Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey Debuts on American Masters

Pedro E. Guerrero landed in his first photography class by accident at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, circa 1935. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

Pedro E. Guerrero at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, circa 1935. He landed in his first photography class by accident and never looked back. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

Before Mexican-American photographer Pedro E. Guerrero died in September 2012 at age 95, he agreed to be filmed by filmmakers Raymond Telles and Yvan Iturriaga. Their hour-long film profile, incorporating Guerrero’s gracious commentary, American Masters–Pedro E. Guerrero:  A Photographer’s Journey, finally debuts on PBS tonight, September 18, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check local listings for air times in your region.)  

A timely fit for National Hispanic Heritage Month, the film is a co-production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and Latino Public Broadcasting’s VOCES.  It is quite a revelation.

Guerrero was born and raised in Arizona, where his family lived for generations.  Despite a financially comfortable upbringing, he was forced to attend “Mexican only” segregated schools.  To escape the intolerance that he faced on a daily basis in his hometown, he bolted for Los Angeles at 20, where he planned to sign up for an art class at the Art Center School.  The art classes were closed, so he signed up for the only class that was still open…a  photography class.  The rest is history.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright photographed by Pedro E. Guerrero at Usonia in Pleasantville, NY, in 1947. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright photographed by Pedro E. Guerrero at Usonia in Pleasantville, NY, in 1947. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

Serendipity seems to have followed Guerrero throughout his photographic journey. At 22, he connected with legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who, seemingly on instinct, took the unseasoned photographer under his wing and assigned him to photograph his winter home, Taliesin West, in the Arizona desert.

After his service as a war photographer overseas during W.W.II, Guerrero continued to photograph Wright at work and at ease until his death in 1959.   Guerrero went on to develop similarly close working friendships with the sculptor Alexander Calder and, after Calder’s death in November 1976, sculptor Louise Nevelson, until her death in April 1988.  In all three cases, Guerrero photographed the masters still engaged and productive until the days leading up to their deaths.

Guerrero additionally built a notable niche as an architectural photographer for major magazines.  He shot international interiors and exteriors on-assignment for magazines like Vogue and House & Garden; lived for 50 years in New Canaan, Connecticut, an enclave of mid-century modern architecture; and enjoyed the high life in Mad Men-era New York City… until his anti-war efforts during the Vietnam War cost him his lucrative publishing assignments.

Pedro on American Masters set16-IMG_0003

Pedro E. Guerrero at age 92 on the set of AMERICAN MASTERS–PEDRO E. GUERRERO: A PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNEY. Photo: Miguel Creus.

Pedro E. Guerrero was a spry 92 when he sat for filmmakers Telles and Iturriaga and recalled the three masters who consumed his life and work–architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sculptors Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson.  The film is profusely illustrated with Guerrero’s striking black-and-white and color photos documenting the construction of Wright’s, Calder’s and Nevelson’s masterworks. Guerrero’s second wife and archivist, Dixie Legler Guerrero; Nevelson’s granddaughter, sculptor Maria Nevelson; and a handful of articulate architectural photographers, critics and historians also share insights and recollections.

American Masters–Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey provides a tantalizing taste of Guerrero’s phenomenal body of work, and hopefully will bring him the long overdue national attention he so richly deserves. Watch it tonight on PBS, September 18, 2015 , 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check local listings for air times in your region.)  

Sculptor Alexander Calder with his stabile in Sache, France, photographed by Pedro E. Guerrero. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

Sculptor Alexander Calder with his stabile in Sache, France, photographed by Pedro E. Guerrero. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

The broadcast film and a Spanish-captioned version will be available to stream on September 19.  Check out for more info on streaming, community outreach screenings and the DVD release scheduled for November 17, 2015.

Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey will be an evergreen addition to programs in schools, universities, libraries and museums focusing on Hispanic-American photographers and architectural photography in general.  It will also be an enlightening supplement to programs and exhibits featuring the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson.–Judith Trojan


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American Experience Tackles Walt Disney on PBS

Walt Disney shares a moment with Mickey and Minnie, circa October 1933. Photo © Condé Nast Archive/Corbis.

Walt Disney shares a moment with Mickey and Minnie, circa October 1933. Photo © Condé Nast Archive/Corbis.

Walt Disney always reminded me of my childhood pediatrician. And that was a very good thing. Not only did they look alike, but both men were, in fact, passionate healers who never lost their ability to speak to the needs of children… and “the child” within the older folks who raised them.  One man greeted me every Sunday night from my TV screen; the other stopped by regularly to cure what ailed me.

To me, my parents and the rest of his patients, my doctor was a saint.  In a larger playing field, Walt Disney was a creative genius whose body of work made us all feel really good.  My doctor effortlessly removed my tonsils in his office and alleviated my measles’ scare.  Walt Disney gave me Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Bambi, Davy Crockett, Mary Poppins, Hayley Mills and The Mickey Mouse Club. I had a charmed, healthy childhood thanks to those two men.

I think you’ll find yourself thinking a lot about your past and, most especially, some joyful moments of your childhood as you watch the ambitious, two-part, four-hour biography of Walt Disney, produced and directed by Sarah Colt, premiering on the American Experience PBS series.  Part One debuts tonight, Monday, September 14, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET.  Part Two follows on Tuesday, September 15, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region.)

The first two hours of Walt Disney cover Disney’s critically formative early years (1901-1941). Seemingly driven to rewrite the story of his unhappy Midwestern childhood–his domineering dad’s string of business failures continually uprooted the family–Disney channeled his psychological wounds and considerable artistic talent into a career in the nascent movie industry. As is the case with most visionaries, timing is everything; and for Walt Disney, the time was right for his all-consuming passion: Animation.


Walt, Mickey and the merch, circa 1931. Photo © Disney.

Animation was a growth industry, a genre primed for the enormous innovative, entrepreneurial skills that Disney brought to the table. With his brother Roy as his financial advisor and a team of dedicated, talented artists by his side, Disney planted and grew a lucrative niche in Hollywood. By 1928, the Disney Brothers Studio premiered Steamboat Willie, and a star named Mickey (Walt’s “alter ego”) was born.

Part One of Walt Disney draws an absorbing portrait of a man who had an instinctive understanding of his audience and a knack for building a brand, decades before “branding” became a buzzword. The film provides a fascinating look at his tenacious efforts to film and release Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as the first ever feature-length, story-driven animation. Despite his naysayers and obsessive attention to detail that slowed production to a crawl, Snow White was an immediate critical and box office hit that grossed $8 million during its first year (that’s more than $100 million today!).  Clips from Snow White and other classics produced during this period, including the initially less successful Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) are plentiful, as are vintage behind-the-scenes film clips, home movies and on-camera analyses by various film scholars, critics and cultural pundits.


Walt Disney (far right) looks on as his FANTASIA collaborators (from left) George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky and T. Hee peruse a model for the film. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

But there was trouble brewing in paradise. Labor unrest and union organizing threatened to derail Walt’s career trajectory and his new studio in Burbank. Part Two (1941-1966) chronicles the arc of betrayal and mistrust that apparently transformed Walt from Mr. Nice Guy into a grudge-carrying, “friendly witness” during the HUAC hearings in 1947.

To escape the turmoil, Walt focused his attention and “better angels” instead on a seemingly frivolous personal pursuit: building and commandeering his own scale-model railroad. And, of course, that child friendly railroad eventually compelled him to design and build a “community” around it.  It would be called Disneyland.

Part Two is a breathtaking and often touching look at how Walt delved into new film genres (nature films, live-action comedies and live-action/animation hybrids) and markets to keep his brand fresh and financially viable.  He even managed to secure a deal with ABC-TV to fund the building of Disneyland. That back story is riveting, as is the film footage that records and tracks the evolution of Disneyland from landfill to monumental opening day. Walt Disney, a lifelong chain-smoker, died tragically from lung cancer at age 65 with plans underway for yet another new dream “community,” this time in Florida, to be called EPCOT.


Walt Disney (standing far left) and some of his animators, circa 1931. Photo courtesy David Lesjak.

The glorious film clips, vintage behind-the-scenes footage, home movies and recollections from various old-timers who knew and worked with Walt as animators; designers; ink and painters; and composers; including his son-in-law, producer Ron Miller, provide welcome insight into Walt’s psyche, creative endeavors and executive temperament. However, the pompous rhetoric posited by the film’s resident cultural “scholars” often stops the film dead in its tracks.

If you’re a Baby Boomer, the timeline and psychology behind Walt Disney’s impact on your life is quite simple. You remember exactly how Disney films and TV shows and the promise of visiting Disneyland fit into your life.  You remember where you were when you first were frightened by the Evil Queen in Snow White, cried during Bambi, held your breath when the clock struck 12 in Cinderella or danced down the street after watching Mary Poppins.  You remember how excited you were to buy Davy Crockett coonskin caps or how you never missed an episode of The Mickey Mouse Club.  You remember how good all of those moments made you feel and why.


Walt Disney holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations and wins. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

And so, like me, you’ll probably want the “experts” who drain the energy out of the documentary with their windy psycho-babble–about Walt’s feelings at any given moment, his so-called demons and the cultural context of our Baby Boom generation–to just put a sock in it. Call me Grumpy, but one of these particularly self-important blowhards–a young, female cultural historian with insignificant film history creds–should have landed more often than not on the cutting-room floor.

Walt Disney airs tonight and tomorrow night on the American Experience PBS series.  Part One debuts Monday, September 14, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET; Part Two debuts Tuesday, September 15, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region.)  It will definitely be a keeper on DVD.  Be sure not to miss it!–Judith Trojan

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Tennis Legend Althea Gibson Profiled on American Masters

Althea Gibson, approx. 1957 Courtesy Johnson Family Archives

Althea Gibson, approx. 1957. Photo courtesy Johnson Family Archives.

Sometimes it’s best to turn a blind eye to a film’s missteps and focus instead on the relevance and timeliness of its subject matter. That’s definitely the case with Althea, the latest installment in PBS THIRTEEN’s American Masters’ series premiering tonight, Friday, September 4, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (Check local listings for air times in your region).

Programmed to coincide with the U.S. Open currently underway in Flushing, NY, Althea pays long overdue attention to tennis trailblazer Althea Gibson (1927-2003), the first African-American to play at and win the U.S. Nationals (1957 & 1958) and Wimbledon (1957 and 1958).  The U.S. Nationals were a precursor of the U.S. Open.

Without the trail blazed heroically by Althea Gibson during the 1950’s and 1960’s when African-Americans, and women for that matter, faced an uphill battle to be taken seriously on the court, join the tour and be financially compensated, there would be no Venus or Serena Williams…or Arthur Ashe for that matter. At this writing, Serena Williams is a current contender for a Grand Slam sweep. And it took almost 20 years after Althea’s historic victory at Wimbledon for an African-American male–Arthur Ashe–to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon (1975).

Althea Gibson with Dr. Robert W. Johnson, one of her mentors. Photo courtesy Johnson Family Archives.

Althea Gibson with Dr. Robert W. Johnson, one of her early mentors. Photo courtesy Johnson Family Archives.

Tennis was hardly an obvious choice for the sharecropper’s daughter who grew up a tall, gangly tomboy on the streets of Harlem playing basketball, skipping school and tussling with anyone who stood in her way.  Her prowess on a neighborhood paddle tennis street court caught the attention of local tennis coaches and sports figures who took her under their wing, channeling her raw talent, smoothing out her rough edges and pointing her in the direction of serious mentors like Dr. Hubert Eaton and Dr. Robert W. Johnson. Eaton and Johnson were respected physicians who also worked with and toured promising young African-American tennis players.

The film, produced and directed by Rex Miller, tracks Althea’s journey from the streets of New York through her storied rise through the segregated, sexist world of amateur and professional tennis during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Abundant archival footage and photos, as well as the reminiscences of fellow players, including her doubles’ partner Angela Buxton and tennis champ Billie Jean King, also an executive producer of this film, drive home the racial and financial obstacles Althea faced in order to reach the pinnacle.

Althea’s sweet National and Wimbledon victories–the latter also remembered for her awkward face-to-face with the Queen–and her professional exhibitions with the Harlem Globetrotters; her surprising singing, acting and recording careers; and her appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “What’s My Line,” and her chat with legendary Edward R. Murrow on “Person to Person,” all underscore the extent of her exhilarating public adoration at the time.

But then, somehow, she disappeared from view. While the film is a generous catalog of Althea’s professional challenges and triumphs, her personal life during and after reaching her career milestones is pretty much marginalized here. Questions raised about her family dynamic, love life and marriages, mental health and her slide into destitution and final days in Newark, NJ, are left unanswered.   The film is also burdened at times by an intrusive, over-enthusiastic period music score and abrupt transitions that could use some fine tuning.

Althea Gibson at the West Side Tennis Club, Forest Hills, NY, 1957. Photo courtesy West Side Tennis Club Archives.

Althea Gibson at the West Side Tennis Club, Forest Hills, NY, circa 1957. Photo courtesy West Side Tennis Club Archives.

American Masters:  Althea is, however, well worth savoring for its record of the life and times of this remarkable sportswoman. Althea never claimed to be a role model and trailblazer in her sport–“She just wanted to play tennis,” recalls Billie Jean King.  But the film serves as an important reminder for seasoned tennis enthusiasts and an eye-opener for the rest of us that the tennis world as it plays out now in the U.S. and abroad (i.e., the equal participation by men and women of all races and the competitive financial remuneration) owes much to Althea Gibson.  Her name and accomplishments should never be forgotten.

American Masters: Althea will be an evergreen choice on DVD for programs in schools, libraries and sports clubs serving young people and adults. It premieres tonight, Friday, September 4, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT, and is immediately followed by an encore presentation of American Masters: Billie Jean King at 10:30 – 12 midnight, ET/PT.  (Check local listings for air times in your region.) You can read my original review of American Masters: Billie Jean King at    –Judith Trojan

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Poignant Tashi and the Monk Debuts on HBO

cecil-and-lioness-brent-stapelkamp (1)

Cecil, the lion, had a family, too.

It’s been a distressing couple of weeks. I’ve been especially disturbed by the media firestorm ignited by two individuals in particular who have money to burn and no idea where and how to best to spend it. One guy seems to think that stalking and shooting endangered animals sheltered in jungle habitats is a reasonable 21st-century pastime.  The other, a Presidential wanna-be, shoots off his mouth and rises in the polls despite (or because of?) his racist and sexist rants.

Cecil, the lion, was illegally poached from his Zimbabwe preserve, wounded by an arrow, stalked for two days, shot dead and decapitated by a man who drills and fills teeth for a living.  His lame defense?  He didn’t know that Cecil was a “known, local favorite.”2015-07-zimbabwe-wildlife-lion-usa

And then there’s the current Republican Presidential front-runner. This media savvy windbag’s performance during G.O.P. debate #1 will be remembered not for any substantive political policy but for the laughs and press he generated denigrating the appearance and professionalism of two women (Rosie O’Donnell and Megyn Kelly, respectively).

It cost “Dr. Chopper” $54,000 to turn poor Cecil into a wall trophy; and “The Trumpster” will soak millions into his campaign to stay one step ahead of those he name-calls “stupid” losers.


Donald Trump on the stump.

I have a better suggestion for both of them. Donate your time and money to those who are working to find a cure for breast and prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease…the four key scourges facing Baby Boomers, the generation in which you are both card-carrying members. Or redirect your testosterone, dental expertise, business and real estate acumen and cash to help build and expand services at pediatric hospitals like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; or fund schools and communities for abused, abandoned and orphaned children like the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community in India; or work to promote and protect environmental and animal rights initiatives that will assure your children’s children of a healthy planet for all species.

The mission of the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community founded by former Buddhist monk Lobsang Phuntsok is introduced in a lovely spirit-booster, Tashi and the Monk.  The 45-minute documentary debuts tonight, August 17, 2015, on HBO (8:00 – 8:45 p.m. ET/PT).  I suggest you check it out if you need an antidote to the spate of depressing media fare we’ve been experiencing of late.

Tashi Drolma, the star of TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Tashi Drolma is a child on the mend in TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

The Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community opened its doors in India’s remote Himalayan mountain region in 2006.  Jhamtse Gatsal in Tibetan means “garden of love and compassion.” As showcased in Tashi and the Monk, directed by Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke, the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community is putting “love and compassion” to the best possible use…by providing a safe, healthy haven, positive life goals and welcoming surrogate family milieu for at-risk children previously destined for a life of dereliction and despair.


TASHI AND THE MONK explores Lobsang Phuntsok’s mission to found the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community in the district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India. Photo courtesy HBO.

Lobsang Phuntsok was himself a lost boy. Abandoned by his mother and running wild, he was sent to a monastery in South India and eventually studied under the Dalai Lama, became a Buddhist monk and taught Buddhist philosophy in the U.S. and Canada. Determined to put his teachings to work in his homeland, Phuntsok returned to his childhood village with the goal of creating a community for troubled children much like himself, to give them the childhood he never had.

Tashi and the Monk follows a new young resident as she learns to quiet her temperamental flare-ups and co-exist within her new environment.  The daughter of an alcoholic father, five-year-old Tashi Drolma is a wild child whose often violent, anti-social behavior disrupts life for her fellow residents and teachers and makes it impossible for her to bond with other children in the community.

Tashi Drolma and Lobsang Phunstock. Photo courtesy HBO.

Tashi Drolma shares a quiet moment with her teacher and benefactor, Lobsang Phuntsok, in TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Phuntsok’s’s tender efforts to teach her to respect and not harm others, to share and to find joy and peace where she previously incited chaos are telescoped to fit the short running time of this film. But Tashi’s challenges and improvement are palpable. By all appearances–and this film is replete with smiling, happy faces and glorious shots of the exquisite surrounding landscape–the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community is doing a good job of nurturing and educating its residents (numbering 85 as of this film) via its “three pillars”: an intelligent mind, kind heart and healthy body.

Tashi Drolma’s transition from an anti-social trouble-maker into a happy, trusting pal is explored in TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Lobsang Phuntsok is, however, believably torn by his inability to accept all of the troubled children who come his way.  He is stymied by insufficient housing and staff, which, of course, translates into the need for more funding. You’ll no doubt be inspired to help him out after you watch Tashi and the Monk  debuting tonight, August 17, 2015, on HBO, 8:00 – 8:45 p.m. ET/PT. Check listings for additional HBO playdates throughout August, as well as its availability via HBO On Demand and HBO Go.

Visit   to find out more about the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community and how you can donate your time, money or even sponsor a child in-residence.  And, just in case you missed it, check out Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue about Cecil, the lion @  –Judith Trojan

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Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson Debuts on HBO

Jane Anderson returned her Great Great Aunt Edith's artwork to the Provincetown, Mass., art community where she painted it almost a century before. From PACKED IN A TRUNK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Jane Anderson returned her great-aunt Edith’s artwork to the Provincetown, Mass., art community where she painted it a century before. From PACKED IN A TRUNK. Photo courtesy HBO.

It wasn’t easy living in America, circa 1924, if you were a woman with exceptional artistic talent, showed signs of emotional fragility and unorthodox sexual proclivities.  Without a supportive family or like-minded community (the ex-pats in Paris, for example) to protect you and nurture your talent, you were an easy target for nervous Nellies and ruthless opportunists who were only too eager to stifle your rogue spirit.

Such was the case with artist Edith Lake Wilkinson (1868-1957), the great-aunt of Emmy® Award-winning screenwriter, director/producer, playwright and artist Jane Anderson. Anderson’s eclectic dramatic credits run the gamut from The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom  (as executive producer and co-writer) to her most recent Emmy® nominee, Olive Kitteridge (as executive producer and screenwriter). Her new documentary, Packed in a Trunk:  The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson, debuts tonight, Monday, July 20, 2015, on HBO, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for additional HBO playdates in July, as well as availability via HBO On Demand and HBO collage packed-in-a-trunk-1024

Jane Anderson never met her great-aunt in person–Edith Lake Wilkinson died alone and forgotten in a state mental asylum in Wheeling, West Virginia. But Anderson grew up surrounded and captivated by Edith’s artwork:  Anderson’s mom stumbled upon trunks filled with Edith’s paintings and drawings in a family member’s attic. Daughter Jane credits this artwork, subsequently hung on her childhood walls, with the blossoming of her own creative spirit and evolution as a fine artist, as well as her coming out as a lesbian.

Jane Anderson (right) and her spouse, producer Tess Ayers, search for clues to great-aunt Edith Wilkinson's backstory in PACKED IN A TRUNK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Jane Anderson (right) and her spouse, producer Tess Ayers, search for clues to great-aunt Edith Wilkinson’s back story in PACKED IN A TRUNK. Photo courtesy HBO.

To honor her muse, Anderson has dedicated more than 35 years of her life to fill in the sizable gaps in Edith’s personal back story, solve the mystery of her confinement and, most especially, draw wide attention to her exquisite artwork. Anderson takes center stage in Packed in a Trunk, which she produced and co-wrote with director Michelle Boyaner. The film and a companion Website document Anderson’s exhaustive efforts to bring her great-aunt’s sizable legacy out of the shadows and into the sunlight, a feature that Edith so loved to explore a century ago in her paintings and portraits.

At 19 years of age, Edith bravely snubbed convention and left her home in West Virginia to settle in New York City where she studied at the Art Students’ League and earned a degree at Columbia University.  She met and mingled with noted artists of the day, including William Merritt Chase, and moved in with a woman named Fannie who would become her longtime companion.  Edith also ventured to Europe and often to Provincetown, Mass., where she summered, painted and studied with like-minded talents. As revealed in her paintings, sketches and innovative block prints, Edith’s life at that time seemed to be filled with joyful exploration and promise.

Artwork by Edith Lake Wilkinson. Photo courtesy HBO.

Artwork by Edith Lake Wilkinson. Photo courtesy HBO.

Sadly, by the time she turned 57 in 1924, Edith’s plans to sail to Paris after her parents’ sudden death were derailed by her family’s estate lawyer.  While systematically embezzling her inheritance, he managed to secure her admission to several hospitalizations in mental asylums, where she eventually died, artless and forgotten at 89. Her artwork and possessions ended up in her nephew’s attic until Jane Anderson’s mother found them.

Packed in a Trunk casts Jane Anderson as an eager, sincere and adventurous sleuth, and brings her great-aunt’s artwork and sexuality out of the closet with some degree of closure. While she essentially shares a common bond with the filmmakers of Finding Vivian Maier  and Living with Lincoln , Anderson’s personal issues and energy at times tend to eclipse Edith, her artwork and milieu.

Anderson seems to have found her most revealing resource in the dusty records, memories and warm welcome she received from the artistic community in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Some of the most fascinating sequences in the film cover the history (via personal reminiscence, period footage and photos) of the Provincetown art and gay community.

Jane Anderson and her spouse, Tess, at Edith's graveside. Photo courtesy HBO.

Jane Anderson (right) and her spouse, Tess Ayers, at Edith Lake Wilkinson’s graveside. Photo courtesy HBO.

Packed in a Trunk leaves unanswered questions regarding Edith’s family history and back story (her lovers, her actual importance in the Provincetown art community, the reasons for her institutionalization); and the questions that are answered raise even more questions. Late in the film, Anderson telescopes her frustration by visiting psychic Lisa Williams, who supposedly connects instantly with Edith and Fannie, who, in turn, have a lot “to say” from the great beyond.

Much time is spent on the parallels between Edith and Jane, their shared creative talent, free-spirited lifestyles and lesbianism; but while Packed in a Trunk:  The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson is a tad self-indulgent on Anderson’s part, I think you’ll find what there is of Edith’s story and artwork to be quite intriguing and worth exploring.  You can watch it tonight, Monday, July 20, 2015, on HBO, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT. Check listings for additional HBO playdates in July, as well as its availability via HBO On Demand and HBO Go. And you’ll find an informative timeline and lovely examples of Edith’s work at .–Judith Trojan

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American Experience Shines a Light on the NYC Blackout of 1977


Photo courtesy of WGBH Educational Foundation.

Thirty-eight years ago, on July 13, 1977, New York metro area residents were sweating through a scorcher. New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy: Cops and firefighters and hundreds of city workers faced layoffs, afterschool services were being cut, residents and commuters lived in fear of squeegee men and a serial killer dubbed the “Son of Sam.” City streets, sidewalks, walls and subway cars were littered with garbage and graffiti.  In short, the city was a mess.

American Experience recalls those dismal days in stirring fashion in Blackout, airing tonight, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, on PBS (9:00-10:00 p.m. ET, check local listings for air dates in your region).

Fuses were short and about to blow… in more ways than one.  And blow they did, literally, during a severe thunderstorm that evening. Lightening struck a power line in Westchester County (NY) spurring a cascading series of power outages, some of which were mishandled by Con Edison engineers as they futilely attempted to short-circuit a total meltdown in their antiquated system.  They failed and the lights went out, leaving seven million city dwellers in the dark  and without electricity for 25 hours.

The NYC skyline from Queens during the power blackout of 1977. Lights glow in a midtown Waterside Con Ed plant as traffic passes on East Side Drive. Photo: Dan Farrell/NY Daily News via Getty Images.

The NYC skyline as seen from Queens during the power blackout of 1977. Lights glowed from a midtown waterside Con Ed plant as traffic passed on East Side Drive. Photo: Dan Farrell/NY Daily News via Getty Images.

People dined under the stars on Upper East Side rooftops, partied in the streets and at tony watering holes where bartenders offered free champagne. In the dark and in short supply were Good Samaritans who helped direct traffic, mend wounds, put out fires and short- circuit looters.

In disadvantaged neighborhoods downtown, uptown and in the boroughs, residents were fed up with being forgotten. Lawlessness ensued as storefronts were smashed and merchandise stolen.

People flooded hospital emergency rooms, bloodied from broken glass and with limbs fractured from dragging heavy refrigerators, bulky TV consoles and other large appliances through the streets and up flights of stairs to their flats.  Others suffered from smoke inhalation, burns or worse from the more than 1,000 fires choking the streets. When the power was restored and the smoke finally cleared, 3,700 people had been arrested for looting more than 1,600 businesses.

Trophies by Syl was looted on July 13, 1977. Its co-owner, In AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: BLACKOUT, Elzora Williamson, recalls the devastation and consequences she and her husband Syl faced. Photo courtesy Elzora Williamson.

Trophies by Syl in Brooklyn was looted on July 13, 1977. In AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: BLACKOUT, the shop’s longtime co-owner, Elzora Williamson, recalls the devastation that she and her husband, Syl, faced. Photo courtesy Elzora Williamson.

Locals who lived through this mayhem share their recollections of the blackout of ’77, including a firefighter; a cop; reporters; a medical student who volunteered in a darkened, under-staffed hospital emergency room; a steward who served wine at the famed Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of One World Trade Center; neighborhood shop owners who were set upon by criminals, as well as their looting friends and neighbors; and two Con Edison System Operators who had their hands on the switch on that fateful day.  More than one of these survivors compare the 1977 meltdown to its kinder, gentler predecessor:  the blackout that affected the entire Northeast and parts of Canada on November 9, 1965.

Directed by Callie T. Wiser, American Experience: Blackout meshes her engaging witnesses with murky, chaotic footage taken on the streets and indoors during the 1977 blackout. An original music score by Gary Lionelli effectively underscores the drama of this inglorious period in New York City history.  Watch it tonight, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET on PBS (Check local listings for air dates in your region).   It will make you feel good about how far we’ve come…or have we? –Judith Trojan 

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Liz Swados Takes the High Road in My Depression on HBO


Elizabeth Swados. Photo courtesy HBO.

Born in 1951, Elizabeth Swados was a wunderkind, given the range of talents she enjoyed to great success while still in her twenties: composer, performer, music conductor, writer, illustrator. Then regarded as avant-garde, her creative spirit proved to be as natural as life itself, for it was from everyday life–the chatter on a New York City street corner, cars whizzing along a highway, birds chirping–that she extracted her music. She also made innovative use of ancient languages and such found works as Brazilian sambas, poetry, and African folklore. The combination was electrifying.

“At one point, I was offered six plays a week for six straight weeks,” she said, reveling in her youthful role as Broadway’s “It” girl”…or so it seemed.

A 40-minute celebratory film “collage” made by Linda Feferman and released in 1977 by Phoenix Films, Elizabeth Swados: The Girl with the Incredible Feeling was as inventive and eccentric as its subject.  Bits of cabaret performances, recording sessions and rehearsals appeared in snatches throughout the film. Much was made of her travels to Africa, her work with director Peter Brook, and her upbringing (home movies of her parents and Swados as a child were widely used in this film).

One of the loveliest and liveliest segments of the film was based on a juvenile picture book, The Girl with the Incredible Feeling (Persea Books), that Swados wrote and illustrated.  In the film, the book’s illustrations were animated and the narrative was read with incidental music.  It tells the story of a girl who is blessed with a special knack for seeing the unusual and beautiful aspects of daily life.  Her gift–personified as a “spirit”–is discovered by a greedy entrepreneur, merchandised, weakened, and almost lost until she realizes her folly and is reunited with it once again.

Jump ahead almost 40 years, and Elizabeth Swados’ story continues in My Depression (The Up and Down and Up of It), a 30-minute animated film based on her 2005 book, My Depression:  A Picture Book (republished by Seven Stories Press in 2014).  My Depression debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, July 13, 2015 (9:00-9:30 p.m. ET/PT) and adds a new and daunting twist to the saga of Swados’ “spirit.”


Voices of disapproval and impatience seem to make matters worse in MY DEPRESSION. Photo courtesy of HBO.

In My Depression, Elizabeth Swados (voiced by actress Sigourney Weaver) follows the trail and accompanying travail of her lifelong struggle with depression, depicted as an ever-present black cloud. The cloud, much like her “incredible feeling” in the earlier film, sticks with her and follows her everywhere she goes; but this time, there is no joy, music, or color to be found in her immediate surroundings.  She examines the cloud (of depression) that slowly dampens her relationships with friends, family, colleagues and even her dog, and turns her into a self-loathing, bedridden, reclusive mole.

This is not a happy journey, although Elizabeth Swados makes it clear upfront that she’s grateful for the rich, full life that she has been afforded despite her depression.  Swados’ spin here is to educate and provoke self-recognition in her audience.  Her exploration contrasts depression with the normal down times we all experience (as teenagers, college students, working stiffs and aging adults) as we tackle challenges incited by puberty, love and loss. A lot of people don’t really know much about it,” said Swados.  “But I think it could be helpful to learn what people go through.”


There’s a black hole where a silver lining should be in MY DEPRESSION. Photo courtesy HBO.

She reveals the hereditary link to her own depression (her mother was diagnosed with severe clinical depression).  And because she experiences just about every symptom that could possibly define depression, many will find this film relatable and, at times, even unsettling. The animated musical interlude entitled “Suicide Mobile” (voiced by actor Steve Buscemi) is especially over-the-top and could upset more fragile viewers.

The film, directed and written by Robert Marianetti, David Wachtenheim and Elizabeth Swados, provides a light (albeit not sugar-coated) at the end of the tunnel, via medication and therapy.  For Swados, as for most people, these solutions are not foolproof.  It took her three years of trying various meds to find “something that really worked.” And the search for a therapist that fit was also littered with false starts, but one worth taking.

While I found the tone and style of the animation to be a tad tiresome and cute overall, the animation does work especially well to pinpoint the symptoms of depression and to clarify the frustrating jabberwocky confounding the ideal mix of meds and therapy.


It’s hard to measure up and fit in when there’s a black cloud overhead. From MY DEPRESSION. Photo courtesy HBO.

Going forward, My Depression (The Up and Down and Up of It) would best be used with audiences of teenagers and young adults and middle-agers through senior citizens in individual and group therapy settings.  With her black cloud under wraps, Elizabeth Swados, the prolific “girl with the incredible feeling,” continues to flourish: She’s found an international audience for her work on stage and in print and garnered five Tony nominations, three Obie Awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship in the process. Young creative artists in a wide variety of fields–from music and art to drama and literature–will find a soul mate in Swados and, women of all ages will find much to relate to here as well.

My Depression (The Up and Down and Up of It) debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, July 13, 2015 (9:00-9:30 p.m. ET/PT).  Check listings for additional HBO playdates throughout July and August, as well as availability via HBO On Demand and HBO Go.–Judith Trojan

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