In town, life imitates artwork


Image: Years after Norman Rockwell died, Stockbridge, Mass., remakes itself for three days before Christmas to match his beloved painting of it.

November 29, 2001|By Candus Thompson | Candus Thompson,SUN STAFF

STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. - Each year at this time, thousands of people make a pilgrimage to see the town they wish they'd grown up in.

This enchanting village nestled in the Berkshire foothills has a Main Street that artist Norman Rockwell would have invented if it hadn't already existed. There's a stately inn anchoring one corner, a red brick library on the other. In between are picture-perfect shops.

Rockwell loved the scene enough to call it home for 25 years.

In 1967, with the Vietnam War raging and demonstrators filling the streets, McCall's magazine put Rockwell's soothing vision of Stockbridge - circa 1950 - on its holiday cover. Windows glow with a golden light. An evergreen tree is strapped to the roof of a red car. Snow blankets the village green.

People cherished that scene. They framed the cover, his Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas, and clamored for reprints.

"It epitomizes what we want a small town to be," says Carole Owens, an author and psychologist who has lived in Stockbridge for 25 years. "And what is better than a small town at Christmas?"

Twelve years ago, town fathers and mothers capitalized on that popularity with the ultimate "life imitates art" statement, painstakingly turning their Stockbridge into Rockwell's Stockbridge. They began enacting the painting, down to the candles in the windows.

Nostalgia wasn't the driving force. Attracting tourists in the off-season was.

For one afternoon, they decorated the storefronts, closed off the street and put vintage automobiles in the same spots the artist had chosen. To their surprise, the chance to step into a Norman Rockwell painting proved irresistible.

"I don't quite understand it, but there's such an affection for it," says Amy Johnson, who sells Rockwell reproductions from her shop, 7 Arts (that's the building second from the left in the painting). "The image just strikes a chord."

Rockwell's Main Street - in puzzle, poster, throw pillow and bracelet form - is Johnson's best seller.

"For long-term, year-round endurance," she says, "it's tops."

And the re-enactment has become so popular that it's been stretched from an afternoon to three days.

"We used to have to beg people to bring their antique automobiles out in the winter," says Barbara Zanetti, executive director of the chamber of commerce. "Now we have our pick. It's an honor."

Tomorrow evening, actors from the Berkshire Festival Theatre will perform holiday readings at the Unicorn Theater. A big band will belt out World War II-era tunes at a dance in the train station.

On Saturday afternoon, townspeople will open their homes to show off their holiday decorations. And at 6:30, everyone will gather around the porch of the Red Lion Inn to begin candlelight caroling to the First Congregational Church.

"Didn't you always wish you were a caroler in the Charles Dickens story?" asks Owens. "Well, for one night in Stockbridge, you can be."

For two hours on Sunday, Main Street will close to vehicles to give visitors room to shop, sip cider and hot chocolate and shop some more.

They haven't had snow for the event in four years, and it isn't forecast for this weekend. That doesn't faze organizers.

"When the candles are lit and the music starts going, you imagine the snow," says Zanetti.

The love affair Stockbridge has with Rockwell was returned by the artist himself, who called it "the best of America, the best of New England."

He moved to town from Vermont in 1953, and began painting Main Street almost immediately.

"He did it for himself. He didn't intend to sell it," Owens says of the 8-foot-by-2-foot oil on canvas.

That's Rockwell on the right side of the painting, crossing the street. His studio is the little red building among the trees on the right. The Old Corner House on the far left was the first home of the Rockwell Museum. The artist's friends and neighbors scurry about. "I'm not sure he painted us as we were. I think he painted us as we wished we were," says Owens, chuckling.

The museum, now moved to more spacious quarters on the edge of town, will celebrate Main Street with an open house Saturday afternoon. Visitors can see the original painting and the 322 cover illustrations Rockwell did for the Saturday Evening Post.

Although Rockwell and his illustrations are probably the most famous thing in Stockbridge, they aren't the only ones in the area.

The town was the home of sculptor Daniel Chester French, who created the statue for the Lincoln Memorial and the famous Minute Man that stands in Concord, Mass. Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick while living in nearby Pittsfield. The Boston Symphony Orchestra spends its summers at Tanglewood in Lenox, the next town over.

And, of course, there's folk singer Arlo Guthrie and Alice's Restaurant - real name, the Back Door - which stood just off Main Street in an area called the Mews.

In his 1967 anti-war ditty, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," Guthrie summed up Stock- bridge this way: "They got three stop signs, two police officers and one police car."

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