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Continued: Family-affair 'Fritz' film is Eleanor's gift to her dad

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 24, 2010 - 9:29 PM

Eleanor Mondale hopes she'll feel well enough Saturday to attend the screening of "Fritz: The Walter Mondale Story" at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The film is a gift to Minnesotans, who can feel terribly proud of their native son. Now 82, "Mr. Mondale" as he prefers to be called, never veered from public service, never compromised the greater good for personal gain. If you want to see what integrity looks like, the show starts at 3 p.m. (www.walkerart.org).

But "Fritz" also is a deeply personal gift for a father from his only daughter, whose health once again is compromised by a brain tumor.

The 60-minute documentary, directed by award-winning filmmaker Melody Gilbert, is an eye-opening and often funny study of Mondale's meteoric rise from barefooted boy in tiny Elmore, Minn., to U.S. senator, vice president and presidential candidate.

"I learned so much about what my dad had done, and that was so exciting," Eleanor, the film's narrator, said last week, two days after starting new chemotherapy for a brain tumor first diagnosed a month before her June 2005 wedding to musician Chan Poling. That tumor disappeared with radiation and chemotherapy, but has returned three times since 2008, most recently two weeks ago.

At 50, Eleanor is still her lovely, ageless self, all sky-blue eyes and cheekbones and close-cropped blonde hair, but she frets about feeling exhausted all the time. "My dad and Chan have a committee to get me out of bed," she jokes, seated with Poling in the cozy sun room of the secluded Prior Lake farmhouse on 5 acres they share with a Mollucan cockatoo, a 200-pound Mastiff, an Irish Wolfhound/Poodle, three chickens, two barn cats, five mini-horses and one mini-donkey. The couple is still planning a trip to Mexico in April, before a brain scan will determine "if this [treatment] is working," she said. "It's always an is-it-working kind of game."

Unlike Eleanor's early years, when her latest beau (Arnold, Warren Zevon, etc.), work gig or up-to-here hemline became gossip fodder, she's happy to step back and let Dad enjoy his star status. If only he could.

"He wasn't very keen on it," she said, "it" being a movie about his life. "When he knew I'd be involved, that made it better," Eleanor said. "He's happy with it, but he's a Minnesotan, so you'll never hear him say, 'Isn't that great?'"

As a radio personality, Eleanor hoped to make the documentary herself. She began collecting home movies, photographs and news footage with the help of the late Darcy Pohland, a friend and former colleague at WCCO.

The size of the job, coupled with health setbacks, knocked her off track.

Around that time, Gilbert was heading weekly to the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs to film Mondale's first semester lecturing to 18 awestruck students about the Carter-Mondale administration. One five-minute documentary later, Gilbert felt she was just warming up.

Gilbert grew up in Washington, D.C., and campaigned for Hubert Humphrey. "I was connected to Minnesota, in a way, since childhood," she said. Mondale's choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in his unsuccessful 1984 presidential bid, she said, "changed my life."

While Mondale's work on behalf of civil and human rights "were key moments of change," Gilbert wanted personal tales of roots, family and that famous Fritz wit that frustratingly disappears as soon as he's in front of a TV camera.

"I'm not into all the details of politics," said Gilbert, whose films include "Urban Explorers," "A Life Without Pain" and "Married at the Mall."

"I make films about the human condition, what drives people, what motivates them."

Mondale rebuffed her, politely, of course. "I'm done with public life," he told her. "I don't need TV cameras."

After Gilbert interviewed President Carter, "Mr. Mondale realized I'm not going away."

Eleanor heard about Gilbert's efforts and "forced myself on Melody," she said. "I said, 'I want a part.'" She gave Gilbert a shopping bag stuffed with family photographs, home movies, news clips. She recruited her brothers, Ted and William, to be interviewed, and mom, Joan, too, whom Gilbert captures in a funny and tender surprise exchange in the film's longer version (www.frozenfeetfilms.com).

"You were the model child," Joan says, as a smiling Eleanor unpacks eggs in her parents' kitchen.

Eleanor glances at her father. "You forgot, too?"

"Not much," he deadpans. Then, quickly, he adds, "Dads are always proud of their daughters and we've got a special one here."

Working with producers Lori Fink Garelick and Jan Selby, Gilbert knew she needed someone to pull all the elements together. Would Eleanor narrate? She accepted, then volunteered Poling to compose the score.

"He'd stay up all night, then send me emotional tracks in the morning," Gilbert said, "and I'd just be sobbing."

Poling, founder of the Suburbs, calls this work a labor of love. He's "living for the moment" these days. "I really, really enjoy playing music, reading a book in bed with Eleanor. We relish every little thing."

"Fritz" premiered at the Minnesota History Center in 2008, then a year later at George Washington University in D.C. to a standing ovation for its reluctant star (who, by the way, said that he and Joan now "are very grateful for it.")

Few are more grateful than Eleanor. "He took risks," she said.

"I'm so thankful that this was my dad, an honest, hard-working man who cared about people."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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