At Historic House, Hahn Took a Gamble on a Film

Spoiler alert: There aren’t any dancing teacups in Don Hahn’s documentary film, “The Gamble House.”
There is, however, careful attention paid to the purposeful way the light moves through the leaded art-glass windows, to the intimacy of the dining area, to the delightfully Edwardian office — and, most of all, to unpacking all the inspiring history belonging to the landmark Pasadena home.
Designed by architect brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene, the American Arts and Crafts-style treasure was commissioned as a winter home by David Gamble, of the Procter & Gamble Co. But that was just the beginning of the story for Hahn, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who initially identified with the place because it was Doc Brown’s house.
In fact, that’s how a recent sneak peek of the documentary began, with Marty McFly chasing a frazzled Brown across the lawn in the first of the “Back to the Future” movies.
“I’m a storyteller,” said Hahn, who produced Disney favorites “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and who spent the past 18 months volunteering his efforts working on the documentary — while also producing the live-action adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast.”
“I’m not a historian, not an archivist. I just love great stories,” Hahn added. “And when I started peeling back the story layers, I thought, ‘This is the most amazing untold story that I’ve ever come across.’”
He was taken by the characters who brought the house to life and their connection to America’s forebears: Take the architects, descendants of Gen. Nathanael Greene, who fought in the Revolutionary War and is remembered as George Washington’s most dependable officer. Their mother was a descendent of Cotton Mather, known for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials.
“I didn’t know any of this getting into the story,” said Hahn, a La Cañada Flintridge resident. “But to be able to unearth that and pull back those layers was so fun.”
Hahn has hopes that the 57-minute-long film — which was “done about 20 minutes ago,” he told media members at a recent press preview — will be aired on PBS. He also has plans to screen it at local theaters.
There also was a sneak preview of it during festivities late last month marking the 50th anniversary of the public opening of the Gamble House, which has in the past half-century become Pasadena’s beloved, still-somewhat-under-the-radar historic site.
“We do consider ourselves to be a well-kept secret,” said Ted Bosley, the Gamble House’s director. “And that, in fact, is part of the charm of this place, that it is a happy discovery for a lot of our visitors. But we need to stay in business, so it’s good to be known more broadly.
“I didn’t know what [Hahn] had in mind, exactly, but I knew his reputation and the beautiful work he’s done, and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ I’m a sucker for a great opportunity, and even though I have almost no spare time, I recognized that this is a tremendously generous offer and a wonderful possibility for bringing this story to the broader public.”
Said Hahn: “There are so many great stories of art and architecture on the West Coast. And often they’re not told unless [they’re about] Frank Lloyd Wright. Everybody loves Frank Lloyd Wright, but boy, this is a much bigger, interesting story.”
Wright might have agreed, according to Hahn’s film. There’s an anecdote describing a visit by Wright to Charles Green, whom he told, “I don’t know how you do it.” He was amazed, it seems, by the impeccable level of craftsmanship throughout the Gamble home.
Hahn’s Gamble House story started with Disney animation great Frank Thomas, whose wife was one of the founding docents and who introduced the Hahns to the house. Don’s wife, Denise, has also served as a docent.
“She’d run off on weekends and I’d wonder what she was doing,” Hahn joked. “And so I’d come here and hang out and think, ‘What is this place? It’s amazing. It’s a piece of art.’”
And then, when he began to uncover the story, he was determined to tell it, even if it meant finding time for it around the making of another major motion picture.
“We spent a lot of late nights in the office, right around the corner,” said Stephen Yao, who edited the documentary. “But it didn’t feel like work because we all really loved it and enjoyed it. And Don’s great. He’s so genuine, so smart, so great at telling stories and finding the little bits that make a story unique.”
Hahn, who appreciated the Greenes’ diverse skill set as well as their creative ambition, said his unique schedule helped inform both of his ongoing projects.
“One helps the other,” he said. “Doing a movie with the resources of a big studio general audience movie is a very different feeling than when you’re sitting with five people working on this movie. The intimacy of that is like throwing a pot for me: It’s like you can sculpt it and control it.”
Bigger movies are wonderful, he said, but they have their energy and you can control them to a point, but it’s like controlling a hurricane.
“This is a little more of a maker’s movie,” Hahn said, “and very much in the style of this house, where you can actually make what you want.”

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