We are sitting in a 100 year old church in Union Springs, Alabama watching a production of Truman Capote’s classic, Holiday Memories. The church was designed by an architect while he was still in high school (Richard Kennon Perry), and built on the site of a Civil War graveyard. Many of the graves were moved when the church was built, but one is still under the church. We are told before the production that this grave (Maj. Milton Butterfield) is marked on the floor, but the marker is covered by carpet. Which doesn’t put us exactly in a holiday frame of mind, as we’ve recently seen the terrible wretched movie The House by the Cemetery by Lucio Fulci, in which the main antagonist (the hilariously named Dr. Freudenstein) is buried under the eponymous house and uses his grave as a staging ground to steal the organs of the the living to keep himself in a relative (very relative) state of rejuvenation.
We had rolled into Union Springs mere hours before, visiting as part of a package trip offered by the Red Door Theatre. We first heard about these folks at the Alabama Book Festival last year, and were excited to go check out some good local theater in a place we’d never really been. Since we got the package deal, we had tickets to a pre-show reception and overnight accommodations at the Shenandoah Plantation, a few miles outside of Union Springs. We had no idea what to expect at the Plantation, and so were mostly just surprised to be ushered into a fairly plush guest house/hunting lodge type dwelling where we were to spend the night with three other couples roughly twice our age. We had our own room, with our own bathroom. Our room was decorated with multiple dead stuffed animals, including two deer heads and a goose-in-flight whose butt filled the view when looking directly up from the bed. The grounds were beautiful and we saw several deer.
After “check in” (consisting of a few monosyllabic instructions and a nod toward our room), we drove into Union Springs armed with a photocopied map. Right off the bat, we noticed that all the establishments had “WELCOME HUNTERS” signs next to the signs that said “STORE HAS NO CASH.” Before our trip to the theater, we wanted to poke around the downtown a bit. At 5:00, there were four things open on the single main street: an “art gallery” in the lobby of a decrepit former hotel, a florist/gift shop, the state-run booze store, and the Union Pizza Co.
We started at the gallery, which turned out to be a truly strange collection of things. The proprietress is also an airbrusher, and the gallery features many examples of her work including a disturbing portrait of Michael Jackson and, weirdly, a T-shirt portrait of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery as the Doctor Joneses from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We bought a postcard of the town’s old jail which boasts that the trap door used for hangings is still operable. The airbrushing lady explained to us that she is in the process of trying to raise money to renovate the old hotel, which is clearly in a state of advanced disrepair.
Next, we walked down the street to the florist/gift shop. On the way, we passed the bustling ABC store and a very strange window display of some grade school concentration camp models. One bore a swastika flag. A very odd public display for the holidays.
The gift shop itself was not our cup of tea, but the owner was nice and there was a fairly elaborate “Christmas Village” set up that we took some pictures of. Then, we went to the pizza place for a snack. The bruschetta was tasty but weird. The restaurant itself is cozy and cool, with a lot of exposed brick and a strange building-within-a-building where the restrooms are. We didn’t eat dinner, because we had tickets to the reception over at the old Methodist church. Finding that the reception was largely of the cheese cube-and-chicken skewer variety, and being very hungry, we returned to the pizza place. Several people had told us that this place was new, and good, and that it served “New York” style pizza. Now, we know from New York pizza. It is foldable and delicious and, generally, is not covered by an entire mostly raw onion. The pizza was terrible. Seriously, a freezer case pizza would have been better. Very disappointing.
Union Springs (or “USA,” as the sign welcoming you to town says – short for “Union Springs, Alabama”) is most famous for being the “Field Trial Capital of the World.” Field Trials, evidently, are a competition of sorts for hunting dogs and center around various events designed to figure out how good dogs are at identifying the hiding places of things to be killed. It is also famous for having large numbers of Latino and Hispanic residents, many of whom work in the low-wage poultry jobs that dominate the area’s economy. And from the looks of rural Bullock County, a place where rusted, rotting cars dot yards in front of windows bearing handmade signs advertising “homemade hunting knives,” those jobs may be the brightest light around.
All of which makes the existence of community grassroots theater in this area so interesting. Truman Capote? Out here where books are viewed with suspicion and the locals express starry-eyed optimism that the area might one day acquire a Wal-Mart?
The Red Door Theatre is listed by the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel as home to one of the “50 Must See Cultural Events” in Alabama. It’s a play called Conecuh People, a folksy look at the colorful characters that were described in the oral history collection by Wade Hall. Further editorializing about the play would be a diversion from reviewing Union Springs, but one day we’ll have that rant about the line between preserving Southern culture and exploiting it — a rant that involves Conecuh People, folk art, Fred “Nall” Hollis, William Christenberry, and so much more. But that’s for another time.
The play itself was charming and nice. They had some sound problems when we were there, but the production was solid and the actors were good. Everyone seemed happy to be there, and gave the kind of standing ovation that earnest community theater often receives but snobbier audiences cruelly withhold.
The point is, Union Springs is trying, desperately, to have something that people want to come and see. They want to save their beautiful mansions. They don’t want their lovely downtown to be destroyed by economic forces or decay. They don’t want to fall victim to the simmering racial tensions caused by stark poverty and the evolving demographics. We were happy to visit, and we’ll definitely be back for further poking around and maybe another play.