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Why Documenting the Friars Club on Videotape Proved to Be No Joke

By Dean Ward

A black-and-white photo of director Dean Ward with Milton Berle smiling while in conversation.

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by the history of The Friars Club—the legendary showbiz haven where some of the biggest icons of 20th century entertainment have gathered to let it all hang out. In its heyday, it was a home-away-from-home for giants such as Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, George Burns, Johnny Carson and Dean Martin. The Friars Club is best known for its irreverent celebrity roasts. Milton Berle captured the spirit when he quipped, "Having a roast at The Friars Club is like hemorrhoids: Sooner or later every asshole gets one!"

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1994, I had an inspiration. If I could somehow convince The Friars Club to let me create a documentary film about its history, I would have a legitimate excuse to contact and interview dozens of my heroes.

I put together a hefty budget, allowing for the expense of shooting motion picture film stock. In retrospect, I must admit that I was what is sometimes referred to as a "film snob." If I was to interview legends such as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, Henny Youngman and Buddy Hackett, I wanted the resulting piece to look classy—not just your everyday, run-of-the-mill, video rush job.

Once the Friars approved the project, I learned that it was virtually impossible to find a source of financing, someone who shared my enthusiasm for creating a documentary film comprised of interview subjects in their 60s, 70s. 80s and, in some cases, their 90s! I learned one of the ugliest words in the broadcast vernacular: DEMOGRAPHICS.

As it turned out, video was my savior! I was working as an assistant at DreamWorks at the time, and it was suggested to me that I try and arrange a meeting with James Moll, who was then heading Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation project. James opened my eyes to the benefits of shooting on video. "First of all," he said, "you can shoot as much footage as you want, because video is more affordable, and secondly, there's a new video enhancement process called "Asiva" that will give your video footage the film aesthetic you're striving for."

Indeed, James had used Asiva for a project the Shoah Foundation produced for TNI and was amazed by the results. "Best of all," he added, " If you decide to shoot on video, there's nothing to stop you from getting this project off the ground tomorrow."

James was right, and this last statement was issued as something of a challenge. If I was no longer at the mercy of a TV network or financier to fund the project, what excuse did I have to wait another minute? If I was really as passionate as I claimed to be, why not get started and prove all those demographically-minded executives wrong?

James put me in touch with a Shoah Foundation director of photography named Warren Yeager, who was intrigued by the project and agreed to work for deferred pay. Warren had his own Beta SP package, and by next week, I was living my dream. For the mere price of tape stock. I was conducting interviews with some of the greatest entertainers who ever lived.

When Buddy Hackett opened his front door, sized me up, and exclaimed "Wow! You're a young schmuck." I knew the fun was just getting started. Shooting on video also granted me an additional benefit: my interview had the luxury to ramble. Some of the longer sessions clocked out at over 90 minutes—which would have cost me a small fortune if I was burning film.

Thanks to James and Warren I soon had enough material on video to edit together a demo reel. This eight-minute teaser ended up on the desk of Nancy Abraham at HBO, who contacted my co-producer Dolores Gavin with the news that HBO was interested in providing finishing funds. My video gamble had paid off.

It was now time to activate stage two of the Moll Plan: contact the Asiva people. HBO has very strict technical guidelines, and had never allowed a filmmaker to use a video enhancement process before. Dolores convinced them to allow us the opportunity to have a test conducted on some of our footage and before long Jeff Raatz and his team at Asiva were working their magic on our footage of Uncle Miltie and the rest of his cronies.

They added some subtle "grain," and miraculously removed the harshness that is always such an instant give-away with video. We had been advised ahead of time to light our interviews as we would for film, in order to maximize the effects of Asiva, and it was now paying off. With the process in effect, we had an enhanced image displaying all of the contrast and visual richness one would usually associate with film. HBO quickly approved the process, and their decision was recently validated when a stumped audience member at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival raised his hand to inquire if we shot on film or video.

I not only got to make my film at a fraction of the cost. I didn't have to lose sleep that I was sacrificing something aesthetically. Without question, the best part of making the documentary was the experience of meeting so many of the legendary performers I had long admired. Had I held out to shoot on film. I might still be waiting to experience all those unforgettable encounters. Needless to say, it would take me lot to convince this former "film snob" to lug heavy equipment and interrupt interviews for reel changes in the future. I'm a happy convert, with a finished documentary that would have otherwise likely remained a languishing and unproduced proposal.

Dean Ward is a Los Angeles based filmmakers. His film Let me In, I Hear Laughter: A Salute to Friars will broadcast in February on Cinemax Reel Life.