The pigeon hobby produces mountains of information about itself. Countless books, in many different languages, explain how to win shows or races. Dozens of publications spotlight the champions of the sport. But, for all this material, there is seldom anything that helps explain the wonder of pigeons to the outside world.
In 1941 an American attorney, Wendell Levi published his lifework, “The Pigeon”. Running over 600 pages, it was destined to become the most significant piece on the history of this family of birds. Reprinted almost a dozen times, it can be found in libraries throughout the world.
It would be almost 50 years before another work, this time a documentary film, provided the same level of enthusiasm that greeted Levi’s classic book. The new film’s creator would be another American, one who skipped school as a boy in order to pour over “The Pigeon” which could only be found in the reference section of the downtown Seattle library.
Jim Jenner’s MARATHON IN THE SKY stunned the pigeon world when it was released in 1990. Not only did it include some of the most gripping aerial footage ever captured of racing pigeons in flight, it also was narrated by one of the entertainment world’s most endearing stars, Michael Landon. What’s more, the narrative was a unique blend of pigeon facts and poetry that brought pride, even tears, to pigeon fanciers around the world.
Creating “MARATHON” was a milestone for Jenner. It combined his 30 years of love of pigeons with his 20 years as an award-winning writer and film director. But even this veteran story-teller was surprised by the reaction of the pigeon sport to his documentary.
“It was pretty amazing how happy this film seemed to make people in the pigeon world, says Jenner of the reaction to MARATHON. “We got hundreds of letters and phone calls from all over the world thanking us for making the film.”
American pigeon publications called the documentary “spellbinding”. England’s pigeon trades called it “a masterpiece” and “a milestone in the history of the pigeon sport”. Jenner subsequently was asked to create shorter versions of the program, for use in sport promotion, by the ARPU, IF, Canada’s CU and the Royal Racing Pigeon Association in England.
Virtually unknown to pigeon fanciers outside his native Washington State before “MARATHON”, Jenner was asked to participate in sport promotion planning and helped to create The World of Wings Pigeon Center in the United States. This brought him into contact with hundreds of fanciers, and scientists, outside of the racing pigeon world. Jenner used these contacts to create another documentary, OLDEST FEATHERED FRIEND, which chronicled eleven fascinating stories of mankind’s relationship with domestic pigeons.
Released in 1996, FRIEND was also a hit, not only in the racing fraternity but with the pigeon fancy in general. It went on to win top honors at several international film festivals.
“I never thought anything could top MARATHON”, said the late Quinn, noted pigeon author and historian, “But Jim just seems to have a magic touch in explaining the pigeon hobby to the outside world. Our sport has never seen anything like him in terms of capturing, with words and moving pictures, the essence of our love for pigeons and why they deserve respect”.
After creating two important documentaries for the pigeon sport, Jenner turned his attention to larger, and probably more profitable, documentary subject. He created an award-winning series on America’s historic highway, Route 66, that appeared on PBS in the U.S. and throughout Europe. But the residual effect of his masterpiece, MARATHON IN THE SKY, would eventually lead to another fascinating pigeon project.
“In January of 2002 I received a cryptic phone call from the wife of a television producer with Beijing TV in China. She explained that her husband, Tony Wang, had seen my films and were working on a twenty-part series about pigeons as the bird of peace. They invited me to Beijing to hear about their project and to possibly provide background film for their work”, said Jenner.
Jenner was as one of many “honored guests”, but by the time he got to Beijing the plan, at least in the minds of the Chinese, had changed.
“They’d also invited Frank Tasker, one of England’s greatest racers, as well as, several European pigeon dignitaries, to help them coordinate their project. But, on the second day they took me aside and said they wanted me to write and direct the show. I wasn’t expecting it, but what they had in mind was incredible and exciting.”
Beijing Television (BTV) is one of the world’s largest television operations. Shortly after 9/11, Producer Tony Wang and several other BTV executives (who were also pigeon fanciers) approached senior management and proposed a twenty part, five hour long series of stories about pigeons. To their surprise and delight the project gat a green light.
“BTV already had an experienced Chinese Director on board, a fellow I liked very much when we met, but I think the Producers felt he didn’t know pigeons and the pigeon hobby well enough to create the show they had in mind. I guess that’s when they decided to ask me. There aren’t many pigeon film directors out there!” Jenner says with a laugh.
What Jenner laughs at was actually pretty serious business. No American director had ever been asked to work on a project of this kind with the proudly independent-minded Chinese Television industry.
“The scope of the project was enormous. They wanted to create a high quality program that would appeal to the general public, plus they needed us to complete a five-hour long program in only a year. It took me two years to make MARATHON, and it’s only 57 minutes long!”
Jenner assembled five film crews who eventually visited 19 countries capturing pigeon stories. He simultaneously enlisted editors to compile the stories he wrote and narrated. In the end, Jenner worked for two months in Beijing to finish the 20-hour saga.
The late Joe Quinn, one of over 100 pigeon experts and fanciers featured in the series, was skeptical this new work could match Jenner’s earlier triumph. But, when he reviewed the new film for several pigeon publications he wrote. “Words fail me as I attempt to review this monumental work. SHARE THE BLUE SKY ranks as one of the finest documentaries ever produced”.
In England, Jean Hansell, author of “The Pigeon in History” was also enthusiastic. “This remarkable documentary gives an amazingly comprehensive and international portrayal of the world of the pigeon. A unique record.”
Although the number of words Jenner has written in his many hours of more than a dozen pigeon films may be no match for Levi’s 667-page masterpiece, the impact of his movies on the pigeon hobby are probably as profound as Levi’s classic book. And for a little boy who once skipped school to comb the pages of “The Pigeon”, there is great satisfaction in telling the story of pigeons, and the people who love them to the outside world.
Says Jim Jenner, “When you make your living as a story teller, and people say you’ve perfectly captured what they feel in their hearts for these wonderful creatures, well, there’s no greater job satisfaction than that.”