THREE OAKS — Thirty years ago, Hollywood came to Three Oaks to make a Christmas movie about believing in things unseen.
Some of the magic dust must have stayed behind after the cast and crew – and critters – of “Prancer” moved on.
“At that time Three Oaks was going through tough times. There were a lot of empty storefronts,” said Nick Bogert, who has produced a short documentary about the filming. “Lights! Camera! Three Oaks! The Making of Prancer” premiered on Saturday, July 20, at the Vickers Theatre, 6 N. Elm St.. Three Oaks.
Having the village selected as a key location for the film “was an ego boost, it was a confidence boost,” said Bogert, a board member of the Region of Three Oaks Museum. “It was the beginning of the beginning of the re-invention.”
The documentary is Bogert’s fourth. Director John Hancock, who lives nearby in Indiana, will be on hand at the Vickers to share his memories and answer questions (a question and answer session with Bogert and Hancock is slated to follow the 13-minute feature). Those who remember the filming can share their recollections, as well. The museum will sell copies of the video as a fund-raiser.
“Prancer” and Three Oaks were apparently good for each other. The movie is considered a holiday classic, and the village has thrived since the filming. But it took a lot of work – and some luck – to make that all happen.
“Prancer” tells the story of 8-year-old Jessica, who lives on a struggling apple farm with her father and brother. Her mother recently died and they are all still grieving. In the woods, Jessica comes across an injured deer that she is convinced is one of Santa’s reindeer. Her faith rests on healing the animal and getting him back to the North Pole by Christmas Eve.
Hancock, best known for directing the baseball film “Bang the Drum Slowly” with Robert DeNiro, looked at locations in Vermont, Indiana and elsewhere before deciding on Three Oaks.
While growing up, his parents owned a fruit farm near LaPorte, Ind., so Hancock was familiar with the region.
Bogert said Hancock selected Three Oaks in part because it didn’t have a lot of neon signs or aluminum siding, and retained a traditional Midwestern American look. In the original script by Greg Taylor, the town was called Fall River, but Hancock chose to identify it as Three Oaks.
Hancock pulled together a cast that included Sam Elliott as Jessica’s troubled father, along with Academy Award winner Cloris Leachman and veteran character actors Abe Vigoda and Michael Constantine. The juvenile cast featured Johnny Galecki, who would go on to star in the TV series “Rosanne” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
The director’s big discovery was Rebecca Harrell, tapped after her very first movie audition to play Jessica. Many reviewers singled her out for praise, including Roger Ebert, who called her “a very attractive and talented little actress” in an interview for The Herald-Palladium.
Behind the scenes
Harrell is the only principal cast member that Bogert interviewed for the documentary. He considered getting Sam Elliott to record a brief welcome to Three Oaks residents, but couldn’t afford the speaking fee.
Instead, Bogert focused on the townsfolk who were around when “Prancer” was being filmed. Bryan Volstorf was mayor at the time, and the self-appointed film board director, helping with street closings and other logistics.
Alyson Payne is one of the extras interviewed in the film, and Eleanor Desmond, who was filmed as part of the church choir, remembers her husband taking a great deal of interest in the production after-hours.
Hancock and his crew, for the most part, fit right in, Bogert said.
“What a thrill for me!” Hancock says in the documentary. “There I was, the fat little boy falling off his bike. And now I’m the boss.”
Sam Elliott was a fan favorite, signing autographs and mixing with the locals. His wife, actress Katharine Ross, came along and was equally friendly.
Only one member of the cast remained largely aloof, Bogert shared, but wouldn’t say who. And the reindeer weren’t the easiest creatures to work with.
Like any movie production, this one had its bumps. A region that sees an average of 19 inches of snow in January had one of the least snowy months on record, with 1.9 inches of accumulation. That led the filmmakers to put down artificial snow, and to shoot some scenes on sets inside a warehouse.
Scenes were shot at other locations, so the exteriors don’t always match up with Southwest Michigan, including a scene with mountains. But much of the local landscape was featured. A sweeping aerial shot of the town was a model created by local craftsman Don Bowman. Scenes were filmed at the United Methodist Church and Drier’s Meats, although footage at the business ended up on the cutting room floor.
Another landmark could have had a different fate if filmmakers had taken the suggestion to blow it up. Instead, it became an anchor of the village’s renaissance.
The film had its November 1989 world premiere at a LaPorte cinema, with many Three Oaks residents in attendance. The Herald-Palladium account reported “gasps or giggles”when they recognized a familiar face or building, and laughter when Sam Elliott mentions Benton Harbor.
The movie initially drew mixed reviews, but has come to be considered a holiday favorite. Rebecca Harrell became a filmmaker and environmental activist. In 2010, with her husband Josh Tickell, she documented the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico for their film “The Big Fix,” which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
Elliott’s long career is stronger than ever, and last year he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting role for “A Star is Born.”
Ebert and his TV partner Gene Siskel gave “Prancer” two thumbs up. In his HP interview, Ebert, a Chicago Sun-Times critic and part-time Berrien County resident, suggested that “Prancer” could bring added attention to Three Oaks.
“I think people from the larger surrounding area are likely to say ‘Let’s go take a look at Three Oaks,’” Ebert said.
The documentary notes that a columnist for the Galien River Gazette had the same expectation.
The movie, the writer said, is going to show people that Three Oaks “has a lot going for it.”
That was one Christmas wish that came true.