For those who didn’t grow up in Northeast Indiana – and perhaps even for those who did – it’s easy to miss some of the local legends, the stories that often come to define a community. Although he was raised in Fort Wayne (he moved here from Toledo at such a young age that he considers himself a lifelong resident)Michael Wilhelm had little knowledge or even interest in the origins of Churubusco calling itself “Turtle Town U.S.A.” Once that changed, he took the ball and ran with it, writing a play which has been staged twice, including its upcoming showings in all4One Production’s 2015-16 season. Writing isn’t a new fancy for Wilhelm, though he admits that he’s only recently begun realizing it may be his true calling. His mother’s early efforts to lure him into sports didn’t take, but he found happiness and excitement once he began taking classes at Fort Wayne Youtheatre. He took it seriously throughout his school years at Northrop High School and pursued his passion by moving to California to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Marriage and a daughter followed, which was the beginning of his desire to return to Indiana.
“We realized if we wanted Josette to be spoiled, we better bring her back here to her grandparents,” he says.
Moving back to Fort Wayne in 2002, his interest in theater continued, but he started to realize he was spending more time writing and that perhaps he needed to pursue it more seriously.
“I had always been writing,” says Wilhelm. “I was like that guy with the hot rod in the garage, always tinkering with it. Then I saw how much I had written over the years and thought ‘This is what I do. Maybe it’s time to hone this craft and not just tinker with it.”
Among his early writing projects, before he even left for California, were radio dramas for WIPU, the predecessor to WBOI when it was housed at the campus of IPFW. Under the title of Riverfront Radio Playhouse, Wilhelm provided dramas to air on the public radio station. Years earlier, his creativity spawned a superhero spoof called “Skunk Guy,” and he would call into radio stations to provide bits on air. With all of this material already collected, Wilhelm was ripe for the task when he was inspired by something he read over a cup of coffee.
“I was in a coffee shop getting ready to head to church, and I saw a tabloid article about the anniversary of the turtle hunt in Churubusco. And I just started laughing. It was hilarious, and I thought ‘Why hasn’t anyone told this story yet?’ I started out thinking about it as a screenplay, but eventually I decided it would work as a stage play.”
That story is now the basis of Turtle Soup, a funny (and occasionally poignant) story about the phantom turtle that became a national sensation after being reported in 1949 by Gale Harris, a local farmer. Likened by some to the legendary Loch Ness Monster, Harris became determined to prove the existence of the turtle, reportedly first seen by Oscar Fulk 50 years earlier. Reporters and sightseers began surrounding the land, and Harris did everything from draining the water to attempting to electrocute the “Beast of Busco,” all to no avail. The story has carried on, gaining fame over the years (and even being dramatized on the Travel Channel recently). In the middle of the story, Wilhelm saw two compelling characters.
“The story is really about a man obsessed, and we’ve all been there. This guy was going to catch this turtle, and that’s what this story is about. It really doesn’t matter whether the turtle was real or not; that’s not the story. The story is about him and his wife, and she’s the real hero here. She lost a lot in all of this because they ended up losing their farm, but she was a rock. Even though she lost a lot, she would say, ‘This is my husband, and he may be a little nutty, but I’m sticking with him.’ It threatened their lifestyle but never threatened their lives, and they ended up moving to Florida and spending their final years there.”
The play found a welcoming home thanks to Wilhelm’s connection to all for One. Having wondered during his years in California if his strong faith and sense of morality was a good fit for the Golden State, he quickly discovered upon returning to Fort Wayne that a faith-based theater company had been established, and in all for One’s Lauren Nichols he found an eager fan for Turtle Soup. She agreed to direct if Wilhelm played the role of Harris and Lisa Ellis played his wife. Staging the play and letting actors dig their teeth into his play has been a great experience for Wilhelm, too.
“Everyone should put their play in the hands of actors and let them tear it to shreds before they publish it. They’re trained to really flesh out their roles, and their input really brings it to life. I’m more relaxed about it than I was the first time it was staged. I know what works and sometimes think ‘This is pretty good. Who wrote it?’”
Wilhelm is also working on a modern day retelling of the old film My Man Godfrey, a vehicle for Fort Wayne’s own Carole Lombard in 1936. He sees a fresh perspective for the characters in the contemporary fascination with reality TV and sees ways to bring the story to life in a new way. He’s also bringing back Skunk Guy through a series of chapter books for young readers. More information can be found on skunkguy.com. In the meantime he’s happy to bring the story of Gale Harris to life again, to allow the man to have his moment at last.
“As soon as I read the story, I thought ‘This shouldn’t be lost to history. This should be something we know and understand.’”