CHICAGO STORY TELLER: After decades of making documentaries, Chicago Jew Jamie Ceaser is still going strong

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Any good documentary will have a special angle or “hook.”

So if Jamie Ceaser profiled her own family, she’d have yet another great story from the Jewish history of America.

Great great grandfather Julius Chasen came over from Germany. But after he finished his immigration business on Ellis Island, he was re-named…Julius Ceaser.

“The (customs) attendant was a comedian, so he named him Ceaser,” said Julius’ Baby Boomer descendant, stuck with the name. The attendant could not spell correctly. No matter. Growing up Jewish in Glenview, Jamie Ceaser always had to dodge jibes about her name.

“Great Caesar’s Ghost” was one, every time actor John Hamilton sputtered his frustration on “Superman.”  “Caesar Salad” was another. Lucky the kids didn’t watch the late movies too often. “Little Caesar,” played by Jewish superstar Edward G. Robinson in 1930, also could have easily been applied.

Fittingly, Ceaser named her company Ceaser Salad Productions. And its output has not been deprived at dinnertime or any other timeslot when fans watched her documentaries. She just sated the curious and history buffs once again with two new productions, one on Art Paul — the Chicago Jew who was Hugh Hefner’s artistic maven at Playboy magazine — and the surprising country music center of the heartland in Springfield, Mo.

The two productions, premiering at local events, including the Chicago International Film Festival, and presently being shopped to broadcast outlets, are the latest output of Ceaser’s organizational, writing and editing skills dating back decades to a landmark documentary on Bill Veeck and a nostalgia trip through hers’ and so many other Boomers’ childhoods in Chicago.

Left unfilmed, though, like her family roots, was Ceaser’s own journey through Chicago baseball history. Only two Cubs have tossed a pair of no-hitters in franchise history – Ken Holtzman and Jake Arrieta. Ceaser may be one of less than a handful to attend a no-no authored by each – with yet another Jewish connection.

Holtzman, of course, was the top Jewish baseball player in Chicago history.  Maternal grandfather Ralph Winett had box seats seven rows behind first base on Aug. 19, 1969, with 12-year-old granddaughter Jamie in tow as a massive Tuesday afternoon crowd of 41,000 showed up.

“I told Grandpa this is the most boring game I’ve seen,” Ceaser recalled of the 3-0 score forged by Ron Santo’s homer in the first.  “He said Holtzman has a no-hitter going.” Both watched in stunned joy as hundreds pouring out of the stands mobbed Holtzman after retiring Hank Aaron for the final out, forcing him to seek refuge in the Cubs dugout.

Then on Aug. 30, 2015, Ceaser joined some Chicago expatriates at Dodger Stadium to watch Arrieta throw his first no-hitter on an ESPN national game. “It was Jewish Night at the ballpark,” Ceaser said. “They had a rabbi with a shofar and handed out T-shirts with “Dodgers” in Hebrew.”

 

Designer Art Paul is the subject of one of Ceaser’s new documentaries.

Ceaser’s own stories and that of her subjects can be properly fleshed out in a 30- or 60-minute documentary format in a quicksilver video medium where three minutes seems an eternity.

The long form has netted Ceaser national recognition and awards. The most high-profile of her work has aired on WTTW-TV, but Ceaser’s productions have also been featured on PBS and AMC (American Movie Classics).  She has garnered 10 Emmy Awards, two Corporation for Public Broadcasting Awards, a NATPE Award, a Peter Lisagor Award (Chicago’s top local journalism honor), a Women In Film Focus Award and the Silver Circle Award from NATAS (National Association TV Arts & Sciences).

But Ceaser’s touch on a documentary doesn’t always end up on a prestigious national or local outlet.  She has put together videos on about a half dozen Jewish family histories for their personal use over the last decade. Meanwhile, she volunteers at the Chabad House near her home.  “It’s important to give back,” she said.

Attending the old New Trier West High School, Ceaser is an admitted “Chicagophile,” hence the Windy City orientation of much of her work.  She went to the right place to focus on locally-produced programming starting her career. WTTW in the 1980s was by then established as a top production center.

While interviewing for her first job at WTTW, she was led into the famed Studio A, where Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Joe Pass were rehearsing.  “If I get this job, I will stay here forever,” she thought.  By broadcast’s churning personnel standards, she was almost correct.

But she was not the hot-shot producer right off the bat. She had to do the usual scutwork of a young professional. However, one early task introduced her to a documentary subject and began a decades-long relationship with his family.

Ceaser with Bill Veeck, subject of one of her most popular documentaries.

“I used to pick up and drop off Bill Veeck (from his Hyde Park home) and take him to the studio,” Ceaser  said of the Baseball Barnum, who had recently sold the White Sox for the second time, and was serving as a commentator on the “Time Out” sports show. She’ll never forget the “clop-clop” of Veeck’s wooden leg as he ambled down the hallways at WTTW’s North Side studios next to Northeastern Illinois University. Veeck was no stranger around TV cameras, having co-hosted half-hour weekly shows on then-WBKB-TV (now WLS), WGN-TV and later Fox-32 starting in 1959.

Ceaser previously published memoirs on Veeck, who by then had taken up game-time residence in the Wrigley Field center-field bleachers for which he had supervised construction 45 years previously.

“There was no one like Bill Veeck,” she said. “He was the most approachable and down-to-earth person of any celebrity with whom I worked. He was so instantly recognizable that wherever we were-on the streets of Hyde Park, at a Cubs game, or in downstate Champaign — all types of people crowded around him and wanted to say hello. And he said hello back, and talked. At Wrigley Field, he could only walk a few steps without someone stopping him.

“He was a delicious storyteller. After a taping of ‘Time Out,’ I would drive him down Lake Shore Drive as he pointed out the apartment where he and his wife Mary Frances and their children had lived — the apartment where Edward R. Murrow had interviewed them (for CBS’s ‘Person to Person’ on May 22, 1959), the year the Go Go Sox had won the American League pennant; pointed out how beautiful the moon looked; or told me about the latest mobile he was working on, what book he was reading, or the records he was listening to.”

The wheels began spinning in then-assistant producer Ceaser’s head. She wrote a letter to Bill and Mary Frances Veeck pitching a documentary. They agreed, so she followed Veeck around for four months in 1985. Co-produced with Tom Weinberg, the half-hour program, “Veeck – A Man For Any Season,” was first aired in the fall of ’85 – just in time. Veeck died at 71 on Jan. 2, 1986.  Ever since, Ceaser has stayed in touch with Mary Frances, now 98.

A logical epilogue for the documentary surfaced recently. Veeck absolutely adored his late father, William Veeck, Sr., tagging along with him at Wrigley Field and calling him “daddy” until his own death. The elder Veeck, as Cubs president, was the most capable executive in team history prior to Theo Epstein. He died young, at 56, in 1933 of a fast-spreading leukemia while Bill Veeck was still in college.

The Veeck show put Ceaser on the TV map. However, she still had to navigate what was a man’s world in TV in the 1980s and the accompanying hanky-panky that produced the #MeToo movement.

“It was tougher for a woman,” Ceaser said. “It was harder to get advanced in your career.  There was sexual harassment. It always has been there. It ticked me off and angered me. It got me fired up, and I just worked harder.

“I loved it,” she said of the toppling of Harvey Weinstein from his Hollywood kingmaker’s throne due to sexual harassment charges.

Plowing through the distractions and obstacles, Ceaser produced documentaries on The Staple Singers and Chicago artist Ed Paschke along with regular WTTW programming. Another favorite came together with “Remembering Chicago: The Boomer Years,” with a healthy dose of personal memoir. Ceaser’s home movies of kids birthday parties and other family events were included. “The Boomer Years” remains a WTTW pledge-drive favorite.

Another family connection backstopped “Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny.” Father Marvin Ceaser and Paul, who died at 93 in April, went to Sullivan High School together. The younger Ceaser clinched Paul’s commitment to his video biography after she had produced one of her family documentaries, which Paul liked.

Ceaser depicted Paul, in his dotage, still working his sketchpad. He had done so much more in the world of art and publishing. Teaming with Hefner, the Jewish creative mind from Rogers Park conceived the Playboy Bunny, one of the most enduring corporate symbols in history.

Helping midwife Playboy in 1953, Paul selected and edited, without PhotoShop, the famed Marilyn Monroe photo on the debut cover.

“I am an artist. I have to be an artist,” Paul said in the documentary.

Paul would take care to place the Bunny somewhere on each Playboy cover, an artist’s rendition that stirred the imagination of readers to discover exactly how the rabbit’s ears appeared among other photos or illustrations supervised by Paul.

“’Hef’ was so impressed with his work, and knew he couldn’t do it without an art director,” Ceaser said. “Art taught him about design. ‘Hef’ gave him a lot of leeway to do what he needed to do. He got a lot of creative freedom.”

Hiring local Jewish artists to supplement his work, Paul was called “The Professor” at Playboy. He kept his head down to focus on art and design.

Ceaser with Chicago legend Studs Terkel.

Far from the Playboy Philosophy and a Jewish genius from the old neighborhood is “Center of Nowhere: The Spirit and Sounds of Springfield, Mo.”  Ceaser provided her veteran producer’s expertise to further a project of Dave Hoekstra, the former longtime Chicago Sun-Times writer, WGN-Radio talk-show host and music connoisseur. Springfield, largest city near Missouri’s Ozarks, had long been underrated as a country music capital. The Country Music Hall of Fame had asked Hoekstra to write a history on Springfield music.

For fans of long-lost vintage programming, “Center of Nowhere” is a treat. ABC, struggling for original programming in 1955, picked up “Ozark Jubilee,” an hour-long Saturday-night country music show originated in Springfield and hosted by singer Red Foley. Three years later, the retitled “Jubilee USA” followed “Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beechnut Show” and preceded Lawrence Welk’s champagne-soaked performers in a music cornucopia in black-and-white for WBKB viewers.

Foley’s show, including the likes of a very young Brenda Lee, became Ceaser’s favorite segments. She became a broadcast historian, locating a treasure trove of “Jubilee USA” kinescopes at Missouri State University in Springfield.

Ceaser will show “Center of Nowhere” at St. Louis’ film festival in November. By necessity, independent productions must make the festival rounds before getting picked up for broadcast exposure. A New York agent is working on snaring video outlets.

The next Ceaser project is as-yet undetermined. But like books, one “doc” begets” another. As with Art Paul, perhaps the next one will come right out of a Jewish family’s personal video.

No matter what images she crafts in the future, few will match the end of the Veeck show. Bill, holding a large beer, and Mary Frances are shown singing along with Harry Caray in the seventh in the Wrigley Field bleachers on Opening Day 1985, a happy day celebrating the 39-years-delayed first-place Cubs’ finish of 1984.  Fittingly, the Caray singalong was another Veeck concoction, originating on the South Side at old Comiskey Park in 1977.

“This is the epitome of pleasure,” Veeck’s voice is heard as the image fades to black.

Those interested in Jamie Ceaser’s production services can reach her at JCeaser1@Gmail.com.  Her web site is: ceasersalad.tv. The Veeck show can be accessed at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyhhXY_Mxp8

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