Robert Bullington might be three decades younger than Frederick Olessi, but their bond is much closer than their age difference.
Their friendship started through a mutual friend, Olga Gorelli, a local pianist and composer who has since died. Gorelli was a longtime collaborator of Olessi’s, setting his many poems and verses to music. One of those pieces was “Martin,” which Olessi, 83, wrote shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Bullington, 52, a singer and Hamilton resident, performed “Martin” with Gorelli, and Olessi was immediately struck by the emotion Bullington’s voice added to his verses.
It would be the first of many collaborations between the pair. Their most recent project is Francis, a short film about Saint Francis of Assisi written by Olessi, a Lawrence resident, that aired on Princeton Community Television last month. It’s the sixth in a series of films depicting historical figures—Roger Casement, Joan of Arc, Michelangelo, Francisco Goya, John Brown—at the ends of their lives. All of the films are written as monologues—Olessi’s preferred format as of late.
“What I like about it is that it’s pure,” Olessi said. “There’s no distraction, like other actors when you’re writing a [full] play. It’s the essence of that person at a particular time in their life. It’s person to person. It’s a form that I feel so blessed at this time in my life to have developed this thing. I have this wonderful friend who can turn it into a work of art.”
Olessi toyed with the idea of writing about Francis 50 years ago, but found himself troubled by the saint’s complicated history—abandoning his parents, self flagellation. A little self-reflection and a visit to Assisi, though, rekindled his interest.
“Later in my life, I revisited him,” he said. “So, he apologizes to his body, he apologizes to his mother and father, he apologizes for the lust he had for Saint Claire. It’s the nice thing about getting old. You can apologize.”
Bullington played Francis in the film, and Olessi said the performance brought him to tears when he saw the finished product. Though Bullington doesn’t act in every piece, he does film them all. He works in audio and video recording by trade through his business, Front Row Seat Productions. He does everything from individual recording work for high school students applying to fine arts universities to producing promotional videos for the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey.
“I got into this business from the corporate world,” Bullington said. “I was a techie with two music degrees. I got in this from the very beginning to give all I’ve got to local musicians. The most valuable thing I thought that I could do with the business was help young people get into schools.”
Each film is recorded in Bullington’s studio on Whitehead Road on Hamilton. For Francis, Bullington sat against a white wall, but lit the room in such a way that made it a deep black but kept Bullington in full view. They later superimposed an image of the San Damiano cross on the wall.
He often works with two or three cameras that he can control with a joystick. He and Olessi pick the angles they want to work with and set everything up. Usually, filming takes a few hours, and editing takes another day.
In Francis, Bullington, wearing a brown Franciscan robe, portrayed the saint reflecting on his life close to his death. That theme has captivated Olessi for the last couple of years.
“I started doing these scripts that were anywhere from 20 minutes to a half hour in verse or poetry looking back on their lives,” he said. “Either they were at the end of their lives naturally, or in the case of Joan of Arc or Roger Casement or John Brown, they were about to be executed. That’s pretty much what I’ve been following at the the end of their lives, because I’m at a time in my own life where I’m looking back, and it’s interesting. Anything from an ache and a pain to just the wonder of it all, how quick it all went, the beauty of life. You appreciate it when you’re about to leave it.”
Olessi has been writing plays since his 20s and says he’s finished 85 total. He frequently writes poetry and gets everything from his “muse,” a voice that dictates verses to him.
“At a certain point in my teens, I started to write it down,” he said. “She’s still there. I consider myself a stenographer. I just take down what she says. Never change anything. She never fails me.”
Bullington is the perfect person to act out the monologues, Olessi said. He has the ability to make poetry sound like real speech, Olessi added, and he lets himself dig into every line.
“I think that Fred has tapped into some things that are in a different place, a different reality,” Bullington said. “He taps into some truths that are not readily accessible, not widely treasured enough in this world. I feel kind of like his creativity gives me a window.”
Many of the actors Olessi uses are friends or have worked with him multiple times.
“This area we live in is so rich,” Olessi said. “There are so many people here who wanted to go into the theater. It’s an impossible profession. They don’t want to do the 15th version of Oklahoma. They want to be challenged.”
Olessi currently lives a mile from where he grew up in Lawrence, near Eldridge Park. His father, Joseph, was a Lawrence Township police officer, and his mother, Angeline, worked at Lenox China in Trenton for many years. Olessi went through the Trenton school system and then to Bucknell University, where he studied literature and history and minored in music. It was also where he met his wife, Salud, a graduate student from Spain. The couple was married for 45 years before she passed in 2000 after a battle with cancer.
‘We’ve had this wonderful friendship, and the making of these films, which has been good for both of us.’
Olessi served in the Army and worked with intelligence in Washington, D.C. before marrying Salud. They got married in Spain and lived in Italy for four years before settling back in Lawrence. Olessi worked as a fundraiser for local colleges, and Salud taught Spanish at Stuart Country Day School and Princeton Day School. Their daughter, Sasa Olessi Montaño, is the executive director of Meals on Wheels of Mercer County. Her husband is an artist who designed the title frame for Francis.
Olessi was often busy, but he always made time to write.
“I knew that I would never make a living writing verse drama, but I always did it,” he said. “All I needed was a little notebook and pencil, no matter where I was. I started giving Olga poetry for singing groups. We did an opera together. We began doing some of my plays. Some of them turned out very well. I’ve always been interested in history.”
Olessi worked as a writer at RCA from 1962 to 1972. One day, his boss approached him, saying that Vladimir Zworykin, the inventor of solid state television technology, wanted someone to help him write his memoirs. Olessi jumped at the chance and ended up producing a documentary about Zworykin for New Jersey Public Television. Three years ago, he traveled as a guest of the Russian government to Zworykin’s childhood home.
Olessi’s Lawrence upbringing made its way to his poetry. Olessi’s grandfather, Anthony Colavita, owned the former Colavita’s Bar in the Eldridge Park section of Lawrence, and Olessi remembers going in and out of the establishment as a kid. One man, Guvalade, stuck with him—Olessi recalls him drunkenly dancing the tarantella in the street outside of the bar.
“He sort of symbolized for me the essence of the European experience,” Olessi said. “That neighborhood where I grew up was a very poor neighborhood, but it had just about every ethnic group from Europe there. I grew up knowing all of these cultural traditions. The Russian Easter, the Ukrainians. We had a French family. We had the black community. It was until I really was an adult that I could look back and see the richness of that.”
So he wrote a longform poem called “Guvalade” that was performed in honor of Lawrence Township’s bicentennial in 1997. He hopes to eventually make a film of that piece, too. And surely Bullington will take part in it one way or another.
“We’ve had this wonderful friendship, and the making of these films, which has been good for both of us,” Olessi said. “He’s been able to practice his art to a point where Francis looks like it came out of a Hollywood studio. Everything about it. The titles, the music, the camera angles.”
Bullington is a New Orleans native. His father, Ernest, was a civil engineer and his mother, Leah, worked as a substitute teacher and real estate agent. He studied vocal performance at Loyola University New Orleans and went for his master’s at Boston University.
At that point, and and some friends of his first wife decided they wanted to immerse themselves in another language, so they took a six-week German language course in Vienna. Bullington liked it so much, he stayed for six years. He ended up getting into the technical and IT field and spent several years working for three different UN organizations in Vienna, including in IT security for the International Atomic Energy Agency—which looked good on his resume when he decided to come back to the United States in the thick of the dotcom boom.
He was hired by a consulting company in Moorestown and moved to New Jersey. Soon after, he met his wife, Pam Kelly, the president of the Hamilton school board. He also worked for New York Life and then Lehman Brothers, but left before it collapsed.
The work Bullington does now, though, is much more fulfilling, he said. And so is the acting and singing he does in his spare time. Previously, he’s worked with Olessi on film adaptations of his plays Socrates, Judas and The Shyest Grape, a dialogue between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.
“He’s unique,” Olessi said. “He’s an artist, and he’s one of the nicest, goodest people I know. It’s real simple. I look upon him as a son.”
Francis was a particularly interesting project because of the saint’s complex background, Bullington said.
“The thing that struck me about it was that this was a time, the 13th Century, when the church really had become an extremely opulent, it was already a world government,” Bullington said. “Francis was capable of addressing the cardinals and the pope and trapping them. He was so in his own self-denial. He was so authentic, that they were afraid to vilify because they would make a martyr of him. Even if they made him look foolish, he would make them look foolish because it was a contradiction to everything that they were preaching.”
The one-on-one nature of the monologue format only makes Francis’s story more powerful, he added. It adds an intimacy to the film that might not be present otherwise.
“If Fred and I were trying to produce things that required more actors and more scenery, we wouldn’t be doing this,” Bullington said. “We wouldn’t be pulling this off. This is a medium that with really modest resources. You can make something that is visually striking, something that has a big emotional impact, things that communicate insights, like Saint Francis as the proponent of interfaith understanding. We need that as a society. We need that reminder that we already knew what to do in the 13th Century. This medium helps you communicate powerful messages like that.”
To watch “Francis” or other works by Olessi and Bullington, Google “Frederick Olessi on Vimeo.”