Revisiting the Nearly Forgotten ‘Lolly Madonna War,’ Shot in Union County, Tenn.

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

In the 1970s, before Burt Reynolds became a movie bandit, before his recent Knoxville presence generated daily media over-coverage, an earlier generation of aging male actors were in East Tennessee filming a low-budget movie.

Rod Steiger and Robert Ryan were spending time near Washburn in Union County on set for a film called, at the time, The Lolly Madonna War. It was the story of a pair of feuding hillbilly clans.

Lolly Madonna was the name of the woman who was central to the movie’s plot. And, thanks to my being employed by the Knoxville Journal, she provided me with the opportunity to become a pornographer. An opportunity, I should add, that did not work out despite my best efforts.

Unlike the present-day Burt barrage, Knoxville didn’t seem to take much notice of the celebrity presence. I’m sure that had much to do with the set being on the far edge of civilization. Or maybe Knoxvillians had become blasé to such Hollywood royalty—we had, after all, hosted Anthony Quinn and Ingrid Bergman only a couple of years earlier as they filmed a movie in Sevier County.

But Lolly Madonna’s publicist was working to change that. Or at least seemed to be as he took to hanging out at the Journal office, mostly around a female reporter with whom he had established a rapport.

The Journal published a handful of stories—but, as I recall, the two veteran stars were savvy enough to avoid the publicist and whichever media representatives he had trailing him.

So he came up with a plan to garner some national ink. He was, he told those of us who would listen, buddies with someone at Penthouse magazine, the upstart challenger to Playboy. And that person, he was sure, would welcome a photo feature involving a comely female wearing little or nothing. His plan was to find such a subject, make her an assistant script girl, and then have a photographer take pictures on the set that Penthouse would publish, providing pulchritudinous publicity.

The Journal’s veteran photographers, blessed with the clear-eyed skepticism that experience brings, would have nothing to do with his plan. So, at the suggestion of his female friend, he approached me, a burgeoning photographer. And I of course agreed to see if I could find a star-struck subject.

Several phone calls later, I realized that the girls I knew—UT students—were too smart for such a scheme. And none of them had any interest in meeting Rod Steiger or Robert Ryan—after I had explained to them who they were. I realized that most children of the ’60s had little knowledge of stars from the days of black-and-white films.

And I had to admit that I had little interest in yet another project exploiting the stereotypical ignorant hillbilly—though I certainly had encountered a few. Once, on another story in Washburn, I had stopped in a country grocery seeking directions back to Knoxville. The teen-aged girl behind the counter—I would guess her age at 16 or 17—said she didn’t know and confessed to never having traveled farther from home than Luttrell, which was only 10 miles away.

So I didn’t get around to visiting the movie set and soon forgot about the movie, which garnered little attention when it was released.

But a month or so ago, Turner Classic Movies aired Lolly Madonna XXX—the title had been changed, with the Xs meant to represent kisses. Unfortunately, the triple X’s gave the impression that the movie was pornographic. Maybe the publicist from the early 1970s had suggested the name change.

So I watched it. And discovered that it is certainly worth a couple of hours of time, the two stars and their fellow actors delivering excellent performances following a credible and well-written script.

The supporting cast, a mixture of veteran Hollywood character actors and newcomers, included three boys who went on to make big-screen names for themselves, names that would have been recognizable to any girls I might have contacted if I was seeking an assistant script girl a generation or so later: Jeff Bridges, Gary Busey, and Randy Quaid.

And Lolly Madonna? She existed in name only—the “signer” of a prank postcard that set off a murderous hillbilly rampage.

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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