Come home, Victor Jory -- Scarlett’s not here

October 16, 2011 

For generations of Georgia children and youth, the Cyclorama at Atlanta’s Grant Park was a place of pilgrimage. We went there with our parents, we went there with school classes, we went there with Vacation Bible School; I even went there a couple of times with a Smoky Mountain summer camping trip. (What the Cyclorama had to do with either camping or the Smoky Mountains is your guess as well as mine, except that it was more or less on the way.)

If I did the Cyclorama fewer than a dozen times as a kid and teenager, my memory is even creakier than I already suspect.

The short brochure/website version: The Atlanta Cyclorama houses the world’s largest oil painting, a circular, four-story-high depiction of the July 22, 1864 Battle of Atlanta. It was painted by German artists in 1885-86 and has been on display at Grant Park since 1893, and in the building specifically built to house it since 1921.

A diorama was added in 1936 -- the same year “Gone with the Wind” was published -- adding a really incredible three-dimensional aspect to the display. If you can find the exact line between the bottom of the painting and the start of the diorama, your eyes are a lot sharper now than mine were even at 12. (The fallen soldier who is part painting and part sculpture always fascinated me.)

And of course there was the museum: the locomotive Texas from the great railroad chase of 1862; the uniforms and rifles and bayonets; “Joe Brown’s pike,” the spear-like weapon some Georgia troops carried late in the war, which probably should have given them a hint things weren’t going all that well.

The old Cyclorama show was an informal but uniquely cool experience. At the center of the display was a two-deck circular catwalk-like platform, where maybe 25 or 30 people at a time could listen to a recorded narrative and follow the arrow-shaped beam of a guide’s flashlight as he or she pointed out the 1864 Atlanta skyline, the mascot eagle soaring overhead, or Sherman on horseback watching the carnage from his hilltop perch.

Columnist Lewis Grizzard -- the young, delightfully gifted Grizzard, before health and humor both failed him and he became an agonizingly unfunny reactionary who died way too young -- wrote a great piece about the deterioration of the Cyclorama in the 1970s, and pointed out one of its great ironies: The recorded narration was by Victor Jory – the “Gone with the Wind” actor who played the most despicable carpetbagger in the whole story.

Chew on that a while, you folks who think we Lower Latituders are obsessively unforgiving about the Great Unpleasantness of the 1860s.

It’s all been refurbished since. The catwalk is gone, replaced by a rotating grandstand that faces different parts of the display in turn, and the narrative voice you now hear is that of Morgan Freeman. Hard to quibble with that -- Morgan Freeman’s voice could make a string of serial numbers sound biblical -- but I’d love to know if the old Victor Jory narration is still on record somewhere.

Even now, there are rumblings about moving the Cyclorama to a new, more central Atlanta location. I hate that, for a lot of reasons. The whole Grant Park area and Zoo Atlanta in particular, with which the Cyclorama shares the park, are great resurrection stories. The residential area around the park has been converted over the last 30 years from deterioration and blight to an attractive neighborhood, and Zoo Atlanta has gone from one of the most horrifyingly bad and depressing zoos in the country in the early 1980s to an award-winning attraction.

“I think they’ve lost their minds, and we’ll fight,” one Grant Park resident told the New York Times, in a recent story about efforts to take the Cyclorama away. “This is ours.”

Never surrender.

Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; dnix@ledger-enquirer.com.

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