The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania begins with the sound of children playing–sounds of pure hope and joy. That’s just the watermark for FourBoys Films, the film’s producer, but it couldn’t be more fitting…which, I suppose, is the whole idea.
”What,” you’re asking? The Bitum… huh? Keystone monarchs…?
I’m talking about The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania! You haven’t heard of them? Of course you haven’t, unless you’re from around Carmichaels, in southwestern Pennsylvania. In that case, you (or a girl you know) quite possibly once dressed up as a Coal Queen for Halloween, dreaming royal dreams.
Two-time Emmy-award winner Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond) had the same conversation-stopping reaction when her friend, fellow actress Sarah Rush (Rush was the “launch when ready” girl on the original Battlestar Galactica) told her and some other friends in 2003 that she was heading back home for the 50th anniversary of the Bituminous Coal Queens pageant. Rush was Coal Queen in 1972 and she couldn’t be prouder of the achievement.
Three weeks later, Heaton’s husband, David Hunt, was on his way to making his directorial debut, and Heaton was asking the people of the pageant to trust this Hollywood guy with a British accent to record this seminal event in their community’s life, talking to their young stars, hearing their hopes and dreams. They succumbed with great hesitancy; the result is a beautiful portrait of small-town America, highlighting a “can-do spirit” that is “quintessentially American,” as Hunt described it at a screening of the film last week.
I saw The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania during the annual conference of the International Arts Movement last Thursday night. Ironically I saw this “homage to small town America” as Heaton described it at Cooper Union, not a block away from the oh-so-blue Village Voice.
Hunt makes use of interviews with the girls, pageant people, and former coal-mining queens, looking at past and present, hearing stories of dreams fulfilled and unplanned paths; listening to former queens who stayed in coal country and some who settled in foreign territory; covering both the traditions and the innovations. (And for a little more of the Americana feel, former teen idol Fabian makes an appearance–he just happens to be husband of one former BCQ.)
I should mention that I was born and raised in Chelsea, Manhattan. I went to college in Washington, D.C. I’m totally Northeast Corridor. Before the recent coal-mine disasters, besides a touristy mine walkthrough here and there, I figured since mines are underground and dark New York City subway riders must be their kindred spirits. So, you see…I know next to nothing about this red America way of life that keeps the rest of us going. No matter. As Hunt said at Thursday’s screening of his time in southwestern Pennsylvania with the BCQers and their coal-mining families, “I felt like I was home and I have never been there before in my life.”
For me that moment of heart-of-America/”home” realization came when one of the Bituminous Coal Queens contestants sang “The Rose” as her talent. What American girl didn’t sing something just as cheesy in high-school glee club? In fact, I’m pretty sure we actually did sing “The Rose” at my Big Apple high school. After all, who’s deeper than Bette Midler when you’re an emotional teenager trying to deal with the prospect of the rest of your life? (And these girls vividly remind you of how wonderful and tough those teen years are as they share their prospects and fears.)
But the moment could just as well have been when Sarah points to the photo of her nervous husband on their wedding day in one of the first scenes in the film. Or it could have been meeting Lenny the sound guy who has been working on the pageant for 15 years and don’t you be telling him how to do his job (meet him here).
Lenny, Hunt said, was “a gift.” With next to no time to prepare for the filming, Hunt met Lenny the first day, called his wife and said, “I’ve got my movie.” One prominent producer in Hollywood refused to believe Hunt didn’t cast Lenny in advance. The guy can head to Tinsel town if he wants to after this film hit the streets.
Distribution plans are currently in the works for this tragically timely film. At the IAM (it’s a faith-centered project, get it?) screening, Hunt and Heaton announced their intention to put a scholarship fund together for the BCQ gals and a foundation for the families of the victims of coal-mining accidents.
The folks from the pageant who have seen the film (four as of this writing) were happy with what they saw. Their reaction was emotional, Hunt relayed, and relieved–”Thank you for not making fun of us.” As the movie is screened, Hunt said, consistently people echo the sentiment–”Thank you for not making fun of them.” Hunt has realized, he said, through The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania, that “If you don’t live in New York or L.A., Hollywood treats you like a buffoon.”
Well, the Heaton-Hunt Hollywood team certainly doesn’t do anything of the sort. This documentary is their gift to the Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania, the mining families of America, and every good Joe and Jane American who lives the kind of life a Frenchman visiting here once so admired. But when you meet the Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania, their families, and their communities you’ll see they could do no other.
The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania is a snapshot of America. There will even be people in lofts off Astor Place who will get it.