In her autobiography, Jane Fonda writes that there are three acts in every woman’s life: one to 30, 30 to 60, and lastly, Act III — 60 on. She also reveals that, for her, Act III has been the most satisfying, rich, and meaningful so far (this from someone not particularly known for having any slacker phases in her multifarious career.)
Who (or what) is it exactly that gives a great-grandmother permission to slap a moniker on herself (“The Indie Godmother”) and become an underground filmmaker, stand-up comedian, TV host, and persistent metaphysician, all at the pulchritudinous age of 72? I think we know the answer to that one already.
Mary Harder seized the wheel of her own “sunset years” cruise some time back and has been steering an inimitable course ever since. Married for 53 years to husband Bob (retired military), Mary is one of those impressive individuals who inspires by example: If you live it, they will, allegedly, get it. Or in Mary’s case, “If you film it they will call you ‘Indie Godmother’ and you will chase actors, writers, and techies around South Texas until Gabriel ushers you past the big studio gates upstairs.” Writer, producer, director, and occasional star of such films as Strawberries in Season (an hour-long drama revolving around the Poteet Strawberry Festival), Here Come the Cows (theater/performance art pieces shot in Bandera), and Donato, King of the Vampire Drags (anyone for gay vampires?), Mary has directed more than 30 films locally since 2004 and shows no signs of downscaling her mini media empire. Her forthcoming production, Roadside Angels, is a documentary about Texas highway memorials (crosses, flowers, flower crosses, etc.) and of the stories behind the families that have erected such commemoratives in honor of their deceased loved ones.
If you enjoy Mary’s uncommon character as much as I do, you can find her this month on the local public-access channel, hosting a new 30-minutes TV series, the Indie Film Showcase.
“My grandmother, Ninfa Galan, was something of a neighborhood ‘healer.’ People would come from all around to talk with her, ask for advice, seek her judgment. I wouldn’t say she was a traditional curandera, but she was recognized as someone who definitely had transformative powers. Since I’ve started making these films, I’ve become very cognizant of the curandera spirit — they heal, they change things, they motivate, they offer care. Whether it’s a high-definition video camera or a chicken egg and some velas, you use the tools you have to make a difference.
“My father, Don Roberto Galan de los Santos, was a self-made man. He started out working as a teller at the old National Bank of Commerce downtown in the 1920s. He then went into business for himself and opened J. de Los Santos Finance on West Commerce, followed by J. de Los Santos Appliance & Furniture next door. I did a lot of growing up on that block. Dad used to say to me, ‘You stay away from those soldier boys based here in San Antonio!’ So, of course, the first one I met I ended up eloping with at 19. Bob was a big, tall, German-American guy from Iowa stationed out at Lackland. He was 20 at the time and needed permission from a parent to get married. We were hell bent to make it legal so I came up with a solution. I found an elderly street person, bought him some clothes, tidied him up, and passed him off to the Justice of the Peace as Bob’s father. People ask where inspiration comes from? Necessity’s a pretty good motivator. My father nearly disowned me, but after 53 years he’s probably forgiven us by now.
“I’ve worked my whole life. Probably my most unusual job was as a go-go dancer in the late ’60s, early ’70s at the Pendulum Club off Highway 90. I had a car accident one day and I walked into the club looking for help, and the next thing I knew I became friends with one of the dancers. My husband was stationed in Vietnam, and I was (still am!) a damn good dancer. The extra money was great and they liked me — next thing I knew I was wearing white fringe, go-go boots, and shimmying in a cage. Of course, I think my husband considered having me committed when I told him about it — but you know, I’m a little naïve and a little too smart all at the once. I never danced with other people; not interested.”
“By the time I’d made up my mind to seriously pursue filmmaking as a calling I didn’t have time to go to a university or institution. I just got a camera and started. I looked up the website of the Northside School District and saw that they were offering a first-time class called ‘Digital Videography 101.’ I then took a screenwriting class, but that was pretty much a wash since the instructor seemed to be more interested in telling us how important he was then in actually teaching us to write. He kept repeating that none of us would ever make any money as screenwriters, and I finally raised my hand and said, ‘OK, since none of us are ever going to have a career at this, could you just teach us how to write a script for the hell of it?’ I think he was a little put out with me.”
“One of my first films was called Discovering Jewish Roots. I’m pretty much convinced I’m probably descended from Sephardic Jews. Like a lot of South Texas Mexican-American families — you know the Catholic Church is everything to us — but the Spanish Inquisition caused a lot of ancient Jewish families to start down the path of least resistance. By the time we’d all immigrated over to the New World we forgot what was innate and what was taught. There are just too many unanswered mysteries — sayings, customs, superstitions, beliefs — that we ourselves don’t really know the origins of. Buñelos are of Jewish origin, flan as well. A lot of our Mexican/Spanish recipes with eggs are of Jewish origins. You are what your family has eaten for generations and generations! I began attending Temple Baruch HaShem to learn more and became good friends with Rabbi Roy Garcia.
“I always use a very minimal crew — I write them, I film them — I have a sound person and sometimes that’s about it. We’re beyond shoestring; we’re more like barefoot productions. I’ve financed all these films myself. Every single one is different and each has their own learning curve and special headaches. When we were shooting at the Poteet Strawberry Festival they were giving helicopter rides every 10 minutes right next door and the noise level was insane. You learn; boy do you learn!
“You know, I’ve never really cared what people think about my films or my choices or about how many awards I didn’t win, etc. — nobody’s paying me to do this. I do it for me. I used to be scared to death of everything; today I couldn’t care less. I think that’s why I’m being pulled toward the comedy venue right now. Film is a process and I want to make an impact now. Who cares about other people’s judgment, just get out there and do it. How many older Mexican-American ladies are doing stand-up anyway? I always say, I’m gonna be laughing all the way to my damn grave!
“I lost my mother in a horrible car wreck when I was 12. My son died in a car wreck in 1988. I had twin baby girls and we lost one at birth. Thank God I have two grown daughters today, but like everybody, I’ve experienced my full share of tragedy and pain. I’ve been around San Antonio a long time. I find it very interesting that I’m still walking the same streets of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. I totally know where I come from. We never called ourselves ‘Latino’ or ‘Chicano’ when I was a child — we were Mexican, and proudly so. People didn’t say ‘white’ either — it was Caucasian or German, English, Polish, whatever. Today we bend over backwards to get the labels right. It’s funny, everybody seemed to know who they were back then! I usually end up just calling everyone ‘sweetheart.’ You know — they can call us a lot of things here in old San Antonio but with these deep Texas roots, shallow is something we’ll never be.” •
Check out “The Great Eccentrics” volumes I-XI below!