Sacred Places, the new WMHT (Channel 17) documentary,
azure skies and flowers in full bloom provide a serene backdrop
for an exploration of spiritual sites in the Capital Region
and Hudson Valley. But it’s likely that many viewers will
assume the program was created after the attacks on the
World Trade Center, which increased the nation’s awareness
of all things spiritual. “It’s certainly very timely,” says
WMHT producer Steve Dunn, the videographer and writer for
Sacred Places, which premieres on Monday. “We had
a preview last night for some people, and they thought that
we did it because of Sept. 11, but actually, it’s an idea
we’d been kicking around for awhile, and I shot it over
One segment, however, was discarded after the bombings:
the footage of a Muslim community in Troy gathered for prayer.
“After Sept. 11, the segment didn’t make sense anymore,”
says Dunn. “There was no context. People would’ve thought
it was denial.” On Sept. 14, Dunn filmed a sermon held in
response to the tragedy at the Islamic Center in Colonie.
While there, he happened to meet a young Muslim who had
lost a cousin in the attack, and who talks on camera with
bewildered resignation. It’s the program’s only topical
segment. “I’m not sure if it helps or not,” says Dunn, who
also produces the channel’s popular Historic Views
series. “People will have to judge for themselves.”
Mostly, the documentary is a quietly beautiful piece that
contemplates what a sacred place is—a much broader definition
than just churchyards—as well as what, exactly, makes it
spiritual. For some places, it’s an aesthetic, such as the
antiquity of the architecture of All Saints Cathedral, with
its “mystical” ambience, or the purity of the design for
the chapel at Kenwood Convent, which has been described
as “chaste.” For the Shakers of Wisdom Valley in Watervliet,
farmland was sacred ground. “All of their labor was consecrated
to God,” explains a Shaker curator.
In contrast to the simplicity of Shaker worship are the
colorful statues and ceremonial objects that overflow the
Hindu Society and Mahayana Buddhist temples, and the ritualized
iconography of a Russian Orthodox monastery in Jordanville.
“You look for contrasts, you look for rhythm,” says Dunn,
who tried to include as many places of worship as possible.
“I went to St. Sophia’s, the Greek Orthodox church, because
I knew they had superb mosaics—the most beautiful mosaics
I’ve seen outside of Ravenna, Italy.” Many places are made
holy by their memories. Israel African Methodist Episcopal
Church in Albany was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
At Temple Israel, where the sanctuary was severely burned
by arson 10 years ago, the rabbi movingly recalls how non-Jewish
firemen risked smoke asphyxiation to help him rescue the
congregation’s sacred Torah scrolls.
As the program states, sacredness is embodied by “art, architecture,
song and prayer,” and along with organ and flute music,
and chanting and gospel singing, there are atmospheric pauses
during which the camera pans the setting without narration.
“I tried to make it aural,” says Dunn. “That was intentional
from the first. We wanted the images and sounds to evoke
the feeling of the place.” He adds: “Temple Israel was a
challenge because it’s such a verbal story. But that’s OK,
because Rabbi Silton is compelling.”
The documentary—the station’s first to be shot in digital
beta, a state-of-the-art, “letterboxed” video format—travels
from the Grafton Peace Pagoda to a hilltop retreat in Rhinebeck.
But Dunn makes it clear that the program is ecumenical.
“Whether you’re spiritual or not, you can get something
out of this program,” he says. “I think an atheist or an
agnostic could appreciate it because it’s about people’s
For the producer, however, Sacred Places was indeed
a spiritual journey. “It made me think about my challenges
with faith,” Dunn says. And did he experience the “specialness”
referred to by the interviewees? “Doing the camerawork,
there were moments,” he admits. “Like when I was in the
cemetery by the Kenwood convent, with the black crosses.
I was completely alone. There were these little bushes behind
the crosses, and they were rustling in the wind. And I felt
that I was ‘in the moment.’ ”
Places airs Monday (March 4) at 7:30 PM on WMHT (Channel
Featuring Leif Garrett
let’s get two things out of the way right up front. First,
yes, that Leif Garrett—fair-haired teen pinup superstar
of the ’70s, made for dancing all, all, all, all night long.
Yes, the one you saw on that four-star episode of VH1’s
tragedy-grubbing Behind the Music, telling
tales of evil managers, screaming fans, inflated egos, reckless
living, ruined relationships, a Herculean heroin habit and
a late-life redemption. Second, no, you’re not gonna hear
that song when Garrett and his new band, F8, play
Northern Lights on Saturday. So don’t even ask.
Not that Garrett (pictured, second from left) is at all
chagrined about his former existence as heartthrob, it’s
just that he’s got other, more important, things on his
mind. “At first, I didn’t want my name to be associated
with it at all,” he says by phone from his Hollywood home.
“But to get people to book us in clubs and stuff like that,
to get the guarantees, they want to put ‘featuring Leif
Garrett.’ And I understand. You know, whatever it takes
to get people through the door right now, to hear the music
and check it out, is all I care about. I think we can—and
already have—changed people’s minds.”
So, despite the fact that there are still those occasional
throwbacks in F8’s audiences who seem stuck in Garrett’s
past (“ ‘Where’s the long blond hair?’ ” Garrett jokes,
“ ‘How come you’re not wearing tight trousers? Where’s the
spandex?’ ”), the reactions have been generally far more
accommodating. “The boyfriends who used to be like, ‘Oh,
that fag, man, I’m going to kick his ass because my girlfriend’s
got his picture on her wall,’ are now coming out and they’re
like, ‘You fucking rock, man!’ ”
And to hear Garrett describe it, that kind of affirmation
is worth more to him than the hordes of adoring teenyboppers,
the scads of cash and the jet-set lifestyle of his younger
years. His rapid progression from being a “teen idol pinup
to playing the Houston Astrodome” without ever paying his
dues, came at the expense of a feeling of control and artistic
integrity. “I’m kind of a control freak now,” he laughs,
“after having been through what I went through and being
ripped off, and being basically a marionette for a bunch
of puppeteers.” It’s a control that Garrett claims he wouldn’t
relinquish again for any price. To play his music, his way—“a
cross between Led Zeppelin, Stone Temple Pilots and maybe
a little Alice in Chains thrown in” is how Garrett describes
it—has provided him a feeling of “not so much revenge, but
vindication.” He’s proud and content, he says, with his
current level of celebrity: “I’ve earned people’s respect
because I haven’t sat back on my laurels. I’m not David
Cassidy. . . . I mean, I know he’s not happy playing Vegas.
This is not what he wanted to do.”
And, Garrett makes clear, once you’ve experienced artistic
self-determination, there’s no going back: “I would rather
pump gas at 76 than ever have to do something that I don’t
want to do again.”
F8 featuring Leif Garrett will play Northern Lights (North
Country Commons, Route 146, Clifton Park) on Saturday (March
2). Tickets for the 16-and-over show are $12, $10 in advance;
doors open at 7:30 PM. For more information, call 371-0012.