First, watch this amazing video.
Did you notice that the setting for the 1958 student film is none other than our own Streets of Old Detroit exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum? Besides being a very accurate recreation of the silent era style of cinema (with intertitles, a jangly piano score, and actors wearing way too much grease paint make-up), the film is especially notable for its creators.
As Cass Technical High School “Technicians”, Gerald McDermott was a commercial art student in the 11th grade, and Harrison Engle a performing arts senior when they collaborated to make a silent movie. Not for a class assignment, but for pure fun and ambition did they start the project. McDermott and Engle researched silent film at the Museum and were granted permission to use period costumes and props from the collection—a common practice at the time that now is museum taboo. Even the soundtrack was recorded from a nickelodeon and music boxes in our collection. The camera they used was reportedly about 50 years old at the time.
Starring roles were handled by David Wellman, Susan Dorazio and Thomas Jennings – the hero, heroine and villain. Supporting players in the lighthearted melodrama include Anne Schmeisser, Anne Dorazio, Leonard Pitt and Russell Engle, of Durfee Intermediate School. Harrison and Gerald get into the act as travelling showmen. First screenings of the film were held at the Engle family home on Boston Boulevard.
McDermott went on to have a very successful career as an animated film maker and children’s book author and illustrator. He won the 1975 Caldecott Medal for his book Arrow to the Sun, and was a runner-up for the award twice. Engle graduated from Wayne State University and founded Signal Hill Entertainment, producing and directing several documentaries and television specials.
The actors too were destined for success as adults. Leonard Pitt became an authority on Paris, France, writing many books about the city in which he lived as a mime in the 1960s. In the United States, he has been a producer and teacher of physical theatre. David Wellman became a sociologist in the University of California system, and is noted for his 1977 book Portraits of White Racism. Russell W. Engle, brother of Harrison, is today a successful business executive in Sonoma, California.