When the cameras began filming at the WVIA studio Tuesday night, they captured a whirlwind experience and dozens of Jim Thorpe residents and friends gathering to celebrate their town. Tuesday marked the premiere of "Our Town: Jim Thorpe" and the culmination of months of efforts by the people who live and work in Jim Thorpe to document the story and spirit of their town.
The "Our Town" documentary series is a unique series on WVIA that attempts to capture the talent and heart of each town. The entire documentary is filmed and narrated by local amateur videographers and photographers who live or work in Jim Thorpe.
Documentary topics were chosen by town residents who attended WVIA sessions in Jim Thorpe. Working together, residents pieced together a story of a small town with a big sense of purpose and history.
"I think they did an excellent job of showing the past, present and future of Jim Thorpe. It's been wonderful, really showing what Jim Thorpe is about," said Mary Bogin, a member of the documentary team and resident of downtown Jim Thorpe. "I'm pleased that I had a chance to be part of this. I love the town, and it was so fun to go out into the field and speak with people."
Bogin was one of nearly three dozen residents on hand in the studio to view the documentary premiere, help to answer phones in the WVIA studio as viewers called in pledges and ordered copies of the documentary, and also to provide entertainment as a member of the Bach and Handel Chorale, she helped to end the show with the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's "Messiah." The chorale was one of two local musical groups featured that night; also performing was Free Range Folk of Jim Thorpe.
"The story of Jim Thorpe is almost like the story of the gravity railroad coaster. It had its ups and downs, its highs and lows," said Lisa Mazzarella, a producer and host for WVIA. "You can almost sense those ups and downs with the story of Josiah White, a time of prosperity and thriving, and then there were floods and the end of the coal industry."
She noted that while the town suffered from its low points and not too long ago featured boarded up windows and empty streets, residents eventually rebuilt and persevered, creating a town filled with natural and historical treasures that is even stronger and more diverse than before.
"Jim Thorpe is like a city that went to sleep economically at the end of the Victorian era, when the wealth disappeared. No one had the money to tear down buildings, so all of the Victorian buildings were preserved accidentally. There was no money to demolish the buildings. But today, our town is very much alive," said Bill Allison, a resident of Jim Thorpe who is active in many parts of the town, including the Jim Thorpe School District, the Mauch Chunk Historical Society, Mauch Chunk Museum, and the Dimmick Memorial Library.
He noted that while the historical section of Jim Thorpe receives the most public recognition, the entire town is active and very much alive.
"The town is lively in all of its sections, not just the historical area," said Allison.
"It is a really good story, a dramatic story," added Mazzarella. "It's a great depiction of the people in the town, what they had to go through and what they're currently going through. I think the people did a fantastic job of picking the topics that will grab your attention and pique your interest."
History played a big role in the documentary's final themes, with nods to the area's rich history tracing back to the Switchback Gravity Railroad, the Molly Maguires, and the "Millionaire's Row" homes that still exist on Broadway. Other topics included the town's attraction to tourists near and far, and the beautiful surroundings of Carbon County.
"This documentary, by far, had the most gorgeous and diverse video from which to glean," said Mazzarella. She noted that while tourism plays a big role in defining Jim Thorpe, it certainly isn't the only thing the town has going for it and that residents were eager to display all that the town has to offer outside of gorgeous views and tourism.
"Because we had such a diverse group of residents working on this, they have such different things to bring to the table for this project," she said.
"I have to give them a lot of credit, not only the people who have lived there for a long time, but for the newcomers as well. They all want to make the town better and for positive things to happen to the town. I see people that have great vision in Jim Thorpe, for its future. I also see others who have a great allegiance to the past. You have a terrific mix of old and new."
For Mazzarella, the premiere of the documentary was a bittersweet moment. It was a chance to see more than three months of work culminate in a finished project, but also an end to working so closely with the residents of Jim Thorpe.
"I've come to believe a town is only as good as the people who make it so. You have much of which to be proud, and I hope this documentary was a positive experience for those involved in the production," said Mazzarella. "These folks already realize what they have. Now it's time for others to discover what the residents of Jim Thorpe already know."
WVIA is a public broadcasting station that serves northeastern Pennsylvania and the central Susquehanna valley. The station reaches more than 20 counties within Pennsylvania.
"Our Town: Jim Thorpe" will be rebroadcast on WVIA on Saturday, Dec. 22 at 9 p.m. and on Sunday, Dec 23 at 1 p.m.