She that was dead now lives! Someone who had been dead for 22 years was brought back to life. Not her corpse but her living spirit was unveiled to her relatives, including a grandchild who was only 5 years old when her Grandmother died.
A week before Xmas in 2003, retired filmmaker Simon Gribben got a message on his answering machine from someone calling herself Courtney Olejack claiming that she was the grandchild of a dearly departed friend of his who he had made a film about many years before. She wondered if it was possible to get a copy of it for her father as a Xmas gift.
Courtney Olejack had only “blips of memory” of her magnificent grandmother and that was long before home videotapes were so available. She would like to see her in physical motion and witness her aliveness in an award winning film made in 1969 and that none in her surviving family had ever seen.
Courtney heard about the film that starred the pizza bar run by her grandparents, Frank and Theresa Olejack, from her Uncle Louis, the younger child of the couple. Courtney’s father, Frank, JR, was their older son. Uncle Louis told her about a filmmaker named Simon Gribben and his close connection to his mother. She and Gribben had adopted each other, what we now call an “extended family”; she was his second mother, he was an older son.
It all began for Gribben in 1953 when he and his neighborhood friends Dave Parker, Dick Somers and Jack Cameron were on a quest to find the best pizza in the Lehigh Valley. Gribben was only 14 but Parker was older and had access to a car and they discovered this out of the way bar in West Catasaqua, a suburb of Allentown, PA, that had this enormous sign over the door that said “PIZZA”.
They entered and discovered the best pizza they’d ever tasted. The Olejacks owned and ran this place called The Fairview House: she, the charming barmaid; he, the silent chef and bartender. The clientele were eclectic, blue collared, white collared, old and young. Instruments were there for those who played to entertain them all.
Traveling to this out of the way pizza oasis eventually became a weekly pilgrimage for Gribben and he and Theresa became as close as mother and child. He never drank beer there until his 21st birthday when it was officially legal to drink in Pennsylvania. He drank elsewhere but not at his second Mom’s place. She even evaluated the girls he brought there like a real Mom.
When he was going to college, she would quiz him on his lessons and get his college courses for free. He ended up teaching her what he needed to learn and that’s the best way to learn anything: teach it! They loved each other as only a mother and child can, adopted or not.
She was barely educated but had life smarts and a great enthusiasm for learning. She was a great conversationalist, someone who would draw you out and not steal the spotlight. She loved studying his French lessons. She was an avid antiquer and was into astrology and music, She tried painting and over Gribben’s desk today is one of her paintings of one of her bar patrons.
When he grew up and went away, he would always visit her when he came home. The excuse was pizza but the real reason was that great fondness that some call love.
Gribben became a sports filmmaker who wanted to do anything else because he was not a sports fan. He was taking graduate courses at Temple University’s night school and a film course required him to make a documentary. The only documentary he wanted to make was about his beloved second mother, Theresa, and her pizza bar.
He wanted to call it “A Night at Theresa’s” but the instructor, Ernie Rose, wanted the class to have an overall theme for their films like the 7 ages of man. He was assigned the mature years and told his title was “I Am”. Gribben accepted the title but would go on to make a film about a person and a place that he loved.
Because of a technical snafu, the wireless microphone that would have candidly captured her gregarious spirit wouldn’t work. He got snatches of her conversation off of a hand held mike but it was not the same as letting her forget she was miked and being her totally engaging self. He had to rethink his overall approach in the editing room.
Instead of “A Night at Theresa’s”, it would become more general, more about an entertaining evening at a rural pizza bar in Pennsylvania. Instead of being the subject of the film, Theresa became a standout player in a kaleidoscope of people and pizza, music and laughter. And it all looked real, like the people didn’t know there was a camera present.
When Gribben finished the film, he was going to throw it in a drawer because it didn’t do what he thought it should. The student who was the director of photography, Galen Longwell, asked if he could enter it in film competitions and was told to knock himself out.
The 10-minute film went on to win many honors as an art film but never made it to television and a mass audience like many of Gribben’s films. He showed the film once at the bar to Theresa and most of the participants. Who wasn’t there were her 2 children, Frank, JR, and Louis and the grandchildren yet to come.
To watch a film made in 1969, you needed a 16mm projector. Not many people had one and the idea of giving Theresa a copy of a film she couldn’t watch seemed cruel to him. Years passed and Theresa died in 1981 at the age of 59. The bar was sold and he lost touch with the family and that seemed like that.
Gribben stopped in at the old place once but everything had changed. Theresa took the secret of her fantastic sauce and generous toppings to the grave with her. Occasionally he fantasized about marketing great pizzas, “Simple Simon’s Pies”, but, without her sauce, it would always be second rate to him.
He even thought of contacting Frank, JR, who he had been close with to see if he had the recipe. Gribben searched the Internet for his phone number (how many Frank Olejacks could there be in the United States?) but he wouldn’t pay for the number from a site that required payment. He thought that maybe someday he might.
So, enter Uncle Louis telling Niece Courtney about a film that featured a grandmother she barely remembered. He gave her the filmmaker’s name and she searched the Internet for him and came up with an article, “Rip Van Gribben”, that he wrote for his hometown paper about his return to live in Allentown after 40 years away.
Courtney called Gribben and left the message asking for the videotape as a surprise Christmas gift. He didn’t think he had one and put a call into his old friend Jack Cameron who was making copies of his films that were in the Museum of Modern Art which included the bar film. Jack responded quickly, he too had been a loyal customer and friend of Theresa’s, and hastily sent the tapes.
On the morning of December 26th, 2003, Francis (that’s what Frank’s Mom called him) phoned his old friend Simon and invited him to have lunch with his family: wife Cindy, son Brenton and daughter Courtney. Francis and he hadn’t seen each other in over 40 years and theirs was a warm reunion.
After a quick lunch of Brass Rail cheese steaks, they went to Gribben’s apartment. All four of the Olejacks sat on a large sofa and watched the black and white film. Gribben had always had that problem with appreciating the film; it seemed to have no plot, no narration and not enough of Theresa’s treasured personality.
Sitting with the Olejacks, he realized it had a plot, didn’t need narration and there was just enough of Theresa’s personality to give an audience a sense of how much fun she was. Even though he wrote, directed, edited and co-produced the film, it took the Olejack family for him to really appreciate his film for the first time.
They got all the nuances, the little jokes, as if he had made the film just for them. They all cried. Sitting on the floor at their feet, Gribben cried along with them. He had finally served that special someone who had served him for all those years by turning her memory into a reality. All of the family, by blood or love, were grateful. Theresa was alive and well in the film and in that room. She was a Xmas gift to them all.