Kevin Riordan: Landon plaque sidelined; accounts vary

The Michael Landon plaque is now in the offices of a newspaper. Accounts vary.
The Michael Landon plaque is now in the offices of a newspaper. Accounts vary. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: January 04, 2012

The relationship between Collingswood and hometown hero Michael Landon sometimes resembled the soap-operatic TV sagas that made Landon a star.

The Little House on the Prairie actor has been dead for two decades, but the drama continues.

Two days after Christmas, a plaque honoring Landon was brought to the office of a weekly newspaper in the borough by someone who claimed it had been headed for the scrap heap.

The roughly 14-by-16-inch marker, which weighs more than 20 pounds, was removed in November during renovations to a Knight Park playground known as "the Little Treehouse on the Prairie."

Though Mayor Jim Maley has insisted the borough had no intention of throwing the plaque away, fans are outraged.

"It's just devastating," says the actor Lennon Parker, who produces the Prairiefans.com website.

"That plaque was for children. Mike loved kids, and he did a lot for kids," Parker, 29, says by phone from Little Rock. "It's amazing how disrespectful this is."

Abbe Effron led a grassroots campaign to erect the $1,400 plaque in 1997, six years after the actor and producer died of cancer at 54. The vertical marker was installed next to the playground, which was financed by Landon's widow, Cindy. On the play lot remains a single piece of equipment: the Little Treehouse.

A former borough resident who now lives in Cherry Hill, Effron, 51, was "shocked" that the plaque is now, in a sense, homeless.

"There's a lot of dislike for Michael Landon" in Collingswood, she says.

Born Eugene Orowitz, Landon moved from New York City in 1940 and became one of a handful of Jews in the mostly Protestant borough. The standout athlete at Collingswood High School later told interviewers he had been subjected to anti-Semitic taunts as a child.

After appearing in B-movies such as 1957's I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Landon found fame as Little Joe on Bonanza and, most memorably, the TV series based on the beloved Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. His name became synonymous with wholesome family fare.

But some in Collingswood couldn't forgive Landon for dissing their town on The Tonight Show and elsewhere, according to Effron.

She recalls people telling her "he doesn't like us" when she was raising money for the plaque.

Featuring a likeness of Landon with a majestic '70s hairdo, the bronze tribute is now on display in the Haddon Avenue office of  The Retrospect.

"We're always getting memorabilia for what I call the Retrospect Museum, but this was more interesting," says publisher Brett Ainsworth, whose 5,500-circulation weekly broke the story Dec. 30.

"The impression I got was it had been discarded, set aside," says Ainsworth, 41.

He knows but will not identify the man who delivered the plaque. It was wrapped in a towel and missing one bolt, but was otherwise unscathed.

Ainsworth says he "absolutely" believes Maley was willing to let the Retrospect keep the plaque indefinitely. But in a subsequent conversation, "the mayor said the borough is planning to find a place to better display it," Ainsworth adds.

"We want to see the marker returned to its rightful place in the town," he says. "The town should take some pride. Landon should be remembered and recognized."

Maley explains that the borough removed the plaque, still attached to its two-foot concrete base.

"We had 60 or 70 volunteers and a lot of equipment there," the mayor says. "The playground equipment had gotten beat up, and most of it had been removed, and this concrete thing sat off by itself.

"It was hazardous, especially in the dark. It was taken to our public works facility, not to a dump. And someone, I don't know how, went in and removed it from the concrete base and took it to The Retrospect.

"There was no offense intended," Maley says. "We will find a spot for it."

Effron calls the mayor "a nice guy," but she says she's not sure what or whom to believe.

The Landon legacy in Collingswood "has sort of been undercover," she adds. "You would never know the man lived here.

"I was kind of glad to hear that people are outraged. Because I didn't think anyone really cared anymore."


Kevin Riordan:

It's a mystery: How did a Michael Landon commorative plaque end up at a newspaper office? www.philly.com/landon


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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