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Movies to light up a summer night: Peter Waldner creates two films

It’s safe to say there aren’t too many Islanders who haven’t encountered Peter Waldner in one way or another.

Possibly best known for his weekly “Paw Print” black-and-white cartoons in the Reporter that have garnered numerous awards from the New York Press Association, he’s also added color, literally, to homes and local organizations for decades. Once he decided to pursue a career as an artist, he found a way to support himself by painting houses on the Island.

His art includes works in pastel and colored pencil as well as acrylic 3D paintings that hang in many homes. He provides drawings for posters advertising the local school and theater productions, for which he also creates the sets. In service to the arts community as well as the larger Island community, he organizes the annual ArtSI artist studio tour each summer and curates a gallery at the library.

Before creating the “Paw Print” cartoon locally, Mr. Waldner ran a nationally syndicated daily cartoon called “Flight Deck.” It ran for 12 years and appeared in hundreds of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News.

Last year, when the ArtSI tour had to be canceled in light of the COVID pandemic, he produced a film tour (or”DeTour”) of the studios to take its place.

Coming up, he’s planned a showing of two movies, the documentary featuring interviews with 11 of the ArtSI artists, as well as a comedy “based on my own experience as a single father of two angry teenagers,” he said. The comedy is a takeoff on the horror classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” which he began working on a year and a half ago.

“Franny Regan,” a local high school student, “was 15 when we started,” he said. Ms. Regan, who played Wednesday in the school’s production of “The Addams Family,” is almost 17 now.

The usual hurdles of taking something from a creative thought to a work on film were increased exponentially once COVID brought the curtain down on so many activities that are normally not challenging.

He said Islander Cris DiOrio, whom Mr. Waldner recruited to act in the comedy, “has a different haircut in every scene.” He said school superintendent Brian Doelger and John Kaasik, with whom he had worked on numerous school theatrical productions, were extremely helpful and supportive.

The movies will be shown for free on Friday, Aug. 20 at 7 p.m. at the school auditorium. In addition to providing entertainment, he wants the shows to offer benefit to the community in a tangible way, so he’s asking moviegoers to make donations to support the Island Food Pantry.

A shark head, crafted by Mr. Waldner, is famous for turning up around the Island in recent years to call attention to the ArtSI tours. The night of the movie screening, “Finnegan,” the shark, will be stationed in the school lobby to collect donations for the pantry’s mission of supporting Islanders in need.

‘Finnegan,’ the shark, will be collecting donations for the Food Pantry during the screenings. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Mr. Waldner’s wry humor, along with the support of his wife, Sandra, and friends on the Island, have helped him get through a very difficult time. While much of the world was worrying about COVID, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, suffering through intense pain, surgery (thankfully successful) and the debilitating effects of chemotherapy.

He had to stop working eight months ago, which he found humbling, he said, but gratifying when he found that people were stepping up, as Islanders do, to help with gift cards and other offers of assistance. He’s looking forward to finishing the course of chemotherapy in early fall.

With the keen observations of human nature so often reflected in his cartoons, he noted that people who ask how he’s doing are really looking for good news; if he responds honestly that he may not be feeling so well, some people tend to pull away. He’s stoic in dealing with his health challenges, saying that “everybody is going through something and so many people are worse off.”

Despite the frustrations and delays he encountered while trying to get his movie made, he found it greatly comforting. Just before his surgery, he invited some of the key players to view the footage he had so far.

When they left after about 45 minutes of watching and laughing together, he recalled, “I realized that for the first time in a long time, I hadn’t been in pain for that whole time we were together.” It was a fleeting, but welcome window of relief.

He hopes a night at the movies will offer Islanders the same dose of laughter, friendship and community so many can use right now.