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December 02, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, December 02, 2005

'Children of Alcatraz' 'Children of Alcatraz' (December 02, 2005)

Pleasanton documentarian produces winning retrospective

by Jerri Long

"People never believe me when I tell them I grew up on Alcatraz." Pleasanton resident Scott Cornfield heard that over and over as he was interviewing subjects for his award-winning documentary entitled "Children of Alcatraz."

Although many movies and documentaries have been made about the famous former federal prison, they tended to focus on the inmates. Cornfield's film is the first to take a look at the families of those who worked in the prison, particularly those who were children between 1934 (when the former military fort and prison was converted to a federal prison) and 1963, when that prison became a national park site.

Cornfield and his wife Sandi were staying at a bed-and-breakfast in Sausalito, enjoying reading the Sunday papers on their balcony, when Scott happened upon an article about the annual Alcatraz Alumni Association Reunion. Held each August, the first day of the reunion is a private picnic just for those families who once lived on Alcatraz Island. The second day takes place on Alcatraz, is open to the public, and includes former guards and even some former prisoners.

During his own childhood, Cornfield often gazed out at Alcatraz when visiting his grandparents' home in San Francisco. However, like most of us, he had never imagined that there were children living adjacent to the prison. Intrigued with the idea, he contacted the reporter who had written the article and eventually was put in touch with the Alcatraz Alumni Association, wrangling an invitation to their reunion a year later. "They were interested in this project because they all hated how the movies had portrayed Alcatraz," says Cornfield.

In addition to his 25-year career in law enforcement - Cornfield is a lieutenant in the San Jose Police Department - he has had a second career in video production. "I started out taping audience reaction to accompany movie reviews I did for the community access television station in Milpitas," he explains.

That led to videotaping weddings, but Cornfield wryly recalls that his clients "wanted a Spielberg production at K-mart prices." Most churches are not "video friendly," he points out, since they tend not to have the kind of lighting needed for quality videotape. Wedding parties wanted him to "shoot everything without ever being seen. You do learn a lot from such experiences," he says, but the final straw came when one couple requested that he videotape their wedding from inside a closet.

Cornfield left weddings behind and ventured into corporate clientele, opening a business with a partner in Silicon Valley. The business prospered, including opportunities to travel throughout North America, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and England. "We were there in the heyday of Silicon Valley," says Cornfield, "and for awhile we had more business than we could handle."

It was this production company that Cornfield persuaded to take on the "Children of Alcatraz" project. "We fit it in between everything else because we were not paid to do the Alcatraz film," explains Cornfield. "It took us three years to finish, and it probably would have gone on forever if my co-workers had not persuaded me to stop. I always wanted to do just one more interview, to see if I could come up with one more good story."

The research, writing, and interviews all were done by Cornfield, with others doing the shooting and working with him on the editing. "In the end, it feels like 'Sophie's Choice' -- you don't want to leave out anything, but you have to find what you think is the best of the best of what each person said," says Cornfield of the process of limiting the film to only one hour.

The result is a fascinating glimpse into childhoods of a bygone era. And that was the surprising discovery Cornfield made: "One of the most intriguing things was that, at the time, these kids did not really think there was anything unusual or special about where they were growing up. You think you are just ordinary ... until all of a sudden, all the kids in school want to come to your house."

Each day the children would climb aboard a small boat to be shuttled across the bay to San Francisco where they walked or took the bus to school. In order to have weekend guests, they had to sign them up in advance and go over on the boat to escort their friends to and from the island.

Individuals interviewed recall a kind of idyllic childhood, with a recreation center with bowling alley and snack bar. They could play ping-pong or pool and have dances in a party room upstairs. Although for many years they were not allowed to have pets nor bicycles, the children roller-skated, played ball, went fishing, and explored. "Our parents thought we couldn't get into any trouble," recalls one man, explaining why they had an unusual amount of freedom on the island. Little did those parents know that their children sneaked down to camp out in a cave by the beach and explore other areas that were strictly off limits!

Yes, there were jailbreaks, and yes, famous prisoners were transported to the island. The film offers a child's-eye view of what it was like to see an entire train car arrive at the island dock, as a precaution against any jailbreak by Al Capone. But by and large, these events did not have a huge impact on the daily lives of the children of the prison officers. Older members of the alumni group recall watching the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges; all remember enjoying sweeping views of the Bay from the apartments in which they lived, and having as their greatest fear missing the last boat home to the island when they had stayed late in the city.

Interspersed with interviews and scenes of present-day Alcatraz are newsreels of the time -- part of Cornfield's research findings through UCLA's film archives. This documentary is a time-travel treat, providing a look at earlier decades at the San Francisco Bay.
More documentaries in the offing

Cornfield's "Children of Alcatraz" was awarded "Best Documentary of 2005" in the Danville International Children's Film Festival last May. Copies of the 55-minute DVD may be purchased at the bookstore on Alcatraz, in Cell Block 41, a store at the pier where boats depart for Alcatraz tours, and through distributors.

A byproduct of this film project was the formation of a non-profit organization, The Center for Non-Profit Media. "One of the big reasons I got out of corporate video was that I had so much fun with the Alcatraz project," notes Cornfield. "For the most part, corporate video is pretty boring. It isn't as much of a creativity outlet as I wanted."

Now Cornfield has two goals for his non-profit organization: To obtain funding to "produce just what I want to do" and be able to "give it away," to be seen by as many people as possible. Also, Cornfield would like to use his talents to create videotapes for other non-profit organizations at no cost to those groups. He can be contacted at

"Children of Alcatraz" is not the only film project for which Cornfield has won an award. With grant funding, the San Jose Police Department hired him to help put together weekly videotaped training sessions. "It would take me about 15 hours to produce a 5-minute segment," says Cornfield," but I could not believe they were actually paying me to have so much fun!" To make the lessons memorable, Cornfield interjected a lot of humor.

"Cops love humor, and they really need it," says Cornfield. "If they go out the door with a laugh, that may be as good as it's going to get for them that day. I felt it was important for me to help them leave in the right frame of mind." Cornfield won an award for the best governmental documentary for an unforgettable segment he did on shotgun safety that involved ricocheting blanks and a rubber chicken falling from the sky.

One of the most unusual of Cornfield's accomplishments was contest entry submitted to the "America's Funniest People" TV show. The show's producers announced a $10,000 prize for the best spoof on "Wayne's World."

Cornfield enlisted his family members for the entry, which began with his wife Sandi and younger son Ty watching the contest promo on TV, then running to tell Scott and their older son Clint about it. They find Clint dressed in cowboy attire, listening to his dad ("in a lounge lizard suit") crooning a ballad. "What are you doing?" demands Sandi. "We're Wayne (Newton) and Garth (Brooks)," is their reply. "There goes my $10,000," sighs Sandi.

This entry was one of the top three finalists, and 'though they did not win the big cash prize, the family did travel to Los Angeles, where they appeared on the TV show. That success was reported in the Lydiksen School newsletter (where Sandi now is attendance clerk), and the newsletter invited people to come to the Cornfields' home for a screening.

"It was amazing!" recalls Cornfield. "We had about 100 people show up here, many of whom we did not know!" The guests were not disappointed, however. The Cornfield home has its own theater, complete with popcorn and soft-drink machines and theater-style seating. Cornfield quickly wired two more rooms to accommodate the viewers, and they had a fun evening.

The family's home theater has a blank wall instead of a movie screen. Kids in the neighborhood dubbed it "The Magic Wall" as the Cornfields' sons -- now a junior and senior at Foothill High School -- were growing up. "When we were shopping for a house, this was the only thing I had to have," says Scott with a laugh. "I had to have a theater -- everything else was negotiable.

"I bought the popcorn machine before we even had a projector. What are movies without popcorn?"

The most recent trophy in the Cornfield collection is first prize in the Iron Filmmaker Contest, awarded to Scott and his crew during the California Independent Film Festival last month. This unusual contest required participants to create a three-minute film in just 24 hours. The morning the contest began the 20 participants were told the "secret ingredients" each film had to include: footage shot at Steven Kent Winery, grapes, the Festival T-shirt and program, and the line, "Oh, no! Not in Livermore!"

Cornfield recruited about a dozen friends and co-workers to produce "The Plight of the Windies: Birds of Mystery." This hilarious spoof on a nature documentary involves wind-up toy birds that were meeting their demise in local windmills. Cornfield's crew did the shooting in seven-and-a-half hours straight, without even a lunch break, then he spent the night editing. One of the touches that brought a burst of laughter from the audience the next morning at Wente Winery was when the Festival program showed up ... as a bird-cage liner!

Already Cornfield is researching his next film project, one that focuses on a tragedy that took place in San Jose in the 1930's. It seems a safe bet that the new project may also result in awards for this creative filmmaker.

Stay tuned ...

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