Sep 20 2008
At Tommy Hildreth’s shows, we have been fortunate to meet some outstanding Christians and The Western Film Fair, in Winston-Salem, NC, was no exception. Appearing at her first convention was Laurie Prange who has been included in a collection of biographies by Ace Collins in his book Stories Behind Women of Extraordinary Faith (Zondervan). Once we read about Laurie and her current project we had to agree, she is an extraordinary woman and we knew we had to interview her. Story on Page Three.
Ed.: We want to get to this first. I refer to news about something special you are doing that has excited every Christian we’ve talked with since our meeting in North Carolina. Tell us about your project that involves the amazing life of Fanny Crosby.
Laurie: It is a project most dear to my heart where I portray the prolific 19th century blind hymn-writer Fanny Crosby who wrote over 8000 hymns, most notably Blessed Assurance. Fanny lost her sight at 6 weeks old and despite impossible odds and setbacks during her lifetime, she was able to achieve impossible dreams and lead an enriched life as God’s servant. As a child, her grandmother took it upon herself to be “her eyes”. She would sit young Fanny on her lap on the porch and describe in detail the physical world surrounding her…sunrises and the sunsets. Fanny learned early on through her grandmother and mother to “choose” to see her blindness as a ‘gift’ that awakens more spiritual insight.
I have never been so inspired working on a project. You could say I have been obsessed with Fanny Crosby…she does that. The more you read about her, the more she gets under your skin. The challenge to portray Fanny Crosby and tell her story has enriched my own life’s journey and also my own faith’s walk. We shot just under 40 hours of footage a few years back where I play her from childhood to the evening of her passing. It was shot on a shoestring budget but beautifully shot like an oil painting. The project has been stalled several times because we ran out of the resources needed for quality post production to see it to it’s completion. It was put on hold for a few years and then last year I picked it up again. The generous talents and support of many people have carried it to this point and I am determined to finish it. The finished piece will be about an hour long…an intimate docudrama showing her faith’s journey as a Christian through her poetry and music. I don’t want to say too much about how we tell her story, but I hope that it will be as inspirational to the viewer as it has been for me.
Fanny was born in 1820 and died in 1915. In her day she was the most beloved woman in America. Referred to as the “Methodist Saint” …she was the Mother Teresa of her time. In her later years she would walk the streets of the New York Bowery District ministering to the needs of the poor. The last years of her life Fanny continued her work through various Missions and prisons in New York, encouraging the lost and deprived. She never stopped. Encouraged to slow down in her advanced years she would say, “I’ll never stop…I always considered that for old people!”
I could go on and on about her…She had a mind like a steel trap, retaining anything she heard and could recite entire books of the Bible by heart. She was the first woman to speak before Congress and met and knew as personal friends every president during her lifetime. She loved her country and was laid to rest holding an American flag across her breast. I even read about an incident where Fanny was sitting in a cafe in New York and overheard disparaging remarks made about America across the room. The story went on to relate how this petite elderly blind woman in a black Victorian dress “lunged” across the tables with her cane to take the commentator to task.
I was raised in a beautiful Christian family with four brothers and one sister. Although I attended a Christian school I had never heard the name Fanny Crosby, but certainly knew and sung her hymns: All the Way My Savior Leads Me, Praise Him Praise Him!, To God Be the Glory, Pass Me Not Oh Gentle Savior, Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross, Rescue the Perishing and Safe in the Arms of Jesus.
Fanny was raised a Christian but it wasn’t until her early 30’s when she had her true conversion experience where she opened up to allow the Holy Spirit to truly grab and hold her heart taking her to a deeper lever of faith. I feel that her journey of faith is important to the story. She actually wrote a poem in her later years of this ‘conversion experience’ which will be a part of our telling of her journey.
Although Fanny achieved some secular success as a poetess it wasn’t until her mid 40’s after the death of her only child when she was moved to write her first hymn. Her life and how she survived periods of despair and setbacks to continue on with ‘purpose’ to do the Lord’s work is an inspiration. She was always able to regroup and go on.
Ed.: You had a lovely Christian childhood and we enjoyed reading about your parents Evelyn and Joseph. How influential were they in your own Christian development?
Laurie: My mother was an Army nurse during WWII and that is how she met my father who was an Army pilot. They were steadfast devout Christians and the best parents and role models a child could have. While growing up, the kids in the neighborhood gravitated to our house because we had parents with solid values and rules who invited all the children to have a safe place to play…We pretty much tore up the backyard with our outside games, forts, and tree houses…I have great memories of my childhood.
My mother, who will be 90, is very precious to me and I treasure every moment spent with her. She always encouraged me in my dreams and never said “Oh you can’t do that!” I honor the time to be there for her- to care for her needs at this time of her life.
My father died at an early age in his 60’s. Like many of his generation he was a smoker. Two days before he died, he told us how grateful he was that his children had not taken up the habit. He expressed regret losing the many years he could have shared with his family had he been able to quit. My father who passed away over 20 years ago was an extremely ethical and forthright Christian man. I loved him very much. I have come over the years to understand and appreciate his ’stands’ with me….what it must have been like for a father to raise 6 kids in this culture we all face today. He held on to his principles and never budged from his Christian values. In my 20’s, when I was unraveling my Christian values to ‘accommodate’ the secular values of our culture he and I butted horns. I now look back at those years and value the steadfastness in his faith of knowing what was right. It took me years to truly appreciate the courage and sacrifices he made to take a stand against the culture that was pulling at his children. In the book by Ace Collins Stories Behind Women of Extraordinary Faith our relationship is gone into in more detail.
Ed.: You went through a very low point in your life following the death of your beloved brother, Joey, in Vietnam. You found an outlet for your feelings in acting. How and when did this begin?
Laurie: I was in 10th grade when my brother was killed. There are a lot of emotions that erupt with tragedies like this that only a family who has gone through this can understand. It was an emotional tsunami for me and was the beginning of my faith’s unraveling that stayed with me throughout my 20’s. I channeled all of my grief and anger into drama classes. During my 3 years in high school I represented my school in many Los Angeles acting competitions and always placed 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. In my senior year I performed a 1st place monologue on the Royce Hall stage at U.C.L.A. And later that year a performance of Anouilh’s Antigone brought the attention of several Hollywood agents who wanted to sign me. I was getting advice to change my name and hair color etc. and went with the agent who told me “not to change a thing.” My first professional role was starring with Julie Harris and Robert Stack in a Name of the Game TV series season opener. This appearance coincided with a three- page TV Guide article about how I had been signed from a high school production for such a big role and my career took off from there.
I worked throughout the 70’s and 80’s guest starring on many TV series such as Gunsmoke, Night Gallery, The Man and the City with Anthony Quinn, The Lady’s Not for Burning with Richard Chamberlain, The Waltons, The Incredible Hulk, Highway to Heaven to name a few.
There were also mimiseries’ including Testimony of Two Men and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home with Bette Davis.
One of the highlights of my career was performing on stage for three months with Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, and Maureen Stapleton at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum in the Sean O’Casey play Juno and the Paycock. Mrs. Sean O’Casey was flown in on opening night. I also met and had an exchange with Tennessee Williams which is mentioned in Ace’s book where he said how he would like to have me one day play “his Laura” from The Glass Menagerie. I never played that role but years later did perform the role of Blanche in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire in Los Angeles.
Ed. : One major change that came in your life was your future husband, Richard Lyons, a devout Christian and talented musician. We understand he was an answer to your parents’ prayers.
Laurie: Richard is the only Christian I ever dated. He was raised Baptist and I was raised a Lutheran.
My parents were very happy when I fell in love with a man who was raised with the same values that I was. As I said earlier there was a period in my life after my brother’s death lasting into my 20’s where I bought into all of the sophomoric rhetoric we still hear today about organized religion being the source of all the world’s problems. My communication with God through prayer never ceased but I became detached from my Christian faith. I hear people today as they try to talk intellectually about how ignorant those who have faith are and I say to myself “Oh my!…that’s the same rhetoric I bought into in my 20’s!”
From the culture and values of my upbringing I was suddenly thrown into a Hollywood culture where I met many talented, very kind, charismatic people that were far more well read and educated than I….Very nice articulate voices but not ‘God connected’. I gave a lot of these well-intentioned and worldly people a lot of credibility that changed, reshaped and unraveled many of the values and viewpoints I had been brought up in.
I believe it was God’s hand that placed my husband into my life and me into his. It was truly Him that put us together…for the both of us. Richard is the love of my life and we will be having our 24th anniversary.
Ed.: As a Christian have you found the attitude in Hollywood to be critical when it comes to your beliefs?
Laurie: I feel that much of Hollywood is cynical about Christianity. And certainly Christians are usually portrayed in the most caricatured, negative, cartoonish, demeaning light. Christians are marketed negatively in the media which is where a lot of people form their opinions about Christianity…which they know nothing about…AND are not encouraged to investigate. Any other religion on earth is shown respect and objectivity but Christianity is a target.
A few years back Richard and I were at a fundraiser where a comedian did a whole stand-up routine mocking Christians and their belief in Jesus. Interestingly Christians were not the only ones offended at the performance. The organizers of the event didn’t understand the backlash…”Don’t Christians have a sense of humor?” The Catholic venue that rented out the space for the event wrote the organizers to tell them they would no longer be welcomed to rent the building for future benefits.
Richard and I have gotten surprised looks when it comes up in conversation that we are churchgoing Christians…”Really?….. you go to church?”…Which can lead to interesting dialogue and discussions. I find many of our friends on the outside of Christianity are fascinated by our faith. It goes against their “stereotype’ of Christians as ignorant believers of fairy tales, and they are curious which leads to good talk. I have said many times that I choose to live my life through the eyes of faith than through the eyes of cynicism. Church is our place to worship and also connect to a community of shared values…values we are sadly losing more and more in our culture today.
Ed.: Fanny Crosby’s life apparently reached through the ages to touch you. Not an accident, but a God thing as many Christian young people would say today.
Laurie: Fanny married Alexander Van Alstyne and they had a child and the child died. That sent her into another cycle of depression for about three years. She met a Mr. Bradbury who felt her lyrics should be written for hymns.
I knew what it was like as my brother was killed in Vietnam and I went through such a dark period.
I will be showing what all Fanny went through emotionally and how it took her to a deeper level of faith. She went on to work with the poor and the needy. As I put this together it will show how she put things together to become the amazing woman she was. How she came to this deeper level and
went on to inspire others.
Ed.: What are your plans for marketing this beautiful project?
Laurie: This project has been a challenging journey to complete and I cannot abandon it. Life itself is challenging and I am determined. We hope to market the finished piece to churches all around the country and also to the Christian media. I feel honored to use whatever talents God gave me to put into a project that honors Him. Fanny Crosby has gotten under my skin. You start researching her and you can’t let her go. Her life inspires.
Ed.: You certainly will have our prayers and support on this. We want to stay in close touch with you on this project. We also have to mention that we were very excited about the music your husband Richard performed at The Western Film Fair. He writes and sings with beautiful inspiration.
Laurie: My husband Richard is a brilliant singer/songwriter who has the rare talent to transform an audience and people’s hearts with his voice and lyrics. He just finished recording one of the songs he sang at The Western Film Fair that he wrote for his father who is struggling with parkinson’s called Soul of a Dove/Heart of a Lion. He will have his CD out in a couple of months and we will stay in close touch. We would love to be a part of what you are doing.
Thank you for your efforts in using the power of the media for good.
Ed. Note. Laurie and Richard will have web pages set up in the future and we will be furnishing that information and giving you updates on their projects.