Friday, September 30, 2011

Super ‘70s and ‘80s: “The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show”—Steve Whiting, producer/director

Introduction to series “Super ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Introduction to subseries “The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show” (including list of interviewees).

How did you get the job of packaging Plastic Man for syndication? Don’t the big companies like Ruby-Spears typically do that themselves?

Arlington Television was a divisional offshoot of Golden West Television which at the time was owned by Jeff Simmons. I had produced and directed many TV shows for Jeff in the five years prior to Plastic Man. When Arlington made the deal with Ruby-Spears to repackage Plastic Man, Jeff Simmons told them he had just the guy to create the shows.

I got a call from Simmons in which he said, cryptically, “Son, Plastic Man looms large in your future” and I said “Who?” I had about three days before my interview with Ruby-Spears to create a show using wraparounds to introduce the library of cartoons. I figured who better to introduce the cartoons than Plastic Man himself. I’d been a fan of Captain Satellite, a character who hosted cartoon shows on a local San Francisco Bay Area station when I was a kid. I think I finalized the idea for the pitch on the plane to LA and I’m sure I heard some of the ideas for the first time as they came out of my mouth during the meeting.

[At the offices of] Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, I pitched them my idea of a live Plastic Man hosting the show from the Plasti-Jet and talking directly to the young viewers as friends. They bought the creative concept on the spot. I got the gig with full control to produce it in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What does packaging for syndication typically entail? Shortening the running time?

Re-packaging for syndication usually entails changing the format and structure of the show. They wanted to go from once a week to five days a week. That meant they need 130 half-hour shows, which is five days a week for six months, and then it starts again. A re-packaged show is actually a new entity separate from the original, but containing some of the same content. We edited some of the cartoons and segments to fit time frames.

Did you ever have to ask for new animated material?

Not really. We just edited animated material that already existed into our show format. That’s how our live Plastic Man has conversations with the animated Chief. We used inter-cuts and editing of phrases the Chief spoke to Plastic Man in the cartoons to have her speak to our live-action Plastic Man.

What was the process like to get approval from DC Comics?

I have no clue. Ruby-Spears handled all of that. I was never asked by DC Comics to change anything.

How did the budget work—did Ruby-Spears pay for the live action segments? If so, how did you convince them to take that risk? If they did not pay for the segments, who did and how did you convince them?

Arlington Television paid for the production of the live action segments as part of their partnership/licensing deal with Ruby-Spears. As such, the newly packaged and assembled shows (with live host) became new product which belonged to Arlington (Simmons), as long as they remained intact. Some years later, Simmons assigned the rights to me.

Did you hand-pick Mark Taylor or did you have an audition process? If auditions, how many showed up? Any funny stories?

I didn’t have time to set up a full casting call to find my “Plas” on short notice, so I hired [a] company to help with the talent search. Soon thereafter, [someone from the company] saw Taylor Marks [his stage name] doing stand-up comedy in San Francisco one night and called me the next day to say, “I’ve got the guy. He’s perfect. He’s even looks like Plastic Man.” I auditioned Mark and said, “Look no further. That’s him.”

Mark Taylor and Steve Whiting

This newspaper article was too big for one scan.

How much of the segments were scripted versus ad-libbed?

Simmons gave me two writers, [both of] whom I’d worked with on previous shows. One was Steve Arwood, who wrote for Riders in the Sky out of Nashville, and the other was Rick Sanchec. Jeff gave Rick just enough of an advance check to come to California, but no money to get home until the shows were all written. He lived in the music room at my house and wrote day and night. We had the synopses of all the cartoons in written form, but we’d not seen all of the cartoons themselves. They also weren’t available for us to view. No home VCRs in those days.

Anyway, we wrote specific introductions and gags to most of the cartoons and then generic intros and gags that could be used as filler. For 130 half-hour shows, it was a lot material.

Then on the set, when we were taping the intros, outros, segues, and random bits, Mark and I would first look at each script and if it felt like it worked, we’d go with it. If it didn’t we’d use it as a springboard to ad-lib. A lot of the ad-lib stuff is among some of the best. We taped intros, wraparounds, and closes for about 3-4 weeks.

Meaning that you produced all the segments in 3-4 weeks? After that, no more Plastic Man shooting for the show?

It could have been up to six weeks of shooting. After that we went into post-production to integrate all of our live stuff. Each show had to time out to precisely 28:30, with the black holes for commercials built into the masters. That took several months.

How long (in pages) was a script?

For the live segments, the script was only about two pages per show.

Who made the costume?

Oh, wow, a stage costume designer based in San Francisco.

Were there ever characters besides PM in the segments? If not, did you want guest stars at any point?

There was no time to develop those kinds of elements. [However], Plastic Man did refer and bring out his relatives, including Plastic Wrap, Plastic Foil, Plastic Container, and others.

Any funny stories about shoots that went wrong? Accidents? Embarrassments?

Many. We had a great comedian playing a superhero in a leotard [among] grizzled old pro tech guys on a closed set. Funny stories aplenty. I’d have to run back the memory tapes with Mark and some of the crew that are still with me to decide the best that are also mentionable ones.

Were all the segments filmed on one set? Did you ever travel to film a segment?

All were done on a single sound stage.

How long did it take to shoot a typical segment?

There were no typical segments. The straight forward introductions and segue throwaways went quite quickly, and we could do two or three of those in an hour. When we were shooting shots that we knew we were going to manipulate in post-production using what was at the time very advanced DVE (Digital Video Effects), it took a lot longer. Stuff we did on green screen at that time was very precise and difficult to make work at all convincingly. Some introductions with effects and rigging by our gaffers and effects guys would take two or three hours to set up. When, on camera, our Plastic Man transforms from a tire to himself and moves right into an introduction, for example, it took about two hours to set up. It still stands up today…so to speak. Some great stage and video edit technicians put their heads together to make that work impressively for its time.

How did you get PM to join “security” for the Democratic National Convention?

At the time, I was not an unknown producer/director in the market and I used my access to get Plastic Man the credentials he needed.

You said at one point that the segments had generated $4 million. Do you mean in ad revenue?

Our PMCAS was sold into syndication as a first-run off-network series. What I was quoted as saying in terms of revenues referred to the ADI market sales figures. What the ad revenue figures actually were could only come from the stations themselves. It’s my understanding that the local stations [did] quite well with the series from their spot-ad revenues.

Have you done any other superhero projects since?

No, except for working with superstar athletes, musicians, and politician.

Have you ever been interviewed about PM for a comics-related publication?

I’ve done several interviews and been quoted with varying degrees of accuracy.

Do you still have any memorabilia related to the segments—scripts, promotional material, merchandise?

Yes, suppose I do. A portion of my personal tape archive vault is devoted to good old Plas. In a warehouse, I have some of the hand-painted set backdrops, props, T-shirts, fan photos, and who knows what all else.

What do you think about a live-action PM movie? Or should it be entirely CGI?

I feel the wife in The Incredibles was a total rip-off of Plastic Man. I think Plastic Man could be a tremendous live character concept outside of animation. I know exactly how it could and should be done…but I’m not telling.

Mark Taylor (Plastic Man—live action).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Super ‘70s and ‘80s: “The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show”—introduction

Introduction to series “Super ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Back Issue #3 (4/04) included a photo of the first (and still only) live-action Plastic Man, who hosted the syndicated version of the Plastic Man cartoon of the early 1980s.

That caption called him an “unidentified actor.” I wanted to get rid of that “un.”

A simple search revealed that he was Mark Taylor, but that did not automatically make the task easier. There are approximately 700,000 people in America named Mark Taylor (and by “approximately” I mean “random guess”).

Faced with such a generic name, I have found that the best option in minimizing the search time is this: forgo looking
directly for the person in question and rather find someone (with a less generic name) who knew the missing person. That is not always easy either, but in this case, it worked as desired. 

Easily found online, the producer of the live-action Plastic Man segments was a Steve Whiting—not only is Whiting a less common surname than Taylor, but it turned out that Steve had a site...and was still in touch with Mark.

Mark turned out to be a gem well worth the hunt. He
bravely shared one of the most touching and inspiring stories to come out of this entire series. It was apropos that Mark demonstrated how much some people need to stretch to save a life—including their own.

Images courtesy of Mark Taylor and Steve Whiting.

I got permission to post all images; if you want to repost, please do the same and ask me first.

Interviewed (2 parts):

Steve Whiting, producer/director
Mark Taylor (Plastic Man—live action)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Super ‘70s and ‘80s: “Bugs Bunny Meets the Superheroes”

Introduction to series “Super ‘70s and ‘80s.”

In the late 1970s, Rodger Hess produced a series of stage shows featuring live-action superheroes. This was one.

I got permission to post all images; if you want to repost, please do the same and ask me first.

Welcome to the first-ever oral history of Bugs Bunny Meets the Superheroes.

Performers interviewed:

Steve Cochran
Cate Fowler
Christine Gradl Seitz
Peter Kosta
Uriel Menson
Frank Stancati

Cate Fowler now

Christine Gradl Seitz now

Peter Kosta now

Uriel Menson now

Frank Stancati now

Notes I took during my initial contact with Cate Fowler:

  • there is a Cate Fowler with a website, but it’s not her
  • despite others’ speculation, it’s also not her on this poster:

Initial reaction from Christine Gradl Seitz:

What a surprise. I had to look twice at the subject heading…I literally did a double take thinking, what the heck…someone must be kidding! I have the fondest memories of those days!

[NOTE: I did not interview them at the same time; I combined their answers since they were part of the same production.]

How did you get a job with Bugs Bunny Meets the Superheroes?

Christine Gradl Seitz: It was my first NY audition. I went to this audition because I heard I could get my Equity Card doing this gig.
Peter Kosta: I saw an advert in The Stage and auditioned and was offered the part.
Steve Cochran: I auditioned in the summer of 1979 following my graduation from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I graduated from the Academy hoping and imagining my first job would be something major, like Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams. I remember halfway through the audition I knew I had a role. I called my mother and told her how disappointed I was. She asked “Does it pay? Do you get in Actor’s Equity? Do you travel?” [I said] “Yes to all of the above.” [So] I took the job and played Wile E. Coyote and the Joker in Bugs Bunny Meets the Superheroes touring the U.S. The following year I was Doc (the narrator) in The Bugs Bunny Follies, touring the U.S. and Canada. Then the Company Manager of the Venezuela tour of
The Bugs Bunny Follies and the United Kingdom tour of Bugs Bunny in Outer Space.

Courtesy of Steve Cochran.

Uriel Menson: I saw an ad in Backstage for an additional audition, the first of which I couldn’t get to. I hadn’t planned on going to it, but on my way somewhere else, I had a little extra time, so I stopped in at Showcase Studios (I think that was the name of the rehearsal studio, it’s long gone) and signed up to audition for Robin. I had loved to watch the show on TV when I was a kid. When I got the sides and read them over, I couldn’t stop laughing at the lines I was about to say. Typical Robin lines like “Holy gee willikers.” I pulled it together, went in to read, and stifling my desire to laugh out loud, I got through the lines. Guess I did a pretty good job since a few days later I got the call that I was hired.

What were you doing before BBMTS?

Cate Fowler: Working mainly in theatre and some TV.
Christine Gradl Seitz: I had just left college to move from Ohio to New York.
Frank Stancati: I had just gotten off a summer tour of Guys and Dolls.
Peter Kosta: I was in a West End play.
Steve Cochran: I performed in plays at Westwood High School in Westwood, New Jersey. Went to two years at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and graduated in 1977. I worked, as practically every actor I knew did, as a waiter. I had a terrific waiter’s job in the heart of the Broadway theater district.
Uriel Menson: I was Non-Equity going from audition to audition trying to get an acting job.

How old were you during the show?

Cate Fowler: In my early twenties.
Christine Gradl Seitz: I had just turned 19.
Frank Stancati: Hmm…27?
Peter Kosta: Twenties.
Uriel Menson: I was 26 when I started.

Which character(s) did you portray?

Cate Fowler: Wonder Woman.
Christine Gradl Seitz: Yosemite Sam and Catwoman (I think?).
Frank Stancati: The Penguin and Daffy Duck.
Peter Kosta: Sylvester the Cat and Robin.
Uriel Menson: Robin and Sylvester the Cat.

Cate Fowler as Wonder Woman, Peter Kosta as Robin; others unknown

How much did you know about those character(s) before your role in BBMTS?

Cate Fowler: Not that much really, although I knew who they were, of course!
Christine Gradl Seitz: Well, I grew up with these cartoons so I suppose I was fairly familiar with the characters.
Frank Stancati: A lot. I used to watch the Batman TV program as well as read the comics. Used to watch Bugs cartoons as a kid.

Which other characters were in the show?

Christine Gradl Seitz: I remember Foghorn Leghorn, Batman and Robin, the Joker, and Speedy Gonzales.
Frank Stancati: Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Riddler, Porky Pig, Road Runner, Speedy [Gonzales], Tweety, Sylvester.
Peter Kosta: Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Road Runner, Coyote Bill?, Wonder Woman, Tweety Bird, Joker, Penguin.
Uriel Menson: Other characters in the show were Batman, Riddler, Catwoman, Penguin, Commissioner Gordon, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Wiley Coyote, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Tweety Bird, and Speedy Gonzales. That’s all I can remember right now.

How much rehearsal did you do before the show opened?

Christine Gradl Seitz: I think we rehearsed for two weeks in beautiful Lake George, NY.

Where did you perform with BBMTS?

Cate Fowler: London and a UK tour.
Christine Gradl Seitz: We toured small towns in the Midwest—beats me where? But I remember performing in large arenas or coliseums.
Frank Stancati: It was an eight-month tour all over the country.
Peter Kosta: Brighton and Wembley [in the UK].
Uriel Menson: The first year (1979-1980) we performed mostly in the Eastern U.S., all up and down. The second half of the second year (1980-1981) we performed primarily in the Western U.S.

Photos courtesy of Uriel Menson.

For how long did you perform with BBMTS?

Cate Fowler: Three summer engagements.
Christine Gradl Seitz: I stayed with the tour for six months.
Peter Kosta: A summer season.
Steve Cochran: Superheroes, one year. Follies, nine months. Space, three or four months.
Uriel Menson: I was on the road with the group for a tour-and-a-half, from 9/79 to 6/80, and then again from 1/81 to 6/81.

How did the show work—i.e. how many shows a day, how many days a week?

Christine Gradl Seitz: I remember doing two-show days on weekends and I remember traveling by van from city to city. But I couldn’t tell you how many shows we did per week. I’m guessing sometimes six and sometimes eight?
Frank Stancati: Varied on our schedule. Sometimes up to three shows a day. Usually at least eight a week.
Steve Cochran: Often it was one show a day, sometimes twice a day, and at most three times a day. We did maybe ten shows a week. I do remember everyone being excited to play in Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum for ten days straight and having two or three shows a day with very limited time off. No one got to enjoy being home as we were so exhausted.
Uriel Menson: The schedule varied. It depended on how far we had to travel to each location and how many shows were booked. I think we played a maximum of three shows in any one day. We had days that were dedicated only to travel and an occasional day off. Sometimes we would arrive in a town in the afternoon after traveling all morning, set up, and do a show. Then sometimes we had to start to travel to the next town after finishing a show.

What was the show’s storyline?

Cate Fowler: Superhero, space, and sports shows.

Christine Gradl Seitz: I have no idea. I’m not sure there really was one...was there?
Frank Stancati: Porky’s birthday and [villains show up] trying to spoil it!
Steve Cochran: It was a surprise party for Porky Pig, and the villains, Joker, Riddler, Catwoman and Penquin wanted to celebrate “The Good Old, Bad Old Days” (the song they sung) by ruining Porky’s birthday. Batman and Robin save the day and Porky gets to have his party.

Was there music? If so, is there a list of the songs or even recordings of them anywhere?

Christine Gradl Seitz: One of [my songs] was “Anything You Can Do.” I still remember some of the choreography. However, I pray there is no recording of this out there…?
Frank Stancati: The villains had a song called “Bad Old Days,” which we sung live. Not aware of any recordings.
Peter Kosta: Yes, all on a click track. No commercial recordings that I know of.
Steve Cochran: It was a musical and the only numbers I recall were the opening which was the Looney Tunes theme song “This Is It” and the villains’ first act number [already mentioned].

What was a typical audience reaction?

Cate Fowler: Very enthusiastic (and noisy!).
Christine Gradl Seitz: I remember the kids in the audience laughing. But then there was this showgirl number…I suppose that was thrown in to appeal to the parents. That was always odd to me—and it seemed the audience was also baffled by it.
Frank Stancati: Audiences loved it! Madison Square Garden was a hoot. All my family came and even they loved it. At times it felt like we were rock stars!
Steve Cochran: Joy when the kids saw each of the characters. At the curtain call, they would swarm the foot of the stage.

Any notable goofs or accidents that happened during a performance?

Cate Fowler: Only when the stage manager was overly generous with the flash powder!
Christine Gradl Seitz: I recall having trouble now and then getting off the floor with that big Yosemite Sam headpiece on. Foghorn Leghorn would usually help me up!
Frank Stancati: Of course! Injuries did occur. I do remember one funny episode when Porky fell on stage and couldn’t get up. There was no “human” on stage at the time and most of the characters had no hands. They kind of rolled her into the wings.
Steve Cochran: Sure, lots. Wile E. Coyote’s trap for the Road Runner didn’t work once. My Coyote costume froze solid in Richmond, Virginia, when the temperature dropped below freezing one night. Jumped out of my Coyote feet. Had to roll Porky Pig off stage when she fell over and her costume wouldn’t allow her to stand up.
Uriel Menson: Over the course of a year and a half, you can believe there were antics, goofs, and spills both onstage and off.

Did you meet with fans afterward while in costume? If so, did you sign autographs?

Cate Fowler: Yes, pretty well after every show. I must have signed thousands of autographs.
Frank Stancati: No, the villains were never asked to do that. Sometimes we’d do local TV shows as ourselves.
Peter Kosta: No, but signed autographs at the stage door as ourselves.
Steve Cochran: We went to a school for the deaf and blind in Pittsburgh and were blown away as the children touched us to identify who we were. Occasionally, I did appearances as the Joker in Kings Dominion amusement park in Virginia and in a TV commercial in Buffalo with stunt car drivers.
Uriel Menson: It was a very rare occurrence when we would go out after a show to meet the audience, with the exception of one of our actors who played Batman. He enjoyed going out to meet the kids after a show, whether we were supposed to or not. I don’t remember any specific rules about it one way or the other. Most of us just wanted to get out of our hot costumes and get out of the venue. Those of us who could sign autographs on those few occasions where we did meet people, signed. Some characters had no hands to do it.

Did the show lead to other work for you?

Cate Fowler: Have continued working in the business, mainly TV and film, but never again as a superhero!

Do you still have a copy of the script?

Christine Gradl Seitz: You know, I think I do! I’d have to dig around but a few years ago I think I came across it...somewhere in some box...
Peter Kosta: No, all scripts were handed back.

What are you doing these days (professionally and personally)?

Cate Fowler: Working as an actress and presenter in London.
Christine Gradl Seitz: I am the artistic and executive director for a semi-professional theatre in Duluth, Minnesota. While we are known as a community-based theatre, we pay actors a small honorarium, but not weekly salaries, though we hire Equity actors now and then. We pay all staff and creative positions. So we consider ourselves as a semi-professional theatre.
Frank Stancati: After 30 years in the business as an actor and having a great career, I decided I needed a change. I am now a business representative for Actors’ Equity Association.
Peter Kosta: I am directing and producing as well as doing the odd acting role. I have helped start up an “Off-Off-Broadway”-style theater.
Steve Cochran: I work as Associate Marketing Director for TheatreworksUSA, a company producing theatre for young audiences across the United States and Canada.
Uriel Menson: I am going to as many auditions as I can for my next project, whatever that might be, and doing all sorts of odd jobs to keep the money coming in.

What was your reaction when you heard why I was contacting you?

Cate Fowler: Surprise.

If you have children and/or grandchildren, what do they think about your time as a superhero?

Cate Fowler: No kids.

Has anyone else ever interviewed you about your time with BBMTS?

Cate Fowler: No, although I did a lot of TV and radio interviews at the time.
Christine Gradl Seitz: No. And it is so fun to think back to those days—thanks for sparking my memories.
Frank Stancati: I have never been interviewed before.

Are you still in touch with anyone you performed with on BBMTS?

Christine Gradl Seitz: Not anymore. Living in Duluth has taken me far from those that I used to bump into on the streets of New York.
Peter Kosta: Yes, Genevieve (Genie) Davies, who played Porky Pig.
Steve Cochran: In the past year, I’ve touched base with a few of them. Some have passed away and still others I have no idea what happened to them.
Uriel Menson: On occasion I still see Steve Cochran and very rarely Rodger Hess and Genevieve Davis. W.W. Smith, who played one of our Batmen, is gone now.

Do you by chance have contact info (or ANY info) for other superhero/villain performers from the show? Names I’ve been told: Bonnie Young, Joni Massella, Joe Duquesne, Doug Boyes, Bill Covington, Joe Douquette, Robert Kellett, Charmian Clark, Jimmy May, Robert Weber, Lori Lynott...?

Cate Fowler: I have contacted Phil Compton who played Batman one year, and am waiting to hear back.

What is your fondest memory of the show?

Cate Fowler: The enduring friendships I made. So many of us are still in touch. I have visited the U.S. and only [in 2009] met up again in London with our two American dance captains.
Christine Gradl Seitz: Rehearsals. Lake George was like a vacation before the job. I have fond memories of traveling at times, however the van took its toll and sometimes we were crabby with each other. But all in all, we had a good group.
Frank Stancati: I had a great time on the tour. Of course, at times there were things to complain about. Sometimes the travel was long, but on the whole the cast was fun. We all got along for the most part and made lots of kids happy.
Steve Cochran: The sound of the kids as the show opened and the characters marched on stage. There is nothing like it when the lights dim and the kids yell in excitement.
Uriel Menson: My fondest memory of the show was my relationships and camaraderie with my fellow actors. We faced many adversities during the run of the show, but we stuck together and got through them. I most fondly remember my fellow actor Jim Morlock who played Riddler and Speedy Gonzales. Unfortunately, he passed in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, but he is well-remembered. We got to be good friends and I still miss him.

Next: The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Picture book for sale

Twelve reactions to my latest nonfiction work:

  • “[This] made me quite teary. [I]t’s a beautiful [story], and very nicely told”
  • “A great conversation piece, and I think boys would particularly like it”
  • “I have to say, I think the story is fantastic”
  • “Not only is [the] story an interesting, little-known slice of history, but the writing is quite lovely as well”
  • “We all had very positive reactions to it overall. What we all really loved, and what I am sure appeals to you, is that it is a war story but it’s one about reconciliation. That’s really both a lovely and unusual notion”
  • “I have read the story several times, and it is an unusual one with lots of good themes and excitement”
  • “[A] lovely paean to peace coming out of war”
  • “I was very moved”
  • “Compelling and well told”
  • “I was fascinated by this story of forgiveness and redemption. It’s so touching!”
  • “Haunting”
  • “There’s no question this has some compelling marketing hooks—and it’s a pretty unbelievable story in the first place”

Here is what they’re referring to:

But this is not the cover.

Rather not the only cover.

It’s one of seven covers, all as stellar as this one and all below, courtesy of the following illustrators:

Multiple covers by multiple artists would be unusual for most any book, but particularly for this book.

That’s because this book is not yet a book.

Each reaction above is from a different children’s book editor. Despite the fact that these reactions are positive, no publisher has acquired this picture book manuscript. The most recurring reason I’m told is because nonfiction—especially nonfiction about someone who is not a household name—doesn’t sell.

I understand that concern. I’ve seen the nonfiction picture book section at Barnes & Noble; it can make a grown biographer openly weep.

But I don’t rely primarily on the Last Chain Standing—or anyone else—to promote my books. The person, place, or thing I hold most responsible for that is me. These days, so much of a book’s fate depends on what an author is willing to do to spread the word.

I take very seriously the goal of keeping my books in print so I am in a perpetual state of conversation-starting both online and on stage; most venues that hire me to speak (from schools to conferences to JCCs to business luncheons to the Guam IRA Council) sell my books in conjunction.

I am still promoting books that are several notches past infancy. A recent result: this year, both NBC and PBS requested on-camera interviews about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman—which came out in 2008.

Somewhat conversely, and also in 2008, I began promoting a book that is coming out in 2012 (but at the time, I did not know when
ifit would come out).

You’ve likely never heard of Nobuo Fujita, the person at the center of Thirty Minutes Over Oregon—which only made me more eager to write about him. As I noted earlier this year, readers who like nonfiction tend to gravitate to stories they do not already know.

I am not a war buff, Japanophile, or Oregon native, yet this is one of the most personal stories
I’ve written. And in terms of stories I feel should be available for younger readers (any readers, really), this is one of the most important I’ve written.

So this summer, in reflecting on the rejections for Thirty Minutes Over Oregon, I found myself wanting a new way to try to assure editors that this project is not only vital but viable.

(Perhaps an omen: shortly after, I stumbled upon this quotation in a Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast interview with Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade: “Who wouldn’t rather be a trendsetter than a trend-follower? It’s way more satisfying, right? And though it’s riskier, all of us in publishing know that the up side is way greater, too.”)

In this transition period we
re in, many are worried about the future of print. Yet in pursuing the idea that struck me to try to turn this manuscript into a book, I would not surrender to the web but rather take advantage of it.

Problem was, that idea would require me to also take advantage of my fellow man, woman, and child. In particular, man, woman, and child illustrators.

How? Well, I shared most of the above with a select group of illustrators. Then I asked if they would create a mock cover for Thirty Minutes Over Oregon.

That’s not a big favor.

That’s a hubigge (a big wrapped in a huge) favor.

And yet—and to my surprise, actually—pro and kid alike graciously answered the call. You saw one pro contribution above. The rest are below, as are the covers created by kids…

...but first…

I gave no parameters, set no firm deadline, needed no preliminary sketches, made no revision requests. I didn’t even expect a polished final piece—I told the artists I would happily welcome whatever kind of draft they could allocate time to.

If I had not received the reactions I did on the manuscript, I would not have entertained this idea. But when people like what you’ve done yet still say no, it can intensify your determination to see the project realized.

Mike Rex wrote, “This idea of doing covers before a sale reminds me of how some low-budget studios would make up movie posters to get investors interested.” (These days all they’d have to do is say “It’s in 3D.” Or “It has penguins.” Preferably both.)

The mother of two of the young artists wrote, “The kids and I both found the story so interesting. [Also], as a special education teacher, this type of story is terrific for my classroom. I teach middle school students with low reading skills. I always love to come across work like yours—compelling, not too long, and easy to read.”

Considering I wrote a nonfiction picture book about Superman and one
on Batman due in 2012, it may seem I am typecasting myself, but I am interested in more than superheroes. In fact, I'm even more partial to real-life heroes.

Except in real life, heroism is not always as easy to classify.

Cue flap copy:

Thirty Minutes Over Oregon

Hiroshima. Dresden. London. Brookings?

Americans know the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii as one of the most infamous events of WWII. However, few on either side know that the next year, the Japanese also bombed mainland America—twice. Navy pilot Nobuo Fujita launched his two-seater seaplane off a submarine and hit the woods outside tiny Brookings, Oregon. He was the first (and still only) wartime enemy to complete an aerial attack on American soil.

None were hurt, but all involved were changed. Twenty years later, amid a blaze of controversy, Brookings invited Nobuo back. Though nervous, he felt an obligation to say yes. He brought his family's 400-year-old samurai sword, the same he had taken on every war mission. Always a man of honor and now a man of peace, he planned to gift it to the town. He would be devastated if his onetime targets did not forgive him...

The New York Times devoted a half-page to his obituary (which is how I learned of him).

Finally, here are all of the covers I’ve received to date.

From pros:

Tim Bush

Ralph Cosentino

Justin LaRocca Hansen

Kevin O’Malley

Mike Rex (on an iPad!)

Julia Sarcone-Roach

Brad Sneed

From kids:

Alex, age 9, CT

Alex, age 13, VA

Coby, age 10, IL

Tommy, age 10, MA (note what forms the zero in “30”)

My favorite is all of them. And of course, all rights to all mock covers remain with the artists. (Mocklifters will be prosecuted!)

Busy established artists would not have humored me with this unless they believed in the story. Kids would not have bothered with this (especially over summer vacation) unless they liked the story.

A parade of thank-yous to this dazzlingly talented group who donated time; people in high demand can be among the most generous. It’s been an honor “working” with each of you. Thank you also to the additional artists, pro and kid, who were game, but for whom the timing wasn’t right.

I make no secret of this: whatever else this public experiment is, ultimately, it’s a pitch. (Also available upon request: Thirty Reasons to Acquire Thirty Minutes

So in closing…

Librarians: Is this a book you can see adding to your collection?

Editors: Is this a book you can see?

10/6/11 addendum: See what happened next.

2/11/14 addendum: I finally sold it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Super ‘70s and ‘80s: “Batman and Robin Meet Dr. Danger”

Introduction to series “Super ‘70s and ‘80s.”

In the late 1970s, Rodger Hess produced a series of stage shows featuring live-action superheroes. This was one.

Of the ten shows/topics I’m covering in this series, this is, I believe, the only one that had literally no other Google-able presence online beforehand. And they say the Internet knows all.

I got permission to post all images; if you want to repost, please do the same and ask me first.

Performers interviewed:

Gary Meitrott
James Rebhorn

Gary Meitrott
James Rebhorn

[NOTE: I did not interview them at the same time; I combined their answers since they were part of the same production.]

How did you get the job on Batman and Robin Meet Dr. Danger?

Gary Meitrott: I auditioned for it. I had watched the TV series and I could mimic very well the actor who portrayed [Robin]. When I went into my act, I could tell the producer was sold on me.
James Rebhorn: I auditioned via an agent submission, although I was hired to do an earlier version of the show featuring only myself [as Batman] and Gary Meitrott, who played Robin. We toured the country playing shopping malls. It was a safety show for kids.

What were you doing before that?

Gary Meitrott: I was new to New York City. I had come to seek my fortune in the Big Apple on the Broadway stage,
James Rebhorn: Pretty much whatever I could do as an actor. Commercials, dinner theatre, showcases productions in New York, etc.

How old were you during the show?

Gary Meitrott: I was around 23-24.
James Rebhorn: I can’t recall my exact age, but I was in my early twenties.

How much did you know about those character(s) before your role in the show?

James Rebhorn: Having never read comic books, other than an occasional viewing of the original Batman TV show, I knew very little.

Where did you perform the show?

Gary Meitrott: We performed mostly in malls throughout the country. But for one performance, which was a special treat to me, [we performed] on the world famous Steel Pier on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
James Rebhorn: At shopping malls around the country and I think also at a park in Brooklyn.

For how long did you perform with the show?

Gary Meitrott: I was in it longer than Jim—two to three years.
James Rebhorn: On and off for about a year and a half, as I recall. Rarely were the gigs scheduled back-to-back, so there was a considerable amount of down time.

How much rehearsal did you do before the show opened?

Gary Meitrott: Initially this was treated like a play with a director and enough creative effort went into it to make me feel that I was a real actor playing a character in a performance piece.

How did the show work—i.e. how many shows a day, how many days a week? How much travel?

Gary Meitrott: We would work for two days on the weekend and do three or four shows a day. The show was about 30 minutes long.
James Rebhorn: Generally, we did three shows a day. Since the show was designed for kids, most of the time the engagements started on a Friday and ended on a Sunday. During the summer, we’d also play midweek. Gary and I both had microphones with remote control buttons that controlled a tape recorder. Dr. Danger’s lines were all-prerecorded. When it was his turn to speak, we pressed the remote control button. Gary and I traveled alone. We did all the setup and takedowns.

What was the show’s storyline?

Gary Meitrott: Robin fell under the spell of Dr. Danger and started to play with matches, broken glass, etc. Batman had to use the audience to shake me out of it! They succeeded!

What was a typical audience reaction?

Gary Meitrott: Very responsive. Depending on the size of the city and how well the promotion director did his/her job, we could have up to 4,000 people at a performance.

Any goofs or accidents that happened during a performance?

Gary Meitrott: Oh, yes, of course! It’s live theatre. One time we had multiple shows and we needed to get our costumes dry cleaned between shows; during the show, the cleaning solvent started to irritate and then eat our skin. I was whimpering saying my lines…I am a firm believer in the show must go on!
James Rebhorn: All the time, but none that I can specifically recall. Our skills at improvisation saved the bacon on many occasions.

What was the music like?

Gary Meitrott: No music.
James Rebhorn: Typical Batman stuff. “DadadadadadadaBatman!”

Did you meet with fans afterward while in costume? If so, did you sign autographs?

Gary Meitrott: Oh, yes. There would be long lines. And I very much enjoyed doing it. However, as I learned, security had to be in place and doing their job. Once security was not doing a good job and I pulled Batman away from the crowd and said we’re going! The management was not happy with me and I explained why I did it. Management did not take my first warning seriously. My action got their attention and response.

Did the show lead to other work for you?

Gary Meitrott: Yes, to the Rally DuPont Car Wax commercial. Flew out to LA, big-time commercial, big million-dollar director, big set, big crew. I was on cloud nine, making big money, thinking I had made it…not so!
James Rebhorn: Gary and I did a Batman and Robin commercial for Rally Car Wax. The ad opened with me sliding down the Batpole hearing Robin say, “Hurry, Batman, the Joker’s loose!” To which my response was, “Wait, Robin, the Batmobile needs waxing!” We had a blast.

Jim and Gary shooting commercial for Rally DuPont Car Wax.
Courtesy of Gary Meitrott.

What are you doing these days (professionally and personally)?

Gary Meitrott: I am teaching at a private college in Vermont. I am in the music and theatre departments. I have my own ethnic hand percussion school called Drum Journeys of Earth. I am the artistic director of Shakespeare on Main Street, an outdoor summer theatre. Between African, Cuban, Haitian, Brazilian, and Middle Eastern percussion and directing Shakespeare, I am in paradise! I live in the woods in a very small “hobbit hut” and have a compost outhouse for the past 16 years. I completed my Masters in conscious studies from Goddard College and my focus is ecstatic trance. I have a live event called Soul Bath Trance Dance with a ten-member band called the Twice Baked Orchestra. We take people on a journey to collective joy!
James Rebhorn: I’m currently working on a new Comedy Central series called Big Lake. [It debuted in 2010 and co-starred former Saturday Night Live cast members Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz. James has appeared in numerous other films and TV shows including Independence Day, Scent of a Woman, and the series finale of Seinfeld.]

If you have children and/or grandchildren, what do they think about your time as a superhero?

Gary Meitrott: I have two nieces and nephews. My two sisters each had a boy and a girl. My sister Melody and her children are considerably older than my younger sister, Merilee, and her two children. Melody’s children would have remembered most likely. I cannot recall their reaction.
James Rebhorn: They were both born after my Batman days and don’t see my career in spandex as having much relevance to their lives. Good for them!

Has anyone else ever interviewed you about your time with the show?

James Rebhorn: No.

What was your reaction when you first heard I was contacting you about your time as a superhero?

Gary Meitrott: A great ball of joy exploded inside of me, with a smile that hurt my face muscles with incredible sensations of memories flashing before me.

What is your fondest memory of the show?

Gary Meitrott: Working with Jim Rebhorn. I was going through my martial arts moves and Jim gave me this knowing look and then the inflection of his voice let me know I had tickled him. He was fond of saying, “Gary, you are a constant source entertainment.”
James Rebhorn: Working with Gary. We had a great time and played well off of each other.

Are you still in touch?

Gary Meitrott: Very infrequently with Jim. I have worked with two other Batmans. With one of them it was just a professional relationship, but the other I became good friends for years after we worked together. I do not know if he is still alive now. His name is Dan Deray.

Thank you for your time and memories.

Gary Meitrott: It’s been a pleasure to speak of this with you. You have an authentic depth to you that I can tell brings not only pleasure but a depth of human connection that I find missing in most instances.

Addendum: James Rebhorn passed away on 3/21/14.

Next: Bugs Bunny Meets the Superheroes.