Sarasota area filmmakers explore Florida history and culture on PBS

mclear@bradenton.comOctober 13, 2013 

Cortez Fishing Village. Jack Kerouac. A childhood friend of Anne Frank.

At first glance they don't seem to have anything to do with each other. But to Gus Mollasis and Mark Reese, they're among the people, places and things that make Florida special.

"I love Florida," said Reese, a documentary filmmaker and Peabody Award-winning radio commentator who divides his time between Sarasota County and Los Angeles. "What we like to do is go out and find Florida's gems."

Reese and Mollasis, a writer and TV host, respectively, who live in Sarasota, are stringing those gems together for a PBS series called "Diamonds Along the Highway" that's just started its second season on WEDU.

In each episode, Reese and Molassis introduce viewers to fascinating, and often little-known, aspects of Florida culture through half-hour documentaries

The series premiered with "Jack Kerouac Slept here," a look at Kerouac's one-time home in Orlando that is now a writer's retreat.

Another episode told the story of Pieter Kohnstam, who now lives in Venice. When he was a child in Amsterdam, one of his playmates was Anne Frank. His family had the chance to go into seclusion with the Franks, but decided young Pieter wouldn't be able to stay quiet, and opted to flee through Europe.

An episode slated for Feb. 13 is titled "Gone Fishing for Old Florida: Voices of Cortez."

"It's one of the last old fishing villages anywhere," Mollasis said. "Once they banned net fishing it really had an impact on Cortez, but there are still people going out fishing every day."

He and Reese trace the show's origins back a few years to an evening at the Sarasota Film Festival. Reese was there with his award-winning documentary, "The Boys in Winter: The Toughest Season," that deals with the last year in the life of his father, baseball Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, and other baseball legends.

Mollasis was hosting a movie review show. He introduced himself to Reese and they became instant friends.

Some years later, Reese phoned Mollasis with the idea to produce a documentary series about Florida. Mollasis loved the concept and they got to work immediately.

Reese said the concept could work in any state, but Florida's special properties make it especially well-suited. The state geography leads to a diverse range of lifestyles, its history offers rich possibilities and the influx of new residents and visitors means there are always people discovering Florida and wanting to learn more about it.

"When we find a story," Mollasis said, "we attack it."

So far WEDU is the only PBS station airing "Diamonds Along the Highway." It airs first at 8:30 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month, and then runs at other times during the month on WEDU's digital channels.

Reese and Mollasis picked up a sponsor this season, Premiere

Sotheby's. They financed the first season out of their own pockets. The next step is to try to get other PBS stations around Florida to pick up the show.

Jack Conely, WEDU vice president of content, actually envisions bigger things for the show. He thinks it's strong enough to interest PBS stations all around the country, and he said WEDU will help provide Mollasis and Reese with the contacts and infrastructure to make that happen.

"It's Florida stories, but it's universally strong storytelling," Conely said. "We're happy to support it."

WEDU ran a Florida-themed show for in years called "Gulf Coast Journal" that was popular around the country, and Conely said he thinks "Diamonds Along the Highway" can be just as successful.

The first few months will feature repeats of shows from the first season, including the story about Kohnstam, Anne Frank's friend, on Dec. 12.

New episodes start Jan. 9 with "The Fountainebleau: Enter & Play Your Part," about the legendary Miami Hotel.

In May, "Diamonds Along the Highway" will feature "Embracing Our Differences," the annual Sarasota art exhibit that celebrates diversity.

The film that inspired the series, Reese's "The Boys in Winter," will air in April as a segment of "Diamonds Along the Highway" during a WEDU pledge drive. It will be the television premiere of the film, which eared critical praise from the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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