By Cheryl Allison Published: Saturday, June 15, 2013
When Ardmore business leaders were making plans for a community day to help kick off U.S. Open week on the Main Line, just three weeks away now, they wanted to wrap up the event with a free outdoor movie, golf-related, of course.
“Caddyshack,” with its R rating, didn’t fill the bill for the family-oriented event. “Happy Gilmore” seemed to be everywhere on cable.
That’s when an old friend happened to call, said Christine Vilardo, executive director of the Ardmore Initiative.
“I’m looking for a place to do a movie screening,” Toni Crawford-Major told her. Until two years ago, Crawford-Major was regional director of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development, working with Main Street programs like AI, Ardmore’s downtown business authority. Some may remember her as one of the – very glamorous – volunteer models at AI’s Taste of Ardmore fashion shows.
More recently, she has been working as project manager and special events director for From the Rough Productions, the company producing a new independent movie of the same name.
“It was serendipitous,” Vilardo said. “From the Rough,” as the title indicates, is a golf-related film, the fictionalized story of Dr. Catana Starks. Starks is the former swim coach at Tennessee State University, a historically black university in Nashville, who in 1986 became the first woman and the first African-American woman to coach a men’s college golf team. Hoping to recruit more African-Americans and other minorities into the sport, she also eventually recruited teams internationally, in 2005 leading a team to win the PGA National Collegiate Minority Championship.
Taraji P. Henson plays the lead role as college golf coach Dr. Catana Starks. (Photo Courtesy of From the Rough Productions)
It was Crawford-Major’s new employer, Michael Critelli, who five years ago heard Starks’ story from his younger son’s Swedish chess coach, who had played on one of her TSU teams on scholarship. Critelli, the former CEO of Pitney Bowes and a former chairman of the civil rights organization, the National Urban League, had never been involved in filmmaking before, but he became determined to tell her inspiring story, acting as executive producer of the project that would become “From the Rough.”
Critelli, who lives in Connecticut, recalled in a phone interview this week having asked his son’s coach, “How did you learn to be such a good coach and mentor to young people?” He told Critelli it was through Coach Starks.
Finding her story inspirational, Critelli asked his older son, a graduate of the University of Southern California, to write a screenplay. By 2011, a film was in production, starring Taraji P. Henson, nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar in 2008 for her role as Queenie in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” in the lead role. Also among the cast is the late Michael Duncan Clarke (“The Green Mile”) in what was his final film before his death last September.
“We got through pretty efficiently with a great cast and crew, but I’ve found out that’s only part of the process,” Critelli said.
The film was shown at some film festivals and awards events in 2011, and, in its current version, is being prepared for theatrical release in 2014. Its Ardmore screening will be the first time it is seen in the Philadelphia area, Critelli said. Its next showing here will be in July, during the National Urban League conference, hosted by the Urban League of Philadelphia.
Critelli said the current version runs 92 minutes, trimming about 25 minutes, and focuses even more clearly on the coach’s character and “her transformation as a leader and mentor to young people.”
“The story grabbed me, and I was at a decision point in my life,” Critelli said of his motivation to make the film. “I believe very strongly in principles of inclusion,” he said, referring to one of the movie’s themes. He said he was also persuaded by conversations he had with others in creative fields, who told him that entertainment can be a great influence in social issues.
In connection with the game of golf in particular, Critelli said that one path that, for young black players like the ones Starks wanted to recruit, had been a way to learn and enter the game had narrowed, as clubs phased out caddying programs. Through her efforts, the teams she put together, until her retirement as coach in 2006, were extraordinarily diverse.
Her most famous golfer, Canadian Sean Foley, has gone on to serve as swing coach to Tiger Woods. Another team member, Sam Puryear, became the first African-American men’s head golf coach in any major college conference, at Michigan State University.
Critelli, who will be traveling internationally, will not be able to attend the Ardmore screening, but other members of the movie production team, including his wife, Joyce, and son, Michael, the screenwriter, will be on hand for a question and answer session. Also expected to attend is the film’s “everyday hero,” Coach Starks herself. The session will be moderated by Ardmore’s movie expert, Miguel Gomez of Viva Video.
Gomez, who staged an outdoor screening for last month’s First Friday Main Line, is providing the equipment to show “From the Rough.”
And don’t despair, if you’re one of those “Happy Gilmour” fans. Gomez is working on setting up another outdoor movie night for the Adam Sandler film during U.S. Open Week, on a date to be determined.