In her documentary, Ms. Cohen tells the story of four generations of the Russ family, owners of the iconic Russ & Daughters specialist fish store.
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filmmaker Julie Cohen
Renowned documentary filmmaker Julie Cohen had been waiting a long time to film “Sturgeon Queens, ” which traces the vibrant life of Russ & Daughters, the iconic fish store on New York’s Lower East Side which this year celebrates the hundredth anniversary of its founding.
Russ & Daughters have been a part of the backdrop of New York’s Lower East side for exactly 100 years, opening its doors for the first time in 1914 as wave after wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe settled around the area.
And now in 2014, Russ & Daughters are still going strong and even expanding with the fourth-generation of Russes in the advanced stages of planning to open a 65-seat café on Orchard Street, almost adjacent to the Russ & Daughters store.
Despite the fact that over the years, many of the traditional Jewish population of the Lower East Side have left the area, the restaurant still has a very strong following, having seen and survived many ethnic changes within the neighborhood.
Julie Cohen, one of America’s most talented documentary makers, has been considering producing a documentary on the restaurant’s remarkable history for a number of years. And now within its hundredth anniversary year, the documentary aptly entitled “Sturgeon Queens” is due for imminent release
Sturgeon Queens relates the the history of the restaurant and delicatessen from its most humble beginnings, with interviews from Hattie and Anne, the two surviving Russ sisters as well as stories and antidotes from some of the store’s best-known customers from the world of business, entertainment and the professions.
The Russ sisters, Hattie Russ Gold, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, and her younger sister Anne Russ Federman, now aged 92 provides a lot of background to the story recalling, during the depression years of America, they were called in to help in the family business, serving behind the store’s counter. After marrying and raising a family the Russ sisters took over the business from their parents, bringing their husbands into the business during the 1940s.
The idea of creating a documentary about the Russ & Daughters dynasty came to Julie Cohen, owner of the documentary production company Better Than Fiction, in 2008, when she was commissioned by the Public Broadcasting Service to produce a documentary on their behalf. To be entitled “The Jews of New York, ” The hour-long documentary told this story of six separate but intermingled tales of Jewish life in the city, with the history of Russ and daughters being one of them.
Ms. Cohen recalled travelling to Florida to meet and interview the two surviving Russ Daughters and recalling their wit and more particularly the emotion that they both amply displayed when discussing their life based around operating the family business and the part they played in the vibrant neighbourhood in which they grew up.
It was then that Cohen decided that one day she would make a film on the family which she entitled “The Sturgeon Queens”, a tongue in cheek version of the store’s famous marketing slogan, describing the Russ Daughters as the “Queens of Lake Sturgeon”.
“The Sturgeon Queens” contains much of the footage shot during that interview as well as plenty of new footage, including interviews with the third generation of the store owners as well as its current owners, representing the fourth-generation of the Russ family, cousins Joshua Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman.
According to Ms. Cohen, what she feels will be among the most appealing parts of the film will be where a group of loyal Russ & Daughters more veteran customers, with most of them being in their seventies, eighties and nineties, sitting around a large table in the store, tasting choice Russ & Daughters fare, including bagels, cheese spreads and a variety of small fish treats, and recalling their experiences of the store and life on the Lower East side during the forties, fifties and sixties.
“The Sturgeon Queens” made its debut on Monday, January 20 and Tuesday, January 21 at the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival, simultaneously at the Tucson Jewish Film Festival, and two days later at the Virginia Festival of Jewish Film. The film is due to be broadcast on PBS sometime later this year, after it has done the rounds of all the Jewish festival circuit.