Lisi Russell — Asheville’s Own

HOME SWEET HOME: "When I first set foot in Asheville, I thought it was magic — everything about it seemed so different from Charlotte, from anyplace. It immediately became home, recalls former Asheville resident Lisi Russell, pictured here with Ken Hanke. Russell is in town to introduce her late husband's film Mahler.

Lisi Russell — widow of British filmmaker Ken Russell (Tommy, Altered States) — will be in Asheville next week to introduce a special Asheville Film Society screening of her husband’s film Mahler on Wed., April 22, at 7:30 p.m. at The Carolina Asheville. Many of you may know that this isn’t her first trip to Asheville, but fewer of you are probably aware that Lisi grew up here. Though born in Charlotte, Lisi came to Asheville at the age of 9 when her father, Hal Tribble, left the Charlotte Observer to become editor of what was then the Asheville Citizen. “In those days,” Lisi explains, “there was the Citizen — a morning paper — and the Times — an evening paper.”

“When I first set foot in Asheville, I thought it was magic — everything about it seemed so different from Charlotte, from anyplace. It immediately became home.” It would remain that for about 12 years. “Of course, it was very different then,” she adds. It was probably even more so for her, since her father was a die-hard progressive liberal whose views on the world — and especially on race — were not embraced by everyone. “I got so used to answering the phone and having people say, ‘Let me talk to the nigger lover,’ that I’d just say, ‘Daddy, it’s for you,’ and think no more about it. It was just a part of life at our house.”

This was the atmosphere in which she spent her formative years — and these were the ideals that were instilled in her. “We were never allowed to even remark on a person’s skin color to describe them. Dad insisted on us being truly color blind,” she explains, adding, “And we were taught to never feel superior to anyone. When I graduated high school I was accepted at Yale, but my father insisted I go to UNC at Chapel Hill, because he didn’t want me to become a snob.” The Asheville experience came to a halt in 1972 while she was at school when her father was “urged” into early retirement. Why? “It was very simple. My father refused to endorse Richard Nixon, so the family returned to Charlotte.”

It was also at Chapel Hill that Lisi discovered the films of Ken Russell. “They had such an enormous impact on us — especially in the drama department. But I differed in one respect from the others. They said they loved those films. I said, ‘I love the man who made those films,'” she reveals. So what did she do? She wrote to Russell — care of the studio where The Music Lovers was shot — on the back of a restaurant place mat, telling him that she’d be studying acting in New York that summer and asking him to stop by if he was in the city.

“Imagine my surprise when one morning at 8:30 the bell rang and there was Ken Russell standing on my doorstep. I remember there were two gay friends of mine asleep on the floor, and Ken just stepped over them as if this was perfectly normal.” So began a friendship and a correspondence that ended when Lisi’s mother nixed the idea of her daughter being in Lisztomania. “My mother knew Ken’s films and loved them,” she explains, “and that was exactly why she said no to the idea — mom was sure I’d have to take my clothes off.”

It’s a story, of course, with a long-delayed happy ending, because Ken and Lisi got back together in 2000 and married in 2001. And as soon as the opportunity presented itself — with the invitation from the Asheville Film Festival in 2005 — she introduced him to Asheville. “He fell in love with it. He said that seeing his name on the marquee at the Fine Arts Theatre was a healing experience, that the place itself reminded him of the Lake District in England — without the lakes. It became his absolute favorite of all the film festivals and retrospectives he ever attended, and it remained so,” she reveals. “And you be sure to add,” she insisted against my objections, “that it was partly due to you. You have no idea how much Ken loved you, and he always said you were the only person who really understood his films. I never saw him have such a good time.”

 

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They always hoped to come back some day, but death intervened on Nov. 27, 2011 — though Ken Russell left this world with a picture of Lisi, himself and me sitting in a window at Diana Wortham in 2005 while waiting for the screening of Tommy. And Lisi will be back “home” — with Ken in spirit — for Mahler on April 22.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “Lisi Russell — Asheville’s Own

  1. Bill Maynard

    That was a beautiful story. It’s rare you find something so emotionally honest in a newspaper’s entertainment section. A wonderful snapshot of time and place amidst the lives of friends and lovers and a testament to the ability of art to unite souls.

  2. Reeves Singleton

    Yes, this article was lovely and enlightening in a surprising number of ways. (I’ve never once considered the Citizen-Times’s history despite having been exposed to it for my entire life, and to learn about it here is kind of delightful.)

    That said, it does make me regret having been, uh, 10 during 2005’s Asheville Film Festival.

    • Ken Hanke

      Well, T’other Ken is gone, but you could meet Lisi next week — and see a much better copy of Mahler than we ran 10 years ago.

  3. Lisi Russell

    Thanks for enshrining that memory of the Asheville Film Festival and growing up Ashevillian-forever, Ken. Can’t wait to see the city where all magic starts. I hope all much-remembered friends from Ira B. Jones, Asheville High, Tanglewood Theatre and Wall Street sidewalks (plus anyone else) feel welcome and encouraged to come see MAHLER and say hello. Filmed in what director Ken Russell called the “Asheville” of England (the Lake District)! Uniquely lush with gorgeous music, emotional truths and intense portrayals of how one’s connection with nature, childhood and the social zeitgeist of one’s time – includings its troubles – shape all later creative efforts and relationships. Not only can you “go home” again, to refute my beloved Thomas Wolfe, you can never really leave it behind.

  4. Me

    Thank you for sharing the background of how you guys met, but what’s with that suit you’re wearing?

    • Ken Hanke

      Apart from the fact that buying a brown velour jacket when you live in a house with multiple cats not being a good idea, I don’t see anything that outre about the suit.

      Not sure this is quite how we — meaning Ken and I or Lisi and I — met, since I’d known Ken since 1981, and had met Lisi briefly in the McDonald’s parking lot in Weaverville in 2001.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Thanks to all those who showed up for last night’s screening — and for making it a successful event overall!

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