It was 65 years ago last week that The Miracle Worker began filming on the quiet and very attractive 130-acre McLean Farm just off Oak Hill Rd. in Middletown Play-Films Inc was the film company and Fred Coe was the producer.
While crowds gathered around the area in the hopes of watching some filming and perhaps getting up close with starts including Patti Duke, Inga Swenson and Ann Bancroft, the Middletown Police were called in by Coe to be sure everyone understood there had to be quiet on the set, ergo, no local folks hanging around to see a movie being made.
Local historian Peter VanNortwick, who is also a member of the Monmouth County Historical Commission, has a special fondness for the time surrounding the filming, as well as the years after. As a historian, Pete has gathered and collected thousands of words in print from numerous newspapers and other sources to recall the event. He’s got plenty of photos of the stars, including some of him and Patti Duke some years afterward. It was the Van Nortwick bus company that delivered the more than 50 stars, cast members, stand-ins and crew to and from the Molly Pitcher Inn in Red Bank where all stayed for their couple of weeks in Middletown.
The movie is based on the four Tony Awards winning play of the same name, which was produced by Coe and was named the best play of 1960. Coe was filming the outdoor scenes in Middletown for his movie, choosing the McLean house for its similarity to the Keller Farm which was in Alabama and where Annie Sullivan taught the young Helen Keller how to read, despite her blindness and deafness in the 1880s.
It was an exciting time for local youngsters as well during the filming since some were asked to play bit roles in the production. Employees at the McLean household Mae Gaines, Frank Moss and Louis Everett all appear in the movie, along with youngsters from a beloved and highly respected family on GIllville Lane, eight year old twins Dennis and Dana Fisher. Six year old Barbara Campbell and George MCGree, who lives on Thompson Hill Rd. also appear in the movie.
Coe had made the arrangements to lease the McLean home for the filming through the efforts of local realtor Matthew J. Gill, who lived nearby the farm. So when they asked him, he was also happy to allow his year old daughter Noreen Ann, to appear in the film as well. Noreen played Helen Keller’s infant sister. And up in Hazlet, Nick SanFIlippo had another personage that was considered necessary for the film….his mule!
Gill also provided more than the property lease and his daughter! When asked, he also went out in a successful search for two dozen chickens which he got from the Charles Lang Farm in Chapel Hil, a couple of carriages and a hay wagon. Gill also had to produce his own kind of miracle when asked to come up with summer cottage, but he knew he could produce that with no problem. Gill knew and loved Duffy Fisher.
Duffy had been known in the Middletown area for years as the go-to guy for moving buildings. He moved everything that needed to be moved on land and sea…..at one time he even moved what became The Quay in Sea Bright down the river to be set up as a popular bar and restaurant. Duffy didn’t use any sophisticated equipment for his moves….Fels Naphtha soap to grease everything, coupled with hard work and a spectacular smile and “Yes, Sir!” attitude was all it took.
So to create the summer building, Duffy took a workshop on Deepdale Farm and set it up. Actually, he had already moved that building to Deepdale in the first place. It had been on Railroad Ave earlier in the century where it was a butcher shop. It’s an attractive summer cottage in The Miracle Worker.
Frank Mannino did landscaping at the locations where the film was shot, and Rocco Cione did some preparatory carpenter services. Middletown definitely took a prideful and enthusiastic interest in The Miracle Worker.
Once the outdoor scenes were completed in Middletown, cast, crew and excitement went back to New York to finish production at the Hi Brown Studios in New York, and the film was released towards the end of the year.
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