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Zilbersmith’s Poignant Journey of Laughter Earns Film Festival Top Honors

Former College of Marin Drama Department Chair Leaves Shining Legacy of Joy in LEAVE THEM LAUGHING

Kentfield, CA— May 27, 2010 —A documentary about College of Marin Drama Professor Carla Zilbersmith’s enduring spirit as she was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease won international acclaim and garnered the Special Jury Prize at the annual Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.

LEAVE THEM LAUGHING ranked fifth in the audience favorite list of top ten Hot Docs films, which included 170 participating films by 150 filmmakers. A record-breaking 136,000 people attended the festival. Hot Docs is the biggest documentary film festival in North America. The 170 films in the 11-day festival were selected from 2,088 original submissions.

Carla Zilbersmith Leave Them Laughing

The “musical comedy about dying” was produced by Montana Berg of Point Grey Pictures/MagicalFlute Films and directed by Canadian documentary director John Zaritsky, who has won over 30 film awards, including an Academy Award. Zaritsky said he decided to shoot the film after reading entries of “Carla Muses,” Zilbersmith’s online blog in which she eloquently described her journey with the illness. It made him laugh.

Zilbersmith, 47, a singer and solo performer headed up the College of Marin Drama Department. “Carla was a creative genius and visionary, who led the department in bold directions. She inspired her students with an extraordinary talent for teaching as well as performing. And her skills as an improviser were just phenomenal”, said Zilbersmith’s colleague and friend, Drama Professor William Allen Taylor. In December 2007, she was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), a fatal neurological illness that eventually stops muscular and nerve function. Carla died May 17, 2010.

“The film is a legacy for Carla but in addition the film is an important means for getting awareness out about ALS,” said Sandy Handsher, a film professor at College of Marin and long-time friend and colleague of Zilbersmith’s. Handsher and COM Staff Development Program Administrator Kathleen Kirkpatrick organized a sold out film screening benefit at the college in November. Although by then, Zilbersmith had difficulty speaking, she was still telling jokes at the Q and A after the film screening. Zilbersmith quipped that she hadn’t filled the Fine Arts Theater before, even with a Datebook photo, according to Handsher.

“It was as if the whole room took off and floated away,” Handsher recalled. “It was just incredible. I’m so happy to have been able to honor Carla with a tribute while she was alive. In a sense it was her last performance where she had worked so hard and put on so many shows. She was really happy to be there.” Zilbersmith, who penned her own obituary with humor and irreverence, was the kind of performer to joke about getting a baseball disease when she hated the sport, get censored for jokes told during a Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraising event and tattoo “Out of Order” on her feet when she could no longer walk.

The film, which includes shots from Carla’s singing performances and her one-woman show, footage of trips to The Holy Land, a theme park in Central Florida, and to Mexico to swim with dolphins, focuses on her relationship with her beloved son Maclen. At a sold out screening of the film at the Hot Docs festival in early May, Maclen Zilber, 18, said his mother loved the film.

In NOW, Toronto's leading entertainment guide, the film was described as “an emotional roller coaster of fabulous proportions.”

“What I found so refreshing and unexpected about this film is that although the circumstance of her illness is the launching point, it’s not where we end up,” said Michael Murray, in a film review for “The movie is about her. She’s a mother and a daughter, a singer and a comedienne, a sexually frustrated hedonist who’s pissed-off at her ex-husband, and a billion different other things, and although many of these things are influenced by ALS, they’re not defined by it.”

Zilbersmith was compared to Lily Tomlin by the LA Times, in a review of her one-woman show, Wedding Singer Blues.

“She was a great actress and a talented writer and a singer and she was cut short in her life and her career,” Handsher said. “She wasn’t acknowledged as much as she would’ve been had she lived long, so the film became a legacy to her talent.

“The message Carla embodied is that you just have to plunge ahead and live your life and not let fear get in the way.” Handsher said.


The filmmakers of LEAVE THEM LAUGHING are continuing to raise funds to support a final cut of the film. It has been accepted by the International Documentary Association for fiscal sponsorship which means that U.S. donations qualify as tax-deductible . For details visit,

More information about the film can be found at:, , and

Read Zilbersmith’s blog at:

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