Neighborhood Highlights

Zion Church As a Movie Setting

Recollection by Mr. Stuart Hersh

In 1971, when I was a Producer on the WNET-13 program, "The Great American Dream Machine", I was assigned to film the late W. H. Auden reciting his immortal poem, "The Unknown Citizen". Although British born, Auden was then a longtime resident of the United States and he was considered by many this country's Poet Laureate. In fact, many thought of him as, auguably, America's greatest living poet.

As nobody could read his work with as much feeling and meaning as the author himself, I sought a picturesque setting for the recitation. And, since the poem was a summing up of a man's life, shortly after his death, what background would be more appropriate than a cemetery. But a graveyard might be, I feared, a rather dismal setting. What I wanted was a beautiful place with striking monuments that spanned many generations. The perfect place turned out to be almost in my own backyard. The churchyard of the landmark Zion Episcopal fit the bill as though it had been waiting for a person of W. H. Auden's stature to grace it with his living presence. But I could not and would not do it without permission.

If memory serves (it was, after all, thirty years ago), Rev. Burrell was then Pastor of Zion Episcopal. He was thrilled to have the church featured on public television, and he couldn't have been more helpful. I had spotted an extremely dignified throne-like chair, and on the day of the shoot, he was glad to permit me to have my crew carry it outside and place it in front of one of the stately monuments in the graveyard.

Starting with a tight close-up of the poet's face as he began reciting his work, we began a very slow zoom back revealing, first, the elegant chair in which he sat, then the fact that he was outdoors, then the tall grave marker behind him, then more gravestones, and as Auden became smaller and smaller in the frame, we continued back to show the entire graveyard and the beautiful church in the background. As his seated figure became a speck in the distance, surrounded by the gravestones of so many Citizens who have passed, Auden's voice came to the end of the poem. The final scene, viewed by millions, was a lovely one of the beautiful and historic Zion Episcopal Church as it appeared three decades past.