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Photo by Duwain “Red” Raridon, now deceased, used with permission Prancer rides in the back of the Chevy pickup after the Clarks Hill scene is filmed in Utica. The reindeer actor's real name was “Boo.” The reindeer playing Prancer is clearly female, even though she is referred to as “he” in the film. Both male and female reindeer have antlers, though a female’s are smaller and daintier than a male’s. The late Duwain “Red” Raridon took these photos from the family’s home in the late 1980s on north Mill Street during filming of a scene in which Prancer was being taken to be let loose on a “mountain,” actually one of the bluffs at Starved Rock State Park.
Utica residents reminisce
It didn’t last long, but Utica residents fondly recall the “Prancer” film crew and cast visit to town and Starved Rock State Park in the late 1980s.
Randy Raridon was at work the day the crew filmed a scene in front of his parents’ house on north Mill Street. He treasures photos his dad, the late Duwain “Red” Raridon shot of his mother with actor Sam Elliott and also of the outdoor set.
Amateur historian Leland Bottomley of Utica was working at Starved Rock Lock the day of filming across the river at Starved Rock State Park’s Devil’s Nose cliff-edge formation. He watched helicopters hovering over the bluffs for some of the shots that day.
His son-in-law, Don Petre, is now an assistant superintendent at the park. From him, Bottomley heard a story about a gnarled tree atop the cliff. The crew was working on the climactic scene on the cliff, and they wanted to get rid of the tree that was in the way of their shot.
The park wouldn’t let them do it. The crew sent one of the rangers on an errand. Out came a chain saw, and down went a 125-year-old tree that was stunted from growing out of the sandy cliff. “I think they wound up paying $1,800 for that tree,” Bottomley said.
All grown up now, filmmaker Rebecca Harrell Tickell says her experience acting in a Christmas movie filmed partly in Utica and Starved Rock 25 years ago continues to be an inspiration for her.
A quarter century has passed since Harrell played the role of 9-year-old Jessica alongside grizzled veteran actor Sam Elliott in “Prancer.”
It’s often described as a nice little Christmas movie, but it has become a holiday classic, often playing somewhere in the cable lineup throughout the season, including yesterday and this afternoon on ABC Family.
Harrell, 33, said her fellow documentary-making husband always is amazed that people all over the United States will recognize her and tell her they love “Prancer” and watch it every year. Though it’s not as hard-hitting as her documentary with Peter Fonda, “The Big Fix,” about the Deepwater Horizon oil well sinking and BP’s use of dispersant in the Gulf of Mexico, she appreciates the permanence, the lasting effect of the 1989 movie featuring a reindeer.
“It’s about how we become cynical and about getting back to that place of wonder,” she said, taking a break last week after a conference call for her business near Los Angeles. “It’s a film that has a lasting impact.”
After years as a child actress and in roles she calls “eye candy” in films in the early 2000s, Harrell realized many movies she was in didn’t have any lasting impact. Meanwhile, the sweet little film, “Prancer,” continued to have an effect on people. And that reminded her of the power of films.
She had started to become cynical about the movies, and remembers the point where she decided enough was enough, at least for certain types of roles. She was portraying a blood-sucking demon in a Clive Barker horror movie. There she was, stuck lying on a table, having just given birth to a monster. The moviemakers had dumped a syrupy substance on her, and Jim Henson puppeteers were manipulating a creature hovering above her. She suddenly was playing a victim, with her “squid baby” trying to eat her.
“That was kind of the last straw for me,” Harrell said.
It was a far cry from some of her best film-set memories that came from Utica, Starved Rock and Three Oaks, Mich., the sites for “Prancer.” During filming in Michigan and Indiana, the actors lived in the La Porte, Ind., Holiday Inn. She doesn’t recall where they stayed during the Utica scenes.
“I was so sleep-deprived. I don’t remember sleeping,” she said. Filming was supposed to last 2½ months, but went over by two weeks. At times, they filmed until 5 a.m.
What she recalls from the Midwestern sets was how nice and welcoming everyone was in the communities. She said filming at Starved Rock was exciting and contributed to her lasting appreciation of nature.
“I remember being scared because we were up so high and we were filming right at the edge of that cliff (Lovers Leap and Devil’s Nose),” she said. “I got to do a lot of my own stunts. I got to jump over this crack in the rock.”
The crew, and animal trainers, spent hours working with the reindeer to get its rear and front feet to move in unison, like people expect fictional flying reindeer to move, and they worked to get it to run toward the edge of the cliff before the grand-finale flying scene.
Harrell remembers gazing for hours up into the trees and out into the scenery and being in awe of the place.
She most fondly remembers working with method actor Sam Elliott, who had no difficulty staying in gruff character.
“He’s an amazing actor. He wouldn’t treat me like a kid,” she said. “He would swear a lot.”
She started charging him a dime per swear word and later raised her rate to a quarter.
One day he was in a foul mood.
“He slapped a twenty in my hand and told me to go away,” she recalled, laughing.
She and Elliott stay in touch, and she plans to talk to him in the next couple of weeks. Who knows? Maybe they could produce some sort of sequel of “Prancer” to release 25 years after the 1989 film.
So far, she and her husband’s company, Green Planet Productions, has made documentaries such as “Fuel” (about vegetable oil diesel, like that sold and promoted by their friend, Willie Nelson), and the BP disaster documentary, “The Big Fix.” It’s unabashedly anti-BP. Her husband’s from Louisiana and when the spill happened, they grabbed cameras and several interns and headed to the Gulf of Mexico.
She said what they saw and experienced was not what Americans saw on the TV news. A bigger problem than the oil was the dispersant used by BP to dissipate oil into the air and make it vanish from water. She said it’s far more dangerous than the oil, and she broke out in a rash, became sick and had blood in her urine while they were filming.
They’re now making a sort of “dystopic sci-fi” film, a feature-length movie set in a future without bees. Also at their Ojai, Calif.-based studio on an avocado farm, they just wrapped up a documentary on the oil-monopoly, a film not about companies but about the dearth of fuel choices people have at the pump other than 87, 89 or 91 octane.
She’s also a hands-on activist who traveled secretly up the Niger River to teach residents along the river in that African nation how to wage a social media revolution. She wanted to empower them to protest uncontrolled oil-drilling and daily spills that have rendered the groundwater undrinkable and deadened the land and river in many stretches and ruined local economies for all except corrupt government officials and ruling elite.
NewsTribune photographer Scott Anderson contributed to this report. (He was 1 year old when a scene for “Prancer” was filmed in his Utica neighborhood. Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 220-6935 or email@example.com.
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