" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Friday, May 29, 2009

CULTURAMA: Buntport’s ‘Squabble’: Tale of enmity triggers laughs


Denver’s Buntport Theater produces interesting, entertaining work. That may sound simple, but it’s an objective few artists or arts groups ever achieve.
They achieve it again with the final play of their eighth season, “The Squabble,” with an unmistakable and unstale Buntportian approach. If you want to enjoy yourself at the theater, this is the one you should be attending.
Here are more remarkable facts about Buntport. They do good work consistently. They are without pretense. They are committed to working here. They work collaboratively.
They are a little tiny Utopian island for me, really, floating in a sea of self-indulgence, bad choices and egomaniacal hobbyism. Which is why I am so biased in their favor. Caveat lector.
The creative sextet – Erik Edborg, Brian Colonna, Evan Weissman, Hannah Duggan, Erin Rollman, and SamAnTha Schmitz – have produced 26 shows together to date, by their count. They have staged unusual fare such as “Kafka on Ice,” Moby Dick Unread,” and “The Odyssey: A Walking Tour.” You could say it’s a little gimmicky – or you could say it’s no-holds-barred. The group is unafraid and unashamed to use whatever techniques help them reach the audience.
The physical setup for “The Squabble” resembles nothing so much as the ring for a messy wrestling match. It’s a rectangular box containing several cubic yards of mud. The ensemble (save for SamAnTha, who handles the offstage functions) treads through the muck, acting out an adaptation of the source material, a short story by Gogol.
The mud is an obvious metaphor for the conflict the protagonists, here named Bob Boxinoxingworth (Edborg) and Bob Luggalollinstop (Colonna), find themselves, er, mired in. It also gives the troupe plenty of dirty laundry to hang out on the clothesline framework that lines the perimeter of the action and extends up into the seats.
It reflects the identifying imagery that places the story in a jerkwater town in Imperial Russia – a “lake” that is a Main Street puddle, a town that’s proud of the evenness of its roofline, and a populace of supercilious idiots that are conscientious mainly of the freshness of their breaths.
Rising from this background like cardboard cutouts are the two Bobs, who share pedantic obsessions and spasms of covetousness, and who finally clash over Bob L.’s use of the pejorative term “goose.” Bob B pivots and fidgets himself into a frenzy, while Bob L (Colonna doesn’t take the low road in his fat suit), sways menacingly, to hilarious effect.
The fable of their feud, which ripples outward in effect until the entire village is temporarily consumed by it, is narrated by a rather well-spoken pig (Weissman) who is clever enough to both make witty observations and avoid being turned into sausage. Weissman’s turn as the identically-named but one-eyed simpleton Bob Boxinoxingworth is equally pleasing.
Rollman plays out an unrequited romance with herself. She’s both the contentious, ever-ironing Wanda Wickerstickly and the chief of police, Peter Apropopanoosh, complete with Pythonesque walk and accent, that Wanda seems to favor . . . when she’s not shrieking the overture to “Carmen” (everyone seems to have his or her classic theme, which murmurs out of their mouths add odd times). Duggan has cartoony fun with the characters of town nudnik Tony Tumblestumpington and magistrate Alfred Fredfredfredful.
Anyone who might object to wacky and surreal nature of the proceedings doesn’t know how to take a spat with a grain of salt. The former friends spurn reconciliation, and their bickering moves into the realm of actual litigation. Anyone familiar with the world of legal machinations will recognize how that kind of thing throws even the best-intentioned lust of vengeance into a flaccid torpor.
The bickering ossifies into a dimly remembered grudge. The search for legal satisfaction becomes a quasi-religious hope for deliverance. The rain keeps falling; the town rots away in the mud.
That Buntport can make us laugh so heartily while keeping the edge of melancholy keen keeps the larger perspective about childish behavior with us. Seeing “The Squabble” won’t solve the world’s problems, but it sure casts a fresh light on our roles in perpetuating them.

“The Squabble” is presented by Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan St., Denver, through June 20. Tickets are $15 each. For more info, please visit www.buntport.com or visit 720-946-1388.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

CULTURAMA: LIDA's 'joseph k' throws gloomy shadows


When I found out that a giant hamster wheel was somehow involved in LIDA’s latest production I went into a gimmick-happy state of elation.
In the same way, fans of avant-garde theatre will go all squiffy over this show. It’s chock-full of ominousness, shadows, nervous pauses, seemingly unrelated actions and an undercurrent of perverse sexuality. Non-connoisseurs are advised to give it a pass – unless you have exemplary open-mindedness.
Anyway, when I heard about the hamster wheel, I called my friend the Illustrated Man and urged him to come to the show with me. He’s fond of all things functionally outsize.
We drove through a spring torrent to the frumpier side of Denver’s Central Business District, where the troupe has traditionally staged its works, in the BINDERY | space next to the Mercury Café. The place is perfect for LIDA’s purposes – it’s an empty warehouse, basically, open and resonant. It’s housed most of the 14-year-old company’s productions.
Brian Freeland is the Prime Mover of LIDA, and here serves as the production’s director, producer, and sound and scenic designer. Local playwright Martin McGovern concocted the script, which intersects the psyche of writer Franz Kafka with that of one of his best-known creations, the hapless protagonist Joseph K of the novel “The Trial.”
The play is given in the Expressionist manner – a highly stylized, grotesque approach popularized in early-20th century Germany that intends to stir emotion and non-logical associations in the witnesses’ minds. (For reference, see Robert Wiene’s classic 1920 horror masterpiece, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”)
This plan of attack served LIDA well with its 2001 production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” when it pushed the all-too-familiar naturalistic text out of its, and the audience’s, comfort zone. In the case of “joseph k,” the material is already so esoteric that the production draws a veil over a veil.
A studious theatergoer will know, for instance that while Joseph K (played here by Dan O’Neill) goes through his mysterious encounters and torments at the hands of an enigmatic bureaucracy that has charged him with he knows not what, he is literally overseen and shepherded by Kafka himself (Josh Hartwell).
Kafka’s not doing at all well himself. He is depressed, socially phobic and can’t resolve his relationship with his on-again off-again fiancée Felice (a little homework helps clarify this after the show).
Kafka and Joseph exchange places, and sometimes walk together, in the aforementioned giant hamster wheel, which dominates the performance space – a bare floor that faces a bank of seats. The connotation of ancient prison treadmills, and current exercise ones, is obvious.
The great hollow room is backed by a white cyclorama that covers the rear and is used to front-project performers’ silhouettes, as needed. Stage fog is periodically injected into the scene; illumination comes from largely exposed banks of lights. (Steven J. Deidel and Anna R. Kaltenbach are credited with the “Light/Dark Design.”)
In this environment the whiteface performers gibber, gesticulate and scamper at and around Joseph K, alternately browbeating, threatening, acting mysterious, feeling each other up and diagramming. The performers in the ensemble include Brandon Kruhm, Doron Burks, Lorenzo Sariñana, Petra Ulrych, Elgin Kelley, Julie Rada, Ken Witt, Mike Marlow and Elizabeth Parks.
The Illustrated Man sat patiently through it all. Did it do anything for him, or me? Was it hopelessly self-indulgent? He thought it was interesting, but it didn't really seem to do much for him. I felt the same way.
Is that an endorsement? A condemnation? You’re going to have to figure that out for yourself, most conclusively by going to see it. I’m not writing this for a given customer base or demographic. I’m not advising you how to spend your entertainment dollar. I’m here to tell you what I witnessed and what I think about it – the rest is up to you. I believe you should ALWAYS give something strange a try.
LIDA is legendarily tough-minded: I’ve never seen it yield anything for the sake of clarity. I don’t feel that it’s here to educate us, or entertain us, or reflect any consensual reality. It does what it does and it is what it is – mighty powerful or powerfully frustrating, depending on what you think theatre should be.
LIDA’s home page calls the show an “exploration of power, politics and paranoia.” It certainly evokes the nightmare mood of hopelessness that Kafka is primarily identified with. Whether it really reaches you will depend on what you bring to it.

“joseph k” is presented by the LIDA Project at the BINDERY | space, 2180 Stout St., Denver, through June 20. Tickets are $15 each. Tickets can be reserved by calling 720-221-3821 or via email at LIDA@lida.org. For more information, please visit www.lida.org.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

CULTURAMA: Filmed in Colorado


If you're from Denver, and you're willing to take a chance on the soon-to-be-released Eddie Murphy comedy, "Imagine That," you'll see a lot of familiar territory. If you were at the premiere of "Catch and Release," the 2006 romantic comedy starring Jennifer Garner, you'll remember Boulder residents cheering themselves as they appeared on the screen as extras, drowning out the principals' dialouge.

Jog your memory of recent films you’ve seen, either in the theater or on the tube. “About Schmidt”? “Nurse Betty”? “The Laramie Project”? “Bowling for Columbine”? If you’ve seen them, you’ve seen Colorado.

From the medium’s beginnings to the present day, Colorado can be seen in the cinema’s parade of images again and again. As backdrop, production base, and breeding ground, it has figured more prominently in film history than a casual observer might suspect. Since silent days, Colorado-based films and filmmakers have covered territory from classic Westerns to cutting-edge documentaries. They include work honored with Oscars and with places in the National Film Registry. These films are as varied as a musical about cannibal Alferd Packer and the seminal work of pioneering experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage.

It all began with the frenzy of film production that followed the first public projection of inventor Thomas Edison’s movies in New York City on April 3, 1896. Edison sent out photographers across the country from his plant in West Orange, New Jersey to record snippets of reality in fifty-foot, thirty-second snatches of film. These “actuality” films recorded persons, places, and events of interest to audiences of the day. Viewers were entranced early viewers with titles such as “Scene from the Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower,” “Annie Oakley,” and even the vaudeville oddity “Professor Welton’s Boxing Cats.”

In this pursuit, in 1897 the head of the Edison Company’s Kinetograph Department, James H. White, and photographer Frederick Blechynden shot the first extant footage of Colorado, in sequences such as “Procession of Mounted Indians and Cowboys,” and the kinetic “Denver Fire Brigade,” in which horse-drawn engines, careening and chuffing smoke, dart obliquely toward and past the camera as an excited throng crowds both sides of a downtown Denver street.

Meanwhile, one of Edison’s rivals, a former stage magician and theatrical impresario from Chicago named William Selig, chose Colorado as a film site because of its mild climate and many days of sunshine, and the excellent quality of the light (essential in the age of primitive equipment and film stock). In addition, Selig’s film company, Selig-Polyscope, was among a host of competitors who pirated the Edison patents that were vital to filmmaking. In an effort to maintain his monopoly, Edison sued his rivals and enjoined them from making movies.

All this did was force them west, away from the powers of the court. Selig recruited pioneer Denver still photographer H. H. “Buck” Buckwalter as his cameraman. By 1902, Buckwalter had begun his work for Selig on dozens of short films. He took footage of local sights -- “Arrival on Summit of Pike’s Peak,” “Runaway Stage Coach,” and “Panorama of Denver from Balloon at Elitch’s.” In a promotional stunt, Buckwalter advertised the mild climate by filming Denverites strolling 17th Street in their shirtsleeves one January day in 1905 (after unexpected snow canceled a couple of earlier tries). “Denver in Winter” may rank as one of history’s first filmed commercials.

Hot on the heels of the smash success of the first Western, pioneering Edison director Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 “The Great Train Robbery,” Buckwalter photographed Colorado’s first narrative film, a tale of violence and mob retribution -- “Tracked by Bloodhounds; or, A Lynching at Cripple Creek”. The true Western hadn’t arrived out West yet, however. A man would shortly be arriving from Chicago who would change all that -- the creator of the cowboy hero, “Bronco Billy” Anderson.

Actor/writer/director/producer George M. Anderson was born with the decidedly un-Western moniker of Max Aronson in 1883. Changing his name early in his acting career to avoid anti-Semitic hindrances, he eventually joined Edison’s film company, playing three different roles in Porter’s “Robbery” (he’s the one falling off his horse in the chase scene). He continued to learn all he could about the film business, acting and directing for the Edison Company and the Vitagraph Company.

In 1907, the ambitious Anderson went to Selig and convinced him to lend him funds and Selig’s Denver filming crew in order to make authentic Westerns on location, working in the Golden/Morrison area. Displeased with the results, he split with Selig and formed Essanay Studios with George K. Spoor, proprietor of the National Film Renting Company in Chicago. Anderson returned to Denver in the fall of 1909 with money, equipment, and a small company of actors. Here the inventive, resourceful Anderson began rehearsing the ideas and techniques that would culminate in the wildly popular adventures of Bronco Billy.

For the first time, a moviemaker was telling stories of the West in the real West, a place still largely untouched by civilization. There was no need to costume the cowhands who rode and playacted for the camera -- the stories were silly, but the details were documentary. Anderson worked hurriedly, cranking out five films a week (in the next seven years, he would complete nearly 400).

The character he was developing in films shot in the Golden/Morrison area, like “Ranchman’s Rival” and “On the Warpath,” and was to christen “Bronco Billy” a year later, is that of a lively, violent, bluff and hearty good/bad cowpoke. Anderson discovered that establishing a central character with whom the audience could identify in film after film was vital to success, and these recurring appearances became a huge box office draw. Anderson’s persistence and entrepreneurial savvy paid off. With the aid of authentic experience in Colorado, the first Western star was born.

Anderson recruited extras and bit players from the cowboys whose ranches he filmed at, and in doing so sparked the career of Colorado’s only movie cowboy hero -- Pete Morrison.

Pete and his brothers Chick, Carl, and Bob were grandsons of the town of Morrison’s eponymous founder, George. They were called on to wrangle the Anderson’s rented stock, and were all eventually pressed into service in front of the camera. The Denver Post described the outfit’s activities during the making of “The Heart of a Cowboy” in 1909: “G.M. Anderson ... has been in Denver for six weeks, ‘making pictures’ ... ’Colorado is the finest place in the country for Wild West stuff’ (stated Anderson) ... the company reached Mt. Morrison at 9, where the train was met by a bunch of trained cow ponies and riders under the command of the Morrison brothers themselves.” Pete, Chick, and Carl took to the lucrative pay and the excitement of slapping pictures together.

Anderson ultimately moved his base out to Southern California, where the preponderance of film production was taking place. A few years later, the Morrison boys migrated to Los Angeles together to make careers of movie work. Chick would eventually move behind the camera to become one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded horse trainers, until he was tragically killed by an Arabian stallion he was taming in 1924. Pete caught on as a leading man and appeared in 204 silent Westerns for Universal between 1918 and 1926, only 3 of which survive today. Although his star had faded to the extent that he was reduced to driving mule trains in another film hero’s first Western and first starring role, “The Big Trail” (1930), he was to a have a lasting impact on that young actor’s career. Marion Morrison, concerned that people would confuse him with the popular Pete, changed his name -- to John Wayne.

Another great Western star served his apprenticeship in Colorado. Tom Mix, silent film’s “King of the Cowboys,” was a drifter who had turned his hand to just about every kind of job the West offered when he hooked up with Selig-Polyscope in 1910. A year later, he was part of a band of filmmakers that set up camp August 3, 1911, above Central City. Two weeks later, the Gilpin County Observer reported, “Central City was treated to a sensation today. A group of masked outlaws held up a bank on Main Street in broad day light and carried away with them a sackful of money. But not in dead earnest. The bank was a fake and the bold, bad men were actors of the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago, who have made our city their temporary headquarters.” After churning out five films in three weeks, the company moved to Canon City. The locals were ecstatic to find glamorous movie folk in their midst, and welcomed the earnings from stock rental and pay as extras (children, $1.00 per day, adults $5.00). The Canon City Record proudly exclaimed, “There is some thought that Canon City may become the movie capital of the country.”

The Selig-Polyscope Company, with Mix, spent two summers in Canon City, renting out headquarters there in a two-story office building at 314 Main Street. The cast and crew made films like “Told in Colorado” and “Why the Sheriff Is a Bachelor,” and joined in the life of the town, attending church and putting on free shows for the inmates at the State Prison. The men whooped it up in the local saloons at night, one anecdote recalling Mix’s penchant for shooting lemons perched in empty shot glasses off the bar in nearby Hell’s Half Acre.

Here Mix began to form his flashy, stunt-oriented, broadly humorous style. Colorado became one of Mix’s favorite places, and he returned often after achieving stardom a few years later in California. In 1926, he filmed “The Great K & A Robbery” in Glenwood Springs, a film memorable for a stunt in which Mix slides down a cable from the top of Glenwood Canyon straight to the bottom, into the saddle of his wonder horse, Tony.

The Colorado Motion Picture Company was formed in 1913 by investors in Denver and Canon City. Production began in 1914, the company taking over Selig-Polyscope’s vacated headquarters in Canon City. The venture was doomed to be cut short by tragedy. On July 1, 1914, the last day of principal photography for “Across the Border,” leading lady Grace McHugh was crossing the Arkansas River when her horse shied and threw her, and she was swept away by the strong current. Cameraman Owen Carter leapt into the river and, grabbing her, struggled to the river’s bank. They almost made it. Both were caught again in the swift current, carried downstream, and drowned. Carter’s body was found a week later; McHugh’s, a week after that. Her family sued, and the judgment bankrupted the fledging company. With rare exceptions, it would be over 30 years before Hollywood visited Colorado again.

Historian Larry Jensen states that “Hollywood didn’t venture into the mountains of Colorado until after highways were improved in the late 1940’s.” These postwar improvements aided companies looking for Technicolor scenery and sweeping stories that would lure viewers away from their televisions. The jailbreak thriller “Canon City” broke the ice with location filming at the State Penitentiary in 1948. It inspired a young local photographer named Karol Smith to promote Colorado in Hollywood, and to eventually form what was to become the first state-legislated film commission in 1969.

In 1949, director Raoul Walsh filmed “Colorado Territory” in the San Juan Mountains, utilizing the old Silverton-to-Durango narrow gauge railroad for some scenes. In the next 15 years, over two dozen movies used the line and the surrounding area as a backdrop for Westerns, epics, and adventure tales such as “How the West Was Won,” “Viva Zapata!,” and “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Legendary American director John Ford added Colorado to his palette of Western locales for “The Searchers” and “Cheyenne Autumn.” The San Juans stood in for Leadville in the 1964 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” -- Debbie Reynolds was so enchanted by the location that she settled her mother there shortly afterwards.

Gradually, filming spread across the state. In 1957, a standing Western set near Canon City named Buckskin Joe was constructed, and is still in use today. Much of “True Grit” was filmed in Ridgway in the southwest corner of the state, and some of the film’s additions to the town’s architecture still stand in place. John Wayne spent some time in local saloons; his Stetson hung for years in a hallowed place behind the bar of the Outlaw Restaurant on Ouray’s Main Street. Meanwhile, Colorado began to be seen as a setting for more than just Westerns. All kinds of movies shot some or all footage here, from the heavy drama of films such as “Scarecrow” and “Badlands” to the buffooneries of “Every Which Way But Loose” (those nostalgic for Sid King’s East Colfax strip club are advised to take a peek) and the National Lampoon “Vacation” series.

At the same time, Colorado blossomed as both a setting and home for documentaries and documentarists. David and Albert Maysles tracked the creation of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s monumental but short-lived environmental art piece that filled Rifle Gap in August, 1973, in their “Christo’s Valley Curtain.” Master documentarist Frederick Wiseman filmed “Meat,” his examination of the processing of animals into food products, in the stockyards and processing plants of Greeley. (Wiseman returned to Colorado in 1991 to film a portrait of “Aspen.”) Chris Beaver’s 1983 “Dark Circle” ruthlessly exposed the traumas inflicted on employees and neighbors of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. And in 1998, Coloradans Donna Dewey and Carol Pasternak took home an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject for their portrait of a deformed Vietnamese boy and his life-changing surgery in “A Story of Healing.”

Boulder served as home, workplace, and inspiration for experimental (“...called ‘experiment’ by those who don’t understand it”) filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who traveled the world as an honored theorist, lecturer and artist. After years of travel, contact with the avant-garde, a stint of commercial film work, and even a brief episode running a theater in Central City, he came to reject commercial cinema.
“There is virtually no art of the film to be found in any formalized motion picture producing system I know of and probably never will be, “ he stated in his document “Metaphors on Vision.” His 1964 epic vision “Dog Star Man,” made in and around Boulder on a shoestring budget, has been placed in the National Film Registry. In it and other early works, Brakhage postulates the camera/eye as first-person protagonist in a “lyrical cinema” that reflects his unique sensibilities. He returned to Boulder in the late ‘80s, where he served as Distinguished Professor at CU’s Department of Film Studies. (Two of Brakhage’s erstwhile students were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who set their hit series in the mythical Colorado mountain town of “South Park.”)

The past twenty years featured sporadic bursts of industry growth in the state. Viacom’s choice of Denver for the production of its series of Perry Mason TV films (1985-1993) pumped millions into the local economy and involved a number of local talents, and has subsequently attracted similar outside film and television projects. Warren Miller Films, pioneer makers of snowsport films since 1947, relocated to Boulder from California in 1993 and, under the ownership of Miller’s son Kurt and Peter Speek, has stepped up and diversified its cinematic efforts.
Recent films that use the mountains and plains have ranged from determined independents such as documentarians the Beeck sisters (“Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed,” “Free Boulder”) and CU’s Jerry Aronson (“The Life and Times of Allan Ginsberg”) through the bizarre and seedy noir of “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”) to unabashed schlock such as “The Dragon and the Hawk,” “Destroyer,” “Brain Creature,” “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend,” “Atomic Train,” “Visions,” and the twin JonBenet Ramsey murder TV treatments -- “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town” and “Getting Away with Murder.”

The state will continue to host filmmakers and those who love them. Who knows? You might find me handling a clapboard slate up in the mountains this summer myself.

OLDFANGLED: Raised on Radiation


“Each person and family must be prepared to meet immediate survival requirements for two weeks following an attack without dependence on outside assistance.”
What You Should Know About the National Plan for Civil Defense and Defense Mobilization, 1960

In 1982, a pal and I were watching the film “The Atomic Café” at the now-long-gone Vogue Theater in Denver.
The early compilation-style documentary is composed of stock footage, excerpts from Cold War atomic-propaganda films. About halfway through the screening, a flickering black-and-white image filled the screen. It was a typical suburban ranch house – brand new, sitting on a bare-dirt corner lot – and the newsreel announcer hailed it as the first model home in history with a built-in fallout shelter.
I leaped to my feet in the darkened theater. “That’s MY house!” I yelled, pointing up at the screen.
“No way!” a voice called back in the gloom.
“Yeah, it is!” my friend exclaimed. “I grew up next door!”
I was transfixed. Until then, I hadn’t realized how cozy we all used to be with the idea of mass annihilation. That’s when I began to dig deeper into the history of my unassuming childhood home.

In 1958, an enterprising builder named Jack Hoerner began the construction of Allendale Heights, a housing subdivision in the Denver suburb of Arvada, located 12 miles southeast of the Rocky Flats Plant. Rocky Flats was one of the nearly two dozen U.S. government nuclear weapon production facilities dotted across the nation’s belly that fed the arms race during the Cold War – an open secret, then a controversial source of the income that fed most of my neighbors.
The 15 “Titan” home sites (named for the newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile), each with its own built-in A-bomb haven, still stand. Back then, the bomb was on everyone’s mind, and Hoerner wrung full sales potential out of it. At the opening of the subdivision on Aug. 23, 1959, Colorado Governor Steve McNichols, Denver Mayor Dick Atterton, Arvada Mayor Gail Gilbert and 2,000 or so of the curious toured our future home.
A soon-to-be retired Army major – who, according to the Aug. 17, 1959 issue of Time magazine, “once studied radiation effects” – snapped up the house immediately. All the homes sold quickly, but Hoerner’s dream of providing nuclear families with security from nuclear threat did not. Other contractors quickly surrounded Hoerner’s dream development with similar cookie-cutter neighborhoods. None of them featured bomb shelters.
My nuclear family migrated to Denver from a small Midwestern town in 9167, arriving well before the age of John Denver and successful sports franchises. The retired major sold the house to us that summer. We lived in the golden age of suburban life, a sweet dream of material fulfillment realized. All the postwar promises seemed to be coming true for my parents’ generation; we were surrounded by, and steeped in, abundance, convenience and safety.
There were “Welcome Wagon” ladies back then – hostesses who greeted new citizens with a gift basket full of free samples, coupons and advertising from local businesses. There wasn’t any mention of a plutonium trigger factory nearby. We were four of millions within 50 miles of the site, and among the 300,000 that lived in its watershed.

Dow Chemical built Rocky Flats at the U.S. military’s direction and began operations there in 1952. Three years later, the public was informed of the plant’s existence but not its purpose. It produced plutonium “pits,” small, spherical explosives that triggered an atomic bomb’s devastating chain reaction.
In addition, the facility recycled the fissionable material from outmoded bombs. Our neighborhood was populated primarily by conservative, militant Flats workers and their families. (One of the guys received, as a gag gift one year, a photo of liberal Colorado Democratic Congresswoman and House Armed Services committee member Patricia Schroeder’s face -- pasted into a toilet bowl.)
When we did find out about the bomb factory and its proximity, our neighbors assured us that there was nothing to worry about. In fact, they were proud of its existence and their “mission.” The workers who drove to and from the plant each shift, jamming our two-lane county roads (no car-pooling back then!) were serving their country, and the pay was great to boot.
Plus there was the attraction of the shroud of mystery they were forced to assume cast over their jobs. None of the Flats dads would answer our eager questions about their secret tasks. It was a perfect blend of patriotism and profit. Everyone was just fine – the lawns were immaculate, there was a grill in every back yard, and a cheesy Polynesian-style wet bar in the rumpus room of every basement.

Of course, I was indoctrinated in Cold War culture. My uncle told me how the atom bomb saved his life in summer of 1945, as he waited in the Philippines with thousands of other soldiers to invade mainland Japan. Public buildings wore the black-and-yellow fallout shelters signs like boutonnieres.
Barbie and G.I. Joe first roamed the Earth back then. Girls were expected to prepare for marriage and reproduction; boys planned to become astronauts or spies like Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” We snacked on Tang and Space Food Sticks. Our elementary-school teachers enchanted us with the “Disneyland” TV show episode “Our Friend the Atom” and terrified us with footage of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Occasionally, we’d hear the unholy wail of a test-alert siren reverberating across town. Sometimes a radio broadcast would be interrupted by the familiar, annoying buzz of the Emergency Broadcast System. Movie and television screens were crowded with nuclear monsters such as the giant ants of “Them!”, and Godzilla, whose millennial slumber was shattered by an atomic blast. Reruns of “Panic in the Year Zero,” starring Ray Milland and Frankie Avalon, taught us that the greatest danger of the post-apocalyptic world would be gangs of surly, menacing teenagers hopped up on jazz lingo (“Somebody dropped the Bomb, dad . . . crazy kick.”)
Very little of the tumultuous ‘60s reached us. We would turn away from the screen and see that we were still ensconced safely in suburbia, where its womb-like strength, combined with our natural naïveté, kept out unpleasant realities. Most children of the middle class were safe from Vietnam, tucked away in college, and there was no racial violence because there were simply no other races present – it was American apartheid personified. Our shelter wasn’t disquieting; it was a surreal comfort and sign of prestige.

The “bomb room,” as we came to call it, was located directly underneath our attached one-car garage and was accessible through a basement door. When we moved in, we kids were disappointed to find none of the paraphernalia commonly associated with atomic survival – bunks, rations, Geiger counters, chemical toilets, jars of iodine. The room was empty – a box of poured concrete about 10 feet by 12 feet, with walls 8 inches thick, and a foot-thick ceiling. It was somewhat larger than a prison cell; the bare, depressing dimensions of survival.
A circulating cold-water tank dripped into a musty old drain. There were two sharp right angles at the room’s entrance; the idea being that radioactive particles couldn’t’ turn corners. The shelter was closed off with a flimsy wooden door, with the push-button lock – oddly enough – on the outside. Of course, we found hours of delight in locking each other in or pounding in mock hysteria on the door as the others chanted, giggling, "Not enough room! Go away!”

The only thing left from the shelter’s original accoutrements was a thick, dusty envelope of civil-defense pamphlets such as “Facts About Fallout Protection,” which at one point exclaims, ‘RADIOACTIVITY IS NOTHING NEW – THE WHOLE WORLD IS RADIOACTIVE.” We read them voraciously, tickled by our own terror.
These documents paint a picture of the Cold War society’s grim, obsessive fears. Or our country’s struggle against communism, “Personal Preparedness in the Nuclear Age” told us that “On the outcome of this conflict depends the future course of history and the final result of man’s struggle to maintain freedom and liberty for himself.”
For the first time, any civilian could be catapulted into the role of front-line soldier (or smoldering statistic) in a matter of minutes. “Civil defense officials strongly urge each individual . . . to encourage his family to act as its own survival unit in the event of an enemy attack,” the instructions read. “No one can be sure how far the enemy will go.”
At the same time, the literature soft-pedaled the danger, making Armageddon seem like merely an exciting and challenging adventure for the whole family. Ray Crowley of Scripps-Howard Newspapers wrote, “Scientists are beginning to talk optimistically about mankind’s chances of surviving full-scale atomic war . . . In some places, you would be able to save your life if you dug a hole in the ground, drove your car over it, and jumped in the hole . . . “ “Fallout Protection” helpfully suggests, “If your house has Venetian blinds, lower and shut them to bar flying glass and screen out some of the blast’s fierce heat.”
Closing the blinds to ward off the effects of a nuclear blast now seems as pathetically hopeful as brandishing a crucifix at an onrushing tsunami. The cover of “Family Food Stockpile for Survival” features an illustration of a housewife, in full June Cleaver drag complete with apron and pearls, confidently shelving canned goods. “store in your shelter a two-week supply of food and water, first-aid kit, battery radio, flashlight, blankets and warm clothing.”
While all the pamphlets warned that a nuclear holocaust would be no walk in the park, they reassured us that we could all crawl out into the sunshine from our cozy shelters after a few weeks and be OK. There was a line drawing of the aftermath – firemen blithely sweeping the fallout off the streets with brooms and a hose. Contaminated earth was to be scraped up and placed a "safe” 100 feet from occupied areas.
The cover of Life magazine from Sept. 15, 1961 featured an article on “How You Can Survive Fallout.” Inside was a letter to the public from President Kennedy exhorting us to “read and consider seriously the contents . . . The ability to survive coupled with the will to do so . . . are essential to our country.”
Following the article, the reader finds a disturbingly hilarious layout of illustrations of homemade shelters. Sissy is curling her hair in a long, buried metal tube lined with cots and canned goods. Dad’s puffing a cigarette contentedly, and families are safe within the steel embryos of liberty.
Taken as a whole, this cheerful load of propaganda stands as a monument to the human capacity for slippery thinking. We were all ready to pack it in at any time.

The evacuation map prepared by the Denver Civil Defense office displays a simple but eloquent plan. The map shows the main streets marked with big arrows leading out of the city in every possible direction. Ironically, the closest major road out of Arvada led directly past the prime Soviet target – Rocky Flats.
Cold War secrecy kept us from the knowledge that mishaps and mismanagement were blighting Rocky Flats’ safety record, until the massive plutonium fire of May 11, 1969. Soon, controversy mounted and activists began to gather.
In our neighborhood, those people and their information were either ignored or scorned. Radioactive waste was migrating downwind and downstream straight for us, as Jefferson County Health Department director Dr. Carl Johnson discovered in the late 1970s. Yet even these findings, the protesters, and films such as the 1983 documentary “Dark Circle” failed to provoke our thoughts or stir us to action. We joined no marches, signed no petitions.
Over the years, the bomb rooms on our street filled up with the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life – empty cardboard boxes, Christmas decorations, knickknacks, toys, slabs of old 78-rpm records. Kids had sleepovers in the shelters, built castles and rockets out of boxes, laid awake listening to the wind howling in at the mouth of the room’s ventilation pipes. We later smuggled forbidden cigarettes in there, too, but I could never cajole a girlfriend inside for an angst-ridden teen make-out session. It was just too cold and creepy in there.
In 1989, an FBI investigation led to a halt in weapons production at Rocky Flats. A long grand-jury investigation into criminal activity and misconduct at the plant culminated in the sealing of the jury’s findings by the presiding judge, who mandated an $18.5 million settlement with Rockwell International, the plant’s operator at the time.
Today, those contaminated areas of land around and inside the former grounds of the plant have been (supposedly) scraped, scrubbed and plumbed. Traces of plutonium, carbon tetrachloride, beryllium, and tritium may remain. The Environmental Protection Agency certified the site’s cleanup on June 13, 2007. The plans are still in effect for the area to be converted into a wildlife refuge.
If we had known how dire out peril once was, as some did, would inertia and a love of the land we found ourselves on still have prevented us from moving away or raising a fuss? At the time, we were preoccupied, riding out the honey-tinged, swollen, lethargic ‘70s.
The economy declined, and it seemed that no one could maintain that suburban dream life any more. The nuclear threat fell away in our minds as the nuclear families around us exploded and split. We kids went through our teen tragedies, Mom and Dad got divorced, everyone moved on.
For a while, we were the chosen few, those who would be saved. But the shelters couldn’t save the American family from the contamination of change.

Monday, May 18, 2009

BLUEGRASS BLAST: Dr. Banjo to the Rescue!


(A profile from 2003. UPDATE: Pete and his band Flexigrass have a new release titled "What The," and he can also be heard on Steve Martin's new album "The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo." For more information, please visit www.drbanjo.com.)

Pete Wernick tromps across a field in the baking afternoon heat, trying to get a better connection on his cell phone. Considering his busy schedule, and his status as one of the world’s outstanding acoustic instrumentalists, he’s a heck of a friendly and accommodating guy.
The banjo master, singer, composer, band leader and educator took time out from his duties at the RockyGrass Academy, a week-long acoustic music seminar that precedes the annual RockyGrass Festival, to speak about his past, present and future. Though best known in the bluegrass world for his work with Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, and the late Charles Sawtelle in the seminal progressive bluegrass group Hot Rize, the 57-year-old Wernick was and is one of the key innovators in the genre’s history -- from his early days with Country Cooking in the 1970s, through his 16-year term as president of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), to his current helming of the jazz/bluegrass hybrid Live Five band.
Speaking with a rapid-fire intelligence that’s a mirror of his playing style, Wernick touched on a constellation of subjects, beginning with his affection for the annual Lyons hoedown -- “It’s my favorite,” he says. “There’s goodness in all of it. I’m immersed in the bluegrass community, and there’s certainly a good one here in Colorado.”

BRONX BEGINNINGS

A native of the Bronx, Wernick got turned on to acoustic music via the urban folk boom of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“My friends ... around 1960, when I was 13 or 14, were already learning guitar and banjo, and they were sort of following in the Pete Seeger tradition,” he says, citing the popularity of such groups as the Kingston Trio as well. Without the availability of instruction manuals or tablatures in that period, Wernick picked up his skills the hard way.
“Everybody ... learned to play by listening and doing a lot of experimenting, and that’s how I learned how to play... Slowly but surely I caught on to what was necessary -- but before I even started to play, I had heard Earl Scruggs on a record and he seemed like the ultimate, (most) incredible musician I’d ever heard in my life, and I just loved what he did,” says the musician.
He continued to play for pleasure through his college years at Columbia University and at Cornell, where his studies resulted in his earning a doctorate in sociology (thus his eventual “Dr. Banjo” title). He hosted a bluegrass radio show at Columbia, which deepened his knowledge of the music, spurred his contact with other enthusiasts and musicians, and whetted his appetite to be a participant in the scene himself.
“For a guy with a doctorate from an Ivy League university to quit his job and say, ‘No I’d rather actually be playing bluegrass,’ which is what I did, that’s a statement in my life,” he says.
He recalls faithfully attending four-hour jam sessions he attended on Sunday afternoons in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, where he met David “Dawg” Grisman, Jody Stecher, and one to two dozen others in the New York metropolitan area -- “one in a million,” as he puts it -- who shared his love for the music.
Eventually, he and others began attending bluegrass gatherings and competitions in the South, carpooling down to Virginia and North Carolina and, surprisingly to them, coming away with prizes. He also gained insight from contact with the place and the people that spawned the music. Although bluegrass is now truly an international phenomenon (the IBMA now boasts members in 30 countries around the world), he sees it as a gift from Southern Appalachian culture.
“That’s when I really got acquainted more with the culture that bluegrass comes from. ‘Cause you learn one set of thing on a record, but some stuff you don’t learn until you go into a cafe/ down there or you’re in the parking lot of a festival just hanging out with Southern people and getting to know life from their perspective,” he says.

HOT RIZE REDUX

Fast-forward to today, as Wernick talks about his recent resurrection of Hot Rize with O’Brien and Forster, and the addition of young guitar virtuoso and Nashville session player Bryan Sutton, who takes over the duties, but respectfully never seeks to take the place, of Charles Sawtelle, who passed away in 1999 after a long battle with leukemia.
“It’s about as big of a treat as I could ask for,” he says, relishing the opportunity to perform the tunes he and his compatriots crafted over the course of a quarter-century. He estimates that Hot Rize performed over 1,500 shows during their career together until Sawtelle’s death put an end to their original configuration.
“When we lost Charles, it really popped a big bubble in all of our heads,” says Wernick. “Not just losing a very dear friend, but maybe losing the sound of a band that was a very big part of our lives.” After a period of mourning (“when your spouse dies, you don’t remarry two months later,” he says), the surviving members decided to have a go of it again, especially after a long-delayed, Sawtelle-dedicated live album taped in 1996, “So Long of a Journey,” saw release last year.
The band accepted six gigs without knowing who their guitar player would be, then aimed high and decided to ask Sutton, who happily agreed. “He’s a delight to be around and play with,” says Wernick, and the successful recombination of talents meant that seven Hot Rize concerts were scheduled for this year as well.

‘FLEXIGRASS’

After the end of Hot Rize’s primary phase of activity in 1992, Wernick continued the innovations he had begun decades before. Always enamored of jazz and particularly the sound of clarinetist Benny Goodman, Wernick put together an ensemble that would fuse genres. The result, dubbed “flexigrass”, features Wernick and George Weber on vibraphone, Bill Pontarelli’s clarinet, the drum work of Kris Ditson, bassist Roger Johns, and featured vocalist Joan Wernick. The group has produced two albums to date, both of which combine jazz and bluegrass influences.
Pete was ready for a change. “Honestly, when you get into your 50s and you’ve been part of a phenomenal bluegrass band for about half your life, which in my case is Hot Rize ... it’s nice to do something after you’ve been doing the same thing for a while and mix it into the mix,” he says, although he admits meeting resistance from purist bluegrass aficionados.
“Some bluegrass hardcore people really think I’m out of my mind,” he jokes, “and it’s like I got infected by some weird disease, (like) I won’t be the same Pete anymore. I’m just the same Pete, just growing in different directions. And I have and will continue to play hardcore bluegrass on one day and the very next day I might have a Live Five gig.”

TRADITION/INNOVATION

Wernick straddles the historical line between the originators of bluegrass and the current third, and even fourth, generations of practitioners, many of whom have been emboldened to widen the genre’s stylistic and subject boundaries by the innovations he and his contemporaries first implemented decades ago. Even today, it seems that a schism between traditional and progressive bluegrass musicians and fans persists; one that Wernick expresses a unique and unifying perspective on.
“My whole career is based on showing that I truly appreciate and understand the bluegrass sound as well as I can,” he says, “and then saying, ‘Well, I’m not here to just reproduce the tradition from another era, I’m here to be myself as a living, breathing musician -- and I’m going to use the same palette of colors that hey have used, but I’m going to add a few.’“
He continues, “The hardcore bluegrass is very sensitive to being disrespected. Bluegrass has spent most of its life as a music being ignored and even mocked. You know, people say, ‘Oh you play bluegrass -- yee-hah!’ you know, and you get this real condescending thing going. To me it would be comparable to ... a Catholic listening to someone mock Mother Teresa ... and I’m thinking, ‘You don’t get it, and go away, you know, you don’t get it -- just leave!’
“And I really like the bluegrass people more than the academic people.... It’s a delight, because the people who love this kind of music are definitely more, I think, in touch with earth-centered values, you might say, than a lot of the people who are into the tight-pants-loud-electric-guitars-and-screaming kind of music that really doesn’t reference anything about the beauty of music, it’s all a vehicle for being angry or something. I don’t have much use for that, I like hearing music that sounds good and that means something.”
Now matter how much some fans might look askance at his musical explorations, Wernick is confident that he is on the right track. His abiding passion for the music sustains him, as it did the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, of whom he shares a relevant memory.
“I have a very deep appreciation for the roots and the main stream of bluegrass... I got to see Bill Monroe stay up all night playing music ... he was actually dancing with some of the women at the party as the sun came up, and, believe me, I’ll never forget that, I haven’t yet ... that’s a lot more than learning licks out of a book. It’s a lot deeper message.”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

APROPOS OF NOTHING: COMEDY @ 7800 FEET


Winter in Colorado's San Juan Mountains is a magical time. The jagged snow-clad peaks look down upon picturesque villages clad in white and evergreen.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the town is choked with tourists. The couple-hundred families that call it home own and/or manage the hotels and motels, jeep rental outfits, gift shops, candy kitchens and restaurants. It’s like a Brigadoon that takes American Express.
When the tourists leave, the storms come and shut down the roads . . .and insanity starts to leak out of the locals.
I thought about this one December night as I dashed down Ouray’s Main Street, pursued by a bar-full of angry, drunken patrons intent on killing me.
I had moved to that hamlet for the express purpose of getting on the ground floor of a career in radio. I was already a fledgling comic, but I figured I could make the trek back to Denver when I needed to, for gigs (this led to many harrowing 300-mile commutes in the dead of winter).
Seven months after I started, the station went under. Abruptly. So abruptly that I was stopped halfway up the steep staircase I ascended to start my shift and sent home.
Thanks to friends, I was soon waiting tables and tending bar at places that all seem to have hosted John Wayne while he was filming “True Grit.”
Meanwhile, the comedy boom of the ‘80s was rolling along so forcefully that even the lamest local shithole was staging a ha-ha night. The owner would wire a 100-watt bulb inside a punched-out coffee can, point it at a stack of pallets in the corner, buy a Mr. Microphone and watch the proceeds rrrrrrrroll in!
So some of my friends from the comedy circuit started coming through town, to better and worse effect (hint: smut worked well). All along, my townie friends would encourage me to join them.
I held back. Scared? Hell, yes. Scared that I would bomb so utterly that I would have to move. A small town is as devoid of cover as the Kansas prairie.
At last, one winter I was so broke that I consented to inaugurate another comedy night at a new bar we’ll call the Purple Weasel. The unscrupulous owner promised me $50 cash to emcee and open the night for another, vastly more renowned comic whose name I’d never heard of. We’ll call him Jeff.
Try as I might to find out more about the headliner, I couldn’t. I called all the clubs in Denver; no one had heard of him. I shrugged and went back to combing through my pile of tried-and-true dick jokes to come up with the best 20 minutes of material I could muster.
The night was at hand. I paced nervously in the back of the room as everyone I knew, and all the tourists in town, crowded into the joint. Even though I was used to sucking down Camels at altitude, I was having trouble breathing. Then the owner introduced me to the headliner.
Jeff was a sawed-off, beer-bellied, rat-tailed plumber from Nucla (later home of the infamous Top Dog World Championship Prairie Dog Shoot). Jeff had done a couple of new-talent nights here and there. Jeff was drunk. Jeff was high. Jeff had brought two dozen of his closest friends, and they had all chosen to sit together down front.
I gamely started off, moving slowly but surely into a position of command with the crowd. By the time I wound up my set, I had the audience with me.
Beyond the light, silhouetted against the backlit glow of bottles behind the bar, I could Jeff’s profile as he continued to down shots. Coke, I thought, he’s gotta be doing coke – it’s the only way he’s still standing.
I introduced him, and Jeff lurched unsteadily to the mic stand.
Now, most folks don’t mind some dirty jokes in a comedy routine – the genre is supposed to be transgressive. However, what followed was the longest string of incoherent schoolyard-level sex jokes ever told.
The women left first, after about five minutes. Then Jeff segued into his race-oriented material.
Now, don’t get me wrong – the mountain town is a haven of racism, misogyny, and all-around intolerance. Still, there are limits, and Jeff plowed through them like Kowalski in “Vanishing Point.”
Unfortunately, that night, for one of the few times in my experience, a black person was in town. And there he sat. Listening to this spew. I saw him blanch, stiffen as Jeff went on and on. Finally, one of Jeff’s friends leaned forward and whispered to him.
“What?” he gurgled, and swung around to his right. “There’s a nigger here? Oop. I’m sorry,” he concluded, and nimbly segued back into the little-boy-goes-to-a-whorehouse tales.
The black man left. With him went the rest of the locals, even the most hardened ranch hands. Jeff had been on for 20 minutes; he had 40 to go. The owner sidled up to me.
“What do you know about getting a guy off stage?” he whispered.
I thought for a second.
“Give me my money now,” I demanded.
“Can’t I write you a check tomorrow?” he whined.
“NOW,” I said, asserting myself as I so rarely did.
He knocked open the till and peeled the bills out of the drawer, handed them over to me. I marched to the stage.
I hit Jeff in the chest with the palm of my hand, pulling the mic out of his hand as he went down.
“Am I done?” he sang out as he hit the floor. I turned to the crowd.
“Thanks, Jeff! Jeff, ladies and gentlemen!” I crowed.
Then I made my final mistake of the night. I decided to woo the crowd back with some more humor. My addled attempt to be professional overlooked one vital fact: the only people left in the bar were friends of Jeff’s.
The mumbled threats began. “We’re gonna kill you, faggot!” a voice cried. The rest of the gang rumbled their approval.
“Ha-ha-ha!” I ad-libbed/stuttered.
“Yeah, we’re gonna fuck you up, motherfucker!” another voice sang out. “You’re dead!”
I wrapped it up, dropped the mic to the floor, and strode up the improvised aisle among them, through them, past them, then past the bar, the toilets, out the back door and into the frigid night.
I started jogging up the alley so I could cut over and make it to the bar where my friends were waiting . . . to congratulate me. Just as I emerged under the harsh street light, I glanced downhill half a block.
There were Jeff’s friends, milling up toward their cars and straight at me.
“THERE HE IS! GET HIM!”
It helped that I was acclimatized and familiar with the territory. I cut through yards, doubled back, happy only to feel the 50 bucks in my left front pants pocket. Dammit, if they dismembered me, at least I got paid.
For dramatic purposes, I would like to report that they killed me. However, the truth is that, after a few blocks, I shook them, and then hid out in the courthouse stairwell for a half-hour or so until I was sure they were gone. then I tiptoed gingerly to safety.
Still, I keep that memory as a badge of courage. Not only have audiences heckled me – once, one damn near killed me.