Shooting Heads, Dropping Names
It was the late 70s. I was living in Western Massachusetts. Out of work. No prospects. But, someone from my Central Pennsylvania days rang me up. "We're doing a documentary about the Jews who came to this country after WWII. I need an assistant and a shooter. You available?" It was Jean Berghmans, a filmmaker and Dutch transplant to Lancaster. "Let me look at my schedule... Yep, I have a few weeks open. When and where do you need me?" A few days later, we're all off and running. Two cars—flitting from place to place, covering Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Jean wasn't directing this time. Some other guy I'd never heard of (which isn't saying much at my age and at the time), Ezra Stone, was making this doc. I found out a bit about him as we drove from location to location. For those old enough to recall: radio was once a bastion of drama and comedy in this country—and Ezra Stone was the voice of the young Henry Aldrich (ie: "Coming, Mother!"). As it turns out, he also directed many of the The Munsters episodes. He also directed episodes of Bachelor Father, Bob Hope Presents, Lassie, Lost In Space, Love, American Style, and The Hathaways (and, oh, so many more). Ezra's father, Sol Feinstone, was our first shooting destination near Washington's Crossing, Pennsylvania. Mr. Feinstone founded a museum and library there for the American War of Independence. Yes, although a Jewish immigrant, he was a true American. I didn't know him, of course, but I felt appreciative in his presence. In the two-week shooting schedule, we hit a lot of places and did camera interviews with a bunch of folks. Second, we travelled to near Wilmington, Delaware to interview Pierre du Pont (the 3rd, I think). As we moved through the gates of the estate, I felt I was moving back in time. The house was beyond belief and the room I filmed him in could've been in Versailles—it was that decadent... complete with cock fight sounds in the distance. Then, off to Frederick, Maryland and Fairchild Industries. This was a biggie. We were to interview the famous (and infamous) Wernher von Braun. If you're not aware, von Braun was Hitler's chief rocket technologist and a member of the Nazi SS. Of course, when the Germans lost, our government snatched him up and made him a rocket engineer and designer for our own aerospace program. The spoils of war, eh. He was the chief architect of the Apollo Saturn IV rocket in our space program. Jean Berghmans, having lived through WWII and being on the nasty end of the German stick in Holland, refused to film him. So, it came to me to light him, mic him, and film him for Ezra Stone's questions. He was a cool cucumber and rather sophisticated. Perfect suit. Perfect hair. And, short perfect answers. He and I exchanged a few pleasantries as I placed the mic on him. We were done in under 15 minutes. Next, we had to get a few shots of New York City. For that, we went to Ezra's own house in Brooklyn. Specifically, the roof of his house. A great view of the Big Apple, on the roof of a house very near the Brooklyn Bridge. As we were setting up, I happened to bend over the roof tiles and look out over the edge to the apartment house next door. Two floors below was a fellow sunbathing on a lounge. In itself, that's not particularly unusual, but this guy was reading au naturel. A curly-headed guy with a beer-belly. I giggled to myself and bobbed my head back to share my discover. "Check this out... some guy down there... reading in the nude." Ezra chuckled, "Hahahaaa. That's probably Norman. Don't bother him." Because I watched the Dick Cavett show, I knew who Norman Mailer was. So, here I was, on a roof in Brooklyn, looking down at Norman Mailer, in the nude, reading... what? Maybe he was Gore Vidal's latest. We all quietly chuckled and got back to work. The project was, overall, grueling but exceptionally satisfying. We shot footage on Ellis Island before it was reconstructed and 'educational-ized' and I got to walk up the stairs of the Statue of Liberty, alone, into her crown. Between shots, I had time to walk the halls of Ellis Island. Mattresses rotting, upright pianos splintered and warped. It was both joyful and depressing. Years later, thinking about this production, I could only conclude... "I'm a lucky guy to have been here and seen this." Even as a young man—and not knowing very much—I felt proud to be an American and to have been there to see the evidence. The sad part, for me... I never got to view the final film. I'd heard they got Lorne Green to narrate it. I would've loved hearing his narration. I'll keep searching to find it. But, I don't hold much hope. Like so much in our lives, we live on memories.
Ezra Stone (right) during a 1947 radio broadcast of The Aldrich Family.
Wernher von Braun