- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

HAVERHILL, Mass. (AP) - The research spanned more than two decades and the finished product is now ready.

A filmmaker has released a documentary about the “Archie” comics series that creator Bob Montana based on his Haverhill High classmates in the late 1930s.

The film, titled “Archie’s Betty,” was shown in Boston last weekend. It will be presented in Haverhill later this year.

It details the filmmaker’s 25-year search to find the real people behind the characters in “Archie” comics

A Haverhill woman who was a friend of Montana and accompanied him to his junior prom said she’s nervous about what the film has in store- especially because she’s in it.

“I’m excited, but scared to watch it,” said Jane (Donahue) Murphy, 93, one of the few surviving members of the Haverhill High Class of 1939.

The late renowned cartoonist Montana spent three years as a student at Haverhill High, before moving with his family to Manchester, New Hampshire. His cartoon contributions to the Haverhill High newspaper, “The Brown and Gold,” were among his first published works.

Written and directed by Cambridge resident Gerald Peary, “Archie’s Betty” opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) last weekend. The independent film will also be shown at the ICA on June 14 at noon and 3 p.m.

Peary co-produced the film with Lawrence native Shaun Clancy, a researcher and expert on Montana and the Haverhill connection.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled than to have my New England premiere at the ICA,” said Peary, who recently returned from the film’s world premiere in Argentina at the Buenos Aries Festival of Independent Cinema.

Peary, 70, said he hopes to have the film’s Haverhill premiere at Northern Essex Community College in early fall, when students return from their summer break.

Peary said his obsession with the “Archie” comic strip began in the 1950s when he was growing up in the south and dreamed of living in the real “Riverdale,” the all-American town depicted in the comic.

“Many years later, as an adult, I discovered that my childhood fantasy was not absurd at all,” he said. “In 1988, I read a letter in a newspaper asserting that Archie’s Riverdale was modeled after the real town of Haverhill, Massachusetts. Riverdale High was actually, the letter claimed, Montana’s Haverhill High.”

Peary said he first visited Haverhill in 1988 to meet the real people who were the inspiration for Montana’s characters.

He said he fell in love with the city and its residents, whom he found to be “unbelievably friendly” and told him many colorful stories about who they believed the “Archie” characters were based on.

“Now, more than 25 years later, I’ve looked back and the second time around I’m not so sure,” Peary said about his earlier research. “Everyone said that Agatha Popoff was Veronica Lodge, but since then I’ve learned that Bob Montana said he based the character on the Hollywood actress Veronica Lake.”

Peary said Veronica’s last named was based on the well-known Lodge family of Massachusetts, whom Montana once painted a mural for.

“Supposedly, Montana was fascinated with Agatha, but yet he never mentioned her in his diary,” Peary said.

The character Jughead was likely based on Haverhill resident Richard “Skinny” Linehan, who also attended Haverhill High in the late 1930s.

“I thought so in 1988, and I still think so,” Peary said. “If you look at their images, they are astonishingly similar. And like Linehan, Jughead could eat and eat and never gain weight. And like Linehan, they are both very skinny.”

Linehan’s sons, Dick and Jeff Linehan, and Jeff’s wife, Elaine, operate Diversified Business Systems in Haverhill.

Jeff Linehan said he and brother Dick were interviewed by Clancy about a year ago and that he gave Clancy photos of their father, whom he described as “tall and skinny.”

“We’ve very excited about the film and how it portrays the real Haverhill in the 1930s and ‘40s,” Jeff Linehan said.

Peary said the character Moose could have been based on Arnold Daggett, who played football for Haverhill High in the late 1930s.

“I met Daggett in person in 1988 and he looked exactly like Moose from the comic strip,” Peary said. “He had a flat top, a big neck, and like Daggett, he was a football player.”

Murphy, the Class of 1939 member who went to the prom with Montana, believes the character Archie was based on her cousin, Richard “Buddy” Heffernan.

“Heffernan was Montana’s idol. Montana was a reserved guy, while Heffernan was loved by the girls and very popular,” Murphy said. “All of the characters were from Haverhill, although now they are claiming Betty was from New Jersey. I’ve always said Betty is a composite of different girls.”

Murphy said it took a while before Montana invited her to his junior prom. “It took him six months to ask me to go … he was so bashful,” she said. “I lived on 14th Avenue near Walnut Square and he lived on Sheridan Street opposite 11th Avenue. He was always waiting at the end of the street for me to come by and we’d walk to school together.”

Also in the film is Ernie Greenslade, Northern Essex Community College’s public relations director who organized a showing of Montana’s art and diaries at the college in 1989.

“I was always a big ‘Archie’ fan,” said Greenslade. “If you read Bob Montana’s high school diaries, it’s very clear that his experiences there influenced his ‘Archie’ comics.”

During Peary’s visit to Haverhill in 1988, he spoke with long-time Haverhill Gazette journalist and photographer Barney Gallagher, a member of Haverhill High’s Class of 1939 who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the city.

Peary returned to Haverhill in 2011 to interview Murphy and Gallagher.

“Barney was in the hospital and just a few months from dying,” Peary said. “We filmed the interview, but since he wasn’t at his articulate and humorous best, we decided not to include it in the film.”

The character Betty Cooper is considered to be the most contested member of Archie’s gang, Peary said.

As Gallagher would often tell people who asked, “Every blonde in Haverhill thought she was Betty.”

Gallagher once wrote a newspaper story in which he talked about the ‘Archie’ comics and Montana. The story read, in part, “Practically all the people in Haverhill High classes of 1938, 1939 and 1940 would have at least a passing acquaintance with the artist and the people he drew- and the places like the ‘Chocklit Shoppe’ and things like the Thinker statue, which showed up in the comics and is still outside Haverhill High School.”

Peary said his research into the real Betty might surprise some people.

“One thing people might not be crazy about is the story ends outside of Haverhill,” Peary said. “It seems likely that the real Betty wasn’t from Haverhill at all. But you have to see the movie to find out.”

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Information from: The Eagle-Tribune, http://www.eagletribune.com

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