Butler County Times Gazette
  • Halstead woman recalls filming 'Picnic'

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  • HALSTEAD - Irene Sommerfeld made news all over the state in 1972 when she was the first woman in Kansas to become president of her local chamber of commerce. Today, at 90 years-old, she is a model of aging well, swimming twice a week at the Newton Recreation Center - something she has done for the past 30 years.
    But for all her accomplishments, the thing that draws admirers from California to New York to Australia is a few seconds of herself on film, for which she was paid $5 per day back in 1955.
    Sommerfeld was an extra in the Oscar nominated classic movie, "Picnic," filmed in Halstead and several other Kansas towns - Hutchinson, Nickerson and Salina.
    From her home in Halstead, Sommerfeld showed black and white pictures she took of movie stars, camera crews and, of course, picnics, at Halstead's Riverside Park where the movie was filmed.
    Sommerfeld noted the picture of Kim Novak hiding behind a tree, trying to avoid getting her picture taken. There was Susan Strassberg, who played Novak's younger sister in the film, sitting on the bicycle she was forever riding and talking to a young man. Then, there was the picture of the film's other big star, William Holden, wearing the short sleeve shirt and necktie he wore in the movie's park scenes. He's sitting in a lawn chair, casually surrounded by town folks.
    "They mingled with everyone," she said.
    Co-star Verna Felton would join in with a group of ladies talking and trade recipies with them. Sommerfeld pointed to a picture of a smiling co-star Rosalind Russell with a camera around her neck.
    "She always had a camera," Sommerfeld said. "When you took a picture of her, she'd take a picture of you."
    Sommerfeld liked all the film's stars, whom she described as down-to-earth. She also liked the director Josh Logan.
    "He was a nice fellow," she said. "He never got upset. Just smooth sailing."
    Filming could be a drudgery, though. She recalled staying in the park, filming until 5 or 6 a.m. to get the scenes right in which Novak came floating along the Little Arkansas River on a boat after she was crowned the Neewollah queen.
    The scenes of cookfires at the park picnic are brief, but Sommerfeld said the filming took place all day long.
    "We spent a whole day in that darn smoke," she said.
    Sommerfeld found that being a movie extra was not everything it was cracked up to be.
    The roughly 300 extras in the movie were chosen from a crowd of around 1,000 people lined up and down Main Street. Everyone wanted to be in the movie "because they thought they'd get a part," Sommerfeld said. "They thought they would be movie stars."
    Page 2 of 2 - The reality was not so glamorous. Sommerfeld spent days, being bored, standing around while filming went on.
    "It was more of an aggravation," she said.
    Somerfeld came away with $90 for 18 days of filming. She saw the film debut at Wichita, but the scenes she was in went by so fast, she did not notice herself on the screen.
    Still, her slight connection with the film has endured. Nearly 60 years after it was made, "Picnic" has a following. Fans from across the United States and even overseas have written to and called Somerfeld.
    "Isn't that something?" she said.
    Somnerfeld showed pictures of a couple from Australia who have visited this area three times because they're in love with the movie. Sommerfeld and her husband, Clif, have taken them to all the various towns and showed them all the sites where the movie was filmed.
    "I think everyone is shocked that people still want to come here and everything," she said. "It is surprising."

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