Patrons and sponsors of the 18th annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival walked the red carpet and were welcomed by a life-size cutout of Sammy Davis Jr. at the opening night gala before the screening of documentary “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” on Wednesday, Jan. 24, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Beyond the opportunity for photos with Davis by Button It Up, the star-themed reception featured a tasting of food by local and Israeli chefs.

“The most fulfilling part of this job is working with Executive Director Kenny Blank, newly appointed Lori Zelony, development director, and the rest of the very professional team,” said Martha Jo Katz, the gala chair and one of Atlanta’s most admired former professional models.

Aria’s Sally and Gerry Klaskala, expressing his love of food and wine aligned with the arts, serve Moroccan spiced lamb, warmed hummus and crisped chickpeas.

Ever elegant, Katz wore a flowing aqua silk tunic floral by Johnny Was, Ellen Tracy velvet leggings and coordinated rose-toned jewelry she acquired on a trip to Mayan ruins. She said the movie she was most eagerly anticipating was “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.”

Film selection committee members Ronni and Gary Landau made a dapper pair. His orange print Garcia ties provided a contrast with his black suit, while she wore a three-piece eclectic outfit with a coat-length jacket by Revue.

“A Bag of Marbles” was Gary’s must-see movie.

Gail and Louis Adler, freshly arrived from Houston, join son Marc Adler and Veronika Federiko at opening night.

Film producer and journalist David Lewis wore his standard Converse Chuck Taylor shoes with his more serious suit. “I’ve been wearing these Converses for 25 years,” Lewis said.

His favorite chef table was Nakato with its Kiss of Death roll: tuna, masago, sesame oil, sriracha and scallions garnished with spicy tempura flakes.

Film selection committee members Gary and Ronni Landau turn out in a contrasting Garcia tie and a Revue appliquéd coat jacket.

Marc Adler, a producer-level sponsor who provides his Macquarium building’s 75-person auditorium in Midtown for AJFF film screenings throughout the year, accompanied his parents, Gail and Louis, who flew in from Houston for the event. Gail won my “best dressed” vote in an Alexander McQueen black-and-white dove dress.

“I get to watch the lineup of movies as we extract the pearls out of the oysters,” Marc Adler said. His pick of the pearls was “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” a playful Canadian documentary about the Jewish songwriters who composed the holiday soundtrack.

Movie devotees and spiffy dressers Brennen Dicker and Ron Heidt, an in-kind media sponsor, included “GI Jew,” “Bombshell,” “1945,” “Budapest Noir” and “Bye Bye Germany” on their priority list.

The food was easily accessible, an improvement from the long lines of past opening galas. This fare was heavily weighted toward red meat, where twists on tuna and salmon were more common in past years.

Among the Buckhead Diner’s grilled cheese sandwich with roasted tomato soup, Imperial Fez’s quinoa and chia seeds with basil seed tabouli, b’stella and eggplant Zaalook, Ouzeria’s Jerusalem artichoke soup, and Il Giallo’s butternut squash risotto, there were ample vegetarian choices.

Il Giallo chef/owner Jamie Adams, serving butternut squash risotto, says many Jewish customers have followed him from his former Midtown spot to Sandy Springs.

The sole kosher vendor was For All Occasions and More with orange ginger duck, scallion risotto cakes and cucumber salad.

Moving onto the theater stage, AJFF President Steve Labovitz and Executive Director Kenny Blank greeted moviegoers with jovial repartee. Blank extended “chai” good wishes in the festival’s 18th year.

The AJFF is the largest film festival in Atlanta and the second-largest Jewish film festival in the world, behind San Francisco.

Davio’s offers a popular dish of cavatelli and English peas in truffle butter.

The movie was a top-notch education in race relations spanning the decades, Davis’ megawatt talent and his desire to be liked — to the chagrin of the black community.

We saw contradictions as he tried to do the right thing, from marching in Selma to hugging Richard Nixon. He raised money for the NAACP and entertained troops in Vietnam but was criticized for supporting the war. He said he wanted to lift the soldiers’ spirits without making political statements.

All he wanted was to be himself (“gotta be me”) and a great performer, even if that meant doing skits with the white Rat Pack guys in Ku Klux Klan sheets.

AJFF Executive Director Kenny Blank is flanked by Nancy Blank and Dina Gerson on opening night.

Maybe this documentary will provide Davis the props he deserves for paving many paths, including sleeping in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom. Today’s shamers could take a lesson from this “Candy Man,” who didn’t deserve the Uncle Tom labels for his sense of humor and conviviality.

Exiting the movie, Lynne and Tom Greenfield said, “We loved this movie and have always admired Sammy. We chose to spend our honeymoon in Vegas so we could see him perform at the Sands. He was the greatest performer of our time.”

Food Vendors

Aria
Buckhead Diner
C&S Seafood
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
Chai Yo Modern Thai
Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse
For All Occasions and More
Il Giallo Osteria & Bar
Imperial Fez
Kaiser’s Chophouse
Nakato Japanese Restaurant
Ouzeria
South City Kitchen
The General Muir
2B Whole Gluten Free Bakery
Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters
DaVinci’s Donuts
Tiff’s Treats (foil-bagged warm chocolate-chip and snickerdoodle cookies to take into the movie)

Photos by Laurie Sermos