Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 5, 2013

Dad and the aliens

Almost every summer when sister Gaila comes to Kansas from her home in Bolivia, we try to make time to watch the movie, “Mars Attacks!” I usually describe it as “so ridiculous, it’s actually funny.”

"Mars Attacks" is one of those movies with a bunch of stars - Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Danny De Vito, Sarah Jessica Parker and many others. It was directed and co-produced by Tim Burton, who also directed “Batman” and “Edward Scissorhands.”

So why would watching it be part of our summer “ritual?” It is because it was partially shot in our hometown of Burns, Kan., population 300. Burns friend Tom told me:

“... Burns was chosen as a site when one of the ‘scouts’ for Tim Burton was driving north from El Dorado on (Highway) 77 and came up over the hill a mile south of Burns and saw Burns suddenly on the landscape. That hill might be the highest point on 77 from Texas on up to the northern U.S.”

The premise is that Martians come to Earth and blow away everything in their path - including the U.S. Congress, Las Vegas entertainers and much more. Although supposedly taking place in the 1990s, the U.S. Army uniforms, tanks, jeeps, artillery and other equipment date from the 1950s, when so many horror flicks were made. “Mars Attacks!” - based on the Topps trading cards of the early 1960s - is a spoof of those “B” movies.

Burton and dozens of crew members spent a couple of weeks in April 1996 in Burns, filming scenes downtown and in the cemetery east of town. Some took breaks at the local Burns Café & Bakery. The crew built a "Donut World" for a scene in the movie and some area residents thought it was the real thing - until it was blown up during the shooting.

Although it’s fun to see our hometown in a movie, the best part - at least for Mom, Gaila, me and other family members - is when we see Dad. In the scene filmed in a retirement home in Wichita, Dad and other residents are shown watching a television account of the Martian attacks on the East Coast. Dad stands with a walker behind actress Sylvia Sidney, who gleefully declares, “They blew up Congress!”

Gaila's oldest daughter Gabriela said:

“All I can recall from watching the movie on my own or with family is that famous line: ‘They blew up congress.’ That was our cue to see gramps ... and THERE HE WAS ... standing with a walker with his crooked smile! We would pause, rewind and watch it again! I don't know how many times we did that! And then the girls and I would always imitate that lady Martian’s swaying walk.”

Yup, that’s it! Dad, dressed in brown pajamas, only appears for about four seconds. But it is enough for us to watch again and again.

Youngest daughter Katie is a fan of science fiction, fantasy and horror movies.

“... I didn’t really understand a lot about the humor or ridiculousness of it until I was older (like 12 or 13) - it was just something we watched with Grandpa in it about Martians. I’m jealous Grandpa and Grandma got to meet Tim Burton and take pictures of all the cool things on set - like green human skeletons.”

Youngest niece Larisa says the movie is one of her favorites. “Every time I have the opportunity, I recommend the movie to everyone,” she said. “I love the scene Grandpa’s in, and it didn’t hit me until about last summer ... that Grandpa was in a REAL movie...”

Gaila said all her friends think it’s great that they know someone whose dad was in a movie.

But there was also some irony in what happened. Mom wanted to be in the movie, but Dad didn’t care. He just went along with Mom for the “extras” audition in El Dorado. Dad was selected and she wasn’t.

It didn’t seem to bother her and she even made an album devoted to the movie. Included are newspaper and magazine articles; photos she took of the crew, the extras, the sets, the props, and the trucks with sound and electrical equipment; autographs of Tim Burton, Sylvia Sidney and others; a day-by-day account of activities surrounding set construction and filming; and Dad’s pay stubs for his three days of shooting.

Although the Burns segment was a fleeting one in the $70-million movie, “Mars Attacks!” added excitement to the lives of the folks in my hometown. Dad's even shorter "bit part" has provided many hours of entertainment for our family as well. I mean, how many other people can truthfully say their father was in a movie and met aliens?

Upper left: the term "cattle call" is sometimes used to describe a film company's request for many people to audition. The term seemed to apply particularly well when a call for extras was made in what is the heart of cattle country. Dad is in the middle in the blue sweater; lower left: Topeka television station WIBW's mobile van rolls into Burns, a.k.a. Perkinsville, past the "Donut World" shop some locals thought was a new Burns business; right; Dad in his wardrobe pajamas next to a soon-to-be alien at the "Perkinsville Retirement Home." The "home" was actually in Wichita, Kan.

Left: the sign at the edge of town welcoming visitors to Burns was used "as is," except for the strip with the name "Perkinsville" that was fastened over the Burns name; right: DVD cover.

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