What are your fondest memories from your time as a student at Laurel?
My fondest memories are of my teachers. I remember Miss White, my first-grade teacher, Miss Reed/Mrs. Lawyer my fifth-grade teacher (she was married the summer before fifth grade and my friends and I could not believe that such an “old person” was getting married!), Miss Florance, my history teacher, and Miss Andrews, my English teacher. The older girls told us that Miss Andrews was the very best English teacher there ever was. I didn’t have her until my Senior year but what they said was certainly true. She taught us on a college level. My freshman year at Smith College my roommate was an English major and everything she was learning I already knew thanks to Miss Andrews. And Mrs. Lawyer really started my love of history. In her class we studied Egypt, making cross stitch samplers with our names, Laurel, the year and the Egyptian sun with black wings at the top and three lotus plants across the bottom. I still have it!
Also, I have to say that among my favorite memories are all the friends I made in first grade at Laurel. They remained my closest friends all their lives. Sadly, only one other first grade classmate is still alive, but she remains a very good friend.
What was your favorite subject in school and why? What do you remember about Miss Lake?
My favorite subject was art—I always looked forward to that class. The art studio was on the third floor of the school [editor’s note: as it is today!] and our teacher was a well-known Cleveland artist whom I liked very much.
Miss Lake was a very tall, foreboding woman. She stood at the front door every morning and shook hands with every girl and you didn’t dare be late unless you had a very good excuse. I remember one day being called to her office with some other girls for chewing gum in class—absolutely against the rules. We all thought we were going to be kicked out of school. Of course, no such thing happened. However, we were given a lecture about following the rules and had to stay after school several days and wash windows as punishment.
Can you tell us a little about Lyman Circle during the Depression and World War II? How did the war impact your teenage years?
The war changed everything. I was very lucky because I had no brothers or boyfriends that were serving overseas. However, the brother of one of my best friends was killed in the Pacific and that was very hard. Most of us at Laurel had always been driven to school, but with gas rationing that was no longer possible. The school hired busses and for the first time in my life I went to school in a big yellow bus. We had food stamps and our lives revolved around doing everything we could for the war effort.
A friend and I worked on a farm for two summers because all the able-bodied men were gone. My mother was chairman of the Cleveland USO and they had dances every month. When I turned sixteen I was old enough to go to the dances and I met some very nice young men. But the thing I remember most, and it has never happened again, was that the entire country was united in doing everything they possibly could to support the war effort.
You recently published your first book, Pidge and Jamie, based on the letters that your parents wrote to each other during World War I, when your father was an artillery captain and your mother was also serving in the war zone of France. What was it like reading their letters? How would you describe your writing process?
Reading their letters was a real learning experience. Not only did I learn a lot about World War I that I had not known, but I also learned a great deal about my parents. I had known them, as every child does, as two adults. In reading their letters I was able to see them in a different light, as two young people in love.
My mother had been in the process of burning the letters when I found her doing it. She wanted to burn them because they were love letters and she didn’t want anyone to read them. I pled with her to stop and only persuaded her to give them to me by promising I would read them, edit out all the personal parts and never show them to anyone else. It was only the history I wanted to save.
After several years I set about putting them in order chronologically, which took me several months. After that, I did the editing and thought my job was finished. But whenever I told anyone about these letters, they would invariably say that I should write a book. I always replied that I wasn’t an author and had no idea how to write a book. It seemed like a very daunting project to take on. However, when I was diagnosed with macular degeneration I decided if I was ever going to try, I should do it while I still could. When I started, I planned to write only about the war years, but as they both had quite amazing lives in addition to the war years, I decided to write about them from birth to death. And I have to say that once I started, the book took on a life of its own, and I just kept going. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it.
You can find out more about the book at www.mjdouglas.com.
Tell us about your home, originally a two-room Dutch farmhouse built in 1756, that you and your husband completely renovated in the early ’80s, specifically designing it to host film and television crews. What makes the Douglas House special and what inspired you to create it?
The very beginning was in 1975 when I saw an ad in a Junior League magazine looking for houses for location shoots for commercials. I thought it sounded like fun, and as I had heard of the woman who placed the ad, I thought it would be safe and called her. We did our first commercial that year in our house in New Jersey. After that we were the location for more and more commercials each year until, after five years, some neighbors complained, and the town shut us down. We had loved doing it and had learned a lot about what the companies wanted and needed. I said to my husband one day, thinking it was simply pipe dream, “Wouldn’t it be fun to get a house and remodel it just for shooting?” To my amazement he replied, “That’s a great idea. Let’s go for it.”
We spent a year looking for a house and property that would fit all our requirements. When we finally found it, the house was derelict and the roof had burned off three years earlier. The owners had collected the insurance and walked away, leaving the house open to the elements. Vandals had come in with spray paint and there was a squatter living there. But we knew it would work for us.
And then an absolutely amazing thing happened. The realtor told me that one family had lived in it for three generations and one of the grandsons still lived in the area. The realtor said if I could find the grandson, he could probably give me some history of the house. The grandson’s name was Gregory Spurr. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but I didn’t think any more about it until about an hour later. Then it finally dawned on me. Gregory Spurr was married to Cynthia Holmes Spurr ‘44, one of my closest friends from first grade in Laurel! I could scarcely believe it, that of all the millions of people in the New York-metropolitan area we had bought the house where the husband of one of my best friends had grown up!
There are many features that make our house special for film crews. It has twenty large rooms with high ceilings. When we remodeled, we made sure all the doors were 36 inches wide to accommodate equipment. We have 400 amps of power coming into the house and two boxes with special cable tie-ins. This means crews don’t have to bring a generator. Most bathrooms are too small to shoot in, but our shooting bath has a moving wall, which opens to the master bedroom, so there is plenty of room for equipment. The kitchen (the most filmed room of the house) is 20 by 30 feet and all the cupboards have removable doors so the kitchen can be completely changed from white to black or to wood. On the grounds we have a large parking lot, hidden from the street, a dumpster for trash and a stream. The outbuildings include a large gazebo, a barn, a small stable, a pump house, a pool house and a small garden shed.
What are the best and the most challenging parts of living on a film set?
I find it great fun. I love meeting new people and hearing their stories. I’ve found that most of the star talent is just like the general public, they just happen to be famous. Some of my favorite days are when we have animals on set. We’ve had countless dogs and cats, as well as horses and many other wild and domestic animals. I feel so blessed to have a business that I thoroughly enjoy and can still be active in (part-time now).
Of course, nothing is perfect so there are some down sides. We are pretty trusting; we don’t ask for a deposit and we get paid at the end of the day. Only three times have we been stiffed, with a company saying they would send a check and never doing so. Another thing we deal with is stealing, not too often, but it does occur, so I have learned never to put anything on the shooting floors that can’t be replaced. Nevertheless, it is annoying when it happens. And sometimes our things get mixed up with the crew’s and go back to the prop house. This is not deliberate, and I understand it’s hard for them to keep track of what they’ve brought, so we consider it another business expense.
Do you have a favorite commercial, talk show or movie that has filmed at your house?
Probably the best known is a spoof of a beer commercial for Saturday Night Live years ago. Another one was a spot we did for David Letterman when they brought a full-sized Ferris wheel. And lastly, I have to mention the Black and Decker three-day shoot we did with 19 wild animals. The baby leopard was brought from the Columbus Zoo by Jack Hanna in his own special van. That one was a great deal of fun.
Have there been any particularly funny or surprising experiences?
Oh yes. When we had all the animals here, I was asked if the kitchen floor would support a water buffalo. I laughed and asked how much a water buffalo weighed. They didn’t know and I told them I had no idea how much weight our floor could take. They covered the floor, in case of an accident, and brought him in the kitchen. He was very well behaved, no accidents, and apparently not too heavy for the floor. Also, that morning I woke up to my husband exclaiming that there was a camel eating our hedge! I had neglected to tell him we were having a lot of animals that day.
One time I was asked if they could use my cat in a commercial. I said yes and later when they were ready for him they said, “Mrs. Douglas, is your cat going to cooperate with us?” I laughed and said, “I really don’t know. He’s not an actor, he’s just a house cat.” He was fairly good. They only wanted him to run out a door. He did that very well, but there was no chance of a second take. He ran right into the woods and disappeared.
Also, Heather, my daughter who works in the business with me, and I know nothing about sports. One day a nice-looking man, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, came into the office and asked if he could use the copier. Heather told him no, it really wasn’t for crew use. He was very polite, said he understood and left. Later, to our great embarrassment, we learned he was Tom Brady! Although we hadn’t recognized him, we did recognize his name.
Finally, one day I was told there was a very big star here, LL Cool J. I know nothing about modern music but decided I better get a picture of him if he was so famous. He was very nice and insisted I get in the picture with him. We have it hanging in our production office, along with pictures of all the other stars that have been here. When my other daughter was here one day, she took a picture of it and put it on Facebook with the caption “Things you never thought you’d see on Facebook. My ninety-year-old mother with LL Cool J.”
You are also an avid traveler! What advice would you give to a new explorer or someone looking to broaden her horizons? Are there any particularly memorable adventures that still influence you?
My advice would be to start small and go to places in the United States that they’ve always wanted to see. When they get used to travel, that is the time to venture forth to foreign countries. I also recommend trying a cruise to see if they might like that kind of travel.
The two most memorable things I’ve ever seen are the Taj Mahal and the Parthenon. Both are beyond description. I can remember sitting on the steps of the Parthenon and meditating. We were at the Taj Mahal all day and saw it change from brilliant white to gold, to rose-colored until darkness fell and that was almost like a religious experience.
To what do you attribute your ability to stay active into your ninth decade? How do you stay physically and mentally fit?
I think being able to still work is the most important thing. It keeps me busy all day, I’m among young people which is refreshing, and because this is a three-story house I’m going up and down stairs all day long. Also, all the traveling I’ve done has helped keep me active. And, of course, something I can’t take any credit for—good genes. My mother and my grandmother both lived to 87 and my sisters, Leigh Jamison Gifford ’38 and Alice Jamison Wharton-Bickley ’38, lived to 95.
How would you spend your ideal day?
On a small cruise ship with all my family going someplace wonderful.
What makes you proud to be a Laurel alum?
I think Laurel, being an all girls’ school, gives every student a chance to grow and shine. I’m proud of having been a part of that, of having been given a wonderful education as well as being taught leadership and self-confidence. And I will always treasure the long-lasting friendships I made there.