Three Oaks United Methodist Church
Thursday, March 26, 2015
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Prancer, The Movie
In 1989, our church, as well as the Village of Three Oaks, served as the backdrop for several scenes in the family holiday film "Prancer." Below is the story of that film, along with several pictures, many taken by our church members during the filming of this event.
The movie starred Sam Elliott, Cloris Leachman, Michael Constantine, Abe Vigoda and, in her debut role, Rebecca Harrell, as the child that befriended Santa's reindeer, Prancer.
From the Michigan Christian Advocate
January 22, 1990
Dana E. Jones ♦ Northern Illinois Conference Program Staff
UM Church site of "Prancer" Magic
Prancer: Santa’s reindeer and the recent movie carrying his name, added special meaning to this Christmas for United Methodists in Three Oaks, Michigan. For one long day a little over a year ago, their sanctuary was turned into a movie set. Church members, including the choir, were among the many people recruited as extras.
Watching the film; however, became more than a search for cameos by friends, neighbors, their church, and themselves. They found they were drawn into the story. “The script really brought out the significance of belief over the materialism of today,” said the church’s pastor Steve Pearson. “The church was the focal point of where the community in the movie turned to believing. There’s such a tremendous need for belief, for faith in our world.”
“Prancer” is the story of a young girl who finds a wounded reindeer in the woods and becomes convinced it is one of Santa Claus’ team. Her conviction in the magic of the reindeer turns the hearts of her father, a cranky old woman, and the people in her small Midwestern town.
The moment when they believe comes in church, in the sanctuary of Three Oaks United Methodist Church, that is. A careful viewer will catch a brief glimpse of the UM cross-and-flame logo on the church’s sign as the movie’s young star enters the building.
For Dorothy Shook, member of the church, the movie carried several messages. “It showed we are a supportive community and we’ve got to be ready for change.” Shook said. It also raised a question. “At one point when Cloris Leachman (the unpleasant old woman) comes down the aisle, we were told to turn and look at her like why are you here. I wonder how many times we do that when someone new or different comes to our church. Do we really want the ‘oddballs’ here? I had to stop and think about that one for a minute,” Shook said.
Being chosen as the movie site has helped let people know the church exists, members agreed. More than 1,000 people came through the building during the filming compared to its membership of 160. “There were people who have lived in this town all their lives who had never been in this church before.” Shook said. “If you’re going to be a force in the community, you have to be visible. For once, we were visible. “Now when people ask which church I go to, I say the one where ‘Prancer’ was shot and people say ‘that church has something going on.’ ”
Just driving in to Three Oaks, which is in the southwest corner of Michigan closer to Indiana and Chicago than Detroit, it’s obvious Prancer has been there. Children can have their picture taken with a decoration of Santa and all of his reindeer except Prancer. The three-dimensional display, which hung over the town’s main street in the movie, now sits on the post office lawn just across from the church. There’s a hole in the reindeer line-up for Prancer, who as movie goers will learn, fell from the sky in an opening scene.
A billboard picturing Prancer welcomes visitors to town and the local newspaper is handing out a special holiday scrapbook edition of Prancer memories.
Members of Three Oaks UMC especially remembered the reindeer as they prepared the church for Christmas earlier in December. Movie producers gave the church the decorations after filming was complete.
There’s one Christmas carol, however, that the choir isn’t likely to sing this year. Member Doris Krossovitch, explained, “We sang ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ hundreds of times. They just kept telling us to sing so we sang our hearts out.” Ironically, only the choir’s faces and not their voices made it into the movie. “After all that, you never hear us, “Krossovitch said. She was, however, thrilled to see herself and fellow choir members on screen.
For another member of the church, Lloyd Gearhart, editing also held a disappointment. He was chosen as an extra and asked to walk across the street in front of the church, not once but repeatedly. “I walked for eight hours that one day,” he said. “They didn’t give us lunch until about 6 p.m. and kept shooting until 2 o’clock in the morning."
For Pastor Pearson, having Hollywood come to the church for a day was work, but fun. His first involvement was to read the script to decide if the church would be appropriately used. During planning and filming, members said he served as an anchor. Pearson said the job seemed natural. “You’d get about five people asking the same question and nobody knowing what the others were doing. It was just like the church,” he said. While he was too young and had too much hair to play the pastor in the movie, his robe did make the cut. “Right after they called about using the church they called to ask if I had a black robe they could use,” Pearson said. It had to be black. They wanted me to send it to them for several months but I said I couldn’t do that. When they got here, they still didn’t have one.” When they saw Pearson’s robes, it wasn’t the black one, but a gray one with red trim they chose.
Pearson and church members also lent a hand in explaining Protestant worship to producers and crew who were Jewish, Roman Catholic, or un-churched. “I found so much interest in the church by people who don’t know what the church is,” Pearson said.
At the same time, he and church members learned a lot about making movies. Lloyd Gearhart found himself walking not through snow for eight hours but through soap suds with instant potato flakes being blown by a fan into his face. “I’ve heard of miracles but they actually turned day into night and night into day,” Shook said. “All with lights. At midnight, they had the sun shining through our stained-glass window.”
Three Oaks United Methodists were not the only members of the denomination to get involved in the production of “Prancer.” Members of the United Methodist in nearby LaPorte, Indiana, also got into the act. The church was host to the crew for meals during the several days of filming in that town.
Three Oaks UMC members agree being in the movies is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But, they wanted to hold onto the magic and excitement of Prancer just a bit longer. They invited all in town who participated in filming to a holiday celebration at church.
And come Christmas Eve, Three Oaks United Methodists of all ages were among those searching the sky not for Santa and Rudolph, but for the newly-famous Prancer.
Excerpts taken from articles that appeared in The Gazette
February 23, 1989
March 2, 1989
Holiday Prancer Extra, December 1989
Film Crew Members Share Special Views of Prancer
Greg Taylor wrote the screenplay for and is co-producer of “Prancer.” Exterior shooting was re-scheduled from early February to later in the month, in hopes of being blessed with a snowfall. “But, we have a special effects man, just in case. You’d be amazed how many films that’s used in.” The special effects crew worked hard in Three Oaks as hoped-for snow failed to fall.
“Prancer” is the story of real people going through hard times, who learn to share a little girl’s sense of wonder at events that can’t be readily explained. Obviously, it has special meaning for Taylor. At one time, he was one of 100 writers working for 20th Century Fox when they were making two or three films per year. “I could spend ten months on a script for someone’s weekend read,” he mused. Every studio’s storage room contains piles of paid for, but unproduced, screenplays. That’s how it’s done in cinema land. He wrote “Prancer” three years before it became a movie, after his daughter, Jessica, asked him to tell her a Christmas story, and he started the tale of a reindeer named Prancer. Later, when he was casting about for a new story idea, he remembered how much Jessie had liked the Prancer tale, and started working it into a screenplay. “It seemed so natural,” he said. “I wanted to capture the innocence of childhood. We need that.”
Taylor said his time in LaPorte and Three Oaks “has been like a vacation. I would like to raise my children in a small town like this.” He also had positive comments about the ease of getting things accomplished. “With Chicago so near, there’s a pool of talent we can call on. It’s so easy getting around here, and getting the permits we need. In the big city you can bet the chief of police isn’t going to happen by while you’re having lunch!”
Three Oaks was one of 16 locations being used in the film, including Bendix Woods and Starved Rock State Park, Illinois. Jim Klekowski was the Location Manager. Among his responsibilities, it was his to job to find homes with the right look for the film, as well as scheduling such mundane needs as lunches for the crew, parking permits, and police help. “We couldn’t have done it without Bryan Volstorf, mayor of Three Oaks. He has mustered support and opened doors for us.”
Jim had unbounded enthusiasm for the script of “Prancer.” This is our major big break; we have a wonderful, real script. The production company has a jewel here. The whole crew cares about this project. They’re very personable and take time to share everything.”
Update: November 2008
Recently, we were able to track down the child star of that movie, Rebecca Harrell. Rebecca, now 28 years old, is engaged to be married to a fellow filmmaker sometime next year. She is co-producer of a brand new film that premiered in October. The documentary film named “Fuel” deals with the energy crisis and attempts to educate Americans as to what part they can play in dealing with this worldwide problem.
In addition to co-producing, Rebecca is in charge of the film’s publicity, as well as webmaster for the film’s website. It was through that website that we were able to contact her via e-mail. We asked her if she had any recollections of her time spent at our church. This was her response after receiving our e-mail and visiting our church’s website, and in particular the webpage dedicated to the making of Prancer. . .
“I just finally saw the content of the e-mail that you sent! Our new website isn't properly forwarding the content of these e-mails. . . .yikes!
I'm so honored that you tracked me down and sent me to your site. Wow! What a trip down memory lane! Of course I remember your church, the wonderful community, and the all-nighter that we all pulled.”
Rebecca in 1989 Rebecca Today