Bobbie Lautenschlager: 'Godmother' of St. Louis Film
Bobbie Lautenschlager, a registered nurse who spent 20 years as a medical missionary in sub-Saharan Africa before becoming a widely influential St. Louis screenwriter and film producer, died of cancer Aug. 18 at her home in Soulard. She was 68.
Mrs. Lautenschlager, a non-smoker, was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer in March. A memorial service will be Sat., Sept. 8 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Soulard.
Mrs. Lautenschlager began her career at St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis in 1965. Five years later, she and her husband, John Allen Lautenschlager, a doctor, embarked upon a 20-year African journey. Their relief work would include providing help and hope to people in the aftermath of the war in Biafra and during the bloody reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
When they returned to St. Louis, Mrs. Lautenschlager continued her nursing career, but within a year, her husband had returned to Africa on a seven-month expedition, a trip that ignited her creative spark.
It gave her the material for her first screenplay, a short documentary titled "The Niger River Trek: An Uncommon Adventure."
“Some of Bobbie’s interests grew out of her experiences in West Africa,” said Cliff Froehlich, executive director of Cinema St. Louis. “I think film was the means she chose to pursue that goal.
“Social justice issues were foremost in her mind and reflected in her work.”
Mrs. Lautenschlager spent much of the past 23 years perfecting her skills as a screenwriter and producer.
“I'm an OK writer,” she told Screenplayers.net in 2000. “But I am a very good producer.”
After writing "The Niger River Trek," she had no idea what to do with it.
During a visit to St. Louis, director John Singleton gave her a tip on how to get noticed: Help other people who are working on movie projects, even if you have to volunteer.
Mrs. Lautenschlager took the advice to heart.
She volunteered to collect tickets for the International Film Festival. She regularly attended Sundance and other film festivals across the country. She was the on-set nurse for scenes shot here for "Larger Than Life" and "The Soul of the Game."
Mrs. Lautenschlager helped create the New Filmmakers Forum, which discovered new directors such as Craig Brewer ("Hustle and Flow") and Tate Taylor ("The Help"), and the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, a festival devoted exclusively to work by those with local ties.
She served as a juror for the Kevin Kline Awards and Cinemaspoke, the screenplay competition of Cinema St. Louis. She served on the Cinema St. Louis board for 15 years.
Whatever vehicle she developed or discovered for promoting her work, she unselfishly shared with other aspiring filmmakers, particularly younger people.
“She was the mother hen who took care of the filmmakers while they were in town for the festival,” Froehlich said, “and anybody who was interested in film in St. Louis ended up crossing paths with Bobbie and ended up getting help from her.”
Her knowledge and generosity earned her the unofficial but widely accepted title of “Godmother of St. Louis film.”
She offered simple advice: “Learn to market your product. Don't give up. Keep learning. Keep working. It's not going to happen overnight.”
Mrs. Lautenschlager knew of what she spoke. She was a serious artist who was widely seen locally, but who never reached the pinnacle: Hollywood.
Her projects, in addition to "Trek," included "Joliba," an epic adventure of African exploration; "For Love or Money," a romantic comedy; a drama titled "The Lady Next Door"; and "The Enemy Among Us," a screenplay written by Mrs. Lautenschlager and David Fiedler about German POWs.
It is her most recent effort and is currently in development with director Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy").
Roberta “Bobbie” Smith Lautenschlager was born on June 13, 1944, in Louisiana, Mo. She and her identical twin sister, Rosalee, were adopted at six weeks old by William Hogue Smith and Elsie Vivian Smith.
The twins graduated from Louisiana High School in 1962 and St. Luke's School of Nursing in St. Louis in 1965. The following year, Bobbie married John Lautenschlager, who was in medical school.
In 1970, following her husband’s residency, the young couple accepted the call from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod to become medical missionaries.
With two toddlers in tow, they headed to Africa, where they served in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Uganda for most of the next 20 years.
Mrs. Lautenschlager set about helping restore the health of malnourished people, especially children who were the casualties of the Biafran war, often seeing as many as 80 children a day. She and her husband sometimes took malnourished children into their home.
She managed a pharmacy, often assisted a Nigerian surgeon and provided immunizations to help allay severe measles outbreaks. The Lautenschlagers met mothers who had lost five or more children through repeated epidemics of preventable infectious diseases both in Nigeria and in Sierra Leone.
Her work helping to save twins was particularly gratifying. She helped educate mothers on how to increase their flow of breast milk, so that a weaker twin would not be abandoned because its mother could not nurse the child.
“Bobbie had great compassion paired with great energy,” said her sister, Rosalee Cavataio, “These qualities enabled her to accomplish many things for God’s people.”
The church lady
When they returned to the States in 1989, Mrs. Lautenschlager resumed her nursing career at Washington University in the student health center. She also worked as a nurse at the Muny, the Fox and in hospice for Lutheran Hospital.
She retired from nursing in 1994 and began serving as secretary of Trinity Lutheran Church, where she was an active member.
"Bobbie was blessed by God with a global vision to bring Jesus into the lives of all people,” the Rev. David Marth, senior pastor of Trinity, said in a statement, “and it was matched by her servant-mission heart that cared for those in need physically and spiritually."
Mrs. Lautenschlager served on the board of Lutheran Bible Translators and the Lutherans in Medical Missions; she became LMM’s executive director. She traveled on behalf of the Mission to Vietnam and south Sudan to assess possibilities for medical mission work.
She assisted refugee families in St. Louis through the Christian Friends of New Americans and she and her husband often welcomed foreign students into their home.
The contrasts in her vocations were not lost on Mrs. Lautenschlager. She laughingly dubbed herself “The Church Lady” when she was among her film cohorts.
“She loved all these (film) folks and could keep up with the best of them,” Froehlich said. “She was a bundle of energy.”
Her husband, John, said simply: “We are Christians living in the real world. Bobbie had her fingers in a lot of pies.”
Mrs. Lautenschlager was preceded in death by her parents.
Along with her husband, John, she is survived by her children, David (Angela) Lautenschlager of Creve Coeur and Katrina “Katy” (Owen) Fine of Kingston, Jamaica; five grandchildren, Nathan, Rachel, Joel Fine, Aero and Orion Lautenschlager, and her sister Rosalee (James) Cavataio of Belleville.
Visitation will begin at 9:30 a.m., Sat., Sept. 8, 2012, at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1805 Eighth St. in Soulard, with a memorial service following at 10:30 a.m.
Mrs. Lautenschlager donated her body to Saint Louis University Medical School.
Memorials may be made to the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, Cinema St. Louis or Trinity Lutheran Church.