Growing Up With Ben Hur – a Guest Post

by Nancy VanArendonk

When I was growing up — back in the days before Netflix, Redbox, Movies On Demand and the like — there were just two possibilities if you wanted to see a film that had been made some years earlier. You could hope that it might someday be run on one of the four existing TV channels (three national networks and one local station), or that the film studio would deem it worthy of re-release and that it would come back briefly to theaters. Which is why I remember that when I saw the splashy newspaper ad for the re-release of the 1959 Ben-Hur (possibly for the 10th anniversary of its release?), I put up a positively merciless campaign of begging to get my parents to take me to see it. Eventually my dad gave in and took me to a drive-in theater where it was showing.

And I loved it. :)

Apparently I had good taste. No film in history has ever won more Academy Awards (11), and only two have even tied with it (Titanic and The Lord of the Rings) — and it took 40 years and the invention of computer generation to do that!

I read the novel, and for once thought the film version of a story actually better than the book. Mind you, I definitely enjoyed Wallace’s tale, but for me the film had an impact that the written version didn’t deliver in the same way… especially in regard to the final part of the character Messala’s story.

Eventually it became possible to see the film every few years, as it began to be shown on TV on some Easter weekends. With each viewing I appreciated new aspects. Were not the Sheik’s horses the most gorgeous in filmdom? And how deliciously potent those three words, “You’re wrong, Messala,” just before Judah steps from the shadows!

Then came the availability of the home videocassette recorder. As my husband Larry remembers it, we purchased our first VCR — a Beta, yet — specifically to record Ben-Hur, which was scheduled to be run on TV. This was not the casual investment that VCRs later became; at that time each blank cassette tape cost $26 and could record just over four hours of material. But we’d end up splurging still more because of the film: Years later, when friends from another country moved to Indiana, we discovered in conversation that they’d never seen the movie. We invited a group and planned to make a big evening of it, and how better to do that than to buy a bigger TV? (Hey, you can’t fully appreciate the chariot race when it’s all compressed can you?) ;-)

There’s a family story about Ben-Hur that predates me by many decades, though I hadn’t heard it until after I’d developed my own fondness for Lew Wallace’s tale. My parents were married in 1926. Since they were young and without money, someone suggested that they drive out of state to the farm of an aunt for their honeymoon. The drive there was a disaster in itself, as they camped in a pup tent en route; one night it not only rained, but a stray cat ran into their tent to escape the weather and used the dry area therein as a toilet, forcing them to relocate. And then, as you might imagine, staying with an elderly aunt wasn’t really a honeymoon-conducive scenario. My father started reading Ben-Hur, and continued to do so throughout their stay. My mother, bored and frustrated with the entire situation, was still aggravated decades later about my dad having read that book on their honeymoon!

My own fondness for Lew Wallace’s story began to give family members ideas when searching for birthday or Christmas presents for me. My younger daughter bought an autographed photo of Charlton Heston as a galley slave. Larry began shopping for unusual editions of the novel. One vintage volume, for instance, is illustrated with photos from the 1899 Broadway stage production, which ran for 21 years and featured live horses in the chariot race. Later, Larry found for me a century-old program from that play. And, since the novel’s decades-long popularity had led to countless things being named after it, another of my surprises was an antique box of Ben-Hur brand black pepper (see photo)… the box was still filled with peppercorns!

The search for such things is half the fun, and today I was again rewarded with a “find.” I attended a Vintage Book & Paper show, and while there I found an 1880s copy of Ben-Hur that had been autographed by author Lew Wallace! This makes my second autographed Wallace volume, the other being a copy of The Prince of India.

Such finds are fun. The search (to paraphrase a line from the film) goes on. :)

Larry & I appreciate a lot of classic films, so when the historic Artcraft Theatre in Franklin reopened about a decade ago and began showing classic movies to raise money to restore the 1922 building, we attended regularly, and seven years ago we sponsored our first film there. It was (surprise!!) Ben-Hur.

In the years since, we have sponsored many other films at the Artcraft. But when we learned that Ben-Hur was once again on the schedule, there was no question; we had to sponsor the movie! And so, on March 29th & 30th we will again be sponsoring this. I hope that many will come and enjoy this film as it was meant to be seen, on the Artcraft’s 33-foot-wide screen. Showings will take place both days at 2:00 and at 7:30, but for the evening showings I strongly recommend finding seats no later than 7:00. Tickets are $5, or just $4 for students or seniors.

The Artcraft, by the way, is interesting in its own right. All those who work in the theater are volunteers. This way all the funds from the ticket sales can go to restoring the theater. The popcorn sold there is grown just five miles away and is popped fresh as you watch, and all evening films are preceded by door-prize drawings, the singing of the national anthem, and the showing of a vintage cartoon. For a few hours, you’ve gone back in time.

But those added benefits won’t distract us; we’ll all know why we’re there:  To see BEN-HUR!  :)


Note: Nancy and her husband Larry are members of the Lew Wallace Study Preservation Society as well as enthusiastic Ben-Hur fans. I asked Nancy to write this guest post so we could learn more about her reasons for sponsoring the movie screen as well as her relationship with Lew Wallace’s legacy. If you have a story you’d like to share with our friends and readers, let me know! I’m always interested in sharing your stories.

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