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CRITIC AT LARGE

A Bit of Auntie Mame, Mother Teresa, Too

September 05, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The moment from one of my first years at the newspaper remains vivid in memory. A merry-eyed woman in what the broadcaster Bill Ballance might call her middle earlies, or possibly her early middles, came to my office and said, "I'm supposed to be doing publicity for a nightclub and I haven't the faintest idea how to do it. Tell me."

Having been abundantly exposed to press agents in whom confidence reigns supreme, even when misplaced, I was completely disarmed by this candor, which was not misplaced.

It is not clear to me even now how Janet Wolfe got the assignment. The club was the Ash Grove, which in those mid-'60s days was the prime temple of folk music in Los Angeles. But I suspect the owner, Ed Pearl, found Wolfe's honesty as beguiling as I did.

She's been a family friend ever since and she is the subject of a documentary, made by her daughter, Deborah Matlovsky, which airs tonight on the excellent series "P.O.V." on KCET Channel 28 at 10 p.m.

The documentary is called "Whatever Happened to Zworl Quern?," which reads like something you get when you type with your fingers on the wrong home keys. It is a stage name Wolfe's brother proposed for her when she briefly took up acting. Orson Welles sawed her in half in his magic act, but fired her from a dramatic role, Wolfe says, because she giggled during rehearsals.

For the last 20 years or so, Wolfe's friend Susan

Lardner has been chronicling her doings in Notes and Comments pieces in the New Yorker, where Wolfe is identified only as Janet. There was at one point even talk of a musical drawing upon Wolfe's uncommonly spontaneous and varied life.

She was with the Red Cross during World War II, acted in Roberto Rosselini's "Paisan," though her scene was cut, and a few years ago got into trouble with the Immigration and Naturalization Service by whiting out her age on her passport. (She now admits, reluctantly, to being in her 70s.)

Having successfully lent a hand to the Ash Grove (she learned about news releases, bios, pix and photo opportunities), Wolfe moved to New York where she is now the manager of the New York Housing Authority Symphony Orchestra, which concertizes all over the city and encourages young minority players and which Wolfe helps to keep afloat by putting the arm on her friends.

She invites comparisons with Auntie Mame in her forthrightness, and her friendships with Welles, Rosselini, Shelley Winters, Eartha Kitt and several political leaders make good reading or viewing.

She has hundreds of devoted if lesser-known friends because Wolfe, against all advice, talks to strangers. Once, when I was having lunch with her at a very expensive and very crowded restaurant on Fifth Avenue, Wolfe began chatting with a couple at the next table as if she'd known them for years. She hadn't, but they were beguiled. Before the entree arrived, Wolfe had the promise of lifelong friendship and thermal underwear at wholesale if we ever required it.

But Auntie Mame isn't half of Wolfe. There are strains of Sol Hurok, Perle Mesta and Simone Signoret as well, and borrowings, at least, from the generous spirit of Mother Teresa. Wolfe has sheltered more strays, human and animal, than anyone I know.

Behind the wonderful toujours gai postures, there is a good deal of sensitivity and sadness, and an extremely painful childhood. Her daughter's filmed portrait of Wolfe (which began as Deborah's senior film project at UCLA) is, like Wolfe herself, fearlessly candid.

I'm bound in my own candor to say that I make a brief appearance in "Whatever Happened to Zworl Quern?" reflecting on a friendship that began when a publicist made the shocking confession that she didn't know what she was doing. I claim no objectivity about the film, or about Auntie Janet.

The other documentary on this edition of "P.O.V." is Karen Goodman's "No Applause, Just Throw Money," a look at New York's street performers--mimes, singers, magicians, dancers, musicians, even an acrobat. Two years in the shooting, the film has been widely seen and honored on the festival circuit.

Goodman and her crew caught up with no fewer than 101 buskers, including a saxophone player who works subway cars, to the occasional consternation of the passengers. It looks like hard work, in all weathers, but it can be very rewarding (a nice sequence at the end on counting the hat). And the film makes the point, entertainingly, that some of the buskers are very talented indeed. It is a fast, expertly captured and very touching visit.

The documentary seems a chronically imperiled form, whether it is hard-edged and controversial or whether, as in these two films, it is simply taking an affectionate and knowing look at the characters among us. But imperiled is not the same as dying, and the vitality of the form reasserts itself every time out.

Karen Goodman is now embarked on a profile of Buckminister Fuller for the PBS "American Masters" series. Deborah Matlovsky is working as a free-lance film and television editor in New York. Zworl Quern is keeping her symphony on the move.

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