It was a family secret nobody wants to harbor. A grandmother, raped at the age of 12 by her stepfather and enduring a landmark trial to bring herself justice.
But for one pair of Ballston Spa siblings, exposing this family secret was exactly what their grandmother Laura Inzinna Ecobelli asked them to do.
“When we got the journal, she made it really clear that she wanted us to tell the story because it was important to her that the cycle of abuse didn’t continue,” said Lora Lee Ecobelli, her granddaughter.
Lora Lee Eccobelli
With careers in the acting world, Lora Lee Ecobelli and her brother, Tom, are turning their grandmother’s saga into a film, “Chickadee,” which will shoot in locations around the Capital Region.
“The first sentence of her diary is her plea to help other people who have been through similar situations,” said Lora Lee Ecobelli.
“When telling the story, we didn’t really want to make it just about the rape. We wanted to make it about her strength and how a little girl can find the courage [to go to trial] and how it affected the family and the town.”
Tom Ecobelli was the first to read the journal, written in 1926. Largely raised by his grandmother, she handed it to him when he was 14.
“We kind of knew the story but it wasn’t really talked about so we didn’t know the details,” said Tom Ecobelli. “She just said, ‘This is a very sad story and you’re welcome to read it and if you have any questions you can talk to me about it later.’”
He read the honest account but didn’t start delving deeper until his grandmother passed away. By that time, he and his sister both had careers in the acting industry.
With their grandmother’s wish on their minds, brother and sister began brainstorming how to creatively present their complex family history to the largest audience possible. Their answer: a movie.
“We’re both actors so we think very visually and it’s such an incredible, colorful time in America … we felt the only way we could really reach a broad audience and affect as many people as we could was through a film,” said Lora Lee Ecobelli.
Their grandmother’s story was the groundwork for the plot but what grew around it was a movie about early 20th Century America, zeroing in on the Italian immigrant community and factory towns of Upstate New York.
“It was during the period when immigrants came through Ellis Island and a lot of them didn’t even get a chance to make a choice where they wanted to live. A lot of small mill towns like Ballston Spa and Amsterdam would hire people when they got off the boat and send them right up the river to immediately go work,” said Lora Lee Ecobelli.
“Chickadee” will weave the rape and trial (it was nearly unheard of at the time for a victim, especially such a young one, to face their perpetrator) into the working conditions of local textile mills and the struggle of immigrants to rise above poverty and adapt to American life.
“It explores many themes about that era of America which is not talked about very much anymore,” said Lora Lee Ecobelli.
Living on opposite coasts (Tom in California and Lora Lee in Woodstock), the duo still managed to write the entire screenplay together.
“We have a permanent crick in our neck from hours on the phone. We really did write it together. We didn’t write passages apart, we wrote on the phone with each other, line by line, thought by thought,” said Tom Ecobelli.
“Chickadee” has been years in the making and gone through a long list of changes to ensure not only the story itself is perfect, but that all the people involved are just right.
“There’s a lot to get it off the ground … a lot of stresses involved and anytime we’ve gotten close to causing strife between us, we go back to ‘That’s not the intention of Grandma’ who wants us to remain a unit and wants everyone involved to have a good experience,” said Tom Ecobelli.
The film "Chickadee" will hit theaters this fall.
The movie will be inspiring, said the Ecobellis, because not only was she that to them, she had a whole town and culture looking up to her.
“The whole entire town came out to court to watch the trial and it spanned all walks of life. There were people there that were immigrants and lower working class folks, aristocrats of the town, they were all there and it really united a lot of people,” said Lora Lee Ecobelli.
She was a young hero of the time to many, said Tom Ecobelli, but all their grandmother really wanted was to humbly move on.
“She never saw herself as a victim, which was quite incredible,” said Tom Ecobelli. “She turned into this amazing businesswoman and her generosity within her community was legendary.”
Their grandmother owned Ecobelli’s in Ballston Spa and was a community fixture long past her death in the ‘80s. To raise money for “Chickadee,” the Ecobellis published a cookbook of family restaurant recipes, sprinkled with anecdotes and photos.
“We’re still hearing stories about her,” said Tom Ecobelli.
Finalizing financing and securing local locations are the final steps before “Chickadee” can officially commence shooting. The story proved so compelling that the film already has an award-winning cast and impressive behind-the-scenes line-up.
Emmy Award-winning Director Arthur Allan Seidelman has more than 50 feature films under his belt and has won multiple awards. He has compared the movie to “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Color Purple.”
Actor Chris Cooper has been tapped, known for films such as “Seabiscuit,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Breach,” as well as Emmy Award-winning actress Julie Kavner, known for her voice-over work as Marge Simpson on “The Simpsons” and her appearances in Woody Allen movies and alongside Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. Ellen Burstyn is also on the cast list and in 1975 was only the third woman in history to win both the Tony Award and Academy Award in the same year.
“For me, it’ll be a dream come true, especially to see the actors like Chris Cooper actually perform these things,” said Tom Ecobelli.
Seeing the finished product will be exciting, said Lora Lee Ecobelli.
“This has been a passion project and labor of love since the beginning and it’s a real tribute to our grandmother’s spirit,” said Lora Lee Ecobelli.
Visit www.chickadeethemovie.com for news, details and updates.