Seven decades past: Hollywood comes to Uvalde

“Well, if we hurry, maybe we can catch up with them.” Lou Fohn, in first grade at the time, still remembers his exact lines from the movie “The Kidnappers Foil,” a movie starring the youth of Uvalde.

Fohn recalls, “The main plot involved the kidnapping of a young girl whom I remember as being Sally Surber.” Sally played the part of Bette Davis, and, as Sally cried out, “Help, help,” Fohn remembers that one of the two men carrying out the dastardly deed, admonished the young victim saying, “Shut up, you brat. No one can hear you way out here.”

It was January of 1950 and Uvalde was buzzin’ with the news that Hollywood was coming to town and a movie was going to be made, starring the town’s youngsters. An ad appeared in the January 26, 1950, issue of the Uvalde Leader-News. Hopes ran high among both parents and offspring that perhaps another George “Spanky” McFarland, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Darla Hood, Jackie Cooper, or Billy “Froggy” Laughlin might be discovered.

The film was to be made by Melton Barker of Dallas, a movie producer who traveled around New Mexico, Texas and as far east as South Carolina from the 1930s to the 1970s. Barker’s claim to fame was that he had discovered George “Spanky” McFarland, star of the “Our Gang” and “Little Rascals” series.

Over the years Barker auditioned thousands of “would be” stars and made hundreds of films, mostly in small towns across the South. He is known to have been in Brownsville in 1936, Abilene in 1937 and 1946, San Marcos in 1943, San Antonio and San Saba in 1948, and Denton in 1952. His modus operandi was to put an ad in a town’s newspaper announcing the date and place of auditions with a Movie Registration Blank appearing along with the ad. Children between the ages of 3 to 14 were eligible to audition. Between 50 and 100 children would be used in the picture and there would be no charge for registering and tryouts.

A 1946 Abilene newspaper ad read, “After the cast has been selected, there will be two or three days of rehearsals, teaching them to act before the sound camera. There will be a small charge for training.” The charge in a 1949 Florence, South Carolina, ad was cited as $4.50 which is roughly equivalent to $46.00 in 2018, a fee many families couldn’t afford in 1950.

The Sept. 26, 1943, Del Rio Herald featured an article on Barker, announcing, “Mr. Roy Perkins, manager of the Victory Theatre, has contracted with Melton Barker, Hollywood producer, to film a two-reel comedy similar to the ‘Our Gang’ comedies here in Del Rio using around 50 children as the characters.”

Surprisingly, there are few current and former Uvaldeans around today who remember the production. Sally Surber Allen, who played the part of the kidnapped girl, recalls being in the movie and that is was filmed at Memorial Park. Sue Heard Helveston, now living in Pennsylvania, has special memories of that day when she and Sally tried out for the film. “It was such a line of kids at City Hall you would not believe. My mother had curled my hair just like Shirley Temple’s, and I was probably wearing my black patent leather shoes and a frilly dress. We stood in line with our mothers, but when it came my turn to be interviewed, I couldn’t open my mouth and I kept looking at my shoes. Sally got the part.”

George Speir recalls that he was a part of a mob of kids participating in the movie, but he had no speaking part. He adds, “Everyone was dressed up for the movie, and the Memorial Park bandstand with the stairs was used for the setting.”

Gene Kincaid III states, “I do remember the movie for children and was actually in it. The casting was done at City Hall, and, of course, everyone got a part. I was in the gang, which even at my young age seemed rather large. Being a movie buff even at that age and a denizen of the phantom empire, I remember thinking the film was pretty corny.”

Chris Prickett and Word Sherrill vaguely remember auditioning for the movie. Lola Bailey Hill recalls that her ’59 classmate Gloria Harms Swint was in the movie, and Bill Dilahunty remembers that his ’55 classmate Mitchell Kennedy was a member of the cast.

Charles Goldberg recalls, “I do remember the film. I was in the film and remember going to the El Lasso to see it. It was shot in the park adjoining the golf course. As I remember, the parents of the kids that were in the film paid some kind of fee to the guy who shot the film for their children to be in the movie. That is how he made his money. It reminded me of the Little Rascals movies as it had a very grainy and crackly sound. I remember how excited everyone was about the whole deal.”

Bob Saunders wasn’t in the movie but remembers seeing the movie at the El Lasso. “I don’t remember anyone who auditioned for the movie, but the leader of the gang was Eddie Lowrance, the son of Isaac Lowrance, the projectionist at the El Lasso. Eddie was quite a bit taller than the others. I remember him telling some of the smaller kids, ‘Let’s go, boys.’”

Mendell Morgan recalls, “I saw the film and remember the ‘gang’ of children running in a group by the bandstand in the park.” Jimmie Stewart remembers that he and his brother Johnnie went to the park to wait for the camera crew to appear.

The plot of “The Kidnappers Foil” centered around a young girl whose birthday party was being held at Memorial Park. In the opening scene, the children are singing “London Bridges Falling Down.” Two men, who are observing the party, decide to kidnap the girl and hold her for $1,000 ransom.

Several gangs of children of various ages decide to band together and rescue little Bette Davis. Fohn recalls, “There was the chase scene, where all assembled kids gave chase on foot to the old gray jalopy, carrying the two perps and the victim.” Bette is later rescued when her abductors fall asleep. The movie ends with Bette’s parents giving a party for all the kids involved. At the party the actors and actresses are also given the opportunity to display their musical talents.

Barker left the film with the El Lasso after it was shown to a capacity crowd. What happened to it then is unknown. Fohn recalls that the film was made of old-fashioned 16 mm film material which was highly flammable and risky to show, so it probably didn’t survive.

Johnny Green says he remembers the film being made and adds, “I know that one time Eddie Lowrance told me that the film was stored backstage at the El Lasso.” Of the hundreds of films made by Barker, only about 20 are known to still exist.

Though “The Kidnappers Foil” might be termed as corny, in 2012 the Library of Congress added Melton Barker and his film to the National Film Registry, recognizing its historic significance as Barker’s films offer an insight into small American communities during the first half of the 20th century.


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