56 in Webster Groves

"Webster Groves: It is the best of America."— Charles Kuralt, 40 years ago

At the end of the hour, the townsfolk erupted. Their self-image of a special place with strong, small-town values — an image as well-cultivated as their lawns and gardens — had been punctured. As Dan Dillon recounts in his book, Charlotte Peters, "the first lady of St. Louis daytime TV," raked CBS over the coals the next day, going so far as to call the film "a Communist tool" to give our enemies an unfavorable view of America.

"They made us a look like a community of spoiled brats," a resident complained.

"How superficial. This is not who we really are," said another. "We are not a bunch of smug social climbers." And on it went.

CBS portrayed people like this as snobbish, self-centered social-climbers.
CBS portrayed people like this as snobbish, self-centered social-climbers.

The reaction to the documentary was so virulent that CBS aired a follow-up seven weeks later, titled Webster Groves Revisited, which simply reprised the searing material and allowed residents to vent. Near the end of the sequel, Kuralt cracked, "One sociologist suggested we ought to call it Forty in Webster Groves."

A massive banner is draped inside the main corridor of the 100-year-old edifice that is Webster High. In the school color, dark orange, it reads, "Through These Halls Walk Some of the Finest Students in the Nation." Nearby an entire wall is devoted to the "Hall of Fame," where pictures are inscribed along with biographical information of high-achieving students who went on to fame and/or fortune. The class of 1967 — the one featured on CBS — is represented by Connie Bickley. She earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at MIT, where she now teaches.

Upstairs in Room 321 Philip Wojak's physics students are hunched over their desks taking a college-prep exam. The spry 69-year-old, Webster High's longest-tenured instructor, pulls a couple of chairs into the hallway and offers up his recollections of the documentary.

"I've seen it time and time again," says Wojak, who arrived at Webster High the year after the infamous program aired. "And it's not a good portrayal of the community." Then why is the film still shown in Webster High social studies classes and roundly heckled at class reunions? "You've got to remember, this is St. Louis, and they're still talking about the World's Fair."

Paul Brackens, who began a long career as an assistant principal at Webster the year Wojak arrived, is another veteran viewer of the doc. "A lot of people felt liked it picked on them falsely — that they were pushing their kids too hard and that if you weren't in the 'socies' group, well, you weren't going to get to be in the plays or be in the glee club."

Minnie Phillips began teaching English at Webster in 1968. "That film was the first thing I heard about when I got here. I saw it and I thought, 'Is this the kind of community that I want to be a part of?'" Shaking her head, Phillips adds, "Webster takes its traditions very seriously — its homes, its schools and its families. And it was a misrepresentation. We're not the Cleavers, but Webster came off as The Truman Show, and there's more depth here than that."

Phillips says she showed the documentary to her students a month ago. "The kids are shocked. It seems so remote to them. It's a history they can't relate to."

Jack Hoeman was a member of the class of 600-plus juniors who went under CBS' microscope. "I think it pointed out a lot of things people didn't want to admit — that there was this snobbery and parents really pressuring their kids to do well," says Hoeman.

Webster University film professor Corley grew up in south St. Louis. Corley, now 53, recalls watching the documentary and feeling conflicted. "It was such a paradox: I thought it was a dead-on depiction, yet a complete fabrication," says Corley, who each year makes it a point to show Sixteen in Webster Groves to her documentary production class.

An independent filmmaker herself, Corley is contemplating making her own documentary on Webster Groves. She even has a working title: There's Something About Webster Groves. "The place is such an icon, such a symbol of Middle America, and I want to further explore the myths and realities," she explains.

In December 2002 a special Sixteen in Webster Groves/Webster Groves Revisited double feature screened at Webster University. All 250 seats at the Winifred Moore Auditorium were full for the entire three-day event, which also featured a panel discussion among members of the Class of '67.

"Some people talked about how the film changed their lives and how it created some difficulties in their lives," recalls Mike Steinberg, film program director at Webster. "It's funny how shocking that documentary was and how people still talk about it."

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