Very Ralph Makes Its Stylish Debut on HBO

HBO’s VERY RALPH explores the genesis of designer Ralph Lauren’s brand and cultural impact. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy Ralph Lauren.

“I hate fashion. But I had the eye.”Ralph Lauren.

During the Sixties, when most of us were sporting tie-dye shirts and hanging peace symbols around our necks, young Ralph Lifshitz from the Bronx yearned for wider ties and special cut collars on his shirts.  Dubbed a “future millionaire” by his high school cronies, the snappy dresser styled and later custom tailored his wardrobe to match that of his favorite Hollywood stars–Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and, most notably, Fred Astaire and Cary Grant.

By  1964, Ralph Lifshitz had fine-tuned the cut and provenance of the clothes and accoutrement he would wear, design and curate in order to manifest the lifestyle he aspired to. With his eyes on the prize, he started simply… with ties…then shirts, Menswear, Women’s Wear and home goods.  It was not long before American dreamer Ralph Lifshitz transformed into Ralph Lauren, a lifestyle designer driving vintage automobiles and a multi-billion-dollar global brand.

Man-about-town Ralph Lauren enjoying life in his fifties in one of his classic cars. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

Man-about-town Ralph Lauren enjoying life in his fifties in one of his classic cars. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

“Even as a young man, I had a story,” recalls Ralph Lauren in Susan Lacy’s new feature-length documentary, Very Ralph premiering on HBO tonight, Tuesday, November 12, 2019, 9:00 – 10:50 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)

Susan Lacy, the Emmy®-Award winning creator and former executive producer of the PBS American Masters series, is now based at HBO where she has, in short order, produced and directed a stunning profile of Oscar®-winning activist Jane Fonda in Five Acts, and an intimate portrait of film director Steven Spielberg. (Both reviewed here in FrontRowCenter.)

In Very Ralph, Lacy’s latest film for HBO, she turns her camera on 80-year-old fashion icon Ralph Lauren, who, it seems, is a credibly contented family man approaching his sixth decade in business with very few skeletons in his closet. He admits to never going to fashion design school; and he does not draw or sketch designs but creates (styles and builds) his fashion and lifestyle collections collectively with his dedicated staff by this side.

With the big picture in mind, he orchestrates the backstory, clothing and product design, and marketing scenario for his collections much the way a film director, veteran film producer, costume or set designer approaches the making of a film. Lauren’s unorthodox road to success in the fashion design industry and the American cultural landscape piggybacks his artistic vision and business savvy into  classic lines of clothing and home furnishings that continually  refresh his iconic American brand.

Ralph Lauren chills with his sons, Andrew and David, at his beloved family hideaway in Amagansett, circa 1972. Photo courtesy HBO.

Ralph Lauren chills with his sons, Andrew and David, at his beloved family hideaway in Amagansett, circa 1972. Photo courtesy HBO.

Although Very Ralph is sketchy about the obstacles young Ralph Lifshitz faced as he climbed the ladder of success–from wide ties in the USA to Knighthood in the U.K.–the film does have a lot to say about Love. Ralph Lauren is admittedly a man in love…not only with American culture and the opportunities it has afforded for his unique manner of artistic expression, but also with his gorgeous wife and muse of 55 years, Ricky; with his parents, siblings and his three kids; his dedicated staff; and the comfort and amenities that his stylishly curated homes, home office and flagship store in Manhattan have to offer.

And, it seems, Ralph Lauren’s affection for family, friends and colleagues is amply reciprocated.  In Very Ralph, director Susan Lacy makes good use of her talent for amassing an articulate roster of notables to help tell Lauren’s story. The film is papered with reflections from family members and colleagues from fields of design (Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Karl Lagerfeld); publishing (Tina Brown); photography (Bruce Weber); fashion (Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley); home furnishings (Martha Stewart); and filmmaking (Joel Schumacher).  Models Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford celebrate Ralph Lauren as an early champion of diversity on the runway. And then there are the outliers like Woody Allen (a fan of Lauren’s corduroy pants); documentarian Ken Burns (who finds common ground in Lauren’s evocation of America’s heritage); and Hillary Clinton.

Ralph Lauren, formerly Ralph Lifshitz, as seen in Susan Lacy's VERY RALPH. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

Ralph Lauren, formerly Ralph Lifshitz, as seen in Susan Lacy’s VERY RALPH. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

Very Ralph will have a long shelf life in college and university classes focusing on Fashion Design and Marketing, as well as American Studies.  And if you regularly wear POLO RALPH LAUREN Menswear or sleep with Ralph Lauren’s HOME bedding collection, the film will give you more than enough incentive to continue supporting and buying his brand.

Executive Produced by Graydon Carter for HBO Documentary Films and Pentimento Productions, Very Ralph debuts on HBO tonight, Tuesday, November 12, 2019, 9:00 – 10:50 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and its availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)–Judith Trojan

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Buckle Up for Saudi Women’s Driving School on HBO

“I am used to sitting behind the driver in the back seat.”Sarah Saleh.

Sarah Saleh spent 10 years working the phones in the back office of a Saudi car dealership in the capital city of Riyadh. Now she’s posted out front in the showroom, greeting customers and making deals as a saleswoman. Her clientele?  Saudi women, just like herself, whose dreams of obtaining a license, buying a car and driving legally in Saudi Arabia have finally come true.

Gender equality has always been a slippery slope in Saudi Arabia. Brave Saudi women have been jailed and denounced as traitors if caught driving or protesting the female driving ban, the only such ban in the world. Others continue to be jailed for questioning the choke hold placed upon their lives by the time-honored dictates of male guardianship.

Sarah Saleh earned her coveted driver's license at the female owned and operated SAUDI WOMEN'S DRIVING SCHOOL. Photo courtesy HBO.

Sarah Saleh earned her coveted driver’s license at the female owned and operated SAUDI WOMEN’S DRIVING SCHOOL. Photo courtesy HBO.

The tide turned in September 2017 when Saudi King Salman announced that he would lift the ban on female drivers to take effect in June 2018. The back story and repercussions of this monumental “royal decree” are beautifully explored in Saudi Women’s Driving School, an hour-long documentary by director Erica Gornall, who somehow managed to bypass long-standing Saudi restrictions on foreign filmmakers and gain unprecedented access to her subjects at home, at work and on the road.

Saudi Women’s Driving School debuts on HBO tonight, Thursday, October 24, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)

Seven hundred instructors and 250 cars await eager female-only students in the SAUDI WOMEN'S DRIVING SCHOOL, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy HBO.

Seven hundred instructors and 250 cars await eager female-only students in the SAUDI WOMEN’S DRIVING SCHOOL, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy HBO.

Rarely has the refrain “less is more” been better realized than in Saudi Women’s Driving School. In a mere 60 minutes, the film paints an engrossing, clear-eyed picture of the challenges faced historically by Saudi women and the ways its resilient and highly educated female population attempt to circumvent and resolve the challenges they have faced in their misogynist society, including those incited by their license to drive.

The film interweaves its title focus on the world’s largest driving school (700 instructors and 250 cars situated on a massive, state-of-the-art campus) with the story of three articulate young Saudi women whose drivers’ licenses have opened doors they never could have imagined.

New car saleswoman Sarah Saleh sets her sights on owning a Ford Taurus as she nervously takes her first driving lesson, masters tricky roundabouts and tests to become a fully licensed driver.  We drive along with Uber driver Shahad al-Humaizi as she squires male patrons to their destinations, all the while plying them with pointed questions about their acceptance of female Uber drivers.  And feisty young engineering student and part-time race car driver Amjad Al-Amri recalls her lifelong dream to race, her passion to compete and goal to win a world championship.

Competitive race car driver Amjad Al-Amri, featured in SAUDI WOMEN'S DRIVING SCHOOL, has her sights set on winning a world championship. Photo courtesy HBO.

Competitive race car driver Amjad Al-Amri, featured in SAUDI WOMEN’S DRIVING SCHOOL, has her sights set on winning a world championship. Photo courtesy HBO.

It would seem, by most standards, that these young women, as legal new drivers, have realistic, easily achievable goals. Not so and not quite yet, clarifies historian Madawi al-Rasheed, who shines a light on the basic freedoms we all take for granted that are still not shared by Saudi women in their autocratic, patriarchal culture.  The driving ban is just the tip of the iceberg that young Saudi women are clearly eager to melt.

I encourage you to watch Saudi Women’s Driving School not only as a reminder of how much we, as Americans, have to be thankful for, but also as an incentive to acknowledge the brave women who fought historically for suffrage and reproductive rights and against slavery on our shores, and those women who continue to fight the good fight internationally against political, racial and sexual tyranny, as well as environmental decimation.

Saudi Women’s Driving School, directed by Erica Gornall and produced by Nick London, is subtitled and debuts on HBO tonight, Thursday, October 24, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.) —Judith Trojan 

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Who’s Your Daddy? Finding Your Roots Returns on PBS

“I’m feeling connected. These are my people.”Mia Farrow.

Mia Farrow, Angelica Huston and Isabella Rossellini share more than their chosen professions. They are the progeny of Hollywood royalty, and each lost one of their parents at a relatively young age. Farrow is the daughter of actress Maureen (Tarzan) O’Sullivan and Academy Award®-winning screenwriter/director John (Around the World in 80 Days) Farrow.

Academy Award®-winning screenwriter/director/actor John Huston’s storied filmography includes such classics as The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen and Prizzi’s Honor. His dad Walter, Angelica Huston’s grandfather, received multiple Oscar nominations for various supporting actor roles and an Academy Award® for his performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Oscars also went to son John Huston, the director and screenwriter of that film).

Isabella Rossellini’s mom, three-time Academy Award®-winning actress Ingrid Bergman, was an international film, stage and TV star of the first magnitude. Isabella’ dad, Roberto Rossellini, ushered in the age of neorealism as the writer/director/producer of such films as Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero.

While their immediate show biz families were often tabloid fodder throughout the 20th century, Farrow, Huston and Rossellini apparently knew little about their storied parents’ bloodlines and backstories.

FINDING YOUR ROOTS writer/producer/host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has surprises in store for actress Isabella Rossellini about her mom's Swedish ancestors. Photo courtesy McGee Media.

FINDING YOUR ROOTS writer/producer/host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has surprises in store for actress Isabella Rossellini about her mom’s Swedish ancestors. Photo courtesy McGee Media.

Harvard professor and genealogical sleuth Henry Louis Gates, Jr., brings clarity and a few tears to the table as host of Hollywood Royalty, the Season Six opener of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., debuting on PBS tonight, Tuesday, October 8, 2019, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check listings for air dates and times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

Gates sets the stage with snappily edited career bios of Mia Farrow, Angelica Huston and Isabella Rossellini and their parents and ends with their DNA reveal.  Although it’s clear that each of these women deserves her own, individual 50-minute Finding Your Roots episode, Hollywood Royalty opens the family floodgates for Mia Farrow, Angelica Huston and Isabella Rossellini.

Farrow, an Oscar nominee for Rosemary’s Baby, the star of TV’s iconic series, Peyton Place, and the romantic lead in highly publicized romantic liaisons with Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen, is deeply moved by shocking revelations about her paternal grandfather and grandmother.

Huston’s family tree threads back to the days of slavery in America with unsettling news about her distant great grandfather’s illegitimate children.

And Rossellini and her mom Ingrid’s nomadic lifestyles are hardly indicative of those of their Swedish forebears, who lived long, happy lives for generations without venturing far from one Swedish town.

With their DNA added to the mix of previous Finding Your Roots celebrities, Isabella Rossellini and especially Angelica Huston are shocked to find that they have some equally iconic cousins.

I finally bit the bullet and completed the DNA process to unearth my own roots via Ancestry.com and am currently digging my way through all of the preliminary results (not an easy task!). While it’s too soon to tell if George Washington, George Burns or Ken Burns are in the mix (amazingly, Ken Burns’s stint on a previous episode of Finding Your Roots revealed that he was related to Abraham Lincoln!), I believe that my DNA report enabled me to find the names and birth years of both sets of my paternal great great grandparents. This was a mind blowing discovery since my dad’s roots have been anecdotal at best. My dad and his brother were estranged from their father, so sadly I never met my grandfather, who was alive and well and living in nearby Pennsylvania for most of my childhood.

 Writer/producer/host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reveals some painful truths about actress Angelica Huston's ancestors in FINDING YOUR ROOTS on PBS.

Writer/producer/host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reveals some painful truths about actress Angelica Huston’s ancestors in FINDING YOUR ROOTS on PBS. Photo courtesy McGee Media.

In the weeks ahead, 27 celebrities will sit across the table from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in new episodes of Finding Your Roots, as he unravels unknown highlights of their family trees culled from global research, as well as connections elicited via sophisticated DNA testing.  Gates is the perfect on-camera host for this enterprise. His enthusiasm for the task at hand is obviously rooted in the compelling historical, political and cultural timelines that drove his subjects’ forebears.

“It’s part of a larger mission to inspire us all to seek out the stories of our ancestors–to see history as something that we are all a part of, that we all have a stake in,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Finding Your Roots.  “Our series strives to show how all Americans are related, despite our present divisive politics, at the most fundamental levels of all:  through our families, through our immigrant experiences, whether forced or voluntary, and at the level of the genome.”

Since I have always been a fan of Gates, as well as the Ancestry.com driven cable series produced by Lisa Kudrow, Who Do You Think You Are?, I will definitely continue watching these shows as I untangle the history of my own kith and kin.

Season Six of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., premieres on PBS tonight, Tuesday, October 8, 2019, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. Upcoming episodes follow on Tuesday nights, on PBS, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check listings for air dates and times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

In conjunction with the Finding Your Roots broadcasts, co-producer WETA promises to work with other PBS stations across the country to encourage viewers to share their family histories via #FindingYourRoots on Facebook and Twitter, @HenryLouisGates and  http://Facebook.com/FindingYourRootsPBS  and the series companion site http://pbs.org/FindingYourRoots   Happy Hunting!  –Judith Trojan

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16 Hours of Ken Burns’ Country Music on PBS

“Oh, the storm and its fury broke today, crushing hopes that we cherish so dear. Clouds and storms will in time pass away. The sun again will shine bright and clear.”–from the Carter Family’s signature song, “Keep on the Sunny Side.”

If, like me, you’ve always thought you were definitely not a “country music,” fan, think again.  You may find, after watching Ken Burns’ new 16-hour documentary opus, Country Music, that you’re hooked and that, just maybe, you’ve been a fan all along.  The series’ pitch line–“The Story of America, One Song at a Time”–may hold the key to your change of heart.

The genre’s complex provenance is rooted deep within the fabric of America… its history and the heritage of its colonizers.  As a result, the evolution of country music, aka “America’s music,” has taken many twists and turns along the way. It has crossed racial, ethnic and socio-economic divides along America’s regional highways and byways, and managed to grow and thrive despite taking some offbeat detours.

The COUNTRY MUSIC creative team (from left): screenwriter Dayton Duncan, producer Julie Dunfey, and producer/director Ken Burns. Photo: Evan Barlow.

As Ken Burns and his longtime screenwriter, Dayton Duncan, document vividly in the eight, two-hour films that comprise the Country Music series, it’s clear that the genre grew from an amalgam of oral histories, homespun instruments and performance traditions originally transported to our shores in the DNA, memory banks and satchels of our earliest settlers.

After immigrants (whether they be early colonists, explorers, servants or slaves) landed on our shores from Africa, Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, France or Spain, they turned for comfort and community to the music and instruments prevalent in their homelands and cultures. They in turn passed those traditions on to their descendants who then adapted and shared them with subsequent generations.  With Country Music, Burns and Duncan couldn’t have put forward a more cogent and timely case for the role that immigrants play as cultural definers of American identity.

“As an art form, country music is forever revisiting its history,” said Ken Burns, “sharing and updating old classics and celebrating its roots, which are, in many ways, foundational to our country itself.”

Jimmie Rodgers, Kerrville, Texas, circa 1930. Photo courtesy Jimmie Rodgers Properties I.L.P.

Jimmie Rodgers, Kerrville, Texas, circa 1930. Photo courtesy
Jimmie Rodgers Properties I.L.P.

Country Music: The Rub (Beginnings-1933), Episode 1 of the eight-part, 16-hour series, premieres tonight, Sunday, September 15, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET, on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App. Subsequent episodes debut during the next two weeks.  (See below for a complete list of PBS broadcast premiere air dates, DVD  and streaming info for the eight-episode series.)

In The Rub (Beginnings-1933), roots legend Ralph Stanley and fellow artists Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Kathy Mattea and Rhiannon Giddens, among others, recall (sometimes with a lyric or two!) country music’s humble origins and seminal performers.  And, as is the custom in all of Ken Burns’ films, on-camera commentary is enhanced by a breathtaking array of solidly researched vintage photos, rare film footage and period ephemera, including letters and newspaper clippings.

Glorious photos and never-before-seen film footage flesh out the personal backstories and eclectic talents of pivotal musicians who laid the groundwork for the industry going forward:  Stephen Foster, Fiddling John Carson, Pop Stoneman, Uncle Dave Macon, DeFord Bailey, the Carter family and the yodeling phenomenon, Jimmie Rodgers.

A key player in the lives and careers of many of country music’s legendary stars during this period was Ralph Peer (1892-1960).  His visionary role as talent scout, mentor, recording engineer, record producer and music publisher drove the spread of regional talent and music into the national mainstream market.

The original Carter Family, circa 1930. From left: A.P. Carter, Maybelle and Sara Carter. Photo courtesy Carter Family Museum, Rita Forrester.

The original Carter Family, circa 1930. From left: A.P. Carter, Maybelle and Sara Carter. Photo courtesy Carter Family Museum, Rita Forrester.

While The Rub focuses on a period of Americana that I particularly enjoy, I encourage you to give upcoming episodes of Country Music a look and listen, as they broadcast and stream.  You may be surprised and delighted to find that your beloved musicians fit comfortably in the “country music” mix as well.

Full disclosure from someone who never considered herself even “a little bit country”:  One of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters is Willie Nelson. And, yes, I’ve even attended his concerts.

And I’ve been a fan of roots music ever since I saw the Coen Brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).  I was fortunate to attend the now legendary “O Brother…” concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring live performances by the film’s performers, including the late great Ralph Stanley.  I also enjoyed Stanley and his family in-concert at NYC’s Town Hall.  I guess “a little bit country” goes a long, long way after all!–Judith Trojan

How and when to view the Country Music series

The first four episodes of the eight-part series will air nightly at 8:00 – 10:00 p.m.ET on PBS stations nationwide beginning tonight, Sunday, September 15, through Wednesday, September 18, 2019.  The final four episodes will air nightly from Sunday, September 22, through Wednesday, September 25, 2019. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

DeFord Bailey, harmonica virtuoso and one of the original headliners of the Grand Ole Opry. Photo courtesy Les Leverett Collection, Grand Ole Opry Archives.

DeFord Bailey, harmonica virtuoso and one of the original headliners of the Grand Ole Opry. Photo courtesy Les Leverett Collection, Grand Ole Opry Archives.

Streaming App and Opps

On September 15, 2019, timed to the series broadcast premiere, you will be able to stream the first four episodes of Country Music for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including http://PBS.org and the PBS Video App available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. The final four episodes will be ready for streaming, timed to their broadcasts, beginning Sunday, September 22, 2019.  Each episode will stream for a period of three weeks.

Supplemental Materials

If you find yourself yearning for soundtrack music recordings from the series (there are “nearly 600 music cues” throughout Country Music’s 16 hours), you’re in luck!  A “comprehensive suite” of soundtrack music products will be available from Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony Music Entertainment.  For soundtrack, DVD and Blu-ray availability with extras, visit http://shopPBS.org

Also, be sure to check out the film series’ companion book, Country Music: An Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, 464 pp., 2019) by Dayton Duncan, with an introduction by Ken Burns. Judith Trojan

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In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11

Stuyvesant High School students were a mere 4 or 5 blocks away in their classrooms, as two jet planes decimated the World Trade Center on 9/11. Their memories of that day and the aftermath are powerful reminders of the tragedy and the collateral damage that haunts all Americans to this day. Photo: Ethan Moses, Stuyvesant HS Class of '02. Courtesy of HBO. "This felt personal. This is New York. This is home." The documentary may be only 35 minutes long, but I challenge you to find a more powerful film about 9/11 than In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11. The film debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 9:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates and availability on HBO

Stuyvesant High School students were a mere 4 or 5 blocks away in their classrooms, as two jet planes decimated the World Trade Center on 9/11. Their memories of that day and the aftermath are powerful reminders of the tragedy and the collateral damage that haunts all Americans to this day. Photo: Ethan Moses, Stuyvesant HS Class of ’02. Courtesy of HBO.

“This felt personal. This is New York. This is home.”

The documentary may be only 35 minutes long, but I challenge you to find a more powerful film about 9/11 than In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11.

The film debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 9:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)

Producer/director Amy Schatz, a seven-time Emmy® Award winner, revisits September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, via eye witness accounts from former students of New York City’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. Eight articulate young men and woman–American and foreign born sons and daughters of immigrants–recall in painful detail what it was like to hear, see and feel the impact of planes hitting the Twin Towers from their school building mere blocks away.

Students at Stuyvesant HS witnessed the horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center from their classroom windows. Photo: Gary He, courtesy HBO.

Students at Stuyvesant HS witnessed the horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center from their classroom windows. Photo: Gary He, courtesy HBO.

Several witnessed the point of impact from their classroom windows and recall their shock and disbelief when they realized that human beings were falling from World Trade Center windows. Warning: The accompanying film footage here is graphic.

As Stuyvesant High School lost its footing and power, students, with only Fire Drill experience under their belts, filed out of school en masse and then ran for their lives as huge clouds of detritus from the two falling Towers licked their backs.

“People don’t really talk about the fact that there were kids there,” says Himanshu Suri.

And those kids–now lawyers, medical professionals and parents–pull no punches, nor do the film clips and photos Ms. Schatz chooses to illuminate their up close and personal recollections of that day.

“Absolutely everything changed that day,” admits Ilya Feldsherov, who was 15 at the time.

Stuyvesant HS student Liz O'Callahan was interviewed in a 9/11/01 news clip. She is also one of the eight alumni featured in IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOWERS. Photo courtesy HBO.

Stuyvesant HS student Liz O’Callahan was interviewed in a 9/11/01 news clip. She is also one of the eight alumni featured in IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOWERS. Photo courtesy HBO.

They were academically gifted students of various nationalities, cultures and religions and, most especially, proud New Yorkers who gladly weathered long daily commutes from the outer boroughs just to study at this highly competitive school. They were comfortable in an environment that welcomed diversity, and energized by the promise of what life going forward would be for them in America as immigrants or the children of immigrants…or simply as Americans.  The sky was the limit…until the sky became a conduit for mass destruction.

This film will force you to remember and reflect upon the long-term affects of hate, bigotry and fear on children. This film will move you to tears. And that’s a good thing.

In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11 debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 9:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT.

Photo courtesy HBO.

In association with the 9-11 Tribute Museum, Amy Schatz also produced and directed What Happened on September 11.   The 30-minute film, specifically geared for children, debuts on HBO Family tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 6:00 – 6:30 p.m. ET/PT.

If you miss tonight’s debuts of In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11 and What Happened on September 11, check listings for their additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.–Judith Trojan

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The Hatfields and McCoys Face Off in The Feud on PBS

“Bloody war in Pike County.  The McCoys and Hatfields Doing Their Utmost to Exterminate Each Other.”The New York Times, January 8, 1888.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud has been called “the most famous family conflict in American history.” Yet most of what we think we know about that Appalachian family fracas comes from vintage films and TV shows, featuring dentally and mentally-challenged Appalachian hillbillies plugging each other with buckshot.

Filmmaker Randall MacLowry sets the record straight in his latest documentary, produced for WGBH Boston’s Award-winning American Experience series. The Feud debuts on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App tonight, Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)

The Hatfields and McCoys were among the earliest settlers in pre-Civil War Tug Fork River Valley, a mountainous remote region in Central Appalachia bordering the states of Kentucky and Virginia (what would become West Virginia).  Peace and tranquility in the Valley came to a screeching halt during the Civil War and its aftermath when Eastern industrialists and entrepreneurs set their sights on the region’s extensive coal and timber resources.

"No part of the country has suffered more from crude stereotypes than Appalachia."--Mark Samels, Executive Producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo from HILLBILLY HARE, circa 1950, Warner Bros.

“No part of the country has suffered more from crude stereotypes than Appalachia.”–Mark Samels, Executive Producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo from HILLBILLY HARE, circa 1950, Warner Bros.

Caught in this postwar influx of opportunists were the Hatfields, led by savvy patriarch William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, who initially jumped on the logging bandwagon, and the McCoys, whose patriarch, Randolph McCoy, continued to struggle to make ends meet as a subsistence farmer. Inter-family jealousies soon triggered revenge-fueled encounters, culminating in a horrific 1888 New Year’s Day bloodbath. The escalating Hatfield-McCoy family drama would become a sensationalized attention-grabber in the national media of the day.

Intrigued by this long forgotten chapter in American history, I was anxious to connect with filmmaker Randall MacLowry to explore in more detail the feud and the film’s backstory.  My Q&A with Randall MacLowry (conducted via email) is reprinted below.

Judith Trojan: During the opening moments of The Feud, you include a clip of the vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon, Hillbilly Hare. An individual, who I assumed to be you because he was not identified at that point in my press screener, recalled briefly his childhood memory of that cartoon’s unsettling depiction of feuding hillbillies.  Did that cartoon actually trigger your fascination with the Hatfield-McCoy family feud and Appalachian culture? Did you grow up in Appalachia?

Randall MacLowry, director/writer/producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo: Eric Levin.

Randall MacLowry, director/writer/producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo: Eric Levin.

Randall MacLowry:  I am sure I saw that cartoon at some point growing up, but the anecdote recounted in the film is not mine. The story is from Chuck Keeney, a historian from West Virginia. When we first talked about the project, Chuck told me this memory of his, and I thought that it could be a great way to get into the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. As for myself, I did not grow up in Appalachia, but I spent a good amount of time in West Virginia working as the editor of a series on the history of the state, as well as producing and editing several other programs while I lived in West Virginia.

Trojan:  This is more than a story about two warring families. Why did you think the time was right to focus on the Hatfield-McCoy feud and, in the process, pinpoint the press’s role in mythologizing and stereotyping Appalachians? The press’s bad behavior in the late 19th century–a practice that soon thereafter became known as ‘yellow journalism’–seems timely given the abundance of character assassinating Tweets and rants of ‘Fake News’ that we have become accustomed to of late.

MacLowry:  I agree that the story is timely, but the timing of the film was not an outgrowth of any current events. I was familiar with the story of the feud having worked on the aforementioned film about the history of West Virginia about 25 years ago. When I was approached by American Experience to do a more in-depth exploration of the story, I was excited by the opportunity to revisit this iconic piece of American history. The story takes place during a period of rapid urbanization in the nation, and this shift to a more urban and industrial society gave rise to a sharp distinction between the rural and the urban in America. The feud played a pivotal role in the creation of the negative stereotypes of Appalachia that still have repercussions today.

Hatfield family patriarch William Anderson Hatfield, aka "Devil Anse," sitting cross-legged with his rifle across his lap, enjoyed a photo op with members of his family and local workers, circa 1880-1890's. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Hatfield family patriarch William Anderson Hatfield, aka “Devil Anse,” sitting cross-legged with his rifle across his lap, enjoyed a photo op with members of his family and local workers, circa 1880-1890’s. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Trojan:  I found myself wondering about the backstories of the two families. They apparently lived harmoniously for years as neighbors in the Tug Fork Valley region, pre-Civil War, and even intermarried.  Where did their forebears originate?

MacLowry:  The Hatfields were of English descent, and the McCoys were of Scots-Irish roots. Both families were in America several generations prior to their moving to the Tug Fork Valley, bordering Kentucky and Virginia (later West Virginia), where they joined German settlers, some French Huguenot refugees and others in the area.

Trojan:  It was clear to me from your film that the fires of animosity in the region were not only sparked by the Civil War itself, but fanned by postwar industrialization. Allegiances to the Confederacy and the Union caused rifts between families in the Valley but also fractured them from within. Urban entrepreneurs and investors, in turn, saw dollar signs when they laid eyes and capital on the region’s rich coal and lumber resources.

MacLowry:  I wouldn’t describe the Civil War as the straw that broke the camel’s back as that implies there were growing tensions between the families that were exacerbated by the Civil War. But the atrocities that occurred in that borderland region were very disruptive to the tight-knit agrarian community that had been living there since the early 1800’s.

John CC Mayo (center) and his colleagues consolidating ownership of natural resources in the Tug Fork Valley in the late 1800's. Photo courtesy of University of Pikeville, Frank M. Allara Library Special Collections, Mayo Collection.

John CC Mayo (center) and his colleagues consolidating ownership of natural resources in the Tug Fork Valley in the late 1800’s. Photo courtesy of University of Pikeville, Frank M. Allara Library Special Collections, Mayo Collection.

Trojan:  Families like the Hatfields and McCoys who, prior to the war, lived off the land soon faced No Trespassing signs on turf they once owned. Parallels to current EPA rollbacks favoring business interests over the health and well-being of our nature preserves and environment come to mind.

MacLowry:  The tension between capitalism and exploitation of the environment has a long history in our country. Mountain families lost their land and their livelihoods in the face of this enormous pressure.

Trojan:  Your narrative is straight out of the Ken Burns playbook.  Who do you credit with inspiring the focus and narrative approach of your work?

MacLowry:  Ken Burns is a major figure in the creation of historical documentaries and has brought many powerful stories to life.  But early in my career, I had the good fortune to work with Academy Award®-winning documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim.  I trace much of my inspiration in this field to him and numerous other important and generous mentors that have helped guide me along the way.

Rifle ready William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield stands in the snow outside a cabin, circa 1890's. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Rifle ready William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield stands in the snow outside a cabin, circa 1890’s. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Trojan:  Kimberly McCoy is the sole Hatfield-McCoy descendant featured in the film. Who is she descended from?  Why not include additional Hatfield-McCoy descendants?

MacLowry:  We contacted many descendants of the Hatfield and McCoy families as we researched the film, and I appreciate all of the time and insights they shared with us. Kim grew up along the Tug Fork and still lives in the area. She has been involved with preserving the history of the area for many years–not just the story of the feud but also the rich history of the coal mine wars that took place in the first two decades of the 20th century in southern West Virginia as miners fought to unionize the coal mines.

She is actually related to both the Hatfields and McCoys. She is a direct descendant of William Anderson Hatfield’s older brother, Valentine Hatfield, and she is married to a direct descendant–Randolph McCoy’s younger brother, Asa Harmon McCoy.

Trojan:  You thread a wonderful selection of photos, artwork, and vintage newspaper and film clips throughout The Feud. The clips from silent dramatic films and more contemporary TV favorites like “The Beverly Hillbillies” underscore how popular culture throughout the 20th century was saturated with negative Appalachian stereotypes.

MacLowry:   I feel we were very successful in finding images to provide a picture of the people and the place, which in the end is what our story is really about. It is about the massive transformation of the region brought about by rapid industrialization, which upended the agrarian subsistence economy in the area and led to widespread displacement of the local people.

Hatfield Family Portrait, circa 1897. Bearded patriarch William Anderson "Devil Anse," seated next to his wife, Levisa "Levicy" Hatfield, surrounded by their family and assorted weaponry. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Hatfield Family Portrait, circa 1897. Bearded patriarch William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, seated next to his wife, Levisa “Levicy” Hatfield, surrounded by their family and assorted weaponry. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

We got almost all of our imagery in the film from archives. There are some images that we had heard about that at one time were with family members, but we were unable to track them down. We were excited that we were able to locate a good number of images of Anderson Hatfield and his family from archives — many that I had not seen when we did the history of West Virginia film a couple decades ago. Unfortunately, we found only one image of Randolph McCoy, and very few of his family from the time of the feud. We had hoped to unearth others, but none surfaced.

Trojan:  For me, your film is a timely wake-up call about the long-term consequences of stereotyping and what incites individuals to violence when they fear that their everyday lives and traditions are being upended by the ‘new kids on the block’—whether they are rogue family members; politically, racially or ethnically diverse neighbors; immigrants; or big business interests.

MacLowry:  I think the importance of the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud is that it became part of how Americans, and even the world, looked at Appalachia. Mountaineers became viewed as violent, backward savages who needed to be reformed and civilized. And that negative ‘hillbilly’ stereotype still remains today.

But what happened was not unique. These attitudes towards Appalachia were happening at the same time, for instance, as efforts at spreading imperialism in Africa and fighting Native Americans in the Indian wars of the West. Mountain folk become marginalized as a group, and this is similar with the representation of non-whites throughout the country and the world. Fighting against the marginalizing and otherizing of people is an important issue that we still grapple with as a nation. Ω

American Experience: The Feud, written, directed and produced by Randall MacLowry and executive produced by Mark Samels, debuts on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App tonight, Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region  and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.) –Judith Trojan

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I Love Lucy Lollapalooza Hits Theaters on Lucy’s Birthday

Legendary comedienne Lucille Ball (1911-1989) captured our hearts as Lucy Ricardo and never let go. Here’s Lucy in the newly colorized I LOVE LUCY episode, THE MILLION DOLLAR IDEA. Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

“We froze her, we starched her, we flew her from wires, we crushed raw eggs in her blouse, we covered her head with chocolate sauce, custard pie, feathers, salad dressing, a loving cup, cement and squashed grapes, and she never complained.”comedy writers Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr. 

Beloved comedienne Lucille Ball would have turned 108 today, August 6, 2019. Let’s face it, in these distressing times, we all could use a hearty dose of I Love Lucy to remind us how to laugh again. To celebrate the comedy legend’s birthday, Fathom Events and CBS Home Entertainment have piggybacked five colorized, classic episodes from her 1950’s I Love Lucy CBS-TV series into a special, one-night only release in more than 600 movie theaters across the country.

I Love Lucy: A Colorized Celebration debuts in select theaters nationwide tonight, Tuesday, August 6, 2019, at 7:00 p.m. local time. For a complete list of participating theaters (AMC and Regal Cinemas, among other popular chains, are part of the mix), check the Fathom Events website http://www.FathomEvents.com or your local movie theater listings.  See below for DVD availability.

“Almost everyone has seen and been captivated by I Love Lucy,” said Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt. “But even the biggest Lucy fan has rarely had the experience of seeing Lucy on the big screen and laughing alongside fellow fans in a movie theater.”

The beloved I LOVE LUCY "family," from left: William Frawley (Fred Mertz), Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz), Richard Keith (Little Ricky Ricardo), Lucille Ball (Lucy Ricardo), and Desi Arnaz (Ricky Ricardo).

The beloved I LOVE LUCY “family,” from left: William Frawley (Fred Mertz), Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz), Richard Keith (Little Ricky Ricardo), Lucille Ball (Lucy Ricardo), and Desi Arnaz (Ricky Ricardo).

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 (Vivian Vance) was possible only because Ethel was a seasoned vaudevillian and, like Lucy, had nerve to burn.

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

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

Though I never doubted Lucy’s love for Ricky, Little Ricky, and her surrogate family–Fred and Ethel 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 tops the list of five classic, colorized I Love Lucy episodes featured in the one-night 0nly theatrical event on August 6.

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!), Ricky and Fred’s cheapskate 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. 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.

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.

It’s so tasty, too! Showbiz hopeful Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) tackles a 23% proof TV commercial gig in the now colorized classic episode, LUCY DOES A TV COMMERCIAL. Photo ©2015 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

As every Lucy fan knows, Lucy Ricardo was a relentless showbiz wannabe. Never one to sit idly by while her husband, singer/bandleader Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), got the gigs, Lucy relentlessly wangled her way into his shows. Her schemes to sing, act or pirouette her way into Ricky’s spotlight (often aided and abetted by best friend Ethel Mertz) triggered hilarious comedy escapades.

This is especially true in Lucy Does a TV Commercial, which originally debuted in black and white on CBS on May 5, 1952.  Once again, Lucy ignores Ricky’s orders to steer clear of his show; this time, however, it’s Ricky’s TV variety show debut and there’s an opening for a TV commercial pitch woman.  Multiple run-throughs forcing Lucy to swig a 23% proof tonic called “Vitameatavegamin” quickly turn her snappy sales spiel into riotous tongue-tied drivel. Inebriated and disheveled, she manages to deep-six the commercial and Ricky’s opening number.

Lucille Ball’s comic genius is truly in evidence in this classic Lucy episode. Ranked the “No. 2 television episode of all time” by TV Guide, Lucy Does a TV Commercial is a comedy gem.

In Job Switching (also fondly remembered 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.

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: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Meanwhile, as Lucy and Ethel corral the chocolates, their husbands–Ricky and Fred–take a stab at the housework. Their disastrous attempts to vacuum, iron, bake a cake and prepare a dinner of chicken and rice are equally side-splitting.

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.

The Job Switching episode originally aired in black and white on CBS on September 15, 1952.  Now, 67 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.

I’m generally not a fan of colorized versions of vintage black and white TV shows and movies. The faux colors tend to look garish and cheesy and flatten the rich contrast found in their original black and white counterparts. That said, I have since warmed to the process and team who continue to colorize “Lucy.” They’ve managed to impart a fresh, timeless look to I Love Lucy by sticking with muted, natural tones and not overplaying their hand. This sensible use of color injects a pleasing, modern-day quality to the original black and white episodes without sacrificing the show’s vintage provenance.

Starstruck Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) is no match for her movie star prey (William Holden) in L.A. AT LAST! Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Two additional episodes round out the Colorized Celebration theatrical release. Hilarious L.A. at Last! (Feb. 7, 1955) jump-starts my favorite I Love Lucy arc tracking Lucy and Ethel’s fan-fueled misadventures in Hollywood.  In L.A. at Last!, movie star William Holden turns the iconic Brown Derby tables on persistent gawker Lucy and melts more than her smitten heart. And in The Million Dollar Idea (Jan. 11, 1954), Lucy and Ethel are forced to botch a batch of promising sales when Ricky puts the brakes on their homemade salad dressing business.

I Love Lucy: A Colorized Celebration debuts in select theaters nationwide tonight, Tuesday, August 6, 2019, at 7:00 p.m. local time. For a complete list of the more than 600 participating theaters (AMC and Regal Cinemas, among other popular chains, are part of the mix), check the Fathom Events website http://www.FathomEvents.com or your local theater movie listings.

But don’t fret if you can’t get to the theater on time!  I Love Lucy: A Colorized Celebration is scheduled for DVD release on August 13, 2019.  So slap on a smile, pass the popcorn and remember to wish Lucy a happy birthday! –Judith Trojan

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