Pass the Popcorn! Penguin Post Office Premieres on PBS

Photo © Ruth Peacey.

The colony of Gentoo penguins that reside alongside the British post office on the Antarctic Peninsula at Port Lockroy generate a bundle of mail. Photo © Ruth Peacey.

If you’re a fan of March of the Penguins or have a thing for penguins in general, you won’t want to miss Penguin Post Office, the latest installment in the award-winning PBS series, Nature (Wednesday, January 28, 2015, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region.) After its broadcast tonight, the film will be available on DVD and for online streaming at http://pbs.org/nature

For a remote outpost on the Antarctic Peninsula, Port Lockroy boasts a booming tourist season, a full service post office, spectacular vistas and a colony of some 3,000 whimsical locals with short legs and big feet. During four summer months each year (November through early March), a handful of dedicated volunteers from the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust do triple duty in the post office/museum/gift shop as shiploads of tourists from around the world descend upon the pristine landscape.  They come specifically to photograph the region’s population of Gentoo penguins in their breeding grounds immediately surrounding this former British research center.

A Gentoo family pose for the camera.  Photo © Ruth Peacey.

A Gentoo family primps for the camera. Photo © Ruth Peacey.

Penguin Post Office, filmed and directed by wildlife cinematographer Andrew Graham-Brown and producer Ruth Peacey,  documents four months in the pint-sized Gentoos’ circle of life as they descend from their deep sea fishing grounds, trek up to two miles across sea ice and snow to reconnect and breed with their mates at Port Lockroy. The cameras record the penguins’ methodical nest building, courtship and procreation, as well as the birthing, care and feeding of their chicks.

As we’ve come to expect from penguins, they are adorably camera friendly, and yet their behavior can take a dramatic, aggressive turn.  The rank-and-file team up, sometimes unsuccessfully, to fight off hungry aerial predators ready to feast on unhatched eggs and vulnerable baby chicks.

Gentoo nests, mates and chicks are also the target of marauders from within their ranks. Unattended nests, methodically constructed stone-by-stone, are pillaged by lazy neighbors.  Juveniles that clumsily wander into the wrong turf are bullied, and often killed by Gentoo gangs.  And spouses are seduced away from longtime mates.

But we also witness comic redemption and tenderness, when, for example, one penguin sets her mate straight as she drives off his new lady love, and a juvenile comforts and mourns its maimed and murdered sibling.

Photo © Ruth Peacey.

Gentoo penguins settle down in their remote and ravishing summer breeding grounds. Photo © Ruth Peacey.

Four months of the penguins’ lives unfold in this breathtaking, icy blue landscape at the end of the Earth, as tens of thousands of tourists arrive to photograph the penguins, buy penguin-themed souvenirs and send postcards back home as mementos of their brief but unforgettable visits. The penguins seem unperturbed by this human parade.

While the tourists and their cameras are always kept at a safe distance, the birds seem to happily “pose” for photos and stand fearlessly side-by-side with the staff as they wash penguin waste from the rocky cliffs and maintain the exterior of the outpost.

The camera periodically pulls back in extreme long shot to reveal the post office and out-buildings as tiny red and rustic specks engulfed by the overpowering landscape of sparkling white clouds, ethereal mountains and crystal blue water. That there are a handful of humans sharing this little red speck with a hardy colony of penguins for four months out of every year is mind-boggling.

As with the considerably more substantive March of the Penguins (2005), Penguin Post Office shows that by shining a light on wildlife habits and habitats (via film and controlled tourism), we educate and encourage commitment to respect and protect these habitats. Despite its old-school voice-over narration, Penguin Post Office should captivate extreme travelers, armchair travel buffs, birders and animal lovers of all ages with its introduction to an exotic travel destination and the awe-inspiring Gentoo penguins that call it home.

A couple of Gentoo chicks.  Photo © Ruth Peacey.

A couple of Gentoo chicks survive some blows and take their bows. Photo © Ruth Peacey.

Nature– Penguin Post Office debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, January 28, 2015, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET.  (Check local listings for air times in your region). After its broadcast, it will be available on DVD and for online streaming at http://pbs.org/nature            –Judith Trojan

 

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Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice Bows on American Masters

Ricky Jay, man of many talents. Photo: Myrna Suarez/Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Ricky Jay shares the spotlight with 52 of his closest friends in his new AMERICAN MASTERS profile. Photo: Myrna Suarez/Film Society of New York.

Lon Chaney may have won fame and fortune as the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” but Ricky Jay has built a successful career on the world stage with his hands… or sleight-of-hand to be more precise. The master magician has also cornered the market as an actor in film, TV and the theater, as well as a performer in comedy and magic clubs and as a best-selling author, historian and leading collector of antiquarian books and artifacts in his field.

Ricky Jay is the focus of a wonderfully entertaining and informative hour-long profile, Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, which launches the 29th season of American Masters on PBS tonight (Friday, January 23, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times in your region).  After its debut, the film will be available for streaming at http://pbs.org/americanmasters

In Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, producer/director/editor Molly Bernstein and her co-director/producer Alan Edelstein not only reveal Ricky Jay’s surprising back story; but we are privy to an engrossing history of the sleight-of-hand masters who paved the way for Ricky Jay.  I urge you to throw caution to the wind and watch this captivating documentary profile. I promise that you’ll laugh; you’ll gasp; you may even tear up. And I guarantee you’ll find yourself rewinding scenes featuring some of his and his esteemed predecessors’ amazing routines.

Cardini (1895-1973) was born in the UK but became a great success in high end venues in New York and was, according to Ricky Jay, the greatest act he ever saw.  Photo courtesy Brad Ball.

Cardini (1895-1973), here with his wife Swan, was born in the UK but became a great success in high-end venues in New York City and was, according to Ricky Jay, the greatest act he ever saw. Photo courtesy Brad Ball.

Subtitled The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, the film features Jay as the predominant narrator, who in a running on-camera and voice-over narrative recalls the fascinating lives and milieu of the most influential magicians of  the 19th and 20th centuries, some of whom, like the great Cardini, Slydini, Al Flosso, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, impacted Jay directly.

Original vintage black and white (silent and sound) and color performance film footage, photos, program books, posters and artwork, much from Jay’s personal collection, open a window on the master magicians’ sleight-of-hand routines and the surprising venues where they showcased their talents. They became mentors to those lucky enough to be drawn into their circle.

One lucky lad was young Ricky Jay (then Ricky Potash), who, at four years old, became an apprentice to his grandfather, the noted amateur magician, Max Katz.  Katz’s circle of friends and colleagues were a veritable who’s who in the sleight-of-hand biz.  Imagine Ricky’s thrill when Al Flosso, the Coney Island Fakir, showed up to entertain at his bar mitzvah!

Ricky Jay's grandfather, Max Katz, was a well-known amateur magician and president of  the Society of American Magicians.  Photo courtesy of the Society of American Magicians.

Ricky Jay’s grandfather, Max Katz, was a well-known amateur magician and president of the Society of American Magicians. Photo courtesy the Society of American Magicians.

Young Ricky Jay is seen polishing his craft in marvelous photos and film footage from the 1950s, as well as in clips from entertaining stints on TV shows during his young adult years. Highlights also include vignettes from his later stage and film performances directed by playwright David Mamet, who recalls here how he tried to outwit the master to no avail.

Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants; Ricky Jay: On the Stem; and Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery — all directed by Mamet — were award-winning critical and commercial theatrical events.  As a film actor, Jay has been seen in David Mamet’s House of Games, Homicide,Things Change, The Spanish Prisoner, State and Main, and Heist, and in many other movies and TV/cable series.

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Photo courtesy Hopscotch Films.

While Ricky Jay’s signature sleight-of-hand routines and comic patter play an entertaining role in Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, the film never loses sight of the drama and mystery behind Jay’s appeal.  A wonderfully evocative music score adds weight to the levity.  British journalist Suzie Mackenzie caps a long-winded reminiscence with a spectacular revelation about her meeting with Jay that to this day reduces her to tears. And when, during the film’s grand finale, Ricky Jay faces the camera and recites a poem, “The  Game in the Windowless Room,” written for him by Shel Silverstein, only one word comes to mind: Wow!!

American Masters–Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice debuts tonight on PBS (Friday, January 23, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for premiere and repeat airtimes in your region.)  The film will also be available for streaming at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters  Don’t miss it! – Judith Trojan

 

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Ripley Believe It or Not Is Stranger Than Fiction

As 2014 drew to a close, “believe it or not” seemed to best describe Ripleyfilmposter_DSC6686the mentality of those at Sony who thought that a “frat boy comedy” about the assassination of a sitting head of state was a good idea.  Now, as we look past the regrets and what remains of Sony, I recommend that you make better use of your valuable time by watching Ripley: Believe It or Not, an entertaining documentary debuting tonight on the PBS series American Experience that explores the provenance of the phrase “believe it or not” in the life of the unlikely multimedia visionary who branded it.  (Tuesday, January 6, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for broadcast times in your region.)

He was a buck-toothed, stuttering skinny kid from Santa Rosa, California, who at first glance or second seemed to have nothing going for him.  But LeRoy Robert Ripley, born in 1890 on the cusp of the 20th century, did possess at least three important skill sets that would transform his life and that of popular entertainment in the early to mid-20th century and beyond.

Ripley loved to draw and had an affinity for cartoons, a talent 416RipVitaphoneAdRE (1)he parlayed into a successful career at a young age as a sports cartoonist at The Globe in New York City. He had an insatiable interest in the world around him, especially exotic cultures and offbeat lifestyles.  And he had the remarkable ability, despite his awkward shyness and stiff camera and radio presence, to continually push the envelope and venture into the latest and most lucrative media venues.

“Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” column originated in 1918 during his stint on The Globe, and quickly caught the eye of Richard L. Simon and Max Schuster and publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, who grew Ripley’s visibility with book and syndication deals and all-expenses paid world travels during which he expanded his popular sports coverage to include illustrated reports on the unusual habits and habitats of the locals he met on his journeys.

Robert Ripley in his signature pith helmet shows off a Balinese New Year's Festival Lion mask in 1932. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment Inc.

Robert Ripley in his signature pith helmet shows off a Balinese New Year’s Festival Lion mask in 1932. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment Inc.

Ripley introduced his quirky finds and adventures to the American public in print as well as in the movies, at the Chicago World’s Fair and in a permanent “museum” on Broadway in New York City. His phenomenal success in those markets led to a much ballyhooed stint on the radio and the launch of his own TV show in 1949 on NBC, also home to every Baby Boomer’s hero Howdy Doody.

Remarkably, Ripley’s physical appearance and wardrobe (his buck teeth were shaded by the rim of his pith helmet) and fear of flying never dampened his allure as a ladies man and world traveller.  He amassed legions of fans and a fortune. He became a millionaire during the Depression, and his lavish lifestyle assured his status as a front page newsmaker.

In Ripley: Believe It or Not, filmmaker Cathleen O’Connell provides a polished, concise narrative that calls to mind the early, hour-long work of Ken Burns. O’Connell incorporates wonderful black and white and color archival footage and photos documenting Ripley’s milieu, travels and exotica. (However, some of his later stars–the guy who eats a live mouse and others who tempt fate with blowtorches and forks on camera–are a bit hard to watch in living color). The examples of Ripley’s sophisticated cartoons are especially eye-popping.

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Robert Ripley’s first Odditorium was visited by two million people at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago 1933-34, and set the stage for six more such exhibits during his lifetime. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment Inc.

Input from Ripley historians and colleagues is also informative and confirms that the “King of Curiosities” had a heart and social conscience. His fascination with offbeat individuals and locales was born of a need to celebrate the underdog and not by an obsession with the denizens of freak shows or circus sideshows. Ripley’s empathy was driven by his lonely childhood endured as a homely hayseed who was virtually invisible to his peers.

His early newspaper cartoon coverage of amazing feats of sportsmanship and his late-in-life focus on World War II heroics and the post-war Atomic bomb devastation in his beloved Far East shined a light on those (soldiers and civilians) whom he felt deserved not to be forgotten.

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Robert Ripley, circa 1933, with “Atta Boy,” a mummified baby found in Bolivia and believed to have been shrunken by the Shuar Indians of Ecuador. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment Inc.

American Experience–Ripley: Believe It or Not is an entertaining introduction to a surprisingly gutsy guy who made it big without good looks but with a nose for fringe dwellers and new technology. That his quirky sensibility continues to live on today, saturating social media, especially YouTube, and such broadcast TV and cable shows as America’s Got Talent, Duck Dynasty and Extreme Homes, to name but a few, is an indication of Ripley’s legacy as a visionary showman.

American Experience–Ripley: Believe It or Not debuts tonight, January 6, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET.  (Check local listings for air times in your region.) And also be sure to check out my review of another entertaining documentary, American Experience–War of the Worlds, by director Cathleen O’Connell, in which she focuses on Orson Welles, another visionary entertainer who marched to the beat of his own drum. American Experience–War of the Worlds is now available on DVD, iTunes, etc. See FrontRowCenter at http://www.judithtrojan.com/2013/10/29  –Judith Trojan

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I Love Lucy Christmas Special Sweetens the Pot

Too many chocolates, too little time.  Lucy and Ethel tackle "Job Switching."  Photo courtesy CBS.

Too many chocolates, too little time. Lucy and Ethel aim to prove to their husbands that they can make a living in JOB SWITCHING. Photo courtesy CBS.

Even if you’ve never worked on an assembly line, you’ll empathize with Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, as the two frazzled pals tackle the line in the Job Switching (aka Chocolate Factory) episode of the beloved 1950s’ I Love Lucy CBS-TV series.  This classic episode, now colorized, is paired with the similarly colorized I Love Lucy Christmas Episode, and is set to air on CBS tonight, Sunday, December 7 (8:00-9:00 p.m., ET/PT), as part of its annual I Love Lucy Christmas Special.

As an added bonus this year, the I Love Lucy Christmas Special not only piggybacks as holiday fare these two entertaining episodes from the landmark I Love Lucy CBS-TV series, but also includes original, never-before-broadcast footage from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s costume and make-up tests filmed days before the first episode of the series went into production in 1951.

Rare footage  of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez's 1951 costume and makeup tests round out the 2014  I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL. Photo courtey CBS.

Rare footage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s 1951 costume and make-up tests is featured in the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL, circa 2014. Photo courtesy CBS.

As I discussed more extensively in my review of last year’s CBS-TV I Love Lucy Christmas Special http://judithtrojan.com/2013/12/20 I’ve never been a fan of colorization. But the sensible use of color in this case injects a pleasing, modern-day quality to I Love Lucy‘s original black and white episodes without sacrificing the vintage framing music, titles and commercial breaks.

I highly recommend that even the most stubborn foes of colorization continue to give the I Love Lucy Christmas Special a chance, especially since this year it not only reprises the rarely seen 1956 Christmas Episode but debuts the memorably zany 1952 Job Switching (Chocolate Factory) challenge.

The more the merrier in the Ricardo household. Photo courtesy CBS.

The more the merrier on Christmas Eve in the Ricardo household. Photo courtesy CBS.

Originally aired on CBS in December 1956 and thought to be “lost,” The Christmas Episode is a nostalgic Christmas eve visit to the Ricardos’ Manhattan apartment where Lucy and Ricky trim their tree and prep gifts to surprise Little Ricky, their Santa-obsessed five-year-old.

Fred and Ethel join the fun as Lucy and Ricky wistfully recall Lucy’s unexpected pregnancy announcement at Ricky’s club and Ricky, Fred and Ethel’s subsequent foiled effort, months later, to get Lucy to the delivery room on time.  Original black and white flashbacks are intercut from these classic episodes.  The latter, still hilarious after all these years, continues to serve as the classic benchmark for all the memorable, if derivative, sit-com “birthing” episodes that followed.

Finally, in a musical interlude, Lucy’s attempt to sing “Jingle Bells” reminds Ricky and the Mertzes of the time tone-deaf Lucy crashed their barbershop quartet with disastrous results.  A flashback of their sabotaged performance in original black and white is included.

In Job Switching (also known as the Chocolate Factory episode), Lucy raises Ricky’s hackles when she overdraws her checkbook.  In one of her most uproarious efforts to prove to Ricky that she can make a living, Lucy drags Ethel to an employment agency where they nab a gig at a chocolate factory.  After several failed attempts to master their assignments, they land on the assembly line where they’re faced with a boss and conveyor belt from Hell.

Meanwhile, as Lucy and Ethel corral the chocolates, their husbands, Ricky and Fred, take a stab at the housework. Their disastrous cracks at vacuuming, ironing, baking a cake and preparing a dinner of chicken and rice are similarly side-splitting.

While you may never have the seen Job Switching episode in color, you’ll surely remember this fan favorite in its original black and white. It should come as no surprise to learn that Lucy and Ethel’s futile effort to keep up with that speedy chocolate factory conveyor belt was selected in 2013 by the Paley Center for Media (in their “TV’s Funniest of the Funniest” poll) as the funniest TV moment of all time.

Photo courtesy CBS.

Photo courtesy CBS.

The Job Switching (aka Chocolate Factory) episode originally aired on CBS on September 15, 1952.  Now, 62 years later, Lucy’s hair is red, her crisp factory uniform is pink, the chocolates are brown and the Ricardos’ kitchen is a mid-century modern riot of color; and Lucy, Ethel, Ricky and Fred will still make you laugh out loud.

Do yourself a favor and tune in to the I Love Lucy Christmas Special on CBS tonight, Sunday, December 7 (8:00-9:00 p.m., ET/PT).  You’ll never take a box of chocolates for granted again.–Judith Trojan

 

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Legendary Costume Designer Profiled on CBS News Sunday Morning

Ann Roth accepts her 1996 Oscar.

Costume designer Ann Roth shares the spotlight with her Oscar for THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Photo © AMPAS.

“We have a uniform…simple, elegant, impeccable. Dress shabbily, they notice the dress.  Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.”–Sigourney Weaver to Melanie Griffith in the 1988 Mike Nichols’ film, Working Girl.

Weaver’s character–high-powered boss Catherine Parker–credits that spin to fashion designer Coco Chanel. But that notion could just as easily fit costume designer Ann Roth‘s body of work.  Her costumes for Working Girl and more than 200 other films, Broadway and regional plays; numerous TV/cable films, operas and ballets reinforce, but never overshadow the work the characters have to do.  A long overdue profile of Ann Roth will be broadcast this Sunday, November 16, during CBS News Sunday Morning‘s weekly telecast (9:00 a.m.-10:30 p.m. ET. After premiere airdate watch at http://www.cbsnews.com/sunday-morning/).  I encourage you not to miss it.

Ann Roth

Ann Roth.

 

I first met Ann Roth 17 years ago.  I was asked to profile her for a lengthy magazine piece. It may sound corny, but it’s true:  she “had me at ‘Hello’.”  I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have met, interviewed and worked with scores of incredibly talented artists, writers and filmmakers during my career as a journalist, publicist and Awards director.  Especially important to me were my associations with authors Brendan Gill, Frank McCourt, Mary Higgins Clark and David McCullough; children’s book editor/publisher Margaret K. McElderry; children’s authors Joan Bauer and Susan Cooper; puppeteer Caroll (Big Bird) Spinney; illustrator Hilary (Eloise) Knight; and the incomparable Fred Rogers; actors Carroll O’Connor and Ruby Dee; musician Judy Collins and dancer Jacques d’Amboise; and film and Mildred Pierce variousTV producers Ken Burns, Ismail Merchant, Al Maysles, Bill Jersey, Perry Miller Adato, Bob Brown and animator John Canemaker. But crossing paths with Ann Roth for the first time, for me, was akin to being struck by a bolt of lightning.

I grew up with dreams of becoming a fashion designer like Coco Chanel and admiring Oscar-winning costume designer Edith Head for her sense of style and chutzpah. I studied art, departed quickly from a post-grad stint at The Fashion Institute of Technology and happily found my proper niche in graduate film school at NYU, where I never remember hearing the words “costume designer.” The first thing I learned when I called Ann Roth to set up our first interview?… It’s best not to mention Edith Head.

“Edith Head dressed movie stars,” Roth told me, punctuating the moment with the deliciously throaty growl she uses to express impatience.  “She didn’t dress the elevator man, the mother-in-law or the secretary. She did the leading lady. I costume characters; I’m not dressing stars.”

The World of Henry Orient posterRoth’s career for stage and screen spans more than five decades. Coincidentally, her first solo film gig landed in one of the secret pleasures of my youth: The World of Henry Orient (1964). I wanted to live the lives of those girls, and I never forgot that mink coat. Roth told me she got it off the back of a truck.

Since then, Ann Roth has costumed every character no matter how minor, down to their nail polish, shoelaces and noses (The Hours).  Her oeuvre defies pigeonholing. There’s Miami Beach drag (The Birdcage); expansive period literary adaptations (The Day of the Locust, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain); social issue-driven classics (Midnight Cowboy, Klute, Silkwood and HBO’s Angels in America); aliens (Signs) and the alienated (Hair); big hair (Working Girl and Mamma Mia!); women in crisis (Doubt, The Reader, HBO’s Mildred Pierce and Margot at the Wedding) and burlesque (The Nance). She has received Academy Award nominations for Places in the Heart (1984), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), The Hours (2002) and The English Patient (1996).  She won her Oscar for the latter.

Nathan Lane in The Nance

Nathan Lane in the 2013 Broadway production of THE NANCE, a Tony Award winner for costume designer Ann Roth.

Roth’s TV and theatrical honors include innumerable Emmy, Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations.  She most recently won Drama Desk and Tony nominations for her inventive, off-the-chart designs for The Book of Mormon and a Tony Award for her glorious period designs for The Nance, starring Nathan Lane, one of Roth’s close friends and, admittedly, her muse.

Among her many industry lifetime achievement honors is a particular favorite, the 2000 Irene Sharaff Award for Lifetime Achievement, from the Theatre Development Fund (TDF), named for her early mentor, the renowned Hollywood and Broadway costume designer.

Roth’s lifelong fascination with all things dramatic, including the lives of the directors, writers and actors she admires, continues to propel her into grueling, overlapping film and theatre assignments, most with repeat talent.  To date, she has worked with her great friend, Mike Nichols, on 18 film and theatre projects.  At this writing, there are three Broadway shows costumed by Roth running on Broadway–The Book of Mormon (also in various venues on the road), This Is Our Youth and A Delicate Balance–and at least one other new play and film in the wings.

Ann Roth's costume sketches for THE BOOK OF MORMON.

Ann Roth’s costume sketches for THE BOOK OF MORMON.

She is also the subject of The Designs of Ann Roth (2014), the latest title in the USITT’s series of monographs on theatrical designers.  And she just turned 83!  I’ll be lucky if I can tie my shoelaces at 83.

To say that I’ve been fortunate to have been able to continue my relationship with her over the years is an understatement.  My time spent with Ann in her studio, the Costume Depot, in New York, and at her bucolic 18th century farm in rural PA, while preparing my original manuscript, are days I will never forget.  And the moments since then when we’ve connected, are precious to me–especially her concern and comforting words when my mom passed away–and very much appreciated given her exhausting work and travel schedule.

Little did I know when I received that fateful phone call from my editor 17 years ago asking me to interview a costume designer (not named Edith Head!) that a window would open for me that would not only turn my preconceived notions about costume design on their ear, but also…and more importantly…bring a feisty and captivating new friend into my life.

Photo:  Paul Schneck.

The way we were… Judith Trojan and Ann Roth, circa 1997. Photo: Paul Schneck.

Extraordinary talent, creative vision and an indomitable spirit got Roth where she wanted to be.  “I always wanted my life to be an adventure,” she told me.

Knowing Ann Roth has been one of my life’s great adventures.  I think you’ll see why when you watch Rita Braver’s interview with Ann Roth, this Sunday, November 16, during CBS News Sunday Morning (9:00 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. ET)  You can also view it in its entirety after it airs at http://www.cbsnews.com/sunday-morning/ –Judith Trojan

 

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Touching Take on Twin Sisters Debuts on PBS

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Mia Hansen and Alexandra Hauglum join hands in front of photos of their adoptive homelands. Photo: Moment Film.

It’s not every day that you get to see the work of a Norwegian documentary filmmaker on American TV, but tonight I encourage you to jump at the chance to catch the U.S. broadcast premiere of Twin Sisters on Independent Lens (PBS, Monday, October 20, 2014, 10:00-11:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region).

This lovely film by Mona Friis Bertheussen is well worth an hour of your time and will not only touch your heart, but should also tap a special place in your soul no matter what your spiritual beliefs or affiliations.  In 2003, two baby girls were found abandoned in a cardboard box in China. They were separated by Chinese authorities and put up for adoption. The two girls melded into a larger population of orphaned children, and were adopted separately yet simultaneously by an American couple and a Norwegian couple, respectively.

Despite the geographic distance between them, the two couples faced remarkably similar issues and challenges that compelled them to adopt (age, second marriages, infertility). As the legal papers sealing the girls’ respective adoptions were about to be finalized, a twist of fate brought the two couples face to face.

The new moms had incredibly dressed their babies in identical red gingham dresses purchased at different times in different places. It was also impossible not to notice that the baby girls seemed to share the same facial features and birth dates.  But when the couples asked the Chinese authorities the obvious question, albeit nervously, they were assured that the girls were not twins.

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A fateful fleeting touch during the twins’ final days in China. Photo: Moment Film.

Torn between a sense of relief and unease, the girls’ adoptive parents exchanged contact information, took the girls home (Mia to Sacramento, California, and Alexandra to the remote Norwegian village of Fresvik) and raised them in loving homes. Subsequent DNA tests one year later proved that the girls were identical twins.

Twin Sisters follows their progression from infants to pre-teens, via the parents’ honest recollections and girls’ reflections, juxtaposed with profuse home movie footage that begins in China during the final fateful days of their adoption process and ends with the American family’s visit to Norway when the girls were eight. A major focus is on the sweet bonding process that envelopes the girls despite their huge cultural, language and geographic divide.

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Mia Hansen and Alexandra Hauglum share a quiet, heartfelt moment when they are reunited in Norway. Photo: Moment Film.

Mia has grown up as a protected but socially active girl enjoying all the benefits of an upper middle class lifestyle (soccer, Girl Scouts, sleep overs, violin lessons, lookalike American Girl dolls); while seemingly middle class Alexandra accepted her isolation in her breathtakingly beautiful village where she is safe to roam freely and enjoy her beloved animals and winter sports.  The film is a fascinating, often touching look at how these identical twins come to know and love each other and overcome the barriers that continue to keep them apart.  Although they’ve been raised on opposite sides of the planet and speak different languages, the twins share amazing personal behavior patterns that could only (as American mom Angela confirms) be genetic.

Hopefully, director/producer Mona Friis Bertheussen will be inspired by British director Michael Apted‘s award-winning UP series and continue to follow Mia and Alexandra into their teen, young adult and middle-aged years to see where life takes them.

Although Twin Sisters debuts at a rather late hour tonight on PBS (10:00-11:00 p.m. ET, check local listings for air times in your region), the film should have a long shelf life on DVD as a discussion starter with pre-teen and family audiences (not limited to groups of adoptees) in educational and Asian-American settings.  The spiritual elements of this story should also make this film a great programmer for audiences, ages 10 through 110, in churches and synagogues. Until then, you can join a discussion of the issues faced by adoptees like Mia and Alexandra at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/twin-sisters/–Judith Trojan

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Bully Bows on PBS

Alex Libby of Sioux City, Iowa, is one of five youngsters featured in BULLY.  Photo: Michael Dwyer.

Alex Libby of Sioux City, Iowa, is one of five youngsters featured in BULLY. Photo: Michael Dwyer.

The statistics are staggering– “more than 13 million American kids will be bullied this year”–but not surprising, given the expanded reach available to perpetrators via social media.  I’m sure it took much soul-searching and courage on the part of the children, their parents and school administrators to agree to be featured in producer/director/cinematographer Lee Hirsch’s 2012 documentary, Bully.  If you haven’t seen this much honored film, you can catch its national PBS debut tonight as the season opener on Independent Lens (Monday, October 13, 2013, 10:00-11:30 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region).

October is National Bullying Prevention Month; and, in light of the current shocking allegations against seven football players on the Sayreville (NJ) High School football team, tonight’s debut of Bully is a timely broadcast. The 90-minute documentary zeroes in on the brutality and humiliation faced by five bullied young people and the physical and emotional toll that such unrelenting abuse takes long-term on their well-being and that of their families.  Although a major focus falls on the 2009/2010 school year in their respective communities (the film was released theatrically in 2012), director Hirsch and his co-writer and producer Cynthia Lowen also make good use of past and present family home videos to drive home the point that while these kids managed, for the most part, to face each school day with courage and resilience, their torment could suddenly take a tragic turn.

School buses are often the site of brutal bullying.  From BULLY.  Photo:  Michael Dwyer.

School buses are often the site of the most brutal bullying. From BULLY, released theatrically by The Weinstein Company. Photo: Michael Dwyer.

After you see what befell Alex Libby (age 12, Sioux City, IA); Kelby Johnson (age 16, Tuttle, OK); Tyler Long (age 17, Murray County, GA); Ja’Meya Jackson (age 14, Yazoo County, MS); and Ty Smalley (Perkins, OK) in this powerful film, you’ll better understand, with little solace I’m afraid, the climate that incited the brutal offenses perpetrated in Sayreville, NJ.

It’s clear that kids suffer most especially when communication with their parents falls short and where school administrators are ill-equipped to face and deal with the problem of bullying. And while the parents here attempted to do the right thing and work through proper school and law enforcement channels to protect their kids, they were met with ignorance, shocking insensitivity and indifference at every turn.

As a result, several parents turned to community outreach, which is how this film and its supplemental educational materials and partnerships have subsequently been used to help educate at the school and grassroots level and inspire anti-bullying campaigns throughout the country.

For a real eye-opening look at what kids continue to face in school yards, hallways and buses across the country, be sure to watch Bully on Independent Lens tonight on PBS, Monday, October 13, 2014, 10:00 -11:30 p.m. ET (check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region).  And find out what has transpired in the lives of these kids, their families and other anti-bullying activists throughout the country since Bully was filmed and, most importantly, what you can do to make a difference at http://www.thebullyproject.com/ –Judith Trojan 

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