GREENFIELD — Filmmaker Ron Prickel was mid-interview at the Indiana State Library when he stopped short, astonished by something he spotted out of the corner of his eye: volumes of books written by James Whitcomb Riley.
Prickel, a producer with WTIU, the Bloomington-based PBS station, was in the middle of creating a documentary about another Hoosier author at the time, but with one glance at that crammed-full shelf, he knew he’d found his next project. His next work would be dedicated to documenting the life and impact of the prolific author and speaker who grew up on Main Street in Greenfield.
“James Whitcomb Riley: Hoosier Poet,” a story told in part by local experts, premieres Aug. 10 on the Bloomington PBS station, then later will be screened by other PBS affiliates around the state. Local Riley enthusiasts hope the documentary will stoke an interest in the artist, orator and poet and encourage more people to visit his childhood home in the historic district downtown.
When Prickel saw the 16-volume complete works of Riley taking up an entire shelf at the state museum, he was amazed. Such a body of work by one author, he said, is unusual.
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“I started looking into the stories behind the books,” Prickel said. “He’s an interesting character, to say the least.”
Prickel and his crew researched the Greenfield native, poring over artifacts preserved in the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum and interviewing local experts on his impact in the area.
When he began researching the poet, Prickel was intrigued by Riley’s early years of struggle, bouncing from job to job and painting advertising on the sides of barns to make ends meet. Riley, who was mostly self-taught, seemed to want to try his hand at all of life’s options before deciding what he wanted to do, he said.
But mostly, Prickel kept coming back to the first thing that drew him to Greenfield’s native son: the sheer volume of his work. He wrote some 1,000 poems in his lifetime.
Bringing Riley’s story to life has brought Prickel and his crew to Hancock County several times.
The WTIU documentary crew visited Greenfield earlier this year and several times last year, said Stacey Poe, coordinator of the boyhood home and museum. They filmed the unveiling of the “Reading with Riley” statue in October, a dual celebration of the bicentennial of Indiana’s statehood and the 100th year since the Hoosier poet’s death.
They photographed and videoed scores of artifacts kept in the museum and provided museum staff with digital copies of the photographs, documenting the condition of newspaper articles, letters and original documents written in Riley’s hand, she said.
The Riley home and museum sees about 1,000 visitors hailing from across the country every year; for many school groups, a visit to the home — where hostesses dress in period clothing, share stories and recite poems — is a longstanding tradition.
But museum officials hope the documentary will help them reach a new audience, spurring a curiosity in those who might not have heard of Riley.
“We want to bring more people through our doors, so we can tell his story,” Poe said. “I hope this will encourage a rekindling of the knowledge of him and his life.”
The crew interviewed Brigette Cook Jones, county tourism director and former Riley home coordinator. She took the filmmakers on a tour of relevant sites in the county, including Whitcomb Meadows and Whitcomb Village, two Greenfield neighborhoods with streets named for Riley poems, she said.
Prickel worked to give equal attention to the three different phases of Riley’s career — his time as a newspaper reporter, his years of touring the country to give lectures and finally, the years when his works were published in books.
They wanted to present Riley’s poems and essays in the way he would have read them, aloud, so the production hired an actor to portray the poet and staged a reading, with audience members donning period costumes. The entire event was filmed, he said.
After airing on PBS stations, the documentary will be distributed on DVD; the Hancock County Tourism Commission earlier this year provided the station with about $5,000 to be used toward promotion and distribution.
The Riley home and museum plans to sell DVDs of the documentary, Poe said. In the meantime, she and other Riley enthusiasts are trying to see if they can arrange a caravan to attend a viewing party in Bloomington on the night of the premiere.
After the film’s August premiere, it will be available for viewing on the WTIU website for one month; in December, it will be distributed to all state PBS stations. DVDs will be available for purchase as well, Prickel said.
“James Whitcomb Riley: Hoosier Poet,” a documentary about the Greenfield-born poet, will premiere Aug. 10 on WTIU, the Bloomington-based PBS station. Viewers with satellite television, including Dish Network and DirectTV, will be able to view the movie at that time.
The film will be available for screening on the WTIU website, indianapublicmedia.org/tv, for one month after the premiere, officials said. DVDs of the documentary will also be available for purchase from the website, and later from the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum.