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  • Jordan D. Smith

Shelley Perry Costumes WWII Flick

The year is 1944, and the small town of Algona, Iowa has some new residents. These newcomers though did not move there willingly to enjoy the idyllic rural American midwest, they came in chains – German prisoners of war. What happens to the town when suddenly faced with a slew of foreign fighters set to live there for the duration of the war? That story is the subject of a new film called Silent Night in Algona which includes some Portland talent.

Shelley Perry of Portland has been interested in costuming and design from her very earliest memories, making paper doll clothes with pictures from the Sears Roebuck catalogue with her mother. As she got older, she moved up to sewing custom clothes her dolls. Later as a young parent she would customize second-hand clothing based on the newest trends. “I even hand-painted little logos or repurposed labels on them; my kids never knew they didn’t have the “cool” clothes,” says Perry. Her interest in costuming later expanded with her childrens’ involvement in Civil War reenacting and school drama productions. Perry taught drama at Grand Ledge for eight years. She now serves as the theater manager at Portland Civic Players where she has been involved in dozens of productions.

Perry also has an impressive resume of film credits to her name including Ashes of Eden, which filmed here in Portland back in 2014. That is when she first got involved in costuming for Collective Development Inc. (CDI) the production company that made Ashes of Eden. That project started a relationship with CDI that has seen Perry work on their films for the past leven years and counting.

The process of costuming begins with the script. “I am sent a script months to a year in advance of filming,” says Perry, “I read and re-read, letting a picture of each character develop in my imagination. I draw up a preliminary character sketch and costuming ideas for each cast member.” That process is further refined once casting takes place to incorporate actor input on their characterization. The costuming is further broken down into a plan for each days’ filming schedule. Every details is chartered down to the individual character, scene and piece of clothing for the entire movie.

“Then the researching, shopping, renting, sewing, altering, thrifting, borrowing, begging, dumpster diving, and foraging for just the right costume pieces begins,” Perry says. Finding worn or aged looking items are the hardest. Sometimes she has to age items by ripping, rubbing with gravel, staining with tea and even burying clothes in the ground. Costuming a WWII era film like Silent Night in Algona involved a lot of historical research and consultation with military historians. Perry also got help from a living history group from Wyandotte, Michigan and a military surplus store in Lansing.

On the set, filming does not always go in chronological order, so keeping track of all the costume pieces for a whole cast is a huge undertaking of logistics. Each actor and extra has to have the correct costume pieces on the correct day for the correct scene. “A 12-hour day for actors and crew is more likely a 14-hour day for the wardrober,” says Perry.

Camp Algona in was one dozens of such POW camps sent up across the midwest during WWII to house captured combatants. What sets the story of Camp Algona apart is the connection forged between the prisoners and the locals. POW’s constructed a life size nativity scene of cement, wire and wood as a gift to the town. The nativity is still displayed every year in Algona at the county fairgrounds as a lasting tribute to the time when this small town far from the action of war played an outsized role in the war effort.

Silent Night in Algona premiered back in December and has received limited release in a number of theaters across the midwest. It was showing in Lansing and Grand Rapids theaters around the holidays. There are plans for the film to show via a streaming service in the future. Locally the movie is set for a special showing at the NCG Cinema in Owosso, MI on February 4th and 5th. Many of the cast and crew will be in attendance. To learn more, visit the production's official facebook page or watch the trailer. If you'd like to learn more about the history behind the Camp Algona nativity scene you can check this video.

Perry is looking forward to her next film job with Harsen’s Island Revenge, adapted from a book by Carl Manke that will be filming this coming September in the Detroit and Alpena areas. The story, which will take Perry back to the 1940s again is about gangster flick.

PHOTO: Perry appears 3rd from left with other members of the cast and crew at a premier event. Courtesy Shelley Perry.


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