Actor Jeff Daniels loves his tiny hometown, and shares his inspiring story of how he's giving back to the community there.
I didn't take to the city. It was crowded and noisy and you didn't know the people you passed in the streets. There were hundreds of actors from all over the country all going after the same jobs. I didn't see how I'd ever make it. After about six months I was desperate to come home. I called my mom and complained. She listened. At the end of my harangue, she said quietly, "Find a way to stay." My mom is a woman of few words and they're always well chosen—there was no room for argument. She'd seen what Miss L'Roy saw and knew what good people also know in small towns: There are times you have to leave home to grow.
I wanted to go home, but I stayed and had some lucky breaks. I got cast in some great plays and movies like Ragtime, Terms of Endearment and The Purple Rose of Cairo. But I never forgot home. I married my high school sweetheart and, after 10 years, like I said, Kathleen and I moved back to Chelsea. "What if you get cast in a movie or a play?" she asked.
"Detroit has an airport," I said. "I can fly from there to wherever I have to go." At least when I returned I'd be returning to a home that was really home, not some modern house tucked in the Hollywood hills.
Small towns might have a reputation for being set in their ways, not a good place to experiment or feel stimulated or inspired. Well, I have to disagree. Coming back to Chelsea I felt free to try things I hadn't done before—like writing. I wasn't sure how to make a play, but I figured if we had the space we could find the actors and experiment. Kathleen and I bought an old wooden warehouse. That was the beginning of what we called The Purple Rose Theatre—what I envisioned was a company for the 21-year-old kid I used to be, where he could explore and grow before he went to New York or L.A. Or maybe he wouldn't even want to go. Maybe he'd stay here and make great theater in Michigan.
Michiganders love their theater. And that's what The Purple Rose has become… a place for actors, directors and playwrights from Michigan and the Midwest to get the training and breaks I did. We'll see the hunger in some young actors who have talent and we'll help them get as good as they can before they leave. We take pride in helping make talented people better. It's a matter of good stewardship, passing on the gifts God has given us. Small towns take pride in what they produce.
There're other things Kathleen and I have been a part of. There was an old school, a nice solid brick building that was going to be torn down and turned into condos. We bought it and saved it for a group called the Chelsea Center for the Development of the Arts. It was just a husband-and-wife operation in one room of a church, giving lessons in cello, voice and violin. Now, you go into the renovated building and there are people singing, rehearsing and playing instruments. Kids—the non-sports kids—have gone on to win university scholarships because of the training they've gotten.
Then there's the ballpark. We used to have baseball and softball fields at the high school that were in bad shape. My buddy, who's now the athletic director at Chelsea High, wanted something new. With a little money and a lot of imagination, he built a new stadium with box seats, a press box, dugouts and scoreboards. A lot of people got behind him. Pooling our resources and doing some fundraising we've built something great.