There’s something about a far-off, bellowing train whistle that swiftly lures a dreamer to chase its twisting steel tracks and smoky black billows into the most obscure whereabouts; all for the sake of a new adventure. The clanging of the bell with a shout, “All aboard!” sets one’s mind to thinking about its distant past and wondering if the train’s old coal-eating belly is hungry enough to churn the wheels, squealing and moaning, all the way to the top of Bald Knob, a long eleven and one-half mile push upwards from a town called Cass, West Virginia.
Summer break was just starting as J.T. Arbogast hurried out of his grandmother’s house, the screen door slamming behind him with a sharp slap. He was on his way to meet his cousin, John Michael, to find something to keep them occupied, waiting for another day to pass. They soon found each other down by the dirt trail leading up the mountain.
“Hey, John Michael! What do you think?” said J.T., nodding toward the small town’s train depot. “Let’s see if we can beat the train this morning to Whittaker Station. What cha say ‘bout that?”
“I’m not sure, J.T.,” said John Michael, shaking his head. “The train’s already loading up and it will be pulling out of Cass soon. I don’t think we can make it up this hill that fast.”
J.T. started towards the trail, then looked back at his cousin, gesturing him to come on.
“Besides, it’s four miles to Whittaker!” shouted John Michael, his eyes popping open as he pointed to the narrow pathway.
“Well if we can beat it, or at least get there within its 30 minute stop, we can ride it back down the mountain,” said J.T. with a smile. “It’s worth a try!”
Before John Michael could grumble any more, J.T. gently pushed him ahead and the boys began navigating their way up the rocky, wilderness footpath leading to Whittaker Station, the first stop of the day for Cass Railroad. Pretty soon, they could hear the train’s whistle echoing off the mountain side and out into the warm, summer air.
John Michael was right. They would have to hurry today.
Los Angeles, CA – For several years, J. T. Arbogast, knew he wanted to write the story he now calls Angel’s Perch. It is centered on an ailing grandmother, much like Arbogast’s “Nana,” stricken with Alzheimer’s in her golden years and some of their adventures in a little town called Cass, an old logging location with a bigger-than-life, coal-burning train. It is a story of a grandson’s devotion and unfailing love of family for their matriarch, involving her history’s quickly fading memories and the rush to preserve them.
“We made the decision to make this movie in August, 2010, and we shot [it] last fall,” said J.T. Arbogast. “It’s been along three and a half years, getting it now to the point where we can share it.”
The movie itself started building its fan base two years ago, a pertinent element to making it happen, as well as Arbogast’s finding out just what West Virginia people are all about.
“West Virginia people are proud to be from West Virginia,” smiled Arbogast.
Those involved with making the movie knew very quickly that victims and family members of Alzheimer’s, as well as West Virginians far and wide would help get the word out. Certain scenes from the movie should look familiar to those that knew them; they were filmed inside his grandmother’s house which still stands today.
One of the reasons that Arbogast wanted to film in Cass was for authenticity; however, another reason was for the people there.
“First of all, to shine a light on a town that my family is from, this town and this tiny little state park in the middle of nowhere, West Virginia. Not a lot of people know about it, but I want people to know about. I want people to visit, and ride this old train and see just how beautiful it is. Honestly, it’s just this magical place. It’s kind of a snapshot of a different time,” says Arbogast.
His grandparents once owned a grocery store, which is not there anymore, Kane’s Grocery Store. It was the only grocery store in town. When the logging mill shut down, like so many other towns in the industrial northeast, it was left to its own devices. The town’s people had to make a decision whether to let Cass disappear or figure out a way to take what the industry left behind and make a new future for themselves.
“My grandparents, along with a few locals there, fought tirelessly to petition the state to turn it into a state park. They knew there was something there. They knew there was something really special about this place.”
Video YouTube credit: CassFan5150
Arbogast’s grandfather passed away in 1980, and his grandmother passed away in 2008.
“I kind of felt like there was this really great legacy left for me because, no matter where they were, if they were 30 miles or 3,000 miles away from Cass, they were inviting people to come back, see this place and ride the train. Visit and experience the community that they had a part of their whole lives.”
Angel’s Perch gave Arbogast the opportunity to, “not only honor that legacy, but also write a story that we hoped would help raise some awareness about what families are struggling with when someone they love is suffering from with this disease.”
The response has been overwhelmingly positive for Angel’s Perch. Arbogast said that, if his grandmother was still around, she would first be a little embarrassed because of the attention but, after that, hopefully proud of him for doing it.
“Every year at Cass, they crown a “king” and “queen,” which is usually someone older. They worked on my grandmother for years and every year, she would say, “I don’t want to do it.” She didn’t want the attention. “That’s not for me.” Finally she did. She was always so happy to be around people and such an outgoing person. But when it came to any kind of attention on her, she just didn’t want it. That was one of the things I incorporated in the script. I feel like they were all that way; like none of them wanted the attention, no fuss made over them. They just wanted to sort of be together and let that be the thing.”
During the film’s premiere in Charleston, West Virginia, and its screening in Pocahontas County, where Cass is located, Arbogast said he was the most nervous. The Cass presentation was a fundraiser for the town’s community center, where the movie was shown.
“I was terrified,” said Arbogast. “These people were going to see it and this was their backyard. We shot in their home. They were so happy watching it. They recognized their story in the film that we made. I think that was the moment that I was like, alright, if all else fails, we’ve had these two nights that gave us the reassurance that the story we set out to tell is there up on the screen.”
Even after the movie was shown in New York and Los Angeles, Arbogast wasn’t sure the audience would get the story they had tried to capture on film. He was again surprised at their reaction.
“It was incredible. People are saying things like these are the kind of movies you just don’t see anymore. This is the kind of film that just isn’t coming out. People are finding it really refreshing.”
Angel’s Perch partnered with local chapters of the Alzheimer’s Association along the way. Susan Galeas, president and CEO of the local chapter in Los Angeles, told Arbogast that Angel’s Perch is, by far, “The best film I’ve ever seen that addresses the subject of Alzheimer’s.”
Arbogast is now married to the movie’s producer, Kimberly Dilts, whom he met in graduate school in Austin, Texas, in 2001. They decided to make Angel’s Perch the same night they decided to get married.
“I guess we figured that if we were going all in, let’s just go all in,” laughed Arbogast. “I think that we balance each other out in such a great way. Kim is amazing. First of all, she is an amazing actress and that is part of the reason why I was initially attracted to her, but she is just incredible. There’s nothing in my eyes that she can’t do. We just complement each other so well in the work that we do. We very rarely both have down days so, if one of us is having a rough day, the other one is a cheerleader and vice versa. The skillset that we bring to the table as producing partners, it just works for us. Getting married was the easy part. I couldn’t ask for a better partner in both producing in this business and in life. We just work. It’s a very good thing.”
Arbogast does hold several wonderful memories with his family in mountain state. One in particular from their annual holiday get together with family for dinner.
“It was Nana’s dinner,” says Arbogast of his grandmother. “She always had the same meal. You couldn’t introduce anything new. My mom once tried to bring buttered carrots and everybody just looked at them funny. People put a couple on their plate and tried them but it was not a good thing. Kim is the only person that has been able to introduce something new to the table – sweet potatoes. They became a staple from the outside. I think about those nights around the table, there’s a pattern you develop with your family. We’re going to have this meal and Nana’s going to tell the same stories that she always tells, even though we’ve all heard them a hundred times, it doesn’t matter. Once the meal’s over, we’ll clean off the table and we’re going to sit around the table and play board games. When I think about those times when we were all just sort of together and happy, I think those are the things I go back to. Those are really special. There are lots of other little things that are like walking up Leatherbark with a fishing pole and my cousin. That’s home.”
One of the more important things he can remember is his summer break from school and spending his time there. Cass doesn’t have much so he and his cousin, for nine hours or until the sun went down, had to dream up things to do. “Those kinds of things are really special,” smiled Arbogast. “As a kid, yes, I rode the train. That was part of the day. Head up to Whittaker and then ride the train back down with my cousin on my mom’s side, three months apart, and inseparable. There’s not that much trouble you can get into there so that’s all relative,” he laughed.
Arbogast added, “We set out to make a movie and we didn’t want to make it in Los Angeles. There’s no place we could fake West Virginia anywhere else. You could, but not Cass. Not Cass, West Virginia.”
The movie, Angel’s Perch, is being shown in various places in the United States currently. It is coming to North Carolina shortly. You can find the date’s HERE. Also see links below. Please don’t miss it!
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North Carolina! Do not miss Angel’s Perch showing in your town! And remember to take a friend!