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The Manistee County connection to the first Best Picture winner

With the Vogue Theatre showing 1927’s epic film, “Wings” (directed by William Wellman) for this Wednesday’s (March 8) classic film selection, it is interesting to note that the film was awarded Best Picture at the first Academy Awards which took place in May of 1929.

It is also interesting to note that the film has a connection (albeit…a small connection) to Manistee County. Known for its aerial stunt work and photography, the silent film features various battle sequences of real airplanes flown by a multitude of trained pilots one of which included former Bear Lake resident, Russell Keillor.

An article published in the News Advocate on February 4, 1929 (the day that “Wings” was first shown at the Lyric Theatre formerly located at 415 River Street) makes mention of Keillor’s appearance in the popular film:

“Manistee people who witness the showing of ‘Wings’ the great epic of the World War as it was fought in the air, will have opportunity to see a Manistee aviator in action in several of the daring battle scenes pictured in this remarkable photo drama.

“Lieut. Russell Keillor, son of Arlin Keillor Bear Lake, who is a member of the First Pursuit squadron at Selfridge Field, Mt. Clemens, flies two ships in these scenes of aerial warfare. He is pilot of planes No. 4 and No. 7 and may be identified by his friends by those numbers.

“Lieut. Keillor was born and raised in Manistee County and has several times flown from Mt. Clemens to his home in the neighboring village. All Bear Lake which can get to Manistee will be here to see him in action.

‘Wings’ is to be shown Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Lyric, afternoons and evenings.”

Lieutenant Keillor would eventually work his way up in rank to become Brigadier General Keillor. Sadly, his career was cut short when he became seriously ill in September of 1954. Two months later, he passed away. Brigadier General Keillor’s obituary was published in the Manistee County Pioneer Press on November 2, 1954 and follows:

“Word came Friday evening of Brigadier General Russell Keillor, who has been seriously ill in Veterans’ Hospital, Saginaw, since early September. Gen. Keillor was well known here, having spent his youth in Pleasanton, and received his education in the local schools, graduating from Bear Lake high school in 1922. He enlisted in the Air Force at Selfridge Field shortly after.

“He was the son of the late Orlin and Retta Keillor.

“Born September 16, 1903 in Honor, he was 51 when the serious nature of his illness became evident in September of this year. He had just recently retired as deputy commander, Mobile Air Material Area, Brookley Air Force Base, Mobile Alabama, after more than 32 years of service in the Air Force. He is one of the few U.S. generals to have risen from the rank of “buck” private.

“A skilled pilot, General Keillor served in the earlier stages of his career as a pursuit ship flying instructor and as an air test pilot. Up to 1939 he had flown every type of U.S. military plane. In the later days of his distinguished service, he became one of this country’s foremost procurement district specialists.

“During World War II General Keillor was commanded by Pres. Roosevelt for his efficient service at Ladd A.F.B., Alaska. In 1954 he was awarded the coveted Legion of Merit medal. The citation called attention to his outstanding efficient service in far flung parts of the earth.

“Besides his Legion of Merit medal, his decorations include the American Campaign Ribbon, American Defense Medal, Asia-Pacific Campaign Medal and Commendation Ribbon.

“He served in Hawaii before World War II, and in Alaska, Labrador and Newfoundland during the war.

“He married Mary Louise Eckhout on August 4, 1928. She has been his almost constant companion during his illness at the V.A. hospital. Besides his wife, one sister, Mrs. June Davidson, of Bay City, survives.

“General Keillor, suffering cancer, met his untimely fate with a soldier’s courage. To his physician he said, ‘I enjoyed serving my country. I know the nature of my illness, I am ready to meet death – honorably – and I hope peacefully.’"

General Keillor was laid to rest in Pleasanton Township Cemetery on November 2, 1954.

“Wings” shows this Wednesday, March 8, at the Vogue Theatre as a part of their weekly Wednesday classic film series, at 10 AM and 7 PM. Tickets are $2.

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