by Nina M. Riccio, M.A. ’09
Chris Campbell ’74, M.A.’75 was not at his best. Bleary-eyed and running late, he admitted that he’d been up most of the night. A fancy A-list party with fellow filmmakers? Hardly. It was the morning after the midnight premiere of the final Harry Potter movie, and Campbell, his wife Deborah Weingrad, and teens Matthew and Rachel had gone to see the film that – because of technical troubles – didn’t start until well after 1 a.m.
As Campbell will tell anyone, he’s got a thing for heroes – both historical and mythical. Specifically, he doesn’t believe we have enough of the right kind of them, and doesn’t think people know enough about the ones we do have.
“The very real crisis we’ve had for the last 40 or so years [in this country] is not so much about prejudice or finance or the environment,” said Campbell, a film writer, producer, and director for over 35 years. “The crisis I see is an intergenerational values transmission crisis – we’ve got tons and tons of media, but we don’t have many stories that are values-based.”
Campbell, the chairman and CEO of Palace Production Center in Norwalk, Conn., a midsize television and electronic media production company, claims that addressing that crisis is what drives him. Although one arm of Palace Productions does corporate and consulting work and provides production services to TV networks and ad agencies, “our own films are all about values-based entertainment,” he said.
His Rabbit Ears family films are beautifully animated classics narrated by some of the most well-known names in Hollywood, in which the heroes persevere through hard work, intellect, honesty, or courage. Currently, there are over 60 programs in the Rabbit Ears repertoire – the signature production is The Velveteen Rabbit, narrated by Meryl Streep. Indeed, the company just won an Emmy for Outstanding Instructional Program for its recent film on Frederick Douglass, aimed at a young teenage audience. The Rabbit Ears programs have aired on PBS and Showtime, and are available for purchase as well.
“Our films are not just about historical heroes, but about finding your own heroism,” he said. “Our Young American series is all about history and civics from the point of view of the kids in history. The messages are simple: You are not powerless, and the country would not have survived if ordinary people hadn’t taken the initiative to act when they recognized an injustice.”
The company is run out of the former Palace Theatre in South Norwalk, which Campbell renovated some 30 years ago. Walking through it is a head-spinning trip through the centuries – a few of the original seats line the lobby, remnants of the beautifully painted ceiling are visible, and one of the exposed brick walls is stained with soot from a long-ago fire – yet the offices and studio contain some of the most advanced digital production equipment in the country.
In its heyday, the Palace was a vaudeville theatre and hosted the likes of Mae West, W.C. Fields, and Harry Houdini. When Campbell initially took over the boarded-up building, the area was seedy and crime was rampant. Today, South Norwalk is teeming with restaurants, funky boutiques, and museums, and is the home of an annual two-day arts festival. The Palace Production Center has thrived alongside it; this spring, the company won citations from the International Family Film Festival for a short documentary, Voices of Sculpture, about the interrelationship between art, artist, and observer, and for the animated film Tom Thumb, told by John Cleese with music by Elvis Costello and illustrations by Tim Gabor. The company’s latest venture, The Witches of Oz, is a four-hour mini series that has been released around the world and will soon make its U.S. debut.
Not a bad track record for a guy who didn’t even study film at Fairfield. Campbell, a New Jersey native, was a psychology major; at one point, he thought he’d go into forensic psychology. “But every time I tried to do something different, I’d end up coming back to media. The first time I looked through a camera I was fascinated,” he said. He spent many hours in the educational media department with Dr. Ibrahim Hefzallah, who he credits with being “an extraordinary influence. He talked a lot about media and values. I long ago decided that there would not be a difference between my avocation and my vocation, my personal values and my business values.” His psychology degree was useful, he says, in helping him to understand motivation, color, and perception, which are all part of being a storyteller.
Campbell learned the technical aspects of filmmaking by figuring out how to hook up the various parts of the then-new campus television studio and by keeping it running. When Campbell stayed at Fairfield to get his master’s in educational media, Dr. Hefzallah kept him on as a graduate assistant “because I think he realized that I was the only one who knew how to run the studio.” After earning his master’s, he hung around for another few years in a job with Connecticut Public Television, which used Fairfield’s television space.
“Fairfield University was a very powerful influence on me, and continues to be,” said Campbell, who recalled his years on campus as “very tumultuous; the Vietnam War was raging and Kent State shootings were fresh in everyone’s minds.” Campbell and a friend began a draft information center on campus. “The draft itself was very corrupt and based on an insanely complicated set of rules. We helped students understand it and know what their rights were.”
Several years ago, Campbell endowed a scholarship for students with financial need in the name of his sister, who was killed by a drunk driver when she was a teen. Recognizing that diversity was one thing that was lacking when he was a student in the 70s, Campbell has been involved with raising money for scholarships through the Fairfield Awards Dinner. He’s been back to Fairfield on occasion to teach classes in the New Media program.
“Fairfield was challenging all the time, and that’s the essence of Jesuit education to me. My parents were both heroes to me, and what I learned from them about values was enormously reinforced at Fairfield.”
Rabbit Ears films are available at www.rabbitears.com.