CHAPEL HILL, NC – Inspired by the fashion, antiques and events of PBS’ period TV drama “Downton Abbey,” residents of Carolina Meadows transformed parts of the continuing care retirement community into “Downton Meadows.” Taking on new personas and traveling back in time, residents organized and modeled for a creative photo project that captures the spirit of the popular show and the community.
Set in an Edwardian country house in 1912, “Downton Abbey” portrays the lives of the Crawley family and the servants who work for them. Season 5 of the Masterpiece show premiered on UNC-TV on Sunday, Jan. 4 at 9 p.m., and with the network’s annual fundraiser right around the corner, resident Susan Gaca thought these photos could be a great way to raise awareness and money for a cause the community supports every year.
“Susan called me up and said, ‘Chris, I have this harebrained idea – do you want to help me with it?’ And I replied, ‘Oh gee, Susan. Sure, I’ll help you with it,’ but thinking nothing is likely to come of this,” resident Chris Kesner said. “Little did I know, I was working with Susan Gaca.”
Gaca, Kesner and fellow resident Carol Lehmann were ready to dive in head first, but they needed to find a photographer. Without a penny to spend, Gaca sent a letter to a local photographer her neighbor had recommended.
“I didn’t know any of this group before I started,” said Jack Benjamin, a skilled photographer and retired pediatrician-in-chief of N.C. Children’s Hospital.
Despite that, Benjamin agreed to work free of charge.
And he was not the only one who helped out for free. The trio of residents handled the logistics of the massive undertaking: casting, location scouting, scheduling for shoots and securing props and costumes. PlayMakers Repertory Company provided costumes for the project, and Bernard’s Formalwear lent the group tuxedos to capture the “Downton Abbey” look. Organizers had no problem finding enthusiastic residents to model those costumes.
“There was not one single person who hesitated. They all just said, ‘Hey, we’d love to. Sounds like fun,'” Kesner said.
Over the course of three months, dozens of residents joined in the effort, finding period props, providing handmade jewelry, and even touching up an antique car. A few even braved the hot summer heat for hours to get the perfect shot.
A resident smiles while looking at a picture that has just been taken
“My observation was that this was a bright, dedicated, hard-working, intense group – not just the organizers but also the people that showed up in the 100-degree heat. Everyone was so excited to be part of this project,” Benjamin said.
With excitement building, Gaca, Kesner and Lehmann knew they had accomplished something special ahead of one of Carolina Meadows’ top fundraising efforts of the year.
“It was a chance to meet so many people,” Lehmann said, “to get to know them a little bit better and, from a creative point of view, it was exciting to put something together and have it work.”
Organizers hope these portraits will encourage the community to make donations to UNC-TV’s annual month-long fundraiser, Feb. 21-March 22. Resident volunteers will also stop by the studio during the drive to answer calls and gather pledges. Last year, Carolina Meadows residents and their company matching programs contributed more than $22,600 in just three weeks of fundraising, helping keep the 12-station North Carolina public broadcasting system alive.
The UNC-TV fundraiser kicks off on Feb. 21, and to celebrate the start, Carolina Meadows is hosting a “Downton Abbey”-themed dinner for residents and local media, where the stunning “Downton Meadows” portraits will be revealed to the public.