It’s no surprise that Toni Ross — the founding chairman of the board of the Hamptons International Film Festival and a distinguished artist in her own right — would receive the Dick Cavett Artistic Champion Award. Well, no surprise to anyone but Ross herself.
“We were sitting around the board room, talking about the honorees for this year, and I said — completely joking, of course — ‘Why not me?’ And Stuart and Alec turned bright red,” she said, referring to former chairman Stuart Match Suna and current co-chair Alec Baldwin.
“I wasn’t even slightly serious,” she continued. “But they said, ‘It IS you.’ And I said, ‘No, I was joking.’ And they said, ‘No, it really IS you. We’ve talked about it and it’s you.’” Apparently, that went back and forth for about 10 minutes, with Ross expressing disbelief until she was finally convinced. Ross recalled when she and her late husband, Jeff Salaway, who had recently opened Nick & Toni’s, were approached to help kickstart the festival back in the day.
“It seemed like a really good idea, and a way of extending the season for the local shop owners and restaurants,” said the former Wesleyan film studies major, who aided in establishing the Wesleyan Cinema Archives.
“The truth was, none of us knew what we were doing,” she said with a laugh. It seems to have worked out, though. Plus, of course, movie history runs in Toni Ross’s blood. Her father, Steve Ross, was CEO of Warner Communications, formerly Warner Brothers. Ross remembers home visits from Cher and David Geffen. A high point, she recalled, was meeting Cary Grant.
“He was just such a movie star,” she said, smiling. “And I always used to love watching old movies on TV,” she said. “There used to be ‘The Four O’Clock Movie’ show when I was growing up. I remember watching Natalie Wood in ‘Splendor in the Grass,’ lots of great old classics.”
These days, Ross is best known for her visual art and sculpture, created out of natural materials and showcased around the world, including several pieces in East Hampton at the LongHouse Reserve. There’s also the Hayground School, which she co-founded, the restaurant empire of the East End that she helped to create, and the numerous other artistic organizations of which she is a benefactor.
But when it comes to HIFF, Ross is most pleased with the way that the festival has morphed from a five-day event to year-round commodity for the community. “There’s ‘Now Showing,’ and ‘Summer Docs,’” she said. “And we have workshops and other events all year long.” Not surprisingly, instead of the glitz and glamour and big-name celebrities and films, Ross is most proud for some of the smaller series, like “Conflict and Resolution” and the “Air, Land, & Sea” documentaries. “My heart is really with those programs, and the student films, the new filmmakers,” she said. “There’s something for everyone.”
According to HIFF, “The Dick Cavett Artistic Champion Award was created in 2017 and first given to its namesake, Dick Cavett, to honor those in the creative arts who not only excel in their field, but who also support the arts and artists, particularly in film, television, and related media.” Last year’s recipient was Alan Alda. “I really didn’t think it would be me,” she said again, smiling.
The presentation will take place on Thursday, October 10, just prior to the opening night film screening of “Just Mercy” at 6:30 at Guild Hall in East Hampton. For more information, see www.hamptonsfilmfest.org.