Former Huntington hotel’s story to go national in PBS documentary
By Michelle Reed, Herald-Press | Indiana Economic Digest
A grand ballroom, an Olympic-size pool, multiple restaurants, a barbershop and an eight-lane bowling alley combined together sound like a small downtown, but it was all contained in one building; The LaFontaine Hotel, which is now the LaFontaine Center.
The LaFontaine Hotel, which welcomed many celebrities across its threshold, has recently inspired a documentary that will premier on PBS later next year.
“They’ve already produced a trailer and have presented it to PBS,” Rose Meldrum, LaFontaine Center manager said. “PBS has already agreed to run the documentary as one of their features.”
Serendipity struck when Matt Murray, of White Horse Productions, walked into the LaFontaine to take photos and video of the building for another project.
“I happened to be down in Huntington,” Murray said. “I about fell over when I walked in. I was immediately taken back by the hotel’s beauty.”
According to Meldrum, the hotel was built in 1925, by J. Fred Bippus who, “Dreamt of building a hotel that was finest in all the land.”
“[It was] because of all the amenities it had,” Meldrum said. “It drew a lot of famous people: Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, John Dillinger ... Johnny Weissmuller, of the ’30s and ’40s Tarzan fame, visited the LaFontaine hotel because of the pool, as he was a competition swimmer. He came mainly for the Olympic-size pool. He was always an Olympic swimmer.”
Back in its heyday there was a bowling alley, a barber and beauty shop, there was even a radio station that was broadcast from the hotel.
There was an ice cream parlor called the “Cat and the Canary,” which had caged canaries singing and a large, black porcelain cat for decoration. The parlor’s menu offered many flavors of ice cream and sodas.
Unfortunately the hotel just couldn’t bounce back financially.
“It never really recovered after the Great Depression, Murray said. “How did they even restore this thing, it shouldn’t have even happened … It had water flowing from the first floor to the bottom. It had raccoons; it was destroyed. A banker wanted to demolish it and make a parking lot out of it ... people got together to rally, to support restoration of this hotel.”
As a storyteller, Murray says he can’t let this story go untold.
“I was so captivated, not only with the history of the hotel, but the story behind the story, that is, the man who built it,” Murray said. “J Fred Bippus literally sacrificed everything for his dream of building the Hotel for the town he loved.”
Murray began his task of setting the story of the LaFontaine to film. He talked to local Huntington people who had visited the hotel when they were younger.
“Many of those from the generation who had first-hand memories of the hotel are already gone. They have firsthand memories of coming to this hotel.” Murray said. “I knew this precious piece of history would be lost forever if we didn’t commit to film.”
Murray talked of being enchanted by a 92-year-old woman, who said the hotel was built when she was 2-years of age.
“We had a lady come in Marilou Woodrop,” Murray said. “She was one of the nine people interviewed. She was just captivating and talked about how magical this building was. It was built when she was two.”
Murray believes this documentary is just what Huntington needs, not just to draw in tourists, but to help capture a bit of history before it’s lost.
“I’m confident this film will shine a well-deserved light, not only on the quaint city of Huntington, but specifically the LaFontaine center which is again need of renovation, Murray said.
“In a very real way, I suppose you could say the LaFontaine has become part of my crew and myself. There are many people in Huntington who have no idea of the rich history that belongs to them. I hope this film will let them know how proud they should be of their heritage.”
If people would like to make a contribution to keep this project moving forward, make the donation payable to the LaFontaine Center and make certain to mention that that gift is for “the documentary” or “Matthew Wayne Murray Presents – The Hotel LaFontaine.”
For those who donate at certain levels will have their name will roll in the credits after the film.