Ex-Bunny finds home in Selma

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 3, 2003

“There is a place … and nobody knows it but me”

Francesca Barker found her place about a year ago, and she has settled into it. She lives in Old Town Historic District in a restored house, where a Yellow Labrador puppy named Charlie greets visitors in enthusiastic welcome. She has found a church where she feels at home. And she has registered to vote.

“This is it for me,” she tells friends. “I really mean that. Selma is a lovely town.”

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Barker came here to spend Christmas 2001 with her father,

Charles Barker, who died six weeks later. Her decision to stay grew initially from a visit by the Rev. Lee Tate, assistant pastor of First Baptist Church, who called on her shortly after her father’s death.

“He prayed with me and for me, as did John Fain, church pastor. Jane Moore opened her heart to me &045;&045; and I knew that this was home.”

Although Los Angeles had been her place of residence for more than 40 years, she had lived and traveled almost all over the world, following her career in the film industry, as well as visiting her children and friends.

But her roots have already reached deeply into the soil of Alabama’s Black Belt.

Barker entered the world of entertainment at 21. Recently divorced, weighing 99 pounds,

needing a job, she said, “I went to New York, where I was accepted by a large advertising agency which changed my name from Francine to Francesca, and placed me as a Playboy Bunny at one of the clubs. I went from making no money

to being audited by the IRS.”

From New York she moved to Los Angeles to train girls for the opening of the LA Playboy Bunny club. However, she adds, laughing (and she laughs a lot), “I was too fat after the birth of my son so I went to work for MOTown Records as assistant film editor. ”

She entered the film industry through the Minority Training Program in the early ’70s. Barker was the first female and the first black accepted. She will never forget the thrill of editing a Movie-of-the-Week starring Martin Sheen, “Private Slovak,” which won an Emmy.

Barker also worked with James L. Jones, Richard Pryor and Billy D. Williams. On a script filmed in Macon, Georgia, she says “for the first time I learned the meaning of Southern hospitality.”

She has been employed as assistant on commercials, feature films and television films. Television, she explains, is more difficult because there are 10-15 reels of dailies to edit. Through the features work she has met well-known entertainment figures, among them Stephen Spielberg, director John Frankenheimer, and actor Robert deNiro. And in one of Tom Cruise’s films, “Minority Report,” she worked as an extra.

“I didn’t have a speaking part although I was seated directly behind Cruise in a scene on a train. He’s really friendly,” she said, laughing again at the memory.The hallway and family room of her home are lined with posters advertising films and signed by the directors, producers and stars. There are also photographs of her modeling career,

including some glamour shots, and memorabilia of her travels have a place in each room.

In Japan she was employed on the television

film, “Shogun,” which required several months residence there. She lived a year in Italy, regularly attended the Cannes Film Festival in France and she has also spent time in Holland and Canada. She almost commutes between America and Australia, where her son Geoffrey Charles Epstein, a computer programmer, and Barker’s newest grandchild, Oscar Allen Epstein, 2, live.

Her other grandson, 9, lives with his mother Debbie Hudson, who is an electronic technician in Santa Cruz, Calif. Barker’s younger daughter, Leslie, is in Selma.

Francesca or Francine has already made many friends in her new home. Warm, friendly, compassionate and humorous, she attracts people who enjoy laughter and a positive attitude. A great story teller, she is fond of relating the tale of a journey by rail in Czechoslovakia. Her destination was a tiny town named Martin, where the family of her husband lived. She tells it best:

“We arrived between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m., just when people were going to work.I stepped off the train with a long sable-mink coat wrapped around me and piles of luggage stacked by me. I took a deep breath and it was if time stood still, like crossing a 14th century bridge into melancholia.

“Everything was very cold, everything was gray, the people looked at me as if I were a celebrity from America. But that soon changed. My father-in-law was famous in that town, a war hero. People began coming to see me, coming up to me to touch my skin, to hear me talk.

“It was an experience.”

Barker has recently worked in editing on “The Big Fish,” filming in Wetumpka. “But the commuting so early in the morning and returning so late at night was too much. I am blissfully unemployed,” she said. And once again, laughed.