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Jessica Williams, Cate Blanchett star in Sundance premieres

Former “Daily Show” correspondent Jessica Williams flexes her dramatic chops. Cate Blanchett pays homage to great 20th century artists and “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani tells a very personal story in some of the films premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Programmers announced their selections for the documentary and narrative premiere sections at the Sundance Film Festival, which has launched films like “Boyhood,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “O.J.: Made in America.”

As with many years, the Sundance premiere slate can be a place for well-known comedians to take a stab at more dramatic and serious roles.

In what’s expected to be one of the breakout films and performances of the festival, comedian Jessica Williams stars in Jim Strouse’s “The Incredible Jessica James,” about a New York playwright recovering from a breakup and finding solace in a recent divorcee.

Nanjiani is another who might surprise audiences in “The Big Sick,” which he co-wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon and is based on their own courtship. He stars alongside Zoe Kazan in the Michael Showalter-directed pic.

The festival also has films featuring veteran stars in different kinds of roles.

Shirley MacLaine stars in “The Last Word,” about a retired businesswoman who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a journalist (Amanda Seyfried) after writing her own obituary.

Festival founder Robert Redford, too, is in Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery,” about a world where the afterlife has been proven. Jason Segel and Rooney Mara also star.

Cate Blanchett re-enacts artistic statements of Dadaists, Lars von Trier and everyone in between in “Manifesto.”

Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland co-star in the drama “Where is Kyra.”

“Avengers” Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen re-team in the FBI crime thriller “Wind River,” the directorial debut of “Hell or High Water” writer Taylor Sheridan.

“Bessie” director Dee Rees is poised to be a standout with “Mudbound,” a racial drama set in the post-WWII South and starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige.

“It’s quite topical to this time even though it’s a period piece,” said festival director John Cooper.

Among the documentaries premiering are a look at the Oklahoma City bombing from Barak Goodman; Stanley Nelson’s examination of black colleges and universities, “Tell Them We Are Rising”; and Barbara Kopple’s account of a champion diver who announces he is transgender, “This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous.”

“The beauty of independent film is it’s not a copycat world, unlike some of the Hollywood stuff where they follow trends,” said programming director Trevor Groth. “Independent film has always been about originality and choice and something different.”

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 19- 29.

 

On the Web

www.sundance.org/festival

‘Loving’ tenderly explores the human side of a landmark case

“Look at me,” Ruth Negga says in between sniffles. “I’ve only been doing this for two weeks and I’m sick already.”

You wouldn’t know it to see her. The Irish and Ethiopian actress, soon to be known for a star-making performance in the new film “Loving,” looks put-together. But behind the smile and the camera ready stylings, Negga is battling a wicked cold while soldiering her way through a long day media interviews to promote the film. It’s something that won’t likely let up for the next four months either as Hollywood kicks into full blown awards season where “Loving” is expected to be a major contender.

The film, written and directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”), is about the real-life couple Richard and Mildred Loving, who, despite yearning for a quiet, simple life, became accidental revolutionaries in their quest to raise a family together in their home state of Virginia.

In the summer of 1958, 10 days after they were married, a local sheriff and his deputies burst into the newlywed’s bedroom at 2 a.m. and arrested them. Richard Loving was white. Mildred Loving was African American and Native American, and their union violated Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. Over the next nine years, the couple, exiled from the state, fought to get back. Their struggle culminated in the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which ruled that laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional.

For Negga, who plays Mildred, not even a bad cold can diminish how privileged she feels to get to talk about the extraordinary story and her deep appreciation for what this unassuming couple did. Joel Edgerton, who plays the stoic and silent Richard, has a similar take. They’re both happy to have had a chance to be part of something that’s both art and of historical significance. That they’re also being singled out for their performances is almost beside the point.

“In my Australian way of deflecting any of those compliments, I’ll just say that it’s really great for the movie that people are talking about it. It just reflects how important it is and how well made it is,” Edgerton said.

The film was inspired by Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary “The Loving Story,” comprised of archival footage of the couple at home, newscasts following pivotal court moments and intimate photos done by Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet. The documentary, available to stream on HBO, proved to be an invaluable resource for Negga and Edgerton too. They were able to study the people they were tasked with portraying and the relationship they’d be emulating.

Edgerton focused in on Richard’s silences _ what he might have been thinking, what they meant. He studied his eyes, in particular, which wandered as though he was always “looking for the door and looking for the way out of view of the camera.”

“In a bigger sense, he’s a guy looking for a way out of the whole thing, a way to will everybody to disappear or to find the back door where he can go through and their life can be simple, or the way it used to be,” Edgerton said. “Mildred was the one who got on her tippy toes and looked over the fence and had her eyes on the horizon of some sort of change and reached out about it. She was the leader.”

The heart of the film, however, and its power is in how Richard and Mildred are together.

“It’s quite special what they have. They actually liked each other. They liked being in each other’s company,” said Negga. “There’s no big romance cliches and pastiches and declarations of undying love. It’s very simple. Simple, but intimate and truthful.”

Nichols elevates the ordinary and creates empathy in showing the banalities of their everyday _ washing clothes, doing chores, playing and even settling down on the couch to watch television.

Now, with the election looming, the film is being touted as especially timely even if it is set a half century in the past.

“They weren’t people who thought they were special. They didn’t have a calling and they weren’t orators. They didn’t want to be in the limelight. In many ways they’re the every couple. And yet this couple reminds us that everyone has the capability to be extraordinary and to do extraordinary things,” said Negga. “We love Mildred and Richard and we’re so proud of what they achieved. We’re not Americans but we’re world inhabitants. We’re all in it together.”

Partners Wright and Jivoff a true theater ‘power couple’

They don’t have a snappy portmanteau nickname like “Bennifer” or “Brangelina,” but C. Michael Wright and Ray Jivoff qualify as one of Milwaukee’s cultural power couples.

In their roles at two of Milwaukee’s most critically acclaimed theater companies, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre, the couple has helped shape the city’s artistic landscape over the better part of three decades.

Wright has been producing artistic director at MCT since 2005 and Jivoff the associate artistic director at Skylight since 2009 and interim artistic director for the 2016–17 season.

Given their prominence, it may be strange to hear that the two came to Milwaukee almost by accident.

In the summer of 1983, Wright was based in New York City but on the road as one of the leads in the national tour of “Master Harold” … and the Boys. Jivoff was in San Francisco, working for a children’s theater company after graduating from San Francisco State University. When Wright’s show came to town, a friend of Jivoff’s invited him to the opening night party — and the two hit it off. It’d ultimately be the first day in their 33 years together.

After stays in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York — and a stint of bi-coastal commuting — they wanted to settle down. But none of those cities seemed a good fit.

“We were looking for a community to live in,” Jivoff reflects.

They would ultimately choose Milwaukee, thanks in part to “Master Harold” again. Years before, while on the national tour, Wright turned 30 and realized he didn’t want to continue playing the title role of Hally — a 17-year-old South African boy — much longer, despite getting multiple offers to do so at regional theaters across the country. “I said to myself, ‘I’ll do it one more time,’” Wright says. “So I said yes to the Milwaukee Rep (in 1984). And that changed our lives, on kind of a whim.”

Through performing in that show and others at the Rep, Wright had grown enamored of Milwaukee, as had Jivoff. When Wright got the offer to do a few shows at Skylight, the couple took that as a signal: Move to Milwaukee, and just see what happens.

WIDE INTERESTS, EXPERIENCES

Neither Jivoff nor Wright say their goal was to end up in arts administration when they arrived in Milwaukee in the late 1980s. Their current jobs instead grew organically out of their own interests, and the freedom Milwaukee gave them to pursue more than one of them at once.

“(Milwaukee) seemed like a place where there was potential that we’d be able to do all the things we liked doing,” Jivoff says. “I know I didn’t want to just act, and I don’t know that there’s that much work to just act.”

Jivoff’s overlapping interests in theater and education made him a natural fit as the drama director at Catholic Memorial High School, where he taught for 12 years. He’s also been involved in developing multiple theater education programs in the city. Jivoff is a frequent collaborator with First Stage, which opened the same year he and Wright arrived in Milwaukee, and he originated Next Act’s education program “Next Actors” before being hired to develop Skylight’s education department in 1999 and subsequently becoming associate artistic director a decade later.

Wright says he arrived in Milwaukee thinking of himself as an actor but open to other opportunities; those opportunities came his way quickly. As he got to know other artists, Wright was invited to direct and teach, broadening his range of skills. He discovered he had a knack for arts administration in 1997, when he was asked to join the staff of Next Act Theatre as an associate artistic director. After eight years, he decided that he wanted to run his own company, and fate again kept the couple in Milwaukee — MCT’s founding artistic director Montgomery Davis announced his retirement, and Wright was selected to replace him.

One benefit of taking the MCT job was that it brought Wright under the same roof as his partner, since both Skylight and MCT are based in the Broadway Theatre Center in the Third Ward. But the couple say their work schedules often keep them on nonintersecting paths during the day. “So many people think ‘Oh, you probably go there at 9 together and leave at 5 together,’” Wright says. “No, no, no, no, no (laughs).”

Their day-to-day work patterns speak to a greater pattern in their professional careers. Unlike many other theater couples in the city and state, Wright and Jivoff say they don’t work together much, either as fellow actors or in an actor-director pairing. “I’ve done a lot of children’s theater and musical theater,” Jivoff says. “It’s more my type; I’m loud, over the top. … He’s much more serious — does Chekov and stuff like that (laughs).”

But as the conventional wisdom goes, it’s those different personality traits that they admire most in each other. “He’s my main advisor and teacher,” Jivoff says. “I get a ton of advice and guidance from him and he keeps me calm.”

“For me,” Wright adds, “Ray provides a sense of levity. He makes it easy to laugh at some of the absurd situations we find ourselves in. And even just to remember not to take it all too seriously. We both are incredibly passionate about the work … but it’s important to keep it in perspective.”

OUT AND PROUD

Both Wright and Jivoff say they’ve felt they can be open about their relationship, both within the extremely accepting theater community and with Milwaukeeans at large. They say there’s no denying, though, that society’s response to gay couples has shifted dramatically in that time.

“I have no problem at all saying to someone ‘my partner’ now, but I do think when I first came it was harder. It’s more accepting now,” Wright says. “When we grew up, things were very, very different. As youths dealing with being gay, it’s easier now.”

It’s also only in the last decade or so that Wright and Jivoff have risen to a level of prominence that people might be aware of their relationship without being told, as they’ve taken on administrative positions. Wright remembers one pivotal moment about 15 years ago, when they were mentioned in a Valentine’s Day column by retired Journal Sentinel critic Damien Jaques. Jaques interviewed several theater couples including Wright and Jivoff. “That made us public figures as a couple. Before that, whoever knew, knew, and whoever didn’t, didn’t. Then suddenly there you are in the paper.”

In many senses, Wright says he and Jivoff have come to feel their administrative positions make it important for them to be open about being gay and partnered, to serve as role models for their community. “Because we’re in positions of power now, I think it’s our responsibility to be more vocal about it,” he says.

Love conquers in ‘Loving’

Jeff Nichols, sitting by the beach, was surprised to notice a curious calm amid the usually anxiety-ridden premiere experience at the Cannes Film Festival.

His film, Loving, is about Richard and Mildred Loving, the Virginia couple whose biracial marriage in 1958 led to a landmark Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.

“It’s not my story,” said the writer-director, whose previous films, including the Mississippi River coming-of-age tale Mud and the science-fiction thriller Midnight Special were original creations. “It’s their story.”

Loving, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, is told straightforwardly and simply. Although it has the context of a civil rights drama, it’s a portrait of a humble, unassuming love so steadfast that it eventually toppled one of the most odious legal remnants of slavery-era America — the ban against interracial marriages.

Without the standard Hollywood histrionics, the film patiently accumulates considerable force before finally overwhelming the viewer.

“No one moment adds up to the whole. But if you put them all together, hopefully, the weight of it gains this emotional density,” said Nichols. “Part of the cruelty of what was happening to them was time. Time was being taken away from them.”

The Lovings didn’t seek the spotlight, but their efforts to return home after being exiled from Virginia eventually led to the 1967 Supreme Court ruling of Loving vs. Virginia — a decision cited in the high court’s 2015 ruling on same-sex marriage.

Nichols and Edgerton believe the film has obvious significance at time when religious liberty laws and bathroom battles are being fought in the U.S.

“It’s kind of shameful to watch and look back and think 50 years ago that that was happening and yet it’s still very much relevant today,” says Edgerton. “Things are changing, obviously, but it’s weird to think we’ll look back in 20, 30 years’ time and say that law (gay marriage) changed in 2015.”

Of the many films in Cannes, Loving, which Focus Features will release during the heart of awards season in November, is among the most likely to garner significant attention from both moviegoers and the Academy Awards. The performances of Negga and Edgerton have already been widely hailed.

“This is the most important film I’ve made and it’s one of the most important films in history, I think,” Negga told reporters in Cannes. The Irish-Ethiopian actress — the first Nichols auditioned for the role — pursued the part fervently. “There was no alternative, really. I just really had to play her.”

Both actors drew from the famous images of the couple, who were photographed by Life magazine’s Grey Villet (Michael Shannon in the film) in 1966. The photographs captured their sweet, almost teenage-like manner together. In one, Richard — a buzz-cut blond country boy — lies with his head in Mildred’s lap while watching TV.

Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary The Loving Story was also a major inspiration.

“The court case is fascinating, but I just wanted to hang out in that documentary footage more,” says Nichols. “I wanted to go around the edges of it. I wanted to go around the corner of it.”

Avoiding inflated dramatics, Nichols and his cast sought to stay true to the Lovings, who effected change just by being.

“To me, it’s like this series of checkmates. It tends to move and be shut down. Move and be shut down. Have a voice and be stifled,” says Edgerton. “Finally when the Supreme Court decision releases that weight, it’s quite an overwhelming feeling. It’s a triumphant feeling, but when Richard proposed in the field, that should have been their right and freedom at that time.”

Richard Loving died in 1975, the victim of a drunk driver, and Mildred Loving died in 2008.

Loving may be a departure for Nichols in that it’s a true-life tale. But it continues the Arkansas native’s interest in the preservation of family amid elements out of one’s control.

Choosing to make the film, though, was easy enough. When he first shared the trailer of The Loving Story with his wife, she told him if he didn’t make it, she’d divorce him.

“That’s all she wrote. She didn’t sign off or anything,” recalled Nichols, chuckling.

 

What’s in a name? Ask the folks in Two Egg, Florida

What came first, the Chicken or the Egg — or make that the Two Egg?

The answer is the Alaska town of Chicken came before the Florida town of Two Egg, by about 30 or so years.

But they are neither first nor last in the country’s long list of odd-named places. In Pennsylvania you’ll find Intercourse, Virginville and Blue Ball. In Louisiana, if you’ve had too much of Moonshine, you can always visit Cut Off.

The list goes on: Weed, California; Uncertain, Texas; Eek, Alaska; Butts County, Georgia and oh so many more.

For some, like Santa Claus, Indiana, the name has created a major tourist industry. Others, like Two Egg, are dots on the map that get the occasional visitor curious about the name, but offer little besides a road sign — and even the sign often went missing until it was riveted in place.

“It used to be one of the most stolen signs in the state of Florida,” said Marcus Pender, whose grandfather owned a gas station and general store where trading eggs for goods led to the town name. “I even got a couple myself in the day.”

Here’s background on a few peculiarly named places in the United States:

TWO EGG, FLORIDA

Located about 70 miles northwest of Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, Two Egg is a small farming community where people used to trade eggs for goods at the general store. “People would come in and trade two eggs for meat and cheese,” said Pender. The store is no longer open, but people can still buy Two Egg cane syrup at a farm down the road. Details: http://www.twoeggfla.com .

CHICKEN, ALASKA

Doug Devore runs a website devoted to this small mining town near the Canadian border. He says in 1902, locals planned to call the town Ptarmigan after a chicken-like bird they often ate. But they worried people would spell ptarmigan wrong, so they named it chicken instead. Most visitors stop here on tour buses headed elsewhere, but some people make a special trip. “There are some people who are just obsessed with weird town names,” Devore said. Details: http://www.chickenalaska.com .

SANTA CLAUS, INDIANA

Melissa Brockman, executive director of the Spencer County Visitors Bureau, says Santa Claus was supposed to be named Santa Fe, but another Indiana town already had that name. The story goes that in the 1850s, families gathered to come up another name on a snowy Christmas Eve. Sleigh bells were heard outside and children shouted, “Santa Claus!” And so the town was named. Santa Claus has fewer than 2,500 people and no fully operating traffic signal, but 1 million people visit each summer and hundreds of thousands of requests arrive in December from people who want their Christmas cards postmarked “Santa Claus.” Details: http://www.santaclausin.com .

UNCERTAIN, TEXAS

Stories vary about how this Louisiana border town got its name, says Randie Canup, owner of the Hoot ‘n Holler guest cottage. One is that when the city applied for incorporation, it hadn’t picked a name, so “uncertain” was written on the form and it stuck. But Canup thinks the true story dates to the 1800s, when a steamship delivered goods to Caddo Lake ports. Shipping labels often peeled off in the humidity, and those boxes were marked “uncertain” and left at the final stop _ which became known as Uncertain. With a population of about 100, tourists far outnumber residents. Cell phone coverage and Internet access are spotty but there’s fishing, birding and scenery. “When people come here, some of what they do is nothing. They just want the quiet,” Canup said. Details: http://www.cityofuncertain.com/index.shtml .

BUTTS COUNTY, GEORGIA

The town is named for Capt. Samuel Butts, who died in 1814 during the Creek War. A radio station owner tired of people cracking jokes about the county suggested a name change at some point but local business owner Henry Kitchen started a “Save Our Butts” campaign with T-shirts and bumper stickers. With the name now safe, a popular bumper sticker reads “Keep Our Butts Clean.” The water tower welcoming visitors driving in from I-75 proclaims “BEAUTIFUL BUTTS.” Details: https://buttscountyga.com .

WEED, CALIFORNIA

Abner Weed ran a lumber mill at the base of Mount Shasta in 1897, and thus the city’s name. That doesn’t make it immune to marijuana jokes _ there are tons of “I Love Weed” souvenirs to be found around town. Even the local brewery, Mt. Shasta Brewing Company, plays it up — and got in trouble when the federal government objected to bottle caps that read “A Friend in Weed is a Friend Indeed. Try LEGAL Weed.”

After firing, popular Wal-Mart checker becomes star

A month ago, Frank Swanson was a checker, pretty much a lifer, at Wal-Mart in West Plains, Missouri.

He’s 52, disabled and long known for smiles and hugs. Shoppers loved him. They would purposely get in his line because they wanted to visit with Frank.

But then came April 2, the day of the gallon jug of Red Diamond Sweet Tea and the end of Frank the checkout guy.

Turned out all those hugs and a keen memory for grocery prices made for a volatile cocktail. At least in the way the big-box corporate world played out in this small Ozarks town.

Frank got fired that day. Since then, 800 or so people have attended a rally for him in the store’s parking lot, his name has bounced around social media all over the world, somebody held up a sign with Frank’s name at an Atlanta Braves baseball game, and Jimmy Fallon gave him a shoutout on “The Tonight Show.”

Frank’s termination could be headed to court, and Wal-Mart had to issue a statement explaining to West Plains what happened to the town’s favorite checker.

All this because a woman in Frank’s line that day wanted to buy a gallon of the sweet tea. She told Frank a store in a neighboring town had a sale price that Wal-Mart was supposed to match.

She didn’t have the ad, as required, but she didn’t need it with Frank. He’d always made it a point to keep up with prices at other stores, so he let her have it at the sale price.

That got Frank called in and fired after nearly 20 years.

“The bosses said I made up an imaginary price,” he said.

Frank went to Willow Springs and got an issue of a local paper that showed he was right about the price of tea.

For the record, the other store had the tea on special for $1.98. Wal-Mart’s price: $2.78.

Frank has always had a knack for remembering things. Like the day as a boy when he fell out the back of his grandpa’s pickup after cutting a load of firewood. He suffered paralysis and brain damage.

“Sometimes grandpa would go slow, and sometimes he would go fast,” Frank said.

He said he had stopped hugging customers after he was told to do so. But then people asked if they could hug him.

Wal-Mart issued this statement about Frank:

“Letting an associate go is never easy. It is important to note that we have a progressive discipline policy where performance issues move an associate to the next step. For this associate, point-of-sale policies had not been followed in some instances. A recent violation of those policies moved the associate to the final step of our discipline process, resulting in his dismissal.”

That didn’t satisfy Frank’s fans. They started a Facebook page called “Hugs for Frank” that encouraged people to flood Wal-Mart headquarters in nearby Bentonville, Arkansas, with complaints.

Various accounts had people talking about how Frank cheered their days. One story told how Frank was known to reach into his own pocket to help somebody who came up short.

“They were lucky to have you, Frank,” a woman wrote. “More people should be like you, but sadly, it’s all about the almighty dollar instead of the people. I wish you the very best!! (( HUGS )))

Another: “Hugs for Frank and he needs his job back and the Walmart head bosses need to be fired. He needs his job back and Sam Walmart (Walton) wouldn’t of fired him.”

Frank didn’t want ugliness. He told people that the workers at Wal-Mart — bosses, too — were his friends, and he didn’t want to hear anything mean about them. He has even shopped there since.

So the town threw a party for him. Music, food and, of course, a lot of hugs. Frank signed T-shirts.

On a YouTube video of the event, his brother said most people’s legacies aren’t known until they die.

“Frank can see his today,” Drexel Swanson said.

Customers came from all over. There’s just something about a guy who knew to never put ice cream and sugar in the same bag.

“Makes the sugar hard,” Frank said.

Springfield lawyer Benjamin Stringer said Frank intends to challenge his termination under the Missouri Human Rights Act, which prevents employers from discriminating against or firing employees because of disabilities.

Frank must first file a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, which will conduct an investigation into Frank’s allegations. Then, if issued a “right-to-sue” letter, Frank intends to pursue the matter vigorously, Stringer said.

“Frank was singled out and fired without cause,” Stringer said.

Meanwhile, Frank has a new job at Ramey supermarket, a couple of miles away. He doesn’t make as much there, but he’s happy. His new bosses like him to be up front to greet people when they come through the door.

So while West Plains may claim Dick Van Dyke, Porter Wagoner and baseball pitcher Preacher Roe, right now the big name in town is Frank Swanson.

“Everybody’s been picking on me about being famous,” he said shyly.

One of the many recent comments written about him said: “Went to Ramey’s twice today, and yep got me a hug from Frank. He has made everyone smile. I think he got more hugs this past month than he ever had. lol.”

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Kansas City Star.

Mineral Point, Wisconsin: Figgyhobbin and the arts

The tiny town of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, is a charming place where old stone buildings hug the hills, and artists’ galleries, pottery studios and antique shops line the streets.

Whimsical free libraries — handcrafted miniature houses that look like birdhouses filled with books — are tucked into street corners.  A thriving arts center draws people from around the country to study everything from blacksmithing and bent twig furniture to the Cornish language. There is an outdoor theater carved into a limestone quarry and a beautifully restored Opera House dating to 1914.

And it is one of the few places in the world — other than Cornwall, England — where you can feast on a raisin-studded pastry called figgyhobbin.

But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Mineral Point, (population 2,500), nestled in the hills of southern Wisconsin, is that it even exists.

Mineral Point’s original lead miners lived in crude shelters that resembled badger holes and were the origins of Wisconsin’s nickname, The Badger State. In the 1800s, the town’s rich mineral deposits attracted emigrants from Cornwall and for a time it became one of the state’s largest cities. Eventually the miners left, lured by California gold, and the town declined. By the 1930s, the old stone houses were dilapidated and the place was nearly extinct.

“The whole town was pretty decrepit,” wrote Robert Moser Neal, describing his shock when he returned from years abroad to find his hometown dying. So Neal, and his partner, Edgar Hellum (the two met at the Art Institute of Chicago) decided to devote their lives to saving Mineral Point.

Neal wrote that locals laughed when the men bought a crumbling limestone cottage on Shake Rag Street, so named because miners’ wives shook white rags when it was time for the men to return from the hills for dinner.

They set about restoring it and, though they had little culinary experience, they opened a restaurant in the 1930s called Pendarvis House — named after an estate in Cornwall. The tiny, 20-seat premises sold Cornish pasties (meat and potatoes wrapped in pastry), saffron cake and tea.

Neal had lived in London, working with the interior decorator Syrie Maugham, wife of author Somerset Maugham, and the English sensibilities he brought to the restaurant quickly made it a hit among the intelligentsia. Frank Lloyd Wright, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Sinclair Lewis and Duncan Hines all dined there. Eleanor Roosevelt was reportedly once turned away for showing up late and The Saturday Evening Post named it one of the finest restaurants in the country.

With money from their restaurant, the men began buying and restoring other buildings, attracting preservationists and artists alike. Old breweries were transformed into pottery studios, meat markets became galleries and so began a flourishing artistic community.

Today, costumed guides offer tours of Pendaris and other restored buildings on the estate, including a replica of a Cornish pub. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A life-size cutout of Neal and Hellum greets visitors and photographs of their restorations line the walls of the restaurant. When he died in 2000 at the age of 96, Hellum was widely hailed, along with Neal, as a creator of the modern town. Neal died in 1989.

But their spirit of preservation and creativity lives on among the town’s 80 or 90 artists, many living in lofts above their studios. High Street bustles with galleries, everyone knows everyone and there is a collective sense of near-bemusement — as well as gratitude — that their community still thrives.

Locals chuckle at how a newspaper report once described them as “pathologically friendly” — and promptly prove the point by inviting strangers into their homes and studios.  “Everyone is important here and no one is too important,” says Diana Johnston, a potter, who lives with her husband in the malting tower of an old brewery which they have converted into a pottery studio. “People are following their dreams whatever those dreams are and that makes for such a great sense of creative spirit and adventure and fun.”

Bruce Howdle, who creates enormous ceramic sculptures, attributes the town’s draw to the “three A’s — art, antiques and architecture, as well as the rolling hills, the extraordinary collage of people and the welcoming environment.”

There is also figgyhobbin, $3.50 a slice at the Red Rooster cafe. The cafe also serves Cornish pasty, and the town hosts a Cornish festival each fall.

The town has retained a particular brand of quirkiness too. The century-old opera house, a former vaudeville hall, also functions as a free cinema. Because of complicated copyright issues, it cannot advertise the movies it shows. Instead a poster outside offers a vague description (“A riveting drama about two boys who find a fugitive _ who is very nice-looking and often shirtless”) and movie-goers are left to guess the film.

Or they can simply pop next door and ask the pathologically friendly folks at Town Hall.

If You Go…

MINERAL POINT, WISCONSIN.: About 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Madison, about 130 miles (209 kilometers) from Milwaukee, http://mineralpoint.com/

PENDARVIS HISTORIC SITE: Open daily, May 7-Oct. 31, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults: $10; students/seniors, $8:50; children, $5. Guided tours available, http://pendarvis.wisconsinhistory.org/

SHAKE RAG ALLEY, CENTER FOR THE ARTS: Visiting the campus is free, including historic buildings, gardens, stone walls and paths. Workshop details: http://www.shakeragalley.com/

ALLEY STAGE: Performance schedules, http://www.shakeragalley.com/show-schedule

CORNISH FESTIVAL: Sept. 27-28, http://mineralpoint.com/events/cornish-festival

‘Fastest Nun in the West’ on path for sainthood

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe announced Wednesday it is exploring sainthood for an Italian-born nun who challenged Billy the Kid, calmed angry mobs and helped open New Mexico territory hospitals and schools.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan said he has received permission from the Vatican to open the “Sainthood Cause” for Sister Blandina Segale, an educator and social worker who worked in Ohio, Colorado and New Mexico.

It’s the first time in New Mexico’s 400-year history with the Roman Catholic Church that a decree opening the cause of beatification and canonization has been declared, church officials said.

“There are other holy people who have worked here,” said Allen Sanchez, president and CEO for CHI St. Joseph’s Children in Albuquerque, a social service agency Segale founded. “But this would be a saint (who) started institutions in New Mexico that are still in operation.”

Segale, a nun with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, came to Trinidad, Colorado, in 1877 to teach poor children and was later transferred to Santa Fe, where she co-founded public and Catholic schools. During her time in New Mexico, she worked with the poor, the sick and immigrants. She also advocated on behalf of Hispanics and Native Americans who were losing their land to swindlers.

Her encounters with Old West outlaws later became the stuff of legend and were the subject of an episode of the CBS series “Death Valley Days.” The episode, called “The Fastest Nun in the West,” focused on her efforts to save a man from a lynch mob.

But her encounters with Billy the Kid remain among her most popular and well-known Western frontier adventures.

According to one story, she received a tip that The Kid was coming to her town to scalp the four doctors who had refused to treat his friend’s gunshot wound. Segale nursed the friend to health, and when Billy came to Trinidad, Colorado, to thank her, she asked him to abandon his violent plan. He agreed.

Another story says The Kid and his gang attempted to rob a covered wagon traveling on the frontier. But when the famous outlaw looked inside, he saw Segale.

“He just tipped his hat,” said Sheehan, the archbishop. “And left.”

Many of the tales she wrote in letters to her sister later became the book, “At the End of the Santa Fe Trail.”

“She was just amazing,” said Victoria Marie Forde of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. “It’s tough to live up to her example.”

Segale found St. Joseph’s Hospital in Albuquerque before returning to Cincinnati in 1897 to start Santa Maria Institute, which served recent immigrants.

Her work resonates today, with poverty, immigration and child care still high-profile issues, Sanchez said.

Officials say it could take years – possibly a century – before Segale becomes a saint. The Vatican has to investigate her work and monitor for any related “miracles.”

Those miracles could come in the form of healings, assistance to recent Central American immigrant children detained at the U.S. border or some other unexplained occurrences after devotees pray to her, Sanchez said.

“She’s going to have to keep working,” Sanchez said. “She’s not done.”