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'King's Speech' draws attention to success of stutterers

| Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010

On Sept. 3, 1939, a radio address by King George VI rallied his countrymen against Hitler.

More than 70 years later, a film about that momentous broadcast could recast the monarch as a different kind of hero -- a champion for the 3 million Americans who stutter.

"The King's Speech," which opens Dec. 25 in Pittsburgh, stars Colin Firth as a reluctant king afflicted by a crippling stammer. Those who have suffered similar agonies are keen to see if this king will speak for them.

Chuck Saller, 74, a member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Stuttering Association, says its support group members -- who include lawyers, financial advisors and college students -- are buzzing about the film.

"They're anxious to see the movie," says Saller, a retired petroleum engineer who lives in Murrysville. "They feel very positive that this movie is coming out and showing the success of someone who stutters."

In cartoons and other movies, characters who stuttered tended to be the butt of jokes, like Porky Pig or the career criminal played by Michael Palin in "A Fish Called Wanda." In real life, stutterers are often stigmatized as slow, shy or emotionally crippled.

Gary Rentschler, 63, stuttered for years before he brought it under control with therapy. He suffers from a form of stuttering known as a block, the same halting catch in the throat that affected George VI.

"People I know in the community who stutter are extremely anxious to see it," says Rentschler, a speech pathologist and founding director of the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at Duquesne University.

"I think part of the curiosity is how stuttering is going to be portrayed," he says. "The thought that someone in a position of power, such as a king, is going to be a primary subject of the movie, and that stuttering is going to be the main theme, that excites people."

The film, which stars Helena Bonham Carter as the queen and Geoffrey Rush as the king's unorthodox speech therapist, has already generated Oscar buzz. It led the Golden Globe nominations with seven, including best film drama.

"I am a little bit excited that stuttering is portrayed in a movie, but I'm more curious than anything," says Charles Kirkland, 19, of Derry, who began therapy in August to correct his stutter.

"I'm curious if they did their homework on stuttering, and how it really affects a person," he says. "It might give someone some inspiration."

Nearly four times as many men stutter than women. Its causes are as elusive as a "cure." It's not uncommon for stutterers to reach adulthood before they get help, Rentschler says, even though it's harder to treat adults than children.

"Part of what makes it harder is all the bad feelings and bad experiences that they've had," he says. "It's the type of problem that doesn't really hurt someone else. It's not infrequent that the person waits until they're 30 or 40 or 50 to get help."

Bonita Veraldi of Pleasant Hills has stuttered since childhood. Her father and brother stutter, she says. So does her son.

"When I saw that movie was coming out, I remember thinking 'Finally, they're doing something about this,' " she says. "If it changes how one person feels, it will be worth it."

The ascension of Firth's character to the throne couldn't have come at a worse time for someone so debilitated by a stutter. Thanks to a new mass medium -- radio -- kings couldn't simply look regal. They had to speak well.

"I loved how subversive the story is," says film director Tom Hooper, who also directed "Elizabeth I," "The Damned United" and the HBO miniseries "John Adams."

"Who knew the secret to King George VI's success was an amateur Australian speech therapist and failed Shakespearean actor?" Hooper says. "People don't even know about it."

One person who did was screenwriter David Seidler. A Londoner by birth, he looked upon King George VI as a boyhood hero.

"(Seidler) was born in 1937 and he had a terrible stammer as a kid," Hooper says. "He listened to King George VI. He thought, 'If the king of England can cope with a stammer, maybe there's hope for me.'"

Hooper says Firth took great pains to portray the King's stammer without resorting to histrionics or caricature.

"Colin's immersion in the stammer was extraordinary," he says. "In certain shots, the musculature of his neck is locking up. By the end of the shoot, he was complaining of numbness in his left arm. He really went to a very severe place. He actually found it so infectious, he started to stammer outside the shoot."

Derek Jacobi, who plays Archbishop Cosmo Lang in the film, played the title role of the stuttering Roman emperor in the 1976 television mini series, "I, Claudius." Hooper says Jacobi told him that it took him nearly eight months to rid himself of the stammer after shooting wrapped.

It's never too late for help

If the most common fear is speaking before a group, imagine the misery of the stutterer.

"I remember that was a huge fear for me," says Bonita Veraldi, 57 of Pleasant Hills, who has stuttered all her life. " 'Please God, don't call on me. Don't make me stand up. Don't make me give a speech or read a paper.' I used to call off sick on days when I knew I had to recite a poem or read in front of the class. I would become physically ill knowing I had to stand up in front of the class."

That's the problem confronting Colin Firth in the movie "The King's Speech." Firth's character, King George VI of England, must overcome his crippling stammer in order to make a nationwide broadcast on the eve of World War II.

Gary Rentschler, a speech pathologist and founding director of the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at Duquesne University, says stutterers often have trouble saying their own name.

"Our identity is so tied up in our name. Not being able to say your name comes as a real source of personal embarrassment," Rentschler says. "It represents the core of who we are, psychologically."

Stuttering, also known as disfluency, baffles scientists and the medical community. It often runs in families, says Carlos Garcia, speech pathologist for Excela Health at Latrobe Hospital. Other risk factors have been linked to childhood development and family dynamics. Garcia says some studies have hinted at a neurological cause.

"There appears to be a difference in how the brain functions,' he says. "They tend to use more of the right brain."

It's never too late for adults to learn to control their stutter, he says, but it becomes more difficult.

"The older we get, and the more we stutter, the more ingrained it becomes in us," Garcia says. "There's a sense of expectancy. If I go to order something at a restaurant, I have that fear in the back of my mind."

Therapy for stutterers includes helping them unlearn their ingrained verbal habits and learn new speech patterns that can help them speak more freely, Garcia says. For example, in "The King's Speech," Colin Firth's King George struggled to pronounce the "p" sound so he inserted an 'ah' sound in front of it so he could say "a-people."

Garcia wouldn't recommend the outlandish verbal steeplechases that Geoffrey Rush puts Firth through in the movie, however.

"For the record, I would not use those methods," he says.

Famous people who stutter include Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Mel Tillis, James Earl Jones and actress Emily Blunt.

Ellen Moreland, a retired pre-school teacher who lives in Shadyside, is a member of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Stuttering Association. She says she always spoke easily to the children in her class, but struggles to get past the "m" sound on the word 'morning.'

"I have been to lots of therapy," she says. "They've all worked, but not for very long. I'm thinking that it's about time to go back."

Additional Information:

Hear for yourself

A recording of the 1939 broadcast by George VI titled  ?The King to His Peoples• can be heard on YouTube .

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