Friday, December 11, 2015

Singing with Karen and Richard

Me singing with The Carpenters.  I was the kid closest to Karen

Blast From The Past
Back in 1973, when I was in the sixth grade, The Carpenters had a hit song that charted at #3.  The song was "Sing."  The song had a children's chorus.  When The Carpenters toured in 1973, they had a tourdate in Rexburg, Idaho at Ricks College.  Their manager scouted ahead to all of the cities where they were to play and made contact with the district music teachers to find the best sixth grade class to sing with the group.  My sixth grade class at Lincoln Elementary School was selected.

We practiced for weeks.  The Carpenters were doing two performances back to back so they split our sixth grade class in two equal halves.  I was selected to be in the late show.  Because I was the shortest kid in our class, I was put on the end.  When we marched out on stage, the lights were bright and we were excited.  The song started and we sang.  During her vocals, Karen came over and stood next to me. crouched down and put her arm around me and sang to me.  I was the only one in our group that Karen sang to.

I was in love.  We were all in love.

Thank you Renee Whitehead for posting this pic

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Kevin Locke

Influences

Sometimes you know someone for a long time and they influence your life.  Sometimes you know someone for a short time and they influence your life.  Then there is happenstance.  When I was in graduate school at Mankato State University, one day I happened to be hungry at noon.  I happened to have some free time.  I happened to have just enough money in my pocket to get a sandwich from the student union.

At noon, on the quad at MSU, they would sometimes have an open mic where anyone could say anything they wished.  Other times they would bring people in to talk or entertain.  I'm sure there was a system, but to me it seemed random.  You never knew what you were going to get when you crossed the quad.

On this particular day that everything happened to be in place for me to get a sandwich from the Student Union, I reached the quad and there was a Native American in full regalia dancing.  I have always been interested in all things Native American and I stopped and watched his show.  I was mesmerized.  I forgot my hunger.

He was hoop dancing.  I had seen some hoop dancing on television but only a little. This guy had scattered a bunch of hoops all across the ground and would dance over a hoop and with his toes and legs would work it up his body.  Then another and another.  I don't know how many he had but there were at least twenty.  With these hoops, he made all the traditional forms.  I was transfixed.  At the end of his routine, he worked all the hoops into an interlocking doughnut around his body.  The music stopped and he placed his hands on top of the doughnut and pushed it down to the ground.  As he stepped out of the doughnut, it snapped into a sphere.

Then he talked in the microphone.  He talked about the circle and it's symbolism.  He talked about his hoops.  There were four colors of hoops in his kit.  There were red ones, black ones, white ones and yellow ones.  He talked about the four colors as the four winds and the four directions and then he talked about the four colors of man.  Red, black, white and yellow.  He talked about how each is important to the other and if one was gone the whole thing would collapse.  He then pulled a random hoop out of the kit and the sphere sprang apart.

Paradigm shift!  His show made me want to be a better person.

I kept that lesson with me and have thought about it often.  Probably a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought about that dance and the lessons I learned from it.  To this day I don't recall if I made it to the Student Union for that sandwich, but I do remember the profound lesson I learned by watching him dance.  I believe it was the first time in my life I shed tears while viewing a dance.  That was about twenty-five years ago.

I got a job in 2000 teaching at Brigham Young University-Idaho.  We have a program there called "Center Stage" where they bring acts in from all over the world to perform for the student body and the local community.  We've had Chinese acrobats, French mimes, Japanese drummers and many many others.  It's pretty amazing what they bring in to this town that is otherwise in the middle of nowhere.

I talked to the guy in charge of Center Stage when I first got here about this Native American guy I had seen who had changed my life all those years ago.  I asked him to bring the guy in because I wanted to expose his teachings to our studentbody.  Problem is, I didn't know who he was.  It took awhile, but I finally tracked him down and discovered his name was Kevin Locke.  His website can be found here.

Center Stage gets booked sometimes years in advance and it took a long time, but we finally got Kevin Locke booked at BYU-Idaho.  I volunteered to host him while he was here.  It was a dream come true for me.  I was a little nervous.  What if he wasn't as cool as I had remembered him?  What if he was aloof?  What if?  What if? What if?

We scheduled three master classes with Kevin, and I spent two days with him.  I found him to be one of the most genuine individuals I have ever known.  He transitioned me from groupie to friend in moments.

Our first master class was with the theatre students.  Kevin is a storyteller as well as a dancer.  The second master class was with the music students because Kevin plays the Native American Flute, an instrument he has rescued from the brink of extinction.  He said that when he takes the flute to different Native American groups, people come to him and give him gifts of song.  They'll give him a song their families sang and played.  Songs that hadn't been played on a flute for fifty years or more.  Then we had the master class with the dance students.  He brought his regular hoops and then he brought many others that he allowed us all to use as he taught us to dance.  Most of us looked pretty silly as we attempted to do what he did.  It was a great couple of days.

The second night he was here, he did a performance for Center Stage.  His performance was a mixture of dancing, storytelling and flute playing.  He also did the dance with the hoops where he made the doughnut around his middle and turned it into a sphere.  Just as I had remembered it from all those years before.  He talked about the four winds, the four directions and the four colors of man.  The audience loved his show.

I had my sons with me for that performance.  They loved the show.  I hope it was life changing for them as it was for me.  I don't think it shifted their paradigms, though because I have taught them those lessons all of their lives.

I took my boys to meet Kevin after the show.  He was absolutely gracious.  A great man.  And I finally got to hang out with him.  I have a great life.

Thank you Kevin.

Kevin Locke and me

Kevin greeting people after the show

Kevin with me and my boys


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Rexburg, Idaho Air Show

Me in Ole Yeller!  P-51 Mustang

Rexburg, Idaho:  Flight Museum and Airshow
The town in which I live has a flight museum, mainly devoted to WWII propeller driven aircraft, but a few exhibits that are older and some that are newer.  Rexburg is a small town, so to have this kind of history is pretty cool.

The main feature of the museum are the P-51 Mustangs.  The P-51 Mustang was a single engine fighter that was designed and built later in the war by the Americans and the British.  The airplane was an American design and American engineering with a British made Rolls Royce engine.

Before the Mustang, the heavy bombers flying over Germany had a terrible attrition rate.  They were being shot down by the Luftwaffe at an incredibly high rate.  The fighter escorts they had before the Mustang were short range and couldn't go the distance.  The German air force knew the range of the previous fighters and would hang out at the turnaround point and then shoot the bombers out of the sky.

That all changed when the Mustang came about.  The Mustang had a long enough range to fly from England to Berlin and back again.  Not only that but it was fast, elegant, could fly at high altitudes or low.  The Mustang had wing mounted machine guns and could carry a torpedo beneath.  The wings were also fitted with drop tanks to increase the range.  There was no other plane that could compete with the P-51 Mustang.

There were other planes that on a single attribute may be better than the Mustang, but no other airplane did everything as well as the Mustang did.  Once the Mustang entered the war, we lost very few heavy bombers because of it.  When Hermann Goring, the head of the Nazi Luftwaffe saw the first Mustang fly over Berlin, he declared the war to be lost.

Today there are an estimated 150 P-51 Mustangs in the world that are flight worthy.  Rexburg, Idaho has three of them on display most of the time.  Most of the time, meaning when they aren't in the air...

The Mustang is my very favorite military aircraft of any war at any time.  It is truly an elegant bird.

Last year, for the Memorial Day airshow, one of the curators of the flight museum asked me to supply him with costumed actors to work as ushers for the event.  I helped him out and in return I got to sit in the most famous P-51 of all, Ole Yeller!  Old Yeller still has the speed record for a single engine, propeller driven airplane flying coast to coast in the United States.  It was owned by Bob Hoover and he set that record years ago.  He sold it to a man here in Rexburg who is an airplane enthusiast.  The Smithsonian wanted it, but they would have put it in a static display and it would have never flown again.  Hoover sold it to the gentleman in Rexburg because he knew Ole Yeller would continue to fly.  He couldn't conceive of a world in which Ole Yeller wouldn't fly.

Every year on Memorial Day there is an airshow, free of charge for the public here.  50,000 people show up sometimes.  Typically, my family and I drive down to Moreland, Idaho to visit my father's grave site and we miss the airshow.  Last year, I caught the first part of it.  While my family was getting ready, I walked over to the park with my camera and took a few photos.  Sadly, we had to leave before they brought out the Mustangs.

Here are some pictures.

Starting with Ole Yeller

And the Mormon Mustang

Yellow Bi-Plane first pass

WWII or Korean War vintage

and it's Marine counterpart

I think this is a Korean War vintage aircraft

Yellow Bi-Plane second pass

Here's that plane again

And it's brother

And a crop duster

The red Bi-Plane

Big ole boy

Banking

Red Bi-Plane second pass

All in all, this is a pretty cool place to live.  It's a small town, and yet there is so much to do here.  What other town this size could boast three P-51 Mustangs?

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Zombaby

The raw materials for making a Zombaby

So, my secretary asked me, "WHY?"  to which I responded, "Why wouldn't I?"

Around Halloween of last year, I was making potion bottles for The Hot Chick's witches kitchen.  I found some blue goo in a brain shaped package.  The top of the package was hard plastic and just the right size...  I started thinking it was time to revisit my zombie nursery.  Yes, I have a zombie nursery.

Halloween came and went, Once Halloween is over (I consider Halloween to last between September 19th, International Talk Like a Pirate Day and November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day) I have been forbidden to make any Halloween props until after Christmas.  I cheat a little, but essentially I give the Hot Chick the whole month of December.

After New Years, I got busy with work, very busy with work, so it took me awhile to get started making props.  I took the plastic brain case to a thrift store and compared it to all the discarded baby dolls and found one that looked just right.

I bought a new thing of brain putty at the dollar store, though so I could take a picture of it to post here.  It was only a buck and I may want to do this again (again, again, again...)

I paid a buck for the brain putty, then I threw away the brain putty and saved the package.  That's the kind of Halloween nerd I am.

Brain goo package, notice the absence of the brain goo

A perfect fit.  I'll be you can guess where this is going.

Step #1:  Exposing the Brain
Once the brain goo package was fitted to the doll's head, I made a jaggedy line, just smaller than the plastic brain, with a sharpie pen.  Then I used a utility knife to cut a hole in the top of the doll's cranium.

I fitted the brain to the inside of the hole and found it fit perfectly.  To hold it in place, I tacked it with hot glue.  I like hot glue on lots of things, but I don't trust it on this kind of plastic.  So once I had the brain where I wanted it to be and had it tacked down, I cut a small hole in the back of the doll's head and filled the skull with Great Stuff.  I figured the expanding foam would keep the brain in place.  I was right.

The mark

Brain surgery

Nothing there

The brain in place

The skull filled with Great Stuff

Step #2:  The Paint Job
This is really a simple project.  Two steps.  Step one, brain surgery, step two paint job.  Done.

I first covered the plastic with mastic.  I use mastic alot when I'm doing props.  It gives a great surface to paint on.  Plastic is notorious for not holding paint, so I use mastic.  No problem then.

I used some acrylic paint to give the skull it's grey matter look, then I took some red and green acrylic paint to make lines and veins in it.  Everything was mottled in the paint job.  Two or three different greys for the base coat etc... Messy

The basic paint job on the brain

Once that was dry, it was time to work on the complexion.  This doll was way to perky.  It needed to be a little deader.  So I took it to the fume hood and found some grey primer spray paint and gave it a little dusting.  First, though I covered it's eyes with masking tape because I wanted to deal with them later.

Covering the eyes with masking tape

Zombie color

At this point I decided the clothes were way too clean and needed to be dirtied up a bit.  I found a few different colors of spray paint and mussed them up a bit.

Mussed up
Then it was time to deal with the eyes.  I removed the masking tape and then found some UV paint that goes on kind of pasty white but glows blue under blacklight.  Zombabies ought to have glowing blue eyes I think.

Finally, it was time to bloody it up a bit.  I used a bright red acrylic paint for the first coat, then I used alizarin crimson for the darker blood color.  The final piece of the puzzle was the blood splatter.  I used a toothbrush in the alizarin crimson and ran my thumb across the bristles.  Zombaby done.

Removing the masking tape

Masking tape gone

Pasty blue UV paint on eyes

Painting the spatters

Zombaby done
This is the latest addition to my zombie nursery.  I think she'll fit in just fine!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mrs. Thompson

Influences

I attended Lincoln Elementary School in Rexburg, Idaho.  I have a lot of memories of Lincoln Elementary, but most of them weren't life changing or influential.  My memories of the third grade and Mrs. Thompson were though.

Rexburg, Idaho in the 1960's and 1970's was not an ethnically diverse town.  The only African Americans I had ever seen in Rexburg was when the Harlem Globetrotters came to town.  There was a junior college there at that time named Ricks College and there was an occasional person of color attending as an athlete. Most of the time they were from Africa or Jamaica or Brazil, though.  Very few actual African Americans attended the school in those days.

We had a Native American boy in my grade who was being fostered by a white family.  When I got to junior high and high school there were a few Native Americans and a few Mexicans.  I was friends with the three Native American kids but the Mexicans kept to themselves.  By the time I got to High School I had had exactly one conversation with a black guy.  He was a worker in West Yellowstone, where I spent my summers.  I remember he was fun to talk to.  In other words I didn't have much to go on where ethnicity was concerned.  I wasn't prejudiced though, just inexperienced.

In a town as ethnically static as Rexburg was at that time, it would have been easy to develop mistrust or suspicion, especially when television was our only source of information.  Most of the black people we saw on the tube were criminals, drug addicts, athletes etc...  No true reality there.  Pretty unfair really.  It could have been bad here except for an elementary school teacher named Mrs. Thompson.

She was my third grade teacher.  I was in the third grade in 1970.  Vietnam was raging.  The Civil Rights Movement was in full force.  Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated just two years before.  Mrs. Thompson showed us images of the freedom marchers being mowed down with fire hoses.  We had nothing to compare to it here in Idaho and I remember asking myself, "What country is that happening in?  How could people do that to other people?"  I literally thought she was showing images from other countries.

She told us how black people in the south were not allowed to use the same bathroom as white people.  She told it in such a way that us impressionable third graders found it horrific.  I didn't know much about black or white or yellow or red in those days, but because of Mrs. Thompson I knew what was right and what was wrong.

Because of television and the way blacks were portrayed in the late sixties, early seventies, and the fact that I had never been around African Americans, I could have grown up prejudiced.  Because of Mrs. Thompson I did not.  I have thought of her often and the influence she had on my life.

Today, the junior college has transformed into a fairly sizable university called BYU-Idaho.  There are a great many students of color here now, and many of them are American blacks.  Several childless couples adopted black babies and reared them here.  My kids all had black friends in school.  The senior class president, when we moved back to Rexburg in 2000 was an African American kid who had been adopted by white parents.  And the black kids here are just kids.  The other kids don't think anything of it because to them they are just friends.  This is a different town today than the one I left in 1984.  A more diverse town.  It's a better town now.

Thank you Mrs. Thompson for setting the stage.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Bill Sweeney

Influences

This will be the first of many posts based on people who have influenced my life.  These people are the reason I became me.

After graduate school, I went to Buffalo, New York to work in a LORT-B theatre named the Studio Arena Theatre.  In addition to that theatre, I also worked as a freelance artist in all of the other small community theatres in Buffalo.  Things were going really well and I was always working.  Then the carpet was yanked from under my feet.

It was about this time that Senator Jesse Helms went after the National Endowment for the Arts based on a few shows whose merit he questioned.  He was a powerful senator and successfully pulled the plug on the NEA.  The Endowment cut arts funding by 75%.  NYSCA (New York State Commission on the Arts) also cut funding, as did Erie County and the City of Buffalo.

I was doing a show for the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre and the Artistic Director came to me and said, "Gary, I'm sorry but all of our funding has been cut.  You will have to take a percentage of the gate for your salary."  I was working as a scene designer and a technical director for them and I worked on the show for about two weeks.  They didn't have a lot of money anyway, so when the budget was spent the show had to be completed with sweat equity.  My sweat equity.  Since they had been so reliant on the government grants for their entire existence, they had never bothered to develop an audience.  As the son of a theatre owner, I can tell you that the biggest asset a theatre has is it's audience.  When the show closed, the Artistic Director paid me $37.54.  It factored out to about thirty cents an hour.  It was time to do something else.

By this time, and for personal reasons I had resigned from the Studio Arena Theatre.  I have to say that the Studio Arena Theatre was the most dysfunctional theatre I have ever been a part of.  From the management to the staff.  They were so dysfunctional that they closed their doors forever a few short years after I resigned.  There was no more money for me in the local theatre scene due to funding cuts so I found work wherever I could.  I put tubes of toothpaste into boxes for one of my jobs.  One time I found myself out of work and decided to apply for unemployment.  The red tape I was going to have to wade through to get my benefits seemed like a full time job.  It was going to take so much time to get the benefits and so much effort that I just went out and got another job.  I have never drawn a cent of unemployment insurance.

I ended up as a salesman for Ed Taylor Lincoln Mercury.  I had never sold cars before, in fact I had sold very little in my life so it was a very new experience for me.  The dealer would see sales decline after December every year and would order his sales manager to "Hire more salesmen!"  He would hire a bunch of salesmen in January, train them, work with them and by April when the sales still hadn't picked up he would fire them.  Then the dealer would say, "Hire more salesmen!" but before the sales manager could do that, sales started to pick up and it was forgotten.  The dealer never seemed to figure out that car sales are down from January to April.  He thought hiring more salesmen would fix it.  It never did.

One of the salesmen he hired during this phase was a jolly Irishman named Bill Sweeney.  Bill wasn't from Ireland but his grandparents were.  Bill had made his whole living in car sales, even being a dealer out in the country.  Mainly, Bill sold trucks but I suspected he sold himself more.  Bill and I were assigned to share a cubicle on the sales floor.  I learned more about automobile sales from Bill Sweeney than I did from the sales manager.  I also learned from him that it is possible to be an honorable man and an automobile salesman.

Ed Taylor Lincoln Mercury was a track store, meaning there was a particular way sales were managed.  At the first sign of trouble, the sales manager would come out on the floor and take over the sale, which usually meant he would cut the price down to dealer invoice and keep the rebate for himself or the dealer.  That meant that everyone in the dealership made money except the salesman.  Every time he took over one of my sales, my gross went down to nearly nothing and I had to settle for what we called a skinny.  The bare minimum commission.  It was hard to make money that way.

The sales manager never interfered with Bill's sales.  Bill would fish his customers.  Take them on a test drive, negotiate the price, let them go home and think about it and eventually reel them in and make the sale.  Bill always grossed high on his sales.  That drove the sales manager absolutely crazy.  Bill had stacks of notebooks with the names, addresses, phone numbers and details of the sale on every person he had ever sold.  When he came to work at Ed Taylor Lincoln Mercury he sent a personal letter to all of his customers telling them where he was and what he was selling.

I was amazed at the number of people who came there to buy whatever it was that Bill Sweeney was selling.  Bill kept logs on every sale.  He also worked out a deal with the shop to get lube jobs done at a cheaper price.  Three months after he sold a car, Bill would call his customer and trade his car for theirs and take it to the shop to have a lube job on him.  He always paid for the first one.  They were on their own after that.  It really cost him very little but the loyalty he received in return made his customers come back for more.  I always got the sense that his customers were not Ed Taylor's.  They were there for Bill Sweeney.

I learned many things from Bill Sweeney.  Things I have used in other places in other contexts but they always work.  I ended up delivering pizza for awhile a few years after working with Bill.  Every time I walked out of the store with a delivery, I told myself that these were not Dominos Pizza's customers, they were my customers.  I got that from Bill.

The best thing I got from Bill Sweeney, though was this saying, "Perfect will be good enough."  Thank you Bill Sweeney.