Muse Machine alum collaborating on Truman miniseries

“The stories of our past are our hope for the future,” Ryan Vallo said

The life and influence of Harry S. Truman is the catalyst of local writer/actor/historian Ryan Vallo and actress Dannielle Robertson’s original TV miniseries “Truman & Me,” based on the real-life account of Robertson’s chance encounter with the former president in Independence, Missouri in 1970.

Envisioned with flashbacks in the style of “Forrest Gump” with political overtones to biopics “Lincoln” and “Darkest Hour” as well as “The West Wing,” “Truman & Me” is conceptually inspired by Peter Morgan’s conversational, Queen Elizabeth II-themed play “The Audience.”

The miniseries juggles the perspectives of Dannielle, a young hippie recently returned from serving with Dean Martin and the USO in Vietnam, and Truman, thrust into the presidency with a legacy ultimately shaped by his decision to drop the atomic bomb during World War II. In particular, the project describes “two people at opposite ends of their lives who meet each other where they are, two generations passing each other one afternoon.”

“Not only is this a story of one of our former leaders of this country but it’s a president and a citizen having a heart-to-heart on a bench in the middle of a park – and that’s democracy,” said Vallo, 34. “But also unique is the fact it’s a story of a young woman who has actually been on the ground in a foreign country in the middle of a war zone. She has been in the burn ward in Vietnam where American GIs were hit by our own friendly fire. She is able to ask Truman tough questions about what America has suffered along with questions about democracy, leadership, healing, and companionship. It’s one thing to tell Truman’s story but it’s another to tell it to a young woman who has also been to war herself and seen it.”

Reflecting on an unforgettable moment

“I grew up with this idea that anyone and everyone is approachable,” said Robertson, 76, daughter of electric steel guitar pioneer Noel Boggs and goddaughter of Leo Fender. “(Meeting Truman) was one of the most implausible and perfect times in my life. It settled questions. It put salve on wounds from wars and thoughts. When I think about Harry Truman and the quality and person he was, he was a man for humanity. He was a small man who led a very big life.”

Currently residing in Warsaw, Indiana, Robertson met Truman at age 25 while visiting a friend as part of her vacation from filming her recurring role on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Born in Oklahoma City, she was raised in Downey, California, a Los Angeles suburb, and was quickly immersed in the Golden Age of Hollywood at age 4 accompanied by her father, a staunch Democrat and Truman admirer. In particular, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Gene Kelly, Walt Disney, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, and Buddy Ebsen are just a few of the legends who left imprints on her life.

“In essence, I grew up with my father’s generation of entertainers so my life in Los Angeles was really about loving what I did,” she said. “And I revered the work.”

Looking back on her nearly two-hour conversation with Truman, she’s particularly pleased to have kept his monogrammed “H” handkerchief he gave her when she became emotional while discussing the horrors of war.

“At one point, President Truman and I were talking about wars, killing and loss,” she recalled. “I had just lost someone very dear in Vietnam and I started to cry. He reached in his breast pocket and pulled out a handkerchief for me to dab my eyes. It was monogrammed but I wondered why it didn’t have three letters, HST. He laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s the boss,’ referring to his wife Bess. ‘The boss wants me to just stay humble. To her, it’s just Harry.’”

Assessing the current state of politics, Robertson hopes the miniseries fuels a better understanding of Truman’s personality, dilemmas and legacy.

“Today, we’ve lost our way so blindingly with ease, and not ever grace, with callousness and raw treatment of female to male, the lack of any kind of decency to men let alone all men,” she said. “Truman was a fiery spitball of a guy but not nasty. He was capable of showing love and respect for mankind and I feel we’re hungry for that again. His greatest fear was that he would only be remembered as the man who dropped the bomb – not the fact that he ended the war. Today, more Americans have died with COVID than those who perished during World War II, a truth that hits home.”

Gaining perspective inside the ‘Sacred Cow’

During months of copious research for the miniseries, Vallo, a 2005 graduate of Vandalia-Butler High School and founder of Peacefield Entertainment Ltd, says he was greatly inspired by his visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force to tour the “Sacred Cow” airplane. Truman notably used the aircraft during the first 27 months of his administration. This local connection is most likely to be featured in Episode 3 of the miniseries.

“For me, period projects are the ultimate fantasy because it used to be our world,” he said. “Even here in the Miami Valley, we can walk past the mundane every day, but actually touch the touchstones to our world as it once was: Wright Cycle Shop, Hawthorne Hill, Paul Laurence Dunbar House, Patterson Homestead, and (others). This was their home before it was ours, and sooner than later, it will be our great-great grandchildren’s home.

“And, so, it’s a blessing to be able to actually walk onto ‘the set,’ to walk into Harry Truman’s presidential stateroom aboard the ‘Sacred Cow,’ which carried him to the United Nations Conference in San Francisco and the Postdam Conference in Germany 75 years ago at the end of World War II. As an actor and writer, you have to put yourself in the shows of another person. So, to be able to actually be in that consequential ‘room where it happened,’ it’s merely one gem in our Gem City.”

Passionate pursuit to tell more American stories

In spite of the coronavirus pandemic sidelining aspects of the entertainment industry, Vallo has been fervently pitching the miniseries, which is intended for streaming. In fact, the Muse Machine alum and Baldwin Wallace University graduate has sent the script from Los Angeles to London, garnering considerable interest from top producers and actors.

At the same rate, he looks forward to studying abroad this fall to obtain his master’s degree in American History at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He views the opportunity as the “next logical step” considering he will be in the country of period projects and Shakespeare’s histories.

“Churchill, Stalin and the Postdam Conference are dramatized in ‘Truman & Me’ and it all has such close ties to Britain and Europe,” he explained. “The (miniseries) will have international appeal.”

Above all, he is passionate about this project simply because he feels American stories are not being told. In his eyes, there is a lot of catching up to do, especially in comparison to Great Britain. Specifically, he cites the fact that in 2017 there were three different projects featuring separate chapters of Winston Churchill’s story: “Churchill,” “The Crown” and “Darkest Hour.”

By contrast, there has only been one substantive movie chronicling Abraham Lincoln in the last 30 years. He previously wrote a script chronicling Andrew Jackson and has high hopes for his collaborative, timely and relevant exploration of Truman.

“What drives me is (the fact that) the stories of our past are our hope for the future,” he said. “My focus in the entertainment business is (to) tell the stories of people who have lived before us and impacted our country. There are so many stories from this country that need to be dramatized. You realize circumstances change, events change, but people really haven’t changed all that much. We’re still motivated by the same thing. The common denominator is us as people. Stories of people who were in extraordinary circumstances. Like Harry Truman said, ‘I’m most interested in history for its use in the present.’”

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