In 1954, Ireland was a poor and isolated country, mired in a much larger recession as all of Europe struggled to emerge from the devastation of World War II.
Oliver Casey was a lad of just 12 summers, living in the small town of Youghal in County Cork.
But then something magical occurred. John Huston, Gregory Peck and a large film crew arrived in Ireland to shoot “Moby Dick,” using the ancient town of Youghal to replicate New Bedford of the 1860s.
“I’m not ashamed to say we had nothing back then,” Casey said before the screening of the classic film at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center last night.
But Hollywood star power transformed the life of the town. For four months, Youghal became a little Tinseltown and the tightly knit community was dazzled. Aside from the bustle and glamor of the silver screen, the movie provided an enormous boost to the local economy. It would be impossible to overstate its impact, Casey said.
“It’s burned into my brain forever,” Casey, 69, said. “My mother was hired as an extra at 30 shillings a day,” (That was about $4.20 in 1954 dollars). His mother was the caretaker at the town hall and also helped with the film wardrobe. “She was making twice what my father was getting down at the gas company,” he said.
Some 125 people were hired as extras and were paid every day whether they were used or not, he said. All of their families benefited from the windfall.
Casey, who grew up to serve as Youghal’s mayor on three occasions, has retained a lifelong interest in the Huston film and is visiting New Bedford in conjunction with the events this weekend celebrating all things “Moby-Dick.”
On Saturday, he will present a lecture on the movie illustrated with behind-the-scenes photos from his collection, accompanied by some colorful stories from those heady days.
“Gregory Peck was very unsteady on that leg,” he said. “So when they were taking the publicity shots, John Huston was crouched down low holding onto him.”
People flocked to Youghal from afar to watch the moviemakers at work, and Lenihan’s pub was the first to cash in on the excitement.
“As soon as the filming started, Paddy Lenihan hung a banner outside his place renaming it the Moby Dick pub,” Casey said, a name it still bears today.
Casey also recalled seeing John Huston emerging from town hall with a fierce expression. “I said to myself, ‘This guy means business.’ Even as a young fellow I could see that he was a driven man.” One man who owned property in the center of the set demanded more money from Huston in the belief that they couldn’t shoot around him, Casey recalled. “Huston wouldn’t back down. They shot around him.”
When the cast and crew departed they left behind the two mechanical whales used to portray Ahab’s nemesis. One broke free of its moorings during a storm and drifted away.
“They had to issue a warning on the radio to all shipping in the Irish Sea,” Casey said. “They advised mariners to keep a sharp lookout for a partially submerged white whale. It was a hazard to navigation.”
However, it appears the whale followed Ahab into the depths, since it was never seen again, he said.
“Moby Dick” had its world premiere in New Bedford at the Zeiterion, then called the State, in 1956, sparking tremendous excitement in the city. It was shown simultaneously in two other city theaters, and thousands of people lined the city streets to greet the director and cast, who attended the first night.
“Gregory Peck came along in an open convertible waving to everybody,” said New Bedford’s Paul Swain, who was standing on the corner of Elm and Pleasant streets that night. “Getting a big Hollywood star here was a real big deal. They’ve made some newer versions of the movie since then, but they’re not as good as the original.”
Mayor Oliver Casey’s lecture on the making of “Moby Dick” will be at the whaling museum theater at 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Story and photo courtesy:
By DON CUDDY
November 04, 2011 12:00 AM