With the network news departments closing their doors to independent film producers, Robert Drew looked to arts programming to keep experimenting with his filmmaking ideas.
For the Bell Telephone Hour he made films on jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, classical musicians like Yehudi Menuhin, and the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.
He started with just a few films in the first year, and by the second year Bell Telephone asked Drew to produce all 12 hours in its series. “For once I turned down business,” Drew later wrote. “I preferred to hand-make 6 hours myself rather than 12 through other people, a decision I found most rewarding then and a tendency I have cultivated ever since.”
Drew won an Emmy for the film “Man Who Dances: Edward Villella,” about one of the world’s great ballet dancers. Edward Villella was the principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and the film contrasts his grace and power onstage with the physical torture Villella endures backstage as a result of his punishing performance schedule.
The film, which the Saturday Review hailed as “the greatest dance film of the decade,” was edited by a new employee at Drew Associates, Anne Gilbert. Fresh from the graduate film program at New York University, Anne had risen quickly in the Drew organization and had won the job as the lead editor for the Villella film. Her experience as a dancer herself added an extra level of sensitivity and understanding to what Villella was experiencing. That expertise helped her edit an exquisite film, that interweaves flawless performances of Balanchine’s work with footage of rehearsals, down-time and doctor visits.
Drew and Gilbert worked closely, late into the night. There was a spark between them. Drew’s first marriage was already rocky. It wasn’t long before Drew got a divorce and married Anne Gilbert, now Anne Drew. The two were inseparable filmmaker partners for the rest of their lives.
The turbulence Drew was experiencing getting commissions to produce cinema verite films pushed the two Drews to take on other work. He pursued and directed his only feature film, “The Sun Ship Game,” which Anne edited, about the world of soaring — engine-less glider planes racing each other for time and distance. Soaring had become one of his personal passions; Anne also learned how to pilot a glider. They mixed their pleasure with business and produced a film that’s become a kind of cult classic in the soaring world, though it did not fare well at the box office.
Drew kept himself in business by producing commercials, corporate and industrial films. Drew’s eldest son, Thatcher Drew, joined the company as a producer, correspondent and cinematographer. He worked on films including “Men of the Tall Ships,” “The Sun Ship Game,” and “Who’s Out There?” before leaving to start his own film production company.
Here’s how Robert Drew later described the period: “Suddenly I was hit with the works — commercials, corporate and industrial films, for people many of whom knew or cared nothing about candidness or reality. They had many subjects and purposes — science and space for NASA; commercials and corporate films for IBM, Westinghouse and LTV; a feature-length film for theatres on my sport, soaring; “Images of Einstein” and “Parade of the Tall Ships.”
“It was fun to be unhinged from theories and responsibilities to them. It was a game, trying to write someone else’s postcards from home — how Orson Welles could use his “War of the Worlds” to open a Carl Sagan inquiry into “Who’s Out There?”
“Of course, I kept on finding ways to look into people, including a long-lens, slow-motion look at Apollo 9 astronauts bobbing inside their space helmets.”
That last film, titled “The Space Duet of Spider and Gumdrop,” features a soundtrack of a version of The Beatle’s “Yellow Submarine.” That note of whimsy was edited into the film by Anne Drew.