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Racy `Peyton Place' changed this town forever

Once-sleepy Camden, Maine, is celebrating the 1957 movie that turned the community into a tourist draw.

June 15, 2007|Clarke Canfield | Associated Press

CAMDEN, MAINE — When moviemakers wanted to film "Peyton Place" in this small seaside town, the bestselling novel the movie was to be based on was so scandalous that the local library didn't even keep it on its shelves.

The book had sparked outrage with its titillating look behind closed doors in a proper New England town. People read it in secret, and it was banned from many schools

But that didn't keep Camden from welcoming 20th Century Fox to turn its streets, homes and people into "Peyton Place." Fifty years ago, film crews transformed the small mill and summer resort town into a movie set for a story about adultery, sexual abuse, murder and lies.

At the time, Barbara Dyer was among those who were indignant that such a movie was being made in Camden. What would people think?

It wasn't until decades later that Dyer watched the movie. When she looks back now, the movie seems tame and she laughs at being offended.

"At that time, 50 years ago, it was a different time," said Dyer, who is 83. "Up until that time, movies were censored. When Clark Gable said 'damn' [in 'Gone With the Wind'), that was terrible."

Grace Metalious' 1956 novel "Peyton Place" was dubbed "trash" by some critics, but it made for juicy reading and sold more than 12 million copies.

The book focuses on the lives of three women in a small New Hampshire town in the 1940s, and brings with it themes of class privilege, sexual desire and hypocrisy. In revealing the hidden secrets behind the straight-laced facade of a quaint New England town, the book rocked the region's stuffy reputation; the term "Peyton Place" has come to mean any place with sordid secrets.

The novel also has been credited with providing social commentary on previously taboo subjects such as sex, alcoholism, incest and spousal abuse.

It wasn't long before Hollywood decided to cash in.

When moviemakers first looked for a location to film, they were rejected by towns in Vermont and New Hampshire. So producers looked to Maine, choosing Camden over Skowhegan, Waterville and Wiscasset.

During the month of filming, more than 500 locals got roles as extras. The movie -- starring Lana Turner, Hope Lange, Arthur Kennedy and Russ Tamblyn -- was nominated for nine Oscars (it didn't win any) and spawned a 1960s prime-time TV soap opera.

Throughout June of 1957, Glenna Drinkwater pedaled around Camden on her bike to watch the movie being made in hopes of catching a glimpse of Hollywood stars.

The 15-year-old read the book under her bed covers with a flashlight because her mother had forbidden her from reading it. When she was chosen as an extra -- she was paid $10 a day -- it was doubly exciting because of the racy nature of the book.

"It was wonderful. But it was a scandalous thing because it was a taboo book," she said.

The filming became a defining time for the town, said Terry Bregy, who will narrate a trolley tour of the film's landmarks this weekend as part of the town's 50th anniversary celebration of the film.

At the time, Camden was mainly a working-class town with a small wealthy summer community, Bregy said. Now it's a major tourist destination with pricey real estate and high incomes.

"If there was a seminal event that changed the mind-set of the people here, this was it," Bregy said. "Having a major motion picture made here made people think this must be a unique place."

After the movie was released, tourists flocked to Camden in search of the places where "Peyton Place" was filmed; half a century later, they're still coming.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary, the local chamber of commerce is holding a two-day celebration this weekend with a parade, trolley tours, receptions, a panel discussion and, of course, a screening of the movie.

Visitors will find that the town still looks remarkably like it did in the movie.

The Village Restaurant and the Village Shop are still there. The town's amphitheater overlooking Camden Harbor is the same, as is Mt. Battie, where an innocent kiss is shared in the film. The Whitehall Inn still has rocking chairs on its big front porch, and the house at 77 Chestnut St. still has a white fence.

The arched sign that says "Entering Peyton Place" in the film can be found on Union Street, except that it welcomes people to Camden.

There are differences as well.

The Camden movie theater on Mechanic Street, where the film made its world premiere Dec. 11, 1957, is now a clothing and shoe store. The Knox Mill, which was renamed Harrington Mills for the movie, has been converted into offices, shops and condos. The Western Union store is now a restaurant, and the Tweed Shop is now Planet Emporium.

Todd McIntosh expects a crowd at the anniversary festivities. In the movie, he's the one in a red nylon James Dean-style jacket and a crew cut rowing a boat in the mill pond during the Labor Day picnic scene.

Though there were reservations about the film 50 years ago, the movie is now a cherished part of the town's heritage, McIntosh said.

" 'Peyton Place' has attached itself to Camden," he said, "and Camden to 'Peyton Place.' "

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