Brattleboro native brings Nader documentary to Latchis

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Saturday, March 24
ack home in Newfane after college, Henriette Mantel read an article with a crazy idea: if you don't know what to do with yourself when you graduate, write three people you admire and ask for a job.

So the 22-year old Mantel wrote letters to Margaret Mead, Charles Schulz and Ralph Nader.

A few weeks later, Nader's office responded.

Sure enough, Mantel packed her bags, moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for a year as an office manager for the consumer rights crusader.

"I remember him telling me the reason he opened the letter was that I was from Vermont and one of his favorite teachers was from Vermont," she said.

Twenty-eight years later, Mantel is coming home. And she's bringing Nader with her.

Mantel's first documentary, "An Unreasonable Man," which follows her former boss from his days fighting General Motors through his days fighting Al Gore and George W. Bush, will premiere at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro Friday night. Mantel and Nader will preside over question and answer sessions at Saturday's shows.

"An Unreasonable Man" is a far cry from the comedy that has defined much of Mantel's career.

She has worked as a standup comic, a writer for the game show "Win Ben Stein's Money" and the reality TV show "The Osbornes." She even played Alice in "The Brady Bunch Movie."

Nader said he had no idea what to expect when she approached him with the idea of filming a documentary about his career.

"She's in comedy," he said. "I was really surprised."

But in many ways, Mantel's latest project has brought her full-circle.

Mantel left Nader's office in 1979 when her brother died in an accident on Route 30. She moved back to Newfane, distraught and unsure what to do with her life.

"I thought I'd never laugh again," she said. "That's why I went into comedy."

Mantel spent the next decade in New York and Los Angeles comedy clubs. There she met fellow comedian Steve Skrovan, who would end up co-directing "An Unreasonable Man" with her many years later.

"Steve was one of the few comics who was kind of interested in stories about Ralph," she said.

"We'd be doing sets of comedy together," she said, and after they got off stage, "he'd say, 'so what was that guy like, what was this guy like?'"

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Mantel went on to write for television, winning several Emmys in the process.

Years later, Skrovan approached Mantel with the idea of developing a sitcom based on the characters with whom she worked in Nader's office. As the two researched the idea and spoke to her old colleagues, they realized there was a more important story to tell.

"You really can't say 'Ralph Nader' without people having a definite feeling. They either hate him or they love him or they just can't figure him out. So we just decided we had to tell the story," she said.

They approached Nader with the idea and he agreed to be interviewed. Though he told them they also had to interview his harshest critics.

"I didn't know how they were going to do it," he said. "I had no idea how it was going to turn out when I saw it."

Mantel and Skrovan began interviewing Nader's friends and foes prior to the 2004 election and spent the next 21/2 years working on the project part-time. Their efforts were finally rewarded when they were accepted into the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

They have since struck a distribution deal with Independent Film Channel Films, while PBS plans to air the movie in March.

Thom Dahlin, who grew up with Mantel and went to school with her from kindergarden through college, said that he is not at all surprised at how far she has come.

"She's always been a very articulate, very outspoken, genuine, passionate person," he said. "Now she's doing more what she really felt like all along -- some political work. I think she's back into doing what she wants."

"We had an idyllic childhood, I would say. Why she wanted to move to New York City and Los Angeles, I don't know," said Dahlin, who owns and runs Peter Havens Restaurant in Brattleboro.

Martel's basketball coach at Leland & Gray High School, Allen Glotzer, said that she was "one of those kids that you remember well. She was a strong personality and very talented."

"You never know how successful someone is going to be," he said, "but she was in all the school productions and on the bus rides home from games she was exuberant, she was fun and she was entertaining. She would take on characters in the back of the bus."

Charlie Marchant, who taught history at Leland & Gray and coached Martel in softball, called her a "wise guy" who was always "pushing the envelope."

"I think there's a little 'rolling stone gathers no moss' in her," he said.

Marchant says that whenever he hears she is back in town, he tries to find time to chat with her.

"She likes to touch base with the folks in the 'hood, so to speak," he said. "She hasn't given up her roots -- even though she's lived out there for 30 years. But I think if you asked where her roots are, she'd say 'right here in Newfane.'"

Paul Heintz can be reached at pheintz@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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