Inside Tennessee Williams' Hometown Tribute
A recap of Columbus, Mississippi’s annual tribute to the Southern playwright.
by Carol Marks
The birthplace of poet, author and playwright Tennessee Williams can best be described as the friendliest town in the South. The people of Columbus, Mississippi, are like characters right out of a Williams play. They are kind and gracious and, most of all, filled with exuberant life. Such was the setting for the 11th annual Tennessee Williams Tribute & Tour of Victorian Homes September 4–9 in Columbus, Mississippi, where they welcomed me with open arms.
Some of the highlights of the weekend were The Moon Lake Party, a double-decker bus tour of the town that included points of interest in the life of Tennessee Williams, the Stella shouting contest, as well as a performance of “The Rose Tattoo.”
On Thursday evening, the Moon Lake Party kicked off the weekend with Alison Fraser, a two-time Tony Award-nominated New York City singer and performer. She led the world premiere of a production of “The Tennessee Williams Songbook,” accompanied by classically trained piano virtuoso Allison Leyton-Brown, also from New York City. Along with music, Fraser also performed scenes in character from Williams’ works like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Ten Blocks on the Camino Real” and “The Glass Menagerie.” The event took place at the Columbus Country Club and was compiled and directed by David Kaplan, who is the curator of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival. Dinner was a classic Southern spread of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, turnip greens and banana pudding for dessert.
The real-life Moon Lake is located further north in Dundee, and a speakeasy on the lake was once owned by a cousin of Williams. In his younger days, the playwright often tagged along with his grandfather to visit the club, and Moon Lake Casino featured in several of his plays is modeled after it. Today, the building is a restaurant and inn known as Uncle Henry’s Place.
Friday was a full day, starting with a double-decker bus tour that included stops at Tennessee Williams’ childhood home, a National Literary Landmark and now serving as the town’s welcome center; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Williams’ grandfather, the Rev. Walter E. Dakin, served as priest from 1905–1913; and the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, where Archivist Mona Vance curates an ever-growing collection of Tennessee Williams memorabilia.
Following the tour was the first annual Tennessee Williams Scholars’ Medal presentation luncheon at the 1848 antebellum home (also known as Errolton) of Mr. and Mrs. Keith Gaskin. A medal was presented to the Founding Scholar of the Tennessee Williams Tribute, Dr. Kenneth Holditch. Errolton was formerly the home of the late Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Bateman, who hosted Tennessee Williams and his grandfather when they were in Columbus.
Early Friday evening, the Stella shouters came stumbling forth onto 5th Street. All 27 contestants gathered at the balcony of the Hollyhocks Gift Shop, owned by Gloria Herriott. Stella Kowalski (played by local Leigh Allison) perched up on the New Orleans-style balcony and cheered on all the contestants, along with judges that included Mayor Robert Smith and the first year’s winner Thomas Easterling. The winner of this year’s Stella Shouting Contest was Charlton James (pictured below), professor at the University of North Alabama in the Music and Theater Department. He was treated to a themed dinner on the balcony and given a carriage ride to “The Rose Tattoo” later that evening.
Dating from 1951, “The Rose Tattoo” was performed for four evenings at the Rent Auditorium on the campus of Mississippi University for Women. The play, which takes place within a day and an evening, opens with an intimate setting of Serafina Delle Rose’s quaint home and tells the story of the Italian-American widow in Louisiana who withdraws from the world after the loss of her husband and baby she was carrying. Melanie Hintz, who starred in “Night of the Iguana” last year, directed.
On Saturday morning at Mississippi University for Women, Williams scholar Dr. Stuart Noel presented his paper on “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” which was first presented at the 100th Tennessee Williams birthday conference in France last year. A showing of the movie version starring Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty followed.
I had to head back home after the movie, but events in Columbus continued throughout the weekend, with a Street Car Run, special sermon by the Rev. Anne Harris at St. Paul’s Church, poetry reading at the library and tour of Victorian homes.
To find out more about the Tennessee Williams Tribute, visit www.muw.edu/tennesseewilliams.
Carol Marks lives in Huntsville and is a mother and business manager by day and aspiring writer by night. She’s been published in Southern Family and Rocket Magazine and has written reviews for Dew On the Kudzu. She also writes a blog and is working on a novel. See her full bio in our “Contributors” section.
She’d personally like to thank Brenda Caradine and Elizabeth Simpson for being the ever-gracious hostesses and exhibiting true Southern hospitality. “Their warm welcome and vivacious lives touched this writer’s heart and I know I have made some new, lifelong friends in Columbus, Mississippi,” she says.
To find out more about Tennessee Williams’ former haunts in and around Columbus, download the Deep South Literary Trail App.