Forty years ago, two Midwestern high-school students got the idea to interview celebrities and the result is a new book of moments with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Lucille Ball, among others.
“Hollywood Heyday: 75 Candid Interviews with Golden Age Legends,” is a collection of 20th century celebrities’ profiles which draws from archives, tapes and transcripts of first-hand interviews. Marquette University Adjunct Instructor of Digital Media & Performing Arts David Fantle, a part of the local Jewish community, and his collaborator Tom Johnson conducted these interviews. They did so at the beginning of their senior year in high school and for the next 40 years.
Fantle and Johnson met as teenagers in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Fantle became enamored with classic Hollywood films in 1974 when he saw “That’s Entertainment,” a film that showed snippets of musicals.
As seniors in high school in 1978, Fantle and Johnson started Films on Wheels. “We would rent these classic movies in 16mm format, and borrow a projector from the St. Paul JCC and then schlep these films to Saint Paul area retirement facilities.”
Their entrepreneurial endeavors attracted the pens of newspapers such as The American Jewish World and the Saint Paul Dispatch.
Fantle and Johnson wanted to meet Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly for their first interviews.
“We would send ‘Films on Wheels’ clips, we would type out a letter, we would send a self-addressed stamped envelope, we would address it to their homes, and shockingly back in that era and that time-frame, they responded.”
They traveled to Hollywood throughout their college years from 1978 to 1983 at the University of Minnesota and published these celebrity profiles in the “Minnesota Daily.” According to Fantle, they wrote roughly 60-70 profiles while in college.
About landing these interviews, Fantle said, “We had youth on our side.” Throughout their adult lives, they have interviewed 250 celebrities.
They interviewed Fred Astaire when he was 79-years-old. “Fred Astaire was arguably the greatest dancer in film, an artist of unmatched parallel, an artistic genius, and yet he was so unaffected and unaware of his genius.”
Fantle described Gene Kelly as “very friendly, very warm.” They interviewed him again 15 years later and according to Fantle, Kelly said “the college boys are back.”
Fantle and Johnson had sodas at Lucille Ball’s home.
“Lucille Ball in her home was not funny, she was tough as nails.” Ball was the executive director of Desilu Studios. “When she wasn’t performing, she was looking at contracts and business deals; she didn’t have time to be funny. She was dead serious.”
Film director George Sidney, who was Jewish, who directed ”Bye Bye Birdie” and other films, invited the men to the Director’s Guild of America at Disneyland. “Here we were, college students, running around at Disneyland.”
There are 25 Jewish celebrity profiles in the book.
Fantle is the son of a Holocaust survivor and has lived in the Milwaukee area for 30 years.
“As someone who is Jewish, I’ve always had a sense of pride in the arts and cultural contribution of the Jewish people … essentially, they invented Hollywood.”
The audience for this book may be nostalgic for these old films. These films have endured the test of time because they are, “showing films of a simpler time,” Fantle said. “What these celebrities and stars represent for the most part is escapism.”
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How to go
What: Book event with Marquette University Adjunct Instructor of Digital Media & Performing Arts David Fantle – on “Hollywood Heyday: 75 Candid Interviews with Golden Age Legends.”
Where: Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Whitefish Bay.
When: Thursday, June 7, 7 p.m.