This 'n That Films documentaries educate, preserve history

08/11/2014 1:11 PM

08/11/2014 1:20 PM

A few hours southeast of the Central Valley sits the Mecca of Modernism, Palm Springs.

Neon signs once lit up the city of Las Vegas and U.S. Route 66.

For a few years Mark Twain roamed the West in search of a profitable career.

And as one of the original burlesque actors on New York City stages, Irv Benson entertained audiences for over half a century.

What do these four subjects have in common? Their stories are being preserved in award-winning documentaries produced by This ‘n That Films.

The company was started by John C. Brown, originally from New Hampshire. While in college he worked as associate producer for the PBS cooking show “Ciao Italia.” After several years with public television, he moved to Los Angeles.

There he created This ‘n That Films to produce high-quality, educational and entertaining films.

“I bought a camera and did fellow actors’ demo reels and light industrial work at first,” Brown says.

He is also a stage actor. His move west came after landing the lead role in a Sierra Repertory Theatre production. While performing with SRT he met Bart Williams, who is also an actor and filmmaker.

Williams is a personal friend of Irv Benson and suggested doing a film about the comedian’s life.

“Before I knew it, we were in New York City at the Palace Theatre, interviewing and shooting,” says Brown.

“The Last First Comic” covers Irv Benson’s colorful career on stage and in television. Benson celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this year. In a recent Wall Street Journal article featuring Benson, This ‘n That Films earned some notoriety.

It was Brown’s first serious project.

After working with SRT for a few years, he left L.A. and moved to Tuolumne County. There he met Bert Simonis, a software sales and marketing executive. Simonis knew of Brown’s work and saw the company’s business potential. He also had an idea for a film.

Soon afterward they produced “Mid-Century Moderns,” highlighting the distinctive homes in Palm Springs.

The two men are now managing partners.

“Bert is a creative guy with vast business experience,” Brown says. “We still liked each other after completing our first film together, and figured that was a good sign.”

Simonis runs the business office in Palm Springs, where he relocated for his wife’s health. Brown runs the creative headquarters in Sonora. They communicate via phone or email several times a day to discuss everything from costumes and props, shots and writing, to schedules and budgeting. Brown travels to Southern California almost weekly to work on their current project.

Other tasks of planning, research, filming, editing and marketing are divided between the two of them. So far, projects have lasted anywhere from six months to three and a half years.

Their second project was “Quiet Elegance.” This film tells the story of architect Hugh Kaptur, designer of over 200 houses, condominiums, offices and civic structures in the Coachella Valley.

Two more films are in the works for completion in 2015.

“88 Days in the Mother Lode” recounts the three months Samuel Clemens spent in the Sierra foothills. A failure at every endeavor and financially destitute, he contemplated suicide. But the brief stay in Tuolumne County turned his life around and launched his career as Mark Twain.

The declining neon sign industry is the subject of a future documentary.

Besides personal interest, the film topics come from people they meet and fascinating things the partners see while traveling.

According to Simonis, “We’ve learned if we present a history lesson with a spoonful of sugar, we will educate and entertain.”

Visit for more information and to watch film trailers.

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