Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee

It was the third of June, another hot and dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was bailin’ hay.

So begins Mississippi’s most familiar ballad, “Ode to Billy Joe,” a plaintive tune about Billy Joe McAllister’s suicide in the Tallahatchie River, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967.

Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she attended school. Gentry moved to Arcadia, California at age thirteen to live with her mother and stepfather. They relocated to Palm Springs two years later, where Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Gentry briefly attended UCLA and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, then drifted between secretarial and nightclub jobs and eventually found herself in Las Vegas working as a showgirl.

Gentry approached Capitol Records in early 1967 with two tunes, “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Mississippi Delta,” which she recorded. “Mississippi Delta” was made the B-side, and despite its lengthy four minutes and thirteen seconds, “Ode to Billy Joe,” the featured song. The recording was released on July 10 and became an immediate hit. By the end of summer 1967, “Ode to Billy Joe” had climbed to the number one position on all three major American music charts–Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World. The album was No. 1 on the US Billboard Top LP’s chart, the only album to displace the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from its 15-week reign at the top of the chart. It also peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the US Billboard Top Selling R&B Albums chart.

“The burning question of the day,” wrote Jackson Daily News arts editor Frank Hains, “is not how to un-snarl ourselves from Vietnam or how to un-uppity H. Rap Brown…. It’s what did Billy Joe and that girl throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

“People are trying to read social comment into the song, but none is intended,” Gentry said at the time. The song was simply about human indifference. And she wasn’t even protesting indifference in “Billy Joe,” just describing it. “I’m not so sure indifference isn’t a good thing,” she said. “If we were all totally affected by tragedy, we’d be afraid to go anywhere or do anything.”

Gentry insisted that the “Ode to Billy Joe” narrative, despite its perceived genuineness and its use of actual place-names, was “not true;” however, she conceded that, of all the bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, she referred in her song to the one just outside Greenwood. She also said that Choctaw Ridge was also located in Leflore County, she noted, near the former home of “Greenwood LeFlore (sic).” Print media outside the South commented on both the song and Gentry’s authenticity. Newsweek called her “a true daughter of the Mississippi Delta who can vividly evoke its pace and poetry and smells and style.” Time reported that “Ode to Billie Joe” was “based on (Gentry’s) recollection of life around Greenwood, Miss.,” and that “millions of puzzled Americans coast to coast [were ready to start dragging] the Tallahatchie.”

Gentry appeared on the most popular variety shows (the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Carol Burnett) and piloted a BBC series that had some success in other countries. Eventually, Gentry’s fame subsided. She married renowned casino owner William Harrah in late 1969; news reports focused on the couple’s thirty-year age difference and on the bride’s $150,000 pear-shaped diamond ring. The marriage lasted four months.

Gentry eventually signed away rights for both a film adaptation and novelization of “Ode to Billy Joe.” When they both appeared in 1976, nine years after the hit single, they were extremely popular. The book, issued exclusively in paperback by Dell, enjoyed over a dozen print runs that year, and the movie grossed over $10.4 million, placing it fifteenth in earnings among films released in the U.S. in 1976.

The film premiered in Jackson, Mississippi, with much hoopla on June 3, the anniversary of Billy Joe’s swan dive. Mississippi governor Cliff Finch proclaimed it “Bobbie Gentry Day,” and Lieutenant Evelyn Gandy presided over a dedication ceremony at one particular bridge over the Tallahatchie, which Boxoffice magazine claimed was designated as “the official Billy Joe McAllister leap site.”

The picture opened as well in 550 theaters across the South, followed by national distribution. The concern with specifying the exact date and the precise site of Billy Joe’s demise ironically eclipsed the questionable truthfulness of the story. Janet Maslin pointed out in Newsweek that, though the beginning of the film included a title explaining it was shot on location in the Mississippi Delta, “where this story actually took place,” the final frames contained the standard disclaimer that all individuals and incidents depicted were fictitious.

Most reviews and promotional materials stressed the film’s perceived authenticity and its successful evocation of setting. Most of this was due largely to the producer-director. Max Baer, Jr. Born in 1937, in Oakland, California, Baer was best known for his role as the lumpish Jethro in the popular television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” New Englander Herman Raucher was chosen to write the screenplay and novel. The characters Baer and Raucher created were certainly not “free of cliché,” as Variety asserted. These figures were nothing more than a confusing crowd of Southern stereotypes, and the place depictions were just a mishmash of rural images. Robbie Benson and Glynnis O’Connor played the young leads, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee, with awkward accents, and though the film was set in the Mississippi Delta, which has a majority black population, the film had not one African American character. Most surprising, for a film based on a song, the music also was displaced; when characters attended a jamboree, they were treated not to Delta blues but rather to upcountry bluegrass.

For all its awkwardness, the film did give a reason for his suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt at intercourse, Bobbie Lee tries to assure Billy Joe that “it’s alright,” but he insists: “It ain’t alright. I ain’t alright. Bobbie Lee, I have been with a man, did you hear me?— which is a sin against nature, a sin against God. I don’t know how I could have done it, I swear.”

Was this reason for Billy Joe’s suicide, the resolution to the question unanswered by “Ode to Billy Joe,” the invention of Herman Raucher, or was the character of Billy Joe McAllister somehow based in reality? Herman Raucher confided in a Jackson Daily News reporter that “the song’s lyric is not quite all fiction. We’ve got an odd combination of fact and fiction in it.”

Gentry’s final public appearance was at the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1982. Since that time, she has not recorded, performed or been interviewed. On May 14, 2012, BBC Radio 2 in the UK broadcast a documentary titled Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? presented by country music artist Rosanne Cash. One 2016 news report stated that Gentry lives near Memphis, Tennessee, but according to another, she lives in Los Angeles.

Bobbie Lee has become as much a mystery as Billy Joe.


The Celluloid Classroom

A decade after the trauma of the ’60s, Oxford was a laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater, full of good people with great ideas. The art scene was strong, and the town was full of bright, ambitious young businessmen. Oxford’s flowering of culture in the ’80s was seeded in that time. Those years were halcyon years for me, as they were for many other people, and the Hoka was very much a part of it for us all.

The Hoka from the southwest, late 70s. The mural of the dancers was painted by Jere Allen. Photo by Douglass Boyles.

Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in 1974. The theatre was located across a parking lot from the Gin, one of the first restaurant and bar to open in Oxford after Lafayette County voted “wet”. The theatre was set up in a long, corrugated building with a walkway that extended perhaps 2/3 its length on the west to street level north. A single door was at that end; midway was a short-roofed porch with a paned double doorway. To the left of those doors was the Hoka logo, a winged Chickasaw princess. The auditorium seated perhaps 150-200 people, though our audiences were usually much smaller. The projection booth was up a short flight of stairs from a tiny untidy office, and the concession stand sold candy, popcorn and soft drinks. We sold tickets from a roll atop what looked like a rough-hewn pulpit at the top of the sloping concrete floor.  Inside the projection booth was a table for processing incoming film–checking it for tears, bad splices, twists, or crimps–and the projectors were twin 1936 carbon arc machines, which took a lot of practice with a complex procedure involving levers and foot pedals to switch from one reel to the other. A typical film might be on five or six reels.

Ron and me at the drive-in, summer of 1978.

I began working at the Hoka in 1977. Typically, in the early days, we’d have two showings, an early movie that started around 6 or 7, and a later feature beginning at 8 or 9, depending on the duration of the first. Later we started showing X-rated flicks at midnight, which caused quite a stir at the time, but were very popular and, of course, profitable. Films were rented for three to four days, shipped in bulky hexagonal aluminum containers holding anywhere from one to three reels of 35mm film. Most often they were shipped by bus, and we’d pick them up at the Greyhound station on the corner of 10th and Van Buren, but at times we’d drive to Memphis. Once in the theater, the film had to be checked for tears, mended if needed, and then loaded on our projector reels. Ron was a good boss; pay could be erratic, but if I needed money, he’d give me enough to get what I needed or do what I wanted.

Photo of the Hoka from the southeast, likely early 80s.

Ron also taught me a lot, and I do mean a lot, about movies. At that time, in that part of the world, movies were still considered by most people to be nothing more than entertainment, but for Ron, as they were for many others like him who operated small independent “art cinemas” across the country, cinema was the leading form of art in the 20th century.  When we first showed The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the audience–and the projectionists, I might add–stared open-mouthed at the screen, and when the audience began throwing rice at the wedding, hollering phrases at the screen and doing the Time Warp, we just eventually joined in the fun. Ron also showed a lot of great movies by cutting-edge artists like John Waters, Russ Meyers and William Castle. Several years later, Betty Blair Allen opened the Moonlight Café in the Hoka, and it became a very special sort of place for dinner and a movie.

At a time when film was just coming into its own as an academic medium, Shapiro introduced generations of Ole Miss students to the works of Fellini, Wilder, Woody Allen, Capra, and Chaplain, to name a few, and brought to light (literally) unknown images: Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Lang’s electric automaton in Metropolis, a leather-clad Brando leaning on a jukebox in The Wild One. For me, this is the essence of Ron Shapiro’s legacy: the Hoka brought film as an art form to Mississippi.

Sing ‘Tammy’ for Me

In 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox released Pinky, a film that would have a lasting impact on the American film industry. The movie was based on Quality, a novel by Jackson native Cid Ricketts Sumner.

Ricketts grew up on North State at a time when Woodrow Wilson wasn’t even a president, much less a street. She taught at both Jackson High School and her alma mater Millsaps College (where she graduated summa cum laude at the age of 16) before attending medical school at Cornell University. There she took classes under James B. Sumner, who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1946. They were married in 1915 and divorced in 1930. They had four children. Sumner’s first novel was published in 1938. Her second, Quality, was published in 1946; her third, Tammy Out of Time, was published in 1948.

Writer, director and film scholar Melanie Addington says, “Sumner’s childhood is much more similar to her lighter fare (the “Tammy” series), than it is from her most important work, Quality, where she got to the heart of Southern life.” Filmmaker and attorney Anita Modak-Truran explains, “Pinky tells the story of a light-skinned black woman who passed as a white and trained as a nurse up North, where she became involved in a romantic relationship with a white doctor. When she returns to the South, her grandmother tries to help her figure out where she belongs in society as she nurses the dying white domestic tyrant Miss Em.”

Pinky premiered in the same year (1949) as Intruder in the Dust,” Addington says. “Both films and novels explore legal and societal racism. Mississippi novelists at that time were helping to create some of the earliest arguments against racism and Hollywood was enamored with the idea. While Pinky may have its controversy that could limit its effectiveness, like casting a white actress (Jeanne Crain) as the lead instead of a black star like Lena Horne, the film reaches into the center of American sentiment and finds a way to move us,” Addington says. Variety reported that Pinky was one the top-grossing films of 1949 and observed that though the story “may leave questions unanswered and in spots be naive, the mature treatment of a significant theme in a manner that promises broad public acceptance and box office success truly moves the American film medium a desirable notch forward in stature and importance.”

Addington says that though an aristocratic white woman helps Pinky move towards pride in being a black female, “This leads to a more interesting conclusion for the film, given the patronizing attitude that she would listen to a white woman and not her own grandmother. Ethel Barrymore’s character (Miss Em) notes, ‘Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t,’ and the line resonates with Pinky. Hearing the truth about ourselves from strangers often helps us stop perpetuating our own myths.” When she dies, the enlightened despot Miss Em leaves her estate to Pinky, and rumors swirl that Pinky may have killed her. Accused, she stands trial. “Much like Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust,despite her innocence, society still finds a way to shun Pinky for ‘causing trouble’,” Addington says. “This is evident in the hushed courtroom as she slowly makes her way to freedom. Pinky, in love with a white man from the North, must choose to leave but instead realizes that she must remain in the South to claim her identity.”

Pinky stays and turns the estate into a nursing school for black women. “The film falters in the final scene, which shows Pinky standing alone and misty-eyed,” Addington says. “The adaptation avoided the ending that made Quality such an interesting original story. In the book, the home is burned to the ground by the Klan, a much stronger and more dramatic ending. The studio scrapped that outcome to provide a ‘tragic heroine’ ending that left audiences feeling good about racial issues in the South. Ricketts, not Hollywood, actually got it right with a much darker truth to an ending that sadly was too real for too many.”

“Pinky is Tammy hopped up on the steroids of social injustice,” Modak-Truran says. “Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was progressive; he believed that audiences accepted social issues that were swept neatly into a love story. By today’s standards, the movie and its plot seem like ancient history, but it wasn’t so long ago that I overheard people discussing the mixed race of President Obama. Pinky was the first big studio picture to tromp into the race issues, and for that alone, it was groundbreaking.” The movie garnered Academy Award nominations for the three female leads, Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters, who played “Pinky’s Granny”. “It also led to an appeal before the United States Supreme Court in Gelling v. Texas,” Modak-Truran says, “and a victory for the local movie theater owner who screened the film over a local decree censoring it from public viewing.” The June 3, 1952 edition of The New York Times reported, “The Supreme Court today struck down a motion picture censor ordinance by which the city of Marshall, Texas, disapproved the showing of the film Pinky.”

Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Out of Time (1948) , an unabashedly romantic tale of a Mississippi girl, was a significant departure from the tense realism of Quality, but doubtless due to the success of Pinky, the studios took a look, and between its pages found an iconic figure for mid-century America. “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of movies adapted from novels by Cid Ricketts Sumner is a romantic comedy featuring a cuddly Mississippi-bred cutie-pie who is head over heels in love with the perfect bachelor,” Modak-Truran says. “I wonder if the Tammy novels were Sumner’s way of placating Southerners from the sting of Quality. Or maybe Sumner simply wanted to return to simpler roots after the audacious and gut-wrenching Quality.” In either case, the heroine of Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Tyree, provided a generation of young ladies with a smart, charming role model. One critic described Tammy and the Bachelor as a “whimsical romance for middle America, which started Hollywood’s last series of proletarian family appeal before the family was entirely forsaken for four-letter words.”

Sumner wrote three “Tammy” novels, which provided fodder for four films as well as a television series over a ten year period. Tammy was played by both Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee, and the supporting casts of the films included Leslie Nielsen, Walter Brennan, Fay Wray, Adam West, Macdonald Carey and (in his first feature role) Peter Fonda. Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse in “The Dukes of Hazard”, portrayed Grandpa Tarleton in the television series (1965-66). Writer Jill Conner Browne says, “As I was writing the first book (The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love), we decided that a modicum of anonymity regarding some of the tales might be in order, so we decided to select stage names for ourselves. As it turned out, since we are all Of A Certain Age and grew up watching and loving all of Tammy’s exploits (she was way better than Cinderella and seemed much more attainable to our young minds) we ALL wanted to be “Tammy.”  Believing that it was unfair for one to be allowed to use the name that ALL wanted, we simply decided that we would ALL be ‘Tammy.’”

The movie also spawned an eponymous Top 40 hit in 1957. Music historian Brian Hargett says, “The song, which Reynolds herself describes as a “sweet, simple ballad”, went to #1 for three weeks beginning August 26, 1957. The #2 song that week was ‘Teddy Bear’, by a young man from Tupelo named Elvis Presley. At the onset of the youth revolution, it was possible for a 25-year old like Reynolds to have a hit record sung rather simply without studio gimmickry,” Hargett says. “Until the Beatles came along, record companies happily recorded talent like Debbie Reynolds. After 1964, ‘older’ acts like Reynolds were quickly dropped off record company artists rosters. The studio first recorded ‘Tammy’ with just piano backing, but Henry Mancini sweetened it with strings, and Hollywood liked it enough to put it in the movie,” Hargett says. “The Ames Brothers sang it as the thematic introduction to the film, and they had a fair hit with it, too.” The song was also nominated for an Oscar.

Though the movies based on the works of Cid Ricketts Sumner are noteworthy, Sumner’s literary achievements seem more than modest by Mississippi standards; she garnered no literary laurels, and she is largely forgotten, even in her hometown. Still, she was a remarkable woman. She married a Nobel laureate, wrote 13 books, toured Europe on horseback, and when she was 64 she was the only woman in a group of eight who made a 31-day rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Sumners was bludgeoned to death at the age of 80 in her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her 16-year old grandson, John R. Cutler, was charged with her murder. A hammer ended the life of Cid, short for “placid”, a family nickname for her being such a contented child.



Yancy’s Top Ten Halloween Movies

The Last House on the Left (1972) Directed by Wes Craven
Yes, penectomies can be fatal, especially when they’re done by teeth in the woods. Having said that, there are many other lessons to be learned from this film, like telling your teenage daughter that it’s not a good idea to score dope in a bad part of town. This is Craven’s first feature film, and it’s better than any of his “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. For one thing, it’s real; the villains aren’t some indestructible dream figure. They’re people, they’re remorseless, and you believe this could have, might have happened, which makes it even worse, of course.

Carrie (1976) Directed by Brian DePalma
The first and best film made from a Stephen King novel, probably because it’s King’s best novel (yes, it is, as A Time to Kill is Grisham’s) and because DePalma was in his prime when he directed it. Not only that, but the performances are first-rate, especially Piper Laurie as Carrie’s psychotic bitch of a mother. What makes this film especially horrific is that you can see what’s coming, you know it’s not going to be good at all and it damn sure isn’t: for anybody. Even the good guys get snuffed: crushed, electrocuted, incinerated and impaled, the ending is a gruesome house of cards collapsing. If the last minute of this film doesn’t make you scream, you’re a soul-less freak.

The Haunting (1963) Directed by Robert Wise
A group of psychics are recruited by a paranormal investigator to stay in a haunted mansion for several nights, and their stay is productive, disturbing and inhospitable, to say the very least. Eerie, atmospheric and scary as hell, this movie is based on Shirley Jackson’s astounding “The Haunting of Hill House” (you’ll remember her story “The Lottery”; if you don’t, read it so you will) and the film delivers every bit as much a sense of the eerie, brooding sinister evil as the book does. Don’t watch this film alone in a darkened room; you won’t sleep for days afterwards. You may never hang your hand over the edge of the bed in your sleep ever again anyway.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) Directed by John Carpenter
This movie raises more ontological questions than a freshman philosophy course, and without a lecture, at least in the conventional sense. The film was written by Michael De Luca, but it has H.P. Lovecraft stamped all over it: a small, creepy New England coastal village, mysterious disappearances and hallucinations, not to mention mutated townspeople. As the plot unfolds in surreal and surprising twists, you begin to get the feeling that things just aren’t quite right in this movie. As the film moves toward its stunning ending, you discover that indeed, they are not. Classic Carpenter.

Freaks (1932) Directed by Todd Browning
Here you have a midget with a tall, beautiful evil wife and a very loyal, very special bunch of friends. You can see the possibilities right off the bat, and the way Browning draws out the story is like watching a kitten being lowered into a running blender set on “purée“. Okay, maybe it’s not quite as much fun, but it’s almost every bit as spellbinding. It’s a sure bet that some grad student somewhere has written a paper on this film’s message about the relativity of beauty. Still and all, a human chicken is hard to love.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) Directed by Tobe Hooper
It’s gross, it’s disgusting, it’s terrifying, it’s great; a movie about rural psychos that puts “Deliverance” to shame. Forget sodomy; chain saws are worse, especially if you’re in a wheelchair. It’s really not that gory when it comes down to it, but when the gore comes, it comes fast. As a matter of fact, what’s best about this film is its pacing, how a drive in the country to see an old family home can turn into a living nightmare. Hooper must have read O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. The barbecue angle is a perfect touch for a film made by a Texan.

The Wicker Man (1973) Directed by Robin Hardy
This film, along with “The Haunting” is one that qualifies as a genuine work of cinematic art as well as one of those “you should have seen it coming” movies. You’ll find yourself drawn into the setting (a remote British island), the quirky characters and the detective’s search for a missing girl. In short, you’ll find yourself pretty much in the place of the detective, which puts you in a very awkward spot indeed. It’ll make you wonder about that big hippie event in Nevada.

Horror of Dracula (1958) Directed by Terence Fisher
No Halloween horror flick list would be complete without a Hammer movie, and this is a great one, the first really well-done “Dracula” movie in vivid, living (well, undead) color, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. An international smash hit in its day, the special effects are primitive by our digital standards and might seem almost campy to some in comparison, but they are still spectacular. Christopher Lee is outstanding as the bloodthirsty Count.

The Exorcist (1973) Directed by William Friedkin
Today’s jaded movie-going public will find the buzz surrounding the release of this motion picture difficult to believe. The film delivered on its threat of utter and unrelieved horror then, and still does. An innocent young girl living with her single mom in a fashionable Georgetown townhouse inexplicably falls prey to Pazuzu, an ancient demon out for revenge, and what he does to this little girl is beyond any stretch of belief. This is a must-see film on many levels. While there is a minimum of blood and gore, “The Exorcist” is not for the squeamish. The soundtrack, “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, is a work of genius.

House on Haunted Hill (1959) Directed by William Castle
Castle was the king of movie gimmickry, but his films stand on their own as horror classics without the flying skeletons, seat cushion buzzers and life insurance policies. In this movie, eccentric millionaire Frank Loren (Vincent Price) invites five guests to stay in a locked haunted house for one night; whoever lasts the night will received $10,000. Loren has plans of his own for the party, and things go horribly, horribly wrong for everybody in this plane of existence. Like most Castle films, “House” is a bit on the campy side, but a great scary movie. (Note: I’m the only person in the universe who thinks the remake was good.)