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STAR TURN

Meet Shula and Harry, the Brilliant New York City Seniors Remaking Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’

Shula Chernick and Harry B. Miller play the sparring leads in ‘My Annie Hall,’ a remake of Woody Allen’s 1977 movie featuring a cast of talented Manhattan seniors.

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Jerm Cohen

Having spent two hours with them, one has to wonder how much rehearsing Harry B. Miller and Shula Chernick really needed to do to transform themselves into the sparring Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. 

The two are the stars of My Annie Hall, a remake of Woody Allen’s 1977 movie, featuring a cast of seniors who attend programs at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House on New York’s Upper East Side. Sitting in a nearby diner the two leads, who have been close friends for eight years, told The Daily Beast how they first met. Miller is 93, and Chernick younger, but asked that a reporter not reveal her age in print.

“We met at some performing thing,” said Chernick. 

Miller disagreed. “The first time I saw you,” he said, mid-sandwich and dabbing his mouth with a napkin, “was when we were both at a movie, and you were predicting what was going to happen. I could have killed you.”

“I can’t remember that. I don’t always do that,” said Chernick quietly, before looking guiltily at me. “I did it on that occasion.”

“You also facially remind me of a woman in Jersey City of the best friend of my aunt,” said Miller. “They were friends for many years. They went to Africa with their husbands. She used to direct plays with kids in it. There were a couple of shows where I tap-danced.”

“I really wasn’t aware of that,” says Chernick, still vexed about ruining the movie for Miller. “I remember the performance.”

“Yes. I heard you sing and thought. ‘She’s a great singer,’” said Miller, warmly.

“That’s a better memory, thank you,” Chernick replied, deadpan.

Woody Allen couldn’t have scripted it any better.

“It Was ‘Bashert,’ As My Mother Would Have Said”

The movie is the brainchild of Ellie Sachs and Matt Starr, co-directors and boyfriend and girlfriend, and best pals of Miller and Chernick. Sachs and Starr are 25 and 28 respectively, and clearly devoted to Chernick and Miller, who have become close friends and also surrogate grandparents to Sachs and Starr. 

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On difficult days on set, Chernick would place her hands on Sachs’ shoulders, and tell her to calm down and relax. She gave constant hugs to Starr. 

If he and Sachs were butting heads during filming, Chernick would tell them, “You guys are doing something incredible. Chill out.” A late-night phone call before filming would end with the instruction: “No fighting.”

The impetus for the project came from Starr’s grandmother Maxine from Cincinnati, who is in her eighties and has Alzheimer’s disease.

Starr and Maxine have always been close, and her disease has bought them closer still. He can tell she recognizes him if she smiles, “but she doesn’t always recognize me.”

His sadness at this was partly counterbalanced by seeing how “lit up” she was on hearing swing and ragtime music. Back home, she was just as animated when Starr put on classic films. The two re-enacted scenes from Casablanca. “It became a means of communicating,” he said.

On his first date with Sachs, Starr told her about this experience and that he wanted to emulate it but on larger scale in New York City. Sachs told him: “You’re in luck. I know exactly how to do that.” Her background is in producing and directing theater, and especially in unconventional (schools, prisons) and low-income settings. 

The couple pitched a number of senior centers the idea of doing an interpretive cinema class, and were told their idea was crazy, said Sachs—“that the seniors couldn’t handle it, that they wouldn’t be up for it, and that they were too infirm.”

Chernick interjected: “We said, ‘Bring it on.’ We lucked out.”

The film course at Lenox Hill began on March 3, and ended in May. During it, Sachs and Starr gave the class a list of films to vote on (they also watched clips from them all) that they would like to remake: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Casablanca, Rear Window, Rosemary’s Baby, The Graduate, The Apartment, Singin’ In The Rain, The Philadelphia Story, and Rashomon.

At first the seniors thought Sachs and Starr were there obligatorily, doing something to gain credits for a college course. “When they realized we were there on our own volition, that we wanted to be there and that art meant something to us, they took it a lot more seriously,” said Starr. 

As for the choice of film to remake, “They all love musical theater, but we had to tell them that Singin’ In The Rain would be tricky to pull off,” Starr said. “Annie Hall is a classic love story, set in New York City, and the streets of New York City more specifically. We could recreate it, with a lot of veracity and pay homage to the original. We shot 50 percent of the outdoor scenes in the original locations.”

“I think I’ve seen Woody Allen on our corner,” said Chernick. “It was a guy talking on a phone. He smiled at me. He sure looked like Woody Allen.”

The original intention was to shoot the movie on iPhones, like Tangerine, said Starr. But instead he shot snatches of rehearsals on his iPhone, and sent the clips to family and friends and posted them on Facebook. The positive feedback encouraged him “to do this thing justice. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to turn it into something bigger.” 

He and Sachs set up a fundraising Indiegogo page, and have at the time of writing raised 60 percent of their $10,000 target.

“It was ‘bashert,’ as my mother would have said,” Chernick said, invoking a Yiddish word. “Meant to be.”

She had “minimum acting experience,” while Miller—a former scenic designer for NBC (41 years) and CBS (28 years, including soap operas like Guiding Light), as well as an assistant designer on five Broadway shows—had recently begun acting at Hunter College.

Miller said he had retired at 75, and “for two years had nothing to do but read The New York Times. Then he discovered the jazz dance classes at Hunter (he also sits on the college’s senior citizens’ student association). 

After our meeting he and Chernick were heading to a revue downtown to perform scenes from the film, sing, and—in his case—tap-dance to ‘Tea For Two,’ “which I’ve never done before. I’ll just have to make up as I go along.” 

He would do the dance three times, and—mid-sandwich—said to Chernick on the last go-around he could pick her up and they could cha-cha together.

‘I’m Wondering, What Happens When Woody Allen Finds Out About This’

Chernick had seen Annie Hall when it was first released. Miller, although he has seen other Allen movies, refused to watch it.

“I didn’t want to imitate Woody Allen,” Miller said. “I wanted to play Alvy Singer.”

Starr said Miller was the only man in the class who looked like Allen.

“All the others are this wide,” said Miller with a grimace, indicating a large girth.

“Not all of them,” Chernick gently chided.

“They’re all on the heavy side,” Miller muttered.

Starr said: “Harry would always say, ‘I am not Woody Allen, I’m Harry B. Miller playing Alvy Singer, who was played by Woody Allen.”

Miller is humble. The others have to tell me he won two Emmys for his design work. He has been performing since he was 5 as a tap dancer. He taught scenic design at Smith College, and also received a Masters in Theater from there. 

At Hunter, whenever an audition calls for an old man, he goes for it. He’s done 11 shows there so far, including Julius Caesar and The Cherry Orchard. Starr loves hearing Miller’s stories of the World’s Fairs, and the advent of color TV.

“They go to each other’s everything,” said Starr of Chernick and Miller. They’re each others’ biggest fans.”

Chernick, “a little bit of a gypsy,” is quite the connector, ferrying extra people to take part in the film, and scouting apartment locations. She said she had a lot of organizational experience as a younger woman, having run a senior center in Harlem with no staff. She traveled to Israel to do military service, then ended up living in Africa. “My sister said I always sang before I spoke,” she said. 

Chernick loves singing, and always has in her mind Julie Andrews running down the hill in The Sound of Music; she is proud that Boris Schatz, who became known as “the father of Israeli art,” was her great uncle.

She never married or had children. “No, I’m still available. Maybe you could do something about that,” she said to me, smiling mischievously, “with my new-found fame.”

Starr said all his Sachs’ boyfriends and girlfriends had asked to have supper and drinks with Chernick and Miller. “They already have a cult following.”

“One of the misconceptions about older people is that they don’t have sex, and they don’t have lives,” said Sachs. “But love is a timeless thing. You can fall in love at any age, and have a full, amazing life at any age.”

“Old people are not sitting at home watching TV all day,” said Starr. “Harry and Shula do more than 90 percent of my friends. Harry taps once a week, does Zumba a few times a week, swims twice a week, and takes French and Spanish classes. Shula does photography.”

My Annie Hall will be 40 minutes long, with the original's Californian scenes cut from it, but most everything else left intact. Filming it was challenging, but enjoyable. Starr, a vegan, had to deal with two stressed, foaming lobsters to be used in the lobster scene (“I was also stressed, and thought I’d die in empathy”). 

“It was a lot of hard work and a lot of hard fun,” said Chernick, who particularly enjoyed filming the lobster, therapy, and bedroom scenes.

Miller liked the whole experience, except the acting partner he had who had Alzheimer’s “who drove me crazy.”

Sachs and Starr found directing the movie accelerated their own relationship in lots of ways. Sachs said to him one day, “Aren’t we lucky that we get to argue about highfalutin’ concepts?” Starr smiled at the memory. “Yeah, as opposed to what we’re picking out at the cheese store.”

“They work well together,” said Chernick. “I enjoy watching them.”

“I have one constant worry, and this is why I’m like Woody Allen” said Miller. “I’m wondering, what happens when Woody Allen finds out about this. I have no idea how he’ll react. He might sue us.”

“I don’t think he’ll sue us,” said Starr. “He takes full ownership of his art, but I hope seeing what we’ve done, he’ll think it was great.”

“My therapist said that he’ll like it because he’s old and Jewish and he can relate,” said Sachs, smiling.

This reporter attempted reassurance, and suggested inviting both Allen and Diane Keaton to the premiere, which the team hopes to hold at Lenox Hill, with possible other venues like Anthology Film Archives being considered too. Starr wants to add a vaudeville element to the evening, and have Miller tap dancing and Chernick singing.

“What are we calling it?”, asked Chernick.

My Annie Hall,” said Starr.

Chernick nodded at what she took as a sign of a clear demarcation between theirs and the original. “It’s not his film.”

“It is his film,” said Starr.

“It’s ‘inspired by,’” said Sachs.

There was a beat of silence; potential lawsuits, the unknown, and the possibility of Allen being flattered by and enjoying this homage all circulating in the air.

“Maybe we could get him to act in our next film,” said Chernick. If anyone can get Woody Allen to agree to that, she can.

‘We Talk About Sex, Life, Love, Memory, Everything’

Both Chernick and Miller seem very independent. Miller related an awful and graphic tale of a life-threatening assault, which he asked subsequently for me not to go into detail about, since he has sworn off relationships.

He hasn’t missed having children. His brother has six, and seven grandchildren. “I think that’s enough for one family.” He likes being around young people. When he turned 90, his Hunter College theater class gave him two birthday cakes and the entire department sang, “Happy Birthday.”

“People love him,” Starr said, looking at Miller who was weeping a little.

“I cry about everything,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I’m the kind of that cries at weddings.”

“Me too,” said Starr.

“I cry on any occasion, I don’t discriminate,” said Chernick.

She said she had a “rough time personally, I’d like to turn the clock back frankly,” around matters in her personal life and health. She also stated that she did not like margarine, but real butter.

Chernick has dated men 20 years older than herself, like Miller, and younger, but one who was two years older than her said it was strange for him, and it was strange for her too. “My mother lived to be 100. I wanted to brag about that. How can I hide that? But when a younger travel companion found out about it, they didn't want to travel to South Africa with me.”

So, if Chernick and Miller had dated in the past, and now they were playing Annie and Alvy, and they seem such a good match, why not get together, a reporter asked. 

“Harry, you heard him?” Chernick said to her buddy across the table, then looked at me. “Is this a set-up?”

Miller smiled and started singing softly, “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built For Two)”: “I can’t afford a carriage/But you’ll look sweet/Upon the seat/Of a bicycle made for two.”

Chernick smiled, and said she was going to go for someone younger than Miller.

“I love being around young people, especially young people who do something special,” Chernick said. “I consider myself a citizen of the world. Boundaries and borders are arbitrary, and forget about walls. We all breathe the same air, we are the same eventually. People who don’t realize it are making it bad for us and for future generations.”

Miller said that making My Annie Hall had been a first for him in making a film, and in recognizing that “young people are interested in older people and not just each other and their age group because you get that impression from a lot of them.”

For Starr, working with the seniors has been profound and moving. “I never had a relationship with a senior older person outside my parents and grandparents. But when it comes to Shula and Harry they have become my friends and redefined what my relationship with seniors is. We talk about sex, life, love, memory, everything. I'm more open with them than some of my friends.”

“Art is a unifier,” said Sachs. “It sounds hokey but this whole experience has taught me that age really is just a number. We never asked Shula her age. It never mattered. We stopped seeing her age. We started seeing her as Shula.”

“We’re interested in inspiring others to create meaningful experiences,” said Starr of making My Annie Hall. Both he and Sachs would love to do another movie like this, and hope their movie encourages other young people to dream up ways to work with seniors.

Leaving the diner, the quartet made to head off downtown for the revue, where Chernick would sing, Miller tap-dance, and both would perform a scene from the film. 

As they gingerly negotiated the cycle path, then bundled into a town car, the last thing a reporter heard was a warm hubbub of laughter and chatter. Don’t be surprised if this time Alvy Singer and Annie Hall live happily—well, sparkily—ever after.