How Mel Damski got to La Conner and loved it


August 16, 2023

Mel Damski

If Mel Damski's life were a movie, it might open in black and white, the screen split.

In one half, a Berlin boxing promoter, sophisticated and successful, his top client the then-heavyweight champion of the world. He's holding a newspaper from 1935. The headlines scream Hitler is announcing laws that provide the legal framework for persecuting Jews. The boxing promoter is Jewish. He knows worse is coming. He's stashed assets outside of Germany, just in case. He turns to his wife. "It's time," he tells her.

In the other half of the screen, a Berlin furrier, unsophisticated but successful. His clients are the city's wealthy. The furrier doesn't pay attention to the racial laws or world events. Until the night of Nov. 9, 1938. He gazes in horror as rioters, some of them his friends and neighbors, smash the windows of Jewish-owned shops and loot them. The crowd rushes toward his store when something amazing happens. The furrier's customers appear as if from nowhere, link arms and block the rioters. "You're not breaking the glass. These are good people," the furrier's defenders say. His store is safe. But the furrier has gotten the message. He turns to his wife. "It's time," he tells her.

The promoter is Damski's paternal grandfather. The furrier is Damski's maternal grandfather.

Cut to New York, where both families flee. It's there that Damski's mom and dad meet, fall in love and launch the first jewelry store on Long Island. Damski's older brother becomes a successful attorney; his sister a successful real estate agent; his younger brother follows Damski to Hollywood and becomes an Emmy-winning sound mixer. But that is later. First, Harry follows his Uncle Harry Rosenthal – Woodward and Bernstein's editor at The Washington Post -- into journalism.

It's the '60s. Damski lives in Manhattan. He writes sports for Newsday and is friends with the film critic. Damski thinks he might be interested in doing that. But he wants out of New York, where the drug scene has exploded. Damski doesn't drink and has absolutely no interest in recreational pharmaceuticals. He played football and wrestled at Colgate University. He's been the designated driver since high school.

Damski decides to study film at the University of Denver.

"My very first day of class my teacher describes what a director does," Damski says.

Damski is captivated by the idea of guiding a film crew and cast, translating a screenplay into a fully realized artistic vision. He knows it's what he's meant to do.

Damski makes a short film, "The Illegals." For the key shot, Damski stands in the middle of the Rio Grande River, between Mexico and Texas, filming people cross the divide between hope and poverty, opportunity and despair. He sells the film to the local PBS station and applies to and is accepted to the American Film Institute. He makes another short, "The Lost Phoebe," and wins awards for his portrait of an elderly widower who, unable to accept his wife's death, searches constantly for her.

Fade to Hollywood. An agent signs Damski. He goes straight from AFI to directing episodes of "Barnaby Jones." He directs an episode of "M*A*S*H" during its seventh season. Damski is 30. Just about everyone in the cast is older than him. "The truth is the show could have directed itself," he says.

But "MASH" leads to a job directing an episode of "Lou Grant," a spinoff of the "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." "Lou Grant" isn't a comedy. It's an hour-long drama centered around a hard-bitten newsman. Sitcom directors who might have been perfect for "Mary Tyler Moore" don't fit. Damski's experience as a journalist and a filmmaker gives him a different perspective, one the studio likes. Damski directs five episodes of "Lou Grant" and earns his first Emmy nomination.

"That just launched my career. I've done 40 movies and hundreds of hours of series. That's pretty amazing, right?" Damski says this modestly, as if four decades of work and countless episodes of TV series remain a pleasant surprise. He's quick to add that only a few of the movies he produced or directed were "movie theater movies" like "Yellowbeard" and "Mischief." The "Yellowbeard" cast includes three members of the British comedy troupe Monty Python, as well as Madeline Khan, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman. The "Mischief" soundtrack features songs by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holiday and other Rock 'n' Roll legends.

The Pythons and the soundtrack are part of a long list of bullet points on Damski's resume., which doesn't include a favorite movie.

They're all his movies, he says. Asking him to pick a favorite movie is like asking him to name his favorite child.

But Damski does have a favorite thing about the business: all the nice people he's met. The list includes Alan Alda, William Shatner, not to mention everyone in the "Psych" cast. His least favorite thing about show business: actors with inflated egos.

"They should be getting on their knees, thanking God constantly for the life they're having just by being an actor," Damski says. "Instead, some of them think they're better than others. I have no tolerance for that."

Fade to the Pacific Northwest.

Damski also has a favorite job: producer-director of "Psych." He produces every episode of the series except the pilot. He also directs a number of episodes. The series indirectly leads to Damski's current job writing If I Ran the Zoo for the La Conner Weekly News.

Damski lives in Vancouver during the eight-year run of "Psych." He has to become a British Columbia resident for the series to be eligible for Canada's generous film and television tax credits. While in Vancouver, Damski visits Shelter Bay and falls hard for the Pacific Northwest. The region is so beautiful that Damski decides he will never leave.

One day he marches into the La Conner newspaper's office with a column about how much he loves the area. He asks then-editor Sandy Stokes if she wants to publish it. Sandy asks if Damski wants to write the column on a regular basis. That was 16 years ago. If I Ran the Zoo is, more often than not, one of the Washington Newspaper Publishers' top columns each year.

"I'm a very opinionated person, I'm a very passionate person. Sometimes I love to praise things, sometimes I like to condemn things," Damski says. "You can't do that as a reporter, but as a columnist you can express your opinion."

Damski begins writing the column while still working on "Psych." He continued writing the column while producing and directing other movies – 11 for Hallmark -- and television episodes.

Damski is 77. These days, Damski doesn't direct or produce. It's not because he got tired of working with entitled actors or no longer has the drive. He would love to produce again, to mentor inexperienced directors, the same way he did at "Psych." But the industry is emphasizing diversity, he says, and old white guys aren't exactly in demand.

Still, Damski, a child of refugees who escaped the Holocaust, is grateful. He's grateful for the career he's had and for the country that gave shelter to his family and opportunities for success. He loves his newspaper job and recently branched out from columns into reporting.

"Believe me, I feel so blessed. I am happy. I live in a wonderful place. La Conner is a beautiful town. Shelter Bay is amazing .... I'm very happy with the life I'm having," Damski says.


Reader Comments(0)


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2023

Rendered 09/19/2023 14:55