To open the Horton Foote Festival — North Texas’ six-week-long, collective celebration of the author’s plays and films — a combination panel discussion and birthday party was held Monday at the Winspear Opera House. All 17 of the participating arts organizations were invited to attend — from Stage West in Fort Worth to WaterTower Theatre in Addison to SMU’s DeGolyer Library — to listen to the four Foote siblings talk and mark the occasion with champagne and cake. It would have been the Texas playwright’s 95th birthday.
The siblings in order of age — Hallie Foote, Horton Foote, Jr., Walter Foote and Daisy Foote — were asked questions by Your Humble Correspondent about what their father’s hometown of Wharton, outside of Houston, was like when they were children. Wharton is the location of most of Foote’s plays — fictionalized as Harrison, Texas. The Foote children grew up mostly in New Hampshire and New York City, so to them Wharton was a special visit. Horton remembered the giant red ants and the openness of the townspeople, Daisy remembered the sheer amount of food that was offered after a death. Their memories of their father extended from his daily ritual of writing (“it was like prayer for him”) to Daisy’s youthful embarrassment in front of her friends over the fact that he never seemed to get out of his pajamas. He always rose early to start — and just kept writing. And he never left the house much, so her friends just assumed he was an alcoholic.
“He wasn’t,” Hallie insisted with a laugh. “I don’t want the papers printing that.”
Their memories were both touching and funny. For much of their lives, their father wasn’t famous, wasn’t the prize-winning author. The Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962 certainly helped (Horton remembered declaring his father wouldn’t win and going to bed early on Oscar night), but there was a long drought after that as theaters, primarily in New York, considered Foote out-of-touch and he wouldn’t settle for just any Hollywood project. At a political rally in New Hampshire, Paul Newman was stunned to meet Horton — Newman thought he was dead.
I recalled meeting their father, who was as courtly and friendly as everyone has described. But it has always struck me that he’d have to have some steel in him to suffer through so many decades of neglect — and keep writing.
“That was mom,” said Daisy. It was their mother, she said, who had absolute faith in him as a writer. He speculated on whether they should become antique dealers because the couple were avid collectors of late 18th-century-early 19th-century antiques, but Lilian Foote became a real estate agent, so he could continue to write.
Collectively, they expressed gratitude for the festival, for keeping their father’s legacy alive — and showcased. Horton spoke about how wonderful it was to see his plays with a Texas audience (the siblings had attended Dividing the Estate at the Dallas Theater Center and some had also seen Talking Pictures at Stage West).
“They get it,” he said.