Gettysburg: Behind the Curtain, A Downton Abbey Experience

Written by: Kitch Loftus-Mussari
Photographs by: Bill Gaydos & Kitch Loftus-Mussari
Picture of Highclere Castle courtesy of Jonjames1986(talk)
Copyright 2013 Face of America, Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD

I came late to the table known as the MasterpieceHighclere_Castle[ Theater production of Downton Abbey. This hour-long program watched by millions of people on PBS  is in its third season.  The program gives the viewer an insight into the lifestyle of the English gentry and their servants in the early part of the twentieth century.

Why, you ask, are you reading about Downton Abbey when the topic is about the events leading up to the screening of "Walking Into the Light at Gettysburg?"

Well, the journey between April 2012, when ten students from the North Plainfield High School travelled to Gettysburg and the premiere of the hour-long film at the Visitor Center at the Gettysburg National Military Theater_0799_250Park in January 2013, can be likened to scenes from this year’s episodes, both upstairs with the Crawleys and below stairs with the servants.

Tony can play the parts of Robert, Earl of Grantham and Mr. Charles Carson, the household butler. As the earl, he knew what he wanted to do so the students would have the full experience of the history of the battle at Gettysburg in July 1863, during the Civil War, and that they did. Every moment was a learning experience from the introductory movie shown at the Visitor Center to the battlefield tour by a licensed guide.

A few wrinkles were ironed out quickly in his role as Mr. Carson and it could be called a just about perfect weekend.

The journey from April to January was a zigzag course that resembled the guest appearance by ShirleyStuwalk_9727_250 MacLaine who played Lady Mary’s mother, Martha Levinson, as she interacted with her English counterpart, Violet, the Dowager Countess expertly executed by Maggie Smith. Their interaction mimicked the logistics involved in making our film and then planning a successful screening because every move Martha Levinson made was not the right one in Violet’s eyes.

There were times when nothing seemed to be working out. Rooms were reserved at the Hampton Inn, but few had called to book them. The banquet plans were in place and ready to go when the event planner left for another position. A new person came on board, but confusion reigned about how to pay long distance and to whom. Always in the background was our worry about the weather, the technology and a hundred other details that demanded attention.

In the meantime, amongst the angst, a film had to be LOC Material_250put together.  It was necessary to find material that would flesh out the story of what happened at the battle to show how the students experienced it…but at no cost. You see, we had no budget for this project, no outside source of revenue to cover our expenses. It was similar to what the Earl of Grantham felt when he was told that his investments had failed, the family was broke and they would lose their beloved home.

Like Mr. Carson, Tony kept the lid on the problems and plowed ahead.

So he persisted day after day, night after night, week after week to find the right pictures that were free of copyright constraints and the right reenactment video footage that was graciously offered through the good offices of a new friend, Frank Orlando. The Library of Congress website and many others sites and the owner of the reenactment video became our benefactors as did Matthew Crawley when he offered the earl his inheritance to save his wife’s (Lady Mary) beloved Downton Abbey.

The logistics of getting everything accomplished,rStill grame footage when we were more than three hours away from Gettysburg and nearly three hours from North Plainfield, New Jersey, became a bit nightmarish at times.

Think Anna Bates not hearing from Mr. Bates when his letters from prison never made it to Downton because he fell out of favor with the right people.

As Christmas grew closer, movement by all parties slowed considerably and we wondered if anyone would attend. Anxiety levels rose, and we started to feel like Lady Edith at the altar when Sir Anthony Strallan told her he couldn’t go through with the wedding. But just as she rallied and found a new calling, there was troop movement.  Reservations on both fronts started to come in for the rwo events. It all started to fall into place, at least in Gettysburg.


There was a bus that would transport North Plainfield students, parents, friends and board members. All would have rooms and a seat at the banquet. All had been made ready by those behind the scenes, and it was smoothly executed by the time January 19 arrived.

It was going to be a happy reunion for many of those coming from five states to celebrate a new production.

Meanwhile back in Dallas, think Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson getting ready for a big event at the abbey.  It was Santa’s workshop but the Downton servants were missing…there were but two elves working feverishly to make sure the right presents were chosen. Mr. Carson, aka Tony, did the purchasing of the mementos that the students and others would receive. Mrs. Hughes, think Kitch, was the wrapper of various gifts, trying to label them properly and keep them organized.

And, as always, it came together beautifully. Thescreening_1132 guests arrived at the Visitor Center, the theater filled, the lights went down, the film filled the screen and at the end everyone was on their feet….the roar of applause, the sweet tears….a grand success.

Another successful event that begs for more.

Stepping beyond the analogy to the Downton Abbey series, it was indeed a wonderful time.

There were many highlights to the Gettysburg screening weekend. Of course, the best was seeing many long hard months that Tony put in producing, writing and editing the film pay off in the many wonderful comments and reviews about the work. He deserved every accolade.

Seeing old and cherished friends who traveled from near and far to be a part of the celebration was among the best memories.


Watching Julia and P.J., Tony’s delightful grandchildren, proudly escorted by their parents, Elena and Jeff, having a good time.

The standing ovation.

The proud looks on the students’ faces when they received their gifts and they talked about their transformation recorded in the documentary.  

Standing with Ellen and Jerry Mondlak, General and Mrs. Robert E. Lee, and Tom Mazur as they were thanked by Tony for all the contributions they made that caused it to be a successful evening.

The large delegation of our former students, their parents, wives, husbands and in one case fiancée who came to celebrate the moment with us.

The impeccable customer service we received from TimTim_1000_250 Johnson and Ann Costa at the Hampton Inn.  

The friendliness of Joe Spadolini, Tina Hare and support staff at the Eisenhower Inn and banquet facility.

The welcoming words of Mayor William Troxell and Stacey Fox at the screening, and Mayor Troxell’s surprise gifts for the elected officials from North Plainfield and Tony.

The encouragement and friendship of Mandy Moore, a person who represents the Gettysburg Foundation with dignity and class and the cooperation of her colleagues Debbie Joyner, Joe Corcoran and Michael Guinn who attended to all the details associated with screening the documentary in the Visitor Center at the Gettysburg National Military Park.

The spiritual words of Doug MacMillan’s grace before the dinner, the informative and inspiring words of Dr. Stephen Post’s speech and the beautiful reflection of Dr. Richard Loomis.


The spirit of community reflected in the joyful conversations people had with one another during our meet-and-greet session, at dinner and again at breakfast on Sunday morning.

The absolutely beautiful weather all weekend and in January no less!

We are indeed blessed, and we are very grateful for every moment.