Mr. John Maddex: Well, today I want to introduce you to an interesting guest, someone I’ve known for about ten years or so, since moving into northwest Indiana. He worked as an editor and producer for Ancient Faith Radio in the early days. He’s a tonsured reader in the Orthodox Church in America, and his name is Ron Smith, and he’s in our studio today. Welcome, Ron!
Mr. Ron Smith: Hi, John. Thanks for having me.
Mr. Maddex: Thanks for stopping by. We appreciate your coming. Tell us, where do you live?
Mr. Smith: I live in Mokena, Illinois.
Mr. Maddex: All right, so your drive here was… an hour?
Mr. Smith: You know what, it takes a little longer, because I take the scenic route.
Mr. Maddex: The scenic route!
Mr. Smith: If I took the expressways, it would be even less than an hour, but I want to see God’s nature.
Mr. Maddex: Northwest Indiana, beautiful dunes, etc. Well, thanks for making the trip; we appreciate that. Where do you go to church, Ron?
Mr. Smith: I go to St. John of Chicago Chapel. It’s an off-shoot of St. Luke OCA Church in Palos Hills, and our chapel is in New Lenox, Illinois.
Mr. Maddex: Okay, just relatively new, then.
Mr. Smith: Yes, we’ve been around for about three and a half years.
Mr. Maddex: And who is the priest?
Mr. Smith: The priest is Fr. Andrew Harris.
Mr. Maddex: Yes, who was at St. Luke.
Mr. Smith: Who was at St. Luke and is now semi-retired. He’s officially retired, but he still handles the chapel.
Mr. Maddex: Well, we met here in Chesterton when you had come out to St. Elizabeth on a regular basis, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr Church. I can’t remember who told me—it may have been you—that you have a background in radio. Tell our listeners about that.
Mr. Smith: Well, I was in radio for a number of years. I was a broadcast major in school and then got my first job in Joliet, Illinois. I was a morning man and program director at an oldies station there, and then went to Chicago where I was in charge of research for WKQX for a number of years, and then became the music director for Oldies 104.3 in Chicago, and finally after a little hiatus I came back into radio and was the evening disc jockey and the music director at Real Oldies 1690 in Chicago.
Mr. Maddex: Well, people can tell from your voice that you have a background in radio, that’s for sure, but what people would not realize and that I learned later on is that not only did you work in oldies radio, but you are kind of among the elite in terms of knowledge-base and history of oldies music.
Mr. Smith: Well, I don’t know if I’m in the “elite,” but I feel like every radio station needs to have an expert. When I worked at both the oldies stations that I worked for, I tried to be the expert, and I have vast library of books and have read them all. A lot of times people buy books and they don’t read them, and I don’t always remember the story perfectly, but I remember there is a story, and then I go look it up, and that’s all you need to know in this world.
Mr. Maddex: Didn’t you write a book also?
Mr. Smith: Actually, I have five books, but they’re mainly reference books. Four of them concern the Chicago Top 40 music charts, and then one of them is a “What Happened On This Day in Oldies History.”
Mr. Maddex: Growing up in Chicago, as a youngster we were big fans of WLS and the name Dick Biondi was on our lips quite a bit.
Mr. Smith: Dick is still a very good friend of mine. Worked with him for eight and a half years.
Mr. Maddex: I was going to say, you are good friends with him.
Mr. Smith: I’m very blessed to have worked with so many big names. I was very good friends with Art Roberts who passed away about ten years ago. He was the closest thing I had to a mentor. I worked twice with Joel Sebastian. I worked with Tommy Edwards, Larry Lujack, world-famous Tom Murphy who still sends Christmas cards and signs them “World.” I worked with so many of the big names in Chicago, and they’re all wonderful people. If you think this is not a good business to be in, just meet some of the wonderful people in it.
Mr. Maddex: Well, Ron, we wanted to find out about your background in radio for sure, but the primary reason I wanted you to come on with us is I happened to be watching on Facebook some of your posts, and you kept referring to a movie called Heavens to Betsy, and then there was Heavens to Betsy 2, and then I saw “Ron Smith, Executive Producer.” So that caught my attention, and I wanted to find out a little bit more about your film production experience. What does it mean to be the executive director of a film?
Mr. Smith: Okay, first of all, I am not the executive producer; I am one of the executive producers. And the executive producers basically are the people who finance the movies. So I happened to be in a position where I was able to invest in Heavens to Betsy and then later on Heavens to Betsy 2, so my job essentially is to write checks and then to get out of the way of some very good people who do very good work.
Mr. Maddex: It seems like we’re at a time when there are several faith-based films around. We had Robert Krantz from the Faith, Hope, and Love film interviewed on one of our shows not long ago; the Unplanned movie is now out; and this movie. What do you think is happening here with more and more of these films?
Mr. Smith: I think there’s a hunger for this kind of film. In fact, I was talking with a priest just a couple of days ago, and he said the future of films is independent films. Not just faith-based but independent, period, because Hollywood is putting out some incredibly—not bad films, but bad messages. If you want a film that has an uplifting message, if you want one that has a spiritual message, you’re going to have to go to independent films, and of course faith-based films.
Mr. Maddex: My wife and I like to go to movies occasionally, and I have the Flixster app on my phone. It gets to be Friday or Saturday, and we start thinking, “Ah, let’s go to a movie.” So I look to see what’s playing in my area, and it is rare that we end up going.
Mr. Smith: Here’s one of the reasons why Pure Flix, which is the Christian version of Netflix, is so popular, is because it’s strictly faith-based films. I’m told that they have over a million subscribers to that service.
Mr. Maddex: Interesting. Wow. I did not know that. And so the film that you have worked on and helped promote and finance is a part of the Pure Flix network?
Mr. Smith: It was, yes. We had an exclusive deal on the first film to stream Heavens to Betsy on Pure Flix. This film we’re branching out. We’re right now on Amazon, and in May it’ll be on Pure Flix again, Heavens to Betsy 2. They’ve been very good people. They worked with us on the first film. They’re the ones who gave us the inspiration to create a sequel.
Mr. Maddex: And we have yet to see the first one, but we did watch the second one recently, and we watched it on Amazon Prime.
Mr. Smith: Yes, and the nice thing is if you have Amazon Prime, you get it for free.
Mr. Maddex: Yeah, it was free.
Mr. Smith: Both films, actually. You can watch both of the films for free on Amazon Prime. The nice thing about the second film is that if you haven’t seen the first—and I would suggest that you still see the first, because it’s a very, very funny film—totally different: we asked different questions, and we answered different questions in the first film than we do in the second—but if you have not seen the first film, then you can get caught up, because over the credits of the second film it’s kind of like when you see Rocky 2 and you get to see what happened in Rocky 1. It’s the same here: you get to see all the main highlights of the first Heavens to Betsy film.
Mr. Maddex: Okay. Well, we don’t want to give anything away, but to the extent that you feel it’s wise, tell us about the plot.
Mr. Smith: In the first film… Because it’s a sequel, we really have to mention the first film. In the first film, Betsy Simon is a children’s book author, and she’s very religious. She has prayed all her life, and she is very upset because she prayed that she would get a book deal for her children’s book and it didn’t happen, and she was disillusioned. She goes to church, and like a lot of people she lashes out at God and says, “All my life I’ve prayed. I’ve prayed for other people. And you’ve never answered even one of my prayers.” And how many people have we seen who have said that? “You’ve never answered any of my prayers.” She says, “Would it have been so hard for you to have answered one prayer for me?” And she gets up and she’s obviously very upset, and she walks out of the church. When she walks out of the church, every prayer she’s ever prayed has come true.
Mr. Maddex: Uh-oh!
Mr. Smith: Everything. She doesn’t even recognize the SUV she’s driving. She’s wearing a mink, and she takes it off and says, “This isn’t mine,” and she gives it to a homeless person! She doesn’t even know where she lives because someone else is living in her old apartment—which, by the way, is my apartment. That’s where we filmed it. [Laughter] Then they say it’s a bad neighborhood. What do you mean “it’s a bad neighborhood”? That’s my apartment! Come on.
Anyways, she looks at her driver’s license, realizes she lives in a mansion. She goes out there. She realizes that her books were successful. She’s sold a million copies of her books, and she’s so very wealthy. And she has everything that she ever wanted including: she’s married to the boy she had a crush on in eighth grade. She even has the bicycle that she prayed for when she was six years old; it’s hanging in one of the rooms. She’s a very successful person—but she discovers there’s a price for that.
Because she became successful, she thought she was the reason for the success. So she doesn’t give any of the credit to God. In fact, she now runs an atheist organization. She’s being asked to speak in front of all the atheists, and she—the real Betsy—is as far away from that as possible. So she tells the truth, and she realizes that her whole life is this life that she got because she prayed is all wrong. The only thing is that she has a sister who died because of cancer, and she prayed that the sister would live, so in that alternate reality the sister is alive. But even the sister is not a particularly nice person. She’s become greedy and corrupt. So we initially, when we created the first film, we had her turn her life around. But it was suggested to us by the Pure Flix people that if we ended it by her going back to her old life, having learned her lesson, that “it’s not my will, but thy will be done,” that we could have a sequel. So there’s where Heavens to Betsy 2 takes off.
She writes a book about her experiences, but the big question there is—and we had it ourselves—is that, okay: You prayed to go back to your old life, but your sister is now dead again. How do you reconcile that? And that becomes the big plot point, actually, in Heavens to Betsy 2. It’s because she writes a book about her experiences. Initially, she’s told to downplay the faith aspects of the book, and she denies her faith and then realizes that, you know what, this is not how Christians act. “I’m like Peter, denying Christ.”
So she turns around and admits to everyone that the book is true, and it actually happened. Now she’s been accused of pandering to the Christian market for fame and fortune. In fact, she ends up on a talk show with an Anderson Cooper-type talk show host who wants to basically make her look foolish, that either she’s delusional or she’s pandering to the Christians, but in no way, shape, or form did this actually happen. One of the things he brings up is, “Well, didn’t you then kill your sister a second time?” And she has to have an answer for that, and that’s of course the climactic moment of the film, is her giving an answer to that and also expressing her faith to people who are basically godless.
Mr. Maddex: I’m talking to Ron Smith. Ron is a longtime friend of mine and of Ancient Faith Radio, but he is also one of the executive producers of the films Heavens to Betsy, both 1 and 2. We’ve already established, Ron, that you are an Orthodox Christian, but Heavens to Betsy is not necessarily an Orthodox movie, right?
Mr. Smith: Nor is it even a Christian movie. We were asked a lot of times, “Is this a film just for Christians?” And I think, because Betsy has to stand up for her beliefs, this is something that all faiths could embrace. But, yes, it takes place in a Protestant church, and her pastor, played by Jim O’Heir—you might remember him from Parks and Recreation on NBC—has a tour de force has her pastor and her counselor, who has to counsel her through all this even though he doesn’t necessarily believe her story in either film. So it takes place in a Protestant church, but the message is universal.
Mr. Maddex: You mentioned one of the actors. Who else is in this movie?
Mr. Smith: Our lead actress is Karen Lesiewicz. Karen is a graduate from Notre Dame and was an amazing find. I don’t know how the director… I should mention that the director and producer and writer of the film is Robert Alaniz. Robert has a penchant for finding very good actors. In her case, she came in and read for the first movie for a very small part. They asked her to read for a larger part, and pretty soon they said, “You know what? We may have Betsy here.” They had her read for it, and she was perfect. She has a very expressive face, she’s a very good actress, and we’re very proud to have her. I think great things are going to happen for her. You’re already seeing her in television commercials; you’re going to see her in a lot more, I think.
We have Jim O’Heir, and we also have Steve Parks, veteran Chicago actor. He plays her personal assistant who steers her in the muddy waters in both films, gets her through all the troubles and is her personal confidant as well. In the second film we have as our villain, we have Gary Gow, again a Chicago actor. He’s been in many of Robert Alaniz’s films, but believe it or not he teaches elementary school normally. This is the first film he’s ever made that his students can actually go see. He plays the villain, but he plays it with just the right amount of villainy. To him it’s all about ratings, and he doesn’t care really that Betsy wins in the end—I hope I’m not giving it away, but I think you realize it wouldn’t be much of a film if she doesn’t win in the end. When she wins in the end, he doesn’t care, because it’s just ratings; it’s just good television. He even says that to her at the end.
Mr. Maddex: So kind of like Alfred Hitchcock, you show up in both movies, right?
Mr. Smith: No, I’m in the second movie only. I wasn’t in the first one. I try to stay away because I’m not Cecil B. DeMille or Samuel Goldwyn. I don’t want to see the rushes, and I want to tell people what to do, so generally I stay away. But I did want to meet Jim O’Heir in the scene that I’m in, so I was able to meet Jim O’Heir. Actually, it’s funny that you bring up Hitchcock, though, because director Robert Alaniz gives himself a small part in all of his films, and in Heavens to Betsy 1, he’s someone who walks up and gets an autograph at a book signing, and in this one he is one of the parishioners at the church who shows some fliers to the pastor.
Mr. Maddex: Now I’m going to have to go back and look at it again! Well, if you see Heavens to Betsy 2, there is a church scene where there is an audience, and you’ll see Ron on the front row with his cell phone.
Mr. Smith: With my cell phone, yes.
Mr. Maddex: But it’s not a church service where you’re playing with your phone.
Mr. Smith: It’s not a church service, no, but I was asked to do that by the director, and good actors do what their director tells them to do.
Mr. Maddex: That’s right. Well, you played your role well.
Mr. Smith: Thank you.
Mr. Maddex: Ron, tell our listeners how they can view the film. If they’re interested now, if they want to see maybe both 1 and 2, what’s the best way to do it?
Mr. Smith: Probably the best way, if you want to view it on streaming, is on Amazon Prime. Both movies are available there. As I said, it’s going to be available on Pure Flix in May. It’s also on Vimeo right now. You can buy it in a number of places. You can buy it from Amazon. You can also buy it from ChristianBook.com and from the distributor, Vision Video. You can get it from them as well.
Mr. Maddex: There you go.
Mr. Smith: I’m excited. We’ve been hearing it’s even going to be in places like Target. I don’t think it’s there yet, but I think it’s supposed to be. It’s going to be widely available, and I highly encourage people to watch it, because it’s an uplifting message.
Mr. Maddex: Well, it’s safe for the family. We can verify that. And it is called Heavens to Betsy, and there is Heavens to Betsy and Heavens to Betsy 2. We’ve been talking with one of the executive producers, Ron Smith, a good friend of ours here at Ancient Faith, and an Orthodox Christian living in the far south suburbs of Chicago. Ron, so nice of you to come by and chat with us about this today.
Mr. Smith: Thank you for having me.