After a satisfying family gathering abounding in stories about courageous and witty relatives, many of us have vowed to record those stories, to pre serve family history for future genera tions. Some of us have even talked about sitting a grandparent or parent down and videotaping them while they tell their stories. Somehow time goes by, and we don’t do it.
Rhoda Lewis and Phyllis Massing don’t want to let those great family stories slip into oblivion. They’ve made it their business to help people get them recorded.
Last year, the Encino residents teamed up to create Life Stories, their video biography service. They prepare and conduct 1 1/2-hour personal history interviews at arranged locations, record them on videotape, and present families with VHS copies and an audiocassette of the event. For camera-shy relatives, they will do interviews using only audio.
Lewis brings to the task her experience conducting oral history interviews, which she did after studying in the graduate oral history program at Cal State Northridge. Massing, a psychotherapist who holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in social work and teaches at USC’s School of Social Work, is also accustomed to asking people questions. The two women have been friends since they were undergraduates at UCLA in the mid-1950s.
“I have always been interested in history,” Lewis said. “When I went out and interviewed community leaders, I found them to be fascinating. And I am a very sentimental person. I just felt the importance of people getting and keeping the family history, the roots and the stories and the memories.”
“People no longer preserve family history,” Massing said. “By and large, there are no letters. People aren’t recording stories. Once people die out, the information and the personality of different members of the family are lost.”
Phyllis Dovitch, 73, agreed to an interview at the urging of her two daughters.
“They’ve always been very curious about my life and about my parents and grandparents,” she said.
At first she was reluctant, but went ahead with the idea because she regrets having never made any record of her parents’ lives.
“I found it very easy and a lot of fun,” she said.
Fees range from $350 for an audio interview to $550 for an unedited videotape, on up to $1,500 for a video shot by a professional camera operator and professionally edited to include music and personal photographs.
Anyone daunted by these costs need not feel left out. Lewis and Massing are so devoted to the concept that they have also written a manual designed to take people step-by-step through the process of doing their own interviews.
“From Generation . . . to Generation” includes information on audio and video equipment, instructions on how to prepare the interviewee, tips on interviewing and two lists of interview questions: a short form and a long form. The cost of the manual is $24.95 plus tax and handling.
People who do their own interviews may be pleasantly surprised by some of the stories they are told. Last Thanksgiving, Lewis’ family had a reunion in Palo Alto. Before the event, she wrote family members informing them she was coming with her camera and specific questions.
“When I got to Palo Alto, everyone said they wouldn’t do it,” she said. “I didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
One of her two nephews, now in his 30s, told her he looked at her three sons, now in their 20s, also as his brothers.
“I had no idea that he felt that way,” Lewis said.
She added that every time she and Massing have done an interview, they have gotten at least one story that someone in the family didn’t know. Sometimes it is not a pleasant anecdote.
“I did an interview where the grandmother, the 90-year-old woman, admitted to being raped by a brother-in-law when she was 14 or 15,” Lewis said. “No one in the family knew about this. She wanted to tell it. She gave the tape to one of her grandchildren and said, ‘I don’t want anybody to see this until I’m dead.’ ”
Lewis said older people are sometimes hesitant to do an interview because they believe they haven’t done anything remarkable or that they have nothing to say.
“But everybody has a history,” Massing said, adding that she and Lewis have not encountered anyone yet “who doesn’t have a story to tell.”
Where to Go What: Lewis and Massing’s video biography service, Life Stories, and their interview manual, “From Generation . . . to Generation.” Address: 16161 Ventura Blvd., Suite 634, Encino 91436. Call: (818) 995-3315 or (818) 986-2225.