Recalling Jewish baseball star

Documentary: New film explores the life of legendary Detroit Tiger, Hank Greenberg.

August 27, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Aviva Kempner grew up in Detroit, where every Yom Kippur her father, a Jewish immigrant, would tell her the same story about how the legendary Detroit Tiger Hank Greenberg refused to play baseball on the Jewish Day of Atonement.

"For a long time I thought (the story) was part of the Yom Kippur service!" Kempner recalled the other day, speaking from her office in Washington, D.C. "He was part of our Jewish history in our home."

Kempner was in Los Angeles, opening her documentary "The Partisans of Vilna," in 1986 when she heard that Greenberg had died the day before. "I said, `That is my next film.'"

It took Kempner 13 years to complete "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," but since making its debut last October at the Hamptons International Film Festival, where it won an audience award, it has become a favorite on the festival circuit.

The film, which traces Greenberg's career from his childhood in the Bronx to the cat-calls he endured while playing for Detroit in the 1930s and his brush with Babe Ruth's home run record in 1938 (he missed breaking it by only three home runs), uses archival material and interviews with Greenberg himself to trace the development of the first Jewish baseball superstar.

Actor Walter Matthau, lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Senator Carl Levin also offer reminiscences about Greenberg's importance as a Jewish hero.

"I'm actually jealous of all the people in my film," said Kempner "I'm the only one who didn't meet him." Kempner said she wanted to make "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" to make an under-known player better known, and "I also wanted to make a film about the Jewish character that wasn't the nebbishy Jewish male. I tend to devote my filmmaking life to countering these negative stereotypes of Jews on screen."

In addition to winning awards, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" has emerged as an audience favorite on the festival circuit, where sports fans and civilians alike have responded to Greenberg's story of athleticism, perseverance and character. "It's just a great American story," Kempner explained. "It's made people laugh a lot as well as cry a little. The only thing it didn't do was scare them."

"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" will make its Baltimore premiere Monday at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., in Owings Mills. The program begins at 7 p.m. Kempner, Greenberg's son Stephen, former Orioles Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer and Sun sports columnist John Steadman will also be on hand. (The film will open theatrically in New York in January.)

Tickets are $100 and will benefit the educational programs of the Babe Ruth Museum as well as Kempner's non-profit Ciesla Foundation ($65 of the ticket price is tax-deductible). For more information call 410-727-1539, ext. 3016.

Colburn film wins award

Congratulations to Martha Colburn, whose animated film "Spiders in Love" recently won the award for best animated movie at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Colburn left this week for San Francisco for a temporary teaching post at the San Francisco Art Institute but plans to return to Baltimore after the gig ends in December.

Waters in motion

It's true: John Waters will begin filming his next movie this fall. "Cecil B. Demented," Waters' long-awaited comedy about a troupe of underground filmmakers who kidnap a Hollywood star and force her to appear in their movie, will go before the cameras Oct. 4. Melanie Griffith and Stephen Dorff will star, along with Alicia Witt. "Melanie is the movie star, Stephen is Cecil, and Alicia is his insane actress girlfriend, Cherish," Waters said the other day. Waters noted that smaller parts are still being cast; interested parties should send resumes and head shots to casting director Pat Moran at the Broom Company, 1301 S. Baylis St., Suite 425, Baltimore, Md., 21224. No phone calls or visits, please.

`La Traviata' showing

The wildly popular Open-Air Film Festival in Little Italy continues this evening with a screening of Franco Zeffirelli's film adaptation of "La Traviata" (1982), starring Placido Domingo. The movie begins at 9 p.m. on the corner of High and Stiles streets. Admission is free. Bring a lawn chair (and a big umbrella if it's raining) for maximum comfort.

See `Ten Things'

The Columbia Lakefront Summer Festival continues its family film series tonight with a screening of "Ten Things I Hate About You" (PG-13). Starting next Friday, the September Film Fest will hold screenings on Fridays and Saturdays. Films begin promptly at dusk on the lawn at the Columbia Town Center Lakefront (Lake Kittamaqundi), off Little Patuxent Parkway. Admission is free and open to the public.

`Woodstock' 30th year

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