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Jenifer’s Journal: Drawing conclusions with Peter Waldner

Creative work is a gift to the world … don’t cheat us out of it … give us what you’ve got. — Steven Pressfield

The title of this column notwithstanding, I’m finding it rather difficult to draw conclusions about Peter Waldner — just when I think I’ve got him nailed down, another talent pops up.

If you were lucky enough to see his two latest films, “Teen Pod” and “Frieda Takes the Cake,” at the Senior Center fundraiser a couple of weeks ago, or have admired the Student Drama Club sets he’s created year after year, or enjoyed his cartoons every week in the Reporter, you’ll agree with me.

So, I gave him a chance to nail himself down. Peter, the floor is yours:

I just always created artwork and started out drawing as a very little kid. I became interested in doing film in high school for fun. My parents got me a Super 8 camera.

My friend who helped me — he’s still the editor of the films we’re doing today — and I did films starting when we were teenagers. One of the first films we did in high school was “The Assassination of Lincoln.”

I was such a bad student that I talked my History teacher, Miss McEntee, into letting me do this Lincoln film to pull up my grades.

It was a pretty good little film except, in those days, it took weeks to process, and we still had to edit it. The school year ended before we finished and, because Miss McEntee never saw the film, I got a pretty bad grade.

I don’t think she believed we even did it, and it’s always bothered me.

I majored in Art at Elmira in upstate New York mainly because the ratio was seven girls to one boy and also, they’d just built a new sports complex and I played basketball.

After college I had no idea what to do, so my old friend Bob and I headed out to L.A. We took three months to get there, and I landed in Hollywood with $36 in my pocket.

Even though I hated L.A., I stayed out there for a couple of years and ended up working at the Egyptian Movie Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Bobby eventually got into what he wanted to do, editing, and went on to become a commercial editor for the next 26 years.

I didn’t have a specific direction. I should’ve gone to film school, but I didn’t have the wherewithal.

So I came back here, where I’d spent my summers, while I looked for a commercial art job in the city. In the meantime, parents of a friend of mine asked if I wanted to paint their house. I said, yes, sure — and I never left.

I’d done cartoons for my high school paper, but I didn’t write them. I didn’t realize back then that I just didn’t like drawing pictures for what other people wrote.

After college, I’d sent some cartoons out independently to Playboy and other magazines and got rejected all the time. Finally,I saw a really bad cartoon in a paper out here and thought I could do better. I submitted one of mine to the Reporter and they printed it, so I just kept submitting them.

In the mid-1990’s you asked me for help with sets for the Student Drama Club. I’d never designed sets before. I did “Oliver” with you, “The Tempest,” “The Sound of Music” and “As You Like It.”

Later I began working with John Kaasik and I’m still doing it. One of the most exciting things was several years ago, working on five shows as an assistant set painter over at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater.

One of the most rewarding but panicky experiences was on the set of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The director wasn’t happy with the set. It was lunch time, but the cast was rehearsing at 3 p.m. and the set had to be dry by then. It was do or die.

I pulled plants from a nearby beach — real sea grass — bound it together and “planted” it around the rustic on-set cabins and pathways. It was ready by rehearsal, but it was going to be either “Good job,” or “Goodbye.”

They liked it.

A few years ago, everything came full circle for me. I’d offered to do a film on alcohol and drug abuse for Communities That Care. I knew I’d need help, so I called my old buddy, Bob, the film editor — he’d retired, never married, never had a family — and, for starters, asked him why he wasn’t making films.

I mean, I’d gotten married, had kids, had to work a day job, so I didn’t have the time or the money, but he did. “I’m too lazy,” he told me. I ignored that answer and got him to work with me on the film that we called, “Say Something.”

Our next project was inspired by my finally going to a Drama Club audition for the first time after working for years on the plays.

It was so much fun I decided to film the whole process from auditions to opening night. It took three months and to his credit, Bob then edited my 120 hours of film down to one, and we called it “Behind Curtains.”

Since then, we’ve just kept going — no resources, no crew, no production bells and whistles, but no pressure either — just a lot of fun and creative freedom.

And here’s an example of the magic of it. During the making of “Teen Pod,” I got cancer and went into chemo while my friend Bob got gravely ill with cirrhosis of the liver.

On top of that there was the pandemic so there was no way that this film was ever going to get finished. Zero chance. I had much greater concerns, of course.

I was about to undergo surgery, but then I had a “Miss McEntee” flashback.

She never believed that we’d done the Lincoln film, and, although we’d started the film and been cutting it, the cast of “Teen Pod” had never seen any of that film either.

I called up some cast and crew members 48 hours before going into surgery, invited them over and said, “Just in case something goes wrong and I don’t come out of surgery, I want you guys to know we really have been working on this film.”

I’d been miserable. I hadn’t eaten in a week. But we all sat there, Franny Regan, Chris DiOrio, John Kaasik and me, watching the rough cut, talking and laughing. 

When they left, yes, I was miserable again, but I realized that the whole time they were here with me, watching the film, I wasn’t in any pain at all. Magical. And absolutely true …

Toward the end of our interview, I asked Pete about the house-painting career that had subsidized this tsunami of creativity.

“Well,” he said, “I never got a van with a name on the side because, even after 42 years of house-painting, I considered it a temporary gig.”