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Dolley to have her day

February 28, 2010 12:35 am


Many of the scenes for PBS' 'Dolley Madison, America's First Lady' were shot at the Madisons' home, Montpelier, in Orange County. lo0228dolley2.jpg

Tune in tomorrow as Tony Award nominee Eve Best portrays first lady Dolley Madison, who made her home in Orange.

THE director-producer of "Dolley Madison, America's First Lady," premiering tomorrow night at 9 on PBS, is thrilled that the portrait sheds light on one of the most underappreciated women in our country's history.

Muffie Meyer helped craft the mix of historians' commentary and acted segments for the "American Experience" entry, much of it filmed at James and Dolley Madison's home of Montpelier in Orange County.

"She's a person all Americans have heard of," Meyer said of Dolley, portrayed by Tony Award nominee Eve Best. "But ask even the most well-educated about her and many won't get past saying, incorrectly, that she invented ice cream."

The Chicago-born Meyer, whose career-launching classes at NYU's film school were intended to be just a break from graduate studies in history, knew little about Dolley before the film.

"She was the first to establish the idea of the president's wife as a public position"--a role one of the film's historians says straddled the line between queen and commoner--"and the first to establish a charitable cause," said Meyer.

The film also focuses on Dolley's opening of the White House to the people of Washington, holding weekly parties so tightly packed they were called "squeezes."

"It was a delicate thing, this question of how the leader of this new republic would display power and legitimacy without the jewels and royalist trappings of the kingdoms and empires in the rest of the world," said Meyer. "And Dolley was a key in figuring all that out."

Meyer said the team creating the film, led by executive producer Catherine Allan, began by reading up on Dolley and identifying the top historians knowledgeable about her and the period, including Cokie Roberts, Catherine Allgor and Richard Norton Smith.

Of critical importance to the team was using letters or other historical sources for all the words spoken by actors who play Dolley and James Madison, slave Paul Jennings and others.

Meyer said the film emphasizes how Dolley used parties, her own charm and social connections to advance her husband's agenda.

"All this in an era when it was considered pretty close to unseemly for woman to discuss politics openly," she said. "In the press, she was slandered and nearly called a prostitute. But, by and large, she got away with it, within the bounds of femininity."

To make the film, Meyer said, the crew spent five days filming in Virginia, mainly at Montpelier and in Richmond, where the Governor's Mansion and Capitol were used.

Two days were spent at Montpelier, getting what Meyer called excellent cooperation and support to film "a lot of exteriors, including beautiful scenic views of what Dolley would have seen from her windows."

They also shot scenes depicting the Madisons moving in, with slaves hauling trunks and boxes, and the house's beautiful front doors, with mountains visible in the distance.

Other scenes show characters strolling the grounds, an ice house and graveyard views.

Filming inside the house was limited somewhat by the mansion's recent renovation, which left many of the interior walls clean or just painted.

"In Dolley's day, things would have looked a little more worn and lived-in, with more soot from the fireplaces," Meyer said.

Earlier this month, Montpelier hosted a film preview with the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. Today, Montpelier members and guests will preview film excerpts and hear a discussion of Dolley's life in an event at the site's visitor center.

Meyer noted that tomorrow night's film is a natural progression from earlier films that National Productions had done on the Colonial period and the American Revolution.

"Making those, we singled out individuals that could be movies by themselves," she said of films on Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.

Dolley, one of the few women on the list, piqued her interest.

Meyer, who has made more than 100 films, is looking forward to films set a little later in time.

"I want to reach the age of photography," she said. "Paintings and portraits are fine, but I'm dying to get to the period where pictures are available of our subjects."

Aside from what she has learned about Dolley Madison, there's one memory of making this film that has nothing to do with history and everything to do with ice cream, which Dolley featured at parties but certainly didn't invent.

"I loved the custard we got at Carl's in Fredericksburg on our scouting visit to Montpelier," Meyer said. "A great discovery."

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

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