Many Alabamians don’t know the tiny burg of Pike Road exists, but 50 years ago, the town with the odd name was a hub of activity as TV crews and stars descended to create a film version of Truman Capote’s “The Thanksgiving Visitor.”
The made-for-TV movie, released in 1968, is based on Capote’s novella of the same name, a companion to his earlier story, “A Christmas Memory.”
Both tales are inspired by Capote’s childhood in Monroeville, Ala., where he was sent to live with cousins when his parents divorced. Pike Road filming locales included a historic home and an early school.
Creating Pike Road
Pike Road has only been legally incorporated for 22 years but it has been a community since 1815. According to the website for the annual Pike Road Arts and Crafts Fair, the community sprung up in 1815 with the arrival of the Meriwether, Mathews and Marks families. “As more families moved in, more services were needed, and by the early 20th century, a booming small town had grown up at the intersection of Pike Road and Meriwether Road. (Pike Road, of course, was so-called because one had to pay a toll, or pike, to travel on it.) The crossroads community was referred to as the Pike Road community because of its location on the heavily traveled highway. The main intersection was home to several businesses, including cotton gins, a hardware store, livestock auction, post office, general store and doctors’ offices.”
William Matthews Marks, one of the early settlers, began building a manor home in 1825. It was completed in 1830. A historical maker outside the home says, “Foundation is pegged-together heart pine; framing is 3-inch by 9-inch timbers; mantles, dados, and all the brick are handmade. Kitchen, baths a rose garden and pavilion for dancing were added by the Churchill Marks family in the 1920s.”
In 1957, Dr. Haywood “Wood” Bartlett bought the home and his family still owned it in 1968, when Hollywood came calling.
In 1919, the community rallied to build its first school, known as Pike Road Consolidated School. It was also used in filming “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” and closed in 1970, just two years after the movie aired, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
Filming in town
Pike Road resident Charlene Rabren was about 13 years old when TV crews arrived in town. “It was a big deal,” she said. “I remember as a child our school bus driving by and seeing all the activity (at the school).”
Rabren said location scouts had come to the community looking for a house to serve as their setting. At the time, the Marks home at 890 Old Carter Hill Road was in a state of disrepair and had “goats living in it,” she said. The crew, however, changed all that.
“They went in and fixed it up, put a new roof on it, added wallpaper,” she said. When the school closed not long after filming, the community turned to Bartlett.
“We were devastated by the school closing and we needed a place to gather,” Rabren said. Bartlett gave permission for the local ladies club to use the home as a community center.
Filming the Thanksgiving dinner scene, which was pivotal to the plot, required help from locals, Rabren said.
“Dr. Bartlett was given the opportunity to be in the movie,” she said. “He was at the table for the meal. The ladies of the community were asked to prepare the meal. My mother (Evielean Howell) made the dressing. Linda Stringer was asked to make red-eye gravy. She was only in her 20s and said she’d never heard of red-eye gravy!”
The works of Truman Capote
By the mid-1960s, Truman Capote was already a literary star, known for works like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Grass Harp,” both of which were made into feature films. In 1960, he co-wrote the screenplay for the creepy ghost movie, “The Innocents,” an adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” starring Deborah Kerr.
In 1965, his much-anticipated novel “In Cold Blood” was published, quickly becoming a best-seller. To continue to capitalize on his moment in the spotlight, Capote’s atypically heartwarming novella “A Christmas Memory” was made into a teleplay in 1967, starring Geraldine Page with Capote serving as narrator. In November 1967, McCall’s magazine published the sequel, “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” featuring the same characters and small-town setting. A TV film, again starring Geraldine Page with Capote as the narrator, was rushed into production to air Thanksgiving 1968.
The home where Truman lived in Monroeville as a child, the one that inspired the film’s setting, is no longer standing but a rock wall that once surrounded the home remains as a tribute to his memory. Nearby, exhibits at the Monroe County Museum commemorate the lives of the town’s two most famous residents, Capote and his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee.
The settings today
The Marks House served as the home where the main characters from “The Thanksgiving Visitor” lived. The story tells of the relationship between a young boy named Buddy, based on young Truman, and his elderly cousin, Sook, who was based on Truman’s real-life cousin, Nannie Rumbley Faulk.
Today, the Marks House serves as the Pike Road Community Club Center, where residents gather for events, including the annual Arts and Crafts Fair each first Saturday in November. Proceeds go toward maintaining the home, Rabren said.
The scenes in which Buddy attends school were filmed at the Pike Road Consolidated School. Rabren said local children were asked to dress in period 1930s clothing and gather on the school playground for filming one Saturday morning.
The school, which had been empty for nearly 30 years, got a new life when the community incorporated as a city in 1997 and formed its own school system. Rabren said the 1919 school was restored and now serves as the middle school.
“The Thanksgiving Visitor,” now considered a holiday classic, is often aired during November and can typically be found on streaming services.