America was in the midst of the second world war. Battles were raging all across the globe and American troops were being called to duty.
Alexandria, Louisiana served as a critical geographical location for the military - both in training and serving as a wayport for soldiers. With over 3,400 square miles of territory for military maneuvers, several military camps, an Army Base and an Army Air Field, hundreds of thousands of soldiers found themselves in central Louisiana.
In between their readiness drills, they would gather in churches to worship on Sundays, including First United Methodist Church in Alexandria.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
In the summer of 1943, Rev. B.C. Taylor, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, wanted to make a film about the birth of Jesus for advent. Ironically, members of the Army communications team were attending the church and received word of the idea, piquing the interest of a commanding officer. Because the communications team had film cameras, lights, editing equipment, and even grant money secured from the church, interest in helping grew. Before long, the church and members of the Army were producing a full-length film entitled "Christ Is Born".
"As I reflect on the particular time and everything that was going on, it really amazes me." says Rev. Ashley McGuire, Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church. "With all of the maneuvers and soldiers deploying for battle, there was probably a lot of tension and even fear; yet here we have the 'greatest generation' taking the time to produce the 'greatest story ever told'".
Also stationed in Alexandria was a sergeant named Don Porter, who was also a Hollywood actor best known, at that time, for his role in the 1939 film Mystery in the White Room as well as Abbot Costello's Who Done It? in 1942. Porter would agree to play the role of Joseph. After that, the rest of the cast was comprised of volunteers from the church and the community.
The film, 22 minutes in length and in color, was shot in a variety of Alexandria locations, including the Bentley Hotel, the Masonic Temple, the levee and the eroded foothills that are now the site of Pineville High School.
After completion, First United Methodist Church showed the film as part of its advent celebration. After the showing, the film was placed in a closet - never to be seen again until 1987.
The First Find
"I remember sitting in a committee meeting and everyone was wondering where it was," says Rev. Larry Norman who served as one of the pastors at First United Methodist Church for five years in the 80's.
Norman says members of the church had heard stories of the film and desired to show it again for Christmas but no one knew where it was.
"So, I decided to go on the hunt for it," says Norman. "It wasn't that difficult. It was on a shelf in the library. You know how church libraries are, you've got all this stuff and people poke all this stuff in, and stick it in. So, it was under years of old Sunday school material."
After finding the film, the church held a second showing, only to place the film back in a closet.
Fast forward to 2017.
"It was probably 10 o'clock in the morning," remembers Mary Vizzier. "We were cleaning out the archives closet."
"We were rummaging through lots and lots of papers and old books. Each of us had a corner of the room," says Reba Harrington. "And we happened to see this old film box. I think we were almost afraid to touch it."
Inside that canister was the 1943 film, 74 years old.
Afraid to touch it, the ladies would proceed to contact Louisiana Public Broadcasting, who would graciously agree to help the church by restoring the old film.
What would play out next is Reba and Mary playing the roles of investigators as they would tirelessly research where the film was shot and who starred in the film, including the mystery of who played baby Jesus.
"In the files, we say a note that said, baby, Jesus was played by 'baby Deason'. Next to it was a note that said, 'Boy, won't they be surprised?" says Vizzier. "As it turned out, the Deason family had just two children, both of whom were girls."
Yep. Baby Jesus was a girl.
Through some good old-fashioned detective work, Vazeer and Harrington tracked down baby Jesus, Beth Deason Dart, who now lives in Dallas, Texas. "I remember calling her and explaining who I was and what we were working on," says Vazeer. "Before I could much further on the phone call, she bursts out, 'my mamma always told me I was baby Jesus!'"
"This is really a phenomenal story," says Rev. McGuire. "But it's not the film that really speaks to me. What speaks to me is the story that's told in the film, and the way that it came about, the story of the soldiers and the Church coming together, and then the stories that Reba and Mary have found that bring everything full circle. It truly is a testament to the fact that we are not just a connectional people in a denomination, but as people who walk this journey of life, we are connected by our stories and then as people who call ourselves Christians and follow Jesus Christ, we are connected by stories."
"So here we are - telling the story again," says Rev. Norman. "What makes it even more exciting though is that even though we've not lost the story in our personal lives, but perhaps lost the film, we've refound it and have the chance to tell it again."