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Decades in the Making: Sandusky's Todd Stephens Completes his Ohio Trilogy with 'Swan Song'

Todd Stephens
Tim Kaltenecker
Sandusky-born filmmaker Todd Stephens uses his hometown as the backdrop for his fictionalized memoir "Swan Song."

It’s taken New York-based filmmaker Todd Stephens 20 years to complete his Ohio Trilogy with the film “Swan Song.” It and the other films in the trilogy are now streaming at this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival.

The fictionalized memoir centers around an older gay man in Stephen’s hometown of Sandusky exploring how life has changed over the decades.

Just like the first two films in Stephens’ Ohio Trilogy, “Edge of 17” and “Gypsy 83,” “Swan Song” is a coming-of-age story set in Sandusky, except this film trades in youthful revelation for a sense of rediscovery.

“It's based on a man that I grew up sort of idolizing when I was a kid, and his name was Pat Pitsenbarger,” Stephens said.

Around Sandusky he was known as Mr. Pat.

“(He) was really flamboyant, sort of eccentric character that didn't look like anybody else in town back when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s,” Stephens said.

At a time when Stephens said there was an overwhelming need to conform, he said Mr. Pat broke all the rules.

“He was just a tiny little man that I would see as a kid walking around downtown wearing like a velvet fedora and a feather boa and women's pantsuits. And he had all these cocktail rings and smoked like this long brown cigarette that I had never seen before,” he said.

“I always felt like I related to Pat because I didn't feel like I fit in either.”

When he turned 17, Stephens first walked into the Universal Fruit and Nut Co., a small gay bar near the Cedar Point entrance in Sandusky.

Stephens calls it the most “amazing gay bar in the history of the world, as far as I'm concerned.”

“I was petrified the first time I went there, but when I walked in the door, I saw something on the dance floor, kind of sparkling and glittering. And I looked and there was Mr. Pat, this this guy that I'd seen all my life. And so, it all just kind of like connected and I just felt like I was home.”

Stephens initially wrote a character based on Mr. Pat in “Edge of 17,” but the part never made it in the final film.

“I was really inspired by him and I always knew I was going to make a film about him, it just took me 20, 25 years to do it,” he said.

Sandusky has been the backdrop for each film in the Ohio Trilogy.

Stephens' feelings for his hometown are a combination of love and hatred, of not fitting in, but finding a community all the same.

“When we made my first film, ‘Edge of 17,’ we literally decided to keep the gay subject matter of the film a secret because we felt like people wouldn't help us,” he said.

Because they were shooting a low-budget film they needed a lot of support, be it scouting locations or borrowing props.

“It was sort of sad because we were back in my hometown that I hadn't lived in for 12 years, making a film. It was about affirming who I was, a gay man, yet we as a production like went back into the closet. So that was that was kind of soul crushing in a way,” Stephens said.

Cut to 2019 when Stephens came back to film “Swan Song,” and it was a different story.

When I first got there to start preproduction downtown, they were starting the 3rd annual Gay Pride Festival. And the experience making that film couldn't have been more different,” he said.

Stephens said it felt like his hometown wrapped its arms around him.

“We could not have done the film without the support of that community,” he said.

Stephens has also been given the festival’s DReam Catcher award, which recognizes standout LGBTQ+ filmmakers.

Even though the stories are not directly linked, he encourages people to watch his films in chronological order starting with “Edge of 17” to see not only the evolution of the storytelling, but also the evolution Sandusky.

“It’ll always be home, but I also remember the hard times there. That sort of conflict is inspiring for me to create stories ... I love my hometown,” Stephens said.

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.