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Financier/Producer Sam Katz recounts his adventures in Philadelphia filmmaking

In a riveting hour-plus on October 21, 2014, Philadelphia politician/financier turned film producer Sam Katz told a seminary convocation audience about his adventuresome seven-year effort to tell the story of the founding of Philadelphia on film.

Introduced by seminary professor Katie Day as a “Philadelphia and Mt. Airy treasure,” Katz has led a complex life. As a financier he’s been involved in such varied projects as Camden Yards (home of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team) and Orlando’s airport. He’s run for Katie DayPhiladelphia mayor on the Republican ticket three times (1991, 1999, 2003), and in 1994 was a gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania. As CEO of Philadelphia First he was involved for a time with issues surrounding financial oversight of Philadelphia.

Now he is consumed with his History Making Productions and is producing “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” an entertaining series of programs on the founding and development of the city. As the chapters are produced one at a time, they are shown on WPVI 6ABC, but you can also go to the Philadelphia: The Great Experiment website and watch the episodes on your computer or tablet.

Sam KatzOn the day of his remarks, he said he was coming from a “crisis” in the office over his production efforts. While filming “ten days of re-enactments,” including segments on the “sweet spot” of the city’s history (1720-1750), he had learned that there were “missed shots” in the production effort, which would cost $40,000 apiece to develop.

As a highlight to his remarks, Katz showed segments of his film-making about the life of William Penn, proprietor of the 45,000 square mile tract comprising Philadelphia, and the “holy experiment” in religious tolerance that unfolded with Penn as a “proprietor” of the tract. Katz described Penn as a “non-conformist” who made of Philadelphia “the seed for a nation.”

Penn got to do that, Katz noted, because England’s King Charles II, in repayment of a debt of gratitude to Penn’s trader/father, gave the younger Penn the tract in the colonies for him to manage. The younger Penn, Katz explained, had been imprisoned in England because of his association with the “rabble-rouser” Religious Society of Friends, who protested “the inequality” imposed on the population of “opulent places like London and Paris,” Katz noted. “Penn was converted from his Anglican tradition because he admired the Quakers. He was concerned about what it would take to mend the world,” the filmmaker said. The younger Penn, thus, went from inmate “to one of the largest landholders in the British Empire … He established Philadelphia on a principle of order … on the basis of the Quaker ideal of brotherly love … what you believe is your business…in the best interests of the colonists,” Katz said.  Penn needed money. So as a proprietor of the huge tract he “monetized” it by selling 5,000-acre plots, which, in turn, were subdivided by the new owners in ways Penn had not envisioned.

“Penn was a remarkable guy,” Katz said. Noting Penn’s prominent sculpture atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, Katz noted that Penn “is the only founder of an urban area we still talk about 300 years later.” Katz added that the city “still aspires to and is dogged by the failure to live up to” its brotherly love slogan because “the element of human beings” has been introduced into the equation. Penn only spent about 40 months of his life in Philadelphia.

(As an aside, Katz at one point acknowledged he did not like the stringy wig the Penn re-enactor was wearing in the film, noting also the actor’s propensity to “smile … In real life Penn had lost his hair after contracting smallpox as a child and needed a wig, which was customary for the time. The re-enactor was clearly having a good time with the part, but in Penn’s day things had to be very serious much of the time,” Katz said.)

Other Katz highlights included:

  • Sam KatzColonial Quakers were slaveholders, and figures like Francis Daniel Pastorius, the German aristocratic founder of Germantown, were harshly critical of the slavery practice by Quakers who otherwise espoused the equal treatment of people. Pastorius penned the first abolition document opposing slavery in the colonies.
  • Penn was virtually bankrupted as the result his his exploits, but his efforts to sow the seeds of religious freedom established a foundation for a better world, despite shortcomings that afflicted the city, such as at one time having the highest incarceration rate in the colonies.
  • Katz professed his admiration of famed documentary producer Ken Burns most recently evident in the production of “The Roosevelts,” which Katz has enjoyed, but which includes lengthy scenes (27 seconds). But he noted his practice of the art of filmmaking has been largely impacted by his understanding of younger audiences “who don’t want to relate to anything that is not fast. I try to keep the segments really moving.” He says he is focused on “acquiring audiences by making history accessible and entertaining.”
  • He said in an age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, higher education is facing pressures involving costs, including costs to students, and that those pressures are “colliding” with the jobs market and the economy. Katz said he senses “an implosion” is on the horizon.
  • He is working on new productions involving the history of women in Philadelphia and “Urban Trinity,” a focus on the Catholic Church in the city. A telecast of the latter is planned to coincide with an anticipated visit by the Pope to Philadelphia next September.
  • With regard to the film on women, he said it is “extremely difficult” to find good stories about women connected with the city’s history before the 1960s because much of the writing before that period featured “white men talking about white men.”


Special thanks to Sam Katz and History Making Productions for permission to include program segments in the convocation recording.

Watch the video of the convocation:

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