Heritage Center celebrating Tallulah’s 109th birthday this month
by Jennifer Cohron
Jan 22, 2011 | 2198 views | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alan Woellhart holds a sketche he made for a local production of “The Little Foxes” in the 1990s. Tallulah Bankhead’s 109th birthday party will be held on Jan. 31 at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center.
Alan Woellhart holds a sketche he made for a local production of “The Little Foxes” in the 1990s. Tallulah Bankhead’s 109th birthday party will be held on Jan. 31 at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center.
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Alan Woellhart’s love affair with Tallulah Bankhead began in the early 1990s.

The diva had been dead for more than 20 years when he directed a local production of “The Little Foxes.”

“It was the first thing that I had directed, and I wanted to do it as artistically and over-the-top as possible,” Woellhart said.

He bought several films of Tallulah that could be included in a screen montage as the play opened.

He auditioned many local women for Regina Giddens, the part once held by Bankhead. The role went to Sonya Webb. Kelly Byrd reprised it in a second production held in Jasper several years ago.

Woellhart also drew eight portraits of Bankhead while working on the first play. The sketches are now in the Tallulah Room at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center.

The public will be able to view them, along with various pieces of authentic artifacts from Bankhead’s life, during Tallulah’s 109th birthday celebration in February. There will be cake and a presentation by Frances Robb, a Road Scholar speaker with Alabama Humanities Foundation, on Jan. 31.

Some of the items on display were once housed in a case at Bevill State Community College in Jasper. Others were recovered from UAB’s Little Theater.

For years, the only people with access to them were benefactors of the theater.

When Woellhart learned that the building was being sold and the memorabilia archived, he asked if the collection could be loaned instead for a larger Tallulah exhibit in the works at Bevill.

Two weeks later, it was donated to Walker County permanently.

Woellhart developed some of the film negatives that he received from UAB and had them framed. Those candid photographs, including one of Tallulah and her father taken shortly before his death and another of her with her godchildren, are now on display at the Bankhead House.

Woellhart said that he is thrilled to see so many of Bankhead’s personal things, like her Bible and the mask she wore to Truman Capote’s infamous Black and White ball, preserved in the Heritage Center.

“There is a Tallulah Society in Huntsville, where she was born, that would kill to be able to get their hands on this stuff,” he said.

Bankhead, who lived in Jasper as a child and was married in the house that is hosting her birthday party this month, was as known for her personal indiscretions as her professional talent.

Many more heard about her antics than saw her perform on stage. She made 20 movies but only one, “Lifeboat,” has stood the test of time.

Yet she still has a hold on the public imagination that few celebrities of her era can claim.

There have been several stage shows made about her life. She has been portrayed by the likes of Kathleen Turner, Eugenia Rawls and, most recently, Valerie Harper.

Woellhart calls Bankhead “the finest actress that America got to see” and also “one of the freest spirits that God ever created.”

He said that she could make audiences cry with laughter or break their hearts during a dramatic scene.

He believes that she was decades before her time and more generous than her brash reputation might suggest.

He is of the opinion that she didn’t have an evil bone in her body.

“There were stories about people who would come to dinner at her house in London and they would still be there years later,” Woellhart said.

The woman who seemed to hold few things sacred woke up everyone on the train she was traveling on when World War II ended to have them sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Woellhart suggests that she didn’t become a movie star because she was not made for the silver screen.

“She was made to go onstage, do a scene once and come off,” he said.

Exiting the world stage has proven a bit more difficult for the Southern lady with the foghorn voice.