Supporters and staff of the Florence Public Library are hoping to improve their facility, and they’re reconnecting with their Hollywood past to do so.
The Florence Public Library Board of Trustees and John McKay Post No. 308 of the American Legion will host “Dinner and Movie Night” at the American Legion, located at Fourth & Main streets in Florence starting at 4 p.m. Nov. 12.
Forty years ago in May 1977, Florence’s downtown business district earned local notoriety as a movie set for “Mary White,” a 1977 made-for-TV biographical movie directed by Jud Taylor.
The plot features American newspaper editor and author William Allen White—played by actor Ed Flanders—and his teenage daughter Mary, who died at age 16 in a horseback riding accident.
“Basically, in May 1977 Hollywood came to Florence, and used the Main Street as part of the set for ‘Mary White,’” said Kathy Inlow, an ally of the library and a Florence history buff.
“The movie was released in November 1977, which coincides with our ‘Movie and Dinner Night,” she said.
The event will begin at 4 p.m. with a dinner featuring “Steak Diane.” Following the meal, the movie will begin at about 7 p.m.
Tickets for the event are $25 each, with all net proceeds going toward the purchase of new sidewalks for the library. Tickets need to be purchased before Nov. 3.
Inlow said new sidewalks are sorely needed, and the library’s financial resources are limited.
“We had applied for a grant from the Florence Community Foundation,” she said. “We got some money, but we did not get enough money to fund the project. So this hopefully is our way of adding that additional money we need. for the sidewalk project.
The budget goal for the initial stage of the sidewalk project is $6,000.
“To replace all of the sidewalks, we’re probably looking to raise $12,000 to $15,000, which would be nice so we could do it all at the same time,” she said. “But just for the front and the corner (sidewalks) is like $6,000.
“Hopefully, we get that so we can redo the front so people aren’t tripping when they’re coming into the library.”
The event also includes a presentation by Emporia author Beverley Olson Buller, who wrote “The William Allen White Story,” and “A Prairie Peter Pan,” which is the Mary White story.
Buller will present a program prior to the dinner and will have her books available for sale and signing.
The May 12, 1977, issue of the The Florence Bulletin features photos and a brief story about the filming of the movie shoot. Numerous local and area citizens served as movie extras during the filming.
“There are a couple of places where you can still some of the movie sets,” Inlow said. “And the library itself—you can see it in the movie in one of the clips.”
She said scenes from the film were shot in the local hotel, now gone.
“They had redone the front of it, and it was part of the movie,” Inlow said. “They also had redone the theater, which was part of the movie—but since then, people bought it and moved into it.”
Inlow said Mary White was a remarkable girl who stood up for racial equality and opportunities in school long before it was acceptable in the rural cities and towns of that time.
“Had she lived, she could have been elected the first woman president in the 1950s,” Inlow said. “She was way ahead of her time.”
Mary (played by Kathleen Beller) White died at age 16 in a horseback riding accident and was the subject of a well-known eulogy written by her influential father.
The movie was well received when it was released. Caryl Ledner won the Emmy Award for “Best Teleplay, Movie-For-Television,” in the 1977-78 season. The film often appeared on television in the 1980s and is now on DVD.
Inlow in particular has her eye on the library building itself, which was built in 1921 and reeks with historical significance on both stories.
“Basically, the whole downstairs part of the building was the bank,” Inlow said. “In 1922 a group of ladies got together and came to the bank and said, ‘We’d like to have a library. The farthest east room the bank let them use for the library.
“Over time, the library has moved a couple of times, but we ended up back here,” she said.
The need for additional funding doesn’t necessarily mean the movie and dinner event will be annual event.
“I don’t know that it will be an annual event, but we’re hoping to do some events like this—for the simple reason that the library will be 100 years old in 2022,” she said.
“So we’re looking forward five years, and there a lot of improvements we’d like to have done. The building itself will be 100 years old in a couple of years.”