Sitting in that dark and magical “palace” ignited a passion for film that continued through her academic and professional life, including as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Rhode Island. Now it’s time for her to take a bow.
Brownell will receive the Dream Maker Award from the Rhode Island Film & TV Office during a red-carpet gala March 2 at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, One Avenue of the Arts, in Providence. Flickers: The Rhode Island International Film Festival is hosting the event, along with the Film & TV Office.
“Winnie Brownell has always been supportive of the local film and television community by providing unwavering leadership for high quality film education at the University of Rhode Island,” says Steven Feinberg, executive director of the Film & TV Office. “She is vocal, strong, caring, imaginative and stands tall among the previously recognized recipients of the Dream Maker Award.”
Brownell is in good company. Previous winners include two-time Academy Award nominee and former Central Falls resident Viola Davis and the Rhode Island Film Collaborative, as well as the Rhode Island International Film Festival. The award was established in 2012.
A lifelong patron of the arts, Brownell is being honored for her support of URI’s Film/Media Program in the Harrington School of Communication and Media, the Rhode Island International Film Festival, local filmmakers, and a summer film camp for children at URI. She was also praised for her past testimony at the State House on behalf of the Rhode Island film industry.
“To be honest, all the work I’ve done is because of a team of faculty, students and staff,” says Brownell. “It really has been a labor of love for us to create opportunities for our students to follow their dreams.” She credits Sheri Wills, director of the Film/Media Program, Tom Zorabedian, assistant dean of Arts and Sciences, and Renee Hobbs, founding director of the Harrington School, for their leadership in moving the program and school forward.
Movies charmed Brownell at an early age. Her father was a film buff who made those Saturday trips to Loew’s Theatre memorable and enchanting. “It was like a movie palace,” she says. “My father always told me that you had to watch a movie on the big screen to get the full experience of what the director intended.” In her teenage years, she took home movies with an 8-millimeter camera, thanks to Dad. “No sound back then,” she says.
At the State University of New York, Buffalo, in the early 1960s, she thought about becoming a doctor, an engineer or a filmmaker, but a college counselor quickly put an end to that. “Go into a girl field,” he told her. He gave her three options: elementary education, nursing or theater. She chose theater and never looked back. “It was a wonderful major that integrated the arts and sciences,” she says.
She worked behind the scenes and on stage, even singing in musicals. Recognizing that she was also a good teacher and liked creating opportunities for students, Brownell earned her doctorate from SUNY in communication and began a career in higher education. She started teaching at URI in 1971, intending to stay only two years. “I fell in love with the people, the institution and the state,” she says. In 1988, she received the URI Foundation Teaching Excellence Award.
Brownell was appointed interim dean of Arts and Sciences in 1996 and dean in 1999. Not long ago, she secured approval for the Film/Media Program and the Harrington School, home of the program, which she considers among her proudest achievements. The program is now one of the fastest growing on campus, attracting students from throughout the country.
The program offers a rich curriculum and screens movies by local, national and international filmmakers. “We want to celebrate the art form and give students an opportunity to interact with filmmakers,” she says. “They talk about their craft, and they talk about how hard it is to raise funds to make movies.”
Her love of film continues today. Brownell watches a flick every week at home and, when time permits, goes to a movie theater. A recent favorite is Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” with that glorious meltdown on a park bench by star Cate Blanchett, playing a humbled socialite.
“Film can tell a story in a different and powerful way,” Brownell says. “You can be transported to another place or you can watch something that almost seems like you’re witnessing a real event. It can be a wonderfully positive experience; it can be frightening, suspenseful or inspiring. Film can challenge you to make the world a better place.”
Her favorite movie of all time? Maybe “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’ masterpiece about the hollowness of the American dream. She remembers watching it at a film festival with her father at the Buffalo palace, up on the big screen.
For more information about the March 2 event or to buy tickets, please visit The Red Carpet Experience or call 401-861-4445. Other film supporters will also be honored during the fest, held on the night of the 86th annual Academy Awards. The ceremony will be broadcast live on a TV at the event.
“The Red Carpet Experience: Providence is an ideal event to celebrate cinema, locally and internationally,” says Shawn Quirk, program director for the Rhode Island International Film Festival. “A lot of the films nominated in this year’s Oscars have Rhode Island roots. This annual gala is a great excuse to get dressed up and have a fabulous time. It’s the closest thing to being in Los Angeles on Oscar night.”
URI photo by Joe Giblin