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Filmmaker Highlights Life of Famed Singer, Activist

by Emmalee Eckstein

A film strip image of Marian Anderson.
Anderson

Four years ago, SJU alum Bill Nicoletti ’86, ’10 (MBA) began his deep dive into the story of Philadelphia native Marian Anderson, one of the most celebrated vocalists of the 20th Century.

Nicoletti first became inspired by Anderson after attending the Marian Anderson Awards Gala in 2014. With over 25 years in the film industry, Nicoletti immediately identified Anderson’s as a story that needed to be told.

“She is Jackie Robinson for the arts,” Nicoletti suggests. “[She] faced hostility the likes of which we can’t comprehend. Her perseverance, combined with her talent, took her to the international stage.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Nicoletti is now living in Wilmington, Delaware with Hawk Mate Liz (Burns) Nicoletti ’91 and their four children. He directed and produced this documentary, Once in a Hundred Years: The Life and Legacy of Marian Anderson, with Going the Distance Films, a company he founded in 2015. While Going the Distance Films is well known for a diverse range of award-winning commercial projects, Nicoletti set out on this venture with the ultimate goal of bringing Anderson’s most iconic moments to light.

After spending his first five years after graduating from SJU as a freelance tape editor, Nicoletti founded Visual Innovations at the legendary recording studio Sigma Sound Studios in 1991.

“We do a good deal of branding campaigns and television commercials — we’re currently working on The Philadelphia Zoo's spring and summer promotions. The Marian Anderson film is a true passion project for me,” insists Nicoletti. “As Americans, we have seen pictures and heard stories about the civil rights movement. We know about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks. We know the events of Selma and Montgomery and the stories of Dr. King and Malcolm X. But many of us have never been told [this] story … of a young girl from South Philadelphia who, armed with only a voice, fought to break down one of the most daunting barriers for black Americans in the 1930s — the classical music stage.”

Bill Nicoletti

Nicoletti

Marian Anderson skyrocketed to a place of quasi-political power in 1939 after courageously performing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) refused to let Anderson perform at Constitution Hall that evening, causing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the D.A.R. and give permission for the concert on the Washington Mall. Harold Ickes, then-Secretary of the Interior, famously introduced Anderson to more than 75,000 onlookers by announcing, “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free.”

Nicoletti and his team spent countless hours combing through archival footage, news clippings and audio that was then used to weave together the final product with on-camera interviews. These interviews detail the impact Anderson’s journey had on the personal and professional lives of notable figures like Grammy award-winning musician Bill Jolly and SJU’s own Brent Smith, Ph.D., professor of marketing in the Haub School of Business.

A true Hawk, Nicoletti wholly identified with Anderson’s Jesuit nature. “She became a person for others,” he asserts. "Hers is an incredible story that needs to be shared with people of all ages and all backgrounds. The immense amount of interest we’ve seen from different people and organizations has given real magnitude to Marian Anderson’s important and inspiring journey.”

While Once in a Hundred Years enjoyed its premiere at The Kimmel Center in late February, Nicoletti is already on to his next project: another music documentary titled The Sound of Philadelphia. Having already signed big names like John Legend and The Roots member James Poyser to producer roles for this film, Nicoletti looks forward to the continued success of his passion projects.

“These films aren’t just about the music, but the personal stories of the artists and events taking place that helped shape the music,” Nicoletti explains. “I think it’s safe to say that, if anything, people will love the soundtracks.”

Emmalee Eckstein is SJU's associate director of communications.