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FAMILY BUSINESS
WITH A FEATURE FILM, ELLEN RIGAS VENETIS STEERS THE CLAN BEHIND THE SABRES AND ADELPHIA INTO THE WORLD OF MOVIES

Think Rigas and visions of hockey pucks may slide into mind.

Or cable television. Or long-distance phone service.

Probably not movies, though, those much-enjoyed celluloid trips to other worlds.

But a new movie at the North Park Theatre is being viewed with interest by at least two members of the John Rigas family - for good reason.

"Songcatcher," a lyrical look at 1910 Appalachian America, marks a first for Rigas Entertainment, a feature film production company founded in 1995 by the cable television pioneer and his daughter, Ellen Rigas Venetis.

"I was completely immersed in the production," explained Venetis during a phone interview from her Manhattan office. "I had the idea to have a film set in the earliest days of country bluegrass. I was part of the casting process, raising the money, was down in North Carolina for the shooting. It took 28 days. That's really quick. That's low-budget filmmaking.

"Songcatcher" debuted at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and caught the eyes (and ears) of jury members, who voted it Outstanding Ensemble Performance winner. Featuring Aidan Quinn and Janet McTeer, "Songcatcher" celebrates verse, with soundtrack performances by Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent, Hazel Dickens and Taj Mahal.

"It's about the actual essence of the music," said Venetis, who herself made frequent appearances on the acoustic Americana circuit. "My music led me to want to be involved in the film."

Like her three older brothers, Venetis graduated from Harvard University. She first started writing songs along the banks of Baker Creek in her hometown of Coudersport, Pa. After getting a bachelor's degree in American History and Literature, she became a regular performer in Boston, Los Angeles, New York - and a funky little cabaret housed in the Park Lane restaurant.

There is little question about the role music plays in "Songcatcher."

"When it's all said and done, the music is the real star," said Rigas. "I'm not really what you call a movie buff, but since I booked all the movies in the Coudersport Theater for years, I have a lot of background."

As a young graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rigas launched his career by buying the tiny theater where he sold tickets, made popcorn and ushered people to their seats. He remembers his first movie, Abbott and Costello's "Comin' Round the Mountain," as well as his most successful.

"For sheer volume - box office draw in the fewest number of days - the Ma and Pa Kettle movies released by Universal were huge back in the '50s," Rigas said.

And then the Buffalo Sabres owner does one better on the memory meter.

"I paid $37.50 to show them," he recalled, charging adults 50 cents and children, 20 cents. "I made a lot of money on them, thank God."

Rigas gives "Songcatcher" three stars, and continues to watch the box office intently.

"It will be interesting to see what we get out of Buffalo," noted Rigas. "They have not spent a lot of money to advertise the film; maybe we can do something about that."

"Songcatcher" isn't the only project on the Rigas Entertainment table. Two other works in progress share a local connection. The first, with a working title of "The Day the Yankees Came to Wellsville," is based on the recollections of Rigas as a youth. The second is a sports documentary in the fashion of "Hoop Dreams" focusing on the Buffalo Sabres.

Rigas, who moved to Coudersport from Wellsville in 1951, was a good enough athlete to earn a spot in Wellsville's sports hall of fame. It is by no coincidence that his daughter's film company will now focus on a prewar phenomenon called the PONY League, minor-league baseball teams that played in the Southern Tier as well as in Pennsylvania and Ontario.

"I've always kidded her (Ellen) that if I ever get foolish enough and decide to make a movie, I'd put something together about small-town culture," Rigas said. "Baseball was truly the American pastime. It had to be part of the movie; the other part was that I wanted to mark the year 1941, an extraordinary year for baseball, and a time in America's life when people were optimistic about the future and coming off the Depression."

Like "Songcatcher," "Yankees" represents a look back at innocence. Unlike "Songcatcher," it has no music.

"It's about how Wellsville is transformed because of that day," Venetis described. "Our hero's life is changed forever - in a few short months - because of World War II."

The Sabres project, meanwhile, is working its way into becoming a documentary about the relationship between a city and its sports team.

"There's a love-hate relationship between the two," she said. "We started shooting film footage during the Stanley Cup run, and we've been quietly gathering archival footage. Hopefully, we'll shoot more next season."

Venetis always had an interest in the entertainment world, according to her father.

"Even in the third and fourth grades she liked to put plays and stage shows together," Rigas said. "But my honest thoughts were that as she got more experience in the world of music, I would encourage her to get something going along the lines of production. I always thought she had the talent."

OK, Papa John, what about you? Will Western New Yorkers see a cameo performance by Rigas in the baseball movie?

"I'm a terrible actor," he admitted. "But I could probably play somebody in the stands."

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