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The great Al Bell get-together

Unless you grew up in Iowa between 1950 and 1980, go right ahead and skip this entry. I am writing it preserve my memory of a day of personal meaning.

The four and half hour drive to Stuart, Iowa for the Al Bell Film Festival was worth the day. It was as much a trip in time to childhood and early adulthood as it was trip in space.

The LWW and I left at 7AM following highway 169 as it winds from Mankato down through southern Minnesota, past Fort Dodge, Iowa, and right to Interstate 80. Small towns that seem to be shrinking appear every ten or 15 miles. Gently rolling fields of corn and soybeans turning shades of gold were intersected by the green foliage of farmsteads, rivers and small bluffs. Felt like home - about as far away from anything exciting as it is possible to be the world.

The film festival was held at the Saints Center in Stuart, Iowa. This historic church had been torched by vandals only a few years ago but has been lovingly restored and is key player of the White Pole Road's economic development plans for the region. I taught high school in what was then the Stuart-Menlo school district from 1976-78 - my first job out of college. My classroom no longer exists, put out of its misery, I'm sure, by a beneficent god. (I shudder to think what a bad teacher I was!) The two small houses I lived in in the neighboring town of Menlo are still standing, one barely so. The mechanical man on the service station sign in Menlo still waves tirelessly.

Al Bell's daughters Rhea and Becky Bell greeted visitors and entertained us with Q&A sessions after each restored film of the Bell's was shown. The exhibits in the main hall included costumes and memorabilia from Al's travels, a map with push pins indicating where attendees attended school and experienced Al, and opportunities to buy Becky's book and the DVD of the converted Al Bell programs shown that day (see below).

A crowd of about 300 packed the basement to see the four 30 minute films that have been digitized (out of the 30 movies Al produced). The films looked pretty primitive and were awfully corny by today's standards, but they were a gentle reminder of a less complex, less connected time when short programs like these, "travelogeues" sponsored by a community's Lions Club, and National Geographic magazine were the only means rural Iowa kids had of learning much about other cultures. And they generated a lot of laughs along with the groans.

The power of Facebook and its "I Remember Al Bell" group got people interested and involved.

The book is a treat and I am proud that the Blue Skunk got a mention: "Because of people like Doug Johnson who lit the fire on his Blue Skunk blog... I'm about 1/3 through it and it is a pleasure to read. You will need to contact Liz Gilman for ordering information.


The DVD was available of all four programs showed on Sunday. Great fun. Sound like as funds permit, all 30 Al Bell productions will be digitized. Cool! Again, I would contact Liz Gilman about ordering this DVD.

Thanks to everyone who helped put this event on. Here's hoping this will become an annual event! Joing the Facebook fan club. Order the book and DVD. And see you all in Stuart next year!

Original Al Bell post from January 2007. The comments are great!

Photos taken from the I Remember Al Bell Facebook pages.


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Reader Comments (2)

Sunday in Stuart was great fun. My daughter and husband flew from Austin Tx just to attend. I realize this was the first one, but maybe in the future they could have some church or service group serve lunch. We left home at 9:30 and it was about 100 miles. A long day for just cookies and popcorn. But the program was wonderful. I remembered Al's voice and his smile so well. His daughters did a wonderful job of answering questions and telling stories. Talk about pure nostalgia. I understand that the Iowa Historic Society has certain criteria for admitting people, and they say that his work was done outside of Iowa. They just don't get it. He did the research outside of Iowa, but the work (our fun) was educating students in small towns about places, people and things that they would never have seen, at least until they were grown. We loved Al Bell and we talk about him often when we former classmates get together. And Sunday was a GREAT DAY!!!!

September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJudi Detrich

Hi Judy,

It really was feeling all the excitement in the room. Hope this becomes a regular event.

Thanks for the comment,


September 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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