Once called Pollepel, the location just offshore from the eastern side of the Hudson River is awash in waters of mystery and superstition and a bit of 20th-century entrepreneurial history, thanks to Bannerman’s bold vision. In a monumental effort to keep the structures from crumbling further, the BCT has taken on various projects to preserve Bannerman’s outrageous endeavor – a castlelike armory for his massive surplus of military equipment – and restore at least minimal access to it, and to the family’s dwelling on the other side of the tiny island.
Headed by Neil Caplan, the non-profit organization has worked since 1993 to raise funds and rehabilitate the structural base of both the castlelike warehouse and, more recently, the summer residence. It has restored trails and landscaping on the island and conducts tours from May through October around the rugged terrain. With the initial phase of stabilization on the residence complete – including the installation of a new roof system, new first and second floors, a temporary stair and security panels/shutters – an archaeological dig beneath the temporary first floor will be undertaken, followed by the installation of a permanent floor and the restoration of an open floor plan to become an interpretive center and museum space.
When Caplan saw Harrison’s show at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck last winter, he invited the multi-talented son of Rex Harrison (perhaps best-known for his lead roles in My Fair Lady and Doctor Doolittle) to bring it to Bannerman’s Island. Harrison, whose mother was film star Lilli Palmer, has toyed with the idea of turning the performance piece into more of a monologue and less of a recital of anecdotes, as amusing as they are. Talking about his sustained insider’s view of the film industry in its glory years and many of the prominent players in the movie business as well, Harrison muses, “Celebrity is a strange, harsh phenomenon, rarely as desirable as it seems. But this makes for plenty of comedy – more so than a quiet life. There are so many stories of Hollywood celebrity that I learnt or witnessed when I was young, stories I’ve told at dinner parties and along the way, that it’s fun to share them with a wider audience.”
In both hilarious and heartrending terms, Harrison describes growing up amidst famous people like Greta Garbo and Noel Coward, and experiencing a long sequence of glamorous stepmothers during his father’s six-times-married life. “Somewhere inside the material is a journey towards making my peace with the openly self-celebrating nature of the individuals and the world I grew up in, and the fact that nothing could be further from my own temperament and work, which is all about mystery and imagination – as far removed from explicit autobiography as anything could be. Of course, all expression is in some sense autobiographical; but imaginary people, places and stories are at the foreground of my passion.…And then there’s the world of actors I grew up in, so aggressively all about themselves...a fruitful contradiction, perhaps, between my world and theirs.”
Saturday’s production of “Tales from the Golden Age of Hollywood” on Bannerman’s Island promises to be a fascinating and fruitful collaboration between Harrison and Caplan, offering visitors to the island a uniquely Bannerman sort of entertainment. The Pollepel River Cruise boat will depart from Torches Landing in Newburgh at 3 p.m. General tickets cost $55 through ZERVE at (800) 979-3370, and $50 for BCT Friends and Fishkill Historical Society members through the Bannerman Castle Trust at (845) 234-3204. Refreshments will be available.
Regular tours to the Island take place every Saturday and Sunday at 12 noon from Newburgh and at 1:30 p.m. from the Beacon Ferry Dock. Reservations can be booked by calling (800) 979-3370 or visiting www.prideofthehudson.com/pollepel-schedule.shtml. Tours last 2 ½ hours and include the short boat ride to the island and a lecture about its history. Some paths and trails are steep, and visitors are advised to wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to rough it a bit.
Check into future events – like the upcoming Bannerman Island Photo Shoot opportunities with Thom Johnson, Mary Ann Glass and Linda T. Hubbard, the first annual Great Bannerman Island Kayak Race and the Bannerman Island Hudson Valley Farm Fresh Dinner –by visiting www.BannermanCastle.org.