I’ve just been made aware of the passing of Evangeline Peterson. Some of you may know Evangeline as the wife of Don Rugoff, the subject of my film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff.” It is no exaggeration to say that Evangeline was (is) the star of the film. She added parts of the story that no one else would have known, and her intelligence and radiance jump off the screen.
When I first thought about making a film about Don Rugoff, I had no idea how his family would feel about it or if they would be willing to cooperate. I first reached out to Don’s son Ed and, over an extended lunch, we discussed the project. It seemed as if he was willing. He also mentioned that his mother, Evangeline, was still alive and living in Medford, Oregon. I remembered Evangeline from brief encounters at the Cinema 5 offices when I worked there in the ’70s. She was a beautiful and classy woman; one wondered what she saw in Rugoff, who was not the least bit attractive and a not-very-nice person. Ed promised that he would approach his mother about doing an interview for the film.
Many months passed, and I stayed in touch with Ed. He had broached the idea with Evangeline, but she wasn’t feeling all that well, and he would let me know when an interview might be possible. At one point he set up a phone call with the three of us to discuss the project. Evangeline started telling stories about her history with Rugoff, so I quickly pressed the button to start taping the conversation–not knowing if I would ever get another chance to talk to her. After around a half hour of great material, I asked her if I could come to Medford and do an interview on camera. She seemed skeptical about whether she really had anything pertinent to offer, but I could sense that she had plenty, and it was left open ended as to whether it could ever happen.
I kept following up with Ed. More than a year passed, by which time I had already done most of the interviews that appear in the film. Ed called to tell me that his mom had finally assented to my visit. I immediately made plans to travel to Medford, and found a local cameraperson to help me out.
The plan was to spend two days with Evangeline in her home. For one thing, I was afraid that she would tire out if I was there for too many hours at a time. I also thought it would be good to spend the first day allowing her to just tell stories and to gain her trust. Then on the second day, I would ask the more touchy questions that might reveal answers to some of the mysteries I was trying to get to the bottom of. I also decided to use two cameras, which I had not done for any other interview. This was too important an interview not to have coverage.
The first day went really well. Evangeline was in good spirits and I was able to capture many of the great stories she had told me on the phone. She pulled out some photos of her and Rugoff from their wedding day, family vacations, and various film festivals. It was a treasure trove of images from their life together, many of which ended up in the film. The biggest surprise for me was that Rugoff was actually a handsome man in his youth.
The second interview day was when I planned to start asking the more difficult questions. But the minute the cameras were turned on, Evangeline–without any prompting–just started to spill. She went into detail about all the painful parts of the story, so I just shut up and let her go. She was clearly feeling comfortable with me, so the strategy seemed to be paying off. I returned to New York with a goldmine of footage for the film.
It took several years for the film to be completed, and I kept Ed up to date about my progress. When the premiere was finally scheduled at DOC NYC, I wanted Ed, his brother Ralph and Evangeline to see the film beforehand. I had no idea what they would think about it, or if there was going to be any pushback. It was also common courtesy.
I heard from Ed and Ralph, and they both were very supportive. Whew. Ed suggested that it would be a good idea to show the film to Evangeline when he could be there with her. Around a week later, I got a call with the two of them on the line. Evangeline was effusive. She “loved the movie” and was so happy that the story was being told. Ed later told me that she was initially shocked when she saw herself on the screen. Somehow, she hadn’t realized that she would be appearing in the film (even though I had two cameras going over two days of interviews!)
Evangeline’s reaction to the film was not just a relief. It was a form of vindication for having spent the last five years of my life making the film. During my interview with her, she mentioned that she had always wanted to write the story of her life with Don, but had never found the time. The film had served that purpose for her which made me very happy.
This past November, on the same day that that the IFC Center was packed for the DOC NYC premiere of the film, Evangeline had her own screening of the film for all her friends in the independent living community where she lived in Medford. The screening had been organized by Richard Herskowitz of the Ashland Independent Film Festival. He posted on Facebook afterward, “I had the pleasure tonight of screening Ira Deutchman’s SEARCHING FOR MR. RUGOFF to Evangeline Peterson, ex-wife of Don Rugoff, and a group of her friends at the Manor senior living community in Medford. Evangeline regaled us at dinner with stories about visits with Truffaut and Bergman and Costa-Gavras (she had a role in his STATE OF SIEGE).”
Evangeline died last Wednesday at the age of 90. I feel incredibly grateful that I was able to play a part in capturing her for posterity.