By JANET SOWLE, Editor
When it comes to red carpets and movie premieres, most people don’t think of Clare, MI. Still, one is coming to the small town, the public is invited, and it’s even free to attend.
Growing up in Coleman, Ben Tigner, 38, had heard stories about The Purple Gang and Clare but he didn’t know much about them until he started doing research about three years ago. His soon-to-be-released documentary, Purple: Organized Crime in a Small Town, focuses on the Purple Gang and Clare but also includes history from the Farwell and Harrison areas.
A professor at Central Michigan University’s (CMU) School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts department, Tigner worked on this project as part of his research there. Students assisted with a lot of cinematography for the interviews and tracked down leads and sources.
“This isn’t who did what to who when,” Tigner said. “The story is about Organized Crime in a small town and how the town reacted to those people. Do they know? Do they know and not care? How does that work?”
Mid-Michigan residents were generous with photos and information. In all, Tigner had 1,708 photos to choose from. Many of the photos turned out to be duplicates including 40 of the same shot of the Doherty Hotel.
“It was a challenge to get people to talk on camera,” Tigner said. “For each person whose interview appears in the film, there are four more who shared their stories but didn’t want to be filmed.” His first interview was with Clare historian Forrest Meek. There are several other interviews in the film including Jeremy Bond, adjunct Instructor at Mid Michigan Community College (MMCC) and Manager/LMS Instructional Support at CMU.
For approximately three years, Bond, 33, of Mount Pleasant, taught History of the Mafia at MMCC. “I knew of the Purple Gang prior to teaching the course, though not to any great extent. As it turns out, a great-step-uncle of mine was a liquor truck driver for the gang in Detroit during Prohibition.” Student presentations were required as a part of Bond’s class and the Purple Gang was a popular topic. He suspects that the gang’s Michigan connection combined with its local ties made it appealing for the students.
Gangsters and their associates were often thought of as celebrities as they were wealthy powerful men. The former Garfield Library in Clare was named for Sam Garfield who was an associate of The Purple Gang.
“The often false notion that the Mafia’s criminal acts were victimless and that members and associates only killed one another, contributed, at times, to a degree of apathy even among those not enamored with the sensational,” Bond said. “Historically, too, I think what may have appeared to be acceptance or complacency, was more a tendency of people to simply mind their own business and avoid unneeded entanglements.”
The infamous 1938 murder of Isaiah Leebove was, indirectly, due to the Purple Gang. Oil promoter Carl “Jack” Livingston had a disagreement with Leebove who was a Purple Gang associate. Convinced Leebove was going to have the Purple Gang kill him, Livingston shot and killed Leebove in the bar at the Doherty Hotel before the Purple Gang could come after him. Coroner Andy Friz’s office was across the street and he took the body there before it was transferred to the Doherty Funeral Home to handle the arrangements.
Part of the filming for the documentary took place at Leebove’s former residence north of the Tobacco River in Clare –– an estate that has fascinated area residents for years. Tigner said he enjoyed being able to tour the grounds of Leebove’s residence, but his favorite part of filming came at Harry Bennett’s lodge in Freeman Township on Lost Lake.
“You hear so much about it and hope it’s true,” Tigner beamed. “It lived up to all of the hype.” In the mid 1960s the lodge was sold to the Boy Scouts and is now the Lost Lake Scout Reservation.
Although he’s an editor at heart, Tigner is enjoying marketing the movie. He’s been getting a great response from mid Michigan and beyond and the movie hasn’t opened. In the beginning, Tigner’s hope was that he and his fiancée, Shannon Cole, wouldn’t be the only two in the theater. Cole has put a lot work into the opening, turning the premiere into an event to be remembered. A red carpet and roping have already been arranged. Due to the amount of requests, 500 DVDs have been ordered and licensing is being worked on with hopes that they will be available the night of the premiere.
The hour-long film will premiere at 7 p.m. on Aug. 8 at Clare’s Ideal Theater located across from the Doherty Hotel. There will be a second showing at 9 p.m. that evening. The doors will open about 30 minutes before the show. While it is free to attend the showings, patrons may purchase a ticket with proceeds going to the Clare Historical Society. The Wednesday premiere is the only showing currently scheduled.
Watch the trailer online at http://youtu.be/ermbUH1UEh4