When a producer at ABC tossed an innocuous crossword-puzzle clue at the young documentary filmmaker Kristi Jacobson in 1996, little did Jacobson know how it would change her life.
The clue that had stumped the producer, “Restaurateur Shor,” was no sweat for Jacobson, who quickly responded, “Toots. That’s Toots Shor; he’s my grandfather.” To which the producer said excitedly, “Oh, my gosh. You have to make a film about him!”
Jacobson was a little taken aback. First of all, she had not yet made a film of her own. But perhaps more to the point, she knew very little about her mother’s father, who had died when she was six. “I knew my grandfather had a restaurant (in the 1940s and ’50s), and I knew he was friends with some famous people,” she says, “but I had no idea of his role in New York City, in the country, or in the world at that time.”
So she set out on a research process that for several years paralleled her “real” career and eventually came together in her new documentary, “Toots.” “Toots” will have its New Jersey premiere on Sunday, January 25, at the Princeton Jewish Center, 435 Nassau Street. Jacobson and Danielle DiGiacomo, the film’s distributor, will speak. For more information, contact Deborah Marinsky at 609-987-8526.
When Jacobson got started on the film, it was more from the perspective of a filmmaker than a granddaughter. She quickly realized she had stumbled upon a great story, so she did what any filmmaker worth her boots would do. She remembers thinking, “Wow, I have special access to this unique story, which seems really intriguing and should be told, and I should make this film.”
Only three years out of college, with a 1993 bachelor’s degree in sociology from Duke University, Jacobson had the wisdom to know she was young and inexperienced. “So I didn’t drop everything and make the film,” she says. “What turned out to be really great was that I made the film over 10 years, during which I grew and made other films.” She did start investigating Toots Shor soon after by buying a book about her grandfather, “Toots,” by Bob Considine. She also started making some phone calls, turning first to her grandfather’s close friend, Frank Gifford, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who played for the New York Giants in the 1950s and early ‘60s and worked from 1971 to 1998 as anchor of ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” He immediately invited Jacobson to lunch.
“Meeting Frank Gifford was hugely important,” says Jacobson. “Not only was his relationship with my grandfather one that was very, very close and very, very important to him. It also opened a lot of doors to me.” The two met every couple of months over the next 10 years and became close friends themselves. “I remember feeling like he was family,” says Jacobson. When he and other interviewees told her she had Toots’s eyes or had some of his personality traits, she says, “there was an immediate connection.”
Jacobson also interviewed Walter Cronkite, Gay Talese, Mike Wallace, Pete Hamill, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and her mother, Kerry Jacobson, among many others.
Jacobson first became interested in film at Duke, where her academic work focused on criminology. “It was through that and some projects I was working on sociologically that I realized how powerful the medium of documentary films can be,” she says.
After graduation, Jacobson failed to get a network job because she hadn’t interned for local stations. But that turned out to be very lucky. Instead she started her career in the independent documentary film world, as an intern for Lovett Productions, a small documentary production company.
In 1996 Jacobson started working with Barbara Kopple, a well-known filmmaker and winner of two Academy Awards, whom she had always admired. In 1999 it was Kopple who gave Jacobson her first big break — an opportunity to direct her first feature-length documentary, with Kopple as mentor and producer. The film, “American Standoff,” about the Teamsters Union, premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and aired on HBO.
“A lot of filmmaking is about your instincts and believing in them,” she says. But it is also about learning to tell a story through the words of its participants.
As Jacobson was developing her expertise as a filmmaker, her research on Toots continued whenever she had down time. Eventually persistence yielded its fruits and a full-blown picture of her grandfather developed. “At first everyone tells you the basics — it was an amazing restaurant, everybody went there, it was the place to be and one of a kind,” she says. “But particularly with Frank, I was able to peel away the layers of who Toots is as a person.”
So what was her charismatic, but tough and idiosyncratic grandfather like? “Toots didn’t really care what anyone else thought,” she says. “If he liked you, he liked you, and you were in for life. If he didn’t like you, he didn’t want you in his restaurant.” In fact, people would joke that if Toots didn’t insult you, he didn’t love you. “A lot of people couldn’t take it,” says his granddaughter, “but thems that did stuck around.”
Indeed many of Toots’s friends and customers loved talking about Toots and the great times they had at his bar and restaurant in midtown Manhattan. “Often a documentary filmmaker is making a film about a difficult subject — at least I was up until ‘Toots’ — and making them talk about things that make them uncomfortable,” she says. But for her “Toots” interviewees, “it was a joy for them, talking about those times.”
As she listened to their stories, Jacobson found that her role as Toots’s granddaughter was an advantage that went beyond simply gaining access. “It made the conversations more real and more intimate,” she says, “and I was genuinely building this deep understanding of the guy who was my mother’s father and my grandfather.”
In 2004, Jacobson decided to focus entirely on “Toots,” and she founded a small production company in New York called Catalyst Films, through which she produces and directs documentary films both independent and for television and corporations. After spending two months raising money from “a range of people who either believed in me or believed in Toots and that it was an important story,” she got to work.
Jacobson had already uncovered archival footage from the many television shows where Toots had been interviewed by the likes of Edward R. Morrow, Mike Wallace, and others. But in 2004 one of her researchers discovered that an oral history of Toots was in storage at Columbia University. After locating a record of the interviews, it took a couple of nail-biting days until the archivists actually found the one-inch audio reels and ascertained that they were not damaged.
The interview was taped over three weekly sessions of four to five hours each in 1975, two years before Toots died, and through them, Jacobson literally found Toots’s own voice. She remembers the day she brought the CDs home and put them on her stereo. “It was incredible,” she says, “like he was in the room with me telling me his life story in his own voice.” In television interviews in the 1950s, she explains, people were performing, but during the oral interviews in his hotel room, says Jacobson, “he didn’t self-edit; it was him telling it like it was.”
Because Jacobson was committed to building her film through the voices of the storytellers — without the help of a narrator — the oral history was indispensable. “It opened up an opportunity for me as a filmmaker to be able to craft a film about this man that would be interesting in terms of the filmmaking as well as the story,” she says.
A second archival discovery was also critical to the film’s development. Jacobson located the widow of Toots’s house photographer, who provided Jacobson with a huge number of photographs at no cost.
For Jacobson, the editing process is the most exciting part of documentary filmmaking, both because it is collaborative and because it is when all the separate pieces — the footage, photos, and interviews — come together.
But the melding of these pieces into a final product did not happen easily with “Toots.” At one point in the film’s development, Jacobson screened the film and the people who watched it felt something was missing.
Some of them thought the solution was for her to appear in the film or narrate it — something that Jacobson felt strongly was not appropriate. “I never wanted that,” she says. “The film was about Toots. My own personal journey was profound for me but I didn’t think it would be interesting for anyone else.” Luckily, her producers, Alicia Sams and Whitney Dow, backed her up.
It took serious thinking, though, to figure out what was missing from the film. Jacobson’s focus had been primarily on Toots himself and his restaurant. “Each interview added a layer of what this one guy, this scrappy guy from Philadelphia, had in New York during New York’s peak,” says Jacobson. She was also trying to weave his story with the life and evolution of New York City, but it was the film’s editor, Lewis Erskine, who put his finger on what was missing — the film needed to treat New York City as a real character.
The film started to come together then, as Jacobson pressed archivists to dig up unique, revealing images on specific avenues and streets in Manhattan at exactly the desired time periods. “I worked really hard in terms of archival images of New York to try to dig deeper and not only use images people were used to seeing but also to try to find footage that would yield the city’s personality at the time,” she says. The archivists were hugely helpful.
Although the film starts in the 1930s as New York was emerging from Prohibition, Toots Shor’s heyday was primarily in the 1940s and ‘50s. The film extends through the ‘60s and ‘70s, as New York City and Toots Shor’s restaurant went into decline.
The restaurant was a place where people came together primarily to drink but also to eat. Mostly it was a meeting place, a hangout joint, whose clientele ranged from famous people like Joe Dimaggio, Jackie Gleason, and Earl Warren to New York bus drivers and mobsters — although early on sports players and writers were Toots’s bread and butter. “It was an amazing place, and there’s no place like it to even compare it to today,” says Jacobson, noting that now the wealthy and well-connected hide out in special VIP sections behind velvet ropes.
Although Jacobson is from a generation of people who never heard of Toots Shor, she says she made the film for people like herself. “The film is about a time and a place that of course exists no more, but there are things about it that are not only fun to remember and recall but are also important and valuable to understanding where we are now and where we came from.”
Some people, says Jacobson, might call Toots Shor a tragic figure — you’ll have to see the film to find out why — but she does not find this complex man to be tragic in the least. “In the end, he had no regrets,” she says. “He lived in the moment, and particularly in today’s society and in my own life, you can forget to do that. It is a reminder to live life in the moment when you can.”
Israeli Jewish Film Series, Princeton Jewish Center, 435 Nassau Street. Sunday, January 25, 4 p.m. Screening of “Toots,” a documentary about Manhattan restaurateur Toots Shor created by his granddaughter, Kristi Jacobson. She will speak along with Danielle DiGiacomo, the film distributor. Free. 609-921-0100 or www.thejewishcenter.org.