By Sandy Tobin
As a finale to the celebration, a documentary on the colorful history of Needham is being released. A premiere screening of “Big Little Town: The Story of Needham” will take place in on Sunday, March 25 at 3 p.m. and is free to the first 300 people to come to the door.
The film will also be broadcast locally on and is slated for release on WGBH Boston sometime over the next few months.
The documentary tells the story of Needham, a small New England town whose people arrived just 10 years after the Pilgrims, and who established their community more than a half century before there was even a United States. It is the story of how, over three centuries, the town transformed from a sleepy farming community to a thriving mill center, to an industrial showcase, to a highly desirable suburb of Boston.
Narrated by former Needham resident and broadcaster Natalie Jacobson, the documentary is a professional quality film of 64 minutes and touches on many colorful stories that occurred in Needham. But its producers note that the film is also a window into small town life across America. There are big stories in this groundbreaking documentary, of events that happened locally but had reverberations that were felt far beyond our borders.
As historian Gloria Greis says in the film, “Large events don’t happen throughout the country if they don’t start first as small events in the small towns.”
Producers Kathryn Dietz and Marc Mandel spent 16 months making this film and shot more than 100 hours of footage. They spoke with historians in Needham, Wellesley, Dedham and Natick and interviewed people from the once-thriving Italian and Polish communities. While drawing heavily from the collections at the Needham Historical Society, they also gathered archival images from around the country in order to tell this story.
“When I set out to do this, I saw the potential to use our little town as a window onto American life over 300 years,” Dietz said. “ As it turns out we went back even further than 300 years—since the people who founded Needham came so soon after the Pilgrims, I thought we should start at the very beginning, making it more comprehensive, educationally useful, and grounded. I doubt any other town in America has a resource quite like this.”
“I met with Marc Mandel of The Needham Channel, and he mapped out the story for me, and then introduced me to Gloria Greis of the Historical Society,” Dietz said. “The more we talked, the more I saw that this was potentially a really great story. It had humor, drama, emotion, tension and great characters.”
Dietz and Mandel interviewed dozens of Needham residents with memories of old Needham. They created a quality piece on what most documentary filmmakers would consider a shoe-string budget. This was only possible because of the substantial contribution of the Needham Channel.
“It was an enormous job, to cull through 70 hours of footage, hundreds of pages of transcripts, selecting the right pieces to tell the story we set out to tell,” Dietz said. “And this was not my only job, nor Marc's—we both had other very substantial commitments. But we were committed, and we worked all through our vacations and every weekend, plus many long evenings, to get to a script lock in October so that we could record narration with Natalie Jacobson.”
The sound track was created by Tom Phillips of OBT Music—an acclaimed composer who has created soundtracks for many prime-time PBS documentaries.
The documentary was written and directed by Kathryn Dietz, a Needham resident and long-time PBS producer, who has made numerous other prime-time documentaries for PBS, notably for the "American Experience" and "Frontline" series. These include five feature-length documentaries about China, and biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Pickford, among other films.
Marc Mandel, executive director of the Needham Channel, produced the film with Dietz. He also shot and edited it, did the sound mixing and color correction and created the DVD and Blu-Ray masters.
This film is the finale project of the Needham Tercentennial celebration, providing a lively and lasting legacy of our history to residents of Needham and far beyond. It is a presentation of the Needham 300 committee, the , and The Needham Channel. Major funding was provided by , , the and Briarwood Healthcare.
It will be broadcast locally on The Needham Channel beginning in April, and will also be broadcast on WGBH Boston sometime this spring, date to be announced.
“It's our hope that this film will be a fun, engaging and lasting legacy for Needham and beyond,” Dietz said. “It's been an act of love for us, because the town is terrific, the stories are great and the characters a lot of fun.”