Behind the scenes with Director, Paul Ruggieri on the making of “Portraits for the Home Front: The Story of Elizabeth Black”

Paul with camera

Inside a footlocker and tucked away for almost 70 years was a Veterans Day story waiting to be told.

The trunk belonged to Elizabeth Black, a World War II Red Cross volunteer who took her bravery and artistic talent to the front lines to sketch the faces of World War II troops. It contained a treasure trove of more than 100 drawings – all signed by the soldiers and sailors she sketched, along with newspaper clippings, personal notes, and letters from appreciative servicemen and their family members.

“Elizabeth’s son, John Black was given the trunk by a family member and when he opened it and looked through its contents, he knew there was an incredible story to be told,” said Paul Ruggieri, director of photography and editor for PBS Pittsburgh affiliate, WQED.

John, who lives in Tennessee, contacted WQED after the Memphis PBS affiliate suggested Pittsburgh was the place for this story to be told. “His mother was raised there and, before the war, had become a recognized portrait artist. She was given the task of painting life size murals of famous authors at Pittsburgh’s Northside Carnegie Library and was sought-after to sketch the children of prominent families in the region,” Paul said.

From 1944 through 1946, Elizabeth served with the American Red Cross Clubmobile, a unit of women who traveled throughout Europe delivering donuts, coffee, cigarettes, and smiles to the servicemen coming off of the front lines. She knew she could make an artistic contribution instead, so she drafted a proposal to sketch the faces of these servicemen. Those portraits would be sent to their families at home with a message written by them.

The American Red Cross accepted Elizabeth’s proposal and before World War II would end, she would capture the faces of more than 1,000 men from the front lines.

When Paul learned he would be part of the team making her story into a documentary, the 24 time Emmy award winner knew this would be his toughest assignment yet.

“Elizabeth passed away nearly 30 years ago. How do you tell her story and still convey emotion? Once we got it off the ground, we realized there many stories within the story,” Paul commented.

It was all hands on deck at WQED TV Pittsburgh to create the documentary “Portraits for the Home Front: The Story of Elizabeth Black” debuted this week on WQED – a project two years in the making.

“The producer, Dave Solomon, was masterful in telling Elizabeth’s story. He had teams of college interns working to identify the sketches to see if any of the servicemen were still living,” Paul remarked.

The interns researched the names of the servicemen online, discovering some of them had recently passed away.  They were successful in finding a few of the veterans and their stories of being sketched by Elizabeth were brought to life.

The WQED team journeyed with Elizabeth’s son John and his wife Kay to visit the archivists at the National headquarters of the American Red Cross and the National Archives in Washington, DC. Their research also took them to the Carnegie Library and Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh. Along the way, they uncovered even more treasures about Elizabeth Black and the men who were fortunate enough to be sketched.

Paul said, “The National headquarters of the Red Cross provided us with archived photographs and the National Archives pulled for us all of the Clubmobile footage they had on various formats including 35 mm film. We had to thread the film through three Steenbecks. This device allows the film to be played like a projector and shown on a screen. For four hours, we had three cameras continuously recording the footage from the Steenbeck by aiming the cameras at the screens.

In the end, we had to widdle down over 50 hours of footage and hundreds of still images into a 60 minute documentary.

The documentary also needed music to carry the emotion. It was a painstaking process to find just the right cuts of music – 43 pieces in all – to match the clip and the emotion”, Paul said.

While it was no small feat in bringing the story of Elizabeth Black to life, the Emmy award winning team of Dave Solomon, Paul Ruggieri, and narrator, Michael Bartley succeeded. They and many others contributed to the making of this very special documentary.

Paul commented, “Elizabeth is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, not because of her contribution to her country, but because she had married a military officer who was buried there.

She put herself in harm’s way to give this gift to others. That is the extraordinary part of the story. Recognition for her contribution to our country is long overdue.”

You can view her story, here.