A few minutes into The Founders, Marlene Bauer-Hagge, one of the original 13 female golfers who banded together to create the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1950, issues a warning and a challenge to the filmmakers: “You better get busy. There’s only four of us left!” The documentary’s Atlanta directors Charlene Fisk and Carrie Schrader took Bauer-Hagge at her word and fast-tracked this fascinating, educational, and emotional new documentary. On Monday at 9:15 p.m., Fisk and Schrader’s Mighty Fine Films-produced The Founders will have its world premiere at the Plaza Theatre as part of the 40th annual Atlanta Film Festival.
“We knew the clock was ticking and we were up against a real deadline,” explains Fisk. The first person she called to talk about making the doc was LPGA legend Louise Suggs (the native Atlantan has her own permanent exhibition at the Cherokee Town and County Club). The LPGA’s 4th winningest golfer proceeded to verbally take a sand wedge to Fisk’s psyche, and then she hung up. That’s when Fisk was convinced she had to make the film.
“I got peppered with ‘Who are you?!’ and ‘Why do you want to do this film?!,’” Fisk recalls, laughing in retrospect. “When I got off the phone, I was really deflated. But then I realized how much she cared about this, how personal it was for her and how passionate she was. That’s when I recognized what an important story this was for women’s history.” The other surviving LGPA founders interviewed for the film are Shirley Spork, a walking LPGA encyclopedia, and the effervescent Marilynn Smith (who, when she’s interrupted by a ringing doorbell on-camera responds with, “Oh, Shicklegroover!”).
The opportunity to chronicle one of America’s great untold stories was what drew Schrader into the three-year project. “This was a story of heroines,” she says. “It’s about underdogs and redemption. I love telling stories about human beings overcoming odds. I just kept thinking throughout, ‘How come I didn’t know about this?’ Not only as a filmmaker but as a female living in the world. Here were a group of women who came along before Title IX [the equal employment act of 1972], women who helped to create the bedrock for the women’s movement. Why doesn’t everyone know this story?”
There will likely be a few moments of cringe-inducing, seat-squirming discomfort for modern filmgoers at Monday night’s premiere, too. There’s archival footage, for example, of Bauer-Hagge appearing as a celebrity guest on an early 1950s NBC primetime show where the male host asks her condescendingly, “So, you just go out there and slug those balls? You look like an athlete, but you’re beautiful! How much do you weigh?”
“It’s probably one of the most expensive pieces of footage in the film but it’s so worth it,” says Schrader. “That moment just sums up everything they went through.”
In addition to keeping the LPGA financially afloat in the early years, the original 13 female pro golfers were required to host clinics, attend cocktail parties, and even participate in fashion shows in order to drum up interest in the new professional women’s sport. They drove themselves in caravans in a pre-interstate America to play in the far-flung inaugural tournaments as well, communicating with each other by hanging color-coded ping-pong paddles out the car window. “For a woman at that time, that was an incredibly risky thing to do,” says Fisk.
While Suggs was the first person Fisk spoke to about the project, she was the last of the LPGA founders to sit for an interview. But Suggs’ stories were worth the wait. Recalling her 1961 Royal Poinciana Invitational win over male golfers, including Cary Middlecoff and Sam Snead, Suggs remembered some grousing by the men in the parking lot after the tournament. In the film, Suggs recalls her response to Snead: “I don’t know what you’re bitching about, Sam. You didn’t even come in second!”
One of the film’s most powerful moments comes late in the doc when a wheelchair-bound Suggs is pushed inside an LPGA exhibition at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida. Wiping away tears, Suggs assesses, “This is the first time I’ve ever been up there with the big boys.” She died in August at age 91.
“Louise passed away before she could see the finished film but she knew that her story would get told,” says Schrader. “We want this film to serve as a tribute to her and all of these other amazing women who have made all of our lives better by what they accomplished.”
The Founders has its world premiere Monday night at 9:15 at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre as part of the 40th annual Atlanta Film Festival. Tickets are available at the box office or at atlantafilmfestival.com. Fundraising is ongoing for The Founders to finance a print of the film for future festivals and a potential distribution deal. More information about a tax-deductible donation can be found at thefoundersfilm.com.