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March 10th, 2008

Magnola Memories – An Absolute Delight

...Cross-posted from my graving blog, A Graver's Journal...

I honestly can think of no way I would prefer to have spent the evening this past Saturday, such was the marvelous time I had at the Foundation for Historical Louisiana's production of Magnolia Memories V at Baton Rouge's Magnolia Cemetery. The events were scheduled for Friday, March 7th and Saturday, March 8th; it was the 6:45pm Saturday show that we attended.

For the past few years, the Foundation - with the help of volunteers, actors, musicians, and others - has brought the stories of some of Baton Rouge's most notable history-makers to light and in the flesh. Each year, a number of the cemetery's occupants are chosen to be represented by local actors and their stories told. These "stories" are actually fascinating scripts compiled from local folklore, historical records, descendants' generation-to-generation tales, and news archives. Each actor stands, in full costume, at the grave of the local luminary they are representing and regales the audience with his or her lifetime achievements and notable deeds, which are sprinkled with history and lore about Baton Rouge itself.

The delightful performances are only part of the entertainment, for as you follow your guide - a white-robed and feather-winged angel - throughout the cemetery, your ears will pick up the melodious sounds of a variety of musical instruments. Set up between the graves and performances are a number of musicians playing doleful diddies or soulful ballads on instruments such as the violin, guitar, bagpipe, cello, and even the harp. Still others added to certain performances with some of the most beautiful vocal stylings I have heard in years.

Though we heard from many that the previous night had been brutal due to the wind, the weather for Saturday's performance was crisp and clear. We traipsed wordlessly through the sleeping graveyard under an inky, starlit sky. The graveled paths winding through the cemetery were lit by brown paper bags containing sand and votive candles, while certain graves - usually those near an actor or musician - were illuminated by bright, floodlights.

At each grave performance, we were seated on small, black folding chairs that were set up in three or four rows just in front of the headstone and actor portraying its occupant. Tall, lantern-like heaters were set up around the folding chairs to offer some warmth from the biting cold.

What I had read, and later discussed with one of the guides, was that every year the notable deceased are chosen at random. It just so happened - it was later discovered - that there were quite a number of real-life connections that bound together nearly all of those who had been chosen this year. This happens every year, in some form; yet this year was more remarkable than the ones before for the unique yet interesting ties that bound the people whose lives were being showcased.

And what of these people and their noteworthy lives? Who were they, and what did I learn about them, and from them about our great, capital city?

The evening began with an introduction by Charles Ferdinand Rabenhorst, who - in 1866 - founded the local yet renowned Rabenhorst Funeral Homes, which is still, today, four generations and over 130 years on, operated by the Rabenhorst family. The affable Prussian, Mr. Rabenhorst, who spoke so lovingly of his beloved wife, Caroline, was played (perfect accent and all!) by Robert Wilson.

From there, followed by the mournful tones of a bagpipe, we were led to two, stout, white marble markers bearing the surname "Magruder". These were the graves of education pioneer and Mississippi native, W. H. Nathanial Magruder, and his wife, Mary. Magruder was the founder of the Magruder Collegiate Institute, once located on Government Street in Baton Rouge. Throughout his life, he was also a teacher and professor who taught, among many of Louisiana's later lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and politicians, a number of the others who were being represented in the cemetery this very evening. The aged educator lived to the ripe, old age of eighty-five, before passing away in March of 1900 - not long after losing his beloved wife, of whom he spoke so fondly. Professor Magruder was played - eloquently so - by actor David Besse. It was hard not to see Mr. Besse as the long-dead professor, he played the part so very convincingly.

Our angel guide then led us further into the cemetery, and we soon found ourselves almost on Florida Boulevard itself as we were seated before the grave of the independent and strong-willed writer and banker, Miss Vallie Mentz Seitz. After making sure the gentlemen of the group addressed their hostess properly, and that the ladies were well-situated, Miss Seitz went on to share her grievances about the decline of common courtesy, in the form of genuine Southern hospitality, that she had witnessed growing older in her time. Miss Seitz would be in for quite a shock today! As well as sharing her achievements of being the first female to hold a clerical and banking job (which were male-only positions until she took them over) and of being a published author (of a book as well as a screenplay), she admitted to being held as "eccentric" in her older years - mainly for her propensity to use her umbrella to whop the hood of vehicles for not stopping, as they should, to let a lady pass. Surrounded by friends and the kindness of the elderly patrons she spent her free time helping, the affable Miss Seitz never married and spends eternity buried alongside her mother, whom she cared for the last twenty years of the older woman's life. Played by Nancy Litton, our time with Vallie could only have been more perfect had we all been sipping a cup of tea in a parlor, as befitting a meeting with a true, Southern lady.

Vallie left us with a tidbit of gossip that involved her cousin, Josie's, hot-tempered husband and a young doctor whom he supposedly shot dead - for reasons somehow related to cousin Josie! Little did we know, this was a hint about the gentlemen we were about to meet next.

Almost directly across the cemetery from Vallie Seitz, sits the impressive family plot of the Hart family, which holds the remains of J.M. Hart - a well-known and respected man in the local community at the time - and his family. It wasn't, however, one of the Harts we were here to meet. Standing on the plot, and next to his grave, was an affable and handsome young man who introduced himself as Dr. Aldrich. Dr. Henry Robert "Harry" Aldrich had married into the affluent Hart family by wooing their daughter, Gertrude. Gertrude and Harry had a growing family, a nice home, and the practice was thriving - it was a wonderful life, until it was cut short by murder.

As the good doctor told us of his life and all that he had lost, a voice rang out from behind us - and up walked a man that was introduced to us as Judge George Kent Favrot, the man accused of ending Dr. Aldrich's life so many years ago. The men engaged a courteous-enough discourse, though there was obviously a thinly veiled distaste one for the other. We then heard the story, told between the two of them, of how Judge Favrot was told - at a drunken party - that Dr. Aldrich said something loathsome and degrading about Mrs. Favrot. What exactly was said that inflamed the Judge so has been lost to time, and whether the Doctor even said it is up for debate. Regardless, on November 7, 1906, George Favrot was waiting for the 39 year-old doctor as he left work and stepped out of the Raymond Building on 3rd Street in downtown Baton Rouge. Three shots rang out and Dr. Harry Aldrich lay dead on the street.

At least, Doctor Aldrich scoffed, you paid for your crimes! This, however, was not the case. Poor Dr. Aldrich could not keep to his feet as Judge Favrot told the time-old - and unfortunate - tale of common Louisiana politics; no jury would convict the well-known and well-liked former lawyer and present judge, and he went on to live a long, esteemed life that eventually landed him a seat in Congress. He was buried with honors in Roselawn Cemetery after a long and productive life; not on this Earthly plane, it seems, did Judge Favrot ever pay the price for ending the doctor's life and shattering his promise and dreams. The parts of the ill-fated doctor and wickedly shrewd judge were played to perfection by actors Drew Cothern, as Dr. Alrich, and Johnny Worsham as Judge George Favrot.

From there we traveled back across the cemetery, this time coming to the grave of another distinguished woman, Ellen Bryan Moore. Ellen was the most recently deceased of our entertainers this evening, having only left this life as far back as the year 2000. Surrounded by family and buried alongside her dear husband, Haywood, the indomitable Ellen told us about being the first female in the South to join the Woman's Army Corps. The rest of her life was spent in service to her local government - she worked, as she said, "in government, not politics" - though she admitted all of it would have been for naught without the love and support of her loved ones. One can only imagine the struggles - and scorn - Ellen must have faced being part of the Army during the war and running for positions in governmental roles throughout her life; the times that Ellen was born into were not exactly conducive to that of an active, independent, and publicly strong-willed woman. Yet, despite, Ellen did her own thing and continued on - never letting the naysayers hold her down or dim her bright ambitions. Ellen Moore was played charmingly and utterly believingly by actress Neena Kelfstrom.

With women's rights still on our mind, we made our way to the last stop of the evening - the grave of the esteemed and brilliant Dr. Thaddeus Walker. Dr. Walker was the son of former slaves, freed after the Civil War, who instilled in him the importance of a solid education. He took their words to heart, and the young, gifted man was entering college at the age of eleven! If you can imagine the struggles of independent ladies like Vallie and Ellen in earlier times, one can only begin to grasp at what Thaddeus Walker - a black man - went through as he worked his way up through a medical career until opening his own practice in Lakeland, Louisiana (which was later moved to Baton Rouge). The New Orleans-native suffered criticism and was shunned not only from the white community but also, and maybe more so, from his fellow blacks. Some felt, he told us, that a colored man could not hope to be so educated; their own self-esteem had taken such a beating that even they did not believe themselves worthy of an education or capable of holding such a job. Still others, he confessed, felt that living in rich, white society and holding such a prestigious position made him no better than the uppity whites he lived around; Dr. Walker, they felt, was "stepping out of his place". Despite these grumblings, the good doctor went on to build a successful practice with a large and dedicated circle of patients that included people of all colors.

It was during Dr. Walker's speech that a voice from the crowd interrupted - and a handsome black man from the seated guests stood and asked to interrupt Dr. Walker's speech in order to give his thanks. He introduced himself as Dr. Mokissa Murrill, and noted that because of Dr. Walker's triumph over race relations during such difficult times, it was possible that black people such as Dr. Murrill himself - who started a children's clinic in Baton Rouge in the early 1980's - were able to practice openly and garner respect. He had a valid point. There is no doubt that a man of Dr. Walker's obvious intelligence and skill changed the ideas that whites at the time had about their darker-skinned brethren, and that - perhaps even - he became an inspiration to his fellow blacks, reminding them that they could aspire to do anything they set their minds to - rather than thinking themselves doomed to fail or their that skin color was a deterrent. The parts of Dr. Walker - played by Ed Barnes - and Dr. Murrill - played by Eric Street - were not only entertainment, but a gentle reminder of how some of our fellow beings - including the lessons shown us by Vallie Seitz and Ellen Moore - had to struggle to do things that we, today, take for granted. Dr. Thaddeus Walker, living in the turbulent times after the Civil War, was not just a doctor but a pioneer in equality. It could not ever have been easy to walk the path he tread, but in so doing he set a mighty example for everyone that came into contact with him, as well as those of us who learn about his life many years after his death.

The two doctors finished their piece to the deep, soulful songstress who appeared, cloaked, and sang a hymn about Jesus. It was soul-stirring, and I had to tell her - before leaving - that she had the voice of an angel! Indeed, she brought tears to my eyes, so deep into my soul did her voice penetrate.

And then, almost too soon, it was over. We were led quietly out of the cemetery while the groups that had started behind us were finishing up or just coming in. I walked away from the event that night with a whole, new appreciation for that beautiful cemetery and the unique, lively, creative, and brilliant souls interred within. I also garnered a new esteem for this great city of Baton Rouge in which we live, and this amazing state - steeped in so much interesting and intriguing culture and history. There simply is no other place like it on Earth, and to all the souls that have lived (and do live) here and contributed their part to the great gumbo that is Louisiana history, I can only say thank you.

My kudos to the Foundation for putting on a stellar event. I plan to return every year from here on out; I just simply couldn't miss it knowing now how special and enjoyable the entire thing is. A lot of time and effort obviously went into the production, but more than that was the obvious heart that was such a part of it all. The people doing this genuinely cared about their work and the people whose lives they were bringing "back to life"; it made the entire event all the more magical. Thank you for a wonderful evening, and a "history lesson" I'll not soon forget!

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