Street Talk: Taste of Hollywood comes to Grand Rapids

Pediatric strength.

Don’t be surprised if you start bumping into a few Hollywood types around town pretty soon.

Principal photography is scheduled to begin this month for “Block Party,” a family comedy in the vein of “Barbershop” and “The Best Man Holiday.”

African American-led production company Branch Out Productions has started pre-production on the movie, which will be filmed in Grand Rapids. The company also is hiring a Michigan-based casting director.

Female-owned Branch Out Productions launched with a goal to make Michigan a hub for diverse actors, producers and filmmakers. Branch Out seeds and develops film and television projects for mainstream audiences created and curated by culturally diverse filmmakers and content creators.

The story is the creation of Grand Rapids native and Branch Out Productions President Lisa Mathis. The film will be directed by the highly regarded Dawn Wilkinson.

As of late last month, the production company was in final negotiations with several well-known actors, including Antoinette Robertson, Oscar-nominated Margaret Avery, Birgundi Baker, Emmy-nominated John Amos, Luenell and Charlyne Yi. Additionally, Mathis said the film will feature a variety of local actors and performers to round out the ensemble cast.

“Our comedy, ‘Block Party,’ is set in Michigan, so it is important to add in as much regional flavor as possible,” said Mathis. “We’re making an extra effort to cast locally while bringing more jobs to Michigan to strengthen our hub for diverse actors, producers and filmmakers. We believe casting local actors is good for the economy and good for creativity.”

The movie follows Harvard grad Keke McQueen, played by Robertson, who is eager to pursue the next stage of her life away from her beloved hometown of Grand Rapids for a lucrative career in Atlanta. But when she discovers that her once sharp Grandma Janice (Avery) is showing early signs of dementia, Keke puts her career at stake to save her grandma’s annual Juneteenth Block Party. During this time, in all the mayhem, Keke falls back in love with her hometown and its people.

Much of the photography is scheduled to take place this month at various Grand Rapids locations. Those interested in following the movie’s progress can check in on Instagram, @branchoutfilm, or visit the production company’s website at

Essential service

West Michigan Works! is accepting nominations for its 2021 Beverly A. Drake Essential Service Awards.

The annual awards program recognizes frontline workers for going above and beyond. Honorees will be announced in November, recognized at an upcoming The Economic Club of Grand Rapids meeting and presented a $100 Meijer gift card. The nomination deadline is Sept. 21. 

“The past two years have shined a light on the significance of hardworking frontline workers, and they undoubtably deserve to be recognized,” said Mark Bergsma, chair of the West Michigan Works! workforce development board.

Essential Service Awards categories include administrative/office worker, skilled labor, nonprofit, cleaning/housekeeping/groundskeeping, child care, food service, government, health care/elder care, hospitality, retail and transportation. 

“As we continue navigating the pandemic, we need to recognize the countless behind-the-scenes essential workers who keep our businesses and communities strong,” Bergsma said.

To be eligible for an Essential Service Award, individuals must have at least two years of employment with their current company; hold a nonmanagerial position; and exhibit pride in their job, a positive attitude, strong work ethic and effective time management.

Additionally, the nominee must work within the West Michigan Works! service area of Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon and Ottawa counties. Winners are chosen by a committee of the West Michigan Works! workforce development board.

To learn more about the Essential Service Award or to nominate a frontline worker, people can visit

Standing tall

A new life-size sculpture capturing the spirit and strength of pediatric patients at Bronson Children’s Hospital now stands on the grounds of Bronson Methodist Hospital at the corner of Vine and Jasper streets.

The sculpture, created by artist Josh Diedrich, was unveiled on Aug. 24. The piece includes realistic bronze figures of six children. One of the images is a depiction of an actual mom with her baby born at Bronson. Other figures are loosely based on pictures that were submitted by parents of Bronson Children’s Hospital patients.

This sculpture was funded through the Bronson Health Foundation in large part by the Polzin Family in memory of John Polzin who passed away in 2017. He served on the Bronson Health Foundation Board of Directors from 1987-2015.

“This piece honors John as he exemplified the healing power of kindness and humble generosity in our community to support Bronson’s youngest patients,” said Terry Morrow, vice president of development, Bronson Healthcare. “We honor John and his wife Kay for this donation and their longtime commitment to ensuring Bronson Children’s Hospital is fully prepared to care for children in our community.”

Diedrich began the sculpture in his studio just before the start of the pandemic. He said after the first day of quarantine, he hauled the figures to his house.

“I began adding clay to the statues in my living room,” he said. “I spent the next five months sculpting them from home … I was a patient myself for several long periods as a child as I needed to have my hands reconstructed. It’s my hope that every child going into the hospital can find themselves somewhere in the piece.”

The sculpture is made of cast bronze, done in the traditional lost wax method. The statues are attached to a 2,000-pound pedestal made of cultured stone, ultra-high-performance concrete, over a steel framework.

“We hope this sculpture serves as a visually pleasing landmark for Bronson Children’s Hospital,” Morrow said. “It reflects the commitment Bronson has made to being southwest Michigan’s only children’s hospital. Our dedicated pediatric and neonatal staff go above and beyond to provide specialized services and care for our young patients every day.”

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