Arthur Mrozowski hands me an empty plate and points to some sauerkraut in a dish on the table in front of us.
“Help yourself,” Arthur says as we scan the Polish delicacies sharing the smorgasbord spotlight: peirogies, beets, polish sausage, rye bread with butter. Sitting at the 1 ’o clock position on the table is a foreigner—sushi, specifically California rolls.
“I knew you were a vegetarian,” Arthur notes, shrugs, then saunters off to entertain some of the Polish and Polish-American friends he’s invited to his Aptos home for a holiday party.
As the festive pump of an accordion and the brass of a trumpet linger in the audio periphery—proof that Polka music can never get too boring—I add sushi onto my plate and then reach for those tasty-looking foreign dumplings. My left eyebrow arches at the sight of another dish.
This one holds a variety of plump, Polish sausages perspiring with flavor. Suddenly, these tender meats are the catalyst for an unexpected flashback:
Chicago. 1977. A Polka party. “I Don’t Want Her, You Can Have Her, She’s Too Fat for Me,” ends, Bobby Vinton’s “Melody of Love” begins. Lenny Bender, myself, and a couple of overweight pre-pubescent Polish gals clad in red and white skirts. A nightmare. We’ve devoured plates full of our ancestors’ favorite foods. It began with borsch, then morphed into a “who can eat the most Polish sausage?” contest. The girls tossed their arms up in defeat around the half-dozen mark. But Lenny and I … we were tied at 20 sausages apiece. The girls belch. We all laugh. Then, Lenny, his abdomen bloated and pushing against the third button on the vest of his tight-fitting, creamy-tan leisure suit—mine was powder blue—reaches over my plate, stabs his fork into the last remaining sausage on the serving tray in the center of the table and drags that five-inch-long, purple-maroon morsel toward his wide mouth, toward victory. He grins. I become furious. With my bare hands, I yank the greasy sausage from Lenny’s fork, planning to deliver it toward my mouth but Lenny quickly intercepts it and shoves the darn thing right into his wide orifice. He barely chews it and swallows hard. My eyes widen from the shock. At first I think I’m shaking my head in disgust because I lost. Then my stomach rumbles dangerously and moments later, about the time Bobby Vinton’s voice croons how much he “loves us so,” the family of undigested sausages fully reacquaints themselves in front of the guests at my dinner table. The last thing I remember before being dragged off by the ear by a stern Polish relative, was Lenny’s mocking, finger-pointing howl of vitriolic laughter.
When I look up, Arthur has returned to my side. He’s eating a Polish sausage.
Fortunately, this is a different type of “Polka Party,” but I suspect that Arthur would be up for anything—even here, in Aptos, a place so seemingly far removed from the Polish heritage you’d typically find back east in places like Chicago, Detroit, Toronto or New York. But then again, not much is typical about Arthur, his Aptos-based DVD authoring/film distributing company MGE (Media Gallery Entertainment), or the fact that he is introducing a bit of Poland into the quirky cultural landscape of Santa Cruz County. What seems to be making all this come to fruition at the moment? A big-name director-turned actor—Roman Polanski—and the Polish word for revenge: Zemsta.
A Touch of Poland
The crisp fall air outside Chicago’s Pickwick Theater leaves a bit of sting on the cheek and forces people to quicken their pace. But the mood around here is already full of eagerness. The crowd has arrived for a special screening of Zemsta, which stars Roman Polanski in a rare acting role and is directed by the acclaimed Andrzej Wajda, one of the leading filmmakers in the world for the last half-century. The 500-seat theater is completely packed, mostly with Polish people. The community has been anticipating the arrival of Zemsta for a few weeks, every since MGE, which is distributing the film globally, locked in a screening date in The Windy City.
The fervor around the Pickwick is justified for a number of reasons. Zemsta was Poland’s number one box office draw in 2002, beating out The Pianist, which, ironically was directed by Polanski. But the coup de grace is the simple fact that a real Polish film is being shown to a community of Poles in America, an occurrence that is as rare as the creamy, pickled herrings (sledzie) being served at a Polish restaurant nearby. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to feature a film that stars Roman Polanski either. In Zemsta, the famed director is the main star of Wajda’s comedy of errors, a story that pits two feuding gentries—and their respective households—against each other while love attempts to find its rightful home in 17th century Poland (see related stories). Here, Polanski morphs into a befuddled man caught in the middle of battling egos in a film that smacks of Moliere and leaves its audience anticipating the characters’ next moves. Zemsta is also a story that many Poles had to study—at least those who attended school in Poland. The classic play by Aleksander Fredro was required reading and is still one of the most popular works of its time—it is a work written completely in rhyme.
In Polish with English subtitles, Zemsta appears to be a hit with this movie crowd. (Although soup was served in one scene, there was nary a polish sausage spotted in any of the other reels.) Afterward, in the theater lobby, some people inquire how the film made it to Chicago and to the Polish community. The answer? MGE.
The Chicago screening was just another stop along the show business road that MGE has been traveling on. Ever since it became the sole distributor of Poland’s Visions Films last year, MGE has been introducing Zemsta to Polish communities throughout Northern America, in cities such as Toronto, Chicago, New York—even Berkeley and Palo Alto, which both boast healthy-sized Polish populations.
“I think what we’re doing with the Polish market is unique,” says MGE CEO Dave Larson. “We haven’t seen other people do this and the concept seems rich.”
Rich and groundbreaking. With Hollywood birthing more product than there are screens to fill it, foreign films, like Zemsta, which aren’t typically top marquee considerations, may now find an audience overseas. At least that’s the idea MGE entertains. By March, the company says Zemsta will be showing in 50 cities all around North America that have Polish communities.
Ushering in a slew of Poland’s film fare into the very community that’s hungry for it is paying off, but it’s only one dimension in the multi-faceted network that is MGE. In the five years that Arthur and his MGE colleagues have officially been a company, they’ve watered the Aptos-based entertainment medium and watched it bloom into a full service, worldwide DVD authoring enterprise. In addition to the exclusive distribution rights it entertains with Vision Films, Poland’s hippest film production company, MGE has delivered more than 500 DVD titles of feature films, TV shows and music, supplying all the subtitling when needed. (For a film like Zemsta, which had to be translated entirely from rhyming verse, the painstaking task often went beyond head-scratching—literal translations didn’t always make sense in English so MGE had to pay particular attention in deciphering it.) When there was a call for European DVD distribution of several Hollywood hits, MGE landed a deal to distribute Evita, Pinocchio, Trainspotting, G.I. Jane and others. And then there’s music DVDs—concerts of Etta James, James Last, The Doors. Currently, MGE distributes nearly 20 DVD titles for Vision Films, many of which can be found on the chic Internet movie rental site, Netflix.com. The films vary—some are pure comedy, like Dzien Swira (Day of the Wacko), others are inspirational, like W Pustyni I Puszczy, (In Desert and Wilderness), which was the winner of Chicago’s International Children’s Film Festival and which will show in Santa Cruz next month.
This is where the Rio Theatre fits into the patchwork of MGE’s ever-expanding quilt.
Poland in Rio
Arthur and MGE were eager to open Zemsta in Santa Cruz. Originally, all was a go with the Nickelodeon Theaters, one of the area’s premier spots for art house films, but fitting the film into the often-tight play schedule of the busy Nickelodeon proved to be a challenge. It wasn’t that the theater didn’t want to show the film, it just didn’t know when it could lock in a date, especially during a pre-Oscar movie rush.
“We said, well the Rio is open, come to us,” says Laurence Bedford, who over the past two and half years has managed to rise the Rio out of the ashes of its previous incarnation—a United Artists-run moviehouse—and create a thriving live performance venue. “We still had the 35mm equipment from UA, and Zemsta was a first-run European movie. It falls perfectly into what we are doing at the Rio.”
It’s also the first time the Rio will screen a film in XXX years. In any case, the union spawned a new series of International Film events at the Rio and Bedford points out that he’d like to bridge a gap in the area, to become an available venue for films that don’t make onto the bigger screens of Signature Theaters or The Nick for that matter.
“Coming from San Francisco, there were little art houses like the Roxie Theater and the Castro Theater,” he says. “Here, there used to be the Sash Mill, but there was nothing in between to show movies like Zemsta.”
After Zemsta premieres in three exclusive showings this week—7:30 p.m. Feb. 7, 8 and 9 (Friday, Saturday and Sunday)—the Rio will feature MGE’s In Desert and Wilderness in March, followed by The Career of Nikos Dyzma, which features Poland’s equivalent to Jim Carrey.
In addition to the eastern European fare from MGE, the company is remastering Reefer Madness for a special midnight showing at the Rio. MGE will supply DVD-formatted versions of the film in 5.1. surround sound.
“The audio will be a kick in the pants,” Bedford notes.
There’s more. The Rio is excited about its Italian Film Series, which takes place every third Sunday of the month through a link with the Dante Society. But all Sundays are dedicated to movies and for five bucks a pop, it’s certainly one of the best tickets in town.
“We won’t always do movies—we will always have live performances on the lineup— and in no way do we plan to compete with the Nick,” Bedford says. “Zemsta is a first-run Polish movie. MGE has been putting it into Polish communities but what it does for us, is break the ice. Now we have a slot for first-run movies and it gives MGE an independent moviehouse in their own backyard to bring it to. It’s win-win for both of us.”
Win-win sure … but in order to get to this point, MGE had to master the intense technical labors of DVD mastering, appreciate some good luck, and, amusingly enough, the scandalous escapades of a sausage from an entirely different region.
What’s Monica Have to Do With It?
At one point during President Clinton’s “did he?/didn’t he?” videotaped inquisition of his alleged sexual encounters with then-intern Monica Lewinsky, somebody, somewhere, had to be thinking: “Wait til America sees this.”
America did see it. A lot of it. In fact, America was able to grab the President’s lengthy diatribe within one week’s time, and on DVD—thanks to MGE.
“We took the entire four-hour Clinton tapes, created 99 chapters on DVDs, dubbed it and shipped it out through Netflix.com, whom we approached with the idea,” Arthur says. “Netflix was able ship it to anybody for two cents. It generated so much publicity that we were getting bombarded with phone calls, more from the technical view than anything else. We beat all the VHS guys to the ground. We had it produced within one week.”
Articles in the San Jose Mercury News, Newsweek and Billboard followed. The buzz was growing. Where did MGE come from? Had it even been a blip on the technical radar screen? More importantly, how did the company pull off the feat in such a short amount of time? Especially when it was operating in the tight quarters of Arthur’s garage.
To the lay person, the equipment that MGE used could provoke a good head-scratching—a Video Editing Suite, a system call Full Media 100, which allows you to convert data as it comes on tape, and allows you to actual edit and piece things together. In addition, there was a full set of digital Beta tape decks and high-end broadcast equipment, a DVD authoring and encoding station, a multi-track, audio recording station and a movie menu design station for DVD.
Adjusting under pressure is nothing new for Arthur. Born in Bytom, Poland in 1963, he was raised in nearby Krakow. When he was 18 (in 1980), Arthur, his mother and his stepfather, took advantage of a Solidarity-infused Poland and managed to obtain passports. After a brief stay in Austria and Vienna, they emigrated to the United States, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area. The family found an official U.S. “sponsor”—Francesca Bacon—who owned a summer home in Brookdale, in the San Lorenzo Valley. Bacon allowed the family to reside in the home as long as they took care of it.
One of Arthur’s first jobs in Santa Cruz was making sandwiches at Hainz Beer Garden Café on Pacific Avenue, the current home of Starbucks.
“Initially I didn’t know what to do,” Arthur recalls. “My knowledge of English was very limited and when it came to talking, I couldn’t do it. So I got a job and went to high school to learn my English skills.”
He became interested in technology and went to study computer science at Mesa College in San Diego. In 1984, he nabbed a job at Meridian Data and began working on the designs of something, which at that time, was very foreign to the world—CD-Rom authoring software. He found the work fascinating and advanced to No. 3 engineer, and eventually found himself relocating back to Santa Cruz County where Meridian was headquartered.
“It was an exciting time,” he says. “The potential for CD-Rom technology was big.”
It was also cutting edge. He and his coworkers basically watched the sun rise over a new era. It was that place—the point of technological conception—that Arthur would find himself in again in the decade that followed. A stint with Sony in Monterey found him working on the beginning stages of digital video, specifically Sony’s PlayStation. Then, in 1994, he decided to venture off onto his own. This time, he created new technological pathways with the first interactive film on CD-Rom, sort of the seedlings of what would eventually blossom into the DVDs we know of today. (That’s a big leap, but think of the steam engine eventually growing up to become a jet engine—that road to advancement, that evolution of technology, from one to another, is slow if not rife with challenges.)
The ideas poured in. Arthur still had ties to Poland and the foreign film market was an untapped commodity in the CD-Rom medium. It was sitting there waiting for these new technologies to take advantage of them.
“At the time, it was so new,” Arthur says. “With every new medium, Hollywood and the guards of the intellectual properties are always very nervous about licensing; about putting things on CD-Rom. Either you could work with people who owned films outright or go to countries that were eager to expose their products and who were not restrictive.”
The actual birth of MGE as a company came in 1997. Arthur set up shop in the garage of his Aptos home and along with Timothy Lydgate and Dave Larson, began authoring DVDs with high-end equipment—$150,000 of the initial investment came from Silicon Valley backers.
Then, in 1998, Arthur went to Poland to record some of the most popular Bach music on DVD.
“That disc [the DVD] was No. 20 in the whole world,” he says. “We went to trade shows, handing out sample DVDs and nobody knew what DVDs were. We were a little ahead of our time; maybe too pioneering.”
At the time, there were only 20,000 DVD players in U.S., but the skills Arthur used in the Bach project proved helpful. With more film and music DVD projects coming in—and thanks to the press MGE had garnered from the Clinton DVD—a link to Vision Films was finally made and, after several years of negotiations, MGE was granted global distribution rights from Vision in 2002.
With all the work coming in, the time came to get out of the garage. In April of last year, MGE moved to the comfy confines of the Rio Del Mar Shopping Center in Aptos. Along with Larson, MGE has a Vice President of Production, Timothy Lydgate. Also on board: Operations Manager Buff McKinley, DVD Programmer Seth Bennett, Film Distribution Manager Zac Larson and offsite graphic artist Joanna Moody.
“I think we’ve been helping change the habits of the Polish community in terms of movies—teaching the polish people to routinely go to Polish cinema in North America—it’s new to them,” Larson says. “Also, we are the first company to produce legal [film] products like this—in the past, everything (Polish films) has been bootleg. I think we’re giving the community the gift of their heritage. We’ve presented the same proposition (subtitling and distributing films and DVDs) to companies in Argentina, Japan and Mexico, and we’re getting similar interest.”
It’s nearly 1:30 p.m. on a Friday and the Rio Theatre is bustling with excitement. Sniff the air and you’re suddenly in a Polish delicatessen. The only thing missing is a short stocky woman with a meat-stained apron scooping a load of pickled pig’s feet (galareta) into a jar, asking you if you’re available to date her single daughter. (A flashback to share at another time perhaps.)
Arthur, who’s invited press and film buffs to the special screening of Zemsta today, waves his hand over the spread of Polish food he’s provided for the attendees. There’s eel from the Baltic Sea, pickles, rye bread, horseradish, grated beets, spicy mustard, radishes and, of course, an assortment of Polish sausages. A lot of Polish sausages (Kabanosy, Zwycznajna).
Shots of Polish vodka are on hand—easy going down, tough during the five-second bodywarming that follows. Polish honey wine waits for a taker. Off to the side—an assortment of rich, Polish chocolate.
I nibble on the eel, but wonder if chucking the vegetarian thing for a minute is worth it. After all, the Polish sausage is only a toothpick away. Why not satisfy the Baltic genetic code that’s been the death of my proper waistline all these years?
I wander the Rio’s lobby. In the far corner rests a monstrous movie display of Zemsta with the characters seemingly bursting out of it. It feels as if the Rio never really intended herself to sway that far from showing films at all. She’s right back where she started.
But how will Zemsta be received?
“I have been watching a lot of movies and although I can say I am biased, I think a lot of Polish films are not bad at all,” Arthur says. “They’re entertaining. A film like Zemsta is deep in my heart. I read the material in 10th grade. It was mandatory reading. But I don’t expect everybody to be in tune with it, mainly from the historical aspect of it and the fact that it plays out like a theatrical play. So the people who will enjoy it are those who are into these types of things in film.”
When I ask Arthur about MGE’s growing success, he says, “The good news is I am not by myself. I have a great team of people here at MGE and everybody has their own specialty. As a team, we are not going to screw it up.”
This is proof that modest-sized companies doing big business in small towns are role models. With a little bit of willpower, vision and direction they can, as the Poles often sing, live for 100 years (Sto lat).
Still, there’s this business of the Polish sausage weighing heavy on the soul. The post-traumatic stress of my 1977sausage fiasco—losing to that smart-ass Lenny Bender—is apparently still close to the surface. But why not be a little bold? Do what Arthur and MGE are doing—take a chance …
I saunter back to the food counter and consider my options. Big round pieces of sausage to the right of me; thin long strands of meat to the left. Where to begin?
Finally, I snatch a toothpick, stick it into the nearest sausage and fling it onto my tongue and chew the life out of it. The savory, peppery, richness activates sensations my mouth hasn’t felt in years. I swallow. I smile.
One down, 20 to go.
If only Lenny could see me now. I have one word for him: Zemsta.
Curious to know more about MGE, call 831-685-3549 or visit www.mge.tv. Visit the Rio Theatre online at www.riotheatre.com. Hungry for some Polish sausage, check out Seakor, 1783 South Winchester Blvd. in Campbell, (408) 378-0991 or Delikateski, 1984 Monument Blvd., Concord. (925) 825-7417.