TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City wasn’t a film town when a young Mike Salerno made his own “Star Wars” movies using licensed action figures and a Super 8 camera.
But Salerno’s interest in film has grown along with his native city’s.
“I have so much respect now for these filmmakers,” said Salerno, a 1991 Traverse City Senior High alumnus and director and producer of the non-profit educational film, “Eddie in Decatur.” “I have huge respect for Michael Moore.”
Salerno’s film, which can be seen on YouTube and Battle Creek community access TV, follows ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his lifelong ties to his Michigan hometown. Bergen, creator of the “dummy” characters “Charlie McCarthy” and “Mortimer Snerd,” lived in Decatur from 1908 to 1919 and returned for visits throughout his lifetime.
Salerno, a physical therapist now living in Kalamazoo, said it wasn’t until he started working with home health care patients in nearby Decatur that he learned of the village’s claim to fame.
“Everyone had a story,” he said, adding that a local street is named after the performer and a village eatery even has an Edgar Bergen display. “It was kind of like he was alive and living down the street.”
Salerno, 50, began to research Bergen with the idea of producing a film. After interviews with locals, including the grandson of Decatur’s long-time physician — an early Bergen mentor — he wrote a script, lined up costumes and locations, and recruited actors from community theaters around the region.
Then, armed with a budget between $5,000 and $10,000 and skills and equipment from Battle Creek’s Access Vision community access TV, he began what would become a three-year project.
“I like show business and I like local history,” said the community theater veteran who has a bachelor’s degree in English literature. “The film is in the style of ‘The History Channel,” like a documentary with re-enactments of historical events.”
He said a highlight of the film’s making was a 2011 interview with Mickey Rooney at the actor and former vaudeville performer’s California home.
“That was a surprise,” said Salerno, who flew to the West Coast with friend and “Eddie in Decatur” actor and production assistant Alashar Waltz. “I had written a letter and called. And when I was granted an interview, I was very excited.”
Filmmaker and Traverse City Film Festival co-founder Michael Moore also appears briefly in the film, talking about Bergen and filmmaking.
Salerno said the film has gotten about 1800 views since he put it up on YouTube in January, even though he’s taken it down temporarily to tweak a few times since. The three-hour movie is in 15 parts, allowing viewers to watch it a bit at a time.
For a free viewing, visit www.youtube.com/user/EddieinDecaturMovie.