I grew up in a family that enjoyed vibrant conversation. Our house was near the main runway at JFK airport in New York City and it was precisely the peak landing time when the four of us sat down to dinner. As the planes came closer their engines roared louder. In order to hear each other we too, turned up the volume.
However, there were times when we all fell silent to the point of even being peaceful. On family outings to the local library, we would lower our tones, quietly discuss books and retreat to our imaginations. My Dad, Alvin Boretz, was a screenwriter who had a true love affair with libraries, since as a young boy in Depression era Brooklyn he discovered the world on their shelves. In 1998 he led our local library to its transformation as a centerpiece of the community. His words, written on the cornerstone of this building read, “Where Dreams Endure.”
In addition to his final resting place on the outskirts of New York City, there is a quiet room on the 4th floor at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in Madison, Wisconsin where he is very much alive; where his “dreams endure.” For my family and others who visit, the archives containing his scripts, notes, and other documents are vibrant voices from the past.
It was no surprise that archivists became Dad’s dear friends. Through the years he relied heavily on their expertise. In pre-internet days they were his personal investigative reporters, bringing him the stories, facts and backdrop for his dramatic works.
During the summer of 2011, I decided to travel to Madison with my family – to visit the archive that Dad never saw but had hoped I would visit one day. He and I had actually been on the UW-Madison campus back in 1967 on a college visit with my sister and Mom but we had not visited the place where his collection was to be housed. Now as I stood with my own two daughters and husband in the beautiful white marbled halls of the Wisconsin Historical Society, I felt that same sense of peace I had as a young girl. We fell silent and continued to the 4th floor archives where Dad’s body of work occupied a special place with other writers from the 1950’s and 1960’s (The Golden Age of Television) in the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.
Archivist Maxine Ducey, the keeper of Dad’s collection greeted us warmly. Her sweet smile disappeared after learning that Dad had recently died. I could sense that she, as the careful keeper of his works, had developed a true connection with my father. Their relationship was one of mutual affection and respect. She shared memories about their many phone conversations and how he had made her laugh. Like he did with so many people throughout his life, he had made her feel unique and that her own story was important.
An archives assistant rolled out the first few boxes. The archives staff had so carefully organized and catalogued his enormous body of work. We flipped through script after script; the sheer volume of the material was staggering. We reviewed hundreds of radio plays, television docudramas, popular produced and unproduced pilots, series, specials, films, plays and movie features. From finished scripts, scribbled notes on hotel room stationery, and heartfelt letters with his subjects to diligent research, the collection is just like my dad – exhausting, fascinating, intense and alive.
In hushed but excited conversation, my family shared snippets of dialogue; surprise at the shows we never knew about and smiles of recognition at the lines of dialogue that sounded so much like him. When we left for home that day, I felt a sense of peace, filled with love for my father and all that he was. I hoped it would be the first of many future visits.
Two years later, with my grief a little less intense, I asked my daughter Jessie, a filmmaker in LA, to join me on a return visit. I knew she would be of help in offering both emotional and logistical support in my research. I plan on writing a memoir about Dad and wanted to get closer to his material. I sensed she would also find inspiration for her own work as she became better acquainted with her grandfather’s.
This time we took more time and with it the luxury of reading, taking photos and immersing ourselves in his work. As I touched the pages of his scripts and read his handwritten notes, Dad’s strong voice came alive. What emerged in the sanctity of that quiet wood paneled room was a new and more profound sense of him and his contributions.
At one point Jessie turned to me and said, “You know Grandpa was really a social activist.” She was right. He represented so many people who didn’t have a voice. We discovered sincere, expressions of appreciation from those whose stories he told. Betty Sasser, the wife of Dr. Alfred Sasser, who had bravely turned around an institution for the retarded in Iowa, wrote in December 1958, “…the program was a tremendous success and the response over the state of Iowa and the nation has been overwhelming to say the least. Letters, donations, telegrams and calls have been pouring in to the institution. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that the retarded child will at least have a chance.” Many celebrities reached out. For instance, we discovered a telegram that comedian Lenny Bruce sent the night the “The Desperate Season” (his Armstrong Circle Theater production on preventing suicide) aired. It said, “Thank you for the thrilling genius and poetry that exuded from “The Desperate Season.” There was a virtual treasure trove of beautiful expressions of gratitude.
Sitting in the archives that he would have felt so at home in, I recalled his joyful pride when my family flew to LA to watch his play Made in America premiere. Or when he was on the set of the Austrian production of his film where he developed a lasting friendship with the actress Sophia Loren.
Sifting through those papers was also painful at times. I experienced the memory of Dad’s many disappointments and recalled watching him as a child deal with multiple rejections and cancelled projects while navigating the competitive world of screenwriting.
At the same time, I flashed back on his incredible resilience and how he always believed that the next project would be produced and that the fruits of his creative output would find their audiences.
And finally, I remembered that he always said that no matter what, he loved to write. This love for words was in every fiber of his being and his thirst and enthusiasm for life was so contagious.
Sitting at that wooden table in the archives, I realized that I now knew my father in a different light. I saw him through the lens of being an adult with my own history of ups and downs. I felt more empathy, compassion and understanding of his complex journey than ever before.
As Jessie and I wove our rental car out of Madison we were both uncharacteristically quiet. We had shared a type of “spiritual experience.” When we hugged each other good-bye at O’Hare airport in Chicago I knew that neither of us would forget this trip.
Since returning home, I have been reading and reviewing more of Dad’s memorabilia. I will be boxing up my own copies of letters and other clues to his life and work to ship off to Madison. Whatever the outcomes of my own writing project, I know this is a journey I want to be on.
In 1995 my Mom and Dad sent the final set of boxes to Madison and a letter included in the boxes was Dad’s last correspondence to his friend Maxine Ducey. It read, “It has been a traumatic experience going through fifty years of my career but I have come to feel that I made a contribution to my time and used my talent fairly well. There were disappointments of course but I managed to survive and in this business that is no mean feat…. I am glad my work is in good and loving hands.”
Dad, I know I speak for my entire family when I say, we couldn’t agree more.
Jennifer Boretz Kahnweiler, Ph.D., is the daughter of writer Alvin Boretz and an author and speaker who lives in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at www.jenniferkahnweiler.com or on Twitter at @Jennkahnweiler.
Boretz wrote an episode for Armstrong Circle Theatre entitled “The Invisible Mark” which aired on December 10, 1958. The program was a combination of drama and documentary and told the story of Dr. Alfred Sasser, who played himself, and an actual incident which took place at the Glenwood State School in 1957. Boretz spent time in Iowa with Alfred and Betty Sasser before writing the episode.
The episode aired on March 16, 1960.