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Democrat Photo by Jeanne Sager

“CAMP" DIRECTOR TODD Graff, center, chats with Allan Berube, left, program coordinator at the Liberty Theatre, and Stagedoor Manor owner Carl Samuelson during the premiere celebration of the movie, filmed at the Loch Sheldrake camp.

'Camp' Comes
To Liberty

By Jeanne Sager
LIBERTY — August 19, 2003 – Main Street Liberty never saw anything quite like this.
With “Camp” opening on 43 screens across the nation on Friday afternoon, the folks who gathered in Liberty were part of a first – a premiere with the actors and director right here in Sullivan County.
The location was apropos – after all, Todd Graff, who wrote the story and directed the film, went to theater camp for three years right up the road at Stagedoor Manor in Loch Sheldrake.
He went from a pothead with some “loser” friends to a “theater geek” at 15 when he discovered himself through his experiences at the summer camp for the more dramatic kids.
“It was a really amazing, transformative experience for me,” Graff recalled. “That’s where I discovered who I was.
“I had a complete new set of friends, and it really was an important first step for me.”
Graff went on to college and became an actor – he had a major role in “The Abyss” and a part in “Sweet Lorraine,” a movie filmed in Sullivan County.
When it came time to write his first screenplay, Graff called up old friend Carl Samuelson, longtime owner of Stagedoor, with a proposition.
With a shoestring budget (just $1.8 million, a paltry amount of money by Hollywood standards), Graff knew he couldn’t afford to build sets and provide new housing for his cast.
Stagedoor Manor had everything he needed – it already had the look and feel of a summer camp, facilities for sleeping and eating, and stages already built for the musical performances that dot the film.
“We could not have done the movie if we didn’t do it here,” he told the crowd assembled at Friday’s premiere – including local legislators, Liberty Mayor Rube Smith and a large crowd of local folks interested in seeing the movie.
The film, which has gotten spotty but generally good reviews from critics so far, was basically a teen comedy, Graff said, but one unlike any that we’ve come to know as typical teen fare.
Most teen movies are hilarious, Graff said, but they’re unrealistic. You just don’t find kids like that in real life.
“I don’t recognize any of those kids; I wasn’t one of those kids,” he noted. “I thought, why can’t it be more about regular faces, regular bodies – not cookie cutter?
“It was the idea of kids who are like kids I know.”
That meant a lot of gay males playing the theater geeks, an overweight songstress whose parents let her go to theater camp instead of “fat” camp only if she agreed to have her jaw wired shut. It means one straight male character whooping it up with all the girls, and kids whose personalities run the gamut from the diva to the conniving backstabber.
The one character Graff said comes closest to his own experiences is Vlad, the “straight” guy who steals everyone’s heart.
A little manipulative and a little confused, Graff said Vlad represents some of his habits as a kid – things he hopes he’s grown out of.
The only difference, he adds with a laugh, is the star’s good looks.
“I was nowhere as cute,” Graff laughed. “That’s why I’m the director; you can cast the cute guy as yourself!”
The cast also included two Stagedoor alumni, including Caitlin Van Zandt, an 18-year-old who spent 10 years in Loch Sheldrake growing as an actress.
Her character is overweight and struggles with the desire to take on a great role and the cattiness of other actresses, who tear her down for her looks.
Van Zandt said the actual experience at Stagedoor was nothing like the role she played onscreen.
“Without Stagedoor, I wouldn’t have been a whole person,” she said. “It’s such a loving bubble – you meet your best friends there.”
Originally from New York City, Van Zandt moved up to Stagedoor during the 22 days of filming.
It was like a “parallel universe,” she said, because it was the same exact camp but she was experiencing it from the adult side of the spectrum, where the boys and girls cabins were no longer off limits and there wasn’t a counselor watching over your every move.
The movie as a whole captures the essence of Stagedoor, and any theater camp, Van Zandt said.
“These kids have the same spirit as Stagedoor kids,” she said. “You leave the theater feeling the same way you did leaving Stagedoor.”
Along with her other gracious cast members, Van Zandt left the publicity house set up in the Liberty Theatre Cafe and mugged for the camera with local kids and signed autographs right and left.
With four screenings of the film throughout the day, the Liberty Theatre sold hundreds of tickets and gave away lots of popcorn.
And lucky onlookers got the first glimpse at the world’s up and coming stars – the camp that produced Graff, Robert Downey Jr. and Natalie Portman bused its campers into town for the day to put on the biggest performance of kids the town has seen yet.
Just keep an eye out – you may be seeing those kids again.

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