Weston Historical Society celebrates Weston Woods

The Weston Historical Society is opening a 'three-dimensional' exhibit on Dec. 6, honoring Mort Schindel and his groundbreaking film studio Weston Woods. — Bruce Ando photo

The Weston Historical Society is opening a ‘three-dimensional’ exhibit on Dec. 6, honoring Mort Schindel and his groundbreaking film studio Weston Woods. — Bruce Ando photo

For more than a half a century, children have loved the award-winning films made at the Weston Woods film studio, including Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey, and A House for Hermit Crab by Eric Carle.

Starting on Sunday Dec. 6, from 1 to 4 p.m., a “three-dimensional” exhibit is opening at the Weston Historical Society at 104 Weston Road in Weston, showcasing what went on behind the scenes at Weston Woods, the studio that made more than 500 iconic children’s films.

The exhibit is running through the end of February, and is described as “three-dimensional” because it combines filmmaking artifacts such as vintage cameras, production equipment, and storyboards that foreshadowed the digital age in the society’s museum, along with interactive programs, videos, and lectures for children and adults.

The exhibit will also feature animation cels and drawings used in many popular Weston Woods films, including Harold and the Purple Crayon, Strega Nona, Corduroy, and Doughnuts.

In addition, the exhibit will feature a look inside the Weston Woods Literacy Caravan bookmobile, which was retired years ago and is being towed to the society’s grounds for special viewings and events.

The exhibit also honors Mort Schindel, the founder of Weston Woods and a pioneer in children’s media, who celebrated his 97th birthday this year at his home in Weston.

“Mort was an incredible visionary,” said Dallas Kersey, president of the historical society. “Mort invented something that hadn’t existed before. He invented the ‘iconography technique,’ taking the finest of children’s literature and re-imagining it on film,” he said.

The exhibit is being organized and curated by historical society member Fran Sheff-Maurer, who said, “Mort Schindel made children’s films in a way that was true to the book, not like Disney. This exhibition will show how Mort would take a book and turn it into a story through storyboards and his proprietary iconographic camera. To quote Mort, ‘Each new decision to build the studio was a step into the unknown. … The phenomenal thing is that it was possible to build a successful business with my heart, rather than my head.”

Familiar and beloved characters featured in children's films made by Weston Woods.

Familiar and beloved characters featured in children’s films made by Weston Woods.

Mort Schindel

Mort Schindel was born on April 23, 1918, and raised in Orange, N.J. He received a bachelor’s degree from  the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in curriculum Teachers College at Columbia University.

In 1953, he started making children’s films at his home in Weston, which he called Weston Woods.

The first public screening of his films was in 1956 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His films then started appearing regularly on Captain Kangaroo and PBS.

In 1986, his film Doctor De Soto, based on the Newbery Honor Book by William Steig, was nominated for an Academy Award.

In 1988, Schindel and Weston Woods were inducted into the Action for Children’s Television Hall of Fame for “using TV and home video to lead children to the magic world of books.”

A scene from the classic children's book and Weston Woods film, Make Way for Ducklings.

A scene from the classic children’s book and Weston Woods film, Make Way for Ducklings.

Weston Woods

The Weston Woods film studio was named by Schindel after the bucolic area of Weston where the studio was started in the 1950s.

Schindel made his films using the iconographic technique, taking still images from the book’s own illustrations and making them move and come to life.

The first film made by Weston Woods was Andy and the Lion in 1954.

After more than 40 years of filmmaking in Weston, Weston Woods was purchased in 1996 by Scholastic Inc. and is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the company. Linda Lee is the current vice president and general manager of Weston Woods.

“We are all excited about this exhibit because Mort has been doing this for all these years and it is amazing the worldwide reach of what he started and created. For me, it is a validation of the work of Weston Woods. This exhibit is a great way to show the town this little gem and natural treasure,” she said.

The films made by Weston Woods are shown in schools and libraries, not just across the country but across the world. They are considered especially helpful for beginning readers and children who learn better through a visual process.

Scholastic sells a DVD line of Weston Woods films, and the films can be seen frequently on PBS. For the exhibit, Scholastic is donating a number of videos for the society to sell or give away.

The exhibit will also feature a screening of shorts and classic films from the Weston Woods scholastic collection, and a video about Mort Schindel.

Also on display will be a 20-minute video called Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend, which explains the elements involved in making a video, and demonstrates how to tell a story through video.

Paul Gagne from Weston Woods, a Caldecott award winner, will be hosting discussions about filmmaking and cel animation for the exhibit.

The late author Maurice Sendak of Ridgefield, whose many books appear in Weston Woods films, once called the Weston Woods studio “nirvana.”

“There was such great freedom there. Looking back on it, you can hardly believe it existed. We did books and films just the way we wanted to do them and nobody said, ‘Oh, who’s going to buy that?’ or ‘Where is that going to go on the shelf in the bookstore?’ Weston Woods was a flourishing, happy world, and I was one of the lucky ones who was there,” Sendak said.

The Literacy Caravan from Weston Woods will be on display at the Weston Historical Society.

The Literacy Caravan from Weston Woods will be on display at the Weston Historical Society.

Literacy Caravan

Visitors to the exhibit will get to see the Weston Woods Literacy Caravan, a 35-foot vehicle from 1992 that served as a bookmobile and traveled throughout the state and inner cities and towns across the country.

“The mission of the Literacy Caravan was to educate preschool teachers as well as emerging readers and the rural poor, and it speaks volumes about Mort Schindel and Weston Woods,” Kersey said.

The inside of the caravan is bright red and filled with books and posters.

At the exhibit, kids can watch Weston Woods films in the caravan. It will also be available as a rental for children’s parties and celebrations while it is on the historical society’s grounds, Sheff-Maurer said.

For more information about the Literacy Caravan, times of Weston Woods events at the historical society, tickets, and updates on the video series and lectures, visit the historical society’s website

Collectible Weston Woods cels on sale

An original cel from the Weston Woods film Owen is one of a number up for sale at the Weston Woods exhibit.

An original cel from the Weston Woods film Owen is one of a number up for sale at the Weston Woods exhibit.

Fans of Weston Woods films such as Strega Nona, Doctor DeSoto, and Max’s Christmas, can now own a piece of history.

In conjunction with its Weston Woods exhibit, the Weston Historical Society is selling a limited number of original, hand-painted cels, featuring lively scenes from children’s films made by Mort Schindel at his Weston Woods studio.The cels were donated by the Weston Woods Institute.

The cels are transparent, layered sheets on which objects were drawn or painted for the studio’s iconographic animation films, and measure either 11 x 14 or 11 x 17 inches.

The colorful cels vary in style, and are authenticated by Weston Woods. Many have titles on them and some have hand drawings along the bottom as well.

Prices for the cels range from $100 to $200 with certificates. They are sold unframed but are suitable for framing, and perfect for an art collection or a children’s room.

Cels from the following films are currently for sale at the Weston Historical Society, 104 Weston Road. More cels from other films will be added later. Visit westonhistoricalsociety.org for more information.

Three Little Pigs
Red Riding Hood
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Strega Nona
Morris’s Disappearing Bag
Max’s Christmas
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
Doctor De Soto
Officer Buckle And Gloria
A Story, A Story

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