Winnetka Story – Interview with John Newcombe

On a cold day in December 2007, writer and filmmaker John Newcombe knocked on the door of the Winnetka Historical Society at 411 Linden Street. His mission: to write, edit and produce a documentary on the history of Winnetka. John grew up in Winnetka; the seventh of eight children, he attended Faith, Hope and Charity and New Trier High School. For the last 20 years, he has found success in California as a writer in many media: feature films, comic strips and documentaries. John collaborated for two years with the Society, working closely with Past President Susan Whitcomb and Curator Katie Macica. On October 15, Winnetka Story: The History of Winnetka and the North Shore premiered at the Winnetka Community House to a crowd of over 250. Susan Whitcomb spoke with John about the documentary creation process just before the premiere.

*Why did you want to do a comprehensive history of Winnetka and the North Shore?*
Local history is not the most common subject for documentary filmmaking because it has such a limited target audience, but the success of my last documentary, Rancho La Canada, motivated me to make a film about Winnetka. I have been interested in Winnetka’s history since I was a boy. When I was about six, my brother Jerry joined the Winnetka Historical Society. He was about 10. He would come home and tell me stories about Winnetka’s history. This is what first sparked my imagination. When we moved to a house on Lake Michigan, I met Sam Otis and he told me stories of early Winnetka, especially about the Lady Elgin. Otis drowned in Lake Michigan and washed up on our beach. In my child’s mind, I always associate him with the poor people who drowned in the Lady Elgin disaster and washed up on Winnetka’s shore 100 years earlier.

*What were the most difficult parts of the project?*
The greatest challenge for me in this project was to find ways of making the history entertaining while being accurate and remaining faithful to the facts. I found four ways to do this: 1) Focus on personal stories as opposed to just names, dates, buildings, streets, etc. 2) Recount anecdotes and events; anything that’s either dramatic (the Lady Elgin) or funny (the Mears scam). 3) Use comparison (then and now photographs) throughout the film. This helps the viewer locate the story. 4) If it’s boring, CUT IT. The moment a movie starts a clock begins ticking. You do not have the luxury of exploring details the way you would in a book or article. The ultimate sin of a movie is to be boring. If I deemed something boring, I cut it. By the end, I cut at least an hour from the film. At all times, I had to remind myself that while this film is a celebration of Winnetka it is not a brochure for the town.

*Who were your favorite people from Winnetka history when you finished the project? Why?*
Winnetka has had some amazing people living here, some famous like Henry Demarest Lloyd, Harold Ickes, Hetty Green(she only owned property here) and some known only locally like Charles and Sarah Peck, James and Mary Willson. But I would say the two people I was most impressed with were Jared Gage, who founded Lakeside (later Hubbard Woods), and Frank Windes, village engineer. But you have to see the movie to see why I admire them so much!

*What are your favorite sections of the documentary?*
As an editor you have to watch the film literally hundreds of times. If I can watch the same scene over and over again and still not be bored, then I know it works. Among my favorites: The Wayside Inn, the Lady Elgin, the Mears Scam, Henry Lloyd and Track Depression. I find each one engaging and they still hold my interest after all this time.

*How did the experience of making this film compare to the Rancho La Cañada film?*
Making Winnetka Story was actually much more fun than making Rancho La Cañada in that I had the advantage of hindsight: what worked and what did not work in the previous film. Also, no one had ever written a history of the Crescenta-Cañada Valley so I had to start from scratch, compiling information from varied sources. There is such a wealth of books and articles about Winnetka and the North Shore in general that it made the research and writing stage much easier.
Ultimately this film is a labor of love. While I certainly hope to break even on the project, I made the film that I want to see. I’ve lived on the East Coast, Hawaii, and California and I’m always homesick for Winnetka. I want people to appreciate not only what a great place Winnetka is to live but what a rich heritage it has.

The DVD Winnetka Story: The History of Winnetka and the North Shore is available for purchase at the Winnetka Historical Society and in our Online Store. Call 847/446-0001 for more information.


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