News Column

Lexington Herald-Leader Merlene Davis column

October 15, 2013


Oct. 15--For three years, Freddie Dunn sat for hours talking to Eli Scarr about life for black people in Lexington during the 1940s and 1950s. Dunn talked about backstage at the Lyric Theatre, about sock hops at the Charles Young Center, about athletic events at the segregated Dunbar School.

Although Scarr had grown up in Lexington, Dunn was sharing pieces of history that white Lexingtonians might not have witnessed or known about.

From those discussions, Scarr has created a documentary called Back in the Wings: Freddie Dunn's Lexington.

"It is about Lexington, but it is a first-person perspective of Lexington," Scarr said. "It is about his life, and he saw quite a bit."

The project didn't start out to be a documentary, Scarr said. Dunn's grandson Pierce Birdsong wanted to record his grandfather's stories for posterity. Scarr and Birdsong are friends.

In the telling of his story, Dunn laid the foundation for a bigger project.

Dunn worked at the Phoenix Hotel for 30 years and started working at the Lafayette Hotel when he was a teenager, learning to carry large silver trays that held eight plates of food.

He also worked in construction until he was 65, helping to build the IBM plant in 1956 and the Chandler Medical Center in 1957. And at night or on weekends, he joined several prominent black men in Lexington who waited tables at parties and other events. They worked Anita Madden's Derby parties and events at the Galt House in Louisville, among other social events.

"He stayed busy, raised three children, and he was a veteran," Scarr said.

But Dunn seemed to enjoy talking most about the he spent rubbing shoulders with famous black entertainers.

There were stories of him stepping on the sore foot of Duke Ellington backstage at the Lyric, and of helping Dizzy Gillespie find someone to repair his Zenith radio.

There were a lot of hours of talking and filming, Scarr said, all of which he enjoyed and learned from.

But filming and talking do not a documentary make, especially when there is no money and no crew to help.

Fortunately, in 2001, Scarr spent a year as the assistant for actor and director Bill Duke in Los Angeles, learning about the film industry, and he has done camera work for nearly 20 years.

So he used the free Digital Studio at the Lexington Public Library's Northside Branch, which is set up to help filmmakers, aspiring and experienced, to take an idea and transform it into a film.

"When it started, it was the only facility of its kind that was free of charge," Scarr said. "They have eight editing computers and librarians who have a great deal of patience."

Dunn died in April 2012 at age 81, and he saw some of the documentary before it was finished.

"He was an extremely caring man," Birdsong said of his grandfather. "He would always pray for strength. He had three sons, a wife and his mother to take care of.

"He always did the construction and he always did the catering," Birdsong said, adding he didn't get a true sense of who his grandfather was until his late teens.

Scarr took time off after Dunn's death to allow the family to grieve and himself to remember the man who meant more to him than just as the subject of a film.

During that time, Scarr made a short documentary about 1960 Golden Glove champion Bill Whittenburg of Huntington, W.Va. Mr. Cool Willie premiered at the 2013 Appalachian Film Festival this spring.

With Back in the Wings completed, a 13-minute segment will be shown at the Lyric Theatre for Literacy & Learning on Oct. 26, after the two-mile East End Walking Tour that starts at the Lyric on Third Street.

The film segment will feature Dunn talking about the fun he had at the Charles Young Center and about the celebrities he met at the Lyric. The one-hour version of the movie will be shown at a later date.

"I am proud of it," Scarr said of the film. "Finding a balance between the historical and personal aspects of Freddie's stories gave the editing process an improvisational edge that traditional documentaries struggle to enjoy," he said.


East End Walking Tour

What: Conducted by local historian Yvonne Giles; includes 13-minute segment of Back in the Wings: Freddie Dunn's Lexington.

When: Oct. 26. Tour: 1-3 p.m.; film: 3 p.m.

Where: Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.

Tickets: $10 for the walking tour. Call (859) 280-2218.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog:


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