Off to a Great Start with The Last Ride
Benjy Gaither is no stranger to Nashville or the entertainment industry. The son of gospel music's Bill and Gloria Gaither is a gifted songwriter, producer and creative director, who has brought us some great songs and thrilled many youngsters with his computer animated children's videos. While some Gaither music fans are aware that Benjy voiced the part of the "bluegrass-crooning goat," Japeth, in the 2006 animated feature film, Hoodwinked, others have expressed surprise over his entry into the world of filmmaking. If his first feature film, The Last Ride, is any indication, Benjy is up to the daunting challenge of making outstanding movies.
In April 2010, Benjy and I had a telephone conversation about The Last Ride, a movie about the last seventy-two hours of Hank Williams' life. The film had reached post-production at that point, and he gave me a sneak peek. I knew some potential investors, but they ultimately opted not to invest in the project for different reasons, none of which had anything to do with Benjy or the film itself. Still, I remained intrigued by the story, and was determined to keep up with the movie's progress.
Those Wonderful Ads!
Older issues of Grier's Almanac are desired by collectors because of the advertising. Within the pages of the 1934 issue (pictured below right), one can find ads for Bayer aspirin, Cheney's Expectorant (for coughs) and Feen-a-mint ("The Laxative That's Just Like Chewing Gum"). While these products were quite common and widely used at the time, a few other items were offered by more obscure companies, and following are just a few of the standouts:
- 6 6 6 a remedy for colds, headache, fever, biliousness, malaria and constipation available in liquid, tablets, nose drops and a salve! (Editor's note: I'd have to be pretty miserable before I would take something called "666.")
- Smith's Worm Oil, a product of the Galenol Company, Inc. of Atlanta. Described as "one of the oldest and most reliable worm medicines sold."
- Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, a "tonic and regulator" for "girls in their teens." The ad states, "Teach her how to guard her health at this critical time . . . When she is a happy, healthy wife and mother she will thank you."
The 2006 Grier's Almanac includes its share of intriguing ads and, quite frankly, several of them are a source of amusement. Especially eyecatching is a full-page ad from Miller's Rexall Drugs & Curios of Atlanta. Miller's line of products includes the following:
- Securitee, a "renowned prescription in a jellied form" described as the "married woman's sure, safe method." "Are you financially able to take care of babies and give them the proper attention?," the ad asks. "If not it may be best to delay." Haven't times changed? Today, there is considerable debate over whether school kids should learn about contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases at younger and younger ages. In 1934, amid the Depression, an ad offering some form of pregnancy prevention made no mention of the word sex, of course, but its intent was pretty clear. "Every married couple should have babies, but it is a great injustice to bring the little darlings into the world if all conditions are not just right." Interesting to note, 1934 was probably not one of those years in which conditions were "just right" for raising children for most southern couples.
- Lucky Las Vegas Cologne (Editor's note: If you're willing to throw away your money at the casinos, spending $5.55 on this stuff probably can't hurt!)
- Dragon's Blood Uncrossing Bubble Bath, "used to destroy jinxes" (Editor's note: A normal shower with soap and water suits me just fine. Jinxes don't scare me.)
- "Make Opposing Lawyer Stupid" Oil and Candle (Editor's note: This must have been used by the O. J. Simpson defense team. Oops, I shouldn't have said that!!!)
- "Stop Evil" Spray Cleaner "Chase evil out of home, church, business," says the ad. (Editor's note: Obeying the Bible and saying, "Get thee behind me, Satan," has always worked for me!)
Lots of Useful Stuff, Too
Besides a few hilarious ads and plenty of legitimate promotions, Grier's Almanac contains a helpful gardening calendar, zodiac information, a religious section, a chronological listing of memorable events and informing general interest articles.
Some eight years earlier, I had saved from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution an article in which journalist Jim Tharpe had interviewed the gentleman, who -- as a seventeen-year-old boy -- had driven Hank Williams during those final three days. When I began publishing Southern Edition in May 2006, one of my first entries in the Cotton States Archive department was a piece on the old Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville. It was there that Williams and his driver would have spent the night, but a call from a promoter reminding the singer of his contractual obligation to perform in Canton, Ohio on New Years' Day forced an ailing Williams and his teenage driver to leave early. Somewhere between Bristol, Virginia and Oak Hill, West Virginia, Williams died of heart failure in the backseat of his cadillac.
Copies of Grier's Almanac are distributed via drug stores, feed & seed dealers and direct mail.
In The Last Ride, two former child actors play the main parts. Hank Williams (using the alias, Luke) is played by Henry Thomas, who won moviegoers over with his role in E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, and Jesse James plays the part of Silas (the fictitious name used for the driver's character). Silas is hired to drive the singer to some concerts due to wintry weather conditions prohibiting air travel. The screenplay, written by Howie Klausner and Dub Cornett, offers a sobering glimpse of a performer whose best days should have been ahead of him, but the consequences of poor choices, health issues and addiction had gotten Williams in a strangle hold and refused to let go.
In the following interview, Benjy Gaither shares how he wound up being involved in the making of The Last Ride and how he and his business partner, Harry Thomason, overcame the inevitable obstacles to bring the project to fruition:
Melody Gaither/The Last Ride, LLC
Left to Right: Jesse James (Silas), Benjy Gaither and Henry Thomas ("Luke" or Hank)
For nearly half a century, Thomas P. Ashmore made the astronomical calculations for Grier's Almanac. Upon his death in 1882, he was succeeded by his nephew, Otis Ashmore. A Savannah educator and scientist, Otis Ashmore saw the almanac fall on hard times. It was in 1912 that Frank Lamar Fleming of John B. Daniel, Inc., an Atlanta wholesale drug company, acquired the publication at a Savannah bankruptcy auction. In spite of the ownership change, Otis Ashmore remained with Grier's, making astronomical calculations until his death in 1934. Pictured is his last issue.
GREG FREEMAN: I just basically wanted to talk with you and get your angle about the film and how you came to be involved with it. I know when most people hear the name Gaither, they think of Christian music. And when they think of you, I'm sure they still associate you with some songs and the work that you've done with various artists, including the Gaither Vocal Band. Is this the first film that your company has produced? I know you've done some acting.
BENJY GAITHER: Yeah, this is the first feature that I've produced. How I got involved was through Howie Klausner, the scriptwriter. We were involved in some other projects together, and he called me and said, "Hey, I've got this script that I want you to look at. And I don't know if you want to help me try to get it made or whatever." I said, "What is it? What's the script." He said, "The last three days of Hank Williams' life." My ears just perked up right away. I said, "Are you serious? Yeah, send it to me. I'd love to read it."
So I read it, and I loved it for two reasons. First of all, I thought it was very believable. They really got the relationship between Hank and his driver down. His driver had no idea who he was driving, which is amazing. And then, two, I thought it was great that it wasn't a biopic. I thought it was great that it was just focused on the last three days of his life. That turned me on. The biopic's been done to death. You can't do any better than Walk the Line or Ray, and we weren't trying to do that.
He sent the script to me. I read it, and I loved it. And so I sent it to my friend, Harry Thomason. He's directed or produced a ton of shows. Of course, he did Designing Women, Evening Shade and The Fall Guy and a ton of shows for CBS. So he's a seasoned director. He loved it, and I said, "Would you be interested in helping me produce it?" And he said, "No, I don't want to produce it. I want to direct it." He said, "I want you to produce it." And that's how I got involved. The ball started rolling after Harry got involved, and we went from there.
Due to some challenges early on, we pretty much did the movie for half the budget, and were on our heels pretty much from the get-go, trying to raise more money to get the film finished. But we got it made. And, from then on, we had other people that we wanted to get involved in it. I ended up doing the music just out of necessity. We needed somebody to do the music, and we just didn't have the money to pay anybody. So I did it. And it ended up being really good.
GREG: Yeah, I noticed that you did all the music. So what kind of challenge was that for you? Have you done much with scores before? I know you're an accomplished songwriter.
BENJY: Yeah, I've written some songs. And I've written some animation stuff. I knew I could do it. I just didn't know if I was the best man for the job. So Harry sent me a little scene, and the first scene that he sent me was that one when the little girl walks out of the church and Hank sees the little girl. I scored that and Harry heard it and played it for some people, and they all came back and said, "You're doing the score." So that was my introduction. I was very confident doing it, but I've never scored a feature film. I've never produced a feature film, either. So this was a lot of firsts for me, but I'm really proud of it, and I think we did a really good job. It ended up being better than I think we even thought [it might].
This sampling from the 1953 issue of Grier's Almanac features a half-page ad offering an "amazing liquid that tends to promote aversion (dislike) toward ALL intoxicating drinks." Also, kudzu had apparently not sufficiently invaded the South by 1953. B. W. Middlebrooks of Barnesville, Georgia, was advertising seed and kudzu crowns for sale! Quite a contrast from the previously illustrated 1934 edition, the 1953 issue featured ads from two separate publishers promoting illustrated books on the topic of sex!
GREG: Yeah, I think you told me that you guys produced this thing for only..…..Was it $1.2 million?
BENJY: Yeah, it was a $3 million movie that we pretty much did for about $1.5 million. We still came under budget. There are so many things in movies….some post-production things and songs….and we used some of Hank's songs.
We also wanted to get the Williams family involved as much as we could. So we screened it for Jett Williams, who is Hank's daughter, and her husband, who is an attorney. We were very scared. (Laughing) It was the longest hour and a half of my life. We showed them one of the first edits -- a very rough edit. After the screening, she came to us with tears in her eyes and threw her arms around us and said, "You got my dad. You got him. This is the most accurate portrayal of my dad." And she said, "If there's anything we can do, let us know, and we'll help you get this movie out." And they've been extremely helpful and very supportive. We couldn't have done it without them, basically.
GREG: Yeah? Well, that's cool. That's great that you got her blessing.
GREG: Is it safe to say that Benjy Gaither now is pretty much in the film business, and the music business is more of a sideline?
BENJY: (Laughing) Yeah, well, it's both.
GREG: They're kinda intertwined?
BENJY: Yeah. In everything I do, music's definitely gonna be a big part of it, but at the same time I'm in the film business, too.
GREG: Could being an outsider, someone who is not part of the Hollywood establishment, work to your advantage?
Melody Gaither/The Last Ride, LLC
Henry Thomas chats with Benjy Gaither on the set of The Last Ride
BENJY: I hope so. My experience with Hollywood, so far, has been great. I'd gotten involved with Harry Thomason and a lot of his friends, too. Of course, he's probably looked out for me a lot.
GREG: So do you and Harry anticipate working together in the future on anything else? Or was this just a one-time deal?
BENJY: Yeah, in fact, we have several projects in the works that we will be working together on. My experience with Harry was amazing. He's been around in the business for a long time. Making a movie is tough enough as it is, but he never got shaken up. He's a professional, and he mentored me. And I would love to work with Harry again.
GREG: I know you guys have been hitting the film festival circuit, and you've gotten some good reviews and a few awards along the way, I've noticed.
GREG: But as far as theatres, you've got some select dates coming up on October 21, right?
BENJY: Right. We've gone back and forth on how to do this. We thought of doing a wide release in the fall, but then we thought, instead of doing that, we'd try it in select markets and see how it does, and come back in January with a big release. Of course, we think it's gonna do great, but to convince Hollywood it's got to be about the numbers.
GREG: Oh, yeah.
The Last Ride received much recognition at the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival in April 2011. The film received a Gold Remi Award for Best Historical/Period Theatrical Feature Film, and Benjy Gaither and Jesse James were awarded Gold Remis for Best Music and Best Actor respectively. Pictured left to right: Harry Thomason, Benjy Gaither and Jesse James.
BENJY: So that's our focus. Focus on a few markets and try to make these first releases do well and come back in January with a major player behind it. That's our strategy.
GREG: I think you've done an excellent job, and the proof will be in the reception and in the bottom line. And people will show that they really support it.
BENJY: And there's a lot of gospel music in this, too.
GREG: Yeah, you've got Michael English on the soundtrack, right?
BENJY: Right. The Isaacs are on the soundtrack. And so is Russ Taff. And that's the other thing. For a lot of these Hollywood guys, this is their first time hearing these southern gospel artists, you know?
GREG: Yeah, I'll bet.
BENJY: They're like, "Who is this artist? Who is this artist?" And I get to tell them, "Oh, yeah, that's….." And they're like, "How'd you find this guy?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I'll take credit. I found him." (Laughing)
GREG: (Laughing) That's pretty cool. Well, listen, man. This has been great. I'm really excited for you. The people who are old enough to remember Hank -- the ones who bought his records or heard him on the radio or whatever -- are really gonna like this.
Michael English, lead singer with the Grammy Award-winning Gaither Vocal Band, and Benjy Gaither prepare for the filming of the music video, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
BENJY: Yeah, I hope so. I hope they do. We definitely did it in the best spirit that we knew how. And, like I said, the script is really what drew me into this to begin with. And, so far, the film's been getting attention, and for good reason. I think Harry did a great job directing. And then there's Henry and Jesse. Henry Thomas, who, of course, was the little kid from E.T., and Jesse James, who has been in a ton of stuff, were both kid actors, and their chemistry together was so real and so compelling. To me, the direction and the script and acting are what made the movie.
GREG: Well, it's really been great to see this thing progress. You allowed me to see clips last year before most people knew anything about it, and I've just been blown away by it, and I've been telling friends of mine about it.
BENJY: I really appreciate you doing that.
GREG: The people I've talked to are anxious to see it, and they've gone to YouTube and checked out the trailer.
BENJY: It was definitely one of those labors of love because so many strikes were against us to start with. But we did it, and I think we did it pretty well.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Melody Cagle Gaither, Managing Administrative Director, Live Bait Entertainment, Anderson, Indiana.
Jim Tharpe, "Hank Williams' last ride: Driver recalls lonesome end," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 30, 2002.
"Andrew Johnson Hotel: Knoxville Landmark Where Hank Williams Would Have Spent Final Night," Southern Edition. Retrieved September 20, 2011: http://southernedition.com/
Telephone interview with Benjy Gaither on September 19, 2011
Telephone conversations and/or electronic mail communications with Benjy Gaither on April 30, May 1, May 3, May 10 and June 28, 2010
Author: Greg Freeman. Published October 18, 2011.
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