Silent film started a long tradition

By on February 1, 2012

From the 2011 production. (thelostcolony.org)

While the Paul Green production of “The Lost Colony” is widely recognized by locals and visitors of the Outer Banks, the play’s origins are not as well known.

A 1921 silent film of the same name inspired the play, and at the height of its popularity the film was part of North Carolina’s history curriculum.

Sunday, 3 p.m. at the Pioneer Theater

Familiarity with the silent film and the genesis of Green’s play have faded with time, but the 75th anniversary celebration of “The Lost Colony” hopes to rekindle awareness of the history and tradition associated with the nation’s second longest running longest historical outdoor drama.

In 1921 a five-reel silent movie depicting the story of the English settlement on Roanoke Island was written and produced by Mabel Evans Jones, a Roanoke Island native and the Superintendent of Dare County Schools.  It was the first silent film produced in the state. 

The movie’s cast was drawn from local residents who also built scenery and sewed the costumes.  Apart from the film, Jones wrote, produced and directed a series of local pageants based on the movie. 

They were performed on Aug. 18 as part of the birthday of Virginia Dare, the first English baby born in the New World. On this official holiday in Manteo, stores closed and families came to Fort Raleigh to celebrate their heritage and their community. The excitement of the film through the community encouraged Jones to consider other ways to tell the story.

Enter Bradford Fearing. Though Fearing was not born in Manteo, he moved here at the age of 5.  He grew up knowing the story of the colony, and was determined to make his home a tourist destination for history lovers while fostering economic and cultural growth.

Under Fearing’s guidance, roads were improved on the beaches, bridges were built and tourists started to visit this remote part of North Carolina. Fearing secured the necessary funds to start construction of what would soon become “The Lost Colony’s” permanent home, the Waterside Theatre. 

Just as Mabel Evans Jones had done before him, Fearing turned to the local residents and businesses for support. The pageant’s organizers approached North Carolina playwright Paul Green, who developed a new pageant script.

On July 4, 1937 the entire island celebrated as their story was presented in a new theater.  On Aug. 18, the celebration continued as President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the performance on the 350th Anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth.

This year, “The Lost Colony” celebrates its 75th Anniversary Season.  It is a celebration of the community and the countless individuals who have shared in telling the story of America’s beginnings, and it is also a celebration of the Lost Colony production itself. 

A special showing of Mabel Evans Jones’ 1921 film was held on Sunday, Jan. 29,  at the Pioneer Theater in downtown Manteo.  The invited audience included decedants and friends of the people who created the original film, as well as members and supporters of “The Lost Colony.” A reception followed.

There will be a showing for the community this Sunday, Feb. 5 at 3 p.m. at the Pioneer Theater as well. There is no cost for this viewing, and parents are encouraged to bring school-age children.

Due to the size of the theater, reservations are strongly recommended.  Call Terry Fowler at (252) 473-4224. 

This viewing of the 1921 silent film is sponsored by Ace Hardware. The organizers also wish to thank Susan and Malcolm Fearing, Lib Fearing, John Wilson and Herbert A. and Elizabeth Creef for their support. 

For further information regarding the 75th Anniversary, visit www.thelostcolony.org.

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