Rosanne De Luca Braun: A Fascination With Family Histories

From films to a play opening soon
Rosanne De Luca Braun on the beach in Montauk, where she and her husband have lived full time since 2008. Ed Braun

After 10 years working in marketing, public relations, and business development in New York City, Rosanne De Luca Braun’s life took an unexpected turn when, in 1993, she married Ed Braun, then the C.E.O. of Veeco Instruments, a NASDAQ company based on Long Island, and moved to Northport with her daughter, Cory.

“I looked around locally on Long Island for a job and it happened that the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington was expanding and looking for a marketing director,” she said. “It was as if the stars aligned.” While she had always loved movies, her time at the Cinema Arts Centre “was like going to graduate school in cinema studies.”

Since its founding in 1973, that venue, originally called the New Community Cinema, not only brought independent and foreign films to Long Island, it often brought the filmmakers as well. “So even though I had no experience or training in how to make a film, I was listening almost all the time to people talking about how they made their films, including documentary filmmakers.”

In 2000, Ms. Braun worked with the cinema’s co-directors, Vic Skolnick, Charlotte Sky, and Dylan Skolnick, to organize a festival of Italian-American films that avoided the usual ethnic stereotypes. She discovered, however, that most depictions of Italian-American in movies were formulaic.

“There were documentaries about practically every ethnic group in the film business, but I was surprised there wasn’t one about Italian-Americans. I had spent so much time listening to documentary filmmakers that I said, ‘I can do this.’ And I did.” Important help came from the actor-director John Turturro, whom she had met at the cinema and who signed on to the project as co-executive producer after Ms. Braun sent him her proposal for the film.

“Beyond Wiseguys: Italian Americans and the Movies,” which she co-produced with Steven Fischler, who also directed, was released in 2008. “We interviewed about 20 well-known Italian-American actors, producers, writers, set designers, and others in the industry and asked them one question: How did they feel about the stereotypes and what were their lives really like.”

Among those interviewed were Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Marisa Tomei, Paul Sorvino, Ben Gazzara, Isabella Rossellini, and David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos.” “Beyond Wiseguys” aired on PBS stations throughout the United States and on television stations all over the world.

Ms. Braun’s second film, “Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History,” also directed and co-produced by Mr. Fischler, was based on Helene Stapinski’s memoir about growing up in Jersey City in a family of crooks, corrupt politicians, mobster wannabes, and murderers.

“Under Mayor Frank Hague, Jersey City was the poster child for political corruption,” said Ms. Braun. “The book and the film show how that atmosphere affected the members of her family and how it got passed down and changed with each new generation.” The film premiered on local PBS stations in March 2017.

Ms. Braun observed that both films reflected her fascination with family history and how that history trickles down through the generations — “No matter how distant, even if nobody says it out loud to you, somehow it becomes part of the wallpaper of your life.”

Therefore, it is not surprising that, in 2017, when her close friend Barbara Nagel raved about an Off Off Broadway play she had just seen that was steeped in the playwright’s family history, Ms. Braun was intrigued. The play, Yehuda Hyman’s “The Mar Vista: In Search of My Mother’s Love Life,” had had a brief run at the 14th Street Y.

“We did it for 12 performances and got a tremendous emotional response,” Mr. Hyman said. “After that, I spent about nine months trying to find someone to take it to the next level, but there was no interest, which was heartbreaking. Then, out of the blue, Barbara Nagel contacted me and asked what was going on with the play.”

While visiting Ms. Braun in Montauk, Ms. Nagel asked if she had any interest in getting involved with the play. “I didn’t see it live,” said Ms. Braun, “but even on video, which doesn’t do justice to live theater, I fell in love with the story. Because Yehuda’s story is exactly the sort of story about family history that intrigues me.”

The two woman met with Carolyn Balducci, the program director of the Montauk Library, who had recently produced a play of her own, “Giovanni the Fearless,” at an Off Off Broadway theater. “We picked her brain about how two newbies like us can get into this business and what we have to watch out for, and she was very forthcoming.”

Soon after, Ms. Braun and Ms. Nagel met with Mr. Hyman in New York City. “He’s a lovely guy,” said Ms. Braun. “We had instant synergy, and we decided to move forward together and to bring his play to the audience it deserves.” Two creative producers who work in the theater, Allison Bressi and Madeleine Goldsmith, came onboard.

“We did a year and a half of very intensive fund-raising,” Mr. Hyman said. “We had 20-minute showings from the piece; we did Kickstarter campaigns to which 160 people contributed. There was an outpouring of support.”

As a result, “The Mar Vista” will open at the Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center in Manhattan on March 5 and continue there through March 23. The play tells the story of Mr. Hyman’s Jewish mother’s escape from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, her growing up in Istanbul, her many boyfriends (including a Catholic priest), her move after World War II to the U.S., where she met Mr. Hyman’s Polish immigrant father, and the family’s life together in 1960s California.

“I would call the play a combination of dance and movement and theater,” Ms. Braun said. “There are many funny moments, but there is also the heartbreaking tragedy of some of the family history. It’s very contemporary in form because it skips around among a variety of genres.”

Mr. Hyman is onstage the entire time. He narrates, plays different characters, including his grandfather, who was killed in the Holocaust, and at times emerges from character to speak directly to the audience and the actors. The play is 70 percent scored, including music from the different eras and locations in which it is set.

“It’s not a musical,” said Mr. Hyman. “There’s always some dance and movement running through it. But it’s not a dance piece either. It’s just its own beast.”              

Ms. Braun emphasized the support her projects have received from the Montauk community. She and her husband first visited that hamlet for family vacations in the mid-1990s. They built a house there in 2001 and, after Mr. Braun retired in 2008, it became their permanent residence. “We spend at least six months here, and whatever is left over we spend in New York.” Mr. Braun is the chairman of the board and co-chairman of the finance committee of Concerned Citizens of Montauk.

Ms. Braun has no other films planned at this time. “The play has taken over my life for the last year and a half. I suppose if an idea for a film hit me I would try to pursue that, but right now I’m focused on how we can get this wonderful show everything it deserves.”

Tickets to “The Mar Vista: In Search of My Mother’s Love Life” can be purchased at themarvistaplay.com, where information about the show, its creator, and its cast is available.

 

Yehuda Hyman surrounded by the cast members of his play “The Mar Vista: In Search of My Mother’s Love Life.” Ethan Hill