Thorton Wilder's 'Our Town' has roots in Moorestown

A photo , left, from the wedding of Catharine Kerlin and Amos Wilder, playwright Thornton Wilder's brother. Lenny Wagner, right, unpacks Kerlin's wedding gown. TOM GRALISH / Staff
A photo , left, from the wedding of Catharine Kerlin and Amos Wilder, playwright Thornton Wilder's brother. Lenny Wagner, right, unpacks Kerlin's wedding gown. TOM GRALISH / Staff
Posted: October 02, 2012

For nearly 75 years, audiences have journeyed to Grover's Corners, N.H., the fictional setting of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town.

They've come to know Frank Gibbs, the local doctor; his wife, Julia, who dreams of going to Paris; and their son, George, who pays an uncomfortable visit to his future in-laws before marrying sweetheart Emily Webb.

But few realized that the story of Our Town was inspired, in part, by Moorestown, where Wilder was a member of his brother's wedding party in 1935.

The playwright left the garden ceremony, held at a home on East Central Avenue, with lasting impressions that found their way into his 1938 classic.

The little-known connection was made in June by Greg Harr, a history teacher and theater director at Moorestown High, while researching Our Town in preparation for the school's fall production.

He found the backstory in an afterword written by Tappan Wilder - the playright's nephew, literary executor, and manager of his works - that accompanied a 2003 HarperCollins edition of the script.

"Much of the flavor of family life in Our Town, particularly the portraits of the mothers, is drawn from Thornton Wilder's own upbringing," Tappan Wilder wrote. "On June 26, 1935, he served as the best man in his older brother Amos' wedding to Catharine Kerlin in Moorestown, New Jersey.

"It was here, in the home of another family, that he witnessed a determined future mother-in-law inform the groom at breakfast that he would not see his bride until the ceremony."

Delighted by the find, Harr reached out to Lenny Wagner, a trustee at the Historical Society of Moorestown, who contacted Tappan Wilder and Catharine Guiles, the children of Amos and Catharine Wilder.

In July, the family donated the bride's satin-and-lace wedding dress, veil, and shoes to the society, along with a signed copy of her memoir, photos, letters, and the wedding registry Thornton Wilder signed.

The memorabilia will be displayed at the school, 350 Bridgeboro Rd., from Monday through the play's Oct. 25-27 run. It then will be on permanent exhibit at the historical society, in the Smith-Cadbury Mansion at 12 High St.

So many years after the play's publication, "I thought I would have heard that our town, Moorestown, was part of [Wilder's] inspiration," Harr said.

"I hoped the students in the audience would make general human connections" with the characters. "Finding this out took it to a whole new level."

Stacey and Andrew Jordan, current owners of the spacious Central Avenue house, were unaware of the Our Town connection until Wagner came to their door in June.

"I was incredulous," said Stacey Jordan, a member of the Moorestown Township Council. "I have the house blueprint with the Kerlin name on it. We had a wedding here three years ago."

Tappan Wilder also was "quite surprised" to hear from the historical society. By coincidence, the Chevy Chase, Md., resident had been organizing his mother's papers and wondering what to do with her gown.

"Happy events happen," he said of Wagner's propitious call. "People read the play, but not necessarily the afterword."

In writing it, Wilder said, "I wanted to put in the importance of this wedding as a spark for the play - and the famous story of my mother's mother making a fuss over my father not seeing the bride" until the ceremony, he said. "It was a little tricky since everyone was staying at my grandmother's large house in Moorestown."

Catharine Kerlin, Amos Wilder's bride, was born in Camden, where her father co-owned a foundry. At 11, she moved with her family to Moorestown and attended Moorestown Friends School before heading to Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Kerlin volunteered with the American Committee in support of the League of Nations, and taught history and English in Geneva, Switzerland, where she met her future husband, a Bible scholar, poet, and literary critic.

Their nuptials took place in the garden of her family's home on a hot day.

"That old wives' tale about it being bad luck to see the bride before the wedding was a story that Thornton apparently hadn't heard before," said Wilder, who recalls visiting his grandmother in her later years and riding a bicycle through Moorestown.

On Thursday, Wagner joined Harr and the student cast of Our Town at the house - and brought the wedding dress. It was the first time it had been there in decades.

Thornton Wilder's beloved work had its debut at the McCarter Theater in Princeton. It has been one of the most frequently produced plays in the nation and has been staged around the world.

It's also one of the top-produced titles in the amateur market, said Katy DiSavino, marketing manager for Samuel French Inc. in New York, among the oldest and largest theatrical publishing and licensing agencies.

"People have seen the play, they know the book, and have seen Paul Newman do it for television," Wagner said. "But when someone does it in their own town, it's like seeing it for the first time.

"You're seeing people you know performing it," he said. "It takes on a whole new meaning."

The play "has a timeless quality," Wagner added. "Its central truths are universal."

The mythical Grover's Corners first appeared in Thornton Wilder's 1931 one-act play Pullman Car Hiawatha, and was described then as being in Northwest Ohio. The village in Our Town was believed to be inspired by Peterborough, N.H.

"It's everybody's town," Tappan Wilder said. "He used a town to talk about everywhere.

"But it's wonderful there's always a little New Jersey in Our Town," he said.


Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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