“Drums Along the Mohawk, Outdoor Drama” has canceled four scheduled appearances this summer.
The drama was performed once last year at Gelston Castle, an outdoor venue near the village of Mohawk in Herkimer County. This year, producer and director Kyle Jenks had trouble casting some of the parts. Jenks said the outdoor pageant, based on Walter Edmonds’ novel about the American Revolution, should return next year.
Edmonds was a native of Boonville, where his family had a summer home. He started publishing fiction while still a student at Harvard. His first historical novel, “Rome Haul”, was about the Erie Canal and was published in 1929. It was adapted into a play in 1934 and a movie in 1935, titled “The Farmer Takes a Wife.” Henry Fonda starred in the Broadway play and the movie, Fonda’s Hollywood debut. There was also a 1953 musical version starring Dale Robertson.
Edmonds’ 1936 book “Drums Along the Mohawk” was on the bestseller list for two years. Only “Gone With the Wind” had a better sales record. Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert played the lead roles in the movie version of “Drums Along the Mohawk” in 1939, a color production directed by iconic western filmmaker John Ford. Fonda portrays settler Gil Martin. Colbert plays Martin’s wife, Lana.
In the movie, the couple leaves Albany for Deerfield in the western Mohawk Valley. Their farm is attacked during the revolution by Indians led by a Tory, a British sympathizer. Other battles and attacks follow and the movie ends when the settlers learn the war has ended and the British have surrendered.
According to his online biography, Fonda was descended from people named Fonda who settled the Montgomery County village that bears their name after first leaving their native Italy for the Netherlands in the 1600s. Henry Fonda’s paternal grandparents moved to Nebraska in the 1800s. The actor was born in Omaha in 1905 and died in 1982.
The Rialto in Amsterdam was chosen as one of 27 theaters in the United States for the premiere of “Drums Along the Mohawk.” The film also debuted in Gloversville, Schenectady, Utica and Albany.
Amsterdam transplant Fred Wojcicki from California said the Mohawk Mills Band played for the Rialto premiere. Wojcicki recalled that Fonda appeared in Amsterdam, although that recollection cannot be verified in newspaper clippings.
According to news accounts, stars of the film such as Lynn Bari, Arleen Whelan and Joan Davis did come to Amsterdam for a parade and a welcome from Mayor Arthur Carter. The movie also featured a young Ward Bond, who went on to star on television in “Wagon Train.” The Market Street crowd at the premiere apparently got out of control but no injuries were reported.
Wojcicki said he had a brief conversation with Fonda in 1970 in which the actor recalled the 1939 upstate New York debut.
“Mr. Fonda shook hands and recalled that he had dinner after a short appearance at the premiere with one of the Schine Theater family members shortly before [Fonda] had departed by car to Albany Airport where a private plane flew him to New York City,” Wojcicki recalled.
The Schine Theater chain was based in Gloversville and in 1939 owned the Rialto in Amsterdam, the Glove in Gloversville and many other movie houses.
Author Edmonds wrote 34 books, half of them for children. According to his 1998 New York Times obituary, Edmonds once said of his historical fiction, “To those who may feel that here is a great to-do about a bygone life, I have one last word to say. It does not seem to me a bygone life at all.’’
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach him at 346-6657 or firstname.lastname@example.org.