Noe Valley Voice June 2011

Filmmakers Follow A Friend’s Search For the Father He Never Knew

By Corrie M. Anders

Kathy Klausner and husband Beni Strebel had no idea of the challenges they would face when they decided to make a documentary about a close friend who discovered late in life that he was a “love child.” The novice filmmakers did much of the planning for the well-received documentary in their Guerrero Street home.    Photo by Pamela Gerard 

Beni Strebel had no experience making movies, but he was gutsy enough to get behind the video camera. Kathy Klausner, a novice too, found her niche— interviewing the central characters and getting them to share their most intimate secrets.

Over a period of four years, this husband-and-wife team living on Noe Valley’s eastern edge documented the uncomfortable odyssey of a middle-aged friend whose mother had informed him he was the love child of an extramarital affair.

The result was the film Thackary’s Time, which premiered Feb. 1 at Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco. On Father’s Day, June 19, neighborhood residents will have a chance to view the documentary and meet the filmmakers at a showing at the Noe Valley/Sally Brunn Library.

Klausner, 50, is an energetic woman with a quick, easy smile who describes herself as a “stay-at-home mom.” Swiss-born Strebel, 53, who exudes the same self-confidence, is a professional ceramic artist. The couple have lived in their Guerrero Street Victorian since 1987, and raised two children, Max, 21, a junior at New York University who is studying film, and Emma, 17, who heads off this fall to the same school.

Their film, which is quite poignant at times, portrays a son searching for clues to his identity in a new family. It also raises the awkward question: who is more important—the father whose genes you share or the father who reared you from birth? Raw emotions fill the screen—of betrayal, frustration, and unrequited love.

“Nobody really knew, nor did we, what they were getting themselves into here,” said Strebel. “We realized at one point that this may not be a happy story.”

The co-directors, who often complete each other’s sentences, said it was difficult at times to watch their friend adjust to his changed circumstances. And yet, said Strebel, making the documentary “was really a thrill.”

A Mother’s Revelation

The leading personality in the film is Thackary Grossman, a free spirit and surfer who lives in Inverness and works sporadically as a carpenter. The supporting cast features Thackary’s New Age mother, Baba Herrick of Los Gatos, who five decades ago had a passionate but short-lived affair with Walt Tulecke, now

a retired biology professor. Tulecke was a friend of Peter Grossman, a psychotherapist and Herrick’s husband, who always believed Thackary was his natural son.

The genesis of the film was about as casual as it gets. The filmmakers and Thackary had been friends since they met in 1983. Klausner and Thackary shared an interest in Japanese martial arts, and practiced aikido at Aikido of Noe Valley at Castro and 26th streets.

“He told us one day that his mother had just revealed this big secret to him,” Klausner said. Herrick, who today works as a relationship coach, explains in the film that she felt the time had arrived for Thackary to know that the “father who raised him wasn’t his biological father.”

That was 12 years ago, when Thackary was 39. Thackary spent the next six years trying to arrange a meeting with Tulecke, who was residing in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Tulecke, however, was understandably reluctant—he had yet to reveal Thackary’s existence to his wife and their four grown daughters.

“Finally, Thackary asked, ‘Okay, do I have to wait till you die to meet my half-sisters, because I won’t give up,’” Strebel said.

Tulecke, then 83, agreed to a DNA test that confirmed his paternity, and subsequently broke the news to his family. He also finally agreed to see his son.

When Thackary confided the news, Klausner and Strebel asked if Thackary would like them to videotape the planned get-together in Inverness. He said yes.

Still, they wanted to make certain everyone was comfortable. “I said this is a pretty big deal, meeting your father for the first time in 45 years,” Klausner said. “It’s taken you six years to convince Walt to meet and now you’re going to come with a film crew. How is that going to work?”

No problem, said Thackary. Now that the secret was out, Tulecke was on board.

Miles of Interviews

Strebel and Klausner loaded up their gear for an adventure that took them on 20 filming trips—from bucolic western Marin County and Sonoma County, to Los Angeles, to a historic village in southwest Ohio, and to upstate New York for a Tulecke family reunion.

Only two family members were reluctant to talk about Thackary among the more than dozen people the couple interviewed. One of Thackary’s sisters steadfastly refused to get involved, and Peter Grossman relented only after two years of prodding.

“He was not happy about the project,” Strebel said about Grossman, who now lives in the Los Angeles area. “He didn’t think it was a good idea that Thackary even found out he was not his biological father.”

With little experience beyond travel and home videos, the filmmakers used their own amateur video camera at first. As the project wore on, they switched to professional film and editing equipment, which they used to distill 60 hours of film into a 54-minute final cut.

To polish the picture, they turned to a retired film editor, then later hired an editor who’d worked on documentaries. They also got advice from Strebel’s brother, Lukas, an Emmy-winning cine

matographer, and his ex-sister-in-law, Noe Valley’s Debra Chasnoff, who had won an Academy Award as director-producer of a documentary.

Strebel and Klausner finally wrapped the film in 2010, at an out-of-pocket cost of $40,000.

Film Echoes

The first screening last February at Dolby’s Mission District studios attracted a full house of about 80 of the filmmakers’ family and friends. The following weekend, a standing-room crowd of 120 folks viewed the film at a community center on Thackary’s home turf in Point Reyes. Another packed house attended a March screening at Delancey Street in SoMa.

The filmmakers were pleased, and said the film seemed to touch a nerve with its audiences. During the post-screening Q&A, Klausner said she was struck by how “so many people had a story similar to this one...everyone has a different version of it.”

In May, the couple were busy shopping the documentary around to film festivals, including ones in Bernal Heights, Fairfax, and Napa Valley.

As they pondered their next film project—“we’re waiting to see what falls our way”—they reflected on the insights they’d gained while shooting Thackary’s Time. For one, said Klausner, they realized “how absolutely na•ve we were getting into it, how involved it is, and how much it takes to make a film.”

But more importantly, they learned “just how delicate it is to make a film about a good friend,” she said. “We had to keep our fingers crossed that it would work out. We were lucky that it did.”

Thackary’s Time will be shown June 19 at 3 p.m. at the Noe Valley Library, 451 Jersey St. The filmmakers will answer questions afterwards, and will donate a copy of the film to the library. For more information about the film, visit