Cass film honors family matriarch
By Diane Jeanty and Tyler Hawn
West Virginia Uncovered
Some knew her as the "Queen of Cass," Miss Kane or simply, Dess. But, Odessa Kane was also J.T. Arbogast’s grandmother and the primary inspiration for his movie, "Angel’s Perch," scheduled to debut sometime in 2013. The movie—which is now in post-production—was filmed in Cass throughout September, and tells the story of a young man grappling with his grandmother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Arbogast wrote the screenplay to honor his grandmother and the town she called home.
Arbogast, who is originally from Pennsylvania, spent summers visiting his "Nana" in the small town of Cass when he was growing up. Arbogast recalls that she always told the story about him and his cousin, John Michael, sneaking out of the upstairs bedroom window of her house to go roam the town. As they tried to sneak back into the house, their Nana was waiting for them upstairs.
"She would probably tell it six different times, but make it unique each time," says Kimberly Dilts, Arbogast’s wife and a producer of the film.
The town, which bustles to the whistles of locomotives throughout the day, was as much an inspiration to Arbogast as his grandmother. Built on the lumber industry, the town had almost 3,000 people until the mills shut down in the 1960s. Kane’s husband, Jack, was one of a number of businessmen in the town who helped persuade the state to turn the lumber railroad into the scenic tourist attraction it is today, in order to save the town. Jack died in the 1980s, but Kane lived in the town until her death in 2008.
Kane’s friends and family remember her as an important person in the town and were impressed by the way she carried herself.
"She was a very classy lady. She was never late for that weekly hair appointment every Thursday," said Judy Kane, Dess Kane’s daughter-in-law.
"She was the matriarch of Cass," Arbogast said." It didn’t matter who it was, everyone always called her Ms. Kane. She was just a light. I don’t know how else to say it. She was just a light in the world. And certainly for the people around here, everybody thought very highly of her."
Arbogast went to college to pursue theater, earning a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University in 1998. He eventually earned a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Texas in 2004. He has starred in television shows like NBC’s "30 Rock" and movies like "When in Rome."
Kimberly Dilts, Arbogast’s wife and producer for the film, is also an actress, and has been featured in "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and the CW’s "90210."
In 2004, Odessa Kane was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The disease affects more than four million people each year, according to the National Institute of Aging.
"They call it the long goodbye, because you can spend many years watching someone you love disappear," said Arbogast.
His grandmother’s four-year struggle with dementia is what inspired Arbogast to write the script for "Angel’s Perch."
"We could show her a photograph to bring her back. Watching her forget was the hardest," said Arbogast.
Once his "Nana" passed away in 2008, Arbogast spent many days and nights trying to figure out a way to honor her.
He began working on the script for "Angel’s Perch" in 2009, a year after his grandmother’s passing. He says his grandmother was very proud of the town and talked about it to everyone. He wanted to find a way to carry on that legacy using his talents and skill set.
While he worked on the script, he mostly kept it to himself. Then, when it was finished, he allowed his wife to read it.
"I read it, and it was good," Dilts said. "Then I was like ‘Damn it. Now we have to produce it.’"
The production of the film has been something Arbogast calls a guessing game—waiting to get investors, A-list talent, and money.
"We got to a point when we were all like ‘we could wait forever for this, and we don’t want to.’ So Kim and I sat down with our director Charles Haines. We were like, ‘We think we just want to just make this thing. Like, we’ve got this much money. Let’s make it. Let’s figure it out.’" Arbogast said.
Once Haines signed on, the decision was made, and the support came from a variety of places. In addition to a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com, partnerships with Snowshoe Mountain Resort, The Green Bank Observatory, and the West Virginia Alzheimer’s Association provided fiscal support for the production, which cost about $130,000.
The film, which is based on Arbogast’s experience, is not an exact representation of events. In it, an architect from Pittsburgh, named Jack, played by Arbogast himself, returns to West Virginia after his grandmother, Polly, is found wandering outside of her home. What was intended to be a short trip, becomes more complicated when Jack struggles to move his grandmother into an assisted living facility. Distinct memories begin to slip from Polly, and soon, Jack’s carefully constructed life begins to fall down around him.
Joyce Van Patten, who plays the character, Polly, in the film, was "the one," producers say. Van Patten has starred in major productions such as the classic soap opera "As the World Turns," and the Mary Tyler Moore Show. She has also made guest appearances in shows like Gunsmoke, The Untouchables, and the Twilight Zone.
"We looked for somebody who had warmth, and grace," Arbogast said. "Joyce is extremely approachable. The minute we got her on set, we knew we had the one."
There are moments in the film that very closely resemble the real story. At a pivotal moment in the movie, characters deal with the closing of the old schoolhouse in Cass. When the old school house shut down in reality, students had to be bussed much further out in the county to get to school.
Though it could have been set in many small towns, most of "Angel’s Perch" was set and filmed in Cass. Parts of the movie were even filmed in Kane’s former home in Cass.
"It’s my emotional home," said Arbogast. "I couldn’t imagine setting it any place else."
The production cast held local auditions for extras in Marlinton last year. Some of the extras were Kane’s friends, who knew her well.
Filming began on September 4, the anniversary of Kane’s death. Throughout the filming, family members like Judy and Janet Kane—both aunts of Arbogast—came out to watch and participate. The presence of people who knew Kane and were familiar with the relationships in the story added another dimension to the project.
"We’ve left crying because it’s been that touching," Judy Kane said.
As of now, producers hope to finish production next summer in time for the Sundance Film Festival independent film showcase held each year in Park City, Utah. The movie is set to debut sometime in 2013.