COLLINGSWOOD, N.J. — There’s a bonanza of controversy and a big mess in a little New Jersey town over a decision to move a plaque honoring hometown celebrity Michael Landon.
A bronze plaque was dedicated to the actor, writer and producer and star of TV’s ”Bonanza” and “Little House on the Prairie,” who died of cancer in 1991 at 54. That plaque has been moved from a park, an act that has enraged fans who frequent a website dedicated to “Little House,” and the New Jersey woman who raised the money for the memorial 15 years ago.
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley says it was a temporary move meant to make a park safer, not a show of disrespect for Landon, who had a famously rough childhood in the town and became best known for the characters he played on TV: Little Joe Cartwright on “Bonanza,” Charles Ingall‘s in “Little House” and Jonathan Smith in “Highway to Heaven.”
“It was always intended to get put back in there,” he said. “It was not at the top of our list where it had to be done in the next 12 hours.”
Abbe Effron, who got the plaque put up in 1997, said the memorial became part of pilgrimages for traveling fans of the actor who spent a career playing sensible, loving, no-nonsense men.
A revived Collingswood is now known as perhaps Philadelphia’s hippest suburb, full of art galleries, yoga studios, acclaimed restaurants and a hopping farmer’s market.
But when Landon, then known by his birth name, Eugene Orowitz, grew up there in the 1940s and 50s, it was a blue-collar, overwhelmingly protestant small town where a boy with a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother had trouble fitting in.
In interviews and biographies, Landon’s childhood was always described as lonely and difficult. He was subjected to anti-Semitic taunts and teasing over his studious ways. His mother was suicidal. He was a bed-wetter into his teens and his mother would hang his wet sheets out the window of the home to embarrass him. By high school, as the story goes, Landon made a conscious effort to be a bad student but became a champion javelin thrower.
Effron, who now lives in nearby Cherry Hill, said that locals weren’t enthusiastic about contributing to her drive in the mid-1990s to honor the native son. Her peers had been told by their parents about bad things he’d said about Collingswood on “The Tonight Show.”
But she did raise enough for the $1,400 plaque. And Landon’s widow, Cindy, contributed more than $6,000 to build a playground dubbed “The Little Treehouse on the Prairie” near the plaque in one corner of sprawling Knight Park.
Since then, the playground, save a lone slide, has been replaced by a new one in a different part of the park. For years, the plaque, mounted on a knee-high cement slab, has been an isolated marker.
Mayor Maley said that during a community cleanup day in November, he decided to move it.
“We decided it was a hazard,” he said. “People run through the park at all hours. You can’t see it.”
The plan was always to find a new home for it, he said. And in the meantime, it was at the town’s public works facility.
Effron was unhappy that the plaque ended up at the public works facility.
“To have it end up in a dump, that was a disrespectable thing to Michael’s family, his fans, and to me,” Effron said.
The plot thickened last week when the memorial, bearing a likeness of Landon with his lion-like 1970s hairdo, was delivered to the office of The Retrospect, a weekly newspaper.
In the paper, Maley was quoted as saying he had no plans for the plaque and that it could remain as part of a collection of local memorabilia in the paper’s office.
Maley said that’s not accurate. The paper’s publisher, Brett Ainsworth, was not available to comment Wednesday morning because he had jury duty, but he has previously stood behind the paper’s reporting.
Now, Maley said, police are investigating how the plaque got from the town’s possession to the newspaper’s.
And he’s been fielding dozens of emails from distraught Landon fans in distant places like Sweden and Wisconsin. “That’s the fun,” he said. “And by fun, I mean that sarcastically.”
Effron said she was concerned back in 1997 about the way that the plaque was being displayed, when she watched her son, then a preschooler. “I said, `He could trip and split his head open,’” she recalled.
She said that when she was first told that the plaque was moved, it was deeply upsetting because she didn’t know if it would be replaced.
But now she believes the mayor when he says it will return.
“He will definitely do something,” she said, “because he has all this pressure.”
Emotions are high over a little plaque in a New Jersey suburb.
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