From the Archives: Interlochen on screen

From the earliest days of Interlochen Arts Camp, founder Joseph Maddy recognized the opportunities provided by emerging technology. While the Camp’s radio performances are well-publicized, its television and film appearances are less celebrated. In this edition of From the Archives, we delve into a few of Interlochen’s commercial and cameo roles on screen.

Before professional film crews arrived in the Land of the Stately Pines, Maddy and other early administrators assumed the mantle of camp videographer. Footage dating back to the 1930s shows John Philip Sousa’s arrival, the construction of Kresge, students enjoying the natural beauty of campus, and more. While these “home movies” never left our archives, they do provide a charming vignette of life at the National Music Camp in its first years.

Interlochen’s first formal on-screen appearance is also its most notable: the Paramount feature film There’s Magic in Music. In 1938, MGM released the film Boys Town, a biographical drama on the work of Father Edward J. Flanagan at a boys’ home of the same name. The film received great critical acclaim for its portrayal of American youth, inspiring Maddy to pitch his own youth endeavor to the studio. Independent producer Lester Cowan responded and invited Maddy to meet with him to discuss the idea further.

Maddy and Cowan met in New York City during the National High School Orchestra’s tour to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The two men quickly came to an agreement: Cowan would produce the film, Maddy would retain the right to approve the script, and the Camp would receive a $5,000 honorarium for its portrayal.

From the start, the film was plagued with problems. Maddy rejected the first two drafts of the script: the first included wild animal scares and student romances that he feared the parents of real Camp students would find objectionable; the second cast Maddy as the romantic lead, which he considered inappropriate for a Camp administrator. Finally, Cowan and Maddy agreed on a plot in which Maddy’s fictitious son, Michael, runs the Camp while his father is ill. Along the way, Michael Maddy (Allan Jones) recruits a young New York City burlesque singer, Toodles LaVerne (Susanna Foster), to attend the National Music Camp, and falls for the Camp accountant, Sylvia Worth (Margaret Lindsay).

With script and cast in place, Cowan could begin production. He quickly encountered another difficulty: while Cowan had planned on filming the movie at the Camp during the 1940 season, Maddy was alarmed by this proposal. “My boys and girls come here to study music, not to be motion picture extras,” he told Cowan. Stymied, Cowan filmed the movie at California’s Lake Arrowhead, and cast the Peter Meremblum Junior Symphony Orchestra as the National High School Orchestra.

The film was completed in early 1941. Before it could be released, however, the studio encountered one last obstacle: actress Susanna Foster demanded a change to the film’s name to emphasize her role in the production. Paramount retitled the film The Hard-Boiled Canary in hopes of pleasing the actress, and released it under the new name. Allan Jones, Maddy, and the Interlochen community were appalled by the change of name; Jones for the minimization of his character’s importance, and Interlochen for the suggestion that Camp life was stressful. Under pressure from Jones and the musical community, Paramount re-released the film as There’s Magic in Music in June of 1941.

There’s Magic in Music was only a moderate commercial success, dashing Maddy’s hopes of a sequel. The film, however, was a tremendous success as a recruitment tool for the Camp. In 1941, the Camp boasted its largest-ever enrollment of 368 students; also for the first time, the Camp had to turn away applicants to avoid overbalancing sections of the orchestra. The Camp even had to hire six full-time tour guides to accommodate the number of guests who visited campus that summer. The movie has also been a success with decades of Interlochen alumni. In 1976, Academy student F. Hudson Miller held a screening of the movie in Fine Arts; sixty-seven years later, in 2008, Miller screened the film again for the Los Angeles chapter of the Interlochen Alumni Association. Both screenings were met with delighted approval from Miller’s audiences.

In the years that followed, Interlochen made a number of small-screen appearances. The Camp was the subject of a 1960 documentary film produced by the United States Information Agency titled “Music in the Forest.” In 1963, The Today Show with Hugh Downs produced a live broadcast from the Camp. Interlochen returned the favor in 1976 by sending several students to perform on the show’s celebration of the American Bicentennial.

In 1966, the Camp made three television appearances. The first, a short documentary film titled “Just Call Me Joe,” celebrated the life and work of the recently-deceased Maddy. The Camp also made a cameo appearance in The Bell Telephone Hour’s feature on Van Cliburn, which aired on Oct. 16. In late 1966, a segment on the Camp aired on the ABC affiliate stations in Chicago and Detroit.

Interlochen has made appearances in fictional films, too, such as the 1988 made-for-television movie Moving Target starring Jason Bateman. Bateman’s character, a teenage musician, is sent to the National Music Camp for the summer, arriving home to discover that his family has gone missing. Although the movie was not filmed at Interlochen, the film’s directors clearly had the Camp in mind. As Bateman’s character arrives, the words “Interlochen National Music Camp” can be seen on the side of the bus.

In more recent years, Interlochen is on the other side of the camera. While filmmaking was occasionally offered as an elective at Interlochen Arts Camp, the art officially made its major debut at Interlochen in 2005. Today, through the Motion Picture Arts Division, students at both Camp and Academy can specialize in the art of filmmaking.

From shaky scenics to training aspiring movie-makers, Interlochen’s presence in the film community has continued to grow and evolve. Perhaps, as our motion picture arts alumni make their way to Hollywood, Interlochen will again find itself on the big screen.

Did we miss an on-screen appearance? Share your favorite on-screen reference by submitting a motif.