Greenport filmmaker plans documentary highlighting life of Peg Murray

10/06/2019 5:55 AM |

Greenport resident and filmmaker Amie Sponza is bringing Tony Award-winner Peg Murray to the big screen once more — this time, with the optics focused on Ms. Murray’s 95 years of life.

The two first met in the summer of 1979 when Ms. Sponza, then 16, enrolled in an acting improvisation class in a building on South Street. Ms. Murray had been asked to teach the class as part of an effort to boost Greenport’s economy.

“I just connected with her and looked up to what she was teaching us,” said Ms. Sponza, who also works at her family’s business, Port of Egypt Marina. Ms. Sponza stayed in touch throughout college and Ms. Murray became a mentor, writing different roles for the self-described “young and hungry” performer. Together, they built a friendship that persists to this day.

“There’s a deep love between us that, even though there were months and long periods of time when we didn’t see each other … we always came back to share our stories,” Ms. Sponza said.

Executive producer of the new film “Peg Murray: A Legacy of Inspiration,” Ms. Sponza also serves as president of Northeast Stage — formerly known as Greenport Summer Players — a theater company she founded with Ms. Murray and a few others in the 1980s. The group has put on a show every summer since, with Ms. Murray adapting Shakespeare and writing “Alice in Washington,” a cross between “Alice in Wonderland” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” among others.

“Everything was a musical because that was her background,” Ms. Sponza said. “When she started directing herself and wanted to fold the company, I said, ‘Oh no, I can’t let it go. I’ve worked too hard to get it to this point …’ She trusted me to keep the level of professionalism that she had.”

Ms. Sponza said she has been wanting to make this film for some time.

“Who knows how much longer we’ll have to be able to talk to her and have it directly from her mouth? From her memories?”

Ms. Murray wrote a memoir over 10 years ago, Ms. Sponza said, but it never saw the light of day because “the publisher wanted more sex and more gossip and [Peg] said ‘no’ and so it sat on a shelf.”

An undated photo of Ms. Murray taken while she starred on the soap opera “All My Children” in the 1980s and ’90s.

The production, which is being dubbed a “legacy film” by director Catherine Tatge, will dive into different aspects of Ms. Murray’s career. Dominique Lasseur, Ms. Tatge’s husband, is director of photography and John Marean is the gaffer and lighting designer.

“It’s going to be [an] interview-style talking head basically,” Ms. Sponza said, “but we’re going to intersperse all of the pictures and news clippings.”

In her early years, Ms. Murray was hired by the armed services to be a civilian actress technician, but when she and other CATs arrived in Paris, they had no road map.

“[The soldiers] didn’t know what to do with her,” Ms. Sponza said. “They took them in and fed them and gave them a place to stay and she toured Europe post-World War II, entertaining the troops and putting on shows … She toured the camps, not knowing where she was going to be. She was actually there during the Nuremberg trials and got to sit in the courtroom. That was just the beginning.”

Ms. Murray returned to the U.S. in 1947 and formed a traveling theater company called Touring Players Inc. with her late friend Elizabeth Blake.

“They were in the Deep South in the ’50s when it was not a thing that white people did, performing in a black college as an all-white cast,” Ms. Sponza explained. “Then, they came back to New York, bought a truck, filled it with costumes, sets, lights, cast the shows … and went on the road.”

Ms. Murray toured with the company for almost eight years before launching her Broadway career.

She had a long run with “Fiddler on the Roof,” a 13-year role as Olga Swenson on TV’s “All My Children” and, in 1967, won a Tony Award for Best Actress in the original production of “Cabaret.” Despite all the success, Ms. Murray was never one for attention, Ms. Sponza said.

“It really is fascinating how much she did and accomplished and went through in her life that people don’t know about,” Ms. Sponza said. “I mean, she could have been as famous as Betty White, but that isn’t what she wanted. She hated L.A. She didn’t want to be out there; she liked it here.”

Ms. Murray moved to the North Fork in 1970, having purchased a small cottage from the Long Island Cauliflower Association. Today, she resides at The Shores at Peconic Landing, where the movie will be filmed.

Ms. Sponza has made it just over halfway to her goal for production costs. She is looking to raise an additional $7,000 to $10,000 through grants or donations for the post-production phase, which includes editing, marketing and, potentially, streaming, “to kind of shine the light on her career and what’s possible when you have a dream and you have a drive and you’re a woman.”

“I really would like to get her story out there,” Ms. Sponza said. “That’s why I’m calling it ‘A Legacy of Inspiration’ … I don’t think I ever would have directed 16 high school musicals if I hadn’t learned from her how to do it.”

For film updates and information on the crew, visit PegMurrayFilm on Facebook. To donate, go to northeaststage.org under “More” or mail a check to Northeast Stage, attn: Peg Murray Film, P.O. Box 247, Greenport, NY 11944.

Top photo caption: Peg Murray (left), a Tony Award-winning actress and artistic founder of Northeast Stage, with Greenport filmmaker and Northeast Stage co-founder Amie Sponza. They are working together on a film documenting Ms. Murray’s life and career. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

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