Yesterday’s dedication of Market Street, one of the oldest concrete highways of its kind in the United States, authenticated by the National Register of Historic Places, was the latest landmark moment in Charleston.
Like the classic Hollywood film that included it, Market Street became another memory indelibly marked in the minds of the community and is headed for the history books.
Memories of Hollywood coming to Charleston to film a major motion picture entirely in Tennessee, but mostly in Charleston on the Hiwassee River, was enough to give Bradley County an industry buzz it would never forget.
Charleston Mayor Walter Goode, 62, said he was only 12 years of age when the 20th Century Fox film “Wild River” started production.
“I was in the seventh grade at High Point Elementary School in Charleston,” said Goode who admits he did not understand the magnitude of a Hollywood production with major movie stars coming to his town.
“Someone came to our school and asked the teacher to expound on whether or not we wanted to be in a movie. So I raised my hand,” said Goode. “I had to go home and get permission from my parents. We started that weekend.”
Goode said production began in the fall. He recalls the weather being “cold, brisk and foggy in the mornings” when he was on the set as an extra.
“I was a character player. They would say ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ and we did it. One time I had a few words in the film but I think that ended up on the editor’s cutting room floor,” Goode said laughing.
According to Goode, they were paid around $25 each day and after taxes “I think we got about $18.75, which was good money back in 1959 for a 12-year-old,” he said.
Goode stated he knew all of the black folks and some of the white extras in the movie because they were all locals.
“The only black person in the movie who was strange to us was the guy who had ‘Old Blue,’ Goode said. “But all the other black characters we knew. The setting of the movie was pretty much what black people were doing — farming, doing the hay, picking the cotton, driving a team of mules. It wasn’t out of character for us to be doing what the movie depicted.”
The most exciting thing for the 12-year-old, however, was not the business of movie-making, but the bus.
“We caught a Greyhound bus about 8 a.m. in the morning until 3 p.m. in the afternoon. To a black kid living in rural Charleston, seeing a bus was a big deal,” said Goode with a smile. “We as children did our bit parts then we played or ate until we were needed again.”
Ironically, it was decades — after the arrival of cable TV — before Goode said he ever saw “Wild River” or himself in the movie.
“When it premiered, I did not know of the showing date at the Star View Drive-in in Cleveland. Around 20,000 locals saw it in two weeks, but not me. I viewed the film for the first time sometime in the 1980s on Turner Classic Movies. People were calling and telling one another that the movie was on.”
When he finally saw it, Goode said he saw several familiar sites including the scene with him in it.
“We reviewed it and saw Wilbur Moore and his brothers standing there and I was on the side of a door peeping out. That was basically what I did, but I was there through the duration. We would go and do our part, eat, play a bit and get paid each day.”
More than 40 local residents were chosen for speaking roles in “Wild River” and more than 100 local extras were involved.
To this day, memories of movie stars like Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet and Bruce Dern, who made his screen acting debut in an uncredited role on the film, remind Charleston residents that they were part of something special.
The community-wide celebration and documentary featuring local residents discussing the making of the Hollywood film and celebrating its history, were only part of the entertainment over the weekend.
There was a vintage car show along Market Street featuring cars from the 1930’s era depicted in the film, including a car used in the actual filming of the movie. There was a continuous showing of “Wild River” throughout the day at Watson’s Chapel Zion AME while the Collins Brothers Band provided music at Charleston Park.
Referring to himself as a youth, Goode admits, “I did not understand the magnitude of the impact of this movie here in our little community. But I do now.”
He said he hopes the festival will become an annual event.