His name was Kroger Babb. He made and relentlessly promoted a famous “hygiene film” called Mom and Dad, which was so shocking to 1940s audiences that he held separate shows for female and male patrons, complete with lecturers to frankly discuss matters that weren’t spoken of in polite company—and, not coincidentally, to hawk books on the subject.
Then, somehow, Kroger Babb found Jesus in the Wichita Mountains.
Born in Lees Creek, Ohio, Babb had been a sportswriter and basketball and football referee before the lure of show business, even—or perhaps especially—on the edges of legitimacy, proved irresistible. Touring the sticks with a buried-alive carney act with a man named “Digger” O’Dell, Babb learned about the sure-fire attraction of the unseemly, something he would exploit to great advantage with the incredibly successful Mom and Dad—which, according to the Arkansas-based pop-culture writer and historian Dale Ingram, had its world premiere at the Warner Theatre in Oklahoma City on January 2, 1945.
Each screening of Mom and Dad featured the live appearance of a lecturer, whose job involved a frank little talk, winding up with a pitch for booklets that explained sex-related topics in easy-to-understand terms. The newspaper ad for its Oklahoma City premiere noted that the lecture topic was “Secrets of Sensible Sex,” to be given at each performance of the movie by “Radio’s Hygiene Commentator Elliot Forbes.”
There were, of course, dozens of Elliot Forbeses hotfooting it around the countryside; later, women lecturers were added to better address (and move books to) the female-only audiences. (In the initial Oklahoma City run, “women only” shows were at 2 and 7 p.m. and “men only” at 9 p.m., a typical pattern for subsequent Mom and Dad screenings.)
Mom and Dad remains one of the great examples of the “roadshow” film—an out-of-the-mainstream feature peddled from town to town, engagement to engagement.
While Mom and Dad and any number of Elliot Forbeses were busy racking up box-office receipts for Babb, something totally unrelated was happening in the Wichita Mountains around Lawton. Sixty years down the road, Mom and Dad’s creator and Lawton’s annual Easter Pageant seem to be a highly unlikely combination. Somehow, though, the ever-alert Babb found out about it—and apparently saw as many potential exploitation possibilities in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection as he’d found in unwed motherhood and venereal disease.
A Congregational minister named Reverend Anthony Mark Wallock had originated the Lawton Passion Play in 1926, staging it alfresco in the nearby Wichitas. From a modest one-scene, five-character beginning, the yearly pageant had grown to an extravaganza with dozens of scenes, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers from all over.
Among the multitudes inspired by the play was a Tulsa attorney and building-materials dealer named Neil Bogan. He was so inspired, in fact, that he’d formed a company called Principle Films, Inc., with the intention of filming the a feature-length movie of the play.
Even though contemporary accounts indicated that color filming of the pageant was begun in 1948 but never completed, the existence of a feature-length version of Reverend Wallock’s outdoor event suggests otherwise. So does a Time magazine piece from April 18, 1949, following the release of Babb’s Easter pageant-inspired picture:
The producers [of the movie] decided to try religion when they got hold of a four-hour Cinecolor film of the annual Easter sunrise passion play put on as an Oklahoma hillside Oberammergau by citizens of Lawton, Okla. Babb & Jossey trimmed the film and added some homey fictional sequences fore & aft, starring a six-year-old “find” from Atlanta named Ginger Prince (“42 inches and 42 pounds of Southern charm”).
Bogan and Principle may indeed have shot four hours of footage, but the only Prince of Peace that currently exists is what appears to be a 72-minute feature completed before Babb ever came on board. It begins with “OKLAHOMA U.S.A” lettered over an American flag waving above a flagpole, just before veteran radio announcer Knox Manning gives us the backstory over shots of folks rolling down Lawton’s main street on the way to the event. It’s “a typical American small town,” Manning intones, “nearly all of whose citizens, from the mayor on down, takes some part in the Wichita Mountain Easter Pageant.”
From there we see the Little Rock Church, the late Wallock’s place of worship, and meet some of the townspeople who have major roles in the pageant, seen visiting in duos and small groups. They indeed include the mayor, as well as a major at the nearby Fort Sill Army base, telephone operators, salesmen, barbers, and a local bank employee named Millard Coody, who plays Jesus.
Before things get too far along, this version of Prince of Peace gives what amounts to a caveat, voiced over scenes of people camped out in the mountains, waiting for the event to begin: “The great story will be told again, the eternal story told once more in the native accents of a plain and reverent people, against the background of the brown Oklahoma hills.” This was probably meant for viewers outside of the South and Southwest, who might find the line readings of some of the principals more reminiscent of the then-popular Ma and Pa Kettle movies than, say, one of C.B. DeMille’s biblical epics.
While the actors are all locals, however, the credits for this Prince of Peace feature all kinds of industry pros. They include the writer of the “screen narration,” DeVallon Scott, and the producer and director, Henry Daniels, both of whom had legitimate Hollywood credits in both features and shorts. And director of photography/ associate producer Henry Sharp was well known as a top-notch color cinematographer of the time. (There are some cinematic effects, including miniatures, lighting, and apparent rear-screen projection, that make it more than just a straight filming of the pageant and further indicate the hands of filmmaking veterans.)
All of these things indicate that the surviving Prince of Peace was its first incarnation. How many places it actually played, or where it played, is a matter of conjecture, as is Babb’s subsequent involvement. Perhaps one of the professionals associated with this version sought Babb’s advice on how to promote it, or actually showed it to the exploitation master. Maybe Babb ran onto it himself somehow and realized that, with some new wraparound scenes added and a little tweaking here and there, this beautiful color movie about Jesus Christ had the potential to do boffo business in the Bible Belt.
Babb apparently saw as many potential exploitation possibilities in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection as he’d found in unwed motherhood and venereal disease.
The question of how this exploitation-filmmaker and the Wichita Mountain Easter Pageant connected leads to another query: What did Babb tell the folks at Principle when they first met? How much did they know about the seamy, exploitative Mom and Dad, Babb’s only production credit at the time? After all, it had played all over the middle of the country following its Oklahoma City debut.
Perhaps Babb simply played the moral-high-road card, asserting that his Mom and Dad was really an indictment of the dangers of premarital sex. (Exploitation filmmakers in those days often justified their “hygiene”-oriented offerings in that manner.) He may have even emphasized his earlier work as the publicist for a theater chain, or his Hollywood connections, through which he could create greater demand for the film by casting (as he ended up doing) real movie actors in his revamped version of the picture.
However he played it, Babb apparently made a suitable impression on Principle’s people, since they decided to place their movie in his hands—giving birth to a new picture Babb would initially title The Lawton Story.
Here’s how a 1949 Tulsa Tribune story explained Babb’s involvement:
[The Principle Films officers’] original idea was to distribute a simple movie of the pageant itself to churches and clubs.
Later it was decided to expand the potential audience, and Kroger Babb, president of Hallmark Productions, Inc., Wilmington, Ohio, was invited to assist and become co-producer.
The original production was amended to include scenes from the life of the late Rev. Anthony Wallock, Lawton Congregational minister, who originated the pageant 22 years ago, and who wrote the script and directed the presentation of all pageants since…
The co-producer also added a background story which ties in with the pageant itself and the project was refilmed.
Most of the performers in the picture are native Oklahomans and the portrayal of the pageant provides approximately half of the total film.
Hallmark, with offices at various times both in Wilmington, Ohio, and Hollywood, was the new name of Babb’s former Hygenic Productions, distributor of Mom and Dad. And Babb not only brought back Mom and Dad’s director, the B-movie vet William Beaudine, but also that film’s scripter and Babb’s common-law wife, Mildred Horn, to craft a new story around some of the existing footage.
Horn also wrote the “The Prince of Peace,” an 8½-by-11 ¾-inch souvenir booklet with front and back covers in vibrant color, offered for sale at the film’s screenings for a dollar. In addition to a lengthy prose retelling of the biblical Passion story, illustrated with tinted scenes from the play, the booklet put a highly sentimental spin on the story of Reverend Wallock—dubbed “The Little Minister”—who, as the story would have it, held onto life from his hospital bed until every bit of the new footage was in the can.
The Lawton Story arrived on the screen with reliable character actor Forrest Taylor—who would’ve been known to audiences of the time for his bad-guy roles in B-Westerns—essaying the role of Reverend Wallock. (In what might be considered a unique demonstration of his acting range, Taylor had also played the no-nonsense obstetrician who gives young, unmarried Joan the bad news in Mom and Dad.)
Although The Lawton Story isn’t around to verify this observation, the wraparound footage Babb supervised and Beaudine shot likely took substantial liberties with Wallock’s story. That’s how David F. Friedman, an exploitation-film giant himself as well as a longtime associate of Babb, remembered it in a 2007 interview.
“Krog came up with the story,” recalled Friedman. “It was about two brothers, one of whom was an evil banker, and the other a very good guy, a good Christian, etc. I mean, this was strictly out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
And what about Lawton Story star Ginger Prince, Babb’s six-year-old “find” from Atlanta mentioned in the Time article?
“Her father was named Hugh Prince, and he was a booker for a little four-house [movie theater] circuit out of Toccoa, Georgia,” Friedman explained. “Hugh was a nice little guy, but Ginger’s mother was the stage mother of all time. From the time this child was conceived, her mother had ideas of grandeur for her. Every year, from the time she was three until she was six or seven, Ginger Prince was the featured attraction for the banquet of the Georgia-Alabama Theater Owners Association, and she did all of the Shirley Temple routines—‘The Good Ship Lollipop,’ all that. And she was awful.”
Friedman laughed. “Of course, Krog knows all about her, so he signs this little girl to a big Hollywood contract.”
The Lawton Story debuted on April 1, 1949, at three theaters—two in Lawton and one in nearby Fort Sill, very near the site of the Passion play. Ginger Prince flew in for the big premiere, along with Hollywood comic actor Hugh “Woo-Woo” Herbert and B-picture star Lynn Bari, neither of them actually in The Lawton Story. Oklahoma governor and filmmaking booster Roy J. Turner was in on the festivities as well, extending a formal invitation to the premiere to President Harry Truman and his wife, who apparently passed.
With ticket prices that topped out at an incredible $1,000 a seat, the benefit premiere of The Lawton Story proved a hometown hit, raising an estimated $20,000 to help finance future pageants. But once it got into general release, it didn’t do so well. Friedman remembered The Lawton Story stiffing in Atlanta, where Babb had opened it after its benefit premiere: “ ’Long about midnight, I’m playing poker at the Variety Club in Atlanta, and Krog comes in [after the screening], the most dejected guy in the world. He says, ‘Well, I know what to do,’ and with that he ordered a gallon of martinis, checked into his room, stayed there for two days, and came back with the greatest campaign I ever saw—The Prince of Peace.”
Newly retitled, the film went out and did business, with some of Babb’s former Elliot Forbses lecturing and selling, according to Friedman, “a four-color litho of Jesus Christ, suitable for framing, and a miniature Bible—those little Bibles the midgets used to sell at the circus, about the size of a postage stamp.” The Prince of Peace booklet, a carryover from the Lawton Story days, was also available at the screenings, at a cost of one dollar.
Those who were really taken by the movie could also order two different pieces—later expanded to three—of sheet music for songs from the movie, also for a buck each and all featuring Ginger Prince’s lovable little mug on their covers. The first two were “Right Under My Nose” and “Down in Oklahoma.” The final one, featuring an artist’s rendition of a reverently praying Ginger with the Star of Bethlehem and the wise men in the background was “Say A Prayer to the Prince of Peace.” It was recorded by Arthur Lee Simpkins on Kaybee Records, and it isn’t hard to divine whose initials “Kaybee”
Ultimately, Prince of Peace was shown all over the world, with five percent of its proceeds pledged to the group presenting the Lawton pageant—an arrangement that later led to a lawsuit filed by the play’s board of directors.
Much later, Dave Friedman bought the rights to all of Babb’s pictures, but Prince of Peace was not among them. It remains to this day a “lost” movie, although the Prince of Peace mentioned earlier, sans Babb’s additions and subtractions, was finally retrieved a few years ago, apparently from the son of Babb or one of Babb’s associates.
“We had a deal that if the company ever disbanded, went broke, or what have you, the film would come back to us,” said Lawton’s Richard Matthy, who played Christ for years in the pageant, in a 2007 interview. “We went out to California, and the son wouldn’t give us the film. We had to get a lawyer. The son finally sent the film back to us—in little bitty pieces.”
A Florida man, the now-deceased Lewis T. Philips, painstakingly pieced the film back together, and a copy of his work is available for purchase from the Holy City in the Wichita Mountains, where the Lawton Passion Play is still staged each Easter season, once just before Palm Sunday, and once before Easter.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 7, April 1, 2014.