Hooray for Hollywood!

Wellesley and Weston Grads Find Success on the West Coast

Carolyn S. Ellis writer

Central street in Wellesley doesn’t look much like Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood and Weston’s Cat Rock is nothing like Griffith Park, but Wellesley and Weston natives are making their mark in the arts and entertainment in Los Angeles.

“Geography made it happen,” says Jay Harrington, Wellesley High Class of 1989, who has topped off a long line of television credits with a starring role as Ted Crisp in the ABC sitcom Better Off Ted. As a child, his family spent summers on Cape Cod up the road from The Harwich Junior Theater. “Our cottage didn’t have TV, so my mom signed me up for lessons,” Harrington says. “When I was seven I was in my first play.” He and brothers Adam and Matt also played sports. “I realized sports would not be the center of my career or education,” he says. “Theater offered invaluable life skills camouflaged as having fun.”

Then it was time for college. Like many parents of this generation, Judy and Terry Harrington never discouraged Jay from pursuing theater professionally. “He was single-minded,” Judy says, “and I would never tell my sons not to pursue their passion.”

“If I could hit a baseball I would not have become a director. Wellesley is a very athletic town,” says Greg Yaitanes, Emmy-winning director and Red Sox fan. His credits include House, Lost, Cold Case, CSI: NY, CSI: Miami, Alias, The Closer, Nip/Tuck, and Bones, among others. In 2008 he won the primetime Emmy for “Outstanding Directing of a Dramatic Series” for his work on House.

Like the Harringtons, Yaitanes discovered his passion as a child. When Continental Cable came to Wellesley, they had a public access studio at Babson College. Yaitanes was 15 when he signed up for classes. “Until then, I had been making videos on my own. Continental provided an environment to direct at an early age,” he says. Yaitanes took his passion for film to a professional level at the University of Southern California and stayed on in Los Angeles. His mother, Thalia Pananides, lives in Weston, where she grew up, and has a muscular therapy practice.

Screenwriter Tim Dowling (Wellesley High 1992) also went west to USC, graduating from the Theater School in 1996. He promptly landed a role in Beautician and the Beast, and more credits followed. In 2000 he began writing. Recent writing credits include Role Models (2008) and Born to Rock (2010).

At Wellesley High, Dowling did lots of theater. “There were so many talented people, like Michaela Watkins [of Saturday Night Live], one of the funniest people I have ever met, and Matt Flanagan, who wrote for David Letterman.” Other Wellesley expatriates include Justin Falvey, co-president of Dreamworks Television; screenwriter David Collard; and aspiring actor Baxter Smith.

Weston High School gave Dan Martin, Class of 2000, his start with a very active video program and up-to-date equipment. “With digital you could get a really great product,” says Martin. “I played guitar in a band and what do bands do? Make music videos. I was taken by what a complete art form it is—sound, visuals, music, and story.”

Martin earned a masters degree from the USC Film School in 2007. After pursuing his own screenwriting projects, in 2008 Martin joined Cartoon Network, where he is Development Coordinator for live-action TV shows and movies of the week.

Independent filmmaker Khadj Edison, Weston High Class of 1989, came to LA a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday. Edison was introduced to film during a high school post-grad year at Northfield Mount Hermon School. During an internship at Boston Casting, he got interested in production. He found that in LA there’s less emphasis on academics and more on who you know and what you can do; his team’s East Coast habits stand out. “People tell us, ‘You guys from the East Coast, you sure know how to hustle.’” Most recently Edison was associate producer with Effie T. Brown for the film Polish Bar.

Staying in LA is a grind, Edison says, living lean and coping with rejection. Like his peers, Edison is postponing marriage and children and investing these years toward future success. His mother and brother live in Weston, and he hopes to return home when it’s time to raise a family.

Wellesley and Weston offered these graduates a comfortable standard of living and good public schools. Teachers had high academic standards and encouraged creativity, and theater and music programs were strong. Their parents were interested in the arts, but weren’t professionally involved, with the exception of best-selling author, William Martin, Dan’s dad.

As a group, parents had high expectations and encouraged their children’s extracurricular activities. They drove to rehearsals and lessons and attended performances and games, doing whatever they could to support their children’s personal development. There wasn’t pressure to become a doctor, lawyer, or MBA. Instead, these parents accepted their sons’ and daughters’ desire for a professional career in arts and entertainment, even though it’s risky. They supported their decision to go to LA, the best place for the work they wanted to do.

These expatriates recall an idyllic small town life: playing in the backyard, walking to school, and leaving the doors unlocked in an area that’s less than 15 miles from downtown Boston. They wonder how they can transmit their hometown values to the families they will raise. “Things are important in LA that aren’t important on the East Coast, like nice clothes and fancy cars,” says Brian Siu, Weston Class of 1986. “It’s not a place to raise kids.” Siu has been in LA since graduating from Harvard and interning at Walt Disney Studios. He now works at ad agency TBWA Chiat Day in the interactive Web division.

Like Dan Martin, Siu’s parents still live in the home in which they raised their children. It’s “surreal” to stay in his old room when he visits at Christmas. But the neighborhoods are changing, and as these parents age, relocating to LA is up for discussion. “My mother is worried about how she would move from Weston to LA,” says Leslie Yeransian, freelance broadcast journalist and voiceover actor. “But she has been in her home 50 years, and the neighborhood has changed around her.”

Amanda Art, Wellesley Class of 1994, returned to Boston in 2008. She studied broadcast journalism at USC and worked in radio for many years. She most enjoyed Pasadena, where she worked for NPR and enjoyed something close to small-town living. She sees great value in spreading your wings, and is surprised that so many of her schoolmates have settled in Wellesley and the Boston area. “I took a leap of faith when I went to USC,” she says. “But I can’t imagine living in the same place without trying something new.”

Having a strong music program at Weston High propelled Cody Wood, Class of 2003, into the arts. Wood was concertmaster of the Weston High Orchestra and did a summer concert tour of Europe with Weston musicians and the American Musicians Abroad program. He completed dual majors at Case Western Reserve in engineering and the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) in vocal performance. During his junior year of college, he made music his priority.

“It took my parents about a year to be completely on board,” Wood says. “The career path was clearer with engineering.” His senior year he and friends produced a professional quality CD of his music that is his calling card. “It’s a full-time job to pursue a career in the arts,” he says, so for now he works for a caterer part-time and bunks with a friend. He is optimistic; he just signed with an agent.

Brad Sokol, Wellesley High 1989, does post-direction sound editorial for Fury & Grace in North Hollywood. Sokol and his wife, an Arlington native, are raising their four-year-old daughter in Burbank, in a condo they bought four years ago. Daycare is good, and he hopes the schools will be, too. They love LA. “I have heard studio facilities are going into Boston, but I don’t want to move back.”

The Film Office of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue reports that new direct spending and major productions shot in Massachusetts grew from one six million dollar project in 2005 to thirteen projects valued at 359 million dollars in 2008. Massachusetts joined several other states in instituting film tax credits in 2006 and lifted the cap in 2007.

Major studio complexes are in the works. In Plymouth, Plymouth Rock Studios, a planned film and television digital studio complex with fourteen sound stages and a ten-acre backlot, bills itself as “Hollywood East.” And at the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, a twelve-stage studio and campus where movie, television, video games, music videos, and commercials can be produced is planned for the SouthField site. Weatherized sound stages will expand film-making from six to all twelve months. Final approvals are needed for both projects.

Adam Harrington (Wellesley 1996) graduated from the UCLA Theater School in 2000 and earned numerous credits in television, film, and theater. However, in 2006 things started to slow down. “The Writers’ Strike and the collapse of the economy created the perfect storm,” he says, leaving studios less willing to take a risk on rising talent. In addition, television is changing. More cable stations have better quality programming, and major networks are launching online divisions to compete with sources like YouTube. In addition to starring in recent productions in the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and substitute teaching in the LA Public Schools, Harrington is a cast member of The Lost Nomads sketch comedy troupe that has its own Web site. They recently signed a deal with Fox. “TV won’t go away,” Harrington says, “but it’s mixing with new media.”

That puts Harrington and his hometown colleagues on the frontier of entertainment. Some will strike it rich, and all will use all their intelligence, education, and entrepreneurial energy to bring their artistic vision to screen, stage, and concert hall.