johnstown movie07.jpg

Jerry Buescher goes over the script with actors during the filming of "Johnstown"

A few years ago, as he was driving along a country road, Jerry Buescher rolled down the window of his old Volkswagen and tossed into a field a DVD containing a prototype of “Johnstown,” his movie about the Johnstown flood based on a play written by his son James, who died in a car crash in 2010. 

“I was done with it,” said the 77-year old Holtwood man. “I didn’t want to see it anymore.”

The next morning he was back in the field, searching for the DVD.

Making “Johnstown” was an emotional and financial struggle for Buescher. He’d go to bed cursing himself for taking on the project and wake up the next morning vowing to finish it. The movie took him three years to make.

This week, a revamped version of “Johnstown” will get its official debut during two nights of dinner-and-a-movie-style events at Shady Maple in East Earl.

Buescher has spent his entire career in the Christian entertainment industry. He has written numerous songs, including a few that reached No. 1 on the Christian radio charts, but decided he wanted to make a theatrical production. He didn’t have to look far to find a successful scriptwriter. His son wrote 73 plays, winning awards and receiving critical recognition for his work.

But James Buescher, who worked as a correspondent for LNP, took some convincing to undertake a Christian-themed project, which he considered too restrictive. Finally, after much pleading from his father and the promise of a new Saturn sedan, James Buescher agreed to do the project.

James was a gifted playwright and found the devastating 1889 flood, which killed 2,200 people, to be a perfect allegorical subject for his play about faith, love and redemption. The play — originally titled “Winnow Winds” — ran for 15 years in theaters in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Arlington, Virginia and Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Local touches

After James’ death, Buescher committed himself to adapting his son’s play for the big screen. He also put some his own personal touches to the project, adding five original songs to the film.

Much of the movie was shot in Lancaster County — including scenes at the Pinnacle Overlook in Buescher’s hometown of Holtwood. He would drive actors to the various locations himself to cut down on expenses. 

“Sony has limousines to pick up their actors and actresses,” said Buescher. “Me? I have a Volkswagen with bad tires.”

James may have never gotten to see the film version of his play, but he did present the play at the Fulton Theatre. In attendance was one of his personal heroes, the acclaimed local playwright Barry Kornhauser.

“My son loved him,” said Buescher. “Every time I ran into a problem I'd call (Kornhauser). That’s how I got through (making the movie). One of the things he told me was ‘Don’t worry about the size of the audience.’ I really love the man.”

Buescher called on another famous friend for advice as well. Ted Pedas —who is credtied as a producer on the Coen brothers’ films “Blood Simple” and “Barton Fink.”Buescher’s friend of 50 years watched the movie around 20 times.

“He told me he felt like he was being punished,” laughed Buescher. “But whatever he says, you better listen because he knows what he’s talking about. He told me to never give up.”

Buescher observed the audience during performances of the original play and screened the movie several times for audiences. He adjusted his film based on audience suggestions to make the movie resonate as best as possible and he is treating the event at Shady Maple as the official debut of the movie.

“It’s the most intricate process,” Buescher said. “It was like doing a crossword puzzle that you didn’t know the answers to.”

Still, despite all the struggles, emotional highs and lows and challenges of actually completing a film, Buescher never gave up and he forged ahead in order to make the movie that his son didn’t get to make.

Buescher laughs often, but he also falls into moments of silent reflection thinking about his son.

“I miss my son,” said Buescher. "I thought making this movie would help, but it kind of made it worse. It keeps taking me back. Then again God lost his son.”