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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Special Feature | Famous Missourians

by Rachel Lerner-Ley, Dramaturg

Shirley dreams of becoming a famous artist—“the greatest artist that Missouri has ever produced.” To which John responds “would that be so difficult?” Shirley then spouts off a list of famous and influential people who got their start in Missouri.

Here’s a glimpse into the famous folks of the Show Me State that make their way into Fifth of July:

Mark Twain (author and wit): Samuel Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri and at the age of 4 moved with his family to Hannibal, Missouri—a bustling town situated on the Mississippi River. It is in Hannibal that Clemens observed life along the Mississippi as well as the realities of slavery—two major themes of his later works. It is also in Hannibal that he began writing and drawing. His brother, Orion, owned the local newspaper, the Hannibal Journal, and Clemens became a frequent contributor.     

Betty Grable (actor and pin-up): Betty Grable was born in St. Louis, Missouri. She made her first film appearance at the age of 13 and made her way up the Hollywood ladder, appearing in musicals and comedies. She eventually rose to the top of the box office throughout the '40s. In 1943 she posed in a swimsuit and became the most popular pin-up of WWII. The picture has even made it into LIFE’s list of the "100 Photos that Changed the World." Her legs were insured for over $1 million, and Hugh Hefner has noted her as an inspiration for Playboy. She died of lung cancer in 1973.

Tennessee Williams (playwright): He may have been born in Mississippi and have family roots in Tennessee (hence the name), but Williams did in fact spend many of his “formative years” in Missouri. From the age of seven until his late teens, Williams was a resident of St. Louis, Missouri. Here he wrote his first essays and stories as well as found inspiration for several characters that would appear in his later masterpieces. He began writing plays while a student first at University of Missouri and then at Washington University, St. Louis.

Vincent Price (actor): Price was born and raised in St. Louis eventually going away to Yale to study Art History. He traveled Europe and became an actor. He is most well known for his (somewhat campy) appearances in horror films and for his spooky voice (he “raps” in Michael Jackson’s landmark song “Thriller”).  Later in life, he followed his passion for gourmet cooking and started his own line of cookbooks.

Harry S. Truman (President): Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri and grew up in Independence, Missouri. As a boy, he got to serve as a page at the DNC in Kansas City in 1900. He spent the majority of his young adult life in Missouri as a farmer and then went away to fight in WWI. He returned to Missouri and soon was elected a district judge, beginning a political career (as a Democrat) that would eventually lead him to the presidency.  

Gwen also gives two other Missourians a shout-out. She compares June’s persona in the 1960s  to these two ladies...

Ma Barker (outlaw): Born outside Springfield, Missouri, she married her husband in Aurora, Missouri. They moved to Oklahoma. Her sons became known as the “Bloody Barkers,” committing a series of kidnappings, robberies, and other crimes in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma throughout the '20s and '30s. Ma Barker is remembered in popular culture as being the ring leader of this gang of criminals, though recent evidence suggests quite the opposite. In 1977, Boney M. came out with a song called “Ma Baker” based on Ma Barker in which they call her “the meanest cat.”

Belle Starr (outlaw): Born in Carthage, MO, though she eventually moved to Texas after the outbreak of the Civil War.  She became an outlaw in the “Old West”—“the bandit queen” helping to organize and lead gangs that participated in horse stealing, bootlegging, and other profitable ventures. Later in life, after being released from jail, she took on a long line of various lovers. She was shot to death, possibly by one of her children.

And of course, there is one important Missourian very close to the play itself:

Lanford Wilson (playwright): Born in Lebanon, Missouri and growing up in the town of Ozark, Wilson points to his experience of the Mid-West as being a major inspiration of several of his plays.

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