I strongly oppose the effort to rename Bowling Green State University’s Gish Film Theater honoring two talented native Ohioans, Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Recently a similar petition was taken to the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. The Gish sisters made distinguished, unmatched contributions to the performing arts, including motion pictures, stage, radio, and television. The removal of the name of the Gish Film Theater would be a sad, ignorant, misinformed waste and an insult to these great women’s legacy. There are campus activists at BGSU who want the Gish Theater name removed because of Lillian Gish’s role in the controversial D.W.Griffith film, “The Birth of a Nation.” Miss Gish was not a producer, writer, or director and therefore had no role in its content. She was a twenty-one year old actress fulfilling her contractual obligations.
Regarded as THE PREMIER SILENT FILM ACTRESS, Lillian’s oeuvre encompasses roles that are anti-racist and pro-feminist including such classics as “Broken Blossoms” and “Way Down East,” while Dorothy, who was one of the silent screen’s most popular actresses and did not appear in The Birth of a Nation, had a significant part in the anti-Klan film, “The Cardinal.” To remove these sisters’ names from the theater would be a blow to artistic expression and would not further the cause of racial justice and women’s contributions in film.To blacklist a performing artist simply for appearing in one film or play, as in the disrespectful phrase, “Ditch the Gish,” is outrageous, narrow-minded and sexist. It is clearly an embarrassment to the establishment from which it came, and the decision-makers should be cognizant of that, as well as Lillian Gish’s great legacy and trail-blazer as a successful woman in film who transitioned beautifully from the ‘silents’ to the ‘talkies.’ She was, and always will be, a fine example and credit to the film industry.
Instead of renouncing the well-deserved honor bestowed on these two great actresses with the establishment of the Gish Film Theater in 1976 there should be a ‘re-awakening’ celebration of the Gish sisters’ achievements instead, which could be accompanied by lectures on these women by well-known film historians and the showing of such anti-racist and pro-feminist movie classics as “The Cardinal,””Broken Blossoms” and “Way Down East.” This could have such a beneficial ripple affect on the entire campus, even beyond the Film, Drama, and Women Studies Departments, which it would directly benefit. Retaining the name of the Gish Theater would also increase Bowling Green University’s respect and admiration as an institution, world-wide.
I had the privilege of meeting Lillian Gish when I was a graduate student in painting at Bowling Green State University on October 14, 1979. It was her 80th birthday and she gave a warm, articulate lecture on “Way Down East” at the Gish Theater, a silent film in which she played the heroine. Afterwards I asked if I could take her picture for my sister, Jane Gaines, now a published film historian who teaches at Columbia University. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s have a picture taken of the two of us for your sister. I had a sister once, and I miss her very much!”
These kind women’s legacy in film needs to be REMEMBERED and HONORED at Bowling Green State University and in their state of Ohio and the rest of the world, NOT ERASED!