Sy Wexler

October 6, 1916 - March 10, 2005


Sy Wexler was a true entrepreneur, creative artist, documentarian, friend and family leader. His sharp humor, inquisitive mind, generous heart and gentle spirit will be greatly missed.

Born Simon Wexler in New York City October 6, 1916 to parents Etta Brinks and George Wexler, both born in Austria, in 1894 and 1892.  George, a plumber, continued the profession after emigrating to America and settling in New York City.

Sy is survived by his loving artist wife of 63 years, Helen, filmmaker son Howard, film preservationist son David, grandson UCLA student Aaron, 21, grandson Ian, 16, granddaughter Melanie, 13, and daughters-in-law Evone and Julie.

Sy lived a simple and thrifty life.  He owned a handful of shirts, ties, and shoes, although he occasionally bought himself a new tennis racket.  His bookshelves were lined with numerous self-help books, journals and newsletters about alternative medical concepts and practices.  He read the New Yorker, Scientific American, and National Geographic. With Helen’s help and an aged copy of Bartlett's quotations, Sy composed a poem for every family occasion.

Sy attended City College of New York, studying chemistry, and worked for a scientific researcher, which afforded him the opportunity to meet Albert Einstein.

Sy served as a Lieutenant in the US Army Signal Corps as a cameraman.  In 1945 he worked with Frank Capra on the seminal documentary series Why We Fight and Know Your Enemy.

On December 23, 1942, Sy married his Earl Robinson Chorus singing partner, Helen Rosalind Nager.  The couple settled in Los Angeles and had two sons, Howard Adam, and David Paul.  Soon, they took the advice of former Signal Corps comrade, artist Dave Rose, and bought a house across the street from him in Hollywood. They waved to each other often, for over fifty years.

Sy built a small film studio on Seward Street in Hollywood and produced educational films with partner Bob Churchill.  At the time, Seward Street and the neighboring area was the center of the film production world in Hollywood, with laboratories, title and effects houses, cartoonists, animators, stages, and numerous film production and support businesses.  Churchill/Wexler Film Productions became a leader producing instructional films with titles like:  Ways To Find Out, Wonders In Your Own Backyard, Squeak The Squirrel, Human And Animal Beginnings, and Boy To Man.  The studio, which Sy affectionately called “the shop”, was staffed with artists, animators, technicians and editors.  It was equipped with a darkroom, stage, stop-frame camera stand and a 16mm contact printer for making dailies and prints. A bustling shipping department sent 16mm preview and sales prints to school districts and learning institutions across the country and around the world. Afternoon tea time at the studio, precisely at 4pm, was legendary on the street for its hospitality and lively, far-flung discussion.  Most days, tea was prepared by the local mailman or UPS driver.

Of the 300+ titles produced, most won awards and were highly acclaimed for content, animation style and for enabling teachers to easily communicate difficult subjects like sex education, alcohol abuse, nutrition and science.  Most school kids from 1950 onward probably saw at least one Churchill/Wexler film

The studio became a place for many future filmmakers to get their start.  Current industry veterans David S. Ward, John Simmons, Greg Gardiner, Mandy Luther and Joy Rencher spent time at the studio.  Other staff and collaborators included Diane Haak, Sin Hock Gaw, Dan Warnock, Bob Ebinger,  Bill Hurtz, Dede Allen, Robert Snyder, Irving Lerner, Marilyn Engle, Baylis and John Glascock, Larry Yust, Izzy Mankofsky, Carleton Moss, Mallory Pierce, Greg Williams, Emmit Edwards, John Whitney, and narrators Vic Perrin and Roger Steffens.

Sy contributed to the 1960 film The Savage Eye, produced by Ben Maddow, along with photographers Helen Levitt, Jack Couffer, Haskell Wexler and Joel Coleman.  Sy also co-produced the 1964 Eastman Kodak World’s Fair film The Searching Eye, with Saul and Elaine Bass and Elmer Bernstein.  Both projects were considered high-water marks in the annals of modern documentary filmmaking.

From 1965 to 2001 Wexler Film Productions specialized in medical and scientific films, and became a world leader in the field.  Sy made films for most of the major pharmaceutical companies, The House Ear Institute, hospitals and clinics. Filming surgical techniques for doctors, medical instrumentation training films and videos for nurses kept "the shop“ busy. Other interesting projects included an animated film about the Bill of Rights, a film to demonstrate a new voting machine, and a multi-award winning instructional about how germs can easily spread in hospital settings.

The remarkable film Human Heredity, with Eddie Albert, set a precedent for presenting a difficult subject with style and taste.  In 1976 Sy produced the award winning film The Human Brain, A Dynamic View of Its Structures and Organization, for Dr. Robert Livingston, which garnered worldwide acclaim for its groundbreaking 3-D imaging.

Sy’s lifelong quest for knowledge and understanding was perhaps exemplified in his film A Lifetime of Learning.  A perennial learner, voracious reader, music lover and USC School of Cinema lecturer, he was a founding member and unprecedented four-time President of The Mulholland Tennis Club. He also had the great pleasure of meeting the fourteenth Dali Lama of Tibet.  Sy hiked the Yosemite High Sierra Camp trail twice, tried skiing, and served a stint as Treasurer of Boy Scout Troop 31.

In 2018 the Montclair New Jersey library uncovered a black and white film deep in their archives.

A newly-digitized, 16mm film captures the Montclair Public Library as a pioneering institution of knowledge and progress.

“‘Portrait of a Library’ is a snapshot of the Montclair Public library in 1940. It shows people using the library, our home delivery service, people calling to reserve books, use of the first automated circulation card catalog and a reading of ‘Native Son,’ which was controversial,” said Peter Coyl, Montclair library board director.

Created by cinematographer Sy Wexler and director/producer Hans Berger, “Portrait of a Library” was in the Montclair Public Library’s archives. It was made for the sum of $1,200, paid by the Agnes Osborne Fund, whose mission was to spread international understandin

IBM had designed the first punch card data processing system and equipment to record book loans and returns that was used in Montclair, prompting librarians worldwide to visit the library and view its offerings.

The “Portrait of a Library” film’s digitization and availability to a wider audience reflects the library being at the forefront of innovative library services.

“It’s an important piece of our history and speaks to the longstanding culture of Montclair as being progressive and forward thinking,” Coyl said.

During the last year of his life, Sy was accompanied by a caring, supportive, and loving team of care-givers. They helped him daily, discussed world events together, postulated on the state of modern medicine, shared food cravings and delights, marveled at the flora and fauna of the backyard garden, and laughed together at his endless stream of corny yet touching one liners. The family is eternally grateful for the wonderful support of the noble folks who gave of themselves to be of service to him.

At his request, his physical body was to be used for medical research and training, for use by the next generation of explorers.


Notes of remembrance can be sent to:

The Wexlers, 742 Seward St., Hollywood CA 90038



Donations in his name can be made to one of Sy’s favorite non-profits:

Self-Healing Research Foundation

2218 48th Ave.  San Francisco, CA 94115



Sy Wexler, Maker of Ubiquitous Classroom Films, Dies at 88

By MARGALIT FOX  New York Times

Sy Wexler, an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose educational movies - from "Squeak the Squirrel" to "Teeth Are for Life" - flickered for decades in darkened classrooms around the world, died on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 88 and lived in Hollywood.

The cause was cancer and the neurological disease diffuse Lewy body syndrome, his family said.

For a generation of baby boomers, Mr. Wexler's films were as dependable a classroom ritual as the duck-and-cover drill. Usually from 11 to 28 minutes long and shot in 16-millimeter black and white, they were as much a part of education in the postwar decades as the Internet and interactive CD-ROM's are today.

Few of the films had catchy titles. There was "High Blood Pressure," "Congestive Heart Failure" and "Career: Medical Technologist." There was "Early Marriage," "Fertilization and Birth" and "Happy Family Planning." There was "Fire Science," "Smoking and Heart Disease" and "Venereal Disease: Why Do We Still Have It?"

But in the 50's and 60's, movies like these were an essential part of how science, in particular the delicate subject of sex education, was taught. In hundreds of films, both live-action and animated, Mr. Wexler brought to life obscure processes like the metabolization of protein ("How a Hamburger Turns Into You"), the problem-solving abilities of animals ("Squeak the Squirrel") and the nature of human creativity ("Wondering About Things").

Among his other films were "The Great Rights," about the Bill of Rights; "Tell Me Where to Turn," a guide to using social service agencies; and "One and Two and Three," for teaching retarded children to count.

Simon Wexler was born in Manhattan on Oct. 6, 1916, and studied chemistry at the City College of New York. He was a cameraman with the Army Signal Corps in World War II, working with the director Frank Capra on the well-known documentary series "Why We Fight."

After the war, Mr. Wexler and a partner, Bob Churchill, started Churchill-Wexler Films, based in Hollywood. Overseeing a staff of animators, technicians and editors, Mr. Wexler worked as producer, director and screenwriter, sometimes as cameraman and occasionally as talent scout (his son Howard appeared in several of his films). At the studio, the daily routine included a break at 4 for tea, generally prepared by the mailman as part of his afternoon round.

After Mr. Churchill left the company in 1961, Mr. Wexler started Wexler Film Productions. From the late 60's on, he concentrated on medical films, including "Complete Dentures," "Clinical Applications of Microporous Tape" and "The Case of a Persian Student With Painless Hemoptysis."

The films were one way that news of medical advances was disseminated: in the days before Power Point, doctors often commissioned movies from Mr. Wexler to accompany their presentations at professional meetings. To illuminate medical subjects visually, Mr. Wexler might photograph the behavior of cells through the lens of a microscope or take his camera into the operating room to film surgery in progress.

Mr. Wexler is survived by his wife, the former Helen Rosalind Nager, whom he married in 1942; two sons: Howard, a filmmaker, of Los Angeles, and David, a film preservationist, of Santa Barbara; and three grandchildren.

Many of Mr. Wexler's films won awards, including prizes from the Biological Photographers Association and the International Scientific Film Festival. He received a blue ribbon from the American Film Festival for "Varicose Veins.

Sy Obit