This is professor Katy Karlin. I’m here with Karole Graham, who played Big Mabel in The Learning Tree. And you’re actually the first person that we’ve talked to in connection with this project at Kansas State. We are establishing an online archive on Gordon Parks, in particular on the shooting of The Learning Tree, because we came into possession of some great photos that we’re in the process of digitizing and putting online. So, I’d like to talk to you first of all, how did you come to get the role in The Learning Tree?KG:
Well, my agent at the time, Lillian Cumber, was saying, “Carol, can you swim? There’s a role coming up in a film and you just swim, or are you athletic?” And of course, being an actor, of course, I can do anything. I can climb Mt. Everest if need be to get a role. You know? So anyway, so I said, “No, no I can do it.” I was very athletic and what have you. She says, “Well, have you ever heard of Gordon Parks?” I said, “Yeah.” I said, “Isn’t he the world-class photographer? Used to do fashions and all?” She said, “Yeah that’s him. He’s doing a film about his life.” And she said he’d be staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And I said, “Oh?” And she says that this is completely above board, you don’t have to worry about anything being untoward or whatever. I said okay, all right. And uh, I met with him. So I met with him. We had dinner, we laughed, we talked. I knew so much about his background and all, and what-have-yous. “Young lady, you know more about me than I do myself.” It was just wonderful. And we continued, we went back to his suite, and he called – he was so excited – he called the managing editor of Life magazine. He says, “I found Big Mabel.” [Laughter.] He says, “I’m so excited. She’s perfect for what we need.” So I said, gee-whiz, okay. So sure enough we shook hands, had a lovely evening, left, and Lil call me the next day and she says, “My dear, it looks like you’ve got it.” I said, “Incredible. I never had it go so easy. You know, that easily.” She says, “Well you got it. He says you have the height, you’ve got the complete physical thing that he wanted for Mabel and what have you.” She says “He loves your personality, your animation.” And that’s how it got started. Now the funny thing is, so I arrive in Kansas, right? Fort Scott. Knowing now that the camera adds a good ten pounds on you, I decided to be super svelte. Now, hmm, I took off about twelve pounds, because I think it was a period, about a good six weeks before we would start. So, I arrive at location, and so he began to start calling me my character’s name, Big Mabel. He said, “Big Mabel, what happened to you?’KK:
You not Big Mabel anymore. [Laughter.]KG:
That’s right and he said, “Have you been sick?” I said, no, Gordon. He said, “I don’t want a fashion model.” He said, “That’s why I chose you, because you were voluptuous.” He says, “You got to eat, girl.” And it was the joke of the film that everybody knew that I, well you know, I just began to feel like I was some kind of brood hog. I had to eat. I had to eat so I could gain some of this weight back, and that’s what I did.KK:
What were the relations like between Fort Scott and the company?KG:
You know, from what all, from what I can recall, basically good. Basically good. I think there was some incident I heard of. And it’s sketchy with me, Katy, about one of the hotels where somebody, was there stink bomb? You know, I don’t want to put that out there and not be accurate, but that’s just what I heard. So I don’t know if there was any veracity really to it or not. I don’t know. But I remember there was a favorite place we all used to love to go. I think it was the Red Barn.
Oh yes, it was just great, and we’d eat ourselves crazy and all that. And we had a good time. I think we really had a good time. It was a fun time. And of course the people of Fort Scott were totally enthusiastic, because so many of them were used in the film, as extras, and so there was a great camaraderie, you know?