Fred Rogers Celebrated in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? on HBO and PBS

Fred Rogers (1928-2003) on the set of his PBS show, MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. From the Morgan Neville/Focus Features film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? Photo: Jim Judkis.

“Love is at the root of everything–all learning, all parenting, all relationships–love or the lack of it.”–Fred Rogers.

Love your neighbor. Love yourself.  It sounds easy; but, as we all know, it isn’t.  No one knew that better than Fred Rogers.

The sweater, the sneakers, the comforting voice and welcoming smile…it certainly never stopped being a beautiful day in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Even before he stepped out of the seminary as an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1963, he was convinced that television had the potential to reach and teach young children lessons of love, kindness and acceptance.

“What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”–Fred Rogers.

Fred Rogers cools his feet on a hot summer day with Officer Clemmons (Francois Scarborough Clemmons) on an episode of MR. ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Photo: John Beale.

If you need a refresher course in the magic of Fred Rogers, on-air and off, you need look no further than Morgan Neville’s critically acclaimed new feature-length documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A 2018 blockbuster in theatrical release, at film festivals and on the awards circuit (the film won the 2019 Producers Guild of America Award for Best Documentary and a boatload of other prestigious awards), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. And in honor of Fred Rogers’ career-long commitment to public television, the film will also air concurrently tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT on the PBS series, Independent Lens.  (Check listings for PBS air times in your region.)

Fred Rogers learned the ropes as a jack-of-all trades at WQED-TV, Pittsburgh, and eventually as co-producer/scriptwriter/puppeteer/musician on “The Children’s Corner” (1955-1961), a live, weekday afternoon program.  “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” also produced at WQED, debuted on February 19, 1968, on what was then called National Educational Television (NET).  By the time the last new episode of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” aired on August 31, 2001 (less than two weeks before 911), it had quietly and positively impacted the lives of generations of children.

The format and content of each show were carefully paced and structured to build self-esteem by gently encouraging children to explore the world around them, master developmental tasks and cope with new and sometimes unsettling life experiences (parental divorce, assassination, bigotry, disabilities). As welcome guests in Rogers’ neighborhood, young children were safe to be themselves, to learn, laugh and, most of all, to love themselves and others without judgment or preconceived notions about disabilities or differences.

Fred Rogers touched the hearts of generations of children. Photo: Jim Judkis.

On February 21, 2001, as Fred Rogers approached the taping of his last episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” I was honored, as Director of the Christopher Awards, to spearhead the presentation of our 2001 Special Christopher Award to Fred Rogers for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a program that had, from its debut in 1968, gently celebrated the sanctity of childhood.  It was the first Special Christopher Award ever presented to a children’s program in the Christopher Awards’ 52-year history.

Needless to say, we were thrilled and honored to have Fred Rogers and David Newell (aka Mr. McFeely) in attendance during our 52nd annual Christopher Awards’ event on February 22, 2001.  As icy winds and snowdrifts whipped around the Time-Life Building in midtown Manhattan that evening, Rogers warmed everyone’s heart with his gracious manner and touching speech, that concluded with a startling request that I will never forget:

“Before I say ‘Good Night,’ would you take just a minute to think of someone who has nourished your spirit, someone who has cared for you, encouraged you to believe that you’re welcome in this life–someone who has loved you into being? Whether that person is here tonight or far away or even in heaven, let’s just have a silent minute to be grateful for those who have become such an important part of who we are.  One minute–I’ll watch the time.”–Fred Rogers.

We sat in silence for one minute. Imagine Rogers’ soft voice and gentle but insistent delivery, and you will understand why there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when we rose en masse to give him a well-deserved standing ovation.

David Newell (Mr. McFeely) and Fred Rogers take a moment on MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Photo: Lynn Johnson.

As you will see, if you watch Morgan Neville’s beautifully crafted documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Rogers closed many of his speeches with that same entreaty.  It summed up the essence of the wonderful man whose company I enjoyed that snowy evening in February 2001 and via correspondence thereafter.

Two years later, on February 27, 2003, as we gathered at the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center for the 54th annual Christopher Awards gala, we suddenly learned and announced to our shocked audience that Fred Rogers had passed away earlier that day. More tears were shed, but this time for the loss of this great man who had hugged us with his presence, seemingly hale and hearty just two years before…who had made me and others that evening in February 2001 remember that we were special, that we were “loved and capable of loving.”

Now Academy Award®-winning director Morgan Neville honors Fred Rogers’ legacy with the exquisitely crafted and moving documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  The film follows the trajectory of Rogers’ life and career–his boyhood challenges, his serious study of early child development and fascination with early television, and the road that melded those two passions with his media ministry. The pivotal themes, puppets, cast and crew are on-hand, as are Rogers’ widow Joanne, their sons John and Jim, and sister Elaine (aka Lady Elaine).

Fred Rogers with his puppet pal, Daniel Striped Tiger, from his show MR. ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Photo courtesy The Fred Rogers Company.

There are many delightful and surprising moments.  Vintage clips underscore Fred’s impressive ability to individually engage shy young fans one-on-one; to share hugs and kisses with Koko, the gorilla; and convince old, cranky U.S. Senators with an ax to grind that funding children’s programming on public TV was a must.

A lovely animation, featuring Fred’s puppet Daniel Striped Tiger, threads throughout the film as quiet commentary on the challenges Rogers faced along the way. “Daniel was the real Fred,” remembers Joanne Rogers wistfully.

“The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.” –Fred Rogers.

Be sure to grab a box of tissues and watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? when it debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. The film will also air concurrently tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT on the PBS series, Independent Lens. (Check listings for PBS air times in your region and additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, affiliate streaming platforms and DVD.) –Judith Trojan

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Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists Headlines on HBO

“We’re on the side of the little guy.”

I may have been born and raised in New Jersey but my dreams were all wrapped up in the promise and allure of the shining city on the Hudson. On good days and bad, as I was growing up, the iconic Manhattan skyline sat like a majestic magnet on the horizon to the east of my hometown. I’m proud to say that I spent more than half of my life working and studying in New York City.  I consider myself a New Yorker by choice… by way of NJ Transit… and have no regrets.

My lifelong show biz predilections and career in the film and publishing industries required that I keep abreast of all of the daily media news fit to print. My newspaper of choice continues to be The New York Times. But pre-Trump, I confess to devouring the New York Post and never missed the New York Daily News, even if I had to read it over the shoulders of fellow commuters on the bus or subway.

Now that I’ve screened the wonderful new feature-length HBO documentary, Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists celebrating superstar New York newspaper columnists Jimmy Breslin (1928-2017) and Pete Hamill (b.1935), it’s clear that they were producing some of the best journalism New York City newsprint had to offer for five decades.  I’m ashamed to admit that, back in the day, I bypassed their columns on a regular basis.

Legendary NYC newspaper columnists Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin compare notes in their heyday. Photo courtesy Pete Hamill and HBO.

Legendary NYC newspaper columnists Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin compare notes in their heyday. Photo courtesy Pete Hamill and HBO.

No matter where you currently hang your hat, if you are now… or ever have been… an avid New Yorker, were born and raised in its boroughs, relish reliving the adventures of your youth on its shores or could use a refresher course highlighting the last 50 tumultuous years of NYC history, be sure not to miss Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.  The feature-length documentary, directed and produced by Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy, debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, January 28, 2019, from 8:00 – 9:50 p.m. ET/PT.

As the film points out, from birth through old age, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill had a lot in common.  They both grew up poor in New York’s Irish-American working class neighborhoods, with dominant mothers, for better (Hamill) or worse (Breslin), and hard-drinking fathers. They were street smart from an early age and cultivated friends and enemies in dark places. They broke into the news business at a time when print journalism flourished and as many as seven newspapers competed to snag readers with breaking daily news.  Newsrooms were choked with smoke, and hundreds of reporters without college degrees sat shoulder to shoulder pounding away on manual typewriters.

Brash journalist Jimmy Breslin was known for his take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling on and off the page. Photo: Paul Schwartzman. Courtesy HBO.

Breslin and Hamill touched all bases in their careers, as columnists for the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Daily News, Newsday and the New York Post; as best-selling book authors; as colorful, smart-assed TV talk show guests; hard-partying gadabouts and red carpet celebrities. But their immigrant roots and ongoing connections in the streets and back alleys of NYC and its boroughs with cops and cons and working class stiffs shaped their extraordinary prose and fueled their lifelong empathy for the underdog and zeal to challenge discrimination.

The film revisits in vivid detail–via Breslin and Hamill’s brilliant prose, vintage headlines, graphic news footage, and first person narratives–some of the stories that broke during their careers.  Included are Son of Sam’s affinity for Breslin; the discriminatory firing of a young, female Hispanic cop; the public support for subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz; Donald Trump’s incendiary impact on the Central Park Jogger case; Nixon’s legacy of lies; the victimization of AIDS patients; and Hamill’s gripping memories of being on-site during Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and caught in the detritus of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Popular journalist and NY and Hollywood A-lister, Pete Hamill enjoyed a close relationship with fellow Irish-Americans JFK and RFK. Photo courtesy Pete Hamill and HBO.

Breslin and Hamill:  Deadline Artists smoothly incorporates the duo’s individual biographies (early, middle and sunset years) with stirring quotes from their writing and reflections from an impressive array of their peers, colleagues and family members.  Archival footage of fiery Breslin (who thought nothing of taking a cab and a beating in the middle of the race riot to get his story) and dashing Hamill (who dated Jackie Kennedy and Shirley MacLaine, concurrently) in their salad days contrasts sharply with the men they became in advanced age as they look back wistfully at choices they made as relentless newspaper columnists and, closer to home, as hard-drinking husbands and fathers. Jimmy Breslin died on March 19, 2017.

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists provides long overdue appreciation for the unique voices of two seasoned reporters who sought out and documented the stories of the little guys and gals who were impacted by the big stories of their day. I for one have been inspired by the film to catch up with their work and learn from their example. The film’s fascinating print newsroom back story will be an evergreen asset in high school and college journalism classes as well.

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, January 28, 2019, from 8:00 – 9:50 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.) –Judith Trojan

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Attenborough and the Sea Dragon Marvels on PBS Nature

In NATURE: ATTENBOROUGH AND THE SEA DRAGON, Sir David joins colleagues on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, UK. Their painstaking  fossil find and forensics enabled them to identify and replicate, by computer-generated imagery, a new species of Ichthyosaur, a fearsome 200-million year-old air-breathing fish lizard. Photo courtesy BBC.

In NATURE: ATTENBOROUGH AND THE SEA DRAGON, Sir David joins colleagues on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, UK. Their painstaking fossil finds and forensics enabled them to identify and replicate, by computer-generated imagery, a new species of Ichthyosaur, a fearsome 200-million-year-old air-breathing fish lizard. Photo courtesy BBC.

Dragons? Dinosaurs? David Attenborough?  If any one of those D-words piques your interest, I urge you not to miss Attenborough and the Sea Dragon.

This fascinating, new hour-long documentary opens the 2019 season of Nature on PBS, tonight, Wednesday, January 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

Naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s passion for the prehistoric is infectious as he timelines and assists in the discovery and reconstruction of a new species of Ichthyosaur, an air-breathing fish lizard.  While dinosaurs foraged on land, this “sea dragon” ruled the ocean for more than 150 million years and died out around 90 million years ago.

Naturalist Sir David Attenborough helps reveal the 200-million-year-old bones of the “sea dragon,” a newly discovered species of Ichthyosaur. Photo: Robin Cox.

Zeroing in on the fossil rich beaches and limestone cliffs lining the southeast coast of England (aka the Jurassic Coast), Sir David tags along with British archaeologist and fossil hunter Chris Moore and his associates as they meticulously excavate and reassemble the skeleton and rare fossilized skin fragments of their exciting new find.

Moore’s team determines, via forensic evidence and 3D reconstruction, that this new species of Ichthyosaur was approximately 15 feet long and shared evolutionary roots and physical attributes with such present-day sea mammals and reptiles as dolphins, sharks and crocodiles.

Sir David Attenborough and archaeologist Chris Moore preview the finished cleaned “sea dragon” fossil. Photo: Robin Cox.

There is also a murder most foul to solve as Sir David and Chris Moore question the sea dragon’s decapitation and violent bone crushing cause of death.  Sir David introduces us to the probable culprit, the Temnodontosaurus, one of the largest Ichthyosaurs known to have grown up to 33 feet long. Its huge size, enormous eyes and razor-sharp teeth made it a formidable predator and threat to more diminutive sea creatures, including those within its own species.

Even if you’ve aged out of the Dinotopia and Jurassic Park film franchises, it’s impossible to resist Sir David Attenborough’s enthusiasm for the origins and attributes of prehistoric creatures that once prevailed on land and sea. Produced and directed by Sally Thomson, and hosted by the ageless Sir David, Attenborough and the Sea Dragon is a BBC Studios production for PBS and BBC with THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC.

The hour-long documentary debuts on the PBS Nature series tonight, Wednesday, January 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/nature  for online streaming, DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)  –Judith Trojan 

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Lucy Bakes a Big Loaf in I Love Lucy Christmas Special

Legendary I LOVE LUCY cast members, from left: William Frawley, Vivian Vance, Richard Keith, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Legendary I LOVE LUCY cast members, from left: William Frawley, Vivian Vance, Richard Keith, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

I loved Lucy. Unlike Mama, Harriet Nelson and Margaret Anderson, wife to the father who always knew best, Lucy Ricardo never tied her apron strings. As a housewife, she was rarely content or a success in the traditional sense of the term.  She did try.  But her efficient, “happy homemaker” schemes invariably tested husband Ricky’s Latin patience, and havoc ensued.

Lucy’s societal aspirations, “part-time jobs” and relentless quest for her own show business career drove a wedge between the couple, generating unforgettable comic shtick. Her bond with fellow housewife Ethel Mertz was possible only because Ethel was a closet vaudevillian and, like Lucy, had nerve to burn.

Though I never doubted Lucy’s love for Ricky, Little Ricky, and her surrogate family–Ethel and Fred Mertz–I knew that Lucy would never rest until she tried (and she tried everything) to make a break from her everyday routine

Nowhere were Lucy’s aspirations more evident than in Pioneer Women, a memorable I Love Lucy episode that originally debuted in black and white on CBS over half a century ago on March 31, 1952.  Pioneer Women now joins the growing list of colorized classic I Love Lucy episodes to be piggybacked with the previously colorized and aired Christmas Episode.  Tonight, Friday, December 14, 2018, the two half-hour episodes morph seamlessly into CBS-TV’s annual hour-long I Love Lucy Christmas Special, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET/PT.

Too much yeast? Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance) have their hands full in the newly colorized 1952 I LOVE LUCY episode, PIONEER WOMEN. Photo ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Too much yeast? Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance) have their hands full in the newly colorized 1952 I LOVE LUCY episode, PIONEER WOMEN. Photo ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

You can almost smell the aroma of fresh-baked bread and home-churned butter as Lucy and Ethel tackle baking and churning the old-fashioned way in Pioneer Women… well, maybe not.

When Lucy and Ethel beg their husbands to buy them dishwashers (Lucy calculates she’s washed 219,000 dishes in 10 years of marriage, and her hands have had enough!), the guys’ cheap skate solution (rubber gloves!) falls on deaf ears. And so begins a fifty-buck bet and battle of the sexes over who best can live without modern conveniences.

As the competitive foursome don the garb and accoutrements of yore, they are snafued by two snooty members of the Society Matrons’ League, who must approve Lucy and Ethel for coveted membership. Lucy takes the high road, but not before making a monumental misstep in the kitchen.  I prefer to think of her six-foot-long loaf of home-baked bread as an over-achievement rather than a colossal misuse of yeast.

Originally thought to be “lost,” the December 1956 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. Without missing a beat, Ricky and Lucy concoct a whimsical timeline for Santa to deflect their son’s questions and insistence on remaining awake to greet him fireside.

The benchmark I LOVE LUCY birthing episode is now colorized and recalled in the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL on CBS.

Fred and Ethel Mertz join the fun as Lucy and Ricky wistfully recall Lucy’s unexpected pregnancy announcement at Ricky’s nightclub, and Ricky, Fred and Ethel’s subsequent clumsy effort, months later, to get Lucy to the delivery room on time. Welcome colorized flashbacks are intercut from these classic episodes.  The latter, still hilarious after all these years, continues to serve as the classic benchmark for all TV 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 is included.

You can read my original thoughts about colorization in a previous I Love Lucy Christmas Special post, but I’m happy to report that the colorization team continues to freshen the appeal of the I Love Lucy episodes broadcast on CBS during the holidays without compromising the show visually or sacrificing its period charm. You can read my reviews of past I Love Lucy Christmas Specials at http://www.judithtrojan.com/2016/12/02  and http://www.judithtrojan.com/2015/12/23 and http://www.judithtrojan.com/2014/12/07

Faux or funny? This quartet is featured in the annual I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL broadcast on CBS. Photo ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Faux or funny? This quartet is featured in the annual I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL broadcast on CBS. Photo ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This year’s annual I Love Lucy Christmas Special will be broadcast on CBS tonight, Friday, December 14, 2018, 8:00-9:00 p.m., ET/PT. (Also check OnDemand, Netflix, and DVD availability of vintage I Love Lucy episodes.)  And when you’re busy in the kitchen this season whipping up a batch of holiday cookies, cakes and breads, remember to carefully calibrate your yeast, downsize your dough and load up on laughs. Happy Holidays!–Judith Trojan

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A Squirrel’s Guide to Success on PBS Is No Tall Tail

A nose for nuts? The Fox squirrel, the largest tree squirrel species in North America, is one of many squirrel species featured in NATURE: A SQUIRREL'S GUIDE TO SUCCESS on PBS. Photo courtesy TessarTheTegu/Shutterstock.

A nose for nuts? The Fox squirrel, the largest tree squirrel species in North America, is one of many squirrel species featured in NATURE: A SQUIRREL’S GUIDE TO SUCCESS on PBS. Photo courtesy TessarTheTegu/Shutterstock.

“You can’t be friends with a squirrel. A squirrel is just a rat with a cuter outfit.”– Sarah Jessica Parker.

My feelings exactly…that is until I screened A Squirrel’s Guide to Success and came away with restored appreciation for the critters that claim almost 300 species in their family tree.  The latest installment of the fascinating Nature series, A Squirrel’s Guide to Success, debuts on PBS tonight, November 14, 2018, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/nature for online streaming, DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)

Anyone who knows me well knows exactly when and where my childhood affection for squirrels hit the skids. They ceased being cute when I discovered that the squirrel family from hell had colonized the walls and ceilings of my new apartment. They had set up shop long before my arrival…nesting in the ceiling above the kitchen and cackling, chewing and scuffling with their frenemies on the ceiling above the bedroom. I can still remember a friend’s congratulatory remark when she heard I had landed a top floor apartment: No more “unwelcome creepy crawlers”!

Sheelagh McAllister, Scottish SPCA's Head of Small Mammals, hand feeds Billy, an orphan red squirrel every hour. Billy's progress is documented in NATURE: A SQUIRREL'S GUIDE TO SUCCESS. Photo courtesy Sheelagh McAllister.

Sheelagh McAllister, Scottish SPCA’s Head of Small Mammals, hand feeds Billy, an orphan red squirrel every hour. Billy’s progress is documented in NATURE: A SQUIRREL’S GUIDE TO SUCCESS. Photo courtesy Sheelagh McAllister.

Squirrels are surprisingly intelligent (as this film documents) and tireless creatures of habit. They always return to their home (nesting) turf and the nuts they buried in your garden or hid in your attic or under your deck.  Generations of one squirrel family became my worst nightmare as they relentlessly tried to re-inhabit and nest in spaces we wired and cemented shut.

As hard as it might be to believe, there are highly educated people who love squirrels and dedicate their professional careers to their study, rescue and rehabilitation.  Nature: A Squirrel’s Guide to Success highlights the work of several American university-based scientists, a wildlife filmmaker and a delightful young Scottish woman whose passion for the critters is almost contagious.

If you’ve ever questioned whether the annoying Gray squirrel in your backyard has more appealing relatives, filmmaker Tom Jarvis and his team introduce viewers to various fascinating species, including the Eurasian red squirrel, the Arctic ground squirrel, the Jungle-striped squirrel, the Malabar giant squirrel, the Japanese and Northern flying squirrels and the Fox squirrel.  Of course, depending on where you live in the U.S., you may be familiar with the Eastern chipmunk or Prairie dog, also members of the squirrel family.

Prairie dogs, as seen in NATURE: A SQUIRREL'S GUIDE TO SUCCESS on PBS, live on North America’s prairies and open grasslands. Photo courtesy John DeWinter/Shutterstock.

Prairie dogs, as seen in NATURE: A SQUIRREL’S GUIDE TO SUCCESS on PBS, live on North America’s prairies and open grasslands. Photo courtesy John DeWinter/Shutterstock.

As is the case with all films in the PBS Nature series, the cinematography is outstanding. Framed by innocuous voice over narration read by “Saturday Night Live” alum Ana Gasteyer and embellished with vignettes introducing various professional squirrel specialists, the film’s breathtaking visuals zoom in on numerous squirrel species and their habitats.

Viewers are introduced to squirrels’ remarkable anatomy (teeth that never stop growing; unusually flexible ankle joints); nesting young; feeding and hoarding habits; ability to survive and flourish in harsh climates; face-offs with unlikely predators; and their leaping, climbing and, yes, their extraordinary flying prowess.

Arctic ground squirrels survive cold temperatures by hibernating in underground burrows during the winter. Photo courtesy Jukka Jantunen/Shutterstock.

You may be wondering why, after a short hiatus, I am reviewing a film about squirrels in FrontRowCenter instead of  some more politically relevant documentary. Well, real life as it has been unfolding daily (hourly?) on the news is depressing enough for me.  Rather than focusing on the two-legged nuts in our nation’s Capitol who are playing fast and loose with facts, decimating our moral fiber and pulverizing our planet, I’d much rather encourage viewers to appreciate the four-legged nut lovers in our parks and backyards whose only crime is hoarding food and invading our attics.  And for that noble effort, I award A Squirrel’s Guide to Success  4 out of 5 Acorns!

He's red, he's adorable, and he's featured in NATURE: A SQUIRREL'S GUIDE TO SUCCESS on PBS. Photo courtesy Seawhisper/Shutterstock.

He’s red, he’s adorable, and he’s featured in NATURE: A SQUIRREL’S GUIDE TO SUCCESS on PBS. Photo courtesy Seawhisper/Shutterstock.

Produced and directed by Tom Jarvis, Nature: A Squirrel’s Guide to Success is a co-production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC and BBC Studios in association with WNET. The hour-long documentary debuts on PBS tonight, November 14, 2018, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and   http://www.pbs.org/nature  for online streaming, DVD and Blu-Ray availability.) –Judith Trojan

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Jane Fonda in Five Acts Takes Center Stage on HBO

The Oscar winner’s men, movies and political missteps are revisited in JANE FONDA IN FIVE ACTS. Photo courtesy HBO.

“I just wanted to be ok.  I wanted to be a good girl.”–Jane Fonda.

Those are startling admissions from the two-time Oscar®-winning actress and polarizing political activist who President Richard M. Nixon and his cronies loved to hate.

Emmy® Award-winning filmmaker Susan Lacy, now a producer/director at HBO, undoubtedly had her hands full when she signed on to bring some sort of structure and closure to the first seven decades of Jane Fonda’s life.  Not to worry.  Lacy, the creator and mastermind behind the long-running, Award-winning American Masters series on PBS, had more than enough tools in her toolbox  and chutzpah to get the job done.  Jane Fonda in Five Acts is filmmaking at its very best.

Jane Fonda speaking at an anti-war rally in San Francisco in 1972. Photo: Everett Collection. Courtesy HBO.

Even if you think you know everything you need to know about Jane Fonda. Think again.  Grab a seat, or program your DVR.  Jane Fonda in Five Acts debuts on HBO tonight,  Monday, September 24, 2018, from 8:00 – 10:15 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.)

Ted Turner and Jane Fonda in Montana in 1994. Photo courtesy HBO.

Septuagenarian Jane Fonda is an engaging, articulate participant here, and “Hanoi Jane” is dead and buried. Filmmaker Lacy clearly had Fonda pegged from the outset when she divided the film into five acts, four of them named for the pivotal men in Fonda’s life: her dad, Hollywood icon Henry Fonda; French writer/director Roger Vadim; community activist, radical and politician Tom Hayden; and media tycoon Ted Turner.

Jane Fonda in Five Acts is lush with film clips; TV interviews from various points in her career; color home movies shot by her dad; vintage photos; and sober reflections from two of her three husbands; her best friend, producer Paula Weinstein; her environmental activist pal and co-star, Robert Redford; the late actor/director Sydney Pollack ; her son Troy Garity; step-daughter Nathalie Vadim; and adopted daughter Lulu.

Lifelong pals, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, co-starred in the romantic comedy, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, in 1967. Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Courtesy HBO.

Lifelong pals, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, co-starred in the romantic comedy, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, in 1967. Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Courtesy HBO.

The home movies are lovely and the film clips (Henry’s and Jane’s) are well-chosen. The clips are clear reminders that no matter how tarnished her political profile, Jane Fonda never lost her love affair with the camera and brilliance as an actress.  Riddled with self-doubt as a woman and an artist, she recalls her early experience studying with Lee Strasberg– nervously expecting his condemnation, but receiving, instead, unexpected validation.

I especially relished clips from Barefoot in the Park (1967), a bubbly romantic comedy with lifelong pal Robert Redford; as well as Fonda’s recollections about her personal discomfort filming Vadim’s explicit Barbarella (1968 ); her segue into social issue dramas with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and timely environmental cautionary tales via The China Syndrome (1979); her scheme to go off script and “touch” her dad  in a pivotal scene in On Golden Pond (1981); and inspirations for her Academy Award®-winning roles in Klute (1971) and Coming Home (1978).

Aside from the clips, there are enough “aha moments” to keep you glued to your seat for 2-1/4-hours.  There was much more than meets the eye (or the “fake news” of the day) to her foray into fitness and her reasons for venturing into North Vietnam in the first place.

ON GOLDEN POND, from left: Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda, 1981. Photo: Everett Collection ©Universal/HBO.

Left unsaid or merely implied is the fact that her husbands were driven by self-interest and benefited in various degrees from her status as Hollywood royalty, her bank account and her willingness to do almost anything to assure her commitment to their lives and vision. Fonda paid a steep price by stifling good judgment in the service of men, often to the detriment of her children and her own well-being (she admits to suffering from bulimia for many years, a byproduct of her dad’s obsession with weight). Hanging over her like a rash was the most powerful man on the planet during the Vietnam War, President Richard M. Nixon, whose henchmen hounded her and whose voice can be heard denouncing her at the top of this film.

Lacy titled the last act of Jane Fonda in Five Acts simply: “Jane.” Act 5 zeroes in on Jane Fonda, the survivor, who, despite having absorbed decades of identities in roles she was hired and psychologically conditioned to play on stage, screen and in real life, now thrives comfortably in her own skin… with a little help from cosmetic surgery and various hip and knee replacements.

JANE FONDA'S WORKOUT became the best-selling home video to date and ignited America's fitness craze. Photo: Steve Schapiro. Courtesy HBO.

JANE FONDA’S WORKOUT became the best-selling home video to date and ignited America’s fitness craze. Photo: Steve Schapiro. Courtesy HBO.

As a dynamic woman’s rights and grassroots activist, Fonda now talks the talk and walks the walk with a mature perspective that reflects an apologetic, forgiving and grateful heart. She is especially keen on reaching out to very young, old and low-income minority women, who may find it especially difficult to rise up to the challenges raised by the #metoo and #timesup movements. While Acts 1-4 provide a treasury of Fonda family cinema lore, Act 5 ensures the film’s evergreen value as a women’s issues, rights and activism discussion catalyst in high schools, colleges and community and counseling programs.

If you need assurances that it’s never too late for your final act to be fresh and new and, above all, meaningful, I urge you to catch Jane Fonda in Five Acts on HBO tonight, September 24, 2018, from 8:00 – 10:15 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.) Fun Fact: Jane Fonda turns 81 on December 21, 2018.–Judith Trojan

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Remembering Perry Miller Adato 1920-2018

PERRY MILLER ADATO (1920-2018)

“I don’t think you can teach anybody anything, whether it’s about art, architecture, literature, or social issues unless you entertain them. You simply cannot lecture people.  You have to involve them emotionally: make them laugh, excite them or make them indignant.” —Perry Miller Adato

Legendary documentary filmmaker Perry Miller Adato passed away on September 16, 2018, three months shy of her 98th birthday.  I’m heartbroken.

I will miss her phone calls and gracious invitations to her film soirées in New York City or lunch at her home in Westport, Connecticut.  I will miss writing notes in her holiday cards each year and her sound professional and motherly advice (she was one year younger than my mom, also born in December).  And most especially, I will miss her unwavering support of my work that began 40 years ago when we connected during my 15-year stint at the Educational Film Library Association (EFLA), where I became Editor-in-Chief of Sightlines magazine, a staff member of EFLA’s American Film Festival, and spread my wings as a young journalist covering the independent documentary film scene.

There’s a special place in heaven for female trailblazers who encourage talent when they see it and mentor other women in their field.  Perry Miller Adato played that role for me (and I’m sure for many others), and impacted me even before I was privileged to meet her, interview her, review her films and become her friend.  For a time, I lost track of Perry when I turned my full-time attention away from films and filmmakers and onto books and authors during my tenure as a Corporate Communications professional at Simon & Schuster.

Director Perry Miller Adato was the first woman to receive the Director’s Guild of America Award for directorial achievement in documentary for her film, GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (1977). Photo: Getty.

But Perry Miller Adato and I were destined to meet again.  I bumped into her in the theater one night when we were seated in the same row, believe it or not. We resumed our professional ties when she graciously agreed to be a presenter (twice) at the annual Christopher Awards gala that I produced and directed for many years in Rockefeller Center.

Perry was thrilled to participate as we honored a new generation of Christopher Award winners.  She was a Christopher Award winner in her own right for Georgia O’Keeffe (1977), a film that also garnered her a groundbreaking Director’s Guild of America Award for directorial  achievement in documentary, the first ever awarded to a woman and the first of four DGA Awards that would come her way.

I was honored, but frankly shaken when she asked that I write her formal obituary.  I sidestepped that request when I realized that not only was I too close to my subject for that assignment, but that I had, in fact, already written an article that could stand as my final tribute to Perry Miller Adato.  I originally wrote that piece for Perry in professional support of what would become her last film project. I eventually fine-tuned and published it in 2013 here in FrontRowCenter.  

Perry Miller Adato Remembers Paris The Luminous Years, (originally published in FrontRowCenterJanuary 17, 2013, and edited and reprinted below), focuses on her final film, Paris The Luminous Years, a monumental feature-length documentary that debuted when she was 90 years old.  But even more importantly, my article recalls the critical impact she had on me before I even met her or knew the meaning of the word “documentary.”  I was touched that Perry never tired of telling me how much she loved the piece. It stands to this day as the only “obituary” I could ever write about and for Perry Miller Adato, my brilliant friend and inspiration. I’ve tweaked and reprinted it again below, and I hope you’ll enjoy it! –Judith Trojan

Perry Miller Adato Remembers Paris The Luminous Years 

Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein and their fascinating community of expatriates seize the spotlight in Perry Miller Adato's Award-winning documentary, GERTRUDE STEIN: WHEN THIS YOU SEE, REMEMBER ME (1970).

Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein and their fascinating community of expatriates seize the spotlight in Perry Miller Adato’s Award-winning documentary, GERTRUDE STEIN: WHEN THIS YOU SEE, REMEMBER ME (1970).

Back in the day when I was a young graduate film student at New York University, I by chance caught Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me (1970) on WNET/Channel 13.  To say that the film changed my life is an understatement.  More than anything I had yet to learn at NYU, Gertrude Stein instantaneously toppled my perception of what a documentary film could, should and would be going forward into the final decades of the 20th century.  It had nothing in common with the tired, formulaic “educational films” that I was raised on—those snooze-inducing films that held audiences captive in schools and libraries and on public TV.

For me as a budding film and art historian and journalist and for a whole generation of my peers—the young social issue filmmakers about to jump-start their careers—that film opened a door to a whole new way of presenting and preserving artistic vision and visionaries.   Through the skillful weaving together of rare interviews, archival clips, photographs and letters—the fruits of dogged research—with exquisite renderings of artwork and text, the filmmaker, Perry Miller Adato, succeeded in bringing to life, in riveting fashion, a community of artists and writers who many of us could only hope to “meet” on the printed page, on museum walls or in concert halls.

Perry Miller Adato on-set filming PARIS THE LUMINOUS YEARS.

Adato went on to produce and direct many award-winning films on individual artists throughout the years and, in the process, influenced the evolution of such young filmmakers as Ken Burns and a host of women filmmakers who gained courage by following her lead.   Adato’s life’s work came full circle with her most brilliant, beautifully conceived and thoughtfully researched film of all, Paris The Luminous Years:  Toward the Making of the Modern (2010).

Of all the new and classic films I’d seen in the months preceding its encore broadcast on PBS in early 2013, Paris The Luminous Years triggered my first epiphany of 2013.  It was a happy reminder of why and how my love affair with documentaries and their makers came to be.  If you care about the arts (fine art, music, dance, theater, literature and documentary filmmaking at its best), I urge you not to miss this film. (It’s currently available on DVD and other formats from PBS, Amazon, Netflix et al.)

In the context of Perry Miller Adato’s previous work, this film makes perfect sense.  It seamlessly pulls together all the distinctive elements in her toolbox into a film that is nothing short of a masterpiece   One not only gains an overall sense of the historical period within which her subjects, the trailblazing European and American expatriates, lived and worked.  But we are also privy to their position in the artistic subculture and hierarchy of the time, as well as the cultural and social influences on their work and the groundbreaking artistic, literary and musical movements that germinated in this very special place and time.

Literary giants Sylvia Beach and James Joyce ponder the fate of Joyce’s controversial oeuvre in Beach’s iconic Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, circa 1922. From PARIS THE LUMINOUS YEARS (PBS/Princeton University Library).

In short, Paris The Luminous Years not only stands as an epic achievement in documentary filmmaking, but also serves as an evergreen educational resource that should be mandatory viewing for all serious students of the history of 20th century art, literature, music and dance.

There are no false or irrelevant moments in the film.  Especially invaluable are the crisp, spot-on shots of the artwork, one of  Adato’s specialties, as well as her liberal use of fascinating and undoubtedly rare archival film footage, particularly the glorious period film clips of Parisian street life and café society and the content-rich clips of noted artists, writers and musicians who share personal anecdotes.  Adato’s intelligent script manages to integrate, in novelistic fashion, a massive amount of research without seeming pedantic or compromising the integrity of the material.

Paris may represent the Shangri-La of romance and fantasy for many viewers today (e.g., Woody Allen’s wistful romantic comedy, Midnight in Paris), but the City of Light best be remembered for the more important role it played in the lives of artistic visionaries (circa 1900-30) who needed Paris to create a body of work that ultimately reshaped the landscape of the arts forever.

Perry Miller Adato

Perry Miller Adato delivers that message loud and clear in Paris The Luminous Years, and with her rich and incomparable body of work secures her place in the cinematic pantheon.  Bravo Perry, Godspeed…and Thank you! —Judith Trojan

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