Five of a Kind

By Nicole Peradotto/ News Staff Reporter,

You’ve heard all about the Spice Girls. Now meet the Splice Girls. Five sisters from Amherst (New York)-Maria, Jennifer, Ursula, Gabrielle and Charity – have started a Los Angeles film company named, appropriately enough, Five Sisters. True to the work ethic that had them divvying up dishwashing duties as kids, they have produced two movies in as many years.

“When you’re working by yourself, something as simple as drafting a letter can be difficult.” said Jennifer, the second oldest. “But when you’ve got four people around you with four good opinions, it gets done.

“It’s hard to get five people discouraged…”she added.”…and it’s impossible to get five Burtons discouraged!” Maria piped in.

If that sounds a touch Pollyanna-ish, consider how tough it is for a family that big to agree on, say, a pizza topping. Now picture five siblings in their 20s and 30s making it through post-production and remaining each other’s best friends (and, on occasion, bridesmaids) for life.

But these aren’t your average close-knit siblings. That became clear during a visit to the family home in Amherst, where they had convened for Gabrielle’s wedding.

The Sisters Burton don’t just finish each other’s sentences, they finish each other’s words. Growing up, they didn’t have to share rooms, but they often doubled up because “It was more fun than being alone,” Ursula said.

As children, they ran lemonade stands together and divvied up a paper route. As head of an independent film company, they assume various responsibilities, from editing to acting.

Hair pulling and name-calling are off-limits. When Maria and Gabrielle couldn’t decide which one of the two of them would direct the next film, a family summit was organized. Even their mother, novelist Gabrielle Burton, and their father, Roger, a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo, participated. By meetings end it was decided that they would share the director’s chair for the third movie – written incidentally, by their mother and set partially in Buffalo.

Maria, at 33 the oldest, already has experience in that department. She directed the group’s debut efforts, low-budget comedies titled “Just Friends” and “Temps.” The first, which features Hal “Barney Miller” Linden, played to receptive crowds at film festivals and earned Maria a nod of encouragement from a Variety reviewer who proclaimed her “a talent to watch.” It should be released on cable this fall.

Gabrielle (the daughter) wrote, produced and starred in the just completed “Temps” – not to be confused with “Clockwatchers,” a movie about temps created by two sisters from a different family.

From the beginning, it seemed certain that the indomitably chipper quintet would work in the entertainment industry. They took piano lessons and formed their own singing group, the Buffalo Gals, crooning standard jazz and pop favorites on family trips. As students at Amherst High School, they logged hours of stage time.

“We like movies that have a hopeful theme in them,” said Charity, breaking the sisters rule that each one speak for herself. “It’s got to be something that’s bigger than itself, with good character relationships,” offered Jennifer. “Filmmakers will do something just so they can say they were the first to do it – the first to chop off some new part of the body or whatever,” Ursula added “I don’t think that’s very valuable.”

The Burton sisters developed a taste for movies as children, when their parents loaded them into Big Red, the family station wagon, for a night at the show. They watched everything from Hollywood blockbusters to obscure art-house fare. They often sat through movies twice, dissecting them in hushed tones between showings, and on the ride home.

Since the hazel-eyed, dark-haired siblings joined forces, they have raised eyebrows on the film festival circuit, as much for their well-received movies as for the way “They get along so remarkably well.”

“Either people are just shocked or they’re envious,” Jennifer said. “But everyone has an opinion about families, so it’s an automatic conversation piece. They automatically have something to say about what it would be like to work with family.”

“When we were in elementary school, Jennifer and I both auditioned for Amherst Senior High School’s musical “The Music Man,” Ursula remembered.

“Jennifer got the little girl’s part, and I was completely devastated. It wasn’t like I openly sulked or was mad at her. I was just really disappointed.”

A few days later, Ursula received a letter from her godfather, who had heard the news.

“He said, ‘Clap loudly for your sister – next time she’ll be in your audience.'”

“That’s been a saying and a philosophy in our family forever. We’re in such a competitive business that there’s no room to be competitive among the five of us.

“But there’s room for all of us. We all have different strengths, and we all feel strongly about helping each other succeed.”