Local filmmaker documents long history of Frankford Avenue in ‘The King’s Highway’

Local historians and preservationists have a powerful new media tool in The King’s Highway, a documentary that began airing on WHYY in June.

The film tells the story of what’s believed to be the oldest road in the U.S., from its origins as a Leni Lenape trail, to its mapping under the reign of King Charles, to its strategic value in the American Revolution, to its role in the Industrial Revolution, to the ongoing gentrification along what is now called Frankford Avenue.

But The King’s Highway is also a battle cry for preservation of the significant buildings along the road and its neighborhoods. And it’s a personal story of the local kid who grew up in Northeast Philly and his path of discovery while making the movie.

A Northeast tale

Jason Sherman has a celluloid pedigree, but he took a circuitous route to filmmaking. His grandfather operated the Devon Theater on Frankford Avenue in Mayfair for 40 years. As a boy, Sherman worked as an usher, ticket-taker, popcorn clerk, and projection booth mascot, like the protagonist of one of his favorite films, Cinema Paradiso. Sherman’s mother was a script supervisor and casting agent as a young woman. But the family film genes didn’t seem to take, Sherman said.

Kings Highway director Jason Sherman with children cast as extras in the movie (Photo courtesy of Jason Sherman)
(Photo courtesy of Jason Sherman)

Instead, his focus was computers. After graduating from Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Sherman dove into the industry, starting his own computer consulting firm and counting Fortune 500 companies among his clients during the tech boom of the late 1990s. He also worked as a software manager and IT supervisor, performing Y2K updates for Center City hotels.

As the repetitive nature of the IT industry began to wear on Sherman, the opportunity arose to stretch his creative muscles. He was asked to shape a presentation to mark his father’s retirement as a school teacher. Rather than compile a slideshow, Sherman spent two months gathering images, video and audio recordings documenting his dad’s life story in a 30-minute film, and screened it for 100 friends and family members at the retirement party. They loved it, and told Sherman he needed to make movies.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I always complained about movies that are bad – that I could have made a better script and a better film,” Sherman said.

“So, I decided I’m going to do it. In 2007, I spent whatever money I had and bought the best equipment I could find – cameras, video, and microphones – and I started teaching myself the history of cinematography, watching all the old movies, and basically getting a master’s in filmmaking on my own.”

He picked up work with local production companies, assisting on commercials, web series, and music videos until he felt ready to create his own projects. He penned the screenplay for a low-budget horror film, brought together a cast and crew of 50, and made The Bucks County Massacre, “loosely based on true events,” according to Sherman, who is 40 but looks 10 years younger.

The film was honored at the New Hope Film Festival, was picked up by a distributor, and earned Sherman notoriety and credibility in the film world.

But he returned to the computer industry in 2010 “doing the tech startup thing” – building apps, raising funds, and engaging hundreds of thousands of users. He wrote a book about the process, “Strap on Your Boots,” and was asked to teach a course based on the book at Penn’s Wharton School.* He also kept his hand on a camera, filming tech industry events, creating corporate presentations, and upgrading his equipment and his skills.

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In 2015, with his company “in flux because we had run out of funding,” Sherman took another break from the world of IT.  “During that six-month period, I found, just out of serendipity, the next thing.”

‘This magical place’

Sherman sets up the moment like a cinematic shot. He’s sitting out front of his house with a cup of coffee and his shih tzu, Wolfgang. His phone is charging inside, so our protagonist picks up the local Northeast Times that had been tossed on the doorstep instead. On the front page is a story about a park patrolman who leads tours of Pennypack Park, where he’s found Native American artifacts that are thousands of years old…

“I was, ‘What the hell?’ I’ve always loved history, even though I’m not a history buff. I’ve always liked stories of where we came from,” said Sherman, who grew up in Cheltenham and the Bustleton-Somerton area.

“As a kid, my parents would always drive me through the old sections of Northeast Philly to visit their parents. There was something about driving down Cottman Avenue and Frankford Avenue, and seeing all the old buildings. It was so different; I thought it was this magical place, and I didn’t know why. It didn’t look like a normal city.”

When Sherman bought his first house, it was on Torresdale Avenue. He purchased his next home in historic Tacony, and his third in Holmesburg.

As he began his research into the history of the Northeast, “I was like, no wonder I felt that way my whole life. It’s this amazing old place that no one knows about.”

Sherman’s line of research led him to the Pennypack Creek Bridge, built in 1697, which lays claim as the nation’s oldest surviving roadway bridge. And then to what is likely the oldest road in the United States. “When I saw that the King’s Highway was Frankford friggin’ Avenue, and I lived two stop signs from it, I walked my dog down it… I needed to tell this story. This is screaming ‘documentary,’” he said.

Local network

Sherman began his outreach to the local civic associations. The response was enthusiastic. Historical societies saw the opportunity to attract far larger audiences than they had engaged before.

The interviews in The King’s Highway include Lenape tribal representatives, Congressmen, City Council members, historians, planners, archaeologists, preservationists, and descendants of William Penn and the early settlers.

Kings Highway director Jason Sherman with U.S. Congressman Brendan Boyle (D-Pa. 13) (Photo courtesy of Jason Sherman)
(Photo courtesy of Jason Sherman)

Between interviews, Sherman was getting calls about threats to old buildings that witnessed Washington’s troop movements along the Highway, and he filmed the demolition of historic structures. The film expanded from the story of the old road to a call for historic preservation.

A director’s cut debuted, appropriately, at the Devon Theater in August, 2016. After receiving feedback from that audience, and with help from producers Debbie Klak, Joseph Menkevich and Fred Moore, Sherman did a second edit and cut the film to a 93-minute theatrical version.

A red carpet premiere was offered at the Kimmel Center in December, 2016. WHYY aired the film June 1st as part of its pledge drive, and showed an encore on June 17th.

The King’s Highway was named best feature documentary at the FirstGlance Film Festival based in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and the film has a worldwide distributor.

Sherman said he is in preliminary discussions with groups about another film focused on historic preservation in Philadelphia. And he hopes to inspire and encourage corporate and other large-scale support for preservation through his work.

“Sadly, preservation is a combination of volunteers, expertise, and money. If you don’t have the money, you can’t preserve a building,” he said.

“You can save a building from being demolished, but it still needs to be restored and maintained,” he added. “I can’t do anything to save any buildings. But I can help with spreading the word.”

A meet-and-greet and Q&A with the film’s cast and crew will be held July 26, 7 to 9 p.m., at All Saints Church, 9601 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia, 19114.

*Correction: This sentence originally said the name of Sherman’s book is “Startup Essentials.” That’s the name of the class based on the book. 

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