Written by Laura Adams, Stephanie Akin, Amelia Duggan, Ryan Greene and Lucy Probert
|Keith Richard Griffiths|
|Nancy Stern and Lisa Lax|
People know him by just his last name: Chaplin. The name conjures up black-and-white images of the cane-carrying silent film star donning his signature top hat and short mustache. Chaplin, who used mime, slapstick and physical comedy routines, grew in popularity during World War I.
And in 2012 his life story hit Broadway with New Milford native Rob McClure in the title role.
McClure, a two-time Barrymore winner, attended New Milford High School and double-majored in theater and theater education at Montclair State University. He got his start on Broadway after being cast as an understudy inp I'm Not Rapaport in 2002.
"I'm Not Rappaport was one of the most valuable learning experiences of my life," McClure says. "Watching the processes of legends like Judd Hirsch and Ben Vereen, along with director Dan Sullivan, I soaked up as much as I could. I made lifelong friends, like Broadway veteran Jeb Brown. I will never forget standing in the wings and watching these masters work. I still strive to give the type of performances given by that cast."
McClure went on to eventually play the lead role of Princeton and Rod in first national U.S. tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q.
"Avenue Q is a special show," he says. "It has something so unique to offer. I quickly fell in love with the Muppet aesthetic. I am, to this day, fascinated by the ability to animate the inanimate. We used to have people apologize at the stage door for watching the puppet instead of the actors. That was the greatest compliment."
And the stars must have been aligned when McClure auditioned for the lead role in Chaplin, which closed on Jan. 6 after 160 performances at the Barrymore Theater.
"The audition process was intense," he says. "There were six callbacks over two months."
As you now know, he landed the role.
"I watched every movie I could get my hands on," McClure says. "I've seen them all at this point. I also read his autobiography. He's endlessly fascinating. The more I know, the more I want to know more. I split my time evenly between researching the 'little tramp' character and Chaplin the man himself.
"I'd like to think that I bring a lot of myself to my portrayal of Chaplin the man," he says. "It's the Little Tramp that has to be incredibly specific. I knew that I had to get that right. We're dealing with one of the most recognizable and beloved characters of all time."
"Working with Rob is a joyous experience," Chaplin director Warren Carlyle says. "He is the true definition of a leading man. He leads the company by example, never hesitating or questioning, never showing any signs of fear. He is the perfect Charlie Chaplin, the perfect mixture of guts and charm."
McClure notes that he couldn't have made it to where he is now – the bright lights of Broadway – without the help of his Bergen roots.
Growing up, McClure could have been found doing theater anywhere that would have him, he says, from New Milford High School and The Bergen County Players, which he calls "a terrific community theater," to the basement of a church with Emerald Productions.
"New Milford High School, while small, has a profoundly rich theater community. It's a family," he says. "And thanks to the Paper Mill Playhouse and their Rising Star Awards, I was able to transition to professional theater out of high school. The Rising Star Awards is like the New Jersey high school Tonys. They honored me my senior year for my performance in Where's Charley? That recognition got the ball rolling on my career. I owe New Jersey a lot.
"I was hooked," McClure says. "Thankfully, my family and the community in Bergen County supported my new addiction."
– Laura Adams
When people ask Wendy Federman about breaking into the theater business, she always tells them the same thing: Make sure you have other skills.
She means to temper expectations, but Federman – a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer and longtime Alpine resident – is proof that the best route to success sometimes involves a lot of detours.
"This wasn't something where I was like, 'This is my clear-cut path,'" Federman says. "I sort of came to it, and now I'm rolling with it."
The daughter of a radio-era star, Federman grew up expecting she would end up in the spotlight. Then her father's untimely death forced her to put aside her dream of a career as a performer to take over his business manufacturing and distributing ribbons for florists.
When she stumbled onto the opportunity to return to theater years later, she said, she realized she had given herself the ideal training – but for a role behind the scenes.
Today, Federman's working life is consumed with the hundreds of details involved in moving a play from the paper to the stage. She vets new plays, sweet-talks investors, crunches numbers and spends endless hours strategizing with her partners.
Her work has resulted in more than 20 Broadway productions, including her personal favorite, the 2009 Hair revival that earned a Tony for the best musical revival; this year's Evita with Ricky Martin; and the new American musical Hands on a Hard Body. Her productions have starred many of Hollywood's biggest stars, including Katie Holmes, James Earl Jones and Kevin Spacey. And in addition to her Tony, she has won or been nominated for many of American theater's highest honors, including the Drama Desk Award, Drama League Award and Outer Critics Circle Award.
She is also a member of the Bergen County Performing Arts Center board of directors and a cheerleader for the county, where she has lived for 22 years.
"What's not to like?" she says. "I'm surrounded by trees. I see deer and wild turkey. I can garden, and in 20 minutes I can be in the bright lights of Broadway."
Federman is a breathless talker with a stockpile of stories and a ready response to every question. Her age: "old enough not to tell you." Her description of a producer's job: "You try to make dreams come true." Her litmus test of a successful production: "As long as you walk out with some kind of emotion, you know we've done our job well."
She says much of her success can be explained by her unusual combination of skills.
"I understand what it's like from the stage," she says. "But I also know how to run a business."
Much of her know-how comes from a lifetime of being surrounded by people in the business, she says. There was her mother, who would wake her in the morning singing showtunes. Her aunt was a 1950s movie star. Her uncle was the voice of the Pillsbury doughboy and the Jolly Green Giant. Federman's own classical training started at age 5 with ballet classes, piano scales and singing alto harmonies to her mother's soprano around their Westchester house.
But her father balanced her show-business training with his insistence that she study business at NYU and work at his office at least two days a week. When her father got sick while Federman was in London to see a play in 1980, she thought she would have to leave behind the show business life for good.
"You don't beat yourself up over it," she says. "Life just kind of takes over, and you do what you have to do."
Her life took a few more turns before it led her back to the theater. She trained as a psychotherapist and went into private practice after she sold her share in the family business, and she briefly owned an art deco warehouse.
When the father of a child in her son's playgroup – the owner of two off-Broadway theaters – suggested she consider becoming a producer, it took her by surprise.
"My first question," she says, "was, 'What does a producer do?'"
She started slowly, going to courses and lectures and volunteering in other people's offices. She invested in plays before she took one on herself.
Ten years later, she says, it seems as if she was headed in the same direction all along.
"I always tell people, don't be discouraged if you don't love your first job," she says. "It all piles on."
– Stephanie Akin
"I enjoy my job so much that I hope the show goes on and on. I hope it lasts a long time because it is, by far, the best job in television."
Meredith Bennett, Television Producer
Ironman triathlete Meredith Bennett, who just happens to have worked on some of the most successful news and variety shows on television as her day job, says one of the most pleasant parts of her current job is reporting to Stephen Colbert.
The Yale-educated journalist-turned-producer hit the ground running – literally – in the television industry. She had done an internship at an ABC affiliate in New Hampshire while in college and just got hooked on television and production and the fast-paced world of news.
"When I moved to New York after graduation, I just applied to shows all around the city," Bennett recalls. "I was eventually hired because I was a good 'runner' because as an entry-level production assistant, you do a lot of running."
Bennett began her marathon career at Inside Edition. The show was just starting out and it was trying to be more investigative but moved to a tabloid format.
"It was a great opportunity to work at a show that was just taking shape," she remembers. "It involved lots of travel."
Next stop was MTV where Bennett produced music concerts and unplugged shows around the country and abroad, including a couple in London. Then it was on to The Rosie O'Donnell Show when it too first started up. The budding pro worked there for seven years – the run of the show – ending her tenure as a line producer, the individual who is responsible for the production of the show, the budget, studio and crew and the logistics.
For Bennett, The Colbert Report is a dream job on many levels.
"I grew up in a family of journalists but they were newspaper journalists. I moved away from news and into entertainment. The Colbert Report has terrific content including current events and politics. Dealing with all of that makes it interesting and fun," she says.
As for her views on her boss, she says that Colbert is "wonderful on and off camera. Everyone would agree that he's the hardest-working person at the show but still manages to be incredibly supportive of staff and crew. And, he's funny."
Bennett firmly believes that the best part of her job is working with such a smart, talented and funny group.
"I also love all the challenges that we've taken on at the show over the years, like taking our show to Iraq to produce segments in a war zone.
"When we were in Iraq for the first show that we taped there, Gen. Ray Ordierno agreed to have Stephen shave his head in front of the audience. It was my favorite moment. Here we had actually accomplished getting the show to be broadcast in Iraq and we were in the middle of our first show and it was a wonderful moment in front of the troops who loved Stephen and loved having the show there. It was personally and professionally rewarding."
Bennett laughs when she admits that her kids think she has a very cool job. They were recently in a show in a bit with Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. They've gotten to meet some famous people like Shaun White, who was a big hit.
"I do work a lot of hours – it's nice to share the benefits of all my hard work. I've taken my kids to the Emmys and they've met TV stars and ridden in limos – but the other side is 10-11 hours a day working at a desk and making decisions," she says.
For her drive, Bennett thanks her mother, who taught her early on that you only grow if you challenge yourself and push yourself beyond your comfort zone and discover what you're capable of.
"I relished pushing myself physically," she remembers. "I swam and played soccer and excelled in academics. The more that I took on, the more I was able to learn, and the better I performed. Some people are just born with a drive and I certainly have always been driven."
This past August, Bennett completed the Ironman U.S. Championship in New Jersey with only seven weeks of training.
"The night before the race, we did shows on the Intrepid. After we wrapped I got two hours of sleep and then I walked to ferry to go to starting line; talk about digging deep to finish something," she says. "The Ironman was the hardest physical thing I ever did. I did finish and I was quite proud of myself."
It's that kind of drive that makes Bennett such a success. It's a personal quest for achievement coupled with an appreciation for others on the team.
– Amelia Duggan
From Cuba to Union City to Teaneck to Hollywood. Maybe not the traditional route, but that suits character actor Marlene Forte just fine.
"I'm very thrilled with exactly where I'm at," she says.
After decades in the business, Forte is one of those recognizable faces to which you'd have trouble putting the name. But that's all right with her, because she has enjoyed steady work for a long time. She has appeared in small roles on countless TV shows, from George Lopez to ER to Community. She played the maid on Tyler Perry's House of Payne, grabbed Danny McBride's crotch in an episode of Eastbound & Down, and appeared as herself on The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
Nowadays, Forte plays Carmen Ramos, the longtime housekeeper for the infamous Ewing family, on TNT's relaunched Dallas. On the movie side, she appeared recently in the Paranormal-esque parody A Haunted House and is filming Single Mom's Club, her second time working with Tyler Perry.
"Work leads to work," Forte says. "Now I've been doing this for 20 years. I don't know how that happened."
Here's how it happened: It started in Havana, Cuba, where Forte was born. When she was 9 months old, just as Fidel Castro's regime began to take hold in the late 1950s, her family moved to New York City. When Forte was 3, they moved to heavily Cuban Union City, and later to West New York and then North Bergen.
"So gradually movin' on up," she says with a laugh. "I was born in Cuba, but I'm really a Jersey girl."
Forte studied at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck as an English major and completed graduate work at Montclair State University to become a teacher before deciding in the mid '80s to get into acting. She had always wanted to, but it seemed too unstable a career path for the oldest daughter in an immigrant family, a young mother who had married and later divorced her high school sweetheart.
"So I prepared for everything but acting," she says.
Well, enough was enough. Forte opened and ran a video store for six years as sort of an "intense film education," then she sold the place, took classes at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and snagged an adjunct spot at The Lab. In that New York City program, she shadowed such actors as Sam Rockwell and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
"I got lucky," she says.
Naysayers called her too old and everything else, but that didn't stop her from moving to Los Angeles with her daughter, Giselle Rodriguez-Forte, and pursuing her dream. And we know how that turned out. Sure, she started small and didn't get the roles she necessarily wanted at first – she spent years as the weepy victim on TV shows – but plenty of breaks have broken her way. Now she gets to play stronger roles and let her attitude out, especially on Dallas and in her comedic roles.
"That's what I'm enjoying in my career right now," Forte says. "I'm enjoying the lighter side of life. I'm just loving it."
And with family still in Bergen County, she gets back to Jersey whenever possible.
"I'm a Jersey kid," she says. "We have good schools and good people. We're tough like New Yorkers, but better."
Besides driving around her old neighborhoods, Forte has one favorite destination: JD's Steak Pit in Fort Lee.
"I have to get my rib on when I'm in Jersey," she says.
So what's next? At the end of the year, Forte plans to perform in a show in L.A. for her husband, playwright Oliver Mayer. Beyond that, she hopes to book a show in New York and, in the long run, film a movie and take the stage once each year. She's also dabbling with directing.
"That's really what I'd like," Forte says. "I want to work. Actors don't retire – we die."
– Ryan Greene
At just 22, artist Keith Richard Griffiths already knows he doesn't want to be categorized.
"I have a desire to create in any medium I get my hands on," he says. "So I don't ever want to give myself the title of painter or sculptor or filmmaker."
From an art instillation displayed on Governors Island last spring to finding his personal style as a pop surrealist to learning from the Japanese and Baroque artists he admires, Griffiths has big plans for himself and is well on his way to fulfilling them.
From a very young age growing up in Teaneck, Griffiths was surrounded by art.
"My grandfather owned an advertising agency on Madison Avenue," he says, "and my father is a fine artist, so I lived in a house full of art."
Now living in New Milford, Griffiths graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University last spring with a B.A. in fine arts and is now studying for an accelerated MBA in entrepreneurship in hopes of one day owning his own art gallery.
"By the time I'm able to run a gallery," he says, "my hope is I'll have made a name for myself in the art world and will be able to show the works of upcoming artists."
With painting, he primarily works in oils; in sculpting, he has worked with ceramic, wood, concrete and wax; and while filmmaking has been put on the backburner, he likes to keep that avenue open as well.
But finding a path in the art world isn't easy.
"The difficult thing for an emerging artist like myself is developing and creating a certain style that can be solely identified with me," Griffiths says. "I have always thought of myself as a surrealist, and yet I tend to incorporate subject matter that is more or less pop art, so becoming part of the pop surrealist wave is the right course for me."
His influences range from Rubens to Japanese block art to pop artist Will Cotton, who painted Katy Perry for an album cover.
"What I like to do is try to incorporate things from the past as well as iconic imagery in celebrities," Griffiths says.
Recently he has integrated toys and action figures into paintings and sculptures as well.
Three years ago, Griffiths became involved with Figment, a community arts group that holds an annual participatory arts event on Governors Island in New York City. For them he created "Hit the Clown," an exhibit inspired by carnival games. The group has since used his work on promotional posters.
"I can't anticipate what I will create next until a great idea hits me," he says. "I have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and I'm young, so my goal is to make a name for myself and find my own voice."
– Lucy Probert
Chris Franklin's work at Big Sky Edit reads like a top 10 list of the best television commercials ever produced. With an Emmy Award to his credit for the Ellen DeGeneres American Express spot, Franklin admits to having one of the best jobs in the world.
His A-list of clients includes MasterCard, Verizon, Post Cereals, Citi and, of course, American Express.
"We've always had great luck with the spots we've done," beams Franklin. "We won the Emmy five years ago and were also nominated for the spot we did with Conan O'Brien."
Franklin claims that a key to Big Sky's success is that the whole company is passionate about the work. The bulk of projects come from word-of-mouth recommendations and the reputation of his company.
"You're never really sure what you're going to be doing three months from now," he says. "Jobs come in and we move from job to job. Some come from existing relationships with ad agencies and directors, others are new. We're like freelancers with the overhead of a company. It's a leap of faith, but we've been able to do it for 20 years.
It's not routine and you really have to stay on your game. You never get bored – everything is exciting and different."
What Franklin finds enormously appealing about his business is the need to remain fresh.
"You have to constantly think that you have 50 more things that you have to learn. If you think you're done, you're finished," he says.
The consummate editor believes that talent and technology are partners, but not equal in putting together a commercial or film that resonates with viewers.
"It's not a 50-50 scenario," Franklin says. "Technology is an important part – but not the whole. Editing is the closest thing you can compare is to writing – distilling four hours of material in 30 seconds. I ask myself, 'How am I going to whittle this down?' For every hour of footage, you have to take four hours to learn it and find those very small pieces that will make the film or commercial work."
In high school, Franklin worked at the FM radio station at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck.
"When I was a kid, I was always a media freak," jokes Franklin, a Paramus native who now resides in Ridgewood. "I loved film. I had an 8mm camera and a tape recorder and I was always fascinated with film and radio."
Franklin went to St. Joe's in Montvale, then, in the afternoon would head to Teaneck and do the news on the air. At that time, FDU would bring on high school students if you joined the Explorers (off shoot of the Boy Scouts.) He was able to study for his third class license.
"I went into city to FCC and took test at 16 and then I was able to be on the air," says Franklin. "Then I became a DJ and loved it."
Franklin went to Providence College for one semester, originally intending to be an English teacher, but was offered a position he couldn't refuse as an audio engineer at Bonneville Broadcasting, a radio production company. It's what he loved to do, so he happily took the job and became a content programmer. At only 19, he was well on his way to a successful career in media. He stayed in radio for about five years but then realized first love was film.
At 23, Franklin abandoned the notion of teaching and enrolled in film classes at the Tisch School and began his search for an editor's job. In 1982, he landed his first position as an apprentice filmmaker and never looked back. Just 10 years later, he would open his own company, Big Sky Edit.
"So much of my training was self education from youth so I just dove right in," says Franklin. "I learned by doing in very practical, hands-on situations."
Of paramount importance to Franklin is his relationship with the director on a project.
"Editors and directors must possess a relationship of trust."
In addition to television commercials, Franklin also works on features and documentaries. He edited a project called The Comedians with Jerry Seinfeld, with whom he had worked on the AMEX ads.
Franklin especially enjoys working with Bryan Buckley, with whom he has collaborated on numerous commercials including the Emmy-winning AMEX spot. Buckley, who has been dubbed the "King of the Super Bowl" because of all of the commercials he has directed that debut during that event, wrote and directed Asad, a short narrative documentary about Somali refugees that has been nominated for an Oscar. Franklin was honored to edit the film, which he had to do phonetically.
"Short films are projects of passion – nobody's getting a lot of money for them. You donate your time because you're interested in the subject and the people involved. We cut the film, got it to the Tribeca Film Festival where it won Best Narrative Short. What a thrill," he says.
– Amelia Duggan
From growing up to winning Emmys, Nancy Stern and Lisa Lax have hit the big milestones in life as identical twins tend to do: together.
The sisters co-founded Lookalike Productions, the Englewood firm where they produce documentaries, TV specials and series, live events, commercials, PSAs and more. Their work has included the shows All My Children and Lost, the 24th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards and segments for Sesame Street. But their favorite projects involve their truest passion, a passion they share.
"We both grew up really, really loving sports," Stern says. "We knew if we couldn't be pro athletes, we wanted to work in sports."
In their careers separately and at Lookalike, Stern and Lax have produced a tribute to Arthur Ashe, a story on Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill's influence on American figure skating, a documentary for ABC on athletes and addiction, and the film Unmatched for ESPN's 30 for 30 series. (The two have also won some 16 Emmys and a handful of other awards.)
Their obsession with sport began in college, which – surprise – they attended together. As political science majors at Tufts University in Massachusetts, the twins played tennis and squash and were All-American lacrosse players.
After that, the sisters got into sports television. Stern worked on Nightline at ABC, moved to ABC Sports, working on projects that included the Olympics, and ended up a producer on Wide World of Sports. Lax, meanwhile, worked as Bob Costas' assistant during the week and on NFL pregame and halftime shows on weekends. After that, she joined NBC Sports full time, where she ran the Olympic film unit (think all those heart-warming athlete profiles) for Atlanta, Sydney and Salt Lake City.
So the twins had sports covered, but it was about time they got cracking on their other great goal.
"Our dream," Lax says, "always was to work together."
In the early 2000s, the time was right. Stern, who had moved to Demarest in the late '90s, and Lax, who now lives in Englewood, both juggled growing families and their sports work. That wasn't easy, since all those games took place on the weekend.
"We wanted a more manageable balance," Stern says, "So we decided to focus on documentary film."
Stern convinced Lax to relocate to Bergen County, and the two formed Lookalike. Their first film was a 2005 documentary about a boy from Ghana with a deformed right leg. In the end, the documentary influenced the creation of a disabilities act in that country. And they were off.
More recently, Lookalike completed two and a half years of work on a documentary following the inaugural graduating class of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. And their latest is an ESPN documentary on women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in all of NCAA basketball. The twins hoped to premiere the film at Tribeca Film Festival in April.
"The story is really close to our hearts," Stern says. "So we're really excited about that."
They're also excited about life in Bergen with their families. Stern serves as race director of the Demarest 5K and coaches her son's soccer team and her daughter's basketball team. Lax recently signed on as assistant coach for Dwight-Englewood's varsity lacrosse team.
"I never thought I'd move out of the city," Lax says. "We are so happy out here. I love the community."
– Ryan Greene