The light, the quality, and the times of Gloucester filmmaker Henry Ferrini
He has Gloucester’s most recognizable last name — thanks to his late uncle Vincent, the enthusiastic and un-categorizable poet. It was Vincent Ferrini, in part, who brought filmmaker Henry Ferrini to Gloucester, along with other things. Poet and filmmaker both shared a love of Gloucester, and what it’s meant to artists, and to locals. Vincent Ferrini wrote about it; Henry Ferrini makes documentary films.
Henry came here in 1976, after studies at Simon’s Rock and Berklee. Soon after he came to Gloucester he bought the Wall Street house where he still lives and keeps his studios.
Music was his original devotion. It started with the flute — he studied with Boston Symphony Orchestra principal Doriot Anthony Dwyer, for years the only woman in the BSO — and then the sax. But frustrations at ever possibly making music a professional career led to another path.
Film filled that space.
“I was always smitten by film,” Ferrini says. “Music and film can be similar. They’re both time-based arts. I started the only film series at Simon’s Rock, just experimenting and playing around — sort of the thing I’m still doing now.”
When Ferrini’s first opportunity to make a film presented itself, the love was there, but the credentials were not. As part of federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program, cities were given discretionary funds for various artistic projects. Gloucester had some money, and Ferrini had ideas about using it.
“I was flying on the seat of my pants though,” he says. “I pitched myself as a media director to Jonathan Bayliss, who was the mayor’s top aide. I don’t know what he knew. I definitely didn’t know what I knew. But I got the gig.”
That gig led to Ferrini’s first documentary, The Light, the Quality, the Time, the Place (see video below), a film about environmental responsibility.
“That’s my motto — learn while you earn,” he says. “I did, on $167 a week in 1976. And now that film is a historical document of Gloucester at the time.”
It was the beginning. Ferrini has since made documentaries (many available on his YouTube channel) about Vincent (Poem in Action), Jack Kerouac (Lowell Blues), Charles Olson (Polis Is This), and radio personality Simon Geller (Radio Fishtown). He’s made films about Peabody (Leather Soul) and Salem (Witch City: A Picture Business). A major retrospective of jazz saxophonist Lester Young, President of Beauty, will be released in the next year. It’s a legacy of substantial documentation, focusing on the arts.
“There’s so many different sides of filmmaking,” he says. “Raising money. Directing. Cutting it. Then getting it out there. In Hollywood there’s 100 people in each department working on those things. An independent might have two or three if they’re lucky.”
Most of Ferrini’s films have been collaborations. An early association with Joe Cultrera — “a brilliant filmmaker and editor,” he says — led to the Peabody and Salem films. Martin Ray collaborated on The Light, the Quality, the Time, the Place. Ken Riaf and others were instrumental in the Geller and Olson documentaries.
In fact, Ferrini’s friendship with Riaf, and their interest in Geller, led to three related projects: the documentary film; the online preservation of Geller’s late, something-like-great radio station; and Riaf’s own My Station in Life, a one-man play workshopped and staged to great acclaim by the Gloucester Stage Company in 2018.
Ferrini saved the sonic legacy of WVCA singlehandedly. Geller had abandoned thousands of recorded hours of his madcap classical music station after he left Gloucester in the early ’80s. Ferrini tracked the recordings down — Geller had abandoned them when he left town — and they were his for the taking. Many, many hours of editing and organizing later, WVCA.org was created.
It’s seems natural that after Vincent’s passing in 2007, Henry Ferrini would have some part in furthering his legacy. The Gloucester Writers Center, founded in 2010, actually takes Vincent’s legacy — and his small East Gloucester home — and reinvents it, supporting a new generation of Gloucester authors. Along the way, it encompasses the legacies of Charles Olson, and many of the coterie of 1950s and ’60s–era writers who investigated Gloucester as a subject in some way.
Founded by Ferrini and Annie Thomas, GWC hosts readings, provides workshops of all kinds, and now also houses the Maud/Olson Library, located on the second floor of the Writers Center. The late Ralph Maud was a respected Olson scholar. In fact, Maud attempted to collect a copy of every book that Charles Olson owned, read or referred to — 4,000 titles in all. The non-circulating collection is now available to scholars and Olson devotees on the Writers Center’s second floor.
Thomas retired this year, but Ferrini still serves as executive director.
“It’s unbelievable what it has done for Gloucester,” Ferrini says. “It’s amazing, and yeah I’m surprised on how it took off.
“It only started because of the energy that Annie and I were able to devote to the first five years,” he says. “Losing her was a tough thing, but there is so much going on, and we just finished a strategic plan. We have a campus over there, and the Maud/Olson Library is a big part of the center now too.”
“It’s amazing how it’s grown, and will continue to grow,” Ferrini says. It’s got a strong board, great programming, and we’re looking for good things. It’s got great programming. We do 50–60 events a year now.”
Ferrini’s immediate future involves Lester Young. A sweet melodist at a time when lots of jazz players were famed for experimenting with ‘out’, Young (1909–59) lived hard, played great and died young. He was an intimate collaborator for a famous generations of jazz greats — Miles, Rollins, Billie, others. Ferrini has been documenting his story for years, and “President of Beauty” — fortified by a recent NEA grant — should be finished in a year or so.
“It’s a larger project than I’ve done in the past, and not a collaborative one,” he says. I’m dealing with animation for the first time. It’s a learning curve — and a money suck.
“And now distribution is totally different. All my films have been on public television. That’s how they got delivered. It’s totally different now, and I don’t know how they are going to deliver this. Video on demand would be great, and that’s what I’m looking at.”
Star power has helped Ferrini’s work get distribution and visibility in the past, and President of Beauty has plenty of it.
“In the Lowell film I worked with Johnny Depp, and that was cool. It helped move it,” he says. “John Malkovich was in Polis, and that gave it some gravitas. This one has Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Harry Belafonte, so it has more star power. Monica Getz, George Wein — even Brandford Marsalis is in it.”
And after that?
“I’d like to do a film about my grandfather,” he says. “It’s an immigrant story, a Russian Jew. He didn’t want to be in the Tsar’s army, but unlike most he doesn’t end up at Ellis Island, he ends up in Corpus Christi. And then makes his way up the Mississippi, to Minnesota. He joins forces with other radical young men, and they become farmers. It debunks the story of Jews who just wanted to be shopkeepers in New York. I don’t know yet if it’s a documentary or a feature.”
Shawn Henry is a Gloucester-based editorial photographer.