Photograph: Martin Roy, Jr. with family members at the showing of the Orphan Train mini-documentary film at the Delta Grand Theater last Wednesday in downtown Opelousas. (Photograph by Bobby Ardoin.)
What are the future plans for a now publicly-released, mini-documentary film that chronicles the histories of Orphan Train infants who arrived in Louisiana during the first part of the 20th century?
That is one question according to Orphan Train Museum board members that is scheduled for consideration and discussion which begins later this week.
One possibility for the project says board president Martha Aubert, is to perhaps prepare the 15-minute film shown for a substantive and appreciative Delta Grand noon crowd last Wednesday for additional interest and audiences.
“That is something we plan to discuss at the next board meeting. At this point, we are just overwhelmed at the number of people who came out to view the documentary and about how it was received by those who attended,” Aubert said on Wednesday.
The large audience which included a number of Orphan Train rider descendants appeared appreciative of the entire orphan train story that was narrated by Aubert and others whose family stories were shaped by the 2,000-mile journey of destitute children arriving in Louisiana from New York City.
Warren Lafleur provided a two-minute film prologue in locally-spoken French, followed by another 12 minutes of the overall Orphan Train story, which can also be experienced by examining the riders’ artifacts at the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum, located at Le Vieux Village in Opelousas.
Stuart Amidon, whose Opelousas-based Page 50 production company directed and produced the short documentary, said his experience filming and editing the project was in several ways, a life-changing experience.
“Not being from (Opelousas) originally, I think the biggest thing I learned about the history of the Orphan Train was how many of these small children came down here and lived full lives. They were probably destined to starve and die on the streets of New York, yet they arrived here and were able to build companies and businesses, marry, raise families and leave legacies,” Amidon said during a telephone interview.
While the documentary is short in length, the entire production process was lengthy, said Amidon.
“It’s probably a 15-minute production as it was shown, but it took about eight months to complete, counting all the back and forth that went on. For our company, it was certainly our most in-depth project,” Amidon said.
At this point Amidon thinks there is room for expanding the scope of the documentary and making it longer.
There is also a chance that lengthening the production could attract interest from a network like Louisiana Public Broadcasting, says Amidon.
Large Crowd Viewed Film at Delta Grand
Somewhat ironically as the Orphan Train story was unveiled for the first time, it was also a reminder about the original purpose of the Delta Grand, which served originally as a downtown Opelousas movie theater for several decades.
Perhaps enticed by curiosity surrounding the Orphan Train story, or tasting the free jambalaya lunch prepared by volunteers, a crowd of several hundred walked into the theater for the showing.
Amidon said he was surprised by the number who came to view the screening.
“There was no room to sit down and there was even a large crowd standing on the mezzanine,” Amidon said.
What The Orphan Train Families Said
One individual who occupied a front row table was Martin Roy Jr, and members of his family.
Martin Arvine Roy Sr., was one of the orphan riders who arrived at a depot in Opelousas on a 1907 train and operated a successful Opelousas car dealership. Roy was also mayor of the city before he died in a boating accident in 1943.
The documentary revealed that many of the orphans were reluctant to talk about their pasts.
Martin Roy Sr. was evidently one of them.
“My father never spoke a word about it. My mother told me what she knew about it and what I learned came a long time after my father died. It was a story that I learned a little at a time,” Roy said.
Debbie Roy Fay, a daughter of Martin Roy Jr., said she has been investigating the paternal side of the family ancestry and learning some details.
“We have been looking to learn about both of my grandfather’s parents. I’ve been using a DNA specialist and we have been able to learn that (the father of Martin Roy Sr.) was originally from Romania. Finding about his mother has been more difficult, since we have been unable to locate many of the records we need,” said Debbie Fay.
Purpose Of The Film
Aubert told the audience that the purpose of the documentary is to educate the public about the lives of the Orphan Train riders and tell many of their stories which might not have previously been told.
Amidon told the audience that the videography project should also increase the visibility of a sociological chapter of Louisiana history which probably requires more clarity.
“Now we think that we will be able to get (the orphans’ story) out past Opelousas and show some of the adversity and difficulty involved. I think that after seeing this documentary, many people will agree that it’s a phenomenal story that has been kept alive through the efforts of the descendants and volunteers,” said Amidon.
Photographs by Bobby Ardoin