Christine Baranski didn't just narrate the moving documentary, "Polonia: Western New York's Polish-American Legacy." She lived it.
"I absolutely lived it," said Baranski in a telephone interview from her Connecticut home. "My grandparents were actors in the Polish theater mentioned. My grandmother had a comedy show. Every Sunday I would listen to Polish radio. The 10:30 Mass at St. John Gualbert was always in Polish. So I was used to hearing the Mass in Polish and hearing the beautiful Polish music. And my parents were part of a choral group."
So you can see the Buffalo-born, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress was the perfect choice to narrate the film, which airs at 8 tonight on WNED-TV. "Polonia" uses Ken Burns' techniques of moving interviews, title cards, file footage, home movies and traditional music to trace the story of Polish immigration in Western New York from 1873 to where it is today.
The program, which was first proposed in 1998 by two WNED-TV staffers who are among those interviewed in the film, is produced and directed by Christy May, who grew up in Niagara Falls.
May knew part of the story from doing a 2002 documentary, "Buffalo's Houses of Worship," and from listening to stories from her Uncle Vern. "I didn't think of them as Polish stories, just stories of his growing up," said May.
She did a lot of research at the Historical Society, searching for old photos. But she said her biggest finds came from photos and home movies from the personal collections of many of the proud Polish-Americans interviewed.
"We'd ask, 'Do you have anything?'" said May. "When they said they didn't, we'd ask, 'Are you sure?' They'd come back with something and ask, 'Is this anything?' And we'd say, 'This is exactly what we're talking about.' "
Of course, attracting Baranski, a big name with a great voice, adds to the program's stature.
"There is something to handing somebody a script and for them to get and hear the emotion you're trying to bring," said May.
Baranski's Polish pride is evidenced by her decision to keep her family name despite suggestions that a change would help her career, including from a neighbor.
"Lenny, my next-door neighbor, suggested I change it to Chris Barnes," recalled Baranski. "I said I didn't want to sound like a hockey player. Now I'm really happy I didn't. It's very cool. Not everyone has to have a short, Hollywood-type name. The fact it is ethnic makes it interesting, and it is exactly who I am."
> Understanding roots
Just who Baranski and her former neighbors really are comes through in a beautifully told story that works as nostalgia and as history and is appropriately fun and sad at different moments. "Polonia" proudly illustrates the influence of Polish culture, tradition, media, food, music and faith and is bound to attract a huge local viewership.
It certainly will attract the one-third of Erie County residents who are Polish, but their story also should resonate with any immigrant group that wants children to understand the importance of their roots.
"It is really the story of our community," said May.
And how it has changed since the days that Buffalo was boomtown and Broadway-Fillmore looked as crowded as Times Square. "Polonia" documents a forgotten, family-oriented time that sadly is impossible to duplicate in today's hectic world.
"As I've gotten older and I'm raising children, I want them to have a sense of community and tradition," said Baranski. "I realize that as much as I complained about having to get out of Buffalo and leave for New York, I actually had a wonderful childhood there. And one of the reasons for that is precisely because of the sense of community that came with being Polish-American. The life of the community was centered around the church."
She attended Queen of Martyrs first, then St. John Gualbert after the family moved. She said her grandfather, a prominent architect, designed the church, the new school and the gym. Her brother ran the Broadway Market for years, her father was the editor of a Polish newspaper.
"I had a lot of Polish culture in my young life," said Baranski. "Now it resonates with me very deeply. I've lost my mom, my brother, my father died when I was 8. I have few connections to Buffalo, but my history and traditions are very much based on what I had as a little girl. It was a nice middle-class upbringing. There is a lot to be said for that sort of upbringing."
Baranski did the voice-over on the film without actually seeing any visuals. She confirmed that she cried when reading the script.
"I was moved by it, especially the descriptions of Polish Christmases," said Baranski. "All those traditions, I now pass them on to my own daughters. I can't wait to show the documentary to my daughters. One of the main reasons I did it was that they would always have a document of what their mother's background was and their heritage."
> Sad moments
Baranski said reading portions of the script also saddened her.
"It is touching, because it doesn't exist anymore," said Baranski. "That neighborhood and so many of the churches are dismantling or don't have the community or are shutting down."
There also are some touches of humor and nostalgia along with the sadness. A woman recalls her daughter marveling at the wide range of offerings at Sattler's department store and noting "you could buy your ice cream and your brassieres there."
Demonstrating the art of making pierogis, retired Supreme Court Justice Ann T. Mikoll says "it is quite labor-intensive, but the finished product is absolutely wonderful. The secret is . . . flexible dough. Ask Martha Stewart."
"For those people who are Polish, ('Polonia') will reinforce where all those traditions came from," said Baranski. "If they are anything like me, they will go, 'Oh, I see that was quite wonderful. It was very special. We always took for granted it would always be there.' "
She understands that the European immigrant sensibility is moving further away from the American sensibility and there is a price being paid for that.
"They centered their life, because they were religious, on the church and the middle-class community they grew up," said Baranski. "There was a quality of life that was actually rather lovely, because it was based on culture and tradition. With each generation, it dilutes and it spreads out and it will never come again. You realize how rich the immigrant culture makes this country."
"Polonia" joyously documents that richness. Like making pierogis, the film was quite labor-intensive, but the finished product is absolutely wonderful.
Polonia: Western New York's Polish-American Legacy
8 tonight, WNED-TV
Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)