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“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and its local connections

Author James Thurber hailed from Columbus

The current Ben Stiller movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” has a strong connection to our area.

The film, directed by and starring Stiller, is based on a famous short story written by humorist James Thurber that was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1939. Originally adapted for film in 1947, it’s the tale of the adventures of a daydreamer who escapes his everyday life by going on all sorts of imaginary adventures.

Columbus Connections & The Thurber House

Thurber was a Columbus native who attended The Ohio State University and once worked as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. He eventually moved to New York and achieved fame as a cartoonist and writer.

There’s no better place to learn more about the famous humorist and the art of writing than at the Thurber House, a living museum that’s located near downtown Columbus and touts itself as a place “where laughter, learning and literature meet.”

“The mission of Thurber House is to celebrate the written word for the education and entertainment of the broadest possible audience, and to continue the legacy of James Thurber,”explains creative director Susanne Jaffe. “Thurber House celebrates its 30th anniversary as a non-profit literary center in 2014. It’s housed in one of Thurber’s family homes and is also a living museum that is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.”

In addition to providing a chance to tour the famous author’s home, Thurber House offers a wide range of creative programming. The museum and center also host an annual gala that mark’s Thurber’s birthday in December; this year’s special guest was Calvin Trillin, who won the 2012 Thurber Prize.

Jaffe says there’s no typical visit to the House that’s free and open daily to the public.

“We have people from every state, plus some from overseas; children’s groups; senior citizens—very varied,” she notes. ” Our programming is unique — we have the only recognition of humor writing in the country with the Thurber Prize for American Humor.”

The Evenings with Authors series brings nationally-known writers of all genres to town. Summer Literary Picnics celebrate Ohio authors.

“Our children’s programs cover pre-school through high school, and include a Summer Writing Camp, Young Writers’ Studio for teens who also put together their own journal called Flip the Page, free library writing workshops each fall and spring, and much more,” Jaffee says. “We have a month-long residency for an adult author and one for a children’s author.”

A Dayton connection

The writer residency offers the chosen writer the unique opportunity to live in the Thurber House third floor apartment. The residency also includes teaching opportunities, and the chance for authors to devote time to their work.

This year’s John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence for fiction was Daytonian Katrina Kittle, author of “The Blessings of the Animals,” “Traveling Light,” “The Kindness of Strangers,” and “Two Truths and a Life.”

Kittle has been a James Thurber fan since high school when she first read “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

“And then I read “My Life and Hard Times” and loved his humor, “ she says. “I was thrilled to find a play version called ‘Jabberwocky’ which I’ve had great fun directing, once at Centerville High School and once at The Miami Valley School. People continue to connect to him.”

Surreal experience

Kittle, who was selected from a large pool of submissions from throughout the country, says the gift of uninterrupted time is just one of the thousand ways the House supports and encourages writers.

She especially remembers a night during her residency when she and some Thurber House staff members went to see a movie and saw a trailer for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

“It was such a surreal experience, seeing that trailer, seeing how Thurber’s influence goes on in yet another remake of his most famous story,” Kittle relates. “While I was living in his childhood home! It felt really special and significant, especially seeing such big name A-list actors in it, and the idea that they were still interested in this material, much less believing that audiences were still interested in the material.

” I had the opportunity to guest teach a class for their Young Writers’ Studio and was blown away by the quality of feedback these high schoolers were giving each other, work-shopping pieces of poetry — all skills they’ve learned and developed there at Thurber House,” she says. “I also taught a sold-out adult class of writers-some published, some not-who were so professional and talented.”

Kittle says she was permitted to bring her cat along for the residency.

“Joey got to roam the halls during lunch most days, but the rest of the time was in the attic apartment with me,” she said. “They’re all animal lovers, which seems fitting, since the Thurbers loved their dogs so much!”

Concludes Kittle about Thurber House: “It’s kind of this magical place if you love books and writing!”

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