London. She also posted “I Burn for You,” and after partnering with former child prodigy Emily Bear, has written 10 more songs.

“Bridgerton: The Musical” is taking on a life of its own, with Barlow and Bear fielding interview requests from PlaybillVarietyNPR, the BBCSiriusXM radio and others.


“I’m in absolute awe at the reaction so far,” says Barlow, who worked with Red Mountain Theatre Company when she was in Birmingham. “I’ve been posting my original music on TikTok for years, so this response was more than I could ever ask for as a songwriter.”

Barlow thought about moving to Nashville to pursue songwriting, but she decided on Los Angeles, following in the footsteps of her sister, actress Anna Grace Barlow (“Supernatural,” “Scream Queens,” “The Young and the Restless”).

“She’s my absolute biggest cheerleader, and vice versa,” Abigail Barlow says of her sister. “I’m so grateful that she lives five minutes away from me in Los Angeles. She has absolutely mastered her own art, and she always gives me advice on the best way to master mine. … I owe it all to family.”

Barlow, who is an actress as well as a singer/songwriter, got some notice in 2020 with the release of her song “Heartbreak Hotel,” which some commenters said put off a “Taylor Swift vibe.”

“I was just writing what I was feeling,” she says. “I was very into this boy I was seeing at the time, but I was still so traumatized by the ghosts of boyfriends past. If it gives off Taylor Swift vibes, that’s one heck of a compliment.”

Then came “Bridgerton,” an adaptation of Julia Quinn’s novels, which premiered on Netflix in December 2020. One of its producers is Shonda Rimes, whose TV work includes “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”

“I binged the entire series and was in awe of the dialogue and masterful storytelling,” Barlow says. “It’s incredibly poetic. The music basically writes itself. There was one piece of dialogue in specific that inspired me to run to my piano and start writing: ‘You have no idea what it’s like to be in a room with someone you cannot live without and yet still feel like you’re oceans apart.’”

That’s the crux of the faux-turned-real relationship of Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset, the lovers at the center of “Bridgerton.”

The excitement that “Bridgerton” created on Netflix translated to TikTok, with Barlow and Bear’s musical work gaining not only attention from fans, but from fans singing the “Bridgerton” songs themselves. They’ve heard from Quinn, the author of the books, as well as “Bridgerton” cast members Phoebe Dynevor (Daphne), Nicola Coughlin (Penelope) and Luke Newton (Colin Bridgerton).

Barlow, 22, says she has enjoyed writing with Bear, a 19-year-old who has worked with Quincy Jones.

“We just click when we write,” Barlow says. “It’s almost like magic.”

The two are self-admitted “fangirls” of “Bridgerton,” which will have a second season on Netflix. “It’s a Regency-era ‘Gossip Girl,’ and what young woman wouldn’t be obsessed with that?” Barlow asks.

The future of the musical “Bridgerton” is unknown, but if it became a full-scale project, Barlow would love to be considered for the role of Daphne.

“She’s headstrong, yet delicate; determined, yet patient,” she says. “She’s everything I love in a leading lady, and with all the music we’re writing for her, she’s slowly becoming a dream role for me.”

Whether that ends up being on stage somewhere is still in the air, but Barlow and Bear are enjoying the ride.

“We’d love for it to be a project that goes the distance, but we’re just so grateful for all of the support, and we’re trying to live in the moment and take each exciting opportunity as it comes,” Barlow says.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Alabama actor Bradley Constant plays young Dwayne Johnson on NBC’s ‘Young Rock’

(Photo/Mark Taylor and NBC)

Though he started out as an athlete in Tuscaloosa, Bradley Constant came up with another dream when a shoulder injury sidelined him in middle school.

“I was obsessed with the Disney Channel,” he says with a laugh. “I watched it all the time and I said, ‘I want to do this,’ and I started taking classes in Birmingham every single weekend.”

Those lessons with Cathi Larsen have paid off … in a big way. Constant has landed one of the title roles in the new NBC show “Young Rock.” In the series, which premieres Feb. 16 at 7 p.m., Constant, along with two other actors, plays wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson at an early age. Constant, who is 22, plays him at 15.


The role is Constant’s first big Hollywood gig, the culmination, so far, of a career that has been fairly methodical if a bit nomadic. Constant’s Birmingham acting classes led to classes in New York, and he and his mother, Julie, eventually moved there when he was 14.

“We got a rental car, packed what we could in it and moved to New York,” he recalls. “We stayed in an attic, and I slept 2 feet away from my mom for months. Eventually, we got a place in Midtown, and I started taking classes there.”

Four years later, Constant’s manager urged him to move to Los Angeles, and Constant asked his mother to make a big move again. “As awesome as my mom is, she said yes,” he says. “We only took what we could fit in a suitcase.”

That was four years ago, and the trek has had “ups and downs, lots of no’s, lots of classes, lots of growth, lots of cool commercials,” Constant says.

And finally, in January 2020, Constant’s big break came in the form of an audition for “Young Rock.”

“An audition for a show about the life of Dwayne Johnson,” Constant recalls thinking. “This is perfect! I don’t think we had ever found a role that seemed more fitting than this role. I booked it, and then March comes around. COVID hit, and things shut down.”

It didn’t shut down for long. “Young Rock” took its production on the road to Brisbane, Australia, and in a safe, COVID-19-free environment, six episodes of the series were filmed.

In the show, Johnson stars as himself, and the Rock is running for president in 2032. As he campaigns and he’s asked about his childhood, the show flashes back to his youth at different ages – Constant playing him at 15 and two other actors playing him at ages 10 and 18-20.

“It kind of pops back and forth,” Constant says.

Though he doesn’t have any scenes with the adult Johnson, the Rock was often on the set working with the younger actors.

“It was weird,” Constant says. “Me and my dad used to watch wrestling all the time, and the Rock was on there and one of my favorites. We had all of the wrestling action figures, so it was weird thinking I used to play with his doll.”

The role, though, was a perfect one for Constant.

“I didn’t have to stretch too much to play the character,” he says. “Reading the lines sounded so fluid to me.”

Constant said the younger characters on “Young Rock” are “very relatable.”

“It felt like I could just slip into it,” says Constant, who graduated from Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa. “I’m not necessarily playing the guy on TV that everyone knows. This is him as a teenager, and no one knows what he was like as a teenager. There’s a lot of reality and relatable situations that normal people can relate to. He wasn’t always this big famous person with lots of money and no issues. Things his family was dealing with is stuff a lot of people everywhere can relate to.”

Constant still lives with his mother in Los Angeles, and about this time last year, she put the sacrifices her son has made into perspective for him.

“I graduated from high school in 2016,” says Constant, whose father, William, grandparents and other family live in Tuscaloosa (Marvin Constant, who played football for the Crimson Tide, is a cousin). “Last year, my friends were graduating from college, and I booked this series. She said, ‘This is your graduation present.’”

Constant is hoping there will be more of “Young Rock,” but he’s ready for anything that comes his way.

“My goal in this career is to enjoy every bit and see where it takes me,” he says. “My dream has definitely shifted from wanting to be on the Disney Channel. I’ve fallen in love with acting in general. My goal is a lot broader now. I don’t have huge expectations. I just want to work hard and see what happens.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Alabama’s Fannie Flagg returns to Whistle Stop in new novel

(Andrew Southam/Contributed)

In 1987, Fannie Flagg first introduced us to Idgie, Evelyn, Ninny and the other inhabitants of the fictional and oh-so-Southern Whistle Stop, Alabama.

The best-selling book was “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café,” and it spawned a cookbook and a hit movie starring Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy and Mary Stuart Masterson.

It’s as a writer that Flagg has found her greatest success, with books including “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion,” “A Redbird Christmas,” “Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!” and “Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven.”


Now, 33 years later, Flagg, who grew up in Woodlawn and still calls Alabama home, is revisiting Whistle Stop in a big way. A sequel, “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop,” comes out next week, and an NBC series based on the original book, starring country superstar Reba McEntire, is in the works.

“It all happened at once,” Flagg said from her home in Montecito, California. “I didn’t plan this at all. It never occurred to me.”

Flagg grew up in Birmingham, working with Town and Gown Theatre and on Tom York’s “Morning Show.” She came to national prominence working with Allen Funt on “Candid Camera” and was a constant game-show guest in the 1970s. Flagg appeared on Broadway in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and “Patio/Porch” and had small roles in the movies “Five Easy Pieces” and “Grease.”

Her most well-known book, though, is “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café,” which tells the story of Idgie and Ruth, owners of the small-town Alabama cafe; Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife; and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly woman in a nursing home.

“The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop” focuses on Buddy Jr., Ruth’s son, who lost an arm in an accident.

“He winds up in a retirement home in Atlanta, and he wants to go home, so he escapes from the nursing home,” Flagg said. “The town of Whistle Stop is closed down and he can’t find it, but he reconnects with Evelyn Couch and they bring the town back.”

For Flagg, revisiting Whistle Stop was welcome, particularly in 2020.

“The world is so depressing right now, so it was a real pleasure for me to get away and go back to a time like this,” she said. “It was a real escape for me. There are so many political books out there, so much angry stuff out there, and I just said I’m going to write a book that’s not about politics. It’s just the story of happy people, has a happy ending and is positive.”

Flagg is an executive producer of the proposed NBC series, which she said is “somewhat of a sequel.”

“It’s about the original Idgie’s niece, who is named Idgie, and she comes back to the café,” Flagg said. “I really wasn’t interested in doing it, but I had lunch with Reba, and she’s just so adorable. If there’s anybody in the world I’d want to play her, it would be Reba. She’s so positive and so up.”

The series is on hold because of the pandemic, which has kept Flagg in California, mostly at her Montecito home.

“I have been really sequestered because I have underlying health things and am of a certain age where I’ve got to be careful,” she said. “The hardest thing about this COVID for me is that I usually get to come home to Alabama two or three times a year, and I haven’t been able to get back. So it was kind of fun for me to go back in my mind to Alabama and visit, because I couldn’t do it in real time.”

She also can’t do her normal book tour, which would take her to Birmingham, Fairhope and other Alabama cities for signings. Instead, she’ll be doing a virtual event via Zoom with Books-A-Million on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. A virtual event with Fairhope’s Page & Palette is on Nov. 12.

For the past five or 10 years, Flagg has always thought her new book would be her last, and this one is no exception.

“I think if I do anything else, I’ll do short stories,” she said. “A novel is just getting harder and harder to write.”

And if “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop” is her last novel, it’s fine with her.

“Alabama is my home, always has been and always will be,” she said. “If it’s my last book, I’m glad it’s set back home.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

10 months ago

Alabama’s Sidewalk Film Festival goes to the drive-in this year, thanks to COVID-19

(Sidewalk Film Fest/Facebook)

Chloe Cook knew as early as February that something might be up.

As executive director of Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema and a member of the national organization the Art House Convergence, she was hearing whispers about what theater operators were seeing in other parts of the world as COVID-19 began to spread.

“I was here watching people in larger cities having these conversations, frankly a little naively thinking somehow our country might avoid this and might not be hit as hard,” she says.


That soon changed, though, as Cook and her team made the decision March 12 to close their downtown film venue and began thinking about the Sidewalk Film Festival, scheduled for Aug. 24-30 in Birmingham’s historic theater district.

What Sidewalk landed on was changing its venue to the Grand River Drive-In at the Backyard in Leeds. The outdoor and socially distanced festival will feature about 150 films over its seven days.

“I think the lineup is spectacular,” said Cook, quick to point out that she’s not on the selection committee. “I’m really proud of the work they did under trying circumstances.”

The 22nd annual festival, sponsored by Regions Bank, will feature a mix of the independent feature-length and short films the acclaimed festival is known for – “Bloody Noses, Empty Pockets,” “Jasper Mall”  and “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain” are among the titles – and more mainstream movies like 1993’s “Dazed and Confused,” 2002’s “Barbershop” and a sing-along version of 1968’s “Yellow Submarine.”

“We have more what I would say are repertory screenings of cult classics that we wouldn’t typically do in a normal year,” Cook said. “But because we’re in the drive-in format, it felt like the time to screen some really drive-in appropriate titles.”

The Sidewalk schedule will play out on the four screens at Grand River Drive-In rather than the normal 10-11 venues in downtown Birmingham, which means fewer films for the festival that usually screens 300-350 movies.

“We’re limited by the four screens and when it gets dark,” Cook said. “We can’t start the movies until after the sun goes down.”

Films will screen beginning at 8 p.m. each night, with gates opening at 6:30 p.m. for the venue that features concessions and a bar. Prices are based on how many people are in a car, from $15 for one person to $47 if there are five or more.

“I have been really surprised by how many people were not aware of the drive-in’s existence,” Cook said. “I’m glad we’re getting to use the space, because it’s really unique. A lot of our peers in the film industry are jealous that a facility like this exists in our community. So many festivals have canceled outright or gone to a virtual-only format.”

Though the pandemic hit before Sidewalk’s call for entries had ended this year, the festival still had 1,500-2,000 films under consideration by the 65-person screening committee, Cook said.

Some of the highlights of the films selected include:

  • “Banksy Most Wanted” (Aug. 24, 8 p.m.) – A documentary about the street artist and political activist.
  • “After Selma” (Aug. 25, 8 p.m.) – A look at the continued suppression of voting rights in America after the march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. Part of the festival’s Black Lens series.
  • “A Dim Valley” (Aug. 26, 10 p.m.) – Part of the festival’s SHOUT series, a feature film about a biologist and his graduate students involved in a research project deep in the Appalachian woods.
  • “Coming Clean” (Aug. 27, 8 p.m.) – A look at the country’s opioid crisis.
  • “Harley” (Aug. 28, 8 p.m.) – A documentary, part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, about a successful and eclectic criminal defense attorney from New Jersey.
  • “Suzi Q” (Aug. 29, 8 p.m.) – An examination of 1970s rocker Suzi Quatro.
  • “Heroes” (Aug. 30, 8 p.m.) – A film about motorsports stars Mika Hakkinen, Tom Kristensen, Michele Moulton, Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher.

Cook said the hope is to reopen the downtown film venue soon and to move back to the theater district for next year’s festival, but that this year’s drive-in Sidewalk Film Festival is a good, safe way to enjoy some movies during this uncertain time.

“We’re enforcing the mask ordinance, and people will be staying in their cars to watch the films,” she said. “We want people to be comfortable and safe while doing something that’s somewhat normal.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Stars, including Alabama luminaries, come out for ‘Rockers on Broadway’

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

As Dolly Fox watched “Rockers on Broadway,” a New York fundraiser she produced, unfold a couple of weeks ago, she realized it was a full-circle moment for her.

Her mother, Yolande Betbeze Fox, had won the talent preliminary and the title crown at both the Miss Alabama and Miss America pageants, and Dolly Fox herself had gotten some early performing experience in musicals at Town and Gown’s Summerfest in Birmingham. Now, former Miss Alabama Callie Walker was on stage at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge, singing a duet with her sister, Scarlett, who appeared in Broadway’s “Carousel.”


“This is all about mentoring kids in the arts,” Dolly says about “Rockers on Broadway.” “Mom would have never gotten where she ended up without training with the most wonderful mentors and teachers along the way. Now that I’m an only child, I feel like it’s important to use some of my mother’s money to give back to other young, talented women.”

At the top of that list is establishing a new Miss Alabama scholarship in memory of her mother, who died in 2016, and “Rockers on Broadway.”

In its 26th year, “Rockers on Broadway” was founded by Donnie Kehr, who starred on Broadway in “The Who’s Tommy.” The idea came from the show’s director, Des McAnuff, and Pete Townshend of The Who. The idea was to give the rock opera’s performers – mostly Broadway performers — experience performing in rock clubs.

That has continued year after year, presented by the PATH Fund (Performing Artists That Help) and benefiting several charities.

This year’s event honored Tony Award-winner LaChanze and Grammy-winning producer Russ Titelman and featured performances from Broadway luminaries and up-and-coming artists such as the Walker sisters.

“This event went so well,” says Fox, who has been a member of the PATH board for four years. “Callie and Scarlett were amazing. They were so rehearsed and professional. They really knew their stuff.”

Callie and Scarlett Walker sang “Enough is Enough” (a hit for Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer).  Alexa Ray Joel, daughter of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, was among the performers, and her mother was in the audience.

“It was such an awesome evening,” Scarlett Walker says. “Having the opportunity to perform alongside the most amazing vocalists and musicians in the business was so magical.”

Her sister agreed.

“It honestly was one of the most exhilarating and fun performances I have ever been a part of,” Callie Walker says.

Dolly, whose father was Matthew Fox, president of Universal Pictures, had a famous champion herself in Andy Warhol, the pop artist who was a friend and a boss when she was an editor for his Interview magazine.

“Andy was such a mentor to me,” she says. “He came to everything I did, no matter how bad it was. I had such great mentors, and the parallel to Andy is actually quite relevant. He did that for me, and I’m trying to use any clout I have to do that for others.”

And her mother would be with her every step of the way, says Fox.

“We’re finding talent and mentoring it and giving it a leg up,” she says. “She would absolutely love this.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Birmingham’s Walton Goggins stars in new CBS series ‘The Unicorn’

(Monty Brinton/CBS)

Walton Goggins is best-known for his roles as a career criminal on “Justified,” based on an Elmore Leonard short story, and a detective in the crime drama “The Shield,” so it might seem a little out of place to see him in the comedy “The Unicorn,” which premieres Thursday on CBS.

Not for Goggins, a Birmingham native.

“I think ‘The Shield’ was one of the funniest shows on TV,” he says from Los Angeles. “It was really serious, but it was pretty funny. Same with Elmore Leonard. He’s a very funny guy. Everything I’ve done has walked the line between drama and comedy.”


The same could be said for “The Unicorn,” about a recently widowed father of two re-entering the dating scene. Much to his surprise, he becomes a sought-after single because he is a “unicorn,” an attractive working father in the dating world.

“We set out to tell something that is absurd and really funny and really heartfelt and earnest,” Goggins says. “That’s what I wanted more than anything.”

Goggins’ parents moved the family to Atlanta when he was only 1, but he spent a lot of time in Birmingham, visiting his aunt and uncle, who were active in Birmingham theater.

“I remember watching them on stage when I was 6 years old,” he recalls. “The room would go dark, and I saw my aunt and uncle walk on to the stage not as my aunt and uncle but as other people … As soon as they started speaking, I was just so taken with it. … I was just blown away by it, profoundly impacted by that experience. … That’s really where I got the bug. That’s where I was bitten or smitten with the possibility of telling stories.”

He got his first paying acting job in Georgia at age 16 (the movie “Murder in Mississippi”) and attended Georgia State University for a year before moving to Los Angeles.

“I got my first job a week after being there,” he said. That was a role in Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night,” where he was cut from the movie but made the DVD.

Some struggling and smaller roles followed, until he landed “The Apostle” when he was 24, sharing the screen with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall. “That really changed my life,” says Goggins, who later would produce and star in the Oscar-winning short film “The Accountant.”

What followed were his roles in “The Shield,” movies like “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln,” “Sons of Anarchy” and his Emmy-nominated turn as Boyd Crowder in “Justified.” “The Unicorn” came his way after he starred in the movie “The Hateful Eight” and the series “Vice Principals,” “Six” and “The Righteous Gemstones.”

In “The Unicorn,” Goggins is Wade Felton, who is trying to move on after losing his wife a year before. He’s raising two daughters on this own, reluctantly enters the dating world (via a dating app) and, to his and others’ surprise, finds he’s a hot commodity.

This is not entirely unfamiliar turf to Goggins.

“I am a widower,” he says. “I can’t talk about the actual events surrounding this very traumatic period in my life, but suffice it to say this story is very personal to me and I’ve been there. … I understand what it means to learn how to live again. I went through that fire, and I couldn’t have done it alone.”

He’s hoping others can do the same by watching “The Unicorn.”

“I hope we can really get this right, for people who have struggled, which is all of us – we’ve all experienced things in life that are difficult,” Goggins says. “But there is life on the other side of it. … This is a way to come together and laugh at the absurdity of everything we all go through when we’re faced with a difficult period in our life.”

Goggins remarried about 14 years ago, and he and his wife have one son, 8-year-old Augustus.

“It’s a full-time job being a real dad and pretending to be a dad to two other daughters,” he says with a laugh. Wade’s two adolescent daughters on “The Unicorn” are rooting him on in his quest toward happiness.

“What you’ll see very quickly is that this is a show about moving on, about community, living in the society in which we live in now,” Goggins adds. “An episode can take place over a month or over two yours. This is not a show about dating. It’s a show about learning how to live again.”

“The Unicorn” airs Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. on CBS.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Birmingham’s Alie B. Gorrie puts spotlight on disabled performers in new Amazon series

(Alie B. Gorrie/Contributed)

When Alie B. Gorrie moved to New York in 2015 after graduating from Belmont University, she was not unlike other young performers trying to find their way in the big city.

Armed with a resume that included shows at Birmingham’s Red Mountain Theatre Company (RMTC), Gorrie taught yoga and worked part-time as a teacher, all the while auditioning for (and getting some) roles at theater companies in the area.


But look at Gorrie’s resume, and you’ll see something listed that provided some extra challenges. Under “Special Skills,” she notes that she’s “legally blind/visually impaired,” having been diagnosed at an early age with low vision.

“When I moved to New York, casting directors would say, ‘Why is one of your eyes crossed?’,” Gorrie says. “I didn’t expect to hear that after singing a song. … I’ve faced having to learn how to speak about it and articulate what I needed around it very quickly.”

Gorrie is not alone, and her latest project showcases other performers dealing with their own disabilities in the arts world. Gorrie co-hosts and co-produces, with Kallen Blair, “ABLE: a series,” which is now streaming on Amazon Prime. There are eight 15-minute episodes, each of which focuses on a performer with a disability, including recent Tony Award winner Ali Stroker, who is in a wheelchair.

The series was conceived after Gorrie saw a musical called “Sam’s Room” off-Broadway.

“I‘ve never been so moved by something,” she says of the show about a teen with non-verbal autism. “I had this impulse to buy 10 tickets and invite people I knew to see the show.”

One of those people was Blair, who has a brother with non-verbal autism.

“After the show, she was weeping, and she said that it was the first time she had seen her brother represented so well in a story,” Gorrie says. “That got us started in these inclusion discussions.”

Later, when Gorrie was working in California and Blair in Boston, Blair sent her an email.

“She pitched a documentary series shedding a light on inclusion in theater,” Gorrie recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, yes, sign me up.’”

Each episode features one guest interviewed by Gorrie and Blair. The guests include Evan Ruggiero, a dancer who lost a leg to cancer at age 19; John McGinty, a deaf actor who starred on Broadway in “Children of a Lesser God”; and Danny Woodburn, an actor with dwarfism known best for his role on the sitcom “Seinfeld.”
The two interviewed Stroker prior to her Tony nomination and win for “Oklahoma!”

“She is the one who is truly paving the way for disabled artists everywhere now,” Gorrie says.

Gorrie and her family created Songs for Sight, an event that raises money for the Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The fundraiser, which has included performers such as Vince Gill, Sara Evans and Grace Potter, celebrates its 10th anniversary with a free concert at Red Mountain Theatre Company in October.

Gorrie really found her calling at RMTC, where she performed for a number of years. She counts RMTC Executive Director Keith Cromwell among those who helped her realize she could pursue a performing career while dealing with her vision issues.

“It took me a while to find teachers and mentors who knew how to not make too big a deal out of it while also not ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist,” Gorrie says.

Cromwell is one who recognized Gorrie’s talents early on.

“When you meet ‘special,’ it has no age, it’s timeless,” he says of Gorrie, who is now 26. “As I watch her grow into a magnificent adult and amazing artist who is changing the world, I could not feel more privileged to witness her advancing her cause, her art, her center – the truth of who she is.”

That’s really what’s at the core of “ABLE,” too, as artists talk about embracing their disabilities and finding opportunities to shine, even though it’s still an uphill battle to get casting directors to cast disabled actors.

Gorrie and Blair are already planning Season 2 of “ABLE,” looking to focus less on individuals and more on theaters and other groups that are embracing inclusion of disabled performers.

“We want to go to theaters and film sets and do documentary-style episodes going into the places that are inclusion champions,” Gorrie says.

“ABLE: a series” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Alabama’s Margaret Renkl, writer for New York Times, launches first book, ‘Late Migrations’

(Photo/Courtesy Milkweed Editions)

A couple of years ago, Alabama native Margaret Renkl, who had made a career out of writing and editing, was stressed. Really stressed.

Living in Nashville, she had moved her mother up from Birmingham to help take care of her in her final years.

“After my mom died, and my husband’s parents had moved up here, too, it really was unbearable,” she says. “I was dealing with grief and caregiving, and two of my three children were still living at home. It was a lot.”


Then, at the Southern Festival of Books, Renkl ran into an editor from The New York Times. The newspaper was starting a new series, The End, about end-of-life issues, and he urged her to write about her experience.

“I ended up working, first thing in the morning, 15 minutes a day, on an essay about my mother’s death and my mother-in-law dying, and at the end of the month, I sent it in, and they bought it,” Renkl says. “I did another piece, and they bought that, also. By that time, I was feeling a lot more confident.”

Her mother-in-law had also passed away, so Renkl had a bit more time.

“I was still sorting through these issues about grief, but I didn’t think of them as a book,” she says.

But they were a book, at least the beginnings of one, and last month Renkl released “Late Migrations,” a book of essays about two of Renkl’s passions – her family and the natural world.

The book has received rave reviews from celebrities and bibliophiles alike. Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine says Renkl “guides us through a South lush with bluebirds, pecan orchards and glasses of whiskey shared at dusk in this collection of prose in poetry-size bits.” Author Ann Patchett says the book has the makings of “an American classic … beautifully written, masterfully structured and brimming with insight into the natural world.” Actress Reese Witherspoon says Renkl “is the most beautiful writer. I love this book.” “Late Migrations” has been featured on NPR and in Garden & Gun and People magazines, among others.

It’s all a bit surprising to Renkl, who graduated from Auburn University with a degree in English in 1984 and earned her master’s at the University of South Carolina.

“The structure is unusual, and the subject is often sad,” Renkl says. “It’s a meditation on grief some ways, and I think we as a culture aren’t comfortable talking about death and grief. I’ve been surprised and heartened by the response.”

Renkl was born in Andalusia, but she moved to Birmingham while in first grade.

“The world I lived in in Birmingham was completely different from the world I lived in heretofore,” she says. “We went back to lower Alabama all the time, because my grandparents still lived there. That was pretty foundational for the way I think of my growing-up years.”

Renkl’s father was in real estate development, building apartment complexes, and she and her family would move from site to site, wherever her father’s company was building a complex.

“It’s a little ironic that I spent so much time in the outdoors, because we were living in the woods that my father’s company was tearing down,” says Renkl, who graduated from Homewood High School.

She and her brother, Billy, an artist who provided illustrations for “Late Migrations,” forged their collaboration early on with childhood books of poetry and illustrations. Later, Billy would be her art director when she was editor of her high school newspaper and also when she was editor of the Circle literary magazine at Auburn.

After graduate school, Renkl taught high school, but in her 10th year of teaching, she found herself on bed rest while pregnant with her second child, and since she couldn’t teach, she had to “find a way to make some money.”

She launched a 12-year freelancing career with an essay for Glamour magazine and later edited Chapter 16, an online journal for Humanities Tennessee, for 10 years.

After that, The New York Times, a publication she had failed to sell freelance essays to after several tries, came calling, and she began writing for The End. The Times soon hired her to write a regular monthly column, and six months later, they asked her to write weekly.

“I asked for my first contract to be six months instead of a year, because I wasn’t completely convinced I could come up with something every week,” Renkl says. “Then I signed a contract for a year, then another for a year. I’m pretty happy with the arrangement.”

As a regular writer for The Times, Renkl writes about “flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South,” according to the newspaper. She has written about her familyanimals and politics.

In the meantime, Renkl was continuing to write essays about her family – the grief of losing her mother, mother-in-law and, earlier, her father – and, thanks to her disdain for the 2016 political season and its aftermath, nature. “I started writing a little nature blog that had pretty much zero audience, but writing about the natural world reminded me that what was happening in the political arena was only temporary,” she says. “At some point, the other women in my writer’s group said, ‘You know this is a book, right? … This is a book about longing and loss in many different contexts.’”

Milkweed Editions agreed and worked with Renkl on “Late Migrations,” which includes memoir-type essays along with essays on nature and drawings by her brother.

“This was his family, too,” Renkl says. “So it seemed natural to me to have my story of my family include work by him. … Also, Billy’s artwork is very often about birds and insects and stars and flowers and leaves.”

Initially, Renkl paired her work with pieces her brother had already created, but he ended up creating 20 original pieces for “Late Migrations.”

“As I was reading the early drafts of the book, I came to realize that I wanted to use my voice to amplify the beautiful connections between Margaret’s backyard observations of nature and her stories about our family,” Billy Renkl says. “Eventually, I decided to aim for a carefully calibrated relationship between images that seemed to reference the history of wildlife identification guidebooks and family photo albums – images that were equal parts objective observation and idiosyncratic family myth.”

Though some have referred to “Late Migrations” as a memoir, Renkl disagrees.

“To me, that means comprehensive and complete,” she says. “These essays make no pretense to be comprehensive. I’m not telling the story of my life. I consider it primarily to be a meditation on loss and human life and in the natural world. I took great comfort, in writing both sets of essays, in seeing how what happens to us in human life is being played out all around in the natural world.”

Renkl says her parents would have loved “Late Migrations.”

“They were so proud of me, and the book is a love letter to them,” she says. “It’s a love letter to family life, to the natural world. It’s a praise song. They would have loved that.”

Margaret Renkl will be signing “Late Migrations” on Sept. 4 at 6 p.m. at Pebble Hill in Auburn; and Read Herring books, 105 S. Court St. in Montgomery, on Sept. 5. You can find her book tour schedule here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Remembering everything: Auburn University staffer’s autobiographical memory ability may help in fight against Alzheimer’s

(Markie Pasternak/Contributed)

Markie Pasternak remembers the first day she realized her special ability had a name.

And before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s make it clear. She really remembers the day. All of it.

“I was in college at Marquette, and it was Aug. 26, a Tuesday in 2014,” she says. “I was wearing this white dress with red and blue flowers on it and a little jean pullover thing that day. It was an afternoon class, my second day of not living in the dorms. I think I made some pasta for lunch, because I was getting used to cooking for myself.”


Pasternak, now 25 and working in Student Affairs at Auburn University, could go on and on about that day of her psychology class, and she’d get most, if not all, of the details right. She’s one of a few dozen people known to have highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, the ability to recall almost every day of her life in great detail.

For Pasternak, the memories begin just before her 11th birthday in 2005.

“About a year after that, I would think back and know what I was doing a year ago,” she says. “I remembered things like, ‘We parked here,’ and ‘We walked in this door.’ And then in eighth grade, two years later, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can remember what happened three years ago on this day.’”

“When you’re in a small town like Green Bay from a working-class family, and you’re a first-generation college student, you don’t necessarily have the academic resources for someone to tell you, ‘Hey, this is a special ability, and they’re doing research on it,’” she says.

That all changed at Marquette, when Pasternak, a psychology major, walked into that class about learning and memory.

“My teacher started talking about different types of memory and memory abilities that people have, and she suddenly started talking about HSAM,” Pasternak says. “She didn’t know the name of it, and she didn’t know much about it, but she said, ‘There is this ability out there where people have a calendar in their brain, and they can remember what happened on every day of their life.’ And I was like, wait, I can do that.”

She credits her professor, Kristy Nielson, with what happened next.

“I went up to her after class, and I’m like, ‘I think I have that thing,’” Pasternak says. “And what really amazes me about Dr. Nielson in that moment is she started by believing me. She didn’t say, ‘Oh, yeah, a lot of people think they have it’ or anything like that. She said, ‘OK, tell me more. … When I say Dec. 11, what pops in your head?’

“And immediately I could see it in my head, and I was like, ‘Oh, in 2009 that was a Friday, and I volunteered to chaperone a middle school dance as a high school volunteer, and then I went shopping at the mall for Christmas presents. I started telling her things that happened around that time, like how on the ninth there was a huge snowstorm in Green Bay and all the schools were canceled. I tried to give her verifiable events, because anyone can just say that they went shopping on a certain day. But the thing is, I actually know. I’m not making stuff up.”

Spend just a little time with Pasternak, and you know she’s not making it up. Give her specific dates and she’ll tell you all about them. Give her events and she’ll tell you when they happened, as long as it’s after 2005. (HSAM didn’t help Pasternak pass history classes – she has to have lived through a day to remember it.)

Nielson pointed Pasternak in the direction of the University of California, Irvine, where James McGaugh, a research professor in neurobiology and behavior, has been studying HSAM since 2000. He and his team tested Pasternak and then welcomed her to a group that numbers fewer than 100 around the world.

Some people would say Pasternak was diagnosed with HSAM, but she shies away from that word.

“I call it an ability,” she says. “Some people will say I was ‘diagnosed,’ which I think has a negative connotation to it. It’s really stigmatizing, because there are parts of HSAM that are hard to live with in some ways, but those parts are really tied to the fact that I also have diagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder. So I would say the negative parts of my memory are more tied to that disorder, an actual disorder, than it is having this ability.”

The negative part of HSAM? Pasternak can remember the wonderful things that happened in her life, but she remembers everything else, too – the good, the bad and the ugly.

“There were times where I was really confused in high school,” she says. “If I really got into a memory I would dwell on something, and there were times where I’d even write the wrong date on a paper because I was really focused on two years ago or something like that. And I think that disrupted me a little bit.

“There’s an element of forgiveness that goes into being a human being that we all need to practice consciously, but it can be a little hard when you can remember exactly the words that somebody said to you that were so rude,” she adds. “I can lose myself in memories pretty easily, and there are times where I’ll relive really emotionally hard things, and I’ll be stuck in a rut because I’m reliving a breakup or I’m reliving a death or something.”

A new pet, a dog named Brooks that Pasternak adopted in December (Dec. 7, 2018, to be exact) – has helped her snap out of those moments when she gets stuck on a date.

“I think of it as waking out of a dream or something like that,” Pasternak says. “I know I’ve only had Brooks for the past couple of months, so looking at him, I’m like, ‘Wait, it’s not 2015, because I have you here.’ So it’s comforting, because I have this thing that wasn’t here before. So that’s been helpful.”

Others with HSAM have called it “exhausting,” and Pasternak says it can be, but for her the negatives are outweighed by the positives, including researchers using those with HSAM to try to shed some light on Alzheimer’s disease.

“So they’re thinking, if we’ve got these people with almost super-ability for autobiographical remembering, but we also have people who lose that ability at some point, what is the difference in their brains?” she says. “So they’re using a lot of our research, I think, for Alzheimer’s, and for depression, too. That’s a big one.”

Pasternak has become friends with others with HSAM, corresponding with them via social media and, in some cases, meeting them face-to-face. She was not a part of a 2010 “60 Minutes” segment in which actress Marilu Henner acknowledged she has HSAM, but Pasternak has participated in press events with others in her “small family.”

“I met Joey and Nicole, and we did a segment for Scientific American, and the three of us just jived super well, so we have a group chat,” she says.

There’s also Becky in Australia, whom Pasternak joined on “60 Minutes Australia,” and Jessica, who is from Las Vegas and, at age 11 last year, was among the youngest people determined to have HSAM. “I haven’t met her, but I’m friends with her mother on Facebook,” Pasternak says.

Pasternak knows that people are intrigued by her and others who have HSAM, and she embraces it. She happily lets people test her when they find out about it.

“My friends are all over the spectrum,” she says. “I’ve got friends who love to talk about it and love that this is a part of me. I’ve got friends who never bring it up. I’ve got friends who don’t really understand it and maybe have no interest in understanding it. And I’ve got friends who want to talk about it all the time and are like, ‘Hey, can I use your memory for a sec?’

“I love it,” she adds. “It’s fun to talk to people and be like, ‘I remember on this day you did this.’ Because it makes people feel special that you remembered something they did or they said or something good that happened to them.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Practicing what she teaches: UAB creative writing director Kerry Madden-Lunsford has new children’s book

(Kerry Madden-Lunsford/Contributed)

Kerry Madden-Lunsford first met Ernestine Upchurch more than a decade ago.

It was just after the 2005 release of “Gentle’s Holler,” the first of three young adult novels (the others are “Louisiana’s Song” and “Jessie’s Mountain”) that Madden-Lunsford would write set in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

Turns out that was Upchurch’s territory, and she wanted to meet the woman who was writing about her beloved Maggie Valley and the mountains surrounding it.


“I met her at the pancake house in Maggie Valley, and she became my mountain mother,” says Madden-Lunsford, associate professor and director of the creative writing program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “She let me use her cabin to write the other two novels.”

She also told Madden-Lunsford the story that is the basis of her newest book, “Ernestine’s Milky Way,” a children’s picture book with illustrations by Emily Sutton.

“She told me about her mother asking her to take a mason jar of milk to neighbors in the other holler when she was 5,” Madden-Lunsford says. “I just thought to be 5 years old and have that kind of responsibility. I thought now that’s a story. I just started thinking about this little girl taking a journey.”

It wasn’t an easy task for the author, who in addition to her young adult novels had written a biography of Harper Lee, “Up Close: Harper Lee”; “Nothing Fancy,” a children’s book about the friendship between storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham and folk artist Charlie Lucas; and “Offsides,” a novel loosely based on her own story, growing up the daughter of a well-known football coach. (Her father, Joe Madden, coached at the University of Tennessee and Iowa State University, among other places.)

“I had been teaching picture books to my students, and I thought, how hard could it be?,” Madden-Lunsford says. “And it turns out it’s the hardest form. There are so few words. I must have written it a hundred times.”

Her agent sent the book out, and an editor at Penguin picked it up. That editor also found Sutton in York, England, an unlikely residence for an illustrator of a book about the Smoky Mountains.

“She’s terrific,” Madden-Lunsford says of her collaborator. “She contacted me and asked me to send her pictures of the mountain. I sent her about 200 pictures, and the illustrations are beautiful.”

Ernestine Upchurch died last year, but Sutton was able to send her a few of the illustrations before she passed away.

“She sent me four beautiful pictures,” Madden-Lunsford says. “Libby, Ernestine’s daughter, said she had the biggest smile on her face when she saw them.”

And while Upchurch was her mountain mother (and Libby now calls the author her “mountain sister”), Madden-Lunsford has real family in the mountain area, too. Her husband, Kiffen Madden-Lunsford, has family in both Ashville, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, and “Ernestine’s Milky Way” has gotten their thumbs-up.

“They’ve all been so supportive,” the author says.

In fact, her husband – who lives in Los Angeles and is a tenured teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District – is a clogger and will clog at some of her signing events. She kicked off her book tour this week at the Alabama Booksmith in Homewood. The tour continues Saturday in California, and then she’s back in Alabama for a March 23 book signing at the Homewood Public Library and an April 13 appearance at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery.

In the meantime, Madden-Lunsford is working on two new projects – a teen novel set in Birmingham and an adult novel set in Manchester, England.

Because of their jobs, Madden-Lunsford and her husband have lived apart for a while. They travel often to see each other, and they spend summers together. They’ve also raised children Norah, Lucy and Flannery.

“We’ve done this two-state thing for about 10 years and will be doing it about four more years so it doesn’t mess up his retirement,” Madden-Lunsford says. “We’ve been married 33 years and Skype every night.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Barry Alexander Brown, Spike Lee filming ‘Son of the South’ in Montgomery

(Barry Alexander Brown/Contributed)

When Bob Zellner’s “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek,” his memoir of a white Alabamian joining the ranks of some of the greatest figures of the civil rights movement, came out in 2008, a movie was in the works almost immediately.

Now, a little over a decade later, it’s going to happen. Directed by Barry Alexander Brown, longtime editor for director Spike Lee’s acclaimed movies, “Son of the South,” based on Zellner’s book and life, is in pre-production in Montgomery. Finally.

“It’s definitely happening,” Brown says. “I read recently that the average number of years to get a movie made is nine. You hear that movies are a miracle, and this is a miracle.”


No casting has been announced, yet, but Brown says to expect some “very, very well-known names” when they’re made public. They’ll be playing Zellner and the myriad civil rights leaders and figures he encountered, including Rosa Parks, Virginia Foster Durr, Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Zellner, whose book is newly available in paperback from Montgomery’s NewSouth Books, first crossed paths with Brown in 1968, when, as a student at Montgomery’s Lanier High School, Brown contacted Zellner – by then a well-known figure in civil rights – about his high school not being allowed to lower their flag to half-mast following King’s assassination.

“That was the beginning of his activism,” Zellner says.

Zellner’s activism had begun much earlier, when he was studying at Montgomery’s Huntingdon College and became involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). That was quite the leap for the son and grandson of Klansmen, and it began a career in activism that continues to this day.

Zellner took notes along his journey, but about the time the movie “Mississippi Burning” was released in 1988, he got serious about writing a memoir. The result was “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement.”

“I saw it as a movie early on, because at the time, there were not that many young white people from the Deep South who were on the front lines of the SNCC,” Zellner says. “Mostly the leadership were young black women and men from the South, mainly with a church background. We had a small group of white activists.”

Brown wrote the script for “Son of the South” almost a decade ago.

“He had so many stories, and every one of the stories was jaw-dropping, so I knew there was a movie there,” Brown says of Zellner. “I just didn’t know what the movie was. Then it hit me to do it about his transition about being somebody about to graduate from Huntingdon College – sort of a good ol’ boy – and in a matter of a few months, he was in the center of the civil rights movement.”

Though he has directed his own films (including the Oscar-nominated documentary “The War at Home”), the British-born Brown is best-known for his work with Lee, beginning with “She’s Gotta Have It,” the 1986 feature that launched Lee’s career. Brown has been his editor on films such as “Malcolm X,” “Inside Man,” “Do the Right Thing” and last year’s “BlacKkKlansman,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination.

“We came along together in the movie business and learned so much as we were growing,” Brown says of Lee, who is an executive producer of “Son of the South.” “We learned so much about how to make movies with each other. We work together easily, and we like it.”

Brown, whose mother still lives in Montgomery, has been back in Alabama since September working on pre-production aspects of “Son of the South.”

“We’re going to shoot all of it right around Montgomery,” he says. “About 60 percent of the original story takes place right here, so I was hellbent to shoot it here. There was some pushback because the sense was that there wasn’t enough support in Montgomery, Alabama, to make a movie. But I don’t like to hear that. I’m from here, and there’s got to be more people like me. Turns out there are incredible people here.”

The plan is to begin shooting in April and finish in the middle of May. “Son of the South” doesn’t have a distributor, yet, and Brown is particularly proud of the movie’s homegrown financing. “All of the investors for this movie have come from Alabama,” he says. “Every single one.”

“Quite frankly, it’s so personally satisfying to me that people here in Alabama have shown up for this movie and see that it’s important,” Brown adds. “One of the things I’m trying to do with this movie is dispel the perception of the civil rights movement that young students came down from the North and turned the South around. That is not what happened. It was a fight fought by local people across the South – mainly African-American people, but not all African-American people.”

Brown promises authenticity in his depiction of the South.

“I’ve seen movies set in the South, and I don’t recognize the place at all,” he says. “When you see ‘Son of the South,’ it’s going to feel like the South. Every person is going to be a human being, not some cardboard character. You’re going to see real people and a real place.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Student by day, pop star by night: Alabama’s Bailey Coats is real-life Hannah Montana

(Photo/contributed by Bailey Coats)

From the outside, Bailey Coats looks like your typical college student.

A senior in marketing at the University of Alabama, the 21-year-old is on full academic scholarship and planning to graduate in May.


But while other students might be waiting tables or playing video games in their spare time, you’ll often find Coats behind the microphone – recording the music she’s been writing since an early age.

“It’s something my parents said has always been in my blood,” says Coats, who graduated from Mountain Brook High School. “At the age of 2, I had memorized the lyrics to Faith Hill’s song ‘Breathe.’”

It would be another 10 years or so, though, before Coats would begin to think of music as a career option. At age 13, she performed in a showcase for young performers, landed a development deal and produced her first EP, “American Girl.”

Since then, she has continued honing her craft and writing music, performing on stages throughout the Southeast and developing a following on YouTube. Videos for “American Girl” and the song “Deep Within” have more than 100,000 views each, and “Deep Within” recently reached the top 10 on KIX 95.9, a popular radio station in Nashville.

“’Deep Within’ was never intentionally labeled a country song, but it’s so humbling to be picked up by the country audience,” Coats says.

Her music is hard to pigeon-hole, as evidenced by the artists Coats mentions as her inspirations – Amy Winehouse, Michael Buble, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. The latter is on the list for more than her musical abilities. “I admire her incredible marketing skills as well as her relatability with her fans,” Coats says. “I’m a big fan of just basic Top 40 pop hits right now. I think it’s important to be aware of the music you’re trying to create.”

Coats is working with vocal coach Rob Stevenson, whose clients have included Justin Timberlake, Kelly Clarkson and Rihanna. She and her team are continuing to build on the success she has already found.

“We’re anticipating more singles and an EP as well,” Coats says. “We’re going with the flow and looking for what the demand is in the market right now. I’ve been able to develop and write and grow on top of preparing new music that I’m preparing to release in the coming months.”

Until then, she’ll continue to balance the life of a student with that of a musician.

“It has definitely been a challenge to balance to completely different mindsets,” Coats says. “I’m surrounded by people trying to get their degree and A’s like I am, but I’m also thinking about how my songs are doing on Spotify and iTunes. It’s like ‘Hannah Montana’ in real life, just minus the secret-identity card. Everyone knows it’s me.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Alabama vintage airplane restorer enjoys taking it to new heights

(Bernard Troncale/Shorelines)

Like many children growing up, Conrad Reed liked to tinker with model cars and airplanes.

But while most have given up the childhood hobby, at age 68, Reed has yet to quit. He just works on the real things now.

“I don’t fish, and I don’t play golf,” says Reed, a senior real estate specialist for Alabama Power Company at Weiss Lake in northeast Alabama. “This is my hobby.”

“This,” right now, means a red 2000 Corvette and a 1975 Gentleman Jack GMC pickup. But those are just the vehicles with four wheels. The real centerpieces in Reed’s backyard hangars are three airplanes, just the latest in a line of planes that Reed has bought, refurbished and flown.


It all started in earnest a little more than 40 years ago, when a 26-year-old Reed was working for a crop-dusting business at the Centre Municipal Airport.

“I didn’t fly at that time,” Reed says. “I was taking in the jobs, mixing the chemicals and stuff like that. But when I was working with the flying service, one of the gentlemen had a Cessna 150, which is a pretty good trainer, and he knew how bad I wanted to fly. He told me if I would buy the gas, I could fly his airplane. I did that, and I got my license.”

In 1978, Reed bought his first airplane, a 1946 Cessna 140, a single engine two-seater.

What followed was several decades of a high-flying hobby. While owning an auto parts store, retiring and then starting a second career with Alabama Power, Reed was buying and restoring vintage planes, often flying them at “fly-ins” – gatherings for airplane aficionados – in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

All told, there have been eight of them, including several models used in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

A Stearman biplane, which Reed bought in 1983, was his first military airplane. It was used to train pilots in World War II.

“This was a PT-17, meaning primary trainer,” he says. “This was the first plane these guys got to fly. After World War II, crop-dusters started putting big engines on these biplanes. This one had the 450 horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine on it, which was more than twice the horsepower these airplanes originally came with.”

Reed bought the plane from an insurance company after a Mississippi pilot wrecked it on the runway. “It took me nine years to restore this plane,” he says. “It didn’t take that long to do the work; it just took me that long to do it without borrowing money to work on it. When I got it done, it was paid for.”

Early on, Reed bought a Cessna L-19 Birddog, a Korean War-era plane (Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was shuttled from site to site in one).

“It was a wreck when I got it,” Reed says. “It had wing damage, tail-surface damage and the fuselage had nearly been cut in two in an accident. I bought it as a project and worked on it for about a year to get it going.”

He kept the Stearman, though, and its power caught the eye of another Stearman owner at one of the fly-ins.

“With the big engine it was really impressive, and I showed out a little at the air show,” Reed recalls. That caught the attention of a man who also had a Stearman, but with the original engine and not the souped-up Pratt & Whitney.

“The Pratt & Whitney was burning about 25 gallons of fuel per hour, so it was really getting in my pocketbook pretty good,” Reed says. “His plane had the original stock engine on it, and it burned about 12-13 gallons an hour. It was the same plane, just a different engine, and he didn’t know how bad I wanted his. I really wanted that airplane, because it was such an original plane and a great one to maintain and keep. The guy I bought it from, all he saw was that big engine, and I came out real well. This was a 100 percent original.”

Reed kept that second Stearman until about a year ago, when he sold it and bought another Cessna L-19, which had been used as a forward air command plane in Korea and Vietnam. “I restored the original Air Force colors and markings,” he says.

So now, Reed has the second L-19, a Citabria he bought in 2011 and another project, a four-passenger Cessna 172. They are housed (along with the Corvette, a 1969 GTO and the 1975 GMC Gentleman Jim) in two hangars in his backyard, where he keeps a roomful of airplane and car parts, fabric and paint. It’s all next to the small landing strip Reed uses when he flies.

He and his wife, Ruth, have lived on 60 acres of land in Centre since 1989. They have three grown sons who didn’t totally inherit their dad’s love of airplanes but did help him with his restorations through the years.

“I’m very proud of him for what he does,” Ruth Reed says of her husband. “I used to fly with him a good bit, but I kind of lost interest. He just does his thing now.”

The landing strip is just outside the house, so when Reed flies, his wife knows. She says the Stearman with the big engine used to rattle the dishes in their cabinets.

“I sure can’t sneak off,” he says with a laugh.

How often does he fly?

“Not near enough,” Reed says. “Maybe two or three times a month. I mow my runway more than I fly.”

When he does fly, they’re short flights, usually around nearby Weiss Lake or over the state line to visit fellow enthusiasts in Georgia. He’ll give rides to people from time to time, but insurance is too expensive to do that with any frequency.

Reed is a careful flier, so he hasn’t had any close calls while in the cockpit.

“I watch the weather closely, and I can see a thunderstorm and be back home before it ever catches me,” he says. “I don’t travel that far, so I don’t have problems.”

Reed uses just the basic instruments when he pilots a plane. “I’m more of a seat-of-the-pants-type flier than an electronics flier,” he says. “Some of these planes, you can get up and press a button and take a nap. I’m not one of those pilots. I like to see where I’m going. If my engine quits, which it won’t, I like to know where I can land nearby.”

Reed continues to go to car shows, air shows and fly-ins and enjoys the pilots he’s met, some through his membership in the Experimental Aircraft Association. “It’s a great community,” he says. “I’ll fly into their airstrips, and they’ll come visit me, too.”

The plan now is to sell his Citabria and Cessna 172, keeping the L-19 to continue flying.

The pilot is quick to say he hasn’t gotten rich off his airplanes – parts are expensive, and it can take years to restore one.

“I don’t do it for the money,” Reed says. “When you spend that much time on something, you don’t make any money if you value your time at all.”

This story originally appeared in Shorelines magazine.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Fair winds and following seas: Alabama woman embarks on sailing adventure from Germany to Gulf Shores

(M. Segrest)

Michelle Segrest is thinking a lot about trash these days.

“Trash and water,” she says. “Those have both been on my mind lately.”

And not in a save-the-environment and conserve-our-natural-resources kind of way. Segrest is all for that, but right now she’s talking about plain ol’, everyday trash and water – where to throw it away and how to drink it and bathe in it.

Segrest and her boyfriend/traveling companion, Maik Ulmschneider, have just a few days to figure it all out. That’s when they set sail from Ulmschneider’s home in northern Germany to Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where Segrest, a Decatur native and former Birmingham resident, lives now.


It will be a 6,000-nautical-mile journey on the 43-foot Seefalke. The duo will hit at least 12 countries and eight bodies of water, including a 20 to 40 day trek across the Atlantic.

During that leg of the trip, fresh water will be limited, and trash … well, that’s still up in the air.

“We can’t carry huge garbage bags full of trash, because there’s just not room,” Segrest says. “We’re still trying to figure that one out.”

In the grand scheme of things, that’s a minor detail for Segrest and Ulmschneider, who will chronicle their six to eight month journey via their websiteFacebookYouTubeTwitter and Instagram. They’ve branded themselves as “Sailors & Seadogs.” Segrest and Ulmschneider are the sailors, and their beagles, Capt’n Jack Sparrow and Scout, will be along for the ride.

The voyage was set in motion five years ago, when Segrest, an Auburn University journalism graduate who was then editor of a pumps and systems magazine, met Ulmschneider, a pump engineer.

“I met him while working on an article in Germany,” Segrest says. “We became friends first, and more developed later. He loved to sail and wanted to take me sailing.”

Ulmschneider comes by his boating skills honestly, learning to sail more than 20 years ago in the German Navy. Segrest loves the water and grew up fishing with her father, but it wasn’t until she met Ulmschneider that she really learned to sail.

“He wanted to take me sailing because that was his passion, so my first big sailing experience was on the Baltic Sea,” she says. “This is not bikini-and-martini sailing. This is heavy wind, rough conditions, high waves, and it’s super, super cold.”

And Segrest loved it.

During the next few years, she started her own company, Navigate Content, moved down to Gulf Shores and bought her own boat, a 15-foot catboat she named Protagonist.

“I love the physical labor of sailing, and I love the art of sailing,” Segrest says. “You’re working in the conditions and the wind, and you’re not in control. You’re really just responding to the elements around you. There’s something really cool and adventurous about this. Some people just hate it – it’s too slow, or too hard, or they get sick. Or it just really becomes a part of you. You connect with the sea and the art, and you want more. And that’s me. I just fell in love with it.”

“I think lessons learned at sea are lessons learned for life,” Ulmschneider says.

“The boat is seaworthy, and the crew is fit,” he says. “We are equipped for the worst but hope for the best, so there are no particular worries or concerns. … If there is any concern it probably is how we are going to cope with our regular jobs while at sea. But I am sure we will figure that out, as well.”

The goal has always been to get the Seefalke – which is painted bright orange, a nice coincidence for the Auburn graduate – to Alabama.

“We have some ideas of some ways to use it as a business in Gulf Shores,” Segrest says. “We want it here also because we want to sail some waters that aren’t in Northern Europe.”

“There’s only so much space on the boat, and you need to use every square inch,” Segrest says. “There’s a great quote: ‘I never realized how little I needed until I went out to sea.’”

And with luck, she might just find out how to handle bags of trash.

Details on the couple’s trip can be found here and those who want to “join the crew” and follow the trip in real-time via GPS can go to the couple’s Patreon account.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

In new book, Alabama’s Victoria Hallman reminisces about time as Hee Haw Honey

(Photo Courtesy Victoria Hallman)

Victoria Hallman and Diana Goodman were in attorney Bruce Phillips’ office one day reminiscing – Goodman about her time dating Elvis Presley, Hallman about her relationship with Buck Owens, both about their time as Hee Haw Honeys on the long-running television variety show “Hee Haw.”

“We sat in his office and talked it up and started telling stories,” recalls Hallman, an Alabama native and longtime fixture on the Birmingham music scene before she headed to Hollywood. “Bruce said, ‘You two sound just like this show my wife watches, “Sex and the City,” except yours is true.’ We thought about it and decided we should write a book.”


That was 2010, and this week, “Hollywood Lights, Nashville Nights: Two Hee Haw Honeys Dish Life, Love, Elvis, Buck & Good Times in the Kornfield” was published.

The book includes both women’s stories, both written by Hallman, who has done freelance writing for Flower magazine and her own blog.

“I wrote as Diana, and I wrote as Victoria,” Hallman says. “I called her every Monday night, and we did about an hour’s worth of conversation each time. The next day, I would sit down and write as Diana, using her words as much as possible.”

It’s almost two books in one, with sections labeled “Diana” and “Victoria.”

“I told Diana her life is so interesting, many of the Elvis fans will probably just skip over my part and go to her part, and my fans may skip to my parts,” Hallman says. “It was purposefully written to be like that.”

Hallman’s early years in Birmingham included stints with bands like the Ramblers, Bob Cain the Cain Breakers and the Bachelors. She was a big draw during the 1970s at the popular Bachelor’s Showboat on Morris Avenue in downtown Birmingham.

Eventually, Hallman went to Hollywood to work with Bob Hope, whom she met when she was an opening act for him at a Homecoming performance at the University of Alabama.

Hallman’s section of the new book begins with her meeting Owens, one of country’s biggest stars, while she was performing with Hope. She began performing on the road with Owens and his Buckaroos, and a relationship developed.

“There’s just a magic about creating music that’s … very intimate,” Hallman says of the romantic relationship developing. “There’s a creative process that ‘s very sexy. We were together for awhile. It wasn’t a secret.”

In 1979, Hallman joined the cast of “Hee Haw,” the TV series Owens had hosted for a decade with Roy Clark. The show featured some of country’s biggest stars performing their music, as well as comedy segments with the cast, including Minnie Pearl and young women known as the Hee Haw Honeys. Many of the comedy bits took place in the “Kornfield.”

The Hee Haw Honeys included Hallman, Goodman, Linda Thompson (who would marry Bruce Jenner), Gunilla Hutton, Barbi Benton, Misty Rowe and Lulu Roman, among others.

Hallman has fond memories of her time on “Hee Haw,” which lasted until 1990. In the book, she talks about working with guest stars such as Ed McMahon, Kathy Mattea, Naomi Judd, Ray Charles and others. In addition, she talks about the camaraderie among the Hee Haw Honeys.

“We’re still great pals,” she says. “Misty Rowe and Lulu and I and Barbie sometimes have been performing in a Hee Haw Honey reunion stage show. We stay in constant contact. We were members of a sisterhood that has stayed intact all these years.”

Although there was a downside to her long run as a Hee Haw Honey, Hallman wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“’Hee Haw Honey’ kind of eclipsed everything else, and it was hard to be taken as a serious actress or singer, but it was apparently the way my career was supposed to happen,” she says. “George Lindsey would tell you that happened with him and Goober, but he finally came to terms with it, and so have I. It’s great. I have to be glad of it.”

“Hollywood Lights, Nashville Nights,” which is available on Amazon, details Hallman’s first marriage to (and divorce from) Jim Halper. She has been married to Franklin Traver for 25 years, and they live in Nashville.

Hallman still has family in Alabama and has returned to Birmingham to perform from time to time, including at the final City Stages music festival and, in 2012, when she was inducted into the Birmingham Record Collectors Hall of Fame.

“No town has ever held my heart like Birmingham,” she says. “Any success I’ve had is because of Birmingham. The more I’m in Birmingham, the happier I am.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Birmingham folks come home with a handful of Tony Awards

(Photo/Courtesy Keith Cromwell)

The Best Revival of a Musical win for “Once on This Island” at Sunday night’s Tony Awards brought theater’s highest honor to a contingent from Red Mountain Theatre Company.

RMTC, its Executive Director Keith Cromwell and patrons Raymond and Kathryn Harbert all are Tony winners as producers of the award-winning musical.

“What an amazing feeling that it was almost 20 years ago when I was on that stage performing in the ‘Holiday Spectacular,’” Cromwell said. “What an amazing way to return to the great Radio City Music Hall, as part of the Tony Award-winning team that made ‘Once on This Island’ happen.”


The recognition will help RMTC continue to fulfill its mission, Cromwell said.

Red Mountain Theatre Company is determined to use the transformational qualities of theater to further the momentum and renaissance of Birmingham,” he said. “The honor of winning a Tony Award for this beautiful production will allow us to more deeply engage, educate and enrich our amazing community.”

Kathryn Harbert, president of the theater’s board of directors, said she and her husband were “thrilled.”

“This will bring RMTC more recognition of the great work they do – and more closely connect them to the larger Broadway community,” she said.

“Once on This Island” was one of the night’s big winners, along with “The Band’s Visit” (Best Musical), “Angels in America” (Best Revival of a Play) and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (Best Play).

Other Alabama actors had strong connections to a number of the awards:

–Lindsay Mendez won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role as Carrie Pipperidge in Broadway’s “Carousel.” Who steps in for Mendez when she’s away? Birmingham’s Scarlett Walker, who is in the ensemble every night and understudies the role of Carrie Pipperidge, which she has played several times since going on May 27 for the first time.
–He lost the Best Featured Actor in a Musical award to Ari’el Stachel of “The Band’s Visit,” but Norbert Leo Butz, as Alfred Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” performed on the awards show with the cast. Butz, a two-time Tony Award winner, got an early start at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where he graduated in the MFA program.
–His show didn’t win the big award, but Birmingham’s DeMarius Copes was right there on the Tony Award stage performing with the cast of “Mean Girls,” one of the nominees for Best Musical.
–Hoover’s Vasthy Mompoint also performed on stage, as part of the ensemble for another Best Musical nominee, “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Former Miss Alabama sees daughters competing for Miss Alabama, Tony Award

(Walker Family)

Like mother, like daughter. Like other daughter.

That’s the way the old saying goes for the family of Angela Tower Walker. Angela was Miss Alabama 1986 and came close to winning Miss America.

Now, three decades later, Angela has her eyes on two competitions this week: Saturday night’s Miss Alabama Pageant, in which daughter Callie is trying to follow in her mother’s footsteps; and Sunday’s Tony Awards, in which daughter Scarlett, making her Broadway debut in “Carousel,” just may see her show take home theater’s top award for Best Revival of a Musical.

“I’m super proud of them, obviously,” says Angela, whose trek to the Miss Alabama crown started when she was a freshman at Birmingham-Southern College and was invited to enter a preliminary.


“I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “But I ended up winning the pageant and going on to the Miss Alabama Pageant in 1978. I was quite clueless when I was competing, and I was second runner-up. I was completely surprised.”

That first year piqued Angela’s interest, so she continued to compete both in Texas (she’s a native Texan) and in Alabama. She was first runner-up to Miss Alabama Tammy Little in 1984, and in 1985, she won the title, becoming Miss Alabama 1986.

“I thoroughly enjoyed being on the road and making appearances as Miss Alabama, and competing in Miss America was very exciting,” she says. After the national pageant, where she finished as fourth runner-up, Angela went to see David Letterman’s late-night show in New York, and she appeared in a small segment with him.

After her reign as Miss Alabama, Angela owned a dance studio in Birmingham for a number of years and has been teaching ballet and coaching other contestants for more than 30 years.

She married Mike Walker in 1993, and they have three children: Scarlett, 23; and twins Callie and Michael, 20.

Broadway Bound

Angela’s two daughters, both singers and dancers, followed her into the pageant system.

Scarlett won both Miss Alabama’s Outstanding Teen (in 2010) and Alabama’s Distinguished Young Woman (in 2012), finishing as first runner-up nationally in both programs. She had appeared early on in a production of “Annie,” but after her pageant years, she left performing behind to study broadcast journalism.

“My mom knew I was lost without the arts,” Scarlett recalls. “She said, ‘You know, I really think you would be good at theater.’ … That conversation changed my life forever.”

Scarlett became a musical theater major at the University of Alabama and appeared in productions of “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “42nd Street,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Little Shop of Horrors” in Tuscaloosa. In Birmingham, she appeared in Red Mountain Theatre Company’s “Les Miserables” and “La Cage Aux Folles.”

In 2016, Scarlett made the move to New York. “I knew this was where I had to be to fulfill my dream,” she says.

She worked at a couple of respected regional theaters, and then, in July of last year, she auditioned for the Broadway revival of “Carousel.”

Her mom got the news, fittingly, on the dance floor, where she was teaching a ballet class.

“She called from the subway and asked if I was on speaker phone,” Angela recalls. “She announced to me and my students that she was going to be on Broadway.”

Scarlett had been cast in the ensemble of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, and she also was understudying the major role of Carrie Pipperidge, best friend to Julie Jordan, the heroine.

“Opening night was a ‘dream come true’ moment for me,” Scarlett says. “My parents were there, and the atmosphere in the theater was unreal.”

But there was more to come.

On May 27, two hours before curtain, Scarlett found out she was going on as Carrie Pipperidge.

“Those were the fastest two hours of my life,” Scarlett says. “I was nervous, elated, focused, overjoyed, grateful and very, very calm. … One of the greatest honors of the day was making my Broadway principle debut while holding the hand of one of my idols, Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller. … Also, singing one of my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, ‘Mister Snow,’ on a Broadway stage with a 25-piece orchestra is the stuff dreams are made of.”

Following in Mom’s, sister’s footsteps

Scarlett plans to watch Sunday’s Tony Awards at a cast member’s watch party, but she’ll be rooting for sister Callie on Saturday night.

While Scarlett was honing her theater skills, Callie, too, was making a name for herself on stage.

She was crowned Miss Alabama’s Outstanding Teen in 2012, and in 2015 began competing in the Miss Alabama Pageant. She is believed to be the first daughter of a former winner to compete.

The past two years, she has been first runner-up to Miss Alabama, and she’s ready to win.

“I truly want to be the next Miss Alabama,” she says. “I have competed for four years in this organization, and I have never felt more ready or prepared to travel this state and promote the Miss America Organization and its empowerment of women.”

She, like Scarlett, is studying musical theater at the University of Alabama, appearing in shows such as “A Chorus Line” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

“I am looking to follow in my sister’s footsteps,” Callie says. “Seeing her journey with ‘Carousel,’ I have already seen that a career on Broadway is not easy. It takes hard work and dedication.”

Hard work and dedication – and a love for music — are not lacking in the Walker family.

“It’s kind of not surprising to see the trajectories they’ve taken,” Angela says, adding that son, Michael, is also in the arts, as an aspiring choral director. “My husband is a big music fan, and when they were little and he was toting them around in the car, he’d play music, and it was anything from Elvis to John Denver to Barbra Streisand. You name it, Mike exposed them to it.

“It has been rewarding seeing their drive and determination and see them reach their goals,” Angela adds.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Birmingham’s Bill Oliver makes debut as feature film director at Tribeca Film Festival

(B. Oliver)

Years ago, Bill Oliver was a sixth-grader at Highlands Day School in Birmingham when his math teacher started a photography club.

“I signed up for that, and that’s where I fell in love with photography,” says Oliver, who went on to be editor and photographer of the yearbook and to start a movie club while a student at Indian Springs School.

Little did he know where that would lead him.


This week, Oliver is debuting his first feature film as a director. “Jonathan” makes its bow at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York on Saturday.

Oliver, who wrote “Jonathan” with his longtime writing partner Peter Nickowitz, describes it as “a science-fiction drama about two brothers who share a secret and what happens when one of them falls in love and begins to neglect their relationship.”

The movie stars Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars,” “Baby Driver”), Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Patricia Clarkson (“The Untouchables,” “The Dead Pool,” “Six Feet Under”), Golden Globe winner Matt Bomer (“American Horror Story,” “The Normal Heart”)  and Suki Waterhouse (“Love, Rosie,” “Insurgent”).

Elgort was cast first.

“I knew him from ‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ but I didn’t know any of his other work,” Oliver says. “I saw one side of his character in ‘Fault in Our Stars,’ charming and outgoing, but he was also in ‘Men, Women & Children,’ where he played a very introverted character. We met for lunch and he was just very charming, very smart, very enthusiastic about the project and won me over.”

Casting Elgort helped land Clarkson, a veteran of stage and screen.

“She responded to the script and also had met Ansel at the Toronto Film Festival and fell in love with him, too,” Oliver says. “She was excited to work with him.”

Waterhouse, a British model-turned-actress, worked with Elgort in the upcoming “Billionaire Boys Club.”

Cast and crew gathered for 22 days in fall 2016 to shoot the movie.

It wasn’t Oliver’s first time behind the camera – he’s shot several short films since graduating from Princeton University and going on to directing school at the American Film Institute – but “Jonathan” is his first feature-length project.

“It was definitely scary, but I felt prepared and made sure I was prepared,” he says. “You do all your homework. You have to understand everyone’s job and be prepared to talk to all of them about it. I did my research, did my homework, did my analysis of the script.”

The Tribeca Film Festival is a big step, and “Jonathan” is already getting noticed. More than 100 feature films are being screened, and the show business publication Variety picked “Jonathan” as one of the nine with the most buzz.

“Jonathan” will screen four times between Saturday and April 28. Oliver is hoping to find a distributor to put “Jonathan” out in theaters, and other film festivals might be in its future.

But for now, the director just wants people to see his movie.

“I’m very happy with it and very proud of it,” says Oliver, who lives in New York. “I’m excited to show it to an audience.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Jason Robert Brown: 13 questions for the composer of ’13,’ opening at Red Mountain

A scene from Red Mountain Theatre Company's original production of "13" in 2010.(Red Mountain Theatre Company)

Jason Robert Brown is Broadway royalty.

The winner of three Tony Awards, the composer and orchestrator’s shows have included “Parade,” “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Songs for a New World,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Urban Cowboy” and “The Last Five Years.” (The last one was adapted into a feature film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in 2014).

Brown is also the composer of “13,” which debuted on Broadway in 2008 with a cast and band made up of teenagers (including a not-so-well-known Ariana Grande).

Brown has a relationship with Birmingham’s Red Mountain Theatre Company, which produced “13” in 2010 and is about to open the show again. It runs April 13-22 at the theater.

Brown, who performs this week at the London Palladium, answered 13 questions for us, about “13,” his RMTC connection, his family and his career.


1. Tell us about the genesis of “13.” How did you and the other creators find each other?

Dan Elish brought me one of his novels to see if I wanted to turn it into a musical. I didn’t, but I did have another idea that I thought Dan’s writing would be right for. We started work on “13” in 2003, and that work accelerated in 2006 when the Mark Taper Forum agreed to produce the show based only on a demo recording of five of the songs. Todd Graff directed that first production and helped shape the show, and then when we came to Broadway, Jeremy Sams pushed it into different directions, so we brought Robert Horn on board to rewrite the book because Dan and I were a little burned out after five years. Robert and I then became close friends, and he and I continued revising the show after Broadway, tightening, clarifying and restructuring, so that the current version reflects the production I directed in London in 2013.

2. The idea to use only teenagers in the cast and band – did that come up early on in the process?

That was the very first idea I had: 13 13-year-olds and no adults. And relatively soon thereafter, I realized that the band had to be kids, too. The sound of the show really was built on the idea that it would be kids playing and singing everything.

3. The original production uncovered some pretty major stars, including Ariana Grande. Do you feel like a proud father, of sorts, watching them as their careers develop?

Getting to work with teenagers is exceptionally challenging, but the reward of watching them go on to follow their visions and became glorious full humans is more than enough compensation. Not just Ariana, with whom I’ve continued a very rewarding creative collaboration, but Tinashe (who was in the original LA production), Liz Gillies (starring on “Dynasty”), Daryl Sabara (our original Archie in the workshop), Brynn Williams (currently in “SpongeBob”) – and the band, too, including Charlie Rosen, who was our guitarist in LA and is now a renowned Broadway orchestrator and bassist, and Lexi Bodick, who’s touring with “Waitress.” And just as much, those kids who’ve gone on to do something other than acting and are on such exciting and fulfilling paths.

4. What were you doing when you were 13?

Sulking, mostly, and writing songs about the girls who wouldn’t pay attention to me.

5. Given what’s been going on in the world the past decade, do you think “13” would be a different musical if you created it today?

Oh, sure. I wrestle with the show even now because so much about the way kids communicate is already different than it was 10 years ago; and I think the acceptance of gay and transgender kids is so much broader and stronger than it was when we wrote the show that it feels like a particular absence not to have that addressed in the show.

6. You have a pretty special relationship with Red Mountain Theatre Company. How did that come about?

I knew Keith Cromwell from when he was a dance captain of an Off-Broadway show called “When Pigs Fly,” for which I took over as musical director. Several years after that show, he emailed me kind of out of nowhere to ask me to come do a master class and concert with Red Mountain. I’d never been to Birmingham before then, and had such a great time with the students and the community that I’ve been back repeatedly.

7. RMTC was a producer for “The Bridges of Madison County,” for which you won two Tony Awards, but it didn’t have a long Broadway run. Does that bother you? Or do you even try to analyze why shows are or aren’t successful?

It is better for my mental health if I don’t spend too much time dwelling on it. I write shows that I love, and the shows live on. “Dayenu.”

8. Original musicals vs. musical adaptations: You’ve done both. Any preference?

Both have their exceptional challenges. I like to switch between the adaptations and the originals. It keeps me a little more energized.

9. Tell me about being online. You have got to be one of the most accessible Tony-winning composers out there, largely due to your presence on Facebook. Does it have its pluses and minuses?

I’m doing less and less of it. I like the accessibility but I have started to feel like I’m obliged to keep feeding the monster even when I don’t have anything new to offer.

10. You also are not afraid to speak your mind online, and on several occasions, particularly after some of the shooting tragedies, I know you’ve used the internet to disseminate new work quickly. Has that proven to be cathartic for you?

With “26 Names” and “Song About Your Gun” and “Hope” it just didn’t make sense to write those songs and have them sit around waiting for me to finish a new album – the immediacy of the internet was a very valuable tool to get those songs out into the world, where I think they helped people articulate and connect to an emotion that we collectively felt. It was nice to feel like we were part of a community, even if that community was grieving.

11. You’re also doing a monthly concert, with some top guest performers, at the New York club SubCulture. Are you enjoying them?

They are the highlight of every month. I don’t think I’d be able to live in New York if I didn’t have that particular outlet to look forward to every month. Being able to explore my music with my band and with such an incredible collection of singers and musicians has been an incredible gift.

12. You are married to a composer, Georgia Stitt (her new musical “Snow Child” is running in Washington). Are there two separate workspaces in your home? Do you share your work with each other?

We do have two separate workspaces (and two pianos), but I think we both spend so much time trying to raise our kids that writing feels like the thing that we stick into the cracks when we can. We do try to share our work with each other, but our main collaboration is making this family, and that is by far the most important.

13. When will the new album come out? And what else are you working on that you can talk about?

The new album comes out in June! It’s called “How We React and How We Recover,” and I’m deliriously excited about it. New shows on the horizon, which hopefully I’ll be able to announce soon!