What becomes a legend most?

by Clay Eals

Let me say it here first:

West Seattle’s Historic Admiral Theater recently played host for the screening of what will become an Oscar-nominated documentary film.

The film, “Legends of the Road,” isn’t in the Academy Awards pipeline yet, but its quality and heart are so compelling that a future Oscar nod cannot be ruled out.

It is a tough film to describe in a few words.

In less than two hours’ time, this remarkable movie covers all of these bases in satisfying fashion. And for anyone like me who loves the diverse fabric of the robust peninsula called West Seattle, “Legends of the Road” is all the more rich an experience because it was born and executed right here at home.

It was my good fortune to organize the June 27, 2017, screening of “Legends of the Road” at the Historic Admiral Theater. The Admiral was a fitting host for this dynamic example of historical cinema because the 1919/1942 art-deco moviehouse, whose history spans the heyday of the Negro Leagues, has been an official city landmark since 1989.

But the Admiral also was the beneficiary. The icing for the event is that it was a fundraiser for the local Southwest Seattle Historical Society, which has begun a campaign to restore the theater’s 1942 underwater appliqué murals, which had been hidden beneath curtains until the Admiral’s recent renovation and expansion to four screens.

Flying in from Kansas City for this one-night treat was Bob Kendrick, the energetic and articulate president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Kendrick joined Gary Thomsen, of West Seattle, who led the “Legends” project at a local high school named for Chief Sealth, the Duwamish Indians chief for whom Seattle is named, in introducing and answering questions about the film for an audience of 200 people.

Assisting Kendrick and Thomsen were former student and “Legends” producer Paul Byrne and “Legends” trip leader Tauno Latvala.

You can see video of the introduction and the Q/A session at this page of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society website. There, you also can view the official “Legends” trailer as well as video interviews with Kenridck and Thomsen.

So back to the original question: What exactly is “Legends of the Road”?

It is a deeply moving account of 28 public high-school students from Chief Sealth High School in West Seattle, who in 1999-2000 created an extraordinary project about a largely unknown baseball phenomenon known as barnstorming.

Of course, sports fans are generally familiar with the Negro Leagues and a handful of its star players, including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, but as this film points out, few are aware of the practice of barnstorming – traversing the United States and Canada to play the game they loved in the face of prejudice and discrimination.

The “Legends” research project culminated with the students’ re-creation of a summer-long tour of the western United States and Canada to commemorate barnstorming’s 100th anniversary. They rode by day and played local teams by night. This tour, with the students reaching the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, constitutes the climax of the film.

Like any good baseball yarn, “Legends” overflows with impressive stats. Try a few on for size:

But “Legends of the Road” is about far more than numbers or concrete experiences. Equally important are the emotions it engenders.

The dedication of Thomsen and his students to pursue a decidedly non-traditional curricular path is inspiring. The examples of the hardship endured by the barnstormers with humor and grace are jaw-dropping.

Most impressive as you see this film are the overarching feelings of awe and gratitude that such a document exists. It is a vivid illustration of fearless initiative that can be instructive for people of all walks of life.

“Legends of the Road” won the highest audience rating at the Kansas City Film Festival last spring. It is slated for a screening Oct. 23, 2017, at the Twin Cities Film Fest. Here’s hoping that, as the film itself barnstorms the country, you will get a chance to see it.

And on one of those stops, Oscar surely awaits!

Clay Eals is former executive director of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society and was editor of the “West Side Story” history book of West Seattle. He also assisted Gary Thomsen as content and editorial consultant for the “Legends” film.

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