Still Blooming

The Florida Film Festival took root 25 years ago in an art movie house named after an Alpine flower. The story of how it became a crowd pleaser is one of family ties and a dedication to goodness over glitz.



Elizabeth Mukherjee (shown with mom Sigrid Tiedtke) is the next generation heading up the venerable institution called Enzian.

Roberto Gonzalez

Tired of celebrities? There’s a film festival in Los Angeles that bans them.

Don’t like to waste words? You might enjoy chatting—or not—with like-minded souls at the 100 Words Film Festival in Charlotte, N.C., where only films that feature exactly 100 words of dialogue are allowed. 

If you’re a fan of high drama—high as in at least 1,000 feet above sea level—there are two film festivals to choose from, one in Telluride, Colo., and the other in the Canadian Rockies resort town of Banff, both of which are exclusively devoted to films that take place on mountains. 

Or you could just conjure up a random subject or state of mind, and chances are one of the 3,000 film festivals in North America is devoted to it. Which might be why the film critic for the St. Petersburg Times started off a story 25 years ago with such a jaded eye-roll, writing: 

Just what Florida needs, another film festival.

He was talking about the freshly minted Florida Film Festival, and as it turns out he was correct, if only in a halfhearted, snarky sort of way. Thousands of film lovers and filmmakers have indeed felt the need for the annual 10-day festival, headquartered then and now at Enzian, a 250-seat, single-screen, cabaret-style art-movie house improbably situated beneath a bower of live oaks in a three-acre oasis alongside a busy stretch of U.S. 17-92 in Maitland. 


ROLLINS COLLEGE ARCHIVES

John Tiedtke, patriarch of a family with a fascinating history. 

This year’s April 8-17 festival will showcase dozens of the world’s best independently produced new features, documentaries, animated films and shorts. The nonprofit fest also features film seminars, catered mixers for both filmmakers and fans, free screenings of cult and vintage films, and, yes, celebrity appearances. 

Paul Newman quietly slipped into town to attend the first festival, liking it well enough to order up a gift shipment of Newman’s Own Popcorn and serve for years on a festival board. Florence Henderson famously followed up a festival appearance by stationing herself behind the bar at Enzian’s outdoor café and fixing drinks for everybody. Jon Voight came to celebrate a 40th anniversary screening of Midnight Cowboy and lingered so long that he and the crowd around him had to be nudged out of the theater to make way for the next film. 

Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon was such a glossy, well-spoken apparition that she dazzled Peg O’ Keef, a local producer, actress, and longtime festival volunteer, whose enviable job is interviewing guest speakers talk-show style. (“She’s not only a brilliant woman but an amazing physical package,” recalls O’Keef. “Her pores!”) When someone asked Sarandon about the suicide scene in Thelma and Louise, referring to it as a chick flick, she archly wondered why there’s no equivalent descriptor for male-oriented films—then offered a coinage of her own, one that had the benefit of being both anatomically specific and rhyming with flick.

The name-dropping could go on, and would include luminaries such as Dennis Hopper, Oliver Stone, Christopher Walken and William H. Macy if it did. But that would be a bit misleading. Like that celebrity-banning festival in L.A., this one is less about ogling stars and more about mingling with fresh filmmaking talent, which is a lot easier here than at the kind of festival where all the good parties are the ones you’re not invited to, and all the important encounters involve studio execs and distributors. 

The Enzian fest is more of a freewheeling, expect-the-unexpected, particle-collider sort of affair. Here’s the first thing that comes to mind for Matthew Curtis when the festival’s longtime programming director is asked to recall his most memorable festival moments:

“I remember one year we screened a slam-
poetry documentary, and one of the performers who was featured in it came out on stage unannounced right afterward and went into doing his slam-poetry thing. The audience went crazy. It was like Bruce Springsteen showed up.”

Indiewire, a website that caters to independent filmmakers, calls the festival “the Grand Dame of fests in the Sunshine State,” a distinction the 60 other film festivals in Florida would love to have—including the one in, ahem, St. Petersburg. It’s also one of the few festivals whose grand prize winners are automatically qualified to be considered for Oscars.

“We’re not a marketing festival, and we’re off the beaten path,” says Curtis. “Filmmakers can relax a little here, network with each other, and get feedback from audience members about their film. I’ve seen so many moments where the filmmakers get all choked up, they’re so floored by the reactions they get.” 

Curtis and his staff are the workhorses, handling logistics and screening roughly 1,500 film submissions each year, but in the end the ongoing equilibrium between casual and class at the festival stems from its source: It’s a family affair. 

And not just any family. 


COURTESY OF ENZIAN

Enzian plans to build two more theaters and a new lobby.

Enzian owes its existence to John Tiedtke, whose family owned a prosperous department store in Toledo, Ohio, and had a winter home in Orlando at the corner of Hillcrest Street and Magnolia Avenue. Tiedtke made Winter Park his permanent home as an adult, tending to the family’s investments in South Florida farmland and becoming a savior to nearly every arts organization in town, including the Bach Festival, Florida Symphony Orchestra, Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando Opera, and Festival of Orchestras—all that besides being a founder/funder of United Arts of Central Florida. 

Tiedtke’s love of the arts drew him close to people of similar tastes. His best friend from boyhood on was another hugely influential Central Florida arts philanthropist and cultural advocate, Rollins College president and Morse Museum co-founder Hugh McKean, who saved priceless Tiffany stained-glass windows from the wrecking ball. And Tiedtke’s wife was a woman who was raised alongside the Danube, in the City of Music, home to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. 

Her name was Sylvia Southard. She was a princess and a survivor. 

As the stepdaughter of Austrian Prince Alfred Hohenlohe, she had grown up shuttling back and forth between Vienna and the family’s fairytale castle, Schloss Friedstein, high in the Austrian Alps. In February 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close, her family sent her away to a German city that they hoped would be a safe haven for the duration of the war: Dresden. 

It was just as her train pulled into the station that the bombs began to fall.

The city was being firebombed by the Allies in one of the most devastating aerial assaults in history, one that immolated a half-million civilians. She survived, barely, after being trapped beneath the train station’s rubble for two days. A friend who found out she was alive rode a bicycle to Friedstein to
tell her parents.

Sylvia met John Tiedtke after the war, while visiting relatives in Winter Park. They married in 1948 and had two children, Philip and Tina, with whom they would summer in the family castle, where one of Sylvia’s favorite activities was taking the children hiking up through the mountain passes, enjoying the wild Alpine flowers they saw along the way. Among them was a rare, velvety blue, trumpet-shaped bloom called enzian. In 1985, when Tina Tiedtke took up the cause of creating an alternative art movie house for Orlando, the seed money for the enterprise came from her art-loving father, while its name owed its inspiration to the rarest of the flowers she’d seen on those mountain treks with her mother. 

A fountain in front of the movie house is a reproduction of one that is in the courtyard at Schloss Friedstein. The Eden Bar, next to the lobby, is named after an exclusive nightspot in Vienna. And when the first movie was shown at the theater, it was historic in more ways than one. The film was a D.W Griffith silent movie, made in 1919, called Broken Blossoms, and the guest of honor, beaming and still elegant at the age of 91, was its star, Lillian Gish—Griffith’s favorite performer and the silent era’s greatest actress, the first to develop specific dramatic techniques, the better to take advantage of the fabulous new invention they called “moving pictures.”

So If you’ve ever had a drink at Eden Bar and sensed a faint resonance of old-world charm and beer-hall gemutlichkeit, or settled into your seat in the dark of Enzian’s theater and thought you saw a winsome celluloid waif flutter by out of the corner of your eye, well, now you know why. 

In December 2004, Sylvia died. Two and a half weeks later, at the age of 97, having forever reshaped the cultural landscape of his adopted home, so did John Tiedtke. 

His name would be a lot more familiar to people in this town had Tiedtke been the sort who liked having buildings named after himself. But he wasn’t, and tending to the art movie house he left behind, the one named after an Alpine flower, has become a way for his family to honor his heritage.

When Tina moved away from the area, Philip and his wife, Sigrid, stepped in, Philip to keep track of finances and Sigrid to oversee operations. Their daughter, Elizabeth, who spent much of her childhood darting around the theater and began helping out as soon as she was old enough to take tickets, is now executive vice president. She is charged with planning long-term goals for Enzian, which may or may not someday involve her newborn son, Gatsby, who’s lately been accompanying her to the theater. 

The immediate future for Enzian involves a long-awaited, $6 million expansion. Designed by the late-modernist Manhattan architect Malcolm Holzman, the renovation will add better restaurant facilities and two small theaters (one with 80 seats, the other with 50) and a new lobby to the far side of the complex, while preserving the original marquee, the rolling lawn and the leafy buffer that surrounds Enzian’s campus. Though there’s no groundbreaking date yet, a fund-raising campaign—the first in Enzian’s history—is roughly three-quarters of the way to its goal. 

The expansion will provide more elbow room for programming, which has been restricted because Enzian has just one available screen. That means when a big hit such as The Queen of Versailles makes it to the city’s only art-movie house, it’s a double-edged sword: They’re contractually obligated to keep showing a film as long as it’s filling up seats. In the meantime, other movies that Enzian’s faithful would love to see are released and go unseen. 

The Tiedtkes are also intent on extending what Enzian offers as a nonprofit community resource, expanding the partnerships they’ve already forged with schools, social service organizations and other arts groups.

“We hate saying ‘no’ to anyone,” says Sigrid Tiedtke. “With more room, we won’t have to.”

The expansion will be met with open arms by Enzian’s most visible cheerleader.

That would be the ever-effusive Henry Maldonado, a longtime film buff who became Enzian’s board president shortly after retiring as general manager of WKMG-Channel 6 seven years ago. Maldonado is to Enzian what a solicitous maître d is to a five-star restaurant. He has channeled his personal love affair with film into becoming a one-man ad agency, creating numerous coming-attraction videos and interviewing other Enzian devotees to create film clips promoting the expansion. He’s also involved in programming, having developed a monthly film series, “Peanut Butter Matinees” of vintage, kid-friendly movies, free for children 12 and under—the likes of The Parent Trap, Goonies, and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

When it comes to film, Maldonado is a kid, one with a new toy on the way, thanks to the possibilities that will open up once the two new screens are added to his favorite haunt.

On a recent sunny afternoon, sitting outside by Enzian’s fountain and in the shade of its prettiest oak, he orders his favorite salad from the Eden Bar, then ignores it.

“I’ve got all these ideas,” he says. “I’ve been thinking. Everyone knows Ida Lupino as a great film noir actress, but what they don’t know is she was a director. She was just regarded as a sexy love object in films, so she and her husband had their own film company so she could work as a director. I want to do an Ida Lupino tribute series. We’ll be able to do that now.”

Enzian already hosts three other annual film festivals besides this month’s bellwether fest—one for children and the other two to spotlight South Asian and Jewish films and filmmakers, respectively. Maldonado would love to have more. After all, isn’t that just what Florida needs? Another film festival? 

Check out these upcoming Florida Film Festival features

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