Filmmaking | Interviews

Sweet Tale of a Saucy Singer

1 Aug , 2004  

Written by Ellen Mills | Posted by:

Jennifer Cobb and Michael Kuell run Jet Pak Productions in Boston and make their living producing and directing media projects, but to the loyal fans of cabaret legend 'Saucy Sylvia' they were just 'those cute kids with a video camera.' Their film about singer Sylvia Mureddu, 'Here’s Saucy' will premiere at the Rhode Island Film Festival this month.

Some filmmakers search far and wide for the subject of their next film but Jennifer Cobb found her subject right in her hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. In Newport, Sylvia Mureddu is known as "Saucy Sylvia" and has entertained in the lounge of the Hyatt Regency Hotel every weekend for 30 years. In fact, the hotel has changed ownership three times and she has stayed right at her spot behind the piano in the lounge. She is a local legend with a devoted fan club that ranges from college kids to octogenarians.

Cobb says, "I grew up in [Newport]. When I was a young adult and college age I saw her perform. Finally one night we asked if we could do a documentary on her and she said yes."

Kuell adds, "She’s been asked a number of times and said no. We were very fortunate — we asked her at the right time."

"We filmed over the course of two and half years," says Kuell. "We couldn’t devote full blocks of time to it. [But] after a while, we realized we had a real story. There’s the relationship that she and her husband have, and her story as a single woman pursuing this career in entertainment in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s." Cobb continues, "She had her own show on WLW radio [Cincinnati] in the 40’s, which was big time. She recorded comedy albums that were very popular nationwide. She still does a local radio show every Sunday."

In the film, "Saucy," as everyone calls her, describes the evolution of her career saying she "fell into different things." Beginning as an "elegant chanteuse" she played piano and sang on her radio show. The movie has audio clips of "The Sylvia Show: a package of songs and music gift wrapped for you." As the influence of radio begins to diminish in the 1950’s she moves into the nightclub circuit and adds comedy and risqué songs to her repertoire. "Saucy" becomes known for her double entendres and songs such as "Agent 0069" ("I’m an undercover lover, ‘cause undercover’s where I shine.")

The filmmakers made regular trips to Newport and shot most of the footage on a Canon XL1 using handheld lights. "The production was very low tech. We wanted to move around quickly," Kuell says, "We tried to be low-key." The "low-key" aspect worked in their favor for interviews. "We got a lot of people to talk to us — they thought we were the cute kids with the video camera."

At times, Cobb and Kuell asked friends and associates for help with the production, but for the most part it was "a labor of love" for the two of them. When asked about the financing, Kuell says it came "out of our own pocket, as we do with most of our personal productions." Cobb adds, "Her family lent us photos and historical footage. [Other] people wanted to help after they met her."

Although Mureddu is a popular singer and comedian with decades of experience in the business, the filmmakers found her to be a reticent interview subject. "She’s extremely modest and doesn’t like to talk about herself," says Kuell. "It made it difficult for the interview because you sort of want someone to puff themselves up. But we knew it was coming from a good and positive place."

Last November they held a screening of the film in Newport and attracted a capacity crowd of "Saucy" fans. Cobb says, "The hotel supplied the venue pro-bono and it was packed. It seated 70 or 80 people and we could’ve had lots more."

The filmmakers say that Mureddu’s appeal extends beyond just her performances. "She’s a really great person to be around," says Cobb. "Very inspiring." Kuell adds that she is generous with her time and talent, "Saucy literally gives things away — her t-shirts, etc. She gives money to scholarships and charities."

The filmmakers have submitted the film to other festivals but received the best response from Rhode Island. "It has lots of local appeal," Cobb says. "We gave a bunch of videos away to people who worked on it and friends. The goal was never to make money, we just felt we should tell this woman’s story."

"For us to put a price tag on this documentary wouldn’t be right," says Kuell. They add that if they are able to make money from the project, they would love to follow the example of their subject and donate to her scholarship fund or other worthwhile charities.

The filmmakers are sincere fans of their subject and she returns the affection. Kuell and Cobb say they felt an affinity for Mureddu and her husband and see similarities in their life and relationship. Kuell says, "There are parallels between their relationship and ours. They play together, work together and have a lot of fun together. They’re great people, we feel close to them."

Kuell and Cobb, who are partners in their personal and professional lives, both have a background in production work and met when Kuell was a staff producer and Cobb was freelancing on a corporate project.

"We formed JetPak about five years ago and became a producing/directing team," Kuell relates. "We’ve done lots of healthcare and social issue work," he says. "We’re currently at a point in our careers where we are branching out and knocking on new doors." The producers have several new projects in the works including a short film in post-production that they hope will also be a TV pilot.

In "Here’s Saucy," the comment one hears most often when describing the shows is that "everyone has a good time." The film includes lots of footage of "Saucy" in action behind the piano leading sing-alongs and taking requests. She never takes a break during the show and appears to be an inexhaustible performer with an amazing memory for names and lyrics. The filmmakers say she will not divulge her age and they haven’t asked.

Cobb says, "She’s working as hard now as she did 30 years ago." As Kuell says, "Her shows are extremely saucy material for 1958. College kids and folks in their 20s come expecting a goof and by the end of the night they’re having a great time like everyone else."

‘Here’s Saucy’ will screen at the Rhode Island Film Festival on August 13th. For complete details: www.film-festival.org. To learn more about Sylvia Mureddu visit: www.saucysylvia.com. For information about Jetpak productions: www.jetpakpro.com.


'Here’s Saucy' will screen at the Rhode Island Film Festival on August 13th. For complete details: www.film-festival.org. To learn more about Sylvia Mureddu visit: www.saucysylvia.com. For information about Jetpak productions: www.jetpakpro.com.