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Gail Rock's Books About Small-Town Living Conjure Images That Transcend Generations

By Beverly J. Lydick/Tribune staff
Tuesday, Dec 23, 2003 - 11:02:18 pm CST

       "How come you haven't got your Christmas tree up yet?" Carla Mae asked.
       "Oh," I said, trying not to show embarrassment. "We don't want one."
       "How come?" she asked, sounding surprised.
       "They're just a waste of money," I said, parroting the argument my father had given me. "Besides, we're going to Uncle Will's to open presents, and he has a tree."
       I could tell the reasoning wasn't going over any better with Carla Mae than it had with me.

                                                                      - Addie Mills in "The House Without a Christmas Tree"

It's been more than 30 years since author Gail Rock penned that story of a feisty little girl and the stubborn father who wouldn't allow a Christmas tree in their Nebraska home.

Thanks to Julie Modrcin, a longtime fan and junior high reading teacher, Valley Public Schools seventh- and eighth-graders are discovering the character of Addie Mills and more about the woman who created her.

A 1957 Valley High School graduate, Roberta Gail Rock based Addie's adventures on her own life, growing up in the 1940s and '50s in the Douglas County town of 1,800.

In Addie's world, Valley is known as "Clear River."

       "It was one of those towns where you knew who lived in every house and recognized every car and said hello to everyone on the street. There was one doctor, one movie theater and five bars and five churches, which the people of Clear River found a nice balance of sin and salvation."

Because Modrcin appreciated not only Rock's writing but also her hometown connection, she decided to teach her young charges about the Valley native whose four Addie novels inspired three televised specials in the 1970s and promoted her professional career.

The first special, The House Without A Christmas Tree, was based on Rock's own experiences of 1946 and won an Emmy and a Christopher Award for CBS in 1973.

Modrcin decided to save the video version until the end of the semester and began her instruction with Rock's book, buying used copies off the Internet with special funds from the Valley High School Alumni Association.

Earlier this fall, she started teaching the simple, yet complex tale of Addie, a motherless child reaching out to a distant father.

       "Sometimes I would look through the family photograph album and see pictures of him and my mother together in the 10 years before I was born ...They seemed to have had fun then, but he was not like that when I knew him. I always wondered why he was so different to me than he seemed in those photographs."

On Dec. 17, Modrcin and her students learned more about House during a teleconference with Rock from her Los Angeles office where she serves as assistant to a Paramount Pictures vice president.

It was summer 1972, and Rock, who was working as a film and television critic for CBS, had taken a vacation break with co-workers.

"We were sitting around a pool in Connecticut," she said, "and talking about what shows we'd do in December. Everybody was Jewish except me."

Although Rock said she would like to know more about Hanukkah, her associates said they were bored with that theme and asked her for a Christmas story.

"So I told them mine," she said. "They insisted that I write it down."

On that day, Rock's story became Addie's.

       "I knew that asking my father to buy a Christmas tree had become a forbidden subject in our house. Of course that wouldn't stop me from asking him again, because I was always bringing up forbidden subjects, but I just hadn't figured out how to approach it this year. He had never let us have a Christmas tree as far back as I could remember."

After playwright Eleanor Perry took Rock's recollection and developed it into a script, actress Lisa Lucas was cast as Addie Mills, with Jason Robards as her father and Mildred Natwick as her grandmother.

Rock was invited to Canada to watch the filming of House and was amazed when Lucas, then 12, walked onto the set, ready for the shoot.

"It was spooky when she came out ... she looked so much like me at that age," said Rock. "I freaked out."

The creators of House stayed true to Rock's portrayal of a Midwestern town of the 1940s, from drug store Evening in Paris perfume and decorations made from cigarette pack foil to 50-cent limits on gifts exchanged by students before Christmas vacation.

       "I flashed it in front of the class, hoping they wouldn't see what it was, but they all howled, and I turned from red to purple and sat down quickly. Horrible Billy had given me a heart-shaped locket! In front of the whole class! I shoved the box down into the pocket of my cardigan and silently swore that I would never speak to him again."

When asked by Modrcin during the teleconference if she really had received a locket from a fifth-grade classmate, Rock admitted she had.

"I still have it," she said. "I take it whenever I visit classes."

The success of the CBS show prompted Rock's editor to suggest a full-fledged version of House, which Rock wrote in 1974. That novel was followed by The Thanksgiving Treasure, A Dream for Addie and Addie and the King of Hearts, all based on the adventures of the spunky girl from Clear River.

Rock drew on both fact and fiction to create her series.

While Walter Rehnquist, the gun-toting hermit in The Thanksgiving Treasure, was a combination of two actual Valley residents, Rock said the four-legged character, Treasure, was added to accommodate Lucas' love for horses.

Rock and the young actress had become friends during the filming of House and Lucas asked the writer to put a horse in her next book about Addie.

During the filming of Thanksgiving Treasure, Lucas proved to be a capable rider until a crew member suddenly stepped in front of the horse, causing it to shy and throw the young girl.

Lucas broke her leg, which stopped production for months and brought about some scene changes, including a funeral scene in which a young actor dressed in Lucas' clothes stood in for the actress.

A Dream for Addie, which Rock acknowledged as the darkest of the series, revolves around an actress and former Clear River resident who returns to the community. It's 1948, Addie is 12 and completely impressed with the woman's supposedly glamorous life in New York City until she learns some disturbing truths about her idol.

Rock, who was asked by CBS to write the story for a Easter televised special, said it was not as true to the characters of Addie and her family as her other works, a situation she remedied in Addie and the King of Hearts.

In that fourth and last novel, a 13-year-old Addie develops a crush on a young teacher, a situation Rock said also came from her own life.

"Unfortunately," she said, "that teacher still thinks I have a crush on him, and he usually shows up at our class reunions."

Rock attends those reunions, anyway, and plans to return to Valley in 2007 for the 50-year celebration of her class commencement.

Meanwhile, she is immersed in her work at Paramount, where she helps provide film companies with everything from lights and sets to meals during shoots. Her office on the 65-acre Paramount site overlooks the Star Trek set and is next door to one occupied by Mel Gibson.

It's a long way from Valley and the house without a Christmas tree, which still stands not far from the Church Street Cafe. There are two giant evergreens in the front yard of the former Rock home. The one on the left Rock remembers from her childhood. The one on the right was planted long after she left.

With her father and grandmother both deceased, Rock now flies to Texas each December to spend Christmas with her 97-year-old aunt. When she does stay at home in California, she puts up her own tree—covered with 1,000 ornaments she's collected during her travels all over the world.

Like Addie, who swore she'd never marry, Rock has remained single. Like Addie, she eventually made it to Paris.

And like that little girl from Nebraska who swore she's never forget the people she loved, Rock remembers her family with deep affection.

"My father was very stern and difficult to get to," she said, "but a wonderful person under all that. You just had to kind of chip away at that exterior."

"Wow. Do you think I look like my mother? Grandma says I do!"

       He gave me a look that seemed a little sad, and then smiled.
       "You've got the same hair ... you look like her, especially when you smile ... the other night, during that Christmas carol ... you sounded like her."
.... he picked me up in his arms and held me high so I could put the star on the tree."




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