Willy Bearden

You might not know Willy Bearden, but if you've lived in Memphis for more than a few months, more than likely you know his work. In the last decade, Bearden has produced documentaries and books on topics ranging from garage bands and cotton to the blues and Overton Park. We caught up with the affable author to talk about ghosts at Victorian Village, skeletons in Memphis' proverbial closet, and more >>>

Before you created The William Bearden Company, you worked at a motion picture lab. Which one, and what did you do.

I worked for nine years at MPL Film & Video on South Main. My first job was running a 16mm film-processing machine. After that, I was in film setup and color timing, moved to film editing, and then they put me on the road as an account executive.

What made you decide to strike out on your own?

While on the road for MPL, I found myself second-guessing the director, camera placement, lighting, you name it. One day it occurred to me that I could do this. Within a year I quit and started my company.

How did you get into documentary filmmaking?

After years of writing and producing corporate image, training, and sales films, I suddenly became aware of my legacy. I had this disturbing vision of my children saying things like, “Boy, Dad did some great writing on that Fred’s Dollar Store warehouse video.” That had a very profound effect on me. I had always been a storyteller, so I wanted to become part of the conversation. I shot Horn Island Journal in 1997. After that, I did Visualizing the Blues for the Dixon Gallery, and won a couple of awards. It was the first film I had on television. That was a great feeling. I followed up with Overton Park, Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis Garage Bands, Masters of Florence for WKNO and the Memphis Wonders Series, Project 366, an experimental film with no words, What’s Left, an art therapy project with Alzheimer’s patients, and The Story of Cotton.

Do you choose your topics, or do they tend to choose you?

I’m hired to do some of these projects and some might grow out of another, related job. For instance, I did The Story of Cotton because I was working on exhibit films and text panel writing for the Cotton Museum. Many of the early films were done out of my own pocket simply because they seemed like the thing to do. I never let the lack of money get in the way of doing what I think is my responsibility.

Do you have a favorite project?

Even though it’s 12 years old and my “wince factor” is fully engaged when I see my mistakes, I have a soft spot for Horn Island Journal. It was the first time I did a film totally on my terms.

Tell me a little about your newest film on Victorian Village.

Through our Memphis Legacy Project we presented an archive of over 1,500 photographs of Victorian Village to the Memphis Public Library and the U of M Library. Victorian Village — I’m not crazy about the name, it sounds like a place you’d buy Christmas ornaments in Gatlinburg — was an early suburb, just across Gayoso Bayou from downtown, but a world away from the mud and saloons and pestilence of the inner city.

Is it true the place is haunted?

Yes. The Fontaine House is haunted by the ghost of Molly Fontaine. I’ll tell that story in the film. I may even have images . . .

When did you decide to get into the book business?

I found so many great images while I was working on the Overton Park film but knew that many wouldn’t make it into the film. I put together a coffee-table book, just to see if I could, then put it away. When I saw the local history books Arcadia was publishing, I called them, and had a deal in a couple of days.

Any skeletons in our historical closets?

Great stories abound in every corner of our city, but ordinary people inspire me. The people who fought Interstate 40 coming through Overton Park, the yellow fever martyrs, African Americans who refused to be denied in the face of overwhelming racism. I’ve discovered some truths along my journey. Teenage boys play music to impress the girls. The pursuit of money is a fairly empty goal. A good reputation is hard to beat.

Would you consider yourself a historian?

I prefer to think of myself as a “packager.” My offer is this: Give me an hour of your TV time and I’ll tell you a great story. Invest a couple of hours in my books and you too can become an expert.

If Vance Lauderdale were to challenge you to a Memphis trivia quiz, would you do it?

I’m afraid he’s way out of my class. 

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