From 1940 to 1941, as the United States prepared to enter the Second World War, more than 400,000 troops moved to Central Louisiana to participate in the largest military training exercise in American history. For a time, Alexandria, the largest city in the region, was a temporary home to some of the most well-known military leaders in the country: George Patton, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley, among others, set up shop in the Hotel Bentley.
Almost immediately, the military became the most significant economic engine in the region, a fact that remained until the closure of England Air Force Base fifty years later. Even after the maneuvers were completed, thousands of military members and their families remained in Alexandria, and in 1943, at the height of WWII, the military wanted to contribute something to improve the quality of the town’s civic life.
The pastor of First United Methodist Church, which was then located downtown in a building now occupied by Greater New Hope Baptist Church, was a man named B.C. Taylor, and he had an idea: He wanted to make a high-quality film, in color, about the birth of Christ. The military, he realized, had all of the equipment they needed: High-tech cameras, lighting, and sound and editing equipment.
He also had a lead actor and director in mind, Don Porter, who was stationed in Alexandria at the time and was well-known for his roles in 1939’s Mystery in the White Room and the 1942 Abbott Costello film Who Done It?. Porter would serve as director and play the role of Joseph, but the rest of the cast was comprised almost entirely of church members. (Obviously no one at the time had questioned the constitutionality of the military providing a grant and equipment to a church for the production of a religious film).
The film originally aired only once, during the church’s celebration of advent, and then, for more than forty years, it was largely forgotten, filed somewhere in the church’s library. In 1987, the church’s newest pastor, Larry Norman, discovered the old canister and decided to screen the film once more.
“I decided to go on the hunt for it,” Norman told The Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. “It wasn’t that difficult. It was on a shelf in the library. You know how church libraries are…. It was under years of old Sunday school material.”
After its second screening ever, the film was once again put back in storage, and once again, it was largely forgotten. But earlier this year, two of the church’s members, Mary Vizier and Reba Harrington, decided to do a little cleaning up in the church’s archive room. “We were rummaging through lots and lots of papers and old books. Each of us had a corner of the room,” Reba Harrington said. “And we happened to see this old film box. I think we were almost afraid to touch it.”
Today, thanks to a partnership with Louisiana Public Broadcasting, the 74-year-old, 22-minute long film has been restored and will, for only the third time, be screened again on December 17th in Alexandria.
But the film wasn’t the only thing Vizier and Harrington hoped to rediscover. Because the overwhelming majority of the cast were members of the church and residents of Alexandria, they also hoped to identify the faces and the names of all of the other actors, including the infant who played the role of baby Jesus. They also understood how extraordinarily rare it is to find 74-year-old color film footage of an old family member or friend, particularly because most of the film’s cast died decades ago.
That’s how I first learned of the film’s rediscovery.
I grew up in that church, as did my father and my paternal grandparents. A month ago, while on a short trip to Alexandria, Vizier walked up to me at an event at City Hall. She told me about the film and its restoration, and then she told me that my great uncle, Charles Nathan White, was one of the movie’s key actors. I did some quick math. My grandfather, who is still alive, would have been fifteen, probably too young to play any character of significance.
According to Rev. Norman, my great uncle Charles played the role of King Herod, but there were at least four other members of my family who appeared in the film. Moreover, he said, there were dozens of children and teenagers in the cast, so it is more likely than not that my grandfather and his siblings were a part of the production.
They also uncovered the mystery of who played baby Jesus.
Jesus, it turns out, was an infant girl, and today, she is 74 years old and living in an assisted care facility in Dallas, Texas.
“I remember calling her and explaining who I was and what we were working on,” Vizier recounted. “Before I could (get) much further on the phone call, she bursts out, ‘My mama always told me I was baby Jesus!'”
The film will be screened at First United Methodist Church of Alexandria on Sunday, December 17 at 5:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public.
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