Friday, July 30, 2004


I removed this blog entry as it has been re-written and submitted for publication.

SMN Glee Club, 1965

By today's standard, this faculty member profile from the 1965 Shawnee Mission North Yearbook seems rather odd. Meet Darrell Benne, former S.M. North vocal music teacher. This photo has not been retouched. Click on the image to enlarge.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Foiled by the Bat

In June, The Christian Science Monitor solicited for summer camp anecdotes of 350 words or less. I sent in two stories but they were not selected for publication. Here is my first submission, based on a true story: Foiled by the Bat (word count 347).

Taps was at 10pm at Camp Zoe. Campers soon drifted off to sleep in the Ozark darkness. For some of us, the fun began when the lights went out.

Our cabin was the largest in camp and contained a big central space with table and chairs. The gabled ceiling had rafters and air vents high above the floorboards. One night in 1977 a late-night bull session and poker game commenced. The subject was girls. Who were the hot babes in camp? Were you going to ask one for a slow number at the next dance? My best friend Stu and I enjoyed great popularity that summer as girls outnumbered the boys 2 to 1.

We didn’t have a lot of cash so we played cards for snack shack credit too. A good night at the table might get you and extra slush and some candy. It wasn’t the world series of poker, but when you were 12 it was good loot. I was down 50 cents when I finally got a decent hand; three kings on the draw.

Someone at the table looked up and noticed a bat in the rafters. Great uproar ensued. Stu stood on the table and tried to knock it down with his beach towel.  Snack shack tickets, coins, and cards went flying. The bat swooped and darted through the central room while campers dove for the safety of their sleeping bags. I couldn’t stop giggling. I think I swallowed my gum.

Suddenly, camp owner Jack appeared at the screen door. He patrolled the campgrounds after taps to quell exactly this kind of nonsense. No one could hide from the searing glare of his Sears search beam. That is, no one who didn't have a bunk to jump in and play possum. I suddenly became a deer in Jack's flashlight. I turned into a demure Eddie Haskell, uttering a few "Yes Sirs" and "No Sirs" before being dismissed. I don't remember what happened to the three kings. Maybe they flew out the vent with the bat. Our counselor slept through the whole thing.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Mark Adams - Q & A

When I was in the middle of undergraduate work at the University of Kansas in the mid 80's, the Radio-TV department degree sequence changed. They split it into two distinct programs. I ultimately chose the video production path through the Journalism school. It emphasized news reporting and commercial production. The other path, through theatre and media arts, concentrated on the traditional aspects of film making. Mark Adams is a prolific independent filmmaker who chose the other path. He's created a website filled with fabulous stories of film making. Here's an informal discussion of Chuck Berg, Centron, Jolliffe Hall, and other KU film making touchstones.

FJ: How did the degree sequence split effect you?
MA: During my freshman year at KU I was in the Radio, Television and Film (RTVF) department, then it became the Theater and Media Arts (THMA) department, and finally when I graduated it was the Theater and Film (TH&F) department, so there were a lot of changes when I was a student at KU. Of course I didn’t really start taking a lot of classes in my major until my Junior year, so I’m not sure how much things were still changing by the time I was taking the video production and film history classes rather than the required Math and English classes. I guess I was just an ignorant underclassman, so I don’t think it really affected me one way or another. I was just happy to finally be taking courses in my major. Since I was more interested in filmmaking rather than television broadcasting, I ended up on the theater and film side rather than journalism. I think at one point someone mentioned that the Journalism department had their own video editing equipment, and when I suggested we could try to use those to edit something it was made very clear to me that they would never allow someone from the Theater and Film Department to use them. So I realized there was some sort of separation there. I was just a naïve underclassman.
FJ: How many films/videos did you have in the can by the time you graduated from KU?

MA: I started making films and videos in high school in Kansas City, and by the time I started at KU in 1985 I had made over 30 videos. Most of these were between 10 and 30 minutes in length. By the time I graduated from KU in 1989 I had made at least another 20 videos, including several 20 to 75-minute films. You can read about my high school and KU filmmaking experiences at my website I’m not selling anything on the site, and there are no annoying ads popping up everywhere. Back in the 1980’s home video cameras were not in as many homes as now, and kids didn’t use them to make films as much as now. So I think I was unique in shooting a lot of films back then, as well as lucky to have my own video camera, and I certainly enjoyed going out with friends and making films. I’ve kept a list of every film and video I’ve ever made, including my narrative films as well as videos from my jobs at Barton County Community College and now at SCETV, and I’ve made over 1,500 so far.
FJ: What's the most important thing you learned from Chuck Berg?
MA: I never had Chuck Berg as a teacher in any video production classes, but I did take several of his film history courses. So what I learned from Dr. Berg was the history of film and an appreciation for the classics. The first time I ever saw SINGING IN THE RAIN was in one of his classes, and that’s become my favorite movie musical. I never saw CITIZEN KANE before attending KU either. He helped me to see the importance of such films and how they led to today’s films, and frankly how today’s films aren’t as good as the classics sometimes. He also introduced me to foreign films, and LA JETEE showed me you can make a narrative film in a non-narrative way.

FJ: What other KU instructors influenced your work?
MA: To be honest, I don’t remember any of my other KU instructor’s names from the Theater & Film Department. Except for John Tibbetts, I took his Film Theory class, and again learned a lot about various theories and approaches to filmmaking as seen in classic films. I was able to try these approaches and styles in my own filmmaking experiences, and see how they were similar to what had been done before. At the end of the class I made a video, instead of an oral presentation in front of the class, using clips from my two films THE HONEY THIEF and PETER’S TREASURE, to demonstrate the films theories we had learned. Mr. Tibbetts seemed to really enjoy that. Unfortunately I was the last person, and because everyone else took so long in their presentations, my film was shown after the class was over. So most of the students had already left and never saw it.
FJ: Where's the best location to shoot a scene in Lawrence? Why?
MA: The first place that comes to mind is Clinton Lake, although one can argue it’s not really “in” Lawrence. I always liked shooting out by the dam. I liked the wide-open views of the lake and a nice area where there was a picturesque valley. I wish we could have shot 16x9 back then. Within the city limits I have to say I only shot on the KU campus. My films like THE HONEY THIEF and PETER’S TREASURE were shot during the summer breaks from KU in Kansas City and Topeka, so I only shot my student projects in Lawrence.
FJ: Jolliffe Hall was the armpit of the campus and it was the home laboratory of the film/video students. What do you remember most about Jolliffe?
MA: I actually have fond memories of Jolliffe Hall. I remember being told that it was a condemned building, but we were still having classes in there anyway. My first introduction to Jolliffe was my freshman year when a friend of mine, Johnny Johntz, and I showed up to act in someone’s video project. It was in the studio with the multiple color video cameras run through a switcher, and it was someone’s final project of directing a studio shoot. Unfortunately Johnny and I didn’t really know our lines very well, so it was a terrible experience for us, as well as the director. It was interesting later to use the black and white studio for my broadcast performance classes, where we used old black and white cameras from the 1960’s, I think. By the time I took my first video production class in Jolliffe Hall I had my own home video camera and had already made the videos in high school and college including my first feature length film THE HONEY THIEF, so I didn’t try to get a lot of hands on experience with their cameras. That’s why a lot of the student films I have from that class I’m actually an actor rather than the camera operator or director. What did catch my attention was their editing equipment. They had cuts-only VHS editing decks with an edit controller, where you can do both assemble editing and insert editing. This opened a whole new world to me as far as filmmaking was concerned; I had only done very simple and crude assemble editing using two home VCR’s. So insert editing was a big step up for me. Brad Jordan and I made our final project together, called 2001: A BANK ACCOUNT, shooting and editing in Jolliffe. He was the director and I was the lead actor, and we ended up using my camera for a lot of the shoots. Since it was the armpit of the campus I felt like no one cared what we did in there, and maybe we had some freedom to not only mess around and have fun but to try to do some creative things.

FJ: Like a lot of video students, you worked part-time at Channel Six cable. Did you ever get tired of reading the MTV plaques in the hallway?
MA: I think I read the plaques once and then didn’t look at them again. I don’t even remember what they were for. What I remember the most about Channel Six is feeling like I was working at a real TV station, and once you go to a real TV station you realize it’s not - or at least it’s a much smaller version of one. I don’t want to sound like I’m putting it down because it was a great place to become introduced to video production on a more professional level. Of course I haven’t been in Channel Six since about 1990 so a lot has probably changed since then. If you’re a student interested in a career in video production you have to get an internship or part-time job at a place like Channel Six. I was lucky I had that internship.

FJ: What's your opinion of the state of the Centron legacy and how can we expand it?
MA: When I was a student at KU hardly anyone knew or talked about Centron. At the time it may have still been a company producing educational and instructional videos, and I heard a story of a student working there who had a really bad experience. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I began to learn about its legacy and importance to Lawrence and to filmmaking in general. I was really pleased to see the material about Centron on the Criterion Collection DVD of CARNIVAL OF SOULS. It would be great if a show could be produced for PBS or one of the cable networks like TLC or The History Channel about the Centron Legacy. I don’t know how the KU Theater and Film Department addresses this now, since they’re in the old Centron studios, but I would hope they teach their students about this. Could there be a Centron Film Festival? Or have the Centron legacy become a part of the KAN Film Festival and try to really publicize it?

FJ: I saw CARNIVAL OF SOULS on Halloween night my freshman year. I thought it was more campy fun than true fright. Over the years, I've come to develop a deeper appreciation for the film. How do you feel about it?
MA: I think filmmakers, especially independent filmmakers, can truly appreciate CARNIVAL OF SOULS more than just the general public. The first time I saw it, which I think was back at KU, I thought it was like a really long Twilight Zone episode. I love The Twilight Zone, so I was intrigued by the story. Like you, I’ve grown to really appreciate the film more and I even bought the Criterion Collection DVD. I’ve really grown to like the look of the film, and the black and white cinematography. You can really see that on the DVD. But there are still some campy parts to it, some over-the-top acting and obvious low-budget problems with picture and audio that tends to be distracting. But to anyone who has tried to make their own low budget film, especially a horror film, they can still be in awe of how well this film was made back in 1962 by some Lawrence, Kansas filmmakers. That really does help elevate the film to a higher level; the fact that professional people with experience making educational and industrial films made CARNIVAL OF SOULS. If it was just a group of students or someone just learning to use the film camera, it wouldn’t have held up as well all of these years later.

FJ: Did you ever meet Herk Harvey?
MA: Unfortunately I never did meet Mr. Harvey. I did meet the writer of CARNIVAL OF SOULS, John Clifford, in 2003. I was making a documentary about The Micheaux Independent Film Festival taking place in Great Bend, Kansas, and Mr. Clifford and Bill Shaffer, of KTWU in Topeka, came to show CARNIVAL OF SOULS. I had a 45-minute interview with them and even Bill was amazed at the stories Mr. Clifford told me. I felt very fortunate to have had the chance to meet and interview Mr. Clifford and even had him and Bill autograph my Criterion Collection DVD of CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Besides Bill Shaffer, I may have the most extensive interview on video with John Clifford about the making of CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

FJ: Did you ever tour the Centron studios (now Oldfather studios)?
MA: Around 2000 or 2001 I did take a tour of the Oldfather studios, to see how the KU Film and Theater department has improved since I was a student. That was the first time I had ever set foot in the building. I was a little jealous that today’s film students at KU had a facility like that, compared to our Jolliffe Hall. I hope they appreciate what they have.
FJ: The independent film scene has exploded in the last 15 years. How was your timing on that? Did it help you or hurt you?
MA: It certainly helped me in regards to more people becoming more interested in independently produced films. But there was still a prejudice against anything shot on video rather than film, and most of my productions have been on video. That’s begun to dissolve since the digital video and HD technology has arrived. But since the term ‘Independent Film’ could mean anything from THE ENGLISH PATIENT down to a pornographic video, the viewing public isn’t always as receptive about seeing something that isn’t from mainstream Hollywood. In the end I think it will help me, especially with some of the current trends in Hollywood and how they make movies for the mass audience versus the alternative stories in smaller productions that can find a smaller niche. I don’t worry about what the audience wants or what the independent film scene is doing and how that might influence what I do. I just make the films I want to make and would want to see. Growing up in Kansas City in the 1970’s and 80’s, I was influenced by such films as STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and other blockbuster films. Since the 90’s I’ve realized that the formulaic, grandiose kind of films made today don’t appeal to me as much as the smaller, more personal films that are sometimes harder to find. But this influence can certainly be seen in the films I’ve made since KU. I’ve gone from the generic horror film DEATHGRIP (1995) and the ‘DIE-HARD-on-the-college-campus’ action film OMEGA RED (1997) to the much more personal films like DECONSTRUCTION (2001) and END OF THE LINE (2002).

FJ: After KU you tried your hand in Hollywood. How long were you there?
MA: I was in Los Angeles for the summer and early fall of 1989. You can read the details of my adventures working on the two smaller films in L.A., as well as the NBC Miniseries and the Merchant/Ivory film that I worked on in KC before and after my trip to California, on my website at The one thing I realized working on these productions is that I still had a lot to learn, and that’s when I started seriously looking at graduate schools. I also realized that I wasn’t interested in staying in Los Angeles. I knew if I had stayed I would have been working as a grip or gaffer, or something even lower than that, and it would have been years before I ever got the chance to direct anything. And if I did get the chance it would have been one of those terrible straight-to-video productions I had just worked on, and I would not have been a very good director. So I had more opportunity to make my own films the way I wanted to make them if I left L.A. than to stay there.

FJ:After seeing some of the film studies facilities at USC and/or UCLA, did you think you'd blundered by doing your undergrad work in Kansas?
MA: I didn’t feel like I was ‘blundered’ by my education at KU. At the time USC (I never saw the facilities at UCLA) certainly had better facilities and equipment than KU. But my two roommates in L.A., who happened to be USC film students, complained that they got very little hands on use of that equipment. Only a select few were chosen to direct a big, final senior project like George Lucas or Kevin Reynolds did, which could lead to your big break and a chance to direct a commercial film. Otherwise you’re just part of a crew for these productions. Plus there’s a waiting list to get into the film school at USC, and it’s very expensive, so I felt like my time at KU wasn’t wasted. Of course the KU Theater and Film Department today is very different from when I was a student there, with Avid non-linear editors and film and video equipment in a real studio. So I would love to be a film student at KU now. There was also the phenomenon that I call “College Freedom” at play here. That refers to any student who starts college right out of high school and experiences the freedom they never had before, and basically wants to party all the time. Or at least sees their social education as important or more important than their academic education. I certainly experienced this at KU, and if I had been an undergraduate at USC I would have done the same thing. After I graduated from KU I went out into the real world and realized I wasn’t ready, so I went to graduate school and was a lot more serious about studying and learning than I was as an undergrad. The more effort you put into your education the more you get out of it. So if anything was blundered in my undergraduate experience it was of my own doing. A great filmmaker can come from either KU or USC, it just depends on their own talent, vision, drive and ambition.

FJ: Many of the old Centron films are available on the web. Where on the Internet can we view some of your work now?
MA: Unfortunately my website does not have any video you can watch, only still photos from each of my films. Right now the only film I have available for viewing on the web is my 1992 student film JUDGMENT DAY, which was my Thesis Project for my masters degree from The Savannah College of Art & Design. Dennis Ward, graduate of the KU Theater and Film Department, is releasing his most recent film called GRASSFIRE on DVD in August. He’s including on the DVD one of my films, DECONSTRUCTION, in a section called ‘The Best of Independent Cinema’ that includes several other filmmaker’s works. You can find out more at The producer of my most recent film, a low-budget horror/thriller that I wrote and directed called MINDS OF TERROR, is looking for a distributor right now. It will most likely only be released on home video over-seas at this point. I worked with the B-movie legend Joe Estevez for this film. He’s very nice and a lot better actor than people give him credit to be. Unfortunately he seems to end up with poorly written characters in terrible films. Hopefully my film isn’t one of those. Those are about the only places right now you can see any of my films. While I was working at Barton County Community College I showed most of my films, starting with 1989’s WAR, DEATH AND PIZZA, on the college’s cable channel on the weekends. But since moving to South Carolina I stopped doing that. The college does have copies of all the films I made while working at Barton in their library to check out.

FJ: The Kansas City film scene, once booming with the likes of Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, Article 99, Kansas City, The Day After, Nice Girls Don't Explode, Kansas, and Cross of Fire. What's happened?
MA: Since I haven’t lived in Kansas City for over 11 years I’m not really sure what happened. Part of it may be the fact that Hollywood studios are making the bigger and bigger blockbusters each costing over $100 million dollars, and Kansas City is not a location they tend to think of using in such films. Plus a lot of the productions end up in Canada or Australia these days to save money. Things have changed in Hollywood, and KC may need to try to cater to more independent productions, rather than the big studios. I would love to see more locally produced films make it to a national audience. The only thing I worry about is quality. Can independent filmmakers make films that are not the usual low-budget/straight-to-video fare? One thing that amazed me on the two low budget films that I worked on in L.A. was the fact that even though the first film only had a budget of 100,000 dollars, and the second film only cost 20,000 dollars, they both looked really good. Shot on 16mm film, they both technically looked very good, especially compared to ‘independent films’ that you would see on TV from the 70’s. I was equally amazed that the scripts were absolutely terrible. The producer didn’t care about the script, as long as there was enough violence, nudity and sex to help them market the film. Today we now have video equipment that can record broadcast quality images for less than 5,000 dollars. Editing software than can allow people at home to edit professionally for less than 10,000 dollars. There’s an explosion of filmmaking out there, but how much of it is any good? It starts with the script, and that is where the problem begins; making a movie that is fresh and interesting versus one that is marketable and attractive to investors and/or distributors. Hopefully a major change in distribution is just around the corner that will open the doors for more independent films to be shown nationally. I just hope the films will be worth seeing.
FJ: You're a KAN film festival winner. How has that scene evolved over the years?
MA: My first KAN Film Festival was in 1993, where I won a 2nd place award for my student film JUDGMENT DAY. I’ve been entering films/videos every year since then, winning 7 awards along the way including 1st place for my film END OF THE LINE in 2003. The quality of films and videos has certainly increased over the years. The focus of the festival is on the student divisions, so as an independent filmmaker I’ve felt like anything shown in the open division has been overlooked sometimes. Especially in the drama/comedy over 30 minutes category, which is the one I most often entered. When the festival was at the Lied Center at KU my category was always in the auditorium in a completely different building, and often had less attendance than the venues in the Lied Center. I don’t know what the coverage was like by the local media in Lawrence and KC, but out in central and western Kansas no one even knew there was a KAN Film Festival. I hope the festival can continue to grow and possibly increase its overall exposure to independent filmmakers and to the general public.

FJ: Your website describes your behind the scenes experiences with Mr. & Mrs. Bridge and Cross of Fire. Did you work on Article 99 or Nice Girls Don't Explode?
MA: No, I did not work on ARTICLE 99 or NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE. It’s not that I didn’t want to…When were these films made, anyway? It seems like NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE was made either right before or right after I started at KU, and I was too naïve to try to work on the film. It seems like ARTICLE 99 was made when I was either in L.A. or off to graduate school in Savannah, Georgia. I was a production assistant on the TV show CANDID CAMERA when they were shooting in Kansas City during the summer of 1991. That was an interesting experience. It was the first time I ever saw an Ikegami video camera, and Betacam SP decks. I was amazed most of the people never realized that cheesy looking fake bookcase with a mirror might have a camera behind it. And never try to pull something like that on business executives; they’ll never sign the release forms. They don’t want to look stupid on TV.

FJ: Tell me about the book you've written?
MA: I decided to try to write a book about my filmmaking experiences for my daughter, Morgan. When I started writing in 1998 she was only about 2 years old, but I knew someday she will inherit all of my films and tapes and will wonder why did I make all of these films and why were they important to me. So I wanted to write some of my thoughts and memories down while I could still remember some of it, and someone read it and thought it would be a good book on it’s own. That’s when I started going back and interviewing my former cast and crew members and using quotes from them as interesting stories about the making of each film from their perspectives as well. Right now there is no publisher lined up, and I really need to have an editor go through it and help me get it into a form that could be published. But when I started my website in 2003 I was able to use excerpts from my book as the text for the sections on the making of each film. Now as I make another film I just add another chapter to the book, and a new section to the website.

FJ: What are you up to now?
MA: After graduating from the University of Kansas I went briefly out to Los Angeles to see what the film industry was really like, and decided I still had a lot to learn. I ended up going to the Savannah College of Art & Design in Savannah, Georgia earning a Masters Degree in Video. After graduating in 1992 and getting married I worked for 11 years at Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kansas as their video producer/director. Each year in my free time I also made short and feature-length narrative films that I wrote, produced, directed and edited. I entered them into various film festivals around the country, including the KAN Film Festival, and won some awards along the way. Starting in July of 2004, I just started working as a Production Manager/Field Production Specialist at South Carolina Educational Television in Columbia, South Carolina. I’ll be working on various programs and documentaries to be aired on SCETV, which is the PBS/Educational Television station for the entire state of South Carolina. I’ll also keep making my own films in my free time, although it may not be a film a year like I did in Great Bend. My wife’s parents live in Columbia, and my father retired from teaching in Kansas City and moved to Florida, so we wanted to move closer to them and have our daughter grow up closer to her grandparents. Plus SCETV is giving me more opportunities than I would have found in Great Bend, Kansas.
FJ: Thanks to Mark for the great Q&A. Visit his website for more great film making memories.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Referencing Kansas City in the UK

Tomorrow is the 21st anniversary of the George Brett pine tar game. I was out of the country when it happened. I was vacationing in England. I spent three weeks in the UK and by far very few people I talked to had heard of Kansas City, although a slightly larger percentage knew about Kansas from the Wizard of Oz.

There was no internet and no USA today. Baseball scores were hard to find. American sport was not reported on the BBC. But I turned on the hotel television on night after returning from the pubs and there was George Brett, going ballistic in the umpire's face.

"Hey, Kansas City", I said out loud to myself.

Some other local news was reported during my stay. The Christine Craft sexual harassment story got some BBC attention. They even ran the KMBC news open, featuring a view of the Kansas City skyline.

"Hey, Kansas City", I said out loud to myself again.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't spend my time watching a lot of TV, but the bars generally closed at 11pm and so I was back to the hotel soon after. The four channels of the BBC usually ran programming until midnight or 1pm. The sign-off was a rousing version of "God Save the Queen" and a gentle reminder from the BBC announcer to remember to switch off your set.

One night one of the channels featured a jazz concert with Kansas City jazz master Pat Metheny. I guess that counts as a Kansas City reference. The cool thing about that hotel was that the sound and picture used different switches. Wait a minute, that's stupid. Normally it would have been annoying, but I was able to go to bed, switch off the picture, and keep the music going.

Perhaps the most personal Kansas connection I made happened in Bath, England. Fellow traveler buddy Marc and I were shooting some pool in a pub. Mark was wearing a Kansas City Kings T-shirt and a guy approached us and asked if we were from Kansas. It turns out he was a British kid who had enrolled at KU for the fall. We exchanged info as we both were due in Lawrence too. I don't recall the guy's name, but we did meet one time after school started. There was so much happening socially for us freshman that none of us had much free time, nor did we really need to depend on each other. Still, it was nice to meet a Brit national who was heading to Kansas. By the way, Bath was one of my favorite stops on the UK tour. Furthermore, the brand of pool they shoot in the pubs is a bit different from standard U.S. tavern pool.

The pool table itself is much smaller than even the smallest bar job here. Also, they had rules where if you scratched or missed a shot when you hit the opponent's ball without calling it, they got an extra shot. Maybe they were pulling my leg, but that's how they played it. Other places had snooker tables, but those players were a much more serious lot.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Saving the World Through Science Fiction

Nobody does the history of Science Fiction (SF) better than University of Kansas Professor emeritus James Gunn. An accomplished author himself, Gunn taught his history of SF English class for many years, retiring in 1993. His four volume collection, The Road to Science Fiction was recently reissued by Scarecrow publishing. It’s been called the best historical anthology of SF ever assembled. Gunn picked the stories and provided introductory material. It’s a ‘must have’ anthology for veteran fans and new readers alike.

I took Gunn’s SF history class back in the mid 80s and was impressed. I learned that SF is a literature of change, a literature of ideas. I learned about the influence of John Campbell and his pulp magazine, Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell set up the rules of SF that we take for granted. He stressed things like don’t over explain new technology. Authors like Asimov and Heinlein were given early exposure by Campbell. Gunn taught me that these giants were edited by Campbell. The lesson I learned was that if you want to be published, be prepared to update your prose. Who can argue with Campbell? The first issue of Astounding featured a classic of the genre, Black Destroyer by A.E. van Vogt. Written in 1939, it’s the story of a spaceship crew being stalked by a fierce, carniverous alien being. Sound familiar? Long story short according to Gunn: they settled out of court.

In addition to the readings from his Road Series, featuring classic stories from Tom Godwin (The Cold Equations), Michael Bishop (Rogue Tomato), Harlan Ellison (I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream) and Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness), Gunn presented a series of filmed interviews (from the early 70s) with the likes of Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, and Harry Harrison. In a precursor to on-demand programming, Gunn challenged Dickson and Harrison to create a new story on the spot. They came up with Lifeship. Local footnote: This series of films was captured in part by Dennis McClatchey, future husband of my favorite Shawnee Mission North teacher, Margaret McClatchey.

Back to Gunn. He also showed us an ABC movie of the week from 1969 featuring a television adaptation of his novel The Immortals, starring Christopher George. It was an interesting story in its own right, about a race car driver who had blood that can make people, you know, immortal. Gunn annotated the broadcast in class where the teleplay deviated from his original story.

The show tape was culled from the night it aired, so all the network bumpers, commercials and promos were included. Gunn was somewhat grumpy about the fact that the students were as interested in the vintage commercials from the original ABC broadcast as the program itself.

I won’t be too harsh on Professor Gunn about any grumpiness. Working with undergraduates in a survey class can be an exercise in consternation. This particular course required heavy reading, and there were days in Wescoe Hall where the discussion was less than lively. Gunn’s pat comment was something like, "You know, you really should try reading the stories before class." He was right. When I was prepared, and I read the assignment beforehand, it was great. The composition component allowed us to pick a classic novel from a list of recommended authors. I chose Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik.

I like Ubik where a meeting between the protagonist Runciter and a time-traveling spy produced a surprising twist. The fact that the spy had time-traveling capability made the story different by her appearance. As if she went back in time after they met and changed something. The author made the reader aware of the subtle change, though Runciter remained oblivious. This particular by-product of time travel has been well documented, perhaps most notably in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. Gunn himself featured it in the novel Crisis.

Here’s a final Gunn anecdote and this one illustrated how well regarded he was in the SF community. I was killing some time in the DeVry library one day a few years ago and found an Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It included an expansive entry on Issac Asimov, authored by, you guessed it, James Gunn.

My only regret was that I didn’t apply myself further in Gunn’s class. I skipped class. I neglected the readings. I missed out. Since retiring, he’s concentrated on activities at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, where he is the director. Check out the workshop opportunities and recommended readings if you’re interested. With new funding for the center, there’s even hope that SF slackers like me might learn more.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

35 years ago today

I was born in 1965 so my memories of the 60s are sketchy but I remember Apollo 11.  It was wall-to-wall Walter Cronkite around our rental house on West Blvd. in Columbia, Missouri. My father tried to explain the significance of the unfolding events to my four-year old brain. After the rocket launched I ran outside to look at the moon and to watch for the spacecraft as it approached the cratered surface. This prompted some chuckles from the family. I returned to the living room and resigned to watch the coverage on the television, not minding the fact that all we had for viewing was a black and white set; the moon was grey anyway.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Nothin' On Jane Russell

It's rehash monday. I wrote this essay a few years ago and I recently polished it up a bit. Enjoy...

While I was at summer camp in 1978, an older friend bemoaned the fact that guys were clumsy when it came to getting her bra unhooked. This was not a symptom of the summer camp boys, but a problem she experienced year-round. During a typical make-out session on the back streets of Roeland Park or Mission, when an amorous beau rounded first base and charged hard for second, things inevitably bogged down when he tangled his mitts in the hooks and barbs of 70's-era bra construction. No front snaps existed in those days. A hook or two demanded attention before a sweaty round of "Come In Tokyo" commenced.

As we sat on the concrete stoop on the high side of the camp pavilion after mail call, she recanted harrowing tales of teenage lust being doused time and again by brassiere makers who obviously had teenage daughters at home themselves. Being thirteen, I was concerned this stumbling block might screw up my chances in the coming years.

"Are they really that hard to take off?" I asked, as I took a long sip on my Orange Crush.

"No it's not hard at all," she said. "Guys are just really, really bad at it."

I paused to reflect on the wealth of my own experience with girls underwear. Three seconds later I offered a sincere suggestion.

"How about some practice time?"  I quipped, expecting her to roll her eyes.

"Stay here, I'll be right back," she said, making a direct line for her cabin, and leaving me sweating in the sticky Missouri summer air. Moments later she returned swinging one of her bras over her head like a lariat. Taking a seat, she clasped the bra together and strung it over her outstretched fingers. "That should do it," she said.

Quickly putting my soda aside, I set about the task of undoing the two parallel hooks with one hand only, imitating the future configuration I might encounter on a hot date. I tugged and pulled on the Escher-esque loop of cotton, elastic, and metal, leaving a faint trail of rust-colored fingerprints. I quickly discovered the secret in the elastic. As long as that rubbery inner lining pulled on either side of the hook assembly, the bra remained intact.

"Pinch the whole thing between your thumb and finger knuckle," she commanded.

Crowds of campers gathered as I grasped the Playtex cross-your-heart bindings in my hand, making the slinky garment even tighter. Quite suddenly it forced the latch assembly into a temporary salient. My action around the flanks of the lock allowed the elastic band to relax. As instructed, I manipulated the limp barbs by twisting the bra ever so slightly. The slack caused the tiny metal clasp to unhook. Now my hand held the bra together. In a moment that seems much longer in the telling I held on to the unmentionable, trying to realize the potential I was about to unleash. I let go as the top lost its form around the out-stretched hands of my friend. Some polite applause followed.

"Not bad," she mused, "for a guy with sticky orange fingers. Now find a girl back home wearing one of these and practice on her."

I walked back to my cabin for rest hour and pondered the implications of my newfound skill. Camp Semple-McPherson didn't offer a merit badge or certification for undressing members of the opposite sex, but I was ready for any field test. In the next few years, plastic clasps that came undone in the front replaced the ungainly rear entry models, eliminating the demand for fellows like me with extra special prestidigitation. Eventually I applied myself to the no less weighty task of opening and closing relationships. It was a bittersweet ending for this teenager. I suppose if I was the letter writing type, I could sum up my feelings this way:
Dear Maidenform,
You ain't got nothin' on Jane Russell.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

In Praise of Older Magazines

In 1982, I learned a valuable lesson at the caddy shack and it wasn’t about keeping my grip loose on a sand trap shot.

Within the social dynamics of the golf course caddy shack setting, there were your punk kid caddies looking for a loop, there were your enterprising capitalist caddies working to relieve the other caddies of the tips they earned on the course through card games and sucker bets, and there was the rarest variety of caddy: the self-actualizing adult caddy like Rusty Morales.

I’m not sure if Rusty needed the extra money or he enjoyed the exercise. I don’t why he spent his weekend mornings in the caddy shack with us high school age caddy masters and the punk kid caddies we wrangled for the country club. He arrived a little after 7am on Saturday and Sunday mornings with his round wire-rimmed glasses. He resembled Dustin Hoffman’s character in "Papillon" with his thick lenses and after carrying two fully-laden golf bags for 18 holes, he was sweating like a Devil's Island inmate too.

Rusty kept to himself and read old news magazines. Every time he came to the club, he'd bring a Time or a U.S. News tucked under his arm. These weren't a week or two past the cover date, but two or three years beyond the original publication. I knew people liked to save old National Geographic issues, but why a topical news publication?

"Rusty, what's with the barbershop mag? The cover says March 5, 1981. That was last year, man."

"It’s not old news if you haven’t read it before", he said and returned to his article.

I suspected Rusty Morales wasn’t there for the loop money or the fresh air. His answer was way too Zen for the caddy shack. The phone rang. Another golfer was waiting on the first tee for his golf bag and a caddy. When Rusty left he took his Newsweek with him.

There's an obvious point about great literature being timeless and that's certainly true. Odd that Rusty made the same point about a Newsweek magazine. They published that sucker every week whether there was any news or not. We didn't ponder the Socratic nuances of the self-actualizing caddy anyway, with all the range balls to pick up and club heads to wipe down. But every once in a while, I’d be driving around the course in a golf cart, picking up the flag sticks after sundown and I’d think about what Rusty said.

I went away to college after graduating from Shawnee Mission North. I came back in the summer and worked the busy season with the shotgun tournaments and the junior golf clinics. I don’t know what became of Rusty Morales. Maybe he finally caught up on his magazine reading. He’s gone and so is the caddy shack. They replaced it with a bigger barn for more electric carts and I hear there are fewer players these days that prefer a caddy.

* * *

Recently I found an old edition of my high school newspaper, The Mission. It was among some things my mom found in the basement over at the house. My name was in it somewhere. This particular issue was the last one published by my senior class and featured coverage of prom, award ceremonies, and a feature on five teachers who were retiring.

I forgot that five instructors chose to step down that year. Between Norma Bone, Steve Davis, Fred Foreman, Dorothy Pease, and Gertrude Welch, they taught nearly 150 years at Shawnee Mission North. Miss Welch taught over 40 years by herself.

I never had Miss Welch for math. She taught the hard stuff: Calculus. I bailed on mathematics after one term of Trigonometry my senior year. But we all knew Miss Welch. She was a fixture of the upstairs hallway, busting smokers in the girls’ restroom, tip-toeing in with her slide rule and support shoes to deliver an impromptu lecture on smoking or truancy or something. I don't know what she said exactly, but us Trig slackers heard her voice all the way down in Mr. Wheaton’s room.

Last year I went back to Shawnee Mission North. The student council, with the blessing of the present administration, opened the doors of the ivy-covered brick building to the class of '83 on a Saturday as part of our class reunion activities. It was July 19th, 2003.

Conversations turned to Trudy Welch when we got to the math hallway upstairs.

"Did you know she started teaching at North during World War II", somebody said.

We stopped and looked in her old classroom. I spent three years at North and it seemed like an eternity. She was there for four decades. Since I didn’t take Calc, the only thing we had in common was leaving the grounds at the close of school business in 1983 and not returning that fall.

After more reminiscing about her teaching style and the pop quizzes she was famous for, the group of nostalgic 38 year-olds moved along. I spent a lot time peering in those rectangular windows on the classroom doors and lingering in front of the hallway plaques I never made time for as a boy.

It was eerie when I picked up the Kansas City Star four days later and read that Mary Gertrude Welch was dead.

Born on August 31, 1917 in Larned, Kansas. She graduated from Lawrence High School in 1935. She taught at Shawnee Mission North for 41 years. She never married. She died on July 17th, 2003 just two days before our return to the school. The cause of death wasn’t listed, but a similar notice appeared in the Lawrence paper. I think she died of old age.

It was a fitting dénouement that on a Saturday during the summer, her name echoed through the upstairs hallway one more time. In the most unlikely manner, at the most unlikely time, her spirit still pervaded the premises. But it wasn’t Welch's style to pipe down quietly. She spoke up.

In that May 13, 1983 edition of The Mission, on page 26, Miss Welch summed up her teaching career. Rusty Morales was right, its not old news if you haven't read it, and in this case, the chance discovery of my high school newspaper allowed Trudy Welch to speak again, 21 years after her retirement and a year after her death:

"My best thoughts are of the people – faculty, administration and students. Some have gone from school and achieved fame. But many are doing an exceptional job in positions of responsibility without fanfare and public acclaim.

To me, these are the important ones and I’m proud to say I have known them. Having worked with over 5000 of them, I have a lot to be proud of. Friends are the most important results of my years at SMN. I know of no other place I could have made more or better friends.

And now, back to my stained glass projects."

The teacher I never had and the caddy I barely knew conspired over the years to teach me an unexpected lesson in 2004 about the permanence of topical media and the fleeting nature of institutions.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Train Tracks, Statues and Signs, All Right!

I know it's hot. It's summertime in America. Get outside. Go for a walk. Explore your surroundings. You never know what you might discover in your midst. If you live in New York City, you don't have to go far to find something unique. On my last visit, I marveled at the cart and buggy barns that are still in place on the ground level of certain brownstones near Sloan-Kettering. I was amazed by a full-fledged wooden house nestled in between the rows of apartments and brownstones on the upper east side. Here's a man and a website dedicated to one of the richest urban landscapes in the world. Explore Kevin's Forgotten NY.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Remembering The Tape Cartridge

We played a lot of local acts at KJHK. When I worked there in the mid 80's, the local bands sent music and if it was on cassette, we dubbed it to tape cartridge. Many of the carts were vintage to say the least. Sometimes the magnetic tape inside the plastic case broke, or the tiny pads that kept the tape itself in contact with the heads inside the cart player gave out, rendering it useless. Most of the carts were 30 seconds or 60 seconds. The kind we needed for full tracks were harder to get and were replaced rarely. I still remember several songs we kept in the studio that were available on cart and nowhere else at the time:

  • EBS "How Soon To Watch"
  • The Embarrassment "Patio Set"
  • Tommy Keene "Take Back Your Letters" and "Back to Zero"
  • Pedaljets "Selector"
  • Psychic Archie "No Pictures of Dad"

Other ephemeral items stored foolishly on cart were station IDs and public service announcements. At KJHK, we had a large collection of artist drops including Lou Reed, Bono, William Burroughs, Jello Biafra, Patti Smith, and many others. Those carts eventually just gave out. Some of them survived on cassette. I have a few saved that way and I suppose the future is to convert them to mp3s. Save the classic KJHK media moments!

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

KU Med Center - Cookoo's Nest Connection

I was watching One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest this past weekend and I was intriqued by the scene where McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is interviewed by the head of the asylum, Dr. Spivey (Dean Brooks) upon arriving. Dr. Spivey's reactions and interview technique reminded me of my father. Dad worked as a resident psychologist and prof. at the KU Med Center from 1969 until his retirement a few years ago.

Surprisingly, the actor who play Dr. Spivey in the film is no actor at all. He's Dr. Dean Brooks, head of the Oregon State Hospital where the movie was filmed. According to the IMDB, the scene with Nicholson was mostly improvised. No wonder his reactions seemed genuine. In a final coincidence, Dr. Brooks graduated from the University of Kansas Medical School in 1942!