The surprising rebirth of the best West Virginia film you’ve never seen.
When his elderly neighbor Nada tells him about the message she received from God—that he’s coming to their West Virginia mobile home park to grant each resident one wish—Marlon, a high school English teacher and one of the central characters in Daniel Boyd’s 1992 independent film Paradise Park, is obviously skeptical. But as we see in the next scene, just the idea of a wish transports him to the drawing room of a gleaming Victorian mansion, where he wears a Tom Wolfe suit and talks with his posh literary agent, Gerald. Gerald informs Marlon his publisher is begging for “another of those delightful horror works” and offering “a generous advance.”
At this point Marlon, played in the film by Mountain Stage host Larry Groce, breaks into a monologue. “We must treat each work as if it’s our last. When they dig through the rubble of the 20th century, do you want to be noted for some mindless exploitation? Or for something that at least tries to sculpt the joys as well as the sorrows of the human condition into meaningful material?”
★ ★ ★
Daniel Boyd fell in love with movies as a kid, spending his Saturdays at the Apollo Civic Theatre in Martinsburg. He learned to make videos while interning at a public television station, part of his studies at West Virginia University. That led to a graduate program in Arkansas where he started making documentary films.
He moved back to West Virginia and started making fictional shorts, a few of which landed on cable TV. Then, in 1987, he released his first feature film, Chillers. It was the perfect time to break into independent film. VCRs were in every living room, video rental stores were in every strip mall, and the public’s voracious appetite for home video left plenty of room in the market for independent productions. Chillers played in more than 30 countries and won the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films’ prestigious Silver Scroll Award.
For his second feature film, Boyd made Strangest Dreams: Invasion of the Space Preachers, a science fiction flick he describes as a “hillbilly version of a National Lampoon film.” But when it came time for his next project, Boyd wanted to go a different direction. “I love horror and science fiction. But I wanted to branch out and do something a little more serious.”
Inspired by his time living in Mingo County as well as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing—where the action is set almost entirely on one city block over 24 hours—Boyd decided to set his new movie in a southern West Virginia trailer park over the course of one day. The film would explore each character’s disappointments, hopes, and fears through fantasy sequences as they waited to see if Nada’s heavenly vision would come true.
Boyd was worried about finding the right trailer park for his film. “I didn’t want a trashy one,” he says. Thanks to the use of then-Governor Gaston Caperton’s helicopter, he found the Shady Side mobile home court in Tornado, in Kanawha County. “We popped over a hill in St. Albans and— there it was,” Boyd says. When he stopped by to talk with residents about his plans, everyone welcomed him with open arms.
But location was only one challenge. Boyd also needed to find a cast. These were the days before the Screen Actors Guild allowed talent to work for reduced rates in independent productions, so Boyd could not afford SAG actors. He would have to find a non-union cast.
Despite this challenge, Paradise Park still wound up with a cast of marquee names. Boyd got Grand Ole Opry legend Porter Wagoner to play the governor of West Virginia. Pro wrestling icon Dusty Rhodes played a Kanawha County deputy. Silent film star Lina Basquette, who’d worked with Cecil B. DeMille and Frank Capra as a young woman, played Nada. The role of trailer park resident LaMarr was played by the recently paroled country star Johnny Paycheck.
Shooting began in June 1991. “I was screwed from the beginning,” Boyd says. The cast and crew had just 19 days to get everything they needed, but it rained for the first three days, putting the production far behind schedule. Boyd went to each person, apologizing and telling them he’d understand if they wanted to go home. “These people are taking their vacations. They’re working for little to no money.”
Each apology got the same reply. “They said, ‘Danny, we’re going to stay here. No matter what it takes.’”
★ ★ ★
Paradise Park debuted in January 1992 with a screening in Beckley. It went on to play in 25 cities across the United States, picking up top awards at both the Houston International Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival. After Boyd screened the film in Moscow, it aired on Russian television.
The film received overwhelmingly positive press coverage. Wagoner had Boyd on his TV show Nashville’s Opry Backstage to promote the movie. Basquette’s return to the screen received attention from The Hollywood Reporter, the magazine American Film, and The Los Angeles Times. Rhodes’ film debut was covered in Superstar Wrestlers and World Championship Wrestling Magazine. Paycheck was covered in The Tennessean.
Yet Paradise Park would be Boyd’s last feature film. Despite its critical acclaim, the film didn’t sell. The home video bubble was beginning to deflate. The distributor who’d picked up Paradise Park didn’t do anything with the film, then dropped it altogether. Boyd tried to distribute it himself but lacked the resources to effectively promote it. Another distributor tried its luck in 1996, even retitling the film Heroes of the Heart to gin up more publicity. The movie still did not catch on. One of the investors eventually repossessed the rights. The film faded into such obscurity that even a talented Google sleuth would have had trouble finding a copy.
Boyd moved on. He taught film at West Virginia State University. He spent time in Tanzania as a Fulbright Scholar, helping students make public service films about the AIDS crisis. He trained to become a professional wrestler, competing under the ring name Professor Danger. He adapted Chillers into two volumes of graphic novels before penning two comic book series, Carbon and Salt.
But Boyd’s “hillbilly opera” was not completely forgotten. For years, Beckley businessman Scott Hill gave the same answer any time someone asked for his favorite movie: Paradise Park. He had attended the film’s first Charleston screening back in 1992 with his mother. “We didn’t see eye to eye a lot of times. That’s one time I can look back and say we both really enjoyed that,” Hill says.
He finally met Boyd in 2015, when the filmmaker attended Hill’s annual Rocket Boys Festival in Beckley. Hill confessed his love for Paradise Park. “I said, ‘You know, you could own it,’” Boyd says.
Hill and his wife agreed that, if they made a profit on that year’s festival, they would buy the rights to Paradise Park. He admits his wife probably did not put much thought into the matter, since the festival had never made a profit in its 17-year existence. But sure enough, there was money left after the bills were paid and Hill bought the rights. “This thing came together like it was directed by God,” he says.
He originally intended to re-release the film on DVD. Then he had a better idea.
In 2014, Hill became the general manager of the struggling Theatre West Virginia. After nearly four decades of producing outdoor dramas at the Cliffside Theatre in the former Grandview State Park, the group had shut down in 2013 due to growing costs and a stagnant cash flow. But with Hill at the helm, the company returned the following season and has been clawing its way to financial security ever since.
As part of his plan for the company’s continued success, Hill wanted an all-new original production, the kind of show Theatre West Virginia had built its reputation on with Honey in the Rock in the 1960s and Hatfields and McCoys in the ’70s. He asked Boyd in fall 2016 to adapt Paradise Park for the stage.
Boyd was intrigued—he’d never written anything for live theater and liked the idea of returning to the world of Paradise Park. “I always loved the story and thought it needed a new life.” But he would need someone to write the songs and music. Shortly after Hill asked him to take on the project, Boyd called Larry Groce, pitching him the idea over chips and salsa at their favorite Mexican restaurant.
Theatre West Virginia wanted to debut the musical in spring 2018. Groce was worried about writing so many songs in such a short amount of time. Once he got started, however, the lyrics flowed from his pen. He wound up writing 11 original songs for the musical, including two older but never-released compositions, two new versions of the movie’s theme song, and a song originally written for the movie by Boyd and Groce.
The stage production follows the same basic plot as the movie but digs much deeper into the characters’ psyches and backstories, because songs allow them to express themselves in ways dialogue does not. In the movie, for example, Nada’s fantasy involves winning fortune, respect, and world peace on a West Virginia Lottery game show. But in the play, she picks numbers for a lottery ticket with a song called “The Numbers Game.” “If you go to somebody who’s filling out a lottery ticket, in the vast majority of cases, the numbers they choose are not random numbers. They stand for something,” Groce says.
Revisiting the story, Boyd realized it’s as relevant as it was in 1992. “When Larry and I sat down and watched it, we said, ‘Holy cow, nothing’s changed except some hairstyles,’” he says. “Twenty-seven years later and it’s the same—teacher issues, huckster politics, all of it.”
Paradise Park: The Musical will open on June 15 at Grandview and will run for 14 performances, the last on July 1. theatrewestvirginia.org