Imagine, for a moment, that "60 Minutes," "20/20" or perhaps even "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" has elected to tell your family's story on television. Producers have requested your old home movies, scrapbooks, wedding albums, amateur videotapes and whatever you can come up with in the way of entertaining memorabilia.
You have been taped recalling the embarrassing details of family members' first attempts at crawling, walking, water-skiing and looking cool while leaving for the junior prom. And you have dutifully provided snappy narration to brighten up all that dull footage of birthday parties, graduations, weddings and Thanksgiving dinner scenes.
Against your better judgment, you have even divulged to producers the names of songs you and your spouse once listened to while necking--so that the appropriate background music can accompany that inspiring set of old courtship photos. Anything, you figure, to bring back all the memories. . . .
While such a service is not available to just anyone courtesy of a television magazine program, it is increasingly accessible to consumers through firms specializing in "family documentaries" or "This Is Your Life"-type videos.
Their products may not wind up on network televison, but these private services do have some advantages over the more public variety. Editing control, for instance.
Because subjects are paying the bill (typically anywhere from $500 to $7,500 for 15- to 45-minute videos, with costs generally based on the amount of material to be edited and the special effects used), the subjects also call the shots. Literally.
Thus the customers of privately produced videos don't have to worry about ambush interviews or reporters likely to strike up a chat with their least favorite neighbors. If there's interviewing to be done, it's conducted by someone who wants the subject to look as winning as Johnny Carson.
And should there be a portion of family history the customer would rather eliminate video-wise--mother's overweight days, say, or Elmo's three ex-wives--such deletions are the client's prerogative.
The past is simply reconstructed--amplified or diminished--in whatever way the customers request it. Memories are made to order.
But these services are not being used exclusively by individuals whose stories you'd never see on network television. Actress Mary Tyler Moore, for example, recently employed Santa Monica-based Nostalgia Productions to create a 15-minute video celebrating her parents' 50 years of marriage.
"It was a very sweet look back at history. We gathered photographs. We didn't have a lot of home movies but we had a few pieces of videotape. We sat down and drafted a narration. It was a lot of work, I'll tell you," Moore said by telephone.
"My parents loved it. They were so moved. In fact, almost everybody who saw it was moved to tears. I cried when I was in the sound booth recording the narration. And I cried over the silly things."
"They're private family moments," Moore insisted, saying only that she found the final product, complete with silliness, "truly professional."
'The Universal Medium'
Carla Howard, who founded Nostalgia Productions in February of 1985, moved into video ("the universal medium") after 10 years in the theater working such stints as assistant director for Mark Taper Forum Circle Repertory Theater productions. She describes her "family documentaries" as a process of "historical excavation."
"It becomes a dynamic process and usually brings the family closer together in the making of it," Howard observed. "It can bring their insights and reflections of the present to the images of the past. They often see how far they've come."
Lisa Auerbach, one of Howard's first clients, saw her two grown daughters in a completely different light after having her family's old movies and photos edited into a tape she gave her husband for his birthday last year. "After seeing all their baby pictures and how they've grown up and developed over the years, it became very obvious from the film that there had been a role reversal," she recalled. "I hadn't noticed it before but one daughter became more outgoing as she grew up and the one who had been outgoing in her earlier years became more conservative."
In addition to producing family histories, Howard also edits videos from special events (weddings, bar mitzvahs) and recently, she has expanded her business to include personal videos shown at memorial services.
Last month, she was asked to create a video about the life and work of actress Sarah Cunningham, who collapsed at this year's Academy Awards ceremonies.
Cunningham (Nurse Andrews on television's "Trapper John" series) died of heart failure and respiratory arrest after being rushed to a hospital. Exactly one week later, there was a memorial service for her at L.A.'s Ensemble Studio Theatre, of which she and her husband, John Randolph, were founding members.
An SRO Crowd
Along with tributes from actors Ed Asner, Jon Voight and others, Howard's 11-minute video memorial was played for the standing-room-only crowd.
"She (Howard) helped make the evening a great success," said Randolph, who starred as Jack Nicholson's father in "Prizzi's Honor" and whose final theatrical performance with his wife was a love story written for the two of them on the March 18 episode of "Trapper John." Scenes from that episode were included in the video.
In Randolph's view, the presentation "helped set the tone for the memorial service on a rich level. It had humor and it had the depth of our relationship. It was classy and well done."
In the majority of cases, however, videos are prepared to celebrate individuals while they're still around to enjoy them.
According to George Collins of Memory Lane Productions, a Newport Beach firm, many such tributes come as complete surprises to their subjects.
"We did a family heritage tribute for a family at Christmas time," he said. "No one knew what they were going to see, aside from the oldest daughter. When they all went downstairs to view it on a giant screen projection TV, it was like they were all transported back in time. Within two minutes, there wasn't a dry eye in the room."
According to Collins, such results are typical, despite the fact that he and his partner intentionally "try not to get too maudlin--it'd very easy to get sappy."
Political Video Too
Collins, a former television scriptwriter who has also worked producing audio-visual presentations for Walt Disney's WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises, created Memory Lane Productions with partner Chris Bassett, a freelance still and motion picture photographer, in April of last year. The two describe their work as producing "This Is Your Life"-type videos and find they have a lot of assignments linked to bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, wedding anniversaries, birthdays and retirement celebrations.
And recently, Collins said, they've been approached by a well-known, state-level politician to create a video to be shown at fund-raising dinners and other political functions. Other unusual requests have included creating a "mini music video" of a singer singing her own songs "at a fraction of the cost a rock video would have cost her."
Whatever the assignment, though, it allows the consumer to enjoy a touch of star treatment and a chance to be famous--if only in his or her own living room.
As Collins put it, "I look on us as being the missing link between Hollywood and home movies. This allows people to be the stars of their own show."