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VOCES: Tales of Masked Men – A Q&A with Filmmaker Carlos Avila

September 28th, 2012

“Lucha libre,” famous for its masked wrestlers, provides a sense of “home” for new immigrants in the United States. Photo courtesy of Cuauhtemoc Garcia and Echo Park Films.

Tales of Masked Men explores the sport of “lucha libre” and its role in Latino communities in the United States and Mexico. Here, VOCES talks with filmmaker Carlos Avila about his inspiration for the film and gaining the trust of the “lucha libre” community.

Tales of Masked Men airs Sunday, September 30 at 7 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of VOCES 2012. For more interviews and other VOCES film content, visit the VOCES 2012 site.

How did you come to make “Tales of Masked Men?”

The film has been in my life a long time. I loved lucha libre when I was a boy. I have very vivid memories of Friday nights when my mother and stepfather would drive my brothers, sisters and me, as well as some friends of the family, across town to the Olympic Auditorium in Downtown Los Angeles. The great Mexican wrestler Mil Mascaras (the “man of a thousand masks”) would regularly wrestle there and he was our favorite. The times when he would wrestle on television, was a special event. In the 1970s – and it’s often the case today – it was rare to see a Mexican man or any Latino on American television who was heroic, charismatic and victorious. Mil Mascaras had those qualities on a massive scale. Perhaps there was a larger-than-life aspect to what I was experiencing but for a ten year old kid, which I was at the time, it was an amazing revelation.

Because those images stayed with me for so long, as they did with many people from my generation, I thought that a documentary that explored the roots and history of lucha libre would be an important undertaking. I do feel that in some ways lucha libre has been dismissed as a “kitschy” sideshow but knowing how long it has endured it felt right to give it it’s due and examine its place in Mexican and Latino culture.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

As with so many of these “passion” projects, the biggest challenge was getting the funding together. Latino Public Broadcasting was on board from the outset but I was surprised by how little interest there was from other funding sources to make the film. In Mexico, there’s some people who call lucha libre, “el patito feo de los deportes” (i.e. the ugly duckling of sports) because it mixes theatre, sports and spectacle. I was starting to feel as if my documentary was becoming the “ugly duckling of documentary film projects.” But we forged ahead and on the most of modest budgets, we made an ambitious film.

From the beginning of the process, I wanted to film the documentary in Mexico and to include people with first hand knowledge of the sport. I wanted to film in the great “lucha” arenas – large and small – in Mexico. Because of this, gaining entrée into the lucha libre world was a challenge. Your expectations are that people are going to be instantly supportive of such a project but it took some effort for this to happen. Mascarita Sagrada was the first to agree to participate and then others started to support the project. Solar and Solar Jr.’s support made a big impact on the film and opened a lot of doors. El Hijo del Santo was reluctant at first but once he saw a cut of the segment on his father, he also lent his support.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHfP86xs0NU&w=560&h=315]

How did you gain trust of the lucha libre community?

I try to be straightforward in my dealings with people and I think the “luchadores” (wrestlers) appreciated that. I am also big on following through on things and that was also something that they and other participants responded to. I think that I was fortunate to have met the right people along the way and I could ask for their help in leveraging certain favours. Mascarita would speak to a promoter at an event he was going to wrestle at and they’d give the okay to let us film. It was that classic technique of building relationships and then leaning on them from time to time. Having the right people vouch for me and the project made all the difference in the world.

Did anything happen during the filming that was unexpected?

The biggest surprise had to do with a wrestler that we were working with early on. He couldn’t have been more generous and welcoming and then he decided he no longer wanted to be involved with the project unless he was paid a substantial amount of money – which I didn’t feel was appropriate. We had filmed with him for two full days and then he backed out. That was a big blow to a project with such a small budget as ours. But I wish him well. He’s done some incredible things in his career and with his life but for some reason things didn’t work out with our project.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the subjects seen it, and if so, what did they think?

I wish I could answer this question but given the tight delivery schedule for the film we are literally still finishing a few final touches to it. The film screens for the first time with an audience later this week. So far Solar, Solar Jr. and Mascarita Sagrada haven’t seen the film. El Hijo del Santo saw the segment on his father and was very complimentary. I’ll try to update this reply in a couple of weeks after we’ve had a few screenings.

Making independent films can be tough.  What keeps you motivated?

I’ve worked in the commercial world and in the independent world. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. On the indie side of things, there is that sense of “authorship,” that sense that the work that you’re doing expresses something vital and personal to you. Perhaps that’s an odd thing to say about a lucha libre documentary but I think it’s important to tell the story of Mexicans and Latinos that were entrepreneurial and that bet on themselves to build something – be it a business or an identity. To be able to tell that story in a creative and unfettered way is why you undertake these independent projects.

The other thing that keeps you motivated is your collaborators. Solar used to always tell me, “Carlitos, todos somos luchadores” (Carlos, we’re all in the struggle). It’s true, we were undertaking a sizeable project with limited resources – we were definitely luchando (i.e. in the struggle). My editor and co-producer, Thom Calderón, was also a huge motivator. His great enthusiasm for the project and his love of filmmaking was extremely motivating.

VOCES explores the amazing variety of Latino arts and culture – is there another aspect of the Latino experience that you’d like to make a film about?

I’m still catching my breathe on this one. I’ll get back in touch with you on this.

What advice would you give young Latino filmmakers just starting out?

My advice is practical, I’d encourage young filmmakers to learn a craft in addition to having projects they’d like to direct or produce. Learn how to be a visual effects artist, a dialogue editor, a camera operator or a re-recording mixer. Learn a craft at which you can make a living at while you’re trying to get your projects made.

What’s your next project?

I’m writing something. There’s also a documentary I’m exploring.

Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora #7

September 24th, 2012

Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora is written for Inside THIRTEEN by Deborah Gilbert, a British television maven and editor of the E20 Chronicles, a free, weekly Eastenders e-newsletter, and an Eastenders column in the Union Jack Newspaper. Check back for updates.

There is nothing like a Dame: I know that all Downtonians are of two minds this morning after the Emmy Awards. On one hand, we are thrilled that Dame Maggie Smith won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Emmy for her brilliantly layered portrayal of the Dowager Countess Grantham (including Hugh Bonneville, who tweeted that he was “Thrilled for Dame Mummy”). But we feel a bit cheated that she wasn’t there to give an acceptance speech, don’t we? At the very least they should have allowed someone else from the cast to accept for her. The generic ‘we accept this award on her behalf’ is no fun at all. But more than that, we are also disappointed that Downton Abbey was shut out of all the other awards. Harumpf! Awards show watchers knew it was going to be dicey going in to the acting categories because Downton Abbey actors received multiple nominations in those categories, and award show prognosticators are always saying that when more than one actor from the same show or movie are nominated in the same category, they cancel each other out, lowering the chances of winning. Even Hugh Bonneville was so sure he would not win that he vowed to eat his toe if he did. While Dame Mummy triumphed over such prognostications, the others fell like William on the Somme. And Downton Abbey not winning the Emmy for Best Drama Series was a bigger crime than the wrongful conviction of Mr. Bates! I say we get our pitchforks and torches and storm the Academy. Are you with me Downtonians?

Academy Governors Bob Bergen (L) and Lily Tomlin (R) present Benedict Cumberbatch with the Outstanding Lead Actor In A Miniseries Or A Movie nominee certificate with Hugh Bonneville (2nd L) and Brendan Coyle (2nd R). Photo by Bucci/PictureGroup via AP Images.

Anyway, Hugh Bonneville could have won a separate award for giving the best good sport surprised face when he lost (and by the way, he should win some sort of award for his twitter feed). Ah well. You can’t win ’em all. Downton Abbey will just have to console itself with being the critically-acclaimed and highly rated obsession of the most discerning and intelligent telly viewers everywhere. As another consolation, they got a shout out from Jimmy Fallon, who used a clip from his Downton Sixbey parody to represent the best of his show for his nominee montage. And the run up to the Emmys did settle another vexing issue:  Hugh Bonneville tweeted the picture above, showing he and Brendan Coyle playfully strangling Benedict Cumberbatch, from the Emmy Writer’s Nominee Lunch — once and for all settling all those tabloid rift rumors.

Regrets, I’ve had a few: They say that, in life, you only regret the things you haven’t done – and I believe that is true. My most recent evidence? Right now, I am kicking myself for not stopping by the boutique Jeffrey, in the Meatpacking District, during the recent Fashion’s Night Out. Why? Because Dan Stevens was there (with Jessica Chastain) and the crowds weren’t. How could I be so stupid, you ask? In my defense, I didn’t hear about it until about a half hour before the appearance and I had just gotten home from a horrible day at work and was all shleppy, with my bad hair day up in a bandana and I thought, I can’t go out and face those snotty fashionista FNO mobs looking like this. Turns out I should have gone. The mobs never materialized. The store wasn’t crowded at all, and my spy (my friend Fran) tells me that most of those who were there didn’t even know who he was. Those who did got a real treat. Fran reports that he was ‘nattily attired’ and very charming and sweet, always smiling and laughing. Damn!

He Drives Me Crazy: And speaking of fashion, it seems like just about every Downton Abbey star has been featured in fashion spreads lately. One British fashion magazine even featured three separate covers last month, each one graced by a different Crawley girl. But this one really caught my eye. It’s Allen Leach (Branson the Chauffer to you and me) modeling menswear for the online magazine Mr. Porter. Sybil is a lucky Lady (but then we knew that).

Fashion Trifecta: When Lord Grantham told Lady Mary that she should go to America and find a cowboy in the ‘middle west’, it seems that one very well-known Brooklyn-born cowboy was inspired: Ralph Lauren has signed on as a corporate sponsor of PBS’ Masterpiece Classic! Welcome to the party Ralph! And on behalf of all us cowgirls and boys, thank you for your support of excellent television!

I have seen the future and it’s fabulous!: I am lucky enough to have gotten an advanced peek at the first two episodes of the Upstairs Downstairs Season 2, and I can report that it is Terrific with a capital T! I have to honestly say I thought the first season was just OK, so I approached season two with some trepidation. I sat on the screener for almost a week before sliding it into my DVD player. But as soon as it started, I saw my worries were for naught. It is simply fantastic!

As season two begins, the run up to WWII has begun in earnest and residents of 165 Eaton Place are in the throes of it all. Our hero, Sir Hallam, is surrounded by the appeasers of Neville Chamberlain’s government, but steadfastly refuses to go along, despite the entreaties of his co-workers, friends, and even his wife, Lady Agnes, who argue that to appease Hitler is to have an easier life. Since the 1930’s is so much more the recent past than the 19-teens of Downton Abbey, and it takes place in a familiar-looking town house rather than a posh estate, it doesn’t have that fairy tale magicality of Downton Abbey – but it makes up for it in other ways. And interestingly enough, with this series, it is the men’s fashions that are the most eye-catching, with all the men dressed like Hubbell Gardner (I’m sure Ralph will be smiling at that).

In this sophomore season, it seems that Upstairs Downstairs has taken some cues from Downton Abbey in the way they tell the stories – including how they utilize secrets as a plot device. As the season begins, two major characters are missing (it is explained that one has passed away and one is ill).  And a surprising secret affair is revealed; it’s one of those secrets – a big one, that we just know is a time bomb set to go off later at some inopportune moment, and waiting for that to happen will be jolly good fun. On top of that, the production design has kicked up a notch. The cinematography is more beautiful than I remember from season one, and often ethereal. Bold faced names of the day move through the lives of the residents of 165 Eaton, from the Duke of Kent to Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and his young son Jack, and butler Prichard brings a Carson-like nobility to it all, with lines like, ‘When one follows one’s conscience, pain is usually felt by other people.’ Upstairs Downstairs season two premiers on Masterpiece Classic Sunday, Oct. 7 at 9 p.m.  You can get caught up on season one, which re-airs on THIRTEEN Sunday, Sept. 30 at 9 p.m. & 10 p.m. Find out more.

Call the Midwife: I reviewed this series in a previous Dispatch, and this is just a reminder that it premiers this Sunday, Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN. Call the Midwife is based on the true memoirs of a nurse who worked in London’s impoverished post-war East End of the 1950s. It is gritty and unique, brilliant and surprising – and you do NOT want to miss it (especially those of you who love everything EastEnders!). Call the Midwife is not part of the Masterpiece franchise, so it will be running concurrently with Upstairs Downstairs on Sunday nights: Call the Midwife at 8 p.m., and Upstairs Downstairs at 9 p.m.. That is almost two months of intensely British Sunday nights across the Colonies. Please do write in with reports about the quizzical looks on the faces of your coworkers as you show up Monday mornings with a British accent.

Third Time’s a Charm: The third season of Downton Abbey premiered two weeks ago in Britain, and I made the mistake of clicking on a link to a British paper and saw a couple of big spoilers from the first episode. I won’t ruin it for you by sharing what those spoilers are, but I will say that right out of the gate season three starts off with a bang (actually two). When I read this, at first I thought, ‘how crazy is that?’, and then I remembered that the first two seasons also each started with a bang (except in the case of Pamuk who, technically, ended with a bang), with all the characters spending the rest of the season dealing with the fallout. So if you don’t want to stumble across any of these spoilers, I recommend you stay away from reading the British tabloids online. Of course, there are many, many reasons to avoid the British tabs. This is only one of them.

No justice, No peace: In the eternal fight for truth and justice there is one lesson that can be drawn – one cannot fight for justice without the proper signage. So to make the fight for the freedom of our erstwhile hero Mr. Bates more efficient (and to give you a giggle), please download and display this sign. ‘Keep Calm and Free Bates.’ That is our mantra. Carry on.

In case you missed it, read the last edition of Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora.

A Look Back at Gore Vidal's Life Through Charlie Rose

August 1st, 2012

Author Gore Vidal. (AP File Photo)

Prolific American author Gore Vidal passed away on Tuesday at the age of 86. A renowned novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, Vidal was a controversial figure of both the literary and political worlds since the release of his first novel, Williwaw in 1946.

Since 1995, Vidal has been a guest on PBS’ Charlie Rose an impressive four times! Take a look back on his life and works through these interviews with the late writer, and tune into Charlie Rose Friday, August 3 at 11 p.m. for “An Appreciation of Gore Vidal.”

Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora #5

July 30th, 2012

Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora is written for Inside THIRTEEN by Deborah Gilbert, a British television maven and editor of the E20 Chronicles, a free, weekly Eastenders e-newsletter, and an Eastenders column in the Union Jack Newspaper. Check back for updates.

For all you Downtonians out there who are lamenting the long wait until Season 3 of Downton Abbey gets to PBS, I say don’t fret. If the autumn speeds by as quickly as the summer has, January, and the Crawleys, will be back here before you know it! Til then…

Ode to Joy: The cast of Downton Abbey was invited to opening ceremonies of the London Olympics Friday night. Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) and Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) tweeted these pictures of the gang from just outside the Olympic stadium, with Hugh’s tweet saying, “Team Downton Abbey invade the Olympic Park.” It looks like they’re having fun together, but couldn’t you just picture them all arriving together in that cute little bus that Mrs. Hughes takes to see Ethel? And what would the Dowager think about all this mixing of Upstairs and Down in such a casual manner? And out in public no less. Disgraceful! Then again, if Elizabeth Regina II can parachute in with 007, I say all bets are off. And speaking of Ethel, note that Amy Nuttal is there with the group. Do you think this means that Ethel found a way back to Downton in Season 3? And if so, will the baby be with her? Or did her dire circumstances force her to give him up to Major Bryant’s horrible father? Sigh.

Hugh Bonneville expressing his political beliefs.

And speaking of clues and speculation… By now I’m sure you’ve all seen the press reports from the recent Television Critics Association (TCA) convention in Los Angeles where Downton Abbey was one of the more buzzed-about programs. The cast made quite an impression there as they started cranking up the publicity machine for Season 3. It seems that the big highlight was at the press conference when Hugh Bonneville tore open his shirt, Superman-style, to reveal a “Free Bates” t-shirt underneath.

Mystery: There was a lot of press coverage of this event but something that I haven’t seen considered anywhere is the new, official cast press photo; a variation from the one they’ve used the previous two seasons, with all the characters lined up in front of the house. Each season nearly the same picture, dominated by the house, but made different only by the characters lined up out front, and the sky in the background. So forgive me as I go all Miss Marple on you, but it is the look of that sky that I am studying for clues.

For Season 1, that sky behind the house was a morning sky; an optimistic light blue with sunny edges appropriate for the new beginnings as we were just getting acquainted. For Season 2, it was a stormy sky, all dark greys and reds, which matched the season perfectly as WWI dominated the story. But the Season 3 picture features a night sky, dark indigo blue with some stars, which has left me wondering what it all could mean? Are there clues in that sky that fortell what will transpire this coming season?

Now true, I am someone who spent quite a bit of time, in sixth grade, studying my Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover for clues confirming that Paul was dead, so this sort of hunting isn’t entirely new to me. But I am wondering why no one else has picked up on this, and what does it mean? Is it simply a glamorous, starry evening sky that reflects a return to pre-WWI opulence? Or a midnight sky, hinting that someone is going to turn into a pumpkin when the clock strikes twelve? And if so, whom? (I’m thinking that if there’s to be a gourd-related injury, it would have to have something to do with Lady Edith.) Midnight is both an ending and a beginning – but is the bell about to toll for the house of Grantham? And what kind of creatures would go bump in that night? Given how many people have died in that house, one would think they’d all be sleeping with one eye open, wouldn’t you? Then again, the creepiest creatures to haunt that house are still alive – better to sleep with both eyes open. January is just around the corner. Can’t wait! See all three pictures and compare for yourself.

They’re Playing Our Song: Have you heard anything familiar while watching Masterpiece Classic’s Little Dorrit on WLIW, THIRTEEN’s sister station (airs Monday’s at 9 p.m. through August 6)? Call me kooky, but I would swear that the music they play whenever Amy has her dreams dashed is very close to the same music played on Downton Abbey when Matthew and Lady Mary are having one of those conversations (you know, the ones full of longing disguised by indifference). Anyone else notice this?

See You In September: Last week, I was lucky enough to be able to screen the first episode of Call the Midwife, the new six-part Masterpiece Classic period drama from the BBC that THIRTEEN will be broadcasting in the fall, and I have to say, you are going to love, love, LOVE IT! It is set in London’s East End (hello!) in the 1950’s and is based on the trilogy of memoirs written by Jennifer Lee Worth, who was a real midwife, practicing there. Think of the early days of EastEnders, how it was so dreary and gritty – only multiply it. The main character, Jenny Lee, is a young idealistic nurse who qualifies as a midwife to help the poor in the East End, where the filthy, grinding poverty seems more reminiscent of the 1850’s than the 1950’s. Jenny’s idealism initially crashes into revulsion of the people and the Dickensian conditions they live under, and she has to learn to reconcile that to be able to serve them. It’s another one of those dramas that could never, would never, be produced for commercial American TV.

Call the Midwife is just what we love about British telly: It has an intelligent script and is chock full of wonderful character actors and offers Brit telly lovers quite a few familiar faces, including Judy Parfitt who has starred in many dramas, most recently as Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit; Cliff Parisi, who plays Minty on EastEnders, and Miranda Hart, star of the Britcom Miranda, to name just a few. This series was a huge hit in the UK. In the all-important UK ratings race (our friends across the pond take this stuff seriously – even the bookies get in on the action), it broke Downton Abbey‘s record for grabbing the largest audience for original drama on the telly in recent years – and now we’ve got it! Call the Midwife premiers on THIRTEEN in September. Watch a preview online.

That’s all for now. I’m going to go back to trying to play my Sgt. Pepper’s albums backwards, which you should join me in because (I swear) if you do, you’ll hear the voice of Carson saying, “O’Brien did it!” As Sir John of Liverpool would say, ‘Goo goo g’joob!’

In case you missed it, read the last edition of Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora.

David Horn and Bill O’Donnell Q &A: Starry Nights

July 20th, 2012

This month, THIRTEEN’s Great Performances series brings you starry summer music specials from around the world. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Summer Night Concert 2012 (Fri 31st, 9 p.m.; pictured on the cover), filmed in the magnificent gardens of Austria’s Imperial Schönbrunn Palace. Closer to home, we’re pleased to present Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration (Fri 10th, 9 p.m.) and  Music of the Movies (Sat 11th, 7:30 p.m.), young singing sensation Jackie Evancho’s new special. And opera fans won’t want to miss Manon (Thu 9th, 8:30 p.m.) and La Traviata (Thu 23rd, 9 p.m.) on Great Performances at the Met.

David Horn

THIRTEEN spoke with Executive Producer David Horn and Series Producer Bill O’Donnell to get an inside look at the long-running performing arts series.

Great Performances is currently enjoying its 39th year on public television.  What was it like to produce the series in the ‘70s and ‘80s compared to now?

DAVID HORN: I think the biggest difference is that we’ve expanded the definition of performing arts programming on public television. In its early years, it consisted primarily of opera, symphonic music, classical music, drama, and dance. Today, we include classic American Songbook, musical theater, popular music, classic rock, and crossover artists like Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, and 12-year-old musical prodigy Jackie Evancho.

Bill O’Donnell

BILL O’DONNELL: What hasn’t changed is that we continue to bring viewers programs they truly won’t find anywhere else. The networks and cable have pretty much abandoned everything but mainstream music programming. We’re the place where performers of all kinds can do what they do best in a long-form format.

David, you’re directing the new Jackie Evancho special. How do you transform a show from a live stage experience into a compelling TV broadcast?

DH: One of the most important things we do is to create an environment for the program. Andrea Bocelli’s new special is going to showcase Mediterranean love songs, so what better place to be than Portofino, Italy? For Jackie Evancho’s new special of movie music, which premieres during our August membership drive, we chose the Orpheum Theatre, an old, beautifully restored vaudeville palace in downtown L.A. The theater has an incredibly rich history and is located in an area where there used to be tons of movie palaces, so in a way it’s the star of the program too, and it provides the perfect backdrop for the gorgeous movie songs Jackie performs.

We also look for ways to set the pacing by bringing in guest artists to help keep things moving along, and we look at how the show’s star interacts with the guest artists and audience. But the first step really is the logistics. Whether the show is set in Portofino or Central Park, it’s one huge logistical chore at first. You’re doing everything. You’re the conceptual artist, you’re the stage director, you’re the person who’s getting all the permits and building the scenes. Then you focus on directing the television show, which primarily involves planning camera positions. That’s especially important with an environmental show like Andrea in Portofino where we want to capture the beauty of the location.

Andrea Bocelli and Julie Andrews are among the celebrated artists who have appeared on Great Performances programs many times over the years. Why do performers keep returning to the series?

DH: One of the reasons is that we involve them in the creative process and provide a positive, encouraging work environment. At commercial networks, producers tell artists what to do whereas we ask artists for their input and let them know their talent and vision are appreciated. This really makes a lasting impression on them, and it’s deeply gratifying when we get the call that they want to come back and work with us again.

BO’D: I completely agree and would add that many of the artists who have appeared on GP ultimately become supporters of public television. After they work on one of our programs, they really appreciate what we’re able to do with them and fully understand the power of public television. The icing on the cake is that they’re reaching people doing the things they want to do and want to say.

What is it like working with artists you admire? Do you have a favorite personal memory of working on Great Performances?

DH: It’s been wonderful to work with and meet people like Dame Julie Andrews, Beverly Sills, Walter Cronkite, Garrison Keillor, Harry Connick, Jr., and Sir Patrick Stewart.  But one of my favorite memories involves a show we did with Luciano Pavarotti in the mid-80s. It was a show about Neapolitan song, filmed in Naples, and due to a mishap, Luciano and I ended up traveling to the shooting locations on a houseboat called “The Love Boat,” complete with disco ball. The crew had no idea we were delayed and while they were frantic with worry, Luciano and I were on the roof of the boat in lawn chairs, singing Sinatra songs.

BO’D: I guess my career high – although it wasn’t Great Performances – was when I got to be the FCC guy in Make ‘Em Laugh, a documentary series we produced on American comedy, and had to lock up Billy Crystal in jail with the other groundbreakers of comedy. He complimented me on my acting, which pretty much made my day.

What does it mean to you that Great Performances has inspired so many people to pursue the arts?

BO’D: Robert Battle, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, recently came to the studio to tape a promo for THIRTEEN’s upcoming 50th anniversary, and he spoke quite passionately and poetically about the experience of seeing the Ailey company on public television when he was a teen growing up in an inner city near Miami.

DH: Battle was completely mesmerized by the program, which was narrated by former Ailey star and artistic director Judith Jamison. He said the experience of watching it and hearing Jamison talk about Ailey’s choreography and artistic vision inspired him profoundly. Stories like that speak volumes as one of our goals is to provide a platform for great artists and organizations and bring their work to people whose geography or circumstances may prevent them from having access to the performing arts. Ten thousand people may see a performance during the course of a show’s run in a theater, but one million people or more see it when it airs on Great Performances. We’re providing a service, and as Robert Battle’s story illustrates, it’s a service that can dramatically change people’s lives.

Who is on your Great Performances wish list?

DH: There have been many Broadway productions we wanted to do, but which fell through due to finances, legalities, or other reasons.  But we have our Broadway success stories, as well. This season we aired the enormously popular Memphis, and next season we’re very excited to have Stephen Sondheim’s Company starring Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, and Stephen Colbert.  As for our wish list, we’re producing a great big gala special as a fundraiser for THIRTEEN’s 50th anniversary, which begins in September 2012. Our wish is to have as many of our illustrious alumni as possible in that special, so tune in to find out who they are.

Great Performances is produced for PBS by THIRTEEN for WNET, and is funded by the Irene Diamond Fund, The National Endowment for the Arts, Vivian Milstein, The Starr Foundation, public television viewers, and PBS. Major series funding is also provided by the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Arts Fund, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, The Agnes Varis Trust, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Foundation, Annaliese Soros, Jody and John Arnhold, Victor and Sono Elmaleh and Vera von Kuffner Eberstadt.

Market Warriors' Bob Richter on Antiques Picking in NYC and on the Road

July 12th, 2012

Bob Richter of 'Market Warriors.' Photo courtesy of WGBH.

Market Warriors, a new PBS series from the producers of Antiques Roadshow, joins THIRTEEN’s Monday night lineup starting July 16 at 9 p.m. The series follows four antiques pickers on a nationwide treasure hunt as they scour flea markets and antiques shows for vintage valuables, with an eye toward selling their finds for profit at auction. The show grants viewers an up-close look at the fierce competition and obstacles the pickers face in the marketplace, and allows them to make their best guesses about who will come out ahead at the end of the competitions.

Here, Market Warriors picker Bob Richter, a New York City resident, weighs in on the show and his favorite NYC flea market finds.

(Fun fact: Bob Richter is not the only Market Warrior with New York ties.  John Bruno was born and raised in Long Island).

Enter our giveaway for a chance to win a market Warriors tote bag.

Mr. Richter answered our questions via email.

Inside Thirteen: Are there any items you collect that could only be found in New York City?

Bob Richter: While there is not one item I collect that can only be found in NYC, there are international shopping opportunities that can only be found at my “go-to” flea market in NYC. One of the reasons I love living here is that it is the most international city in the U.S., and as such, our flea markets reflect that.  There are dealers who I buy from regularly who come from France, Germany, England and Czechoslovakia. While I love shopping the fleas in Europe, I can’t get there right now as often as I’d like, so this winds up being a pretty sweet scenario. I have found incredible French Art Deco vases, hand-carved items (like a wonderful rabbit) from the Black Forest region of Germany, English Art Nouveau China and Czechoslovakian Art Pottery, all at my NYC flea market. It’s a one-stop shop for fantastic international finds.

(View full post to see video)

IT: What’s the most unusual item you’ve bought? Do you ever find antiques at unlikely spots in the city (street fairs, thrift shops, etc.)?

BR: The most unusual thing I purchased recently was a carved wooden cloud with lightening bolts projecting from it. It stopped me in my tracks, and I knew I had to have it. I am going to add a mirror to the center, and it will be a real showpiece. It definitely has a “wow” factor. The piece is all handcrafted and was probably made in the late 19th Century. I was told by the dealer it was a prop for stage productions done by a group called the “Odd Fellows.” One of the reasons I love antiquing is that you can always learn something. After a bit of research online, I discovered the “Odd Fellows” are a “global altruistic and benevolent fraternal organization” whose motto is “Friendship, Love and Truth.”  Some of the more famous members included Charlie Chaplin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Charles Lindbergh, Wyatt Earp, Rutherford Hays and Warren Harding.

Street fairs in NYC are great places to find antiques…. especially the ones that are organized by block associations. I’ve found particularly wonderful things at the fairs on Jane, Perry and Grove Streets. In addition, Housing Works and Angel Street thrift shops offer up an endless supply of treasures from generous New Yorkers who donate abundantly.

IT: What flea markets in NYC would you recommend to novice collectors?

BR: I think The Garage in Chelsea is the best game in town. I’ve been shopping there for 22 years, since I arrived in NYC. My dorm room resembled a 1940s bungalow, and many of the items I used to furnish it came from the Chelsea flea markets. At that time, there were 5 outdoor markets, in addition to The Garage. As real estate developers tapped into the Chelsea, the parking lots which once housed the fleas turned into high rise apartments, so The Garage is really the best of what is left in that area. I’ve been shopping with some of the dealers there for decades, and they never disappoint when it comes to bringing wonderful things to the table.

IT: If you could give a flea market novice one tip what would it be?

BR: Buy what you love. At the end of the day, if it makes you happy and it enriches your home, then it’s all good. Live with what you love!

IT: What was it like Filming Market Warriors in “The Garage?”

(NOTE: Episode 111 of Market Warriors, filmed at the Antiques Garage will premiere on Monday, November 12 at 9 p.m.)

Market Warriors pickers John Bruno, Miller Gaffney, Bob Richter and Kevin Bruneau (l-r). Photo courtesy of David Aaron Troy.

BR: Every weekend that I’m in NYC, I’m at The Garage (usually both Saturday and Sunday). As a result, I have great, long-standing relationships with most of the dealers there.  Since flea markets are an arena where relationships are everything, I knew I would get good prices.  That said, we were buying for an auction in Virginia, and I had my eyes set on what would appeal to those buyers. I was looking for primitives and more rustic items, which made the shopping a bit more challenging, but since NYC offers something for everyone, and never disappoints, I was able to find Virginia-appropriate treasures with ease.

Our target round was to find “ephemera,” which is essentially printed material that was meant to be thrown out after its original use but instead has lasted over time so now has collector value. Examples run the gamut from vintage posters to magazines. While there was a lot of it to be found, the object of Market Warriors is to turn a profit on our purchases, so it was a challenge to not just find ephemera, but to find ephemera that would make money at auction.  Did I also mention we had to pair up for this round of shopping? Let’s just say it was very very interesting…and a whole lot of fun.

IT: What is your favorite season to shop NYC markets and thrift shops?

BR: I shop all year round at the fleas in NYC, but my favorite season to shop them is spring. Just as nature awakens after a long, cold winter, so do NYC fleas. Many dealers who come in from other states don’t come as often in the winter due to weather conditions, but once spring hits, they are back in the saddle with lots of fresh merchandise. Also, in the spring there are many outdoor markets in NYC that pop up to benefit charities or block associations, and those often have great bargains. Finally, under the umbrella of spring cleaning, many of the thrift shops have some of their best merchandise at that time of year, since NYC dwellers have limited space and often want to purge after a long winter.

Bob Richter. Photo courtesy of WGBH.

IT: As a collector who is also an interior designer, do you find the lack of space in NYC to be a challenge?

BR: We have to be very clever in NYC when it comes to maximizing space. To work in a room, many things have to do double duty (think an old steamer trunk that stores winter bedding, but also serves as a side table – I literally just tapped into this solution for a client’s studio). As a collector, I also believe in rotating my things, so they are not all on display at the same time. I do this a lot with artwork, which is one of my favorite things to purchase at bargain prices at flea markets.

IT: Are there any locations that you are particularly curious to explore with Market Warriors?

BR: I’m sweet on Texas. The Texans I’ve met and worked with are warm, bold and eclectic. As such, they tend to have cool possessions, which invariably wind up at flea markets. We’ve already gone to Canton, Texas with Market Warriors and it was great fun. I’d love to explore the markets of Austin, Houston and San Antonio as well.

IT: If you could only collect one thing what would it be?

BR: Artwork. I have so much respect for those who create. Whether an artist has captured a glance or a moment, or enabled us to see the world in a different way, I find that paintings in particular hold a great deal of emotion for me. Because I’m so passionate about artwork, I own a great deal of it, and have to rotate my collection. I need a few more walls!

Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora #4

July 9th, 2012

Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora is written for Inside THIRTEEN by Deborah Gilbert, a British television maven and editor of the E20 Chronicles, a free, weekly Eastenders e-newsletter, and an Eastenders column in the Union Jack Newspaper. Check back for updates.

As the temperatures in the Baked Apple near 100 degrees and my air conditioner is broken, I ponder how the residents of Downton Abbey might have handled this heat. They didn’t have air conditioners. (Imagine what the Dowager would have made of that modern contraption; one that shoots out cold air. I dare say she would not have crossed the room in front of it.) And while I’m guessing that big, old house didn’t get as hot as my studio apartment, I don’t have to wear corsetry and layers of fabric. So how did they do it? I know how I would handle it: With a staff of hot, young footman to fan me with palm fronds while peeling my precisely chilled grapes. Ah, what a life one leads! Hopefully your footmen are as attentive to you as you read this jumble sale of Downton Abbey goodies.

Last fall when the Downton Abbey cast made a pre-Season 2 appearance here at the Times Center in New York, someone in the audience asked them what they thought of a recent parody sketch of the show that had been on the telly in the UK. They all said they loved it. Of course, as the saying goes, you’re nobody ‘til somebody parodies you, and Downton Abbey is a show that is ripe for parody – there’s just so much for a comedy writer to chew on. One of the more brilliant parodies (actually it’s almost its own series now) is from the folks at the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon who have introduced a family whose fate is similar to that of the Crawley family: Their heir apparent, Carson Daly has been killed in a hot air balloon accident and they are left to find their own Matthew. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Downton Sixbey.

Recently, when Julian Fellowes was asked about all the Downton Abbey parodies, he mentioned this one is his favorite, saying he especially loves their version of Lady Edith, and that it demonstrates a real understanding and love of the show and its characters. He also said that if there were one of these by the motorway, he would like to eat there. If only all fast food franchises were like Downton Arby’s.

Elsewhere, sharp-eyed Downtonians who watched the recent broadcast of The Diary of Anne Frank on WLIW, may have spotted Sir Rupert (Iain Glen) in a very unRupert-like role: Otto Frank. With a completely different voice and cadence (not to mention drastically different hairline), it took a few moments of thinking, where do I know him from? And he never threatened Miep with ruin even once.

The Shirley MacLaine buzz continues: When she was first announced as a cast member for Season 3, and her character name was given as Levinson, I know there were a lot of people out there, like me, who thought, ‘Levinson? Wait, is Cora a Member of the Tribe?’ I mean, who saw that one coming? Well, it turns out to be not so far-fetched after all. In fact, it is based on the real history of Highclere Castle, the house we now know as (the allegedly fictional) Downton Abbey. As we know from Laura Linney’s narration during Season 1, many of these estates were saved when their titled but penniless heirs went fortune hunting and married heiresses who had money but no title. This was true for Highclere as well, whose fortunes were saved when the 5th Earl of Carnarvon married the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild (of those Rothchilds) who, even though she was illegitimate, had a ‘stupendous dowry.’ Why couldn’t I have been born an illegitimate Rothschild? Sigh.

And speaking of saving the estate, thanks to the popularity of Downton Abbey, the owners of Highclere Castle are opening their stately home to the hoi polloi for the first time this summer. Yes, now you can visit the spot where Matthew proposed to Mary, maybe even take a few bits of the gravel Bates face-planted on, or leave a dead body in the guest room. If any of you Downtonians go over for this, please report back and let us know if the staff is lined up out front when you arrive – or will they make us commoners go around the back to get in? Get all the details at Highclere Castle’s website. And by the way, Highclere Castle is currently seeking an assistant butler, if you know anyone who’s interested. No, not you Thomas!

If you are suffering from Jubilee withdrawal, I’m sure you’re happy with two of the most recent docu-series that are running on THIRTEEN and WLIW. Monarchy is just as much fun to watch this time as it was the first time around. Where else could you see the delicious moment of Her Majesty, exasperated at a broken elevator, exclaiming, “what a life one leads!” We also get to see her Ladies in Waiting at work handling her correspondence. They say that every letter gets a response (even letters from dumb Americans), and if you wonder if that’s true, check out this letter I received after I wrote to the Queen almost twenty years ago. It was just after that big fire at Windsor Castle. I had recently watched another program on PBS that showed quite a lot of Madge’s weekend home, including the amazing collections it contains. Her library includes such treasures as Leonardo DaVinci’s sketchbooks and the original manuscript for J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and after watching all the reports about the fire I was wondering if they survived. So I wrote to her to ask, and this is the response I got. Note that they address me as “Miss,” which I don’t think anyone has done since I was about 12 years old, but I saw in another of these series that Madge doesn’t go for ‘Ms,’ so for us untitled commoners, it’s Miss or Mrs. I love the way it starts out with, “I am commanded by the Queen to write…” Makes one wonder how many Ladies in Waiting have been beheaded for poor punctuation or sloppy penmanship. Queen & Country airs on THIRTEEN Sundays at 8 p.m. though July 22 and WLIW Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 28th Monarchy continues on WLIW Saturdays at 9 p.m. through July 28.

If you’re like me and you grew up in a post-WWII tract house development, the historical adventures of places that are older hold a special fascination. When I was a kid, inspired in no small part by old Disney TV shows and Trixie Belden mysteries, I always dreamed of being able to go exploring up in the attic and find hidden, long forgotten treasures, like maybe a diary from the Revolutionary War or love letters from Henry VIII, or something like that. But alas, that could never happen because my house was built in 1957, there was no attic, and my parents were the first owners. Imagine living in a town that is 2000 years old. Oh the things you could discover by just digging up your garden. And it makes the upcoming docu-series Michael Wood’s Story of England sound like something right up my…  cul-de-sac. It follows the history of one small British village, Kibworth, Leicestershire, through the whole of British history and tells how its local history is intertwined with the nation’s history through time. It’s a bit like Downton Abbey in the sense that, in Downton, we see how every major news story of the day (WWI, the Spanish Flu, etc.) affects the inhabitants of that one British country house. In this true story, we’ll see the same thing, but with this little village playing the part of our favorite stately manor. If you want to explore Michael Wood’s Story of England, it continues on THIRTEEN Tuesdays at 8 p.m. through July 17, or watch online.

Finally, I wanted to alert you to a real treat that’s coming up for EastEnders fans (and if you don’t watch EastEnders, why ever not?) Anyhoo Easties, any week now, you’ll be seeing a fantastic two-hander between Dot and Den. For the uninitiated, a two-hander is an episode that features just two actors, and EastEnders’ two-handers have been some of its most memorable episodes ever. The first of these two-handers was back in the early days of the show when, as Dot and Ethel sat babysitting Vicki, they reminisced about living through the Blitz in the East End. This episode was so powerful that even though it was broadcast over 25 years ago, fans still remember it as a classic. I know I never thought of the Blitz in the same way since. In this upcoming two-hander, Dot is locked in the Launderette with Den as each is trying to save the other from themselves. Written by the brilliant Tony Jordan, it explores the psyches of two of Britain’s most iconic TV characters: Den trying to convince Dot to seek medical treatment, and Dot trying to get Den to curb his self-destructive ways – it is truly a clash of two titans. Longtime fans know that the Den who returned from Spain isn’t the same lovable bad boy whose fear of daffodils threw him into the canal. But in this episode, he shows some of the humanity of old. There is a mensch buried under there! Watch EastEnders Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on WLIW. This Queen commands it!

In case you missed it, read the last edition of Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora.

Frederick Wiseman on La Danse: Le Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris

June 28th, 2012

Frederick Wiseman. Photo courtesy of Zipporah Films.

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman about La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, a captivating look behind the scenes of one of the world’s greatest ballet companies. Here, Wiseman discusses the Paris Opera Ballet’s contributions to ballet, differences between American and European ballet, and subjects that inspire him as a filmmaker.

La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris airs Sunday, July 1 at 12:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN and 3:30 p.m. on WLIW21 as part of Great Performances. For more information on films by Frederick Wiseman, visit Zipporah Films.

Enter our giveaway for a chance to win tickets to an upcoming performance by the Paris Opera Ballet at Lincoln Center!

Mr. Wiseman answered our questions via email.

Inside Thirteen: Why did you choose to make a film about the Paris Opera Ballet?

Frederick Wiseman: I love the ballet. The Paris Opera Ballet is one of the great dance companies of the world and it was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to work with them.

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In this excerpt from “La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris,” witness a meeting between Director of Dance, Brigitte Lefevre, and choreographer Emanuel Gat as they discuss casting for a piece by Mats Ek.

IT: As the oldest national ballet company in the world, what impact has the Paris Opera Ballet had on ballet internationally? Are there any influences or traditions that can be directly tied to the company?

FW: The French all but invented ballet and the POB has always been a source and inspiration for dance worldwide.  The Russian and Danish traditions, for example, were both based on the French school: without the French we would not have La Sylphide, Giselle, Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty.  For a more complete answer to this question please read Jennifer Homan’s history of ballet, Appollo’s Angels.

IT: After your experience with the Paris Opera Ballet and previously with the American Ballet Theatre for Ballet, do any significant differences stand out to you between ballet in America and ballet in Europe, either in the rehearsal/production process, or the technique itself?

FW: The rehearsal process was quite similar. The major difference is that the Paris Opera Ballet has always received a large annual subsidy from the state while the American Ballet Theatre needs to constantly solicit funds. They are never sure of their annual budget, which is a major obstacle to long term planning.

IT: Do you have a favorite ballet of the performances and rehearsals you had the chance to sit in on for La Danse?

FW: Genus, by Wayne McGregor.

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Dancers Marie-Agnes Gillot and Benjamin Pech rehearse “Genus” with choreographer Wayne McGregor.

IT: Your films have covered a wide variety of subjects, from the Memphis Juvenile Court to a boxing gym in Texas. What attracts you to topics for your films, and are there any that you find yourself particularly drawn to?

FW: I am trying to do a series of films about contemporary life as it finds expression in the necessary institutions in our society. I am attracted to subjects that are complex and where the complexity can be expressed in a film form.

For more performing arts content and events in New York City, visit NYC-ARTS.

Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora #3

June 22nd, 2012

Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora is written for Inside THIRTEEN by Deborah Gilbert, a British television maven and editor of the E20 Chronicles, a free, weekly Eastenders e-newsletter, and an Eastenders column in the Union Jack Newspaper. Check back for updates.

We have all watched those sumptuous dinner scenes in Downton Abbey, but how many of you have wondered what it would be like to step through the looking glass and join them at the dinner table? And which character specifically would you want to join? I’d bet a lot of you would choose Mr. Bates. Even Daisy has said she’s always thought him to be a ‘romantic figure’. So what would it be like if he had the night off from his duties at the Big House, and could spend it relaxing, with someone else (i.e. you) waiting on him for a change? Well, one New York fan recently got that chance! You may have read that the Origin Theatre Company had a charity auction where people could bid on a special dinner date with Brendan Coyle, the actor who plays Mr. Bates. But you haven’t read the real story, until now…

First, let’s find out something about The Origin Theatre Company, which created this opportunity for one lucky New Yorker. I asked a few questions of George Heslin, its founder and creative director:

E20Launderette: Tell me a little bit about the Origin Theatre.

George Heslin: I founded The Origin Theatre Company in 2002. We looked at award winning playwrights all across Europe and we discovered that they have difficulty gaining access to the American market. Our mission became to launch award winning playwrights here in the United States. In ten years we have launched forty European playwrights. Ten years ago, we were the first company to produce the work of Enda Walsh, who just won eight Tony Awards for ‘Once’. His career began at Origin. And there are many other stories like that. Also, five years ago I started the Irish Theatre Festival here in the city. Held in September, it’s called First Irish and it’s a festival dedicated to Irish playwrights. In the last four years we have presented plays by 64 Irish playwrights in fifteen venues across the city.

E20: How did Brendan Coyle get involved with the Origin Theatre?

GH: My background is acting as well as directing, and twenty years ago Brendan and I worked together in the West End of London. We did two projects together. One was called ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’ by Irish playwright Brian Friel. And we did a play called ‘Eligies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens’, by Billy Russell, an American playwright. Brendan and I became friends and we have remained in contact.

E20: Whose idea was the auction?

GH: It came up as a suggestion from a board member at a recent meeting, and somebody said, ‘don’t you know Brendan Coyle?’ I said yes, and I have to be honest, I didn’t realize how well known he was. (laughs) So we reached out to Brendan, and we had an auction prize of dinner at Claridge’s in London. Then we asked him if he would come to our fund raiser here so he did. And while he was here he announced that he was becoming our honorary patron so he’s very much a part of the family now.

E20: And the winning fan was supposed to wait on him?

GH: Yes. The idea was, you spend an evening with Mr. Bates, read him your favorite poems, you get to take him to dinner, you get to drop him home in a taxi, that kind of idea.

E20: Are there any plans for him to appear in any productions here?

GH: We’re definitely in talks at the moment. We’re probably going to do some readings later in the year, and then we’re looking at doing a production with Brendan, but nothing is confirmed yet.

The current production at the Origin Theatre Company is ‘Tiny Dynamite’, by Abi Morgan. If you’d like to find out more about the company or any or their productions, please check out their website.

OK, that sounds promising! But of course Mr. Heslin can’t confirm if Brendan will be jumping the pond any time soon: We all know that Bates has to get out of jail first! And if you’re keeping score, that’s now two Downton actors with plans to possibly tread the boards here in NYC. I say, keep them coming!

Sandra Doshner, winner of Origin Theatre Company's charity auction, with Downton Abbey's Brendan Coyle after a carriage ride through Central Park. Photo courtesy of Sandra Doshner.

And now, let’s meet Long Islander Sandra Doshner, who participated in the auction and put in the winning bid of $20,000 for that dinner date with Bates:

E20Launderette: How did you hear about the auction?

Sandra Doshner: There was a piece in the Daily Mail in London that got posted on one of the fan Facebook pages the week before. At first it was supposed to be a meet and greet event, but then they added the dinner auction.

E20: What made you decide to bid?

SD: Placing a bid and deciding to go for the win were new experiences, but it was time to jump into the deep end of the pool. I wanted to meet the creative artist who had nailed the pivotal scene of Downton Abbey Season 2 with two words of dialogue and two tears. Everyone else in that scene were reacting to his anguished tone, expression and demeanor. It was fantastic.

E20: What scene was that?

SD: That was the courtroom (verdict) scene.

E20: Have you ever done anything like this before?

SD: This was my first time at an auction of any kind, but the time was right for risk taking and new adventures. And since it was for charity, and the prize was so special, I thought, why not take a chance?

E20: Is Bates your favorite Downton Abbey character?

SD: Yes, Mr. Bates is my favorite character. Julian Fellowes wrote the role with Mr. Coyle in mind, giving the show its lynchpin and conscience, with a stoicism taken to a degree just shy of emotional repression. Mr. Bates is the everyman in this social class study that is a microcosm of history and society. I always feel that Lord Grantham is the heart of the house while Mr. Carson is the rudder that keeps it true to its set course. But I really think that Mr. Bates is the moral compass. I am a fan, and student, of Downton Abbey. I say this to address the media labeling me Downton‘s #1 and biggest fan.

E20: Can you tell me a bit about your experience with the tabloids after this event? Did the media label you Downton’s #1 fan in a disparaging way?

SD: I took it that way. But I don’t think you can classify me as that. We don’t know, there could be people who are really into it…

E20: And dressing in costumes.

SD: Exactly. Or have more memorabilia than can fit in their house. I think I’m more of a student of the show than just a fan. I never expected the feeding frenzy that accompanied the initial release of my story. I had one phone interview and I gave my answers, but I told them what questions I wouldn’t answer. They made up answers anyway and we were off. The story went worldwide. Both the press coverage, and the public response, turned the whole thing mean, nasty and personal. It was bad enough that it almost soured a rather wonderful experience for me.

E20: Is there any other Downton Abbey actor you’d like to bid on for a similar date like this?

SD: They are all wonderfully talented actors, and I would love to meet each one and spend days chatting with them all. But once you’ve done something like this once, doing it again couldn’t be nearly as special. All the spontaneity and excitement would be gone.

E20: What did you two talk about on your dinner date?

SD: Anything and everything. It was a wide array of subjects and there was no lull in the conversation.

E20: Did you ask him any questions about the show?

SD: Just a little bit about Downton Abbey. Just general things. I didn’t think I should ask him specifics about the show because, first, I know they’re not supposed to talk about it – not that he was ever going to reveal any secrets about the show. He knows better. And second, I like to be surprised by the show, so I wouldn’t want to spoil any secrets for myself!

E20: Was the dinner date all that you hoped it would be?

SD: Absolutely. I entered the event with no pre-conceptions about how it would play out. The photos, the carriage ride with my reading poetry, drinks and a magnificent dinner at Per Se, all took on a surreal quality. Mr. Coyle is very charming, and a great dinner companion. He put me totally at ease. So aside from the evening flying by at what seemed like warp speed, it was more than I could have imagined it to be.

E20: You read him poetry? Did he read any to you?

SD: That was part of the set-up for the date: You had to read him poetry while taking a carriage ride through Central Park.

E20: Oh, so they told you to read him poetry?

SD: Yes, that wasn’t my idea. (laughs) But hey, I can do it. Why not? I mean it would have been nicer if he was doing the reading, but it was role reversal.

E20: Yes, it would have been nicer hearing that Irish lilt reading the poetry.

SD: Yes. But no, it was my Brooklyn accent reading the poetry. (laughs)

E20: I’m glad we could get that clear because the press mentioned you reading him poetry and I thought, that’s weird. They never explained that that was to be part of the date set-up. That’s a very important part of the story!

SD: Yes, it is! That’s why I said it was taking a risk. If you let your mind think, ‘this is an award winning stage actor and I’m reading him poetry’, you wouldn’t do it. But you just had to wing it.

E20: What other British shows do you watch?

SD: My history with Masterpiece and the British period dramas goes back to Poldark. I couldn’t really pick one favorite. The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead, I Claudius, and A Piece of Cake are right up there. And, of course, I love the comedies. My favorite will always be As Time Goes By. Even though I know all the dialogue, I still love to visit with Jean and Lionel. Other favorites include The Vicar of Dibley, Fawlty Towers, Mr. Bean and Monty Python.

E20: Are you a supporter of THIRTEEN and WLIW?

SD: Yes, I’m a member. It sounds like one of the commercials, but I don’t watch television much. I’m a sports nut, I’ll watch sports, but for television, I’m not interested in Snooki, the Kardashians, Housewives. I’m not going to waste my precious time with those shows. No, no, no, no, no. Give me The Jewel in the Crown, please. Give me Brideshead again.

E20: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this experience?

SD: I want to thank you for this opportunity to tell the story in my own terms and be sure that it won’t be turned into something that is wasn’t. It’s really been a great experience and I now highly recommend taking a chance like this to do something you really want to do. Go for it!

E20: Thank you for taking the time with us!

So Downtonians, if you could spend an evening in Sandra’s shoes and have dinner with one of the characters (or actors) from Downton Abbey, which one would it be? Please tell us below.

And stay tuned for my next Dispatch, which will be a veritable jumble sale of Downton Abbey news as well as a preview of some new British programs that those THIRTEEN truffle hounds have dug up for us! See you then. TA!

In case you missed it, read the last edition of Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora.

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