Two local documentary projects--one about a groundbreaking interracial medical team working in the segregated 1930s and '40s and another on the controversial Federal Theater of the 1930s--received substantial grants yesterday from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Educational Film Center, based in Annandale, received $600,000 for "The Life and Death of the Federal Theater." The theater was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, and its participants included Burt Lancaster, Orson Welles, E.G. Marshall and John Houseman. It operated from 1935 to 1939, when Congress killed it for a variety of reasons, including anti-Roosevelt sentiment and the Communist Party associations of some participating artists.
Spark Media Inc., a Washington company, was given $551,000 for "Partners of the Heart," the story of the 35-year collaboration between Vivien Thomas, a black man with no formal education beyond high school, and Alfred Blalock, a white physician. Together they did pioneering work in cardiac surgery.
The two grants are among 163 totaling $17.6 million announced by the NEH yesterday. The package includes a number of awards for film and radio projects depicting American stories.
Spark President Andrea R. Kalin read an article about the Thomas-Blalock medical team in Washingtonian magazine years ago and has been collecting additional material for almost eight years.
"In the 1930s, in Nashville, Vivien Thomas lost all his savings and couldn't go to medical school," Kalin said yesterday. "He went to work in a lab with Alfred Blalock, who was a pragmatic man and was not a civil rights pioneer. When they began working together, Blalock realized the depth he could add to his research." The two men worked together in the laboratory, but outside, the racial codes of the day mandated different roles for them: Thomas worked as a bartender at Blalock's parties, she said.
The two did pioneering work on the causes of shock but are best known for developing a system of rerouting blood flow to the heart. They performed the first such surgery at Johns Hopkins University in 1944.
The filmmakers plan to include some re-creations in the story and have developed a shooting script. "Now we are ready to start production," Kalin said. The film will likely be shown initially on Maryland Public Television, she said.
The Federal Theater was the largest of three government programs designed to give writers, musicians and actors work during the Depression. "For years, the actors didn't talk about it because they were embarrassed by it," said Ira Klugerman, vice president of production at the Educational Film Center. "They didn't want to admit they had received welfare from the government."
The federal project, a series of regional theaters, got caught up in the now-familiar argument over federal funding for the arts. "Many of the intellectuals involved were card-carrying Communists and almost-Communists," Klugerman said. "And they wrote about what was going on in the country during the Depression. They were attacked in Congress and became a cause celebre all around." The theater's opponents eventually succeeded in killing it, though the projects for writers and musicians continued.
The film has been in development for two years, starting out as part of a pilot project in new media at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Now the filmmakers want to do a number of dramatic re-creations of Federal Theater stage work, Klugerman said, and the NEH grant will help bring that off. "The NEH money has enabled us now to go back to other funders," Klugerman said.