Columbus, OH - May 23, 2002
Impact of PBS Greek-American Documentaries
Thank you for having me here this evening. It is always an honor and a pleasure to be invited to spend an evening with my fellow Hellenes from my home state of Ohio. We are here to talk about the making of both Greek-American documentaries and how it has helped our community in many different ways. The genesis of these shows actually came from the support that the Greek-Americans showed PBS when Yanni Live at the Acropolis aired in 1994.
PBS noticed that many of the supporters had last names that ended in "as" and "os". At the same time, PBS launched and ethnic series about first generation Americans, starting with the Italian-Americans. PBS proposed the Greek-Americans and approached me to produce the show based on my production of Live at the Acropolis.
The first show had a very limited budget, which restricted our ability to really reach out nationally. We decided on six subtopics for the sixty-minute show. The journey from Greece to America, the adjustments, role of the family, role of the church, role of education and work ethnic. Under these categories, evolved other themes- the Greek spirit and zest for life, why Greeks loved to congregate and be together, pride in history and heritage, maintaining the language and love of America because it parallels the Greek love for the individual.
We interviewed over 60 people and the show premiered in December 1998. The response was enormous and stunning to PBS. Record support was recorded in NY, Baltimore, Houston, Atlanta, Nashville, Tampa and Boston. For a community a tenth of the size of the Irish and the Italian, the Greek-American show raised at least 50% of those shows. Why?
If you think back, there was never a national TV show of any type (except maybe for occasional references on Saturday Night Live or a sitcom) to what the Greek-American experience was. As a group, we have never made a conscientious effort to pat ourselves on the back and point out our accomplishment to others. Most of the time, we are too busy accomplishing and enjoying the "doing" of life.
This was the first show that put into perspective the accomplishments of our grandparents, and when you begin to chronicle all that is our community, it is a hard working, well educated, loving, equalitarian, and introspective community that in many ways epitomizes the best of what it means to be American and for us, that is second nature because in many ways, that is what it means to be Greek. It actually makes perfect sense when you analyze many of American societies foundations and how they relate to Greek culture.
The documentary also stirred debate- was this an "East Coast" biased program and did it not incorporate the 2nd and 3rd generations that face issues of mixed marriages and a lack of new Greek immigrants that help alive language and other customs? The answer is probably yes, but at least, the show established a strong beachhead. You won't cover it all in 60 minutes, but you want to cover it well enough to do another show.
And another show emerged- 18 months later, I obtained the funding for the next show. G-A II: Passing the Torch. These interviews took place in the West and Midwest. Issues of mixed marriages, lack of immigration were mixed with humor about Greek school teachers. This show, although not as popular as G-A I, nevertheless gained more critical review for its seriousness and addressing modern day issues.
We now have the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", a new documentary called "Return to Homeland" and a TV sitcom called "Brown Eyes" and a movie for 2004 "Running with Pheidippides". Combined with coverage of Athens 2004, more attention will be paid to things Greek and Greek-American than anytime in the last 30 years or for the next 30 years.
I find that all these media impressions are forcing people of Hellenic descent to face how they want to maintain the "Greek" part of their culture without losing their American side. It is the same dilemma that the Greeks face regarding becoming part of the European Union. At least, with these documentaries and future, national shows, we can at least see what we face as a collective. Think of it as a national meeting of all groups Hellenic. Information is power and the more we need about each other. I am convinced we can come up with solutions to find ways to maintain our culture.