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BGSU pays tribute to actress

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Artist Joe Ann Cousino unveils her sculpture of Springfield native and Hollywood legend Lillian Gish.

The Blade/Lori King
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BOWLING GREEN - Joe Ann Cousino got oohs, aahs, and applause from about 140 people in the Gish Film Theater at Bowling Green State University yesterday as she pulled the cloth off her sculpture of local silent film star Lillian Gish.

But Ms. Cousino says she didn't work alone on the bust.

Miss Gish, who has been dead for about 14 years, joined Ms. Cousino in spirit in her Ottawa Hills home, she said, just like other late figures she has studied extensively before sculpting. "It's like they're in the studio with you," Ms. Cousino said.

Miss Gish of Springfield made her acting debut in the opera house of the southeastern Wood County community of Risingsun before going on to appear in more than 100 films.

Her spirit was a strong one, Ms. Cousino said, adding, "I wouldn't fool with her."

To make that connection with old photos and then get her interpretation into stoneware took Ms. Cousino at least 100 hours. It was hard, she said, because Miss Gish appeared so different in various photos.

"She wore a lot of makeup and hairpieces, and I had to catch what was really underneath there," Ms. Cousino said.

She heard Miss Gish was called the "Porcelain Princess," so she decided to use a porcelain wash on the sculpture.

It was unveiled before yesterday's showing of the silent film Nell Gwyn, featuring Miss Gish's sister, Dorothy Gish.

The idea for a sculpture of Lillian Gish was born when Ms. Cousino, who has been a regular at Sunday matinees in the Gish Film Theater, and Ralph Wolfe, curator of the theater since it opened in 1976, realized the theater was lacking a bust of its namesake.

Neither of the Gish sisters had children, and much of their memorabilia - dresses Lillian wore to receive awards and the luggage she packed for such trips as well as the honors themselves - is in the theater.

However, the collection was light on sculpture; one of the only such pieces is a plaster cast of their mother's hand.

The commission for the piece came from the university's $400,000 Gish endowment, which is used primarily to pay projectionists, pianists, and professors for the free Sunday matinees.

The unique theater, which seats 168, is also used daily for university film classes.

Though Lillian Gish has more items than her sister in many of the theater display cases, that's largely because she lived longer.

Dorothy died in 1967. Lillian lived until 1993 and received much recognition during her later years, including an honorary Academy Award, an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, and the D.W. Griffin Award for lifetime achievement.

But the sisters made about the same number of films - Lillian was in 104 and Dorothy, 108 - and Lillian often said her sister deserved more recognition.

"Lillian always said Dorothy was the better actress because she did comedy, which was harder to do, in Lillian's mind, than tragedy," Mr. Wolfe said. He added that Lillian often said it was harder to make people laugh than cry.

For that reason, Mr. Wolfe told the crowd after the sculpture of Lillian was unveiled, "If Lillian were here today - and, of course, in spirit she is - she would say, 'I dedicate this sculpture to the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Film Theater in remembrance of the birthday of my devoted sister, Dorothy.'•"

Dorothy's birthday was exactly two weeks earlier; she was born March 11, 1898.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

jschmucker@theblade.com

or 419-337-7780.

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