Award-winning filmmaker chronicled Jim Crow, Nazism

Many of Arthur E. Holch Jr.'s documentaries had political or socially provocative themes.
Many of Arthur E. Holch Jr.'s documentaries had political or socially provocative themes.
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By Emma Brown
Monday, October 4, 2010

Arthur E. Holch Jr., whose work as an acclaimed television documentarian included "Walk in My Shoes," a 1961 film that some Southern stations refused to air for its frank depiction of the daily lives and frustrations of African Americans, died Sept. 23 of congestive heart failure at a hospital in Greenwich, Conn. He was 86.

Mr. Holch had worked since the 1950s on a number of films for network and cable television, addressing political and cultural themes as diverse as the aspirations of women and the reality of life under communist governments.

In 1992, he won a news and documentary Emmy as the producer of "Heil Hitler: Confessions of a Hitler Youth." The half-hour show aired on HBO and traces the story of Alfons Heck, who tells how he became one of 8 million young people who fell under Hitler's spell and fought for the Nazi cause during the 1930s and '40s.

One of Mr. Holch's best-known works came decades earlier with "Walk in My Shoes," an hour-long documentary that invited black Americans to speak for themselves about life under Jim Crow.

Mr. Holch wrote the script for the cinema verite film, which features candid conversations with men and women from all walks of life. Comedian Dick Gregory and NAACP lawyer Percy Sutton share screen time with a suburban executive, a Harlem taxi driver and representatives of the Black Muslims and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Despite the wide diversity of voices, they have in common a constant, unshakable awareness of race and racism. In one scene, a garment-district worker wakes up in his Harlem home and then makes the journey to his workplace downtown. "A hundred blocks or so," he says in a voice-over, "you're in the brighter world of whites."

The movie, produced by Nicholas Webster, aired nationally on ABC as part of the "Close Up!" documentary series sponsored by technology company Bell & Howell. It "was nothing short of an unforgettable visit to the world of the Negro in the United States, a work of artistry, courage and power," wrote New York Times critic Jack Gould.

Nevertheless, stations across the South refrained from airing the film. One affiliate, in Chattanooga, Tenn., instead broadcast a program featuring the evangelist Billy Graham. The preemption was coincidental, a station spokesman said at the time.

Arthur Everett Holch Jr. was born March 13, 1924, in Omaha. Raised in Denver, he graduated with honors from the University of Denver in 1944 and received a master's degree in journalism the following year.

He served in the Army during the Korean War and was stationed in Tokyo in 1951, when he married the former Ellen O'Keefe Hare.

In addition to his wife, of Greenwich, survivors include their seven children, Christopher Holch of Greenwich, Jeremy Holch of Brattleboro, Vt., Hilary O'Neill of Bay Shore, N.Y.; Milissa Laurence of Newton Upper Falls, Mass., Meredith Holch of East Hardwick, Vt., and Gregory Holch and Allegra Holch, both of New York; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Holch worked for CBS Radio and NBC before joining ABC, where he produced films during the 1960s and '70s including "The World's Girls" (1963), about the lives of women around the globe. A political theme ran through many of his documentaries, including "Chile: Experiment in Red" (1972) about social and cultural trends under Salvador Allende, the first freely elected Marxist head of state in the Americas; and "Cuba: The Castro Generation" (1977), a critical look at life under the Communist government of Fidel Castro.

After leaving ABC, Mr. Holch founded his own company, Round Hill Productions. He made wide-ranging films, including his Emmy-winning piece and several others about World War II.

Mr. Holch had lived since the mid-1950s in Greenwich, discovering only after moving there that he was a descendant of one of the town's founding families. His interest in local history led him to spend much of the last decade working on a book about the history of wealth in Greenwich.

His daughter Meredith said she and her siblings hope to finish and publish the volume, entitled "Greenwich: The Golden Apple: Big Bucks, Big Names, Big Deals."

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