The Polar Express Comes to Michigan

While growing up in Grand Rapids, Chris Van Allsburg remembers hearing train whistles and taking train rides with his father. These childhood sights and sounds became part of the inspiration for Van Allsburg’s well-known children’s book, The Polar Express. The story is about a young boy who takes a magical journey aboard a train to the North Pole and receives a special gift-a bell-from Santa. Only those who truly believe in Santa can hear the bell.

The book’s popularity led to a movie released in November 2004. Michigan railroad buffs recognize the sound of the movie’s train whistle, which comes from one of the nation’s few working steam locomotives.

Built in 1941, the Pere Marquette 1225 is an enormous steam locomotive, measuring one hundred feet long and sixteen feet high. Replaced in 1951 by a more efficient diesel engine, the 1225 was saved from the scrap heap and decades later, ended up in Owosso as the star of the Steam Railroading Institute (SRI). Shortly thereafter, the 1225 was restored to its former glory.

As researchers prepared the movie version of Van Allsburg popular book, they were drawn to Owosso and the 1225. Technicians recorded the sound of the whistle, the clatter of the wheels and the rumble of the four-hundred-ton locomotive rolling down the tracks. The sounds were merged with the animated Polar Express.

Photos of the Pere Marquette 1225 from Glancy Train’s Photo Gallery

Visit Owosso’s Steam Railroading Institute for rides on their North Pole Express.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pere Marquette 1225, Bannister, Michigan, May 31, 2003
Photo © Adrienne Scholl, Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation, Inc.

For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit

The Legend of the Michigan Dogman

Michigan has some strange tales, but few are stranger than that of the Dogman. Some say the story began with a 1987 radio prank by Northern Michigan radio personality Steve Cook. Following the broadcast, Cook was surprised when listeners began sharing their stories of the beast. Surprise turned to shock, however, when a cabin near Luther was attacked by some kind of canine.

One of the many encounters listed on Steve Cook’s great website took place in the summer of 1938. 17-year-old Robert Fortney was fishing on the banks of the Muskegon River near Paris, Michigan when a pack of what appeared to be large feral dogs emerged from the woods:

Fortney remained silent, but the sensitive noses of the dogs quickly picked up his scent. Since he had been small game hunting earlier in the day, Fortney had his loaded rifle nearby. As the dogs approached, they assumed the group posture of a pack on a hunt. Fortney picked up the gun and fired a shot into the air.

Detroit’s Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez on 60 Minutes

Sixto Rodriguez performs at TCFF by Gary Howe
Sixto Rodriguez performs at TCFF by Gary Howe

This summer I had the great good fortune to see the documentary Searching for Sugar Man at the Traverse City Film Festival. If you haven’t seen it, seek it out as it’s a wonderful film.

Watch the interview with subject Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez below and check out Searching for Sugar Man from Sony Pictures Classics.

They also have him performing a song and an extra about how success was measured in the Rodriguez household.

A Song to Cinema from the Traverse City Film Festival

Michael Moore & Wim Wenders by John Russell
Michael Moore & Wim Wenders by John Russell

Earlier this month at the 2012 Traverse City Film Festival, Absolute Michigan had the good fortune to work with The Treefort Collective on an amazing project that explored how filmmakers fell in love with the cinema, how it captured their imaginations and why watching a film on the big screen is such a special experience.

The video features Academy Award Winner Michael Moore, Academy Award Winner Terry George, 2 time Academy Award Nominee Wim Wenders, 3 time Academy Award Nominee Julia Reichert, Mark Cousins, Ira Deutchman and Brian Knappenberger. Watch below or (recommended) click for HD viewing on YouTube.

Help bring Street Fighting Man to the Silver Screen

Street Fighting Man is a feature-length documentary by Andrew James with Greg Snider, award-winning editor of How to Die in Oregon.

The story follows three inner-city men – each a generation apart – as they seek to define their lives in post-industrial Detroit. Deris Solomon is a young single father who wants to leave behind a high-risk life on the streets; Luke Williams is a middle-aged man remodeling a former crack house after being homeless for several years; and James “Jack Rabbit” Jackson is a retired police officer struggling to save his neighborhood from crime after the local police station is dissolved. Through the stories of these men, the film unflinchingly reveals how hard it can be to build a future when everything seems to be crumbling around you.

Detroit is in the national eye a lot lately, whether it be for “ruin porn” or for the slate it provides for rebuilding. One story that we don’t hear a lot about (and the story this film seeks to tell) is the story of Detroit’s neighborhoods and those who seek to hang on the face of extreme hardship. The filmmakers are are currently trying to raise money for the post-production of the documentary on Kickstarter. Click that link for lots more information and watch their Kickstarter pitch and the excellent trailer below.

Grand Rapids Laughfest benefits Gilda’s Club

Ahead of Schedule by TerryJohnston
Ahead of Schedule by TerryJohnston

Laughfest, the annual festival of comedy, performance, film, and a variety of seriously funny stuff in Grand Rapids, takes place March 8-18. It features some of the top names in comedy including Martin Short, Kevin Nealon, Whoopi Goldberg, Bo Burnham, Sinbad, Mike Epps, Rodney Carrington, Jim Gaffigan and Kathleen Madigan along with a whole lot of lesser known but equally funny people.

You can get all the details about performers and events at the link above. Probably the coolest thing about Laughfest is that all proceeds ($300,000+ in 2011!) benefit the cancer, grief and support programs offered through Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.

Comedienne Gilda Radner created some of TV’s most memorable characters as an original cast of the groundbreaking Saturday Night Live. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 and became part of a cancer support community that helped to deal with her disease. After she died in 1989, Joanna Bull and husband Gene Wilder started to plan Gilda’s Club, a free cancer support community that helps people of all ages gather to learn more about cancer, share their experiences and hopefully laugh a little.

The first Gilda’s Club opened in New York City in 1995 and shortly thereafter, some folks started gathering support to bring a Gilda’s Club to Grand Rapids. Their efforts culminated in the 2001 opening of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids. Click above to learn more about Gilda’s Club and we’ll let Gilda herself take you home as one of her signature characters, Baba-wawa. Also check out this interview with Gene Wilder on InnerVIEWS with Ernie Manouse where he talks some about life with Gilda.

Mt. Mancelona: A Man and his Mountain

A Man and His Mountain from Justin Vander Velde on Vimeo.

Mt Mancelona Postcard,

Last winter Jason Dodge of and his crew spent time at Mount Mancelona and, with intern Justin Vander Velde and the  assistance of the documentary class at Grand Valley State, produced this very cool video about long-shuttered Mt. Mancelona.  Jason writes:

This project is the pinnacle of things that I have been involved with up until this point. A Man and His Mountain not only tells the story of Mt. Mancelona, but it uncovers the true passion that owner Joe has been hanging onto for the past 22 years.

After having the privilege of meeting Joe, listening to the stories, and working alongside the crew to capture the history, I ask myself why would I not want to come to Mt. Mancelona? Why would I not want my family to experience this place? After all, isn’t this true ski culture? Perhaps I’m a touch traditional and don’t get that knocked out about the fancy high-speed lifts, gondolas and magic carpets. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy riding in a Cadillac as much as the next guy, but there is a lot to appreciate about rusty t-bars, the smell of raw fuel in a 1960’s Tucker, and an old weathered lodge. This is the natural patina of skiing and snowboarding, captured at Mt. Mancelona.

Looking down Mt Mancelona,

Read on for more about the project and some production stills. A cool site we found is Michigan Lost Ski Areas Project (MILSAP). Their entry for Mt. Mancelonanotes that:

In 1958, Sports Illustrated reported a 1200′ t-bar with a 300′ rise, and 5 ropes. New for 1958 were 3 rope tows, the lodge with locker room and bar, a new trail, lights for Friday night skiing and hi-fi skiing music.


Seeking Michigan: The Wreck of the Carl D. Bradley

Seeking MichiganBy Valerie van Heest and courtesy Seeking Michigan and the Archives of Michigan. The goal of Seeking Michigan is simple: to connect you to the stories of this great state. Visit them regularly for a dynamic & evolving look at Michigan’s cultural heritage and read more from Seeking Michigan on Absolute Michigan! We have added the trailer from November Requiem, a documentary on the Bradley, at the end this feature.

The Carl D. Bradley, circa 1950 (Photo From the Edwin T. Brown Collection, Archives of Michigan)

Editor’s note: This article was first published in the January/February 2009 issue of Michigan History magazine.

“A Deafening Thud”

Abandon ship! Abandon ship! The whistle squawked seven short blasts, then one long blast. It was a signal twenty-six year old deck watchman Frank Mays knew well, but never expected to hear. Just minutes earlier, he had been having a smoke with Gary Price in the dunnage room, deep in the bow, when they heard a deafening thud. “We hightailed it out of there to find out what had happened,” Mays recalls. “When I reached the upper deck, I looked aft and saw the stern flapping up and down like a dog’s tail.” The Carl D. Bradley‘s back had broken, and it would be only a matter of minutes before water filled the tunnels and cargo holds of the 639-foot vessel. It was 5:30 p.m. on November 18, 1958.

Final Voyage

The Bradley had departed Gary, Indiana the day prior, running in ballast in building southwest seas along Lake Michigan’s western shore. On the season’s final voyage, the veteran boat was scheduled to head to Manitowoc, Wisconsin for repairs during its winter lay-up. The rusting cargo had been due for an $800,000 replacement for over a year, but its owner, Bradley Transportation Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, pushed the work back until the end of the season. A radio call from headquarters ordering an additional stone delivery before lay-up proved to be the demise of the Bradley. Despite reports of gale-force winds and thirty-foot seas that compelled other freighter captains to take shelter along Wisconsin’s shore, Captain Roland Bryan, known as a “heavy weather man,” headed northeast across the lake from the Door County peninsula toward the Straits of Mackinac and back to Rogers City. At 5:35 p.m., the Bradley sank twelve miles southwest of Gull Island.

“The Worst Night of His Life”

Even today, survivor Mays recalls that horrific night with clarity. Hunkered down on the life raft just aft of the pilothouse, he trembled realizing the sinking beneath him. His eyes were drawn aft toward the flying sparks as the huge steel deck plates began to tear apart. In the growing darkness and mayhem, he could make out second mate John Fogelsonger running toward the stern and leaping over the break. Before his eyes, his friend disappeared as the Bradley ripped apart. The next thing Mays recalls was being pitched into the air, landing in the icy, angry water and then struggling onto the raft where he fought to hold on through the worst night of his life.

“A Painful Memory”

By morning, only Mays and first mate Elmer Fleming were alive. After fifteen bone-numbing hours in the icy waters, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Sundew rescued them. All thirty-three of their mates, including Gary Strelecki and Dennis Meredith, who shared the raft for most of the night, as well as two of Frank’s own cousins, perished. These men left behind twenty-five widows and fifty-four fatherless children. Considering twenty-three of the crew hailed from Rogers City, the home port of the Bradley, the loss personally affected nearly everyone in the small community. Fifty years later, the sinking is still a painful memory.

As promised, here is the trailer for November Requiem. You can get the Emmy Award Winning DVD right here from the Presque Isle County Historical Museum.

Made-In-Michigan Film Festival – October 21st & 22nd

On October 21 & 22, 2011 film industry professionals and festival-goers from across the state will converge on Downtown Lapeer at the historic, recently renovated PIX Theater for the 4th Annual Made-In-Michigan Film Festival (MiMFF). Presented by the Made-In-Michigan Film Society and The Lapeer County Film Office, this year’s event promises to be the biggest and most exciting yet. This 2-day film festival starting at 6pm on Friday will present 46 short and feature-length independent films covering all genres – all having a material connection to the State of Michigan. The MiMFF is the only film festival in the world that is exclusive to Michigan-made films, making this a unique and proud event right here in our backyard.

The MiMFF started off in 2008 with just a few film submissions and even fewer ticket sales. Thanks to growing support from the Michigan Film Industry, the local community and the hard work of a small group of dedicated volunteers, the MiMFF has grown into one of the most respected small-town film festivals in the state. In fact, a second screening room has been added to the schedule this year to accommodate the large number of quality film submissions, essentially doubling the amount films to be shown. “We are very excited about each and every film that was chosen for this years festival”, says Made-In-Michigan Film Society President, Juliane Bagley. “We understand the hard work and level of commitment that goes into making these films and it is an honor for us to be able to present them to our community.”

Seeking Michigan: The Father of Animation

Seeking MichiganBy Kevin Collier, courtesy Seeking Michigan and the Archives of Michigan. The goal of Seeking Michigan is simple: to connect you to the stories of this great state. Visit them regularly for a dynamic & evolving look at Michigan’s cultural heritage and read more from Seeking Michigan on Absolute Michigan!
A poster for McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur cartoon, 1914 (Click for a larger view).

A poster for McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur cartoon, 1914 (Click for a larger view).

Winsor McCay, pioneering animator and comic strip artist, was a native of Spring Lake, Michigan. Spring Lake is also where he began his career in art. His father, Robert McCay, and mother Janet ran a grocery store in the village. While it is probable that Winsor was born in 1867 during a visit to his mother’s family in Ontario, McCay stated that he was born September 26, 1871, in Spring Lake, Michigan. He always considered Spring Lake his hometown.

In 1880, the Goodrich steamship Alpena, en route from nearby Grand Haven to Chicago, was wrecked in a terrible storm and sank to the bottom, carrying with it nearly one hundred passengers. At the age of thirteen, young Winsor drew a picture of the wreck on the blackboard of Union School, which he attended on Exchange Street. The illustration was photographed and copies were sold as postcards.

A panel from the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1914)

A panel from the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1914)

McCay’s comic strips included Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. McCay created the very first animated cartoon in America with the release of Little Nemo in 1911 (See video link below).

Many in the animation world hail McCay today as the “Father of Animation.” As a tribute, the highest award that an animator can receive is an “Annie,” which is the Winsor McCay Award for Lifetime Achievement in Animation. When Disneyland first opened in 1955, so the story goes, Walt Disney took Robert McCay, son of Spring Lake native Winsor McCay, on a guided tour. He stopped near the end and said, “You know, this should really belong to your father.”

Winsor McCay passed away on July 26, 1934.