Merry Christmas Roberta

GENRE: Family Drama.

STATUS: Various script variations have been written. Seeking ultra low budget to film production in either 2026 or beyond.

LOGLINE: A young couple, the struggling owners of a small store in East Los Angeles, find that their nine-year-old daughter is stealing grocery items and giving them to a homeless woman.

COMPANY NOTES: While no set plans have yet to develop on when the filming of this project will be done (aside from the wishful future targets of 2026 and beyond), given the great success of this story as a play (both versions – the original stage premiere and the subsequent reprise – can be seen on this page), as well as its past history of almost being produced as a Hollywood movie, YBS/LegacyVision Films, has set a goal of one day producing this as a feature length movie. The ideal would be to film this in Los Angeles, which was depicted in the original script. 

Synopsis

A young couple, Alvin and Noreen Amino, owners of a small convenience store in East Los Angeles, notice that grocery items are disappearing from their inventory. Little do they know that the culprit is their own nine-year-old daughter, Lynette. She is giving fruits and her lunch money to a homeless person every morning when she walks to school. Finding this out, Alvin explodes in a rage against the bum, only to be shocked and embarrassed when the assumed man is really a woman. To make amends, Alvin and Noreen invites her to a Thanksgiving dinner that they will never forget. They discover that the woman, Roberta, is a transplant from Pennsylvania, and before a horrific tragedy in her life, she led the All-American life, with a good and successful husband and a beautiful daughter. But a school shooting would come to take the life of her daughter, and later her husband through suicide. Empathizing with her, the Aminos make friends with Roberta, and invite her for Christmas dinner. But Roberta, elderly, and worn down from years living on the streets, dies before that next happy occasion happens. Later, the family is told that there is an envelope for Lynette. In it, they find a savings bond that will help Lynette go to college. It is apparent that Roberta took all the money that Lynette gave to her and more to give it all back to Lynette. The Aminos, in turn, purchase a gravestone for Roberta where she rests, and on it we see “Merry Christmas Roberta.” Referencing the Columbine shootings as a part of the woman’s past, Merry Christmas Roberta is a heartwarming story about friendship, forgiveness and the love of family that everyone will enjoy.

The Beginnings Of Roberta

The first conceptualization of Merry Christmas Roberta was initiated during the early creative partnership of Eric Nemoto and Jon Brekke (see inset photo) during the 1990s. Jon, along with business partner Mike Powell, worked out of a building on Keawe Street, then an industrial section of Honolulu, Hawaii, which they named the (original) Yellow Brick Studio. Eric, the leader of the then infant performing arts group, The Actors’ Group, would use the Yellow Brick Studio for their acting classes, and occasional stage productions. Through this association, Jon and Eric  eventually decided to work together creatively, and from this was conceived the idea for Merry Christmas Roberta. The actual inspiration for the story evolved through a chance meeting between Jon and a homeless man named Robert in front of a restaurant. Noticing how everyone would outwardly treat the man as if he had the plague, Jon befriended Robert and rather than avoid him, treated Robert to a meal inside of the restaurant. In doing so, he realized that Robert wasn’t a bad man, he was just someone who was down and out. The experience proved to be inspirational. Shortly thereafter he relayed the idea to Eric of a story involving a young couple who run a mini-mart and who have a young daughter. The daughter is stealing fruit from the store and giving it to a bum along with her lunch money. When her father discovers this he goes to the man and forcibly tries to make him earn the money his daughter has been giving him. But in doing so he discovers that the man is a woman. Feeling guilty he invites the woman over for a Thanksgiving dinner. Jon envisioned this basic story and gave it to Eric with the notion that the bum would be a woman (“Robert” changed to “Roberta” during the writing of the first draft). Eric wrote the script very fast, in about a week, and returned a script to Jon of about 70 pages that he liked, but then asked Eric for some revisions. He wanted more emphasis on the “A” story, which was the bum, the girl, and her parents. He also wanted an “up” ending.  In Eric’s original version, Roberta dies and the Christmas “gift” that the family gives her is a decent burial since no one else really knows her. After these revisions were made, Jon flew to L.A. and brought in an associate, film editor and producer, Ed Rothkowitz, who was working for a group of businessmen wanting to get into entertainment. They envisioned promoting such disparate events as “ultimate fighting” contests to “straight to video” movies. With respect to the latter, Ed was in the process of coming up with a three-movie package, and so “Roberta” seemed to come in at just the right time.

Ed Rothkowitz

Ed Rothkowitz (January 8th, 1942 – April 1st 2006) was a film editor and producer who had a long career in film and television but was best known as the editor and co-producer of the legendary rock n roll documentary about The Who entitled “The Kids Are Alright.” He appears in the inset photo with his family (taken from his obituary on Legacy.com). Ed grew up in the Bronx, New York and served in the United States military as a Marine. He entered the film industry when editing was still done by physically cutting film on Moviolas, and apprentices paid their dues by filling film trims in canvas bins. He was the assistant editor of “Midnight Cowboy,” and went on to make his career in network television, becoming a key member of David E. Kelley’s creative team on such landmark dramas as “Picket Fences” and “Chicago Hope.” His many other television credits include “Everwood,” “Going to California,” “Temptation Island,” “Cupid,” and “The Young Riders.” Ed also worked with Jon in producing “Tis the Season – A Hawiian Christmas Story.” This association eventually led to Ed believing in Merry Christmas Roberta and deciding to try and produce this as a feature in Los Angeles. Rounding up producers, the script itself was purchased for $6,000 ($2,000 for Ed, $2,000 for Eric, and $2,000 for Jon) and literally came within days of actually shooting, with Hollywood actors Sally Kirkland (Roberta) and Esai Morales (Alvin) purportedly being attached to the production. Ed and Jon came close, oh so close, to pulling this off.  In fact, in the summer of 1999, Jon told Eric to “Get your bags ready,” as they were three days away from actually starting the shoot, and, as a present for helping to write the script, Eric would get a speaking part (that of the teacher who talks to Noreen). Alas, as is the story most of the time in L.A., where projects come and go like how most of people change clothes, the investors decided not to proceed until they could “pre-sell” the movie, which was a death knell.  While hope always springs eternal, both Jon and Ed knew that “Roberta” wouldn’t happen, at least then.

The First Stage Production

Michael Wurth (see inset photo) was born in Enid, Oklahoma and grew up in Mississippi, Alaska, Texas, and California. He received a BA in English Languages and Literatures from Wright State University, and an MA in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, where his translation of Rilke’s Sonnets To Orpheus won the Tutungi Prize for Best Master’s Thesis of 1992. He had worked as a stockbroker in Texas and New York City, and briefly ran an English school in Caracas, Venezuela, before moving to Hawaii where Jon Brekke, then the creative director for the local cable television station OC-16, hired as a filmmaker and producer to produce creative content. One of their creative projects involved the visually stunning The Legend Of Chang Apana. Their working relationship influenced Jon to ask Michael adapt the Merry Christmas Roberta screenplay that he had written with Eric, to the stage in the hopes of premiering it with the theater that Eric founded, TAG – The Actors’ Group (Jon had earlier convinced TAG artistic director Brad Powell to schedule Roberta). Michael had the unenviable task of sifting through “five” screenplay versions that had been written by either Jon or Eric over the years and did the only “sane” thing any good writer would do. He used the premises offered by the central storyline, but also started from scratch. Michael’s stage version brought in the character of “Candace,” the omnipresent but invisible “Mrs. Chen,” the visiting female teacher, created the dual dinner scene to tackle the difficult task of communicating to the audience Roberta’s back-story, and came up with the wonderful SFX of the “falling snow,” which by the play’s end wins the entire audience over. With this new script in hand Jon and Michael chose Laurie Tanoura to play Roberta, Ona Marie to play Noreen, Amber Hazelwood to play Lynette, and Stephanie Kuroda to play both Candace and the teacher, Paula Beckman. Eric joined the cast as Alvin two weeks late, having returned from a vacation to Quebec. A week passed and the production didn’t have either Ben or Mrs. Ketler. So Eric called Louis Donato, a student he had taught acting through the ADR Agency, to play Ben. Louis subsequently followed up with ADR and through his efforts, Nazarene Anderson provided Eric the name of Charlotte Dias, who thankfully took the role of Mrs. Ketler. The play opened on December 14, 2007 (a Friday) and then continued through January 6, 2008, playing at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday nights and at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday matinees. It garnered mixed reviews, with the Star Bulletin liking it and the Advertiser complaining that it was “too warm and fuzzy.” Amazingly, the run produced consistently good audiences with a number of our houses being sold out, a surprise to all, it was voted as one of the best plays of the 2007-2008 theater season by the Hawaii State Theatre Council (HSTC), receiving a best play Po’okela.

Merry Christmas Roberta – The Entire Play As Produced By TAG At The Original Yellow Brick Studio

Merry Christmas Roberta – Voted Best Play Of The 2007-2008 Hawaii Theater Season

The Reprise

Merry Christmas Roberta would again be produced by TAG – The Actors’ Group. It ran from December 17th, 2010 to January 9th, 2011. Ironically, while thought of its reprise had been discussed ever since its initial successful run, it had not been produced while TAG had briefly been located in Chinatown, on the second floor of a section of the Mendonca Building. Ironic in the sense that of all the locations that TAG called home, its Chinatown theater, and Chinatown in general, was during that time where many of Honolulu’s homeless would set up their makeshift sleeping areas. But as appropriate as it would have been, TAG’s tenure in Chinatown was simply not to be. Among the many factors that worked against TAG continuing there included: 1. a short term lease that made it clear that renewed leases would include annual 10% rent increases; 2. additional electricity charges that were separate from the rental agreement, which would amount to added costs of $400 to $700 a month; 3. a steep and long stairs to the second floor which, for TAG’s primary market of senior citizens, was a tough haul; 4. no free parking and the fact that nearest parking garage about a block away and was constantly where the homeless would congregate, was a tragedy waiting to happen; 5. no security which usually meant the homeless would sleep in the entryway and on one occasion resulted in human feces being deposited there; 6. an AC system that at best was at least working even though it would never be cool, but at worst would simply not work and during productions caused the performers and audience to literally sweat; 7. though promised during the time when TAG was considering leasing, the courtyard was off limits to events such as fundraisers; and 8. because the building was a kind of consortium of artists and/or creative organizations, members of TAG would have to share in the upkeep of the building’s restrooms. These, frankly, unacceptable conditions, resulted in TAG electing to move its theater to The Shops at Dole Cannery, where on August 8th, 2008 (08/08/08), it opened up with Duets. Ghosts followed Duets, and then Merry Christmas Roberta became the third production to be staged at the place TAG would eventually call home. Jon Brekke, who had co-directed the original premiere four years earlier (along with Michael Wurth), returned to direct alone. He was joined by member of the original cast – Laurie Tanoura, Eric Nemoto, and Charlotte Dias. Laurie (see inset photo, right) had won a Po’okela award for best actress for her portrayal of Roberta, the homeless woman, so her reprising her role assured a solid retelling of the story. The added cast members were new but promised to elevate the play with their acting talents. This included Brandi Taylor (Lynette), Tracy Okubo (Candace/Teacher), and Mark Malalis (Ben). But foremost of all was the casting of Maile Holck (see inset photo, left) to play Noreen. Maile was born in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while her father, who was originally from Hawaii, was in the army at the time. The family moved back to Hawaii to live in Mililani on the island of Oahu when she was two years old, where she stayed until graduating from high school, when she then left for college at the University of Northern Colorado, where she majored in Theatre with a minor in Women’s Studies. Immediately upon graduating, Maile moved to New York City. Knowing nothing of what it took to make it as an actor, she spent the majority of her time there working to act and pay the rent. After four years she then decided to go back to school to pursue an MFA and was accepted to the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program. Again, immediately upon graduating, I moved to New York City, but this time she had a little more “know how,” a little more confidence, and a lot more training, and pretty quickly found herself working as a professional actor in the regional theatre world. She spent years working as an actor while also questioning the direction of her life. Then when her father’s health suddenly took a turn for the worst, it became obvious that the direction she needed to move toward was home. In 2008 she moved back to Hawaii to help take care of her dad. For work she decided to audition for the only professional theatre company in the islands – the Honolulu Theatre for Youth – and landed a job as a full time actor and part time teaching artist with the company. In 2010, when Merry Christmas Roberta was staged again, it was done so with the elevated performances of all the actors, but in particular Maile, who brought a new depth to the character of Noreen. Knowing this would be the case both Jon and Eric agreed to rewrite portions of the story to lend more stage time to Maile, and it proved to be a winning decision. Roberta had again a very successful run, and was instrumental in raising funds for Honolulu’s homeless shelter, the Institute for Human Services, for which one performance was dedicated. The production also produced a Po’okela award for Thomas Tochiki.¹

ru

Merry Christmas Roberta – The Second Time Around In What Would Become The Brad Powell Theatre

Merry Christmas Roberta (The Reprise) – A Benefit For The Homeless

The Need For Roberta

In 2024, we find ourselves living in some of the most contentious times not only in American history, but in the history of the world. The combination of increasing cell phone and Internet technology has resulted in news being communicated instantaneously, the continued downgrading of the church, the disintegration of the nuclear family, the growing disregard for law and order, and a media that is geared more towards inflating stories to generate viewership than the truth, has cause society to become so divisive that even whole families are separated by the political divide. At its very core, Merry Christmas Roberta is a story of reconciliation. It is there in Lynette’s association with Roberta, where her innocence does not allow her to see Roberta other than what she is, a good and decent person. It is there in Alvin and Noreen getting to know and befriending Roberta, inviting her for Thanksgiving dinner so as to apologize for Alvin, thinking that she was a man taking advantage of a child, Lynette, having thrown her to the ground. It is there in Alvin apologizing to Ben for thinking that he was the one stealing fruit from the store. It is there when Noreen apologizes to Mrs. Ketler for getting mad at her for buying things from the store out of charity for them. It is there when the Aminos learn that Roberta saved all of the money that Lynette brought to her and then some, and has it returned in the form of a savings bond after her death. In essence, Roberta is a movie where the central theme is about putting others ahead of one’s self, and also to be able to say, “I’m sorry.” These are the fundamental traits that are needed to change this world. These traits are what make Merry Christmas Roberta special.

Reconciliation – The Only True Way To Change The World For The Better

¹This award was one of six Po’okelas (theatrical excellence) that Thomas received during his 15-year tenure as TAG’s lighting and sound designer and operator, before he unexpectedly died of heart failure on March 2nd, 2018. He was 29. Still, one of TAG’s greatest losses.

THOMAS TOCHIKI

October 20, 1988- March 2, 2018

For information on other movies in development by Yellow Brick Studio / LegacyVision Films click HERE.

 

Back to Top
Enter your Infotext or Widgets here...