‘They’re alive!” shouted a woman as John Whitaker and Jeff East entered Arrow Rock Christian Church on Wednesday.
It was almost like the summer of 1972, when the church was used to film a scene in which Whitaker and East, playing the parts of Tom and Huck, respectively, staged their own funerals.
Thirty-five years later, the two actors entered the same church and greeted a crowd of more than 100 people — more than historic Arrow Rock’s population, which is estimated between 50 and 80 people.
The reunion of the film’s cast and crew, including Celeste Holm and a few other actors (Jodie Foster and Warren Oates didn’t attend), was part of Arrow Rock’s Independence Day festivities. Whitaker held a “master class” for acting students earlier in the week, but the rest of Wednesday’s events, such as a parade and a picnic, were old-fashioned Fourth of July activities.
Although many of the morning’s attendees were dripping sweat inside the church, no one dashed outside for air. No one wanted to miss the stories that would soon begin from those who remembered the summer Tom and Huck ruled the town.
Tom Sites, a farmer who lives 5 miles south of town, vividly remembered converting the town’s paved Main Street into an old dirt road for the film. The task took over 100 truck loads of dirt.
He agreed to do more than just haul dirt to the road, and his farm became the site for several scenes in the film. “Huck’s shack” was built at the edge of his property on the bank of the Missouri River.
Dianne Sites said she was thrilled when she found out that filming would take place on the couple’s property.
“We could farm all the rest of the time, but we could never again be in a movie ... maybe,” Dianne Sites said.
The filming became a family activity for many residents of Arrow Rock.
Ronda Helmick, who was 11-years-old at the time, remembers watching the filmmaking almost every night that summer.
“We got to stay up super, super late,” Helmick said. “I think I had more of an understanding of how movies were made. Seeing how many times they filmed the same scene over and over really surprised me.”
Anne Rea, then 27 years old, was an aspiring actress when she became an extra in the film.
“I was part of an extra’s atmosphere group, and I worked almost every day,” said Rea, who lives in Marshall.
Rea and Tom Sites were both called back the following summer for the filming of “Huck Finn,” which was filmed in Natchez, Miss. Sites said he was excited when the director gave him a speaking part, though it was only seven words: “Why Tom, what are you doing here?”
“If I said one more word,” Sites said, “I’d have had to join the theater union.”
The family atmosphere extended to those who worked on set as well; brothers Jeffrey and David Martin, of Columbia, were used as stand-ins for Whitaker and East.
“For a 12-year-old kid, it was just awesome,” David Martin said.
As stand-ins, the two were used to focus the camera and adjust the lighting before Whitaker and East stepped onto the set.
“The fun part for me was getting to walk everywhere where Huck Finn would eventually walk,” David Martin said.
“I spent the summer running down the streets of Arrow Rock,” Jeffrey Martin said. “I didn’t look at it so much as being in a movie as going to summer camp.”