Sterling is noted for being the location of two notable movies: Hollywood’s 1955 “Picnic” and the 1984 made-for-television movie “Parade.” Now a third movie can be added to that list: “The Murphy Story,” which tells the story of Western movie star Audie Murphy.
Several scenes of the upcoming film were shot in and around Sterling recently and involved over 30 people from Sterling, including 26 Sterling College Theatre students, four community members and one junior high student.
Dennis Dutton, director of the Sterling Community Theatre Troupe, got involved with the movie project about one month before cameras started rolling in Sterling.
“I got a call from a Sterling College classmate asking if I’d be willing to help out with a movie project he was heading,” Dutton said. That classmate was Paul Kyle, who is from Kansas City and is founder of the Upchurch Foundation.
The Upchurch Foundation benefits military veterans and families who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The Foundation was founded to honor Kyle’s nephew Clint Upchurch who served in the Army and was killed in action in 2006 and who suffered from PTSD.
What does a non-profit charitable foundation have to do with a move about Hollywood Western star Audie Murphy? Dutton explained, “Paul was looking for a way to promote his Foundation and bring notice to the lack of support of veterans with PTSD. He wrote this screenplay while helping his father-in-law, Sterling farmer Duane Johnson, during wheat harvest several years ago focusing on Murphy who was ‘America’s most decorated soldier’ after World War II and also suffered from ‘battle fatigue;’ PTSD hadn’t been named yet.”
Dutton was familiar with movie star Audie Murphy but did not know about his military background or all the hardship he faced. “I was impressed with Paul’s screenplay. It had a lot of action, drama and certainly emotional depth. Frankly, I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t done a movie about his life before this.”
After receiving a grant to help with production costs, Kyle and director Sam Tady and their crew started filming. Going into the Sterling shoot in early October about 80% of the film had been completed, filmed mostly in Kansas City. Sterling resident/Sterling College Theatre alum/ McPherson High School theater teacher Greg McGlynn traveled to Kansas City one weekend in September to film a few scenes as Hollywood star Jimmy Cagney, who was instrumental in helping Murphy get started in movies.
The movie crew then moved to Sterling. “I helped with the project by finding locations and actors for about five or six different rural oriented scenes,” Dutton said. He collaborated with theater directors Betsy Dutton (Sterling High) and Sasha Hildebrand (Sterling College) to find actors for the speaking roles. Sterling College Theatre students gathered the 1950s era costumes and acted as “extras.”
Sterling College student Nilo Reynoso from Long Beach, Calif., played the role of a hitchhiker Murphy picked up on a rural Texas road.
“I was so thankful for this experience,” he said. “It was great. I was surprised by the different camera angles and the amount of times a specific segment of a scene needed to be shot in order to make it perfect.”
“We really lucked out with the car used in that scene,” Dutton said. “The 1935 Chevy car belongs to Lillian and Todd Zimmerman. It was Lillian’s father’s first car he ever owned. It had been meticulously restored with black exterior and yellow wheels. It was perfect.”
Another scene filmed in Sterling was a flashback, when Audie Murphy remembers both his mother and growing up during the Depression. Sterling College Theatre student Ardynn Hershberger played the mother and Sterling Junior High student Bryce Stinemetz played the young Audie Murphy.
“Being in a real movie was exciting,” Stinemetz said. “I was surprised at how many times we had to redo each scene over and over. But it was fun and I would do it all again!”
Hershberger said, “I hadn’t fully processed having to cry over and over and over again in my scene prior to filming. When you do a theater show, you work yourself up for an emotional scene and then you don’t do it again until the following performance. But we filmed that bit of the scene multiple times, and I found myself fighting to keep the emotion flowing! That was definitely a difference between theater and film. It was a treat to be able to act in a different setting, with a different set of expectations and just have a taste of a different performance-based art form,”
The film crew and Sterling extras traveled to the State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson for a scene as well as Smisor Stadium and Bell Hall on the Sterling College campus. The Sterling High School Theatre stage was where community member Larry Brownlee appeared as the Mayor of Dallas for a scene.
The final Sterling scene was filmed in the old Lyons jail and featured Sterling community members Seth Svaty and Ben Jones as well as college student John Williams as small town Texas police officers and Reynoso as the hitchhiker.
Producer Kyle said, “Our filming experience at Sterling was stellar. The actors and those helping with location, sets, and costumes did a fantastic job. The film will be a wonderful tool to bring a greater awareness to our communities of the need for all of us to support our military and their families. Sterling College and the Sterling community can be proud of their support of this project to honor those who have and are currently serving us.”
The message of the movie particularly resonated with Hershberger, whose father, Brent Brooks, served in the Navy.
“I was excited to be a part of something bringing awareness to an issue that is often overlooked,” she said. “Veterans and their struggles are issues that are near and dear to my heart, so to be a part of a project that brings about such important awareness, felt really important and special.”
Reynoso said, “I challenged myself to pay the proper respect to Audie Murphy and to the memory of people who suffer from PTSD and most importantly the memory of Clint Upchurch. I made sure I was focused and I was willing to do what was needed to be done in order to help do my little part in this important story with a big message.”
Film director Sam Tady and his brother Andrew have Tady Brothers Productions in Kansas City. Sam Tady said, “As a director, it was an absolute joy to film in Sterling. This town is full of talent and cool locations! It was a lot of fun to see so many people come together to help bring our story to life.”
Tady and Kyle were so enthusiastic about the reception and support they felt in Sterling that they plan to return to film the final scene of the movie in early November. This scene is set in a Hollywood nightclub of the 1950s. Sterling College Theatre students will again provide costumes, location – in this case Upper Wilson Hall – and will be “extras” immediately following their production of the musical Carousel. “This is a great experience for our theater students to be involved in a movie project like this but even more so because this is so mission-oriented,” Sterling College Theatre director Sasha Hildebrand said.
Following the final shot of the movie and all the post-production work, Tady and Kyle hope to have the movie completed early in 2021. Plans are being made to have a Sterling showing of the film.