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Collingswood

Little Bench on the Prairie

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Three friends from Ohio worked for years to memorialize the actor in his hometown

Five years ago, three ordinary – yet self-described slightly crazy – ladies from Ohio decided to take a trip to New Jersey. Their destination was Collingswood, approximately 550 miles from their home, because of one special little boy: Eugene Maurice Orowitz.

Orowitz was born Oct. 31, 1936, in Queens, New York, shortly after which his family moved to Collingswood. Orowitz changed his name to Michael Landon – yes, the famous Michael Landon who is best known for his roles in I Was a Teenage WerewolfBonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.

Landon’s parents settled on South Newton Lake Drive. According to the women, a few of his childhood friends still live in the area, and it was not uncommon for the late Hollywood star – who died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 54 – to return to his hometown from time to time.

“In a nutshell, those three crazy ladies from Ohio wanted to hang out with him, too,” said Marla Fair, who made the trek with Jessie Heuer and Sonya Lehman. “We pooled our resources and set off on a weekend road trip to do just that, hang out with the spirit of Michael in all the places he had known and loved as a boy.”

Former Collingswood resident Abbe Effron, who herself is a huge fan, showed the women around, pointing out the theater where Landon worked, the soda shop where he liked to hang out and Collingswood High School which he attended. She took them to see the Little Tree House in the Park – her honor project with a bronze plaque featuring Landon’s face.

Finally, they came to Newton Park to see the dock where young Eugene fished and floated paper ships; where he brought his comic books to read; and, most of all, where he dreamed of a day when he would escape his tumultuous childhood. The remnants of the dock remain, as does an old, dilapidated bench with myriad names and sentiments carved into it.

“As you look at that house, you cannot help but think of everything that went on within those four walls – of the grief, the pain; the hopelessness [of] young Eugene,” Fair said. “Across the street from the house is a lake, and by that lake is a dock with a worn out old wooden bench.

In his own words through a 1987 interview with Redbook, he grew up with an abusive mother with “violent eccentricities.”

According to his sister and others, young Eugene often ran to that dock – to that lake – to escape. He took his fishing pole and went there rain or shine, casting a line into the water and waiting for the fish to bite, or sitting in the tall wet grass beside it where he would stare at the water, seeking what lay just beneath its tranquil surface as dreamers do – and what lay beyond.”

The three friends sat on the bench, leaving their own memories behind. They returned home to Ohio – but two years later, came back to New Jersey – this time, with a mission. On their second journey, Fair was looking at that bench and thought: Collingswood needs a new one and so does Michael.

“There are people who come into your life and change it. Michael Landon is one of those people,” Fair explained. “For me, the thing that attracts and touches me the most about Michael is not his winning smile, his gorgeous green eyes, or even that handsome physique and face, which no one can deny. It is his character.”

Finally, two years later, the Michael Landon Collingswood Memorial Lake Bench was revealed on May 20 overlooking Newton Lake. It was the culmination of the time, effort, money and love of many people, Fair said.

Lisa Mitten and Centec Cast Metal Products of Fremont, Ohio, as well as Andrew Klyde, Esq., lawyer for Bonanza Ventures, were involved with the many iterations, images and mock-ups before the existing bench, showcasing Little Joe Cartwright and the Ponderosa, was chosen. Andy Klyde granted permission to do so and Mitten designed the plaque using shadow images created by Fair.

“Why choose Little Joe, you may ask? Though he had acted in other shows, ‘Bonanza’ was the one that launched Michael Landon’s career. We felt it fitting for that new beginning to be the moment – the image – attached to this bench,” Fair said.

The City of Collingswood and the County of Camden, as well as Parks Department liaison Ashley Pagan, supported the project as well.

Effron served as their New Jersey “boots on the ground.”

“Michael Landon starred in some of the most beloved TV shows of the 20th century and it’s wonderful that we can commemorate one of Camden County’s finest,” Commissioner Melinda Kane said in a statement about the project. “Landon not only grew up in Collingswood, but his father was the manager of the iconic Westmont Theater. Landon’s connection to the area runs deep and this bench will be a great addition to our park system.”

Even though the memorial dedication lasted a few hours, the party isn’t over yet. Next year will be 30 years since Landon’s passing and the “crazy” girls have even bigger plans.

Bellucci wants to build a stadium and convince the United States Postal Service to put out a stamp in his honor. Fair wants a new dock on Newton Lake with Landon’s name on it, “where little boys from Collingswood can go and fish and dream,” she said. She would also like a bronze statue next to it as well.

“To quote Michael again, ‘Dreaming is one thing, and working towards the dream is one thing, but working with expectations in mind is very self-defeating,’” Fair said.

The women welcome any ideas on how to further honor Landon in his hometown.

For more information and updates, visit www.facebook.com/MLCollingswoodmemorialakebenchproject.

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