By Rick Geffken
Raised in Rumson, self-described “river kid” Chris Brenner never thought about becoming a filmmaker. Like most of his friends in the Two River area, he spent lots of time on the water – fishing, boating, swimming, seining, and crabbing. Because the Brenner’s were a Sea Bright “cabana family,” Chris indulged those youthful passions in and around the Sand Lass Beach Club, just across the Shrewsbury from where he lived on Tyson Lane.
But his childhood and personal interests set him on a path, and now a grown-up Brenner is about to present his own feature film at the upcoming 15th Annual Garden State Film Festival, New Jersey’s premier independent film extravaganza.
“Destinations Past: Highland Beach” is Chris Brenner’s entry in the festival’s “Home Grown Documentary Features” section (films longer than 40 minutes, filmed and made in New Jersey). “Highland Beach” will be screening at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 1. It is one of 200 films being shown at various Resorts Casino Hotel venues in Atlantic City from March 30 through April 2.
Chris described his family background and personal interests as “the perfect storm” for getting into film. “My father was going to Red Bank Catholic High School in Red Bank when he got a summer job at another Sandlass family-owned resort in the North Beach section of Sea Bright.” Sandlass Beach was where Ted Brenner met his future wife, Jill Finn. “Dad was a ‘beach boy,’ basically a purveyor of odd jobs. He checked entrance badges, swept the boardwalks, whatever else needed to be done.” Chris’s parents were part of the young, 1940’s-era crowd that danced to the music in the popular Bamboo Room Cocktail Lounge at the resort.
Ted Brenner also loved local history. Chris remembers accompanying his dad to the Rumson home of the late historian and author George Moss. The two men would talk for hours about Ted’s historic postcards and Moss’s old photograph collection. The outdoor-loving 10-year-old Chris was indifferent to these excursions at the time, but Chris admitted, “I learned a lot.”
After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a design degree in 1987, Chris’s career path took him to several major consumer electronics companies. “In the late 1990’s, I became increasingly aware that digital sound and imagery were converging. I also love music and photography. I was home one day learning about a new Macintosh I bought, when I suddenly realized I could edit video with a digital camera. I jumped up so fast my startled wife said ‘Where’re you going?’ I rushed to a camera store, dropped a $1,000 on a video camera, came running home, and told her, ‘Watch this.’ I shot something, digitally edited it, and I’ve never looked back.”
Monday to Friday business trips kept Brenner away from Fair Haven where he and his wife, Marcy, were raising their two children. During weekends at home, Chris began to learn how to film Tom’s and Amy’s activities, family holidays, and home movies. “I did a short film about my cousin, a pretty good high school wrestler. It was my first shot at a documentary,” he said. After completing another family history video, he took a break from making films.
Chris involved himself in community activities like the Fair Haven Centennial in 2012. His book, “Fair Haven, Then and Now,” helped raise funds for the event. The publication was a compendium of pictures from Dorn’s Classic Images, provided by his neighbors George and Kathy Severini, and photos taken by his son Tom, a professional photographer. Chris also supported Fair Haven’s 9/11 Memorial – he’s a survivor of that horrendous event.
He said, “We have world class history here, and as things change I want new residents to understand this community, so its history doesn’t get lost, so they understand where we’ve come from. It’s important to preserve this.”
Cut to the fall of 2015. “I was in my boat, fishing off Bahrs Landing in the Shrewsbury, looking across at Sandy Hook. The tide was going out when I saw pilings emerging on the shoreline near the bridge. I knew what those were from, because I remembered the family stories of the Bamboo Room at some beach club there. I thought maybe it was from the 1930s. As I watched cars going over the bridge, I realized that nobody knew about it anymore.”
Chris connected with Susie Sandlass Gardiner, granddaughter of William Sandlass who founded the Highland Beach Resort. Chris was surprised to learn it first opened in 1888, and was family-run for 75 years. Gardiner provided pictures, Sandlass family stories, and the old news clippings which became the basis of “Destinations Past: Highland Beach.”
The Fair Haven resident’s 42-minute film used many of his father’s color postcards, home movies clips and family vacation snapshots, as well as crisp, century-old black and white photos. Brenner provided his own narration recounting the influential seaside attraction few people remember. For the “Highland Beach” soundtrack Brenner included period-correct, old-time music like the perfect “In the Good Old Summer Time” from 1902, jazz and ragtime standards by Scott Joplin, and 1940s hits from Duke Ellington and the Andrew Sisters.
“An interesting thing happened when the film was finished last spring,” a still amazed Brenner said. “I put it on YouTube for just a few friends. I actually thought it was a little long and not many people would be interested. I sent it to three people. Within a week it literally went viral. I had floods of inquiries like ‘Where can I see this?’ I posted the link, and an explosion of interest followed. “The Two River Times” and other local media ran articles. Thousands of people started viewing it.”
A magazine reporter suggested he enter the film for consideration in the Garden State Film Festival. He was surprised when they accepted it. A bemused Brenner said, “I like filmmaking as a part of my life, but I still don’t consider filmmaking a career. The analogy I use is that there are many scratch golfers at the Rumson Country Club who win club championships. But I doubt any are going to quit their jobs to try to make it on the PGA tour, playing with the likes of Phil Michelson. That’s how I view filmmaking. It’s a great hobby, I enjoy doing it on weekends, but I don’t see it as a career.”
This may be true for the man Chris Brenner is now. But the boy roaming around the Two River area and playing high school football at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School never thought he’d be showing his own movie before sold-out audiences at the most prestigious New Jersey film festival either.
Information about tickets and film listings for the Garden State Film Festival is available at GSFF.org.
This article was first published in the March 23-30, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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