Film artist Jeff Sumerel reflects on life worth seeing

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To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelieveable Life of Brother Theodore Premiered at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, 2008; Producer/Director: Jeff Sumerel; Editor/Co-Producer: Jeter Rhodes

He is considered one of the most significant links in the history of comedy, admired by such people as Woody Allen, Eric Bogosian, Penn & Teller, and Orson Welles.

His television appearances have spanned from Merv Griffin to David Letterman.

His long-running Off-Broadway show was hailed as “diabolical genius.”

He is Brother Theodore.

A former millionaire playboy in the late 1930s of Germany, Theodore endured the sobering loss of his entire family, his fortune, and his own identity, as a survivor of Dachau concentration camp.
Shipped to America humiliated and stunned, Theodore yearned to reclaim his high-status and wealth.

Continually haunted by his loss, and hindered as a displaced foreigner, he tapped “the power of despair” to re-invent himself, and created a distinguishing brand of dark, existential, philosophical humor to become one of America’s most respected humorists and monologists.

In February of 2001, after passing muster, I was allowed to meet Brother Theodore with the intent to produce a documentary about him. Although flattered, I took it as a caustiously-optimistic step, based on what I had heard about working with him and his tendency to self-sabotage efforts to further his career. Yes, even at the age of 95.

I had four nights of interviewing him—or perhaps “listening to him” is more apt. Although showing physical signs of his age, he was stunningly sharp-witted and keen, and even rose to perform, in German, a spirited version of a dark, childhood poem entitled “The Rat.”

About a month after the interview, Theodore contracted pneumonia and was put in Mt. Sinai Hospital. Naturally, I returned to New York for an extended stay to see him as often as I could.

One night while visiting him, as soon as I walked into his semi-private room, he seemed especially frustrated. A nurse tending to his roommate left to continue her rounds. Immediately Theodore somehow found the strength to raise himself up on one elbow. I leaned down to him. Without even saying hello to me, he asked, “Would you do me a great favor? Would you please take me out of here?”

There was real seriousness to his request. I said, “Theodore, I can’t do that. I don’t even have any authority to do that.” His voice was whispered but had the intensity of yelling, “You don’t understand. It’s humilating. There are gorgeous nurses here wiping my butt.” (continued on page 56)

I felt a stinging pang. Of course it was humilating. Perhaps even more so for a former millionaire playboy. As my heart went out to him, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I knew there was no remedy. So, I took a chance. I said, “Would you like for me to arrange for the ugly nurses to wipe your butt?” There was a moment of uncertainty as he continued to glare at me. Slowly a rare grin slid across his face, and his eyes lightened. He seemed to give-in to the dark humor. But only for a second, as he quickly reverted to his characteristic scowl, and gave a curt, “No.”

He leaned back and gazed straight-ahead in a reflective pause, as he frequently did during these visits. It was not uncomfortable. Suddenly he grabbed my arm. The arm of this 95-year-old man, that honestly still looked the arm of a young boxer, which at one time he was, pulled me to him, not in a touching way, but with firm intent. He softly yet clearly articulated with his slight German accent, “There’s a reason you’re going to meet all these people.” I must have looked baffled. “Do you understand?!”

All these people? What people? My initial reasoning was he was speaking about the interviews for the documentary; however, “all these people” felt like it went way beyond the documentary. A strong prophetic tone. All I could respond with was, “No. I don’t understand. But maybe I will in a few years.” He relaxed his grip and eased his head back on the pillow.

Theodore died a couple months after that visit. I assumed that put an end to the documentary. After all, I only had 4 nights with him. However, his closest friends insisted I continue and that, actually, this would be the only time Theodore could not sabotage such a project.

So, even with no funding secured (as with most personal documentaries), the project became a labor of respect over the next 7 years. As time and financing would allow, I would knock-off interview after interview by having access to Theodore’s personal address book that provided contacts from local eccentrics to national celebrities.

Throughout that time, Theodore’s comment continued to pop into my head. How could it not, considering the people I was meeting? Woody Allen, Henry Gibson, Tom Schiller, and Eric Bogosian, as well as non-celebrities who were equally as genuine and compelling. Shortly after each interview, I would wonder about the reason. Are Penn & Teller going to ask me to do a documentary about them? Does

Harlan Ellison have a new short story for me to produce? Will Dick Cavett let me adapt his TV material into a one-man show for him?

It was natural to think that the reason would be about contacts and work, a gateway to the Hollywood scene. But deep down I knew that was not what Theodore meant. He made it clear with his piercing eyes and tone. Yet my ego could not resist thinking otherwise.

In February 2008, through happenstance and luck, the film was selected by the Museum of Modern Art for opening night of their annual documentary-film series. It was sold out with die-hard Theodore fans, close friends, and celebrities. As I told Jeter Rhodes, the film’s editor/co-producer, “This will either be our easiest audience or our most difficult.” Fortunately, the film did not disappoint. And the evening remains a highlight of my career.

It was only a few years ago that the reason began to come into focus for me. I don’t know exactly when, but it occurred to me that nearly everyone I interviewed for the film had a commonality. One they shared with Theodore. And that is it is well worth the sacrifice, and even wise, to steer clear of compromise. And to continually do a self-review to be as genuine as possible in all efforts.

As Penn Jillete said, “Brother Theodore was the truest performer I’ve ever seen.”

Doing so may lead to Hollywood, for those wishing for that. Or it may not. But if it does, it will be on your terms.

It’s not easy to walk that tightrope of fame and authenticity, to go against the norm and risk humiliation. For some time now, I’ve been trying to balance on that tightrope, yet still not getting it quite right. It remains precarious, because the wind of fame and fortune has a mighty pull.

Theodore’s integrity continues to inspire me. Recently I took the step to finally complete a very personal film, incidental. It’s probably the most genuine work I’ve produced. And not surprisingly, it’s felt the most rewarding, even though not nearly the most acknowledged. Nevertheless, it’s a motivation to continue.

When it comes to the public’s perception of success in film entertainment, Hollywood is still the gold standard. I’m not down on that style of product. Even though predictable and familiar, some of it is very entertaining and provocative. So, it’s natural for flourishing film producers throughout communities to emulate that same product. Plus, today’s technology makes it nearly irresistible to replicate the look and feel of Hollywood.

ReasonBeing_ArtistIn Greenville, we have several people actively producing films, and they’re finding their audience. However, where are those wanting to produce more in the line of David Lynch, Michel Gondry, and Todd Solondz? Work that pushes boundaries. Work with bite to it, that puts the artist out on that tightrope. Timi Brennan’s stop-motion animation comes to mind. I don’t know him well, and maybe he’s just getting started. But from what little I’ve seen, he seems willing, and, perhaps more important, motivated. Maybe others need to be cultivated and made to feel they’re welcome to come out and play.

I just wonder if indeed they are welcome in Greenville. I’d like to think so. It would be fulfilling if we could offer artists who’re making films with the same integrity and boldness as Brother Theodore.

Jeff Sumerel is a film artist, producer, and native Greenvillian. Since 2009, he divides much of his time between Greenville and Vilnius, Lithuania. He can be contacted at

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