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PBS spreads word about Lake Placid's Olympic spirit

Local filmmakers document history of Winter Games here

February 6, 2010
By ERIC VOORHIS, For the Enterprise

LAKE PLACID - Filmmaker Marc Nathanson strolled through the corridors of the Olympic Center, shaking hands and chatting with nearly everyone he passed. Scott F. Carroll - producer and head of Stone Circle Films - trailed behind, occasionally rolling his eyes at the hold-up.

The venue was bustling with activity as they made their way toward the stands of the 1932 Jack Shea Arena - a quiet place to sit down and talk about their new film, "Small Town, Big Dreams: Lake Placid's Olympic Story."

Nathanson, a former sports editor for the Lake Placid News who wrote and directed the film, has spent the past five years gathering material to retell Lake Placid's story in documentary form. He used rare film footage and audio recordings unearthed from private museum collections and personal archives.

Article Photos

Hometown hero Jack Shea is awarded the gold medal for speed skating during the 1932 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid. Shea played an important role in bringing the Games back in 1980.
(Photo provided)

Presented by Mountain Lake PBS and American Public Television, "Small Town, Big Dreams: Lake Placid's Olympic Story" aired on PBS stations across the country this week as part of the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It aired locally on Jan. 30 and 31.

"When the 25th anniversary (of the 1980 Winter Olympics) came around, I had the idea of producing a film about the history of the village," said Nathanson, leaning forward in a plastic fold-down chair.

"I presented the idea to the Olympic Museum and offered to do the film for free," he said. "The only condition was that I wanted access to all the existing records they had."

Nathanson's search for material went beyond digging through archives and museum files. He visited the Lake Placid Public Library, the Olympic Museum and North Elba Historical Society. He also found himself in the attics and back-rooms of people such as Art Devlin and Doris Fell - who were both involved in bringing the 1980 Olympic games to Lake Placid - where he searched through old photo albums and shoe boxes for anything useful.

In 2006, Nathanson and Carroll used what material they had gathered and put together a film called "Lake Placid: An Olympic History." They gave a screening at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts and released a DVD version that was mostly sold around town.

"It was incredibly gratifying to see the reaction of the crowd," Carroll said. "You could just see them physically leaning into the film. We knew we had something that people would want to see."

Since Feb. 2006, when "Lake Placid: An Olympic Story" was released, Nathanson and Carroll have reworked the material, condensing some parts, expanding others and adding much more video footage and audio clips.

"It became a constant process of revising," Nathanson said. "We wanted to make the great moments really stand out."

Nathanson's approach to film making is to find a way to personalize the story.

"No matter what the story is, you have to humanize it. Make it jump out at people," he said.


Luge-bum to filmmaker

When Marc Nathanson was in his early 20s, he dropped out of school and relocated to Lake Placid to work for the U.S. luge team.

"I wasn't so much a ski-bum, more of a luge-bum if that even exists," Nathanson said. "I was a terrible slider, but the team took pity on me and let me handle all of their media work."

Nathanson's job with the luge team evolved and eventually landed him the position of sports editor for the Lake Placid News.

"During my time at the paper I had a real interest in documenting the history of the town," Nathanson said. "That's really when it all started."

After working for six years at the paper Nathanson went back to school for broadcast journalism, which is when plans for the project began to solidify. After finishing school, he moved to New York City and began working as an executive producer for the Web-based NY1 news channel.

For both Nathanson and Carroll, it took leaving Lake Placid to realize how important it was for them to tell the story and triumphs of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games.

"People don't necessarily realize how special the feeling of this town is because it becomes commonplace," Carroll said. "It's really difficult to tell a story when you're in it."

Along with working on films all over the world, Carroll trained as a nordic skier early in his life, which is what drew him to Lake Placid.

"We have both been entirely immersed in the town of Lake Placid at times," Carroll said. "But it's the time away that makes you realize how special it is. This place has an impact and when people come here it changes them."

Both Carroll and Nathanson agreed about the importance of Lake Placid and how they would go about telling its story.

"Our job wasn't just to capture the story, but to relay it in a way that would entertain people and suprise them," Nathanson said.


Breaking through

"When you're making a film, everything you expect to happen doesn't, and everything you don't expect to happen does," Carroll said. "There's always a time when things are looking pretty bad - it's what I call the dark hours of filmmaking."

One of Nathanson and Carroll's biggest obstacles in making "Small Town, Big Dreams" was having the revenue to proceed with the project.

According to Carroll, money is always an issue, especially when making a documentary. With no other choice, the two filmmakers put a lot of their own money into the film. Eventually, they got the attention of Sundial Pictures, a New York City-based production company dedicated to supporting independent documentary and feature films.

"The executives at Sundial actually had some link to the town of Lake Placid," Carroll said. "Someone had given my name to them and we eventually got into contact."

Sundial Pictures helped Nathanson and Carroll secure the rights to some of the most powerful footage in the film that came straight from the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

"Of course, the Miracle on Ice is a huge highlight. It was an incredible event, but it's really just the tip of the iceberg," Nathanson said.

A pivotal moment for Nathanson and Carroll - trumping even the best ABC footage - came when they discovered an audio recording of the Rev. J. Bernard Fell's 1978 eulogy of Ron MacKenzie, a driving force behind Lake Placid's bid to land the 1980 Games.

"I had been going through a whole bunch of tapes, mostly old footage from the games," Nathanson said. "And then I came across an unmarked tape with organ music on it and thought 'well, this is pretty interesting.'"

Unearthing a recording of a eulogy that hadn't been heard since it was spoken gave Nathanson and Carroll a new-found drive and appreciation for what they were doing.

"You hit a moment like that and it just makes everything - all the struggles - worth it," Carroll said.

Some other key moments in the film feature Mike Eruzione, captain of the gold medal hockey team; Godfrey Dewey, who was instrumental in the success of the '32 Olympics; and Jack Shea, the hometown hero who won gold at the 1932 Games and began a three-generation dynasty of Winter Olympians that culminated with grandson Jimmy winning gold in 2002, 70 years after Jack carried the flag in the '32 opening ceremony.

The film has been picked up by more than 250 PBS stations across the country and will air simultaniously Saturday in 50 cities. The DVD is availible for pre-sale and will be in stores in the near future.

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