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Extremities: As Seen on TLC’s ‘Hoarding: Buried Alive’ – Hoarder Mary Thompson Takes Her Life Back One Piece at a Time

May 19, 2010 8 comments

Illustration of Old Mother Hubbard, from a 192...

Image via Wikipedia

UPDATE: My friend Mary Thompson’s hoarding got her featured on TLC and since the story I wrote about her last year she’s made steady progress decluttering her home and her life.  So much so that she’s been able to reclaim the furniture she had to move out to make room for her stuff and she’s thrown off the shackles of her old job for a new one. She proves one is really never too old to change.

The first time I went to Mary Thompson’s home to get  my taxes done I knew I’d walked into a story.  She is a hoarder with a compulsion to collect a seemingly endless number of things and an inability to throw anything away.  For years neither she nor I made any comment about the condition of her place.  But the mass of stuff everywhere, the difficulty moving around in her home, the fact that even the staircase was littered with things, plus the ever-present cats, all amounted to the 800-pound gorilla in the room that even though never acknowledged always weighed heavy on our meetings.

As Mary and I got to know each other better, and I shared some of my own eccentric, even addictive tendencies, we began to talk a bit more openly about ourselves. Then one day I flat out asked if I could profile her for an Omaha publication, making sure she understood that meant discussing her affliction with hoarding.  She agreed. Nothing came of it until late 2009 when she called to tell me she was going to be profiled on a cable TV reality series about hoarders. So we chose that as the hook to hang my story about her on, as my editors might put it.  The resulting piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and I am pleased to report that Mary liked what I did with it, neither overdramatizing her story nor avoiding its extremities, the word I chose for the title or headline.  Mary is much more yet than what I portray in the piece, but given the space limitations I had to work with I think I captured enough of her to satisfy both of us.

My story about Mary’s late mother, the equally eccentric Lucile Schaaf, can be found on this blog as well.  It’s entitled. “Lucile’s Old Market Mother Hubbard Magnificent Obsession.”

Extremities: As Seen on TLC’s ‘Hoarding: Buried Alive’ – Hoarder Mary Thompson Takes Her Life Back One Piece at a Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The front door to this Old Mother Hubbard house opens to reveal a small, vibrant woman who gingerly ushers you inside. The caution is a concession to the bursting-at-the-seams interior, where there’s but inches to spare in any direction due to a staggering assortment of things splayed out before you. Wherever you look, a pastiche of shapes, colors and masses catches your eye. A sprawling assemblage of grab-bag miscellany.

If this were a department store warehouse, the sheer volume of goods heaped about in piles, columns, stacks and bundles would rightfully be called inventory. Only this is retired IRS agent Mary Thompson’s home. All three floors over-brim this way. As do the basement and storage spaces under eaves and stairs.

So what does that make this snarl of odds and ends? Junk? Not unless you count Fifth Avenue designer hats junk. Not everything is so swank. But hoarders like Mary have strong emotional attachments to everything they own. Nothing is inconsequential to them.

Her affliction is profiled Sunday at  9 p.m. in the TLC series, Hoarding: Buried Alive. A crew twice visited her Little Italy home to chart her journey of surrender.

In a recent interview at her place, she said, “It’s become easier for me to disown things, to give up ownership.” A daughter, Becca, helps her sort through the maze for recycling or Goodwill donation. She said her mother’s tendency to ritualize the sorting draws out the process.

Yet, a second-floor den previously inaccessible is now an oasis or sanctuary amid the chaos. A spot where Mary can relax alone or entertain guests.

“I love it — the feeling that I get from having an empty place where I can come in, sit down, have a glass of wine, and visit,” she said. “I have a place that’s clear. I walk through this empty space and it feels so good.”

The rest of her home however is so constricted she barely has room to sleep on the floor. Her main furniture is “visiting” other homes for lack of anywhere to put it in her own. What’s there is buried under mounds of mishmash. The organized clutter represents her eclectic interests and fixations on display: hats and cashmere sweaters (hundreds each), dresses, costume jewelry, luggage, thousands of books, board games, silverware sets, catering equipment, tools, office supplies…

It’s not that she’s so possessive she won’t give anything away. Her daughter-in-law, Christy, said, “she’ill give you the shirt off her back. She’s very kind.” For all her generosity though, Christie said her mother-in-law can’t stand to part with anything if she doesn’t know what’s going to happen with it.

Suggest her possessions must represent a lifetime’s collecting and Mary says, “No, this accumulation is just from 1986.” The bungalow next door is hers, too — the basement stuffed; the garage between the two dwellings completely filled as well.

Then there’s the cats. Feral ones outside and domesticated ones indoors.

Big house items are packaged, bagged, boxed, loose. Mirrors and paintings adorn walls. Vases line mantels. Even the staircase is a makeshift storage conveyor.

“I’ve been collecting stuff forever,” said Mary, whose late mother, Lucille Schaaf, was an eccentric known for her acquisition of all things Christmas and of architectural remnants. Lucille was dubbed the Christmas Lady for the elaborate Xmas displays she mounted and the Lady in Orange for her penchant of dressing in orange from head to foot. She became one of the original Old Market denizens.

Mary, who does not argue she is an eccentric herself, is variously known as the Hat Lady, the Tax Lady and the Tax Witch.

“I’m what a lot of people refer to as a collector’s collector,” she said, “because if they’re looking for something specific they can call me, and if I don’t have it I know where I can find it. I probably use that to justify my junk shopping.”

Since the TLC shoot she said she’s only been to a thrift or pawn shop once. “In a sense it’s like withdrawal,” she said of dropping her old habit.

Her children long pestered her to clean house. It’s not like she was oblivious to its disarray. She acquired self-help books with the titles Simply Your Life, Organize from Within and Let It Go. “I’ve been trying,” she said. “That’s hard.” She appreciates the disconnect between intent and reality.

She’s paid a price for her home’s over-run condition, saying her children “didn’t even want my grandkids to come over because they feared for their safety. What does it take to admit you have a problem and you need some help?” In her case, she said, it took committing to the TLC program before admitting “I should probably do something about it.” She found TLC’s call for hoarders on Craig’s List and responded, never imagining she’d be selected.

“When she made the first step I knew she was going to make it work,” said Christy, whom producers flew in for the taping. “Others tried helping before but she wasn’t ready to do it. She’s come a long way.” “We’re really proud of her,” said Becca.

The show stipulated Mary work with a psychologist and professional organizer. Her family agreed to lend support. and Mary agreed to accept it. She said her family’s been “super” pitching in with the purge that proceeds ever so slowly.

When the crew arrived the first time in December, she said, “I had accepted it and I was ready for it.” She said the experience turned out to be “one of the funnest things I ever signed up for.” Her only worry was the crew “breaking something.” She said “they were gentle up to a point.” Only a couple mishaps, The consensus of the family is the crew were sensitive to Mary’s situation, not exploitive.

Producer Krys Kornmeier said, “I feel my job is to tell these people’s stories as honestly and genuinely as I can.” She said she hopes viewers come away aware there is no “quick-fix” for compulsive hoarding. “It’s an ongoing issue that needs ongoing support and I think Mary’s got a great family that’s supportive.”

Christy said Mary went through highs and lows during the filming but handled the intrusion and transparency well. “They were long days, but she was a trouper.”

Kornmeier added, “Mary was gracious and funny. She went along with it, but I’m sure she had moments. It’s really hard to ask for help when you’re as independent and competent as she is.” As for comparisons, she said some subjects “have less stuff, some have more stuff, but what they all have is too much stuff, and they’re all overwhelmed in some form or another by their stuff. Mary’s included in that.”

She said what Mary did to go from “goat trails” to clearing out a salon-like sitting room marked real progress. “She was as excited as I was to see it.”

Weeks after the shoot, hints of denial persist. For example, Mary said when she watches other hoarders on TLC she concludes, “I don’t think I’m as bad as a lot of them.” What she calls “my multitasking” and “hints of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)” interfere with her progress. “I sometimes get easily distracted,” she said. The incessant phone calls she takes from folks seeking tax advice interrupt the clean-up. She runs the local AARP office’s tax assistance program, one of many activities that keep her on the go.

“It’s frustrating, but I’m the one who has offered myself to everybody. I sometimes find I don’t understand the word or the concept no.”

Still, with the help of Becca and a handyman named Stanley, Mary’s feeling a sense of relief and hope she can reach her goal of having enough cleared away by her July 5 birthday to move her furniture back in. Others aren’t so optimistic but they note that at least she’s visualizing action steps.

“People say there’s even a difference in me, that I seem much lighter and freer, that I’m excited talking about getting this done,” said Mary. “Well, I am, I really am. I don’t regret it. It’s one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever embarked on.”

If nothing else, she said, “I realize I’m not alone in this.”

As for having her story out there, she said, “when it’s going to be on television it’s not going to be pretty.” She expects people “might be embarrassed” for her. Some are sure to be shocked she lives like this. “I’ll get over it,” she said. “Everybody’s got some of those tendencies — what’s wrong with being truthful?”

The task ahead is daunting as she’s barely scratched the surface of what’s a multi-year project. The removal of an object or a bin-full can take days or weeks. as she must convince herself she can let it go. Becca said, “It’s baby steps. She recognizes that and we recognize that. If we were to get in there and really push and not have any respect for her emotions then we would lose her immediately. She has to make those decisions. I’m not going to deny her that.”

Mary’s self-aware enough to know she’s not there yet.

“I’m still working on it. It’s a work in progress. I’ve got a long way to go. But I made up my mind, I’m going to get it done, I am going to get it done, I will have it done.”

Lauro Play ‘A Piece of My Heart’ Dramatizes the Role of Women in War Zones

May 19, 2010 8 comments

Vietnam Women's Memorial

Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr

This is a story I did about a play whose subject matter brought me into contact with some women who fulfilled various capacities during wartime service, whether as nurses or USO performers.  The women I interviewed are sort of the real-life equivalents of some of the characters in the play.

The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and I hope you find the words of the women, fictional and nonfictional alike, as gripping as I did.

 

Lauro Play ‘A Piece of My Heart‘ Dramatizes the Role of Women in War Zones

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As U.S. military action in Iraq unfolds, old war stories take on new capital. With women now on the front lines, their wartime roles gain added import. While their presence on the battlefield is new, American women have participated on the sidelines of war — as nurses, clerks, reporters, missionaries, performers — for generations, only their legacy seems lost in the heat of combat.

But since the 1993 dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington D.C., a bronze sculpture by artist Glenna Goodacre of three fatigue-wearing females comforting an injured soldier, women have begun writing and talking about their wartime service as never before, the fruits of which can be seen in the acclaimed play, A Piece of My Heart, running now through April 27 at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Playwright Shirley Lauro based the characters of her impressionistic drama on interviews with real-life veterans, including those profiled in a book of the same name by Keith Walker. Lauro uses fast-moving vignettes to tell the larger story of American women in Vietnam. The six women characters represent varied backgrounds, roles and attitudes. There are military nurses, from stalwart Martha to sweet young Sissy to flower child Leeann. There’s the aristocratic Red Cross “donut dolly” Whitney. There’s the hard-ass intelligence officer Steele. And the playful, soulful USO trouper MaryJo. Whether sewing sutures, spreading cheer or performing on stage, they are angels of mercy for soldiers trapped in a hellish quagmire.

The women cope with laughter, tears, booze, pot. Some erect “the wall.” Others fool around. The nurses regret not knowing what happens to the boys whose bodies they patch up and spirits they boost. They fear no matter how many lives they save or how many smiles they elicit, they never do enough. Then, when their wartime service is over, they return home as forgotten as their G.I. brothers, wanting to put the war behind them but finding they can’t.

 

 

 

 

Even though each character tells her own story, they really all speak in one voice about the shared female experience of being thrust into the surreal, carnage of war. Regardless of where they hailed from or did their tour or what job they held or beliefs they espoused, they were all volunteers who elected to go there.

“The common ground we had, which is why I felt so strongly about honoring these women, was that not a single one of us had to be there,” said Diane Carlson Evans, a veteran in-country Army nurse who spearheaded the creation of the women’s memorial. “We were not drafted. We were not conscripted. Nobody put a gun to our head and said, Go to Vietnam and do your duty. We could have stayed home, got our master’s degree, had our kids, played golf and tennis and had a good life. But every one of us — Red Cross, military, USO — said, I want to do my part, and did during a very unpopular war. We didn’t have a lot of support from home, from peers or from our country…We just thought it was the right thing to do.”

Evans, who made remarks before the Blue Barn’s April 5 show, used her appearance to givr tribute to “the diverse contributions women made” in the war. “I am proud of the women I worked with and how hard I saw them work and how they asked for nothing in return. It was always, Do I need to give blood? Or, Can I work an extra shift? It was that always going above and beyond and never complaining because we had a job to do. I saw how these women saved lives at the risk of their own. And I just believe so strongly they deserve credit from a grateful nation. A grateful nation that needs to acknowledge they participated in a really extraordinary way.”

The story of women’s wartime service is, for many of us, unknown. “I’m just so glad this story’s being told because I lived through Vietnam and I didn’t hear nothing about the nurses…not a thing,” said Omaha actress Phyllis Mitchell-Butler, who portrays Steele. “The nurses went through as much as any of the soldiers. They saw the devastation first-hand. I’m just amazed how long they kept themselves together with all that inside them. All they had was what was inside and they had to keep that. They couldn’t let it go.”

In her role as state commander of the Nebraska Council of Vietnam Veterans of America, Dottie Barickman, who served at Offutt Air Force Base in the Vietnam era, has come to appreciate what women did in that war.

“I’ve never walked in their shoes, but I’ve heard their stories and I understand what they mean when they say they sacrificed their youth and their emotions. They were the nurturing ones for a lot of young boys hurting over there. Combat soldiers always mention to me that if they ever saw a nurse it was like Welcome Home, and that is what these women were…a touch of home that took them away from that war zone for a few hours.”

The stories in A Piece of My Heart echo those of thousands of women that served in Nam or nearby environs. Diane Carlson Evans is one of them.

“I was 21…right out of college…and I was assigned first to the 36th Evacuation Hospital in a beautiful place (Vung Tau) right on the South China Sea beach. I didn’t feel the war there as much as I did when I was transferred up north…to Pleiku, in the central highlands jungle near the Cambodian border,” Evans said.  “I was with Two Corps supporting the 4th Infantry Division (in the 71st Evacuation Hospital).

“The war was very different there. It was the spring of ‘69…a pretty bad time. The 4th Infantry had something like a 75 percent casualty rate. I was made head nurse in a post-surgical unit where the patients were very sick. We had them on respirators and blood transfusions and chest tubes. It was very hard to see so many young men with such horrific wounds. We had to deal with patients dying on us and, in triage, we had to deal with setting aside dying patients to attend to the most salvageable ones. We blamed ourselves. We carried the guilt. And we were young…and so on our little time off we filled our days in human ways, whether it was playing volleyball or getting drunk or doing drugs or going on dates or falling in love.”

 

 

Playwright Shirley Lauro

 

 

In addition to the stress of dealing with crushing trauma patient loads, the threat of death was ever near. “Pleiku was not a safe area. We were under attack many times. We got to know the difference between the outgoing artillery and the incoming rockets and mortars that would fly in and hit our hospital, sending shrapnel everywhere. We were not only worrying about our patients — we had concern for our own safety,” said Evans, a Helena, Montana resident.

Since getting the Vietnam women’s memorial installed, Evans, whose efforts to make it a reality took 10 years, has become THE champion for female volunteers in that conflict, focusing her efforts on “encouraging women who served to share their stories…so we can understand what the memorial is all about.”

She helped start a storytelling program at the memorial site and on the web that invites women to speak their piece. She said telling it like it was is “very painful. It takes a lot of courage for women to admit how scared they were some young soldier was going to die on their watch or how they were so tired they could have made a mistake or how they were sexually assaulted or harassed. All of this anger and anguish comes out in the play.”

An admirer of the Lauro work, which had its debut in Philadelphia and has been performed across the country, Evans feels it gets to the heart of women’s Vietnam odyssey. “It does not show our service through rose-colored glasses — that we were all these heroic young women who went off to save the world and wore white halos — but instead it shows we were young women who went to Vietnam and did the very best we could amid all this crazy stuff going on. That’s what makes it very real, very authentic.”

As the war in Iraq rages on the director of the Blue Barn show, Susan Clement-Toberer, feels the conflict lends the play added urgency.

“Knowing that it’s happening now it brings it all very close and deepens everything we’re doing,” she said. “It’s real, just like the stories of these women are all real…taken from a myriad of interviews with different women.”

Cast member Erika Hall, who plays the USO entertainer, said, “You know, before it was important to do this piece, and now like it’s necessary.” Most of the cast and crew are too young to remember the war and therefore have immersed themselves in it via books, articles and tapes and by talking to actual veterans.

“What an interesting learning experience this is for me,” Hall said. “I was born after Vietnam and, you know, you read about it in school but you don’t really understand what they (vets) went through.” In her own research Clement-Toberer said she was surprised to learn “the extremes the women survived. I knew Vietnam was a dirty war, but I just didn’t realize they (the women) saw such extremes so quickly. I understand now why these women went and what they mean by honor…they believed in their country. It’s just a very strong feeling in what is right and what is true and what needs to be told.”

The characters have real-life counterparts in Nebraska. Lincolnite Judy Knopp, a former Army nurse at Camp Zama, Japan, treated G.I.s choppered in from Vietnam; Martel native and longtime Lincoln resident Brenda Allacher toured Nam as a member of the all-girl country-western band The Taylor Sisters; and Marie Menke of Superior, Neb. was a fellow Army nurse with Diane Evans at the 36th evac in Vung Tau, regarded as an in-country R & R site except for the grueling recovery and care that went on there. For vets like these, Vietnam seared into their memories and hearts the best and worst of humanity.

“I joined the Army nurse corps and in six weeks did my basic training at Fort Sam Houston and went straight to Japan…Camp Zama, 35 minutes southeast of Tokyo and an hour by chopper from Saigon. I was charge nurse in the orthopedic ward of a 1,000 bed hospital,” Knopp said.

“Back then, we had to make our own IVs and pump our own blood and everything. After the Tet Offensive we were working 12 hour shifts, seven days a week. They used to call us the zombie squad. We didn’t even eat. We went home and slept…then came back. We’d have 30 to 40 evacs a day…20 to 30 surgeries a day, just on my ward. One-half of our cases were dirty wounds…shrapnel wounds or single and multiple amputees. Guys with half their faces blown off. One young man I especially remember…Billy. He was 18. He’d stepped on a land mine and everything was gone from the belly button on down. He was unconscious. We were pumping him full of blood. You wanted to save him but…you wanted him to go, too, because there was no way he could live.

“The guys, they were so young. They used to call me grandma and I was 22. They were all like little brothers. We used to stay up with the guys at night who were crying over having killed women and children. They had a real hard time dealing with what went on over there and the stuff they had to do to survive. A lot of ‘em came back injured and a lot of ‘em we never saw again. We never knew what happened to ‘em. The ones going back to the states we’d iron their uniforms, sew on their patches and go to the chopper to kiss ‘em goodbye. I have very fond memories of the guys and just atrocious memories of the wounds.”

She still regrets how, when her ward was busy, “there was no time for dignity with death…to get patients prepared and stay with ‘em and see ‘em through it. It was like, OK, this one’s dead, clean out the bed…there’s another one coming in.”

A Piece of My Heart cast members marvel at what women like Knopp endured at such a tender age. “They all have stories of their first day…just like in the play where my character takes off a soldier’s boot and his severed foot is in it,” Christine Schwery said. “They were so fragile and so young and yet they survived,” Julie Huff said. “With a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs,” Schwery chimed in. “Yeah, but they survived and they saved a lot of lives,” Huff added.

Riverdale, Neb. native Marie Menke, then Daake, was a 22-year-old nursing school grad when she got to Nam. Nothing could prepare her for what she saw:

“I was pretty naive about the war. It was very shocking to most of us to see the kinds of wounds and the tragic loss of life,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be. My thoughts about the war didn’t matter because we were there and people were getting hurt and we had an enormous job to do. We were tremendously needed. It was beyond comprehension almost. The nurses did do a lot but most of us downplayed it. We were just there to do our job and to take care of patients and to support them.”

Besides caring for American G.I.s, nurses treated Vietmanese, including children.

An estimated 265,000 American women service in support of the war. U.S. Army estimates place the number in-country  between 10,000 and 12,000. Most were nurses, either Army or Marine enlistees or even civilians attached to field hospitals or more rear echelon units. American Red Cross volunteers were so-called “donut dollies” — a sort of comfort girl corps boosting morale with their short-skirts, smiles and care packages. Others were entertainers touring under the auspices of the USO or, like Brenda Allacher, as contract entertainers via private booking agencies that provided minimal security and scant creature comforts.

 

 

Blue Barn Theatre’s Susan Clement Toberer

 

Allacher, then known by her stage name Brenda Allen, got to see a lot of Nam during her three-and-half month tour in ‘69. She has bittersweet memories of her time in Chu Lai, a central coastal area manned by the Americal Division:

“That was one of our favorite places because we had privacy taking a shower. I remember the commanding officer, ‘Big Daddy’ Richardson, said, ‘I’m going to work your butts off, but when you come back at night your favorite food and drink will be sitting in front of you.’ And it was, too. Lobster and blackberry brandy and Cutty Sark scotch. We’d do five and six shows a day for that man,” she said. “The men, they just wouldn’t let us quit and we weren’t about to leave those boys. The guys were just absolutely beautiful. They called me ‘Crazy Legs’…I’d do wild dancing and kick my legs up. They just went bonkers.

“We’d come back exhausted. One night, we’d come back from a show and a few of us were in the officers club drinking when there was a loud CLAP and the building just shook. A G. grabbed me and threw me down under the bar.” It was the start of a prolonged mortar attack. “We took 16 rounds over a period of four or five hours. We just laid there on the floor and got drunk. I was so scared. Around daylight a young man came running in, shouting, ‘They got a nurse at the 312 Surg-Evac,’ which was like a block away.”

The victim, 1st Lt. army nurse Sharon Ann Lane of Canton, Ohio, was the first Army nurse to die under hostile fire in Southeast Asia and one of 68 American women in all — military and civilian — to die in the conflict. The incident shook Allacher to her core.

“What really gets me is it very easily could have been me, and not her.” she said. She recalls happier times there, too, like when the Taylor Sisters did an impromptu show for Nebraska National Guard troops, leading off with “There’s No Place Like Nebraska.” “The tin roof went off on that quonset hut. They just went nuts.” Or when she was secreted away to give a private performance for some special ops forces who, upon her finishing, “lined up and saluted me” she said tearfully. “As I was walking out, the commanding officer placed his Green Beret on my head.” She still has it. “I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.”

Allacher and Knopp have made the recognition of women’s work in Vietnam a personal mission. Together eith Evans they are featured in a NETV documentary, Not On the Frontline, that follows their story from the wartime service they rendered to the emotional “culmination” of seeing the women’s memorial dedicated, something Knopp worked for as state coordinator of the project. More recently, Allacher, who describes herself as “a straight shooter…full of piss and vinegar,” was instrumental in bringing A Piece of My Heart to the attention of local theaters. She and her big booming laugh have become fixtures at the Blue Barn.

For Allacher, Knopp and Evans, the stories told in the play and documentary are part of the healing that’s taken place after the war. Acceptance of women’s service has come slowly, even as they have died alongside their veteran brothers from Agent Orange-related illnesses and have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Evans said there was once resistance to honoring women’s war record because “I don’t think people wanted to look at women as warriors — as soldiers. But women are soldiers, too. We fought just as hard as the men. We just fought with different instruments.” Or, as Judy Knopp puts it, “The guys were on the physical front lines, but we were on the psychological front lines trying to hold it all together. And we did it with a loving heart.”

Thomas Gouttierre: In Search of a Lost Dream, An American’s Afghan Odyssey

May 19, 2010 10 comments

Emblem of Afghanistan

Image via Wikipedia

Thomas Gouttierre’s work with Afghanistan has drawn praise and criticism, moreso the latter as of late given what’s happened there with the war and some of that nation’s top leadership having been befriended and trained by Gouttierre’s Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  The following profile I did on Gouttierre appeared in 1998, long before U.S. involvement there escalated into full military intervention.  Regardless of what’s happened since I wrote the piece, the essential core of the story, which is that of Gouttierre’s magnificent obsession with that country and its people, remains the same.

The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

Thomas Gouttierre: In Search of a Lost Dream, An American’s Afghan Odyssey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Like a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia, Omahan Thomas Gouttierre fell under the spell of an enigmatic desert nation as a young man and has been captivated by its Kiplingesque charms ever since.

The enchanting nation is Afghanistan and his rapture with it began while working and living there from 1965 to 1974, first as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English as a second language, then as a Fulbright fellow and later as executive director of the country’s Fulbright Foundation.  His duties included preparing and placing Afghan scholars for graduate studies abroad.  During his 10 years there, Gouttierre also coached the Afghan national basketball team.  Sharing the adventure with him was his wife and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Marylu.  The eldest of the couple’s three sons, Adam, was born there in 1971.

Before his desert sojourn, the Ohio native was a naive, idealistic college graduate with a burning desire to serve his fellow man.  When he got his chance half-a-world away, it proved a life transforming experience.

“It’s the place where I kind of grew to a mature person,” he said.  “I was there from age 24 to 34 and I learned so much about myself and the rest of the world.  It gave me an opportunity to learn well another language, culture and people.  I love Afghanistan.  It’s people are so admirable.  So unique.  They have a great sense of humor.  They’re very hospitable.  They have a great self-assurance and pride.”

But the Afghanistan of his youth is barely recognizable now following 19 years of near uninterrupted carnage resulting from a protracted war with the former Soviet Union and an ongoing civil war.  Today, the Muslim state lies in shambles, its institutions in disarray.  The bitter irony of it all is that the Afghans themselves have turned the heroic triumph of their victory over the vaunted Soviet military machine into a fratricidal tragedy.

Over the years millions of refugees have fled the country into neighboring Pakistan and Iran or been displaced from their homes and interred in camps across Afghanistan.  An entire generation has come to maturity never setting foot in their homeland or never having known peace.

The nation’s downward spiral has left Gouttierre, 57, mourning the loss of the Afghanistan he knew and loved.  “In a sense I’ve seen what one might call the end of innocence in Afghanistan,” he said, “because for all its deficiencies, Afghan society – when I was living there – was really a very pleasant place to be.  It was a quite stable, secure society.   A place where people, despite few resources and trying circumstances, still treated each other with a sense of decency and civility.  It was a fantastic country.  I loved functioning in that Afghanistan.  I really miss that environment.  Not to be able to go back to that culture is a real loss.”

Through it all, Gouttierre’s kept intact his ties to the beleaguered Asian nation.  In his heart, he’s never really left.  The job that took him away in 1974 and that he still holds today – as director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – has kept him in close contact with the country and sent him on fact-finding trips there.  He was there only last May, completing a tour of duty as a senior political affairs officer with the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan.  It was his first trip back since 1993 (before the civil strife began), and what he saw shook him.

“To see the destruction and to learn of the deaths and disappearances of so many friends and associates was very, very sad,” he said from his office on the UNO campus, where he’s also dean of the Office of International Studies and Programs.  “Much of the country looks like Berlin and Dresden did after the Second World War, with bombed-out villages and cities.  Devastation to the point where almost no family is left unaffected.

“Going back for me was very bittersweet.  With every Afghan I met there was such despair about the future of the country.  The people are fed up with the war…they so want to return to the way things were.  People cried. It was very emotional for me too.”

Everywhere he went he met old friends, who invariably greeted him as “Mr. Tom,” the endearing name he’d earned years before.  “In every place I visited I wound up seeing people that I have known for most of my adult life.  Individuals that have been here at the University of Nebraska at  Omaha – in programs that we’ve sponsored – or people I coached in basketball or people I was instrumental in sending to the U.S. under Fulbright programs or people who taught me Persian and other languages of Afghanistan.  So, you know, there’s kind of an extended network there.  In fact, it was kind of overwhelming at times.”

Colleague Raheem Yaseer, coordinator of international exchange programs in UNO’s Office of International Studies and Programs, said, “I think he’s received better than any ambassador or any foreign delegation official.  He’s in good standing wherever he goes in Afghanistan.”

Yaseer, who supervised Gouttierre in Afghanistan, came to America in 1988 at the urging of Gouttierre, for whom he now works.  A political exile, Yaseer is part of a small cohesive Afghan community in Nebraska whose hub is UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies.  The center, which houses the largest collection of materials on Afghanistan in the Western Hemisphere, provides a link to the Afghans’ shared homeland.

Aside from his fluency in native dialects, his knowledge of Islamic traditions and sensitivity to Afghan culture, Gouttierre also knows many of the principals involved in the current war.  It’s the kind of background that gives him instant access and credibility.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Gouttierre said.  “The Afghans have a phrase that translates, ‘The first time you meet, you’re friends.  The second time you meet, you’re brothers.’  And Afghans really live by that – unless you poison that relationship.”

According to Yaseer, Gouttierre’s “developed a skill for penetrating deep into the culture and traditions of the people and places he visits.  He’s able to put everything in a cultural context, which is rare.”

It’s what enables Gouttierre to see the subtle shadings of Afghanistan under its fabled veil of bravado.  “When people around the world wonder why the Afghans are still fighting, they don’t realize that a society’s social infrastructure and fabric is very fragile,” said Gouttierre.  “They don’t realize what it means to go through a war as devastating as that which the Afghans experienced with the Soviet Union – when well over a million people were killed and much of the traditional resources and strengths of the country were destroyed.  When the Soviets left, the Afghans tried to cobble together any kind of government and they were unsuccessful.

“Now they’re trying to put this social-political Humpty-Dumpty back together again, and its just very difficult.”

Under Gouttierre’s leadership the center has been a linchpin in U.S.-U.N. efforts to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan and has served as a vital conduit between Afghans living inside and outside the country and agencies working on the myriad problems facing it.  With nearby Peshawar, Pakistan as a base, the center has operated training and education programs in the embattled country, including a new program training adults in skills needed to work on planned oil and gas pipelines.

Gouttierre himself is a key adviser to the U.S. and world diplomatic community on Afghan matters.  He’s served as the American specialist on Afghanistan, Tajikistan and South Asia at meetings of the U.S.-Russian Task Force (Dartmouth Conference) on Regional Conflicts.  He’s made presentations on Afghan issues at Congressional hearings and before committees of the British Parliament and the French National Assembly.
And last year he was nominated by the U.S. State Department to serve as the American representative on the U.N. Mission to Afghanistan. “It was quite an honor,” said Gouttierre. “And for me to go back and work among the people again was very appealing and very rewarding.”

The aim of the U.N. mission, whose work continues today, is to engage the combating parties in negotiations toward a just peace settlement.  German Norbert Holl, a special representative of the U.N. secretary general to Afghanistan, heads the mission, whose other members are from Russia, Japan, England and France.

On two separate month-long trips to Afghanistan, Gouttierre met with representatives of the various factions and visited strategic sites – all in an effort to help the team assess the political situation.  His extensive travels took him the length and breadth of the country and into Pakistan, headquarters for the mission.  He talked with people in their homes and offices, he visited bazaars, he viewed dams, irrigation projects and opium fields and traversed deserts and mountains.

 

 

 

 

Marylu Gouttierre said her husband’s involvement with Afghanistan and commitment to its future stems, in part, from a genuine sense of debt he feels.  “He feels a responsibility.  It is his second home and those are his people. He’s not only given his heart, but his soul to the country.”

He explains it this way:  “Afghanistan has a special place in my professional and personal life and it has had a tremendous impact on my career.  It’s been so much an instrument in what I’ve done.”

To fully appreciate his Afghan odyssey, one must review how the once proud, peaceful land he first came to has turned into a despairing, chaotic killing field.   The horror began in 1978, when Soviet military forces occupied it to quell uprisings against the puppet socialist regime the USSR had installed in the capital city of Kabul.  The Soviets, however, met with stiff resistance from rebel Mujaahideen freedom fighters aligned with various native warlords.  Against all odds, the Afghans waged a successful jihad or holy war that eventually ousted the Soviets in 1989, reclaimed their independence and reinforced their image as fierce warriors.

The Afghans, whose history is replete with legendary struggles against invaders, never considered surrender.  Said Gouttierre, “The Afghans felt they were going to win from the start.  They felt they could stick with it forever.  They had a strong belief in their own myth of invincibility…and to everyone’s surprise but their own, they did force the Soviets to leave.”

But the fragile alliance that had held among rival factions during the conflict fell apart amid the instability of the post-war period.   “The Soviets left someone in charge who had been their ally in power. That was Najeebullah.  His government fell in 1992.  That only helped exacerbate things.  The cycle of fighting continued as the Afghans who had fought against the Soviet army continued their fight against Najeebullah, who was captured, tried and executed by the Taliban (an Islamic faction) in September of 1996 for his crimes against the Afghans, which were considerable.”  Gouttierre knew Najeebullah in very different circumstances before the war, when the future despot was a student of his in a class he taught at a native high school.

After Najeebullah’s fall, a mad scramble for power ensued among the  Mujaahideen groups.  As Gouttierre explains, “The leaders of these groups had become warlords in their own regions.  They kind of got delusions of grandeur about who should be in control of the whole country and they began to struggle against each other.”

 

 

 

 

In the subsequent fighting, one dominant group emerged  – the Taliban, a strict Islamic movement whose forces now command three-quarters of the country, including the capital of Kabul – with all its symbolic and strategic importance.  A loose alliance of factions oppose the Taliban.

“As the Taliban (Seekers of Islam) grew in strength, they began intimidating and even fighting some of the minor Mujaahideen commando groups, and to a lot of people’s surprise, they were successful,” said

Gouttierre, whose U.N. assignment included profiling the Taliban.  “They are very provincial, very rural – and in their own minds – very traditional Muslims and Afghans.  They’re not that philosophically sophisticated in terms of their own religion, but they are very sophisticated in terms of what they understand they want for their society, and they’re able to argue and discourse on it at length without giving any quarter.  And they’re willing to go to war over it.

“Each region where they’ve gone, they’ve been aided by the fact that the people living there were disenchanted with those in control.  Most of the other groups, unfortunately, lost any credibility they had because of their failure to bring about peace, stability, security and reconstruction.  The people were willing to support almost anything that came along.”

The Taliban has drawn wide criticism, internally and externally, for its application of extreme Islamic practices in occupied areas, particularly for placing severe restrictions on women’s education and employment and for imposing harsh penalties on criminals. Gouttierre said while such actions elicit grave concerns from the U.N. and represent major stumbling blocks in the Taliban’s quest for full recognition, the movement has effectively restored order in areas it controls.

“I have to say that in the areas of Afghanistan I traveled to which they control, the Taliban had confiscated all the weapons, removed all the checkpoints people had to pass through, eliminated the extortion that was part of the checkpoints and instilled security and stability,” said Gouttierre.  “You could travel anywhere in Kabul without having to be in any way concerned, except for the mines that haven’t been cleared yet.”

Conversely, he said, the Taliban has exhibited brutal politics of intimidation and blatant human rights violations, although other factions have as well.  “It’s not a question of who’s good and who’s bad,” he adds.  “There’s plenty of blame and credit to be shared on all sides.”

 

 

 

 

He found the Taliban a compelling bunch.  “One of the things I was impressed with is that all of the leaders I met were in some ways victims of the war with the Soviet Union.  They all exhibited wounds, and they acquired these wounds heroically carrying out the struggle against the Soviet Union, and I respect them for that.  That needs to be taken into account.”

In addition to pushing for a ceasefire between the Taliban and its adversaries, Gouttierre said the U.N. mission consistently makes clear that in order to gain credentialing from the U.N. and support from key institutions like the World Bank, the Taliban must do a better job of protecting basic human rights and ensuring gender equity.

He said the main barrier to reaching a cease fire accord is the Taliban’s nearly unassailable military position, which gives them little reason to make concessions or accept conditions.  Another impediment to the peace process is the nation’s rich opium industry, whose interests diverge from those of the U.N.  And a major complicating factor is the support being provided the warring factions by competing nations.  For example, Pakistan and certain Persian Gulf states are major suppliers of the Taliban, while Iran and Russia are major suppliers of the opposition alliance.

Taliban and opposition leaders did meet together at several U.N. sponsored negotiation sessions.  The representatives arrived for the talks accompanied by armed bodyguards, who remained outside during the discussions.  The tenor of the meetings surprised Gouttierre.  “It was far more cordial than I had anticipated.  These men got along remarkably well, in part because they all know each other.  That’s not to say there weren’t disagreements.  When offended, Afghans can be exceedingly formidable to deal with.”

At Gouttierre’s urging, the mission began holding intimate gatherings at which representatives of the warring parties met informally with U.N. officials over food and drinks and “where translators were not the main medium for communication and where everybody wasn’t on guard all the time.”  He hosted several such luncheons and dinners, including ones in Kandahar, Baamiyaan and Kabul.  The idea was to create a comfortable mood that encouraged talk and built trust.  It worked.

“In diplomatic enterprises often the most effective periods are at the breaks or the receptions, because you’re sometimes able to get people off to the side, where they’re able to say off the record what they can’t say officially.  And that’s exactly what happened.  Those of us in the U.N. mission got a better sense of who the Taliban are.  They’re not irrational.  They do have a sense of humor.  And they got a better sense of who we are – that we’re not just officials, but that we also have a long-term interest in Afghanistan.”

Gouttierre said the mission has overcome “high skepticism” on the part of Afghans, who recall the U.N. granted Najeebulah asylum despite his being a war criminal.  He said the Afghans’ estimation of the mission has moved from distrust to acceptance.  And he feels one reason for that is that the present mission has “more clout and recognition than any previous mission to Afghanistan.”  Supplying that essential leverage, he said, is the “unstinting support of influential countries like the U.S., France, England, Russia and Japan.”

Despite recent news stories of military inroads made by opposition forces, especially around Kabul, the Taliban remain firmly entrenched.  Gouttierre believes that unless a major reversal occurs to change the balance of power, the Taliban will continue calling the shots.  If the Taliban eventually consolidate their power and conquer the whole nation, as most observers believe is inevitable, the hope then is that the movement’s leaders will feel more secure in acceding to U.N. pressure.

Gouttierre said that despite the failure to gain a ceasefire thus far, “the fact remains the two sides are meeting with each other, and that’s the first step in any peace process.  We don’t have agreements on anything yet, but at least the channels for continuing dialogue have been opened.”

As Gouitterre well knows, the process of binding a nation’s wounds can be frustrating and exhausting.  He stays the course though because he wants desperately to recapture the magical Afghanistan that first bewitched him.  “I guess one of the things that keeps me at this is that I am ever hopeful that somehow, some way those admirable qualities of Afghan culture which I came to love so much will to some degree be restored.  So I keep pursuing that.”

King Crawford: Omaha’s Very Own Movie Mogul


Citizen Kane is often cited as one of the grea...

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I go back with Bruce Crawford 30 years.  We met for the first time when I was a film programmer/publicist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and he was a wide-eyed film enthusiast. He specifically approached me about wanting to share his passion for the great film composer Bernard Herrmann, whom he had struck up a correspondence with late in the composer’s life.  I had a screening of Taxi Driver scheduled and Bruce asked if he could make a presentation about Herrmann and the composer’s scoring of that film.  We didn’t normally have speakers as part of our campus film program but something about Bruce’s magnificent obsession and tenacity convinced me to agree.  Flash forward about 15 years, when I was a fledgling freelance journalist and Bruce was first making a name for himself with the radio documentaries he did, including one on Herrmann, and with the revival screenings he staged of film classics.

The following is the first of many stories I’ve written about Bruce and his work as a film historian and impresario.  It appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  He’s since put on dozens more film events.

King Crawford:  Omaha’s Very Own Movie Mogul

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

There’s a bit of Elmer Gantry in Bruce Crawford, the dynamic Omaha film historian/promoter whose sold-out screening of the original 1933 classic King Kong unreels Saturday, May 30 at the Indian Hills Theater.

With his boyish good looks, magnetic presence and penchant for hyperbole he exudes the charisma of a consummate huckster and the passion of a confirmed zealot. An evangelist for that old time religion called the movies, he often describes his devotion in missionary terms and pays homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age through gala events and elaborate documentaries full of his characteristic verve and adoration.

And with its rich, delirious mix of mythology and metaphor, Kong is an apt choice for cinephile celebration and reverence. This ultimate escapist film combines still impressive visual effects with an outrageous Beauty and the Beast fable played out in a ripe Freudian landscape. Unlike, say, Godzilla, it taps our deepest fears and desires.

Crawford’s passion began in his native Nebraska City, where he had a born-again experience at the movies. It came when his parents took him as a child to see Mysterious Island, a 1961 Jules Verne-inspired fantasy adventure featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen.

“I loved the effects and the creatures and the fantastic Jules Verne story. But it was the music that hooked me more than anything else,” Crawford said from the movie memorabilia and art-filled northwest

Omaha apartment he shares with wife Tami. “I remember when the music hit me. It was the opening with the boiling ocean and the Victorian lettering rolling across the seascape. I can’t quite find the words for it, but something connected.  t was almost like a diamond-tip bullet hit me between the eyes.  This music…wow! I was so overwhelmed by its beauty and majesty. I wasn’t old enough to read yet, so I asked my parents where the music came from.”

Bruce Crawford

When he found out it was by legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, he felt “a compulsion” to find out everything he could about the man and his work. He had a similarly dramatic reaction to hearing a cut of the love theme to Ben-Hur. Despite his unfamiliarity with the movie and the composer, Miklos Rozsa, he felt an affinity for each. “The music was sooooo beautiful.  Even without knowing it was a Biblical story I felt the Judaism. I felt the ancient world. Like with Mysterious Island I felt another connecting link in my life. That this was part of my destiny. I said, ‘I’ve got to see what movie this music goes to.’”

He finally did see Ben-Hur Christmas night in 1970, and it proved a revelation. “It changed my life.  I’ve never been so haunted and moved by something as I was by it. It was so profound, so literate, so poetic. I knew I’d seen a masterpiece. And somehow, on some psychic or intuitive or synchronistic level, a little boy in Nebraska City had this connection with these world-renowned musicians and filmmakers. I knew then I was meant to know these people and to do something with them.”

Amazingly, his life has intersected with the very objects of his devotion. As a precocious teen he began corresponding with the imposing Herrmann, the composer for such film classics as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and North By Northwest. Upon Herrmann’s death in ‘75 (after finishing the fever dream score to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) Crawford drew close to his family. By ‘88 he’d become an authority on the man and produced an acclaimed documentary on him which has since aired over many National Public Radio affiliate stations and over the BBC in Great Britain.

Crawford struck up a similar acquaintance with Rozsa and shortly before the composer’s death in ‘95 completed a documentary on him and his music that also garnered strong critical praise and wide air play.

Music has always spoken most strongly to Crawford. “My first and foremost love is great music, and for me film scores represent the 20th century’s answer to the great symphonies of the past 300 to 400 years. A film score is like a grand opera in a sense. It can tell what actors can’t say.”

Movie special effects also hold him enthralled. As a high school student he made an award winning short using the same kind of stop-motion animation techniques as Kong. He began networking with FX  artists and those contacts led him to the dean of them all — Harryhausen. In ‘92 Crawford coaxed Harryhausen, fresh from receiving an honorary Oscar, to attend an Omaha tribute in his honor. The men are now close friends.

Ray Harryhausen

The tribute proved a hit and spurred subsequent film events. The biggest to date being the 35th anniversary showing of Ben-Hur, for which Crawford scored a coup by making Omaha the first stop on the restored film’s special reissue tour and by getting family members of the film’s legendary director, William Wyler, to attend.

At a screening of Gone with the Wind he brought co-star Ann Rutherford and added atmosphere with women in period hoop skirts. For the Hitchcock suspense classic Psycho he secured an appearance by star Janet Leigh. Family members of late-great director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and producer Darryl F. Zanuck (The Longest Day) came at Crawford’s invitation to Omaha revivals.

Many wonder how someone so far removed from the movie industry is able to gain entree to rarefied film circles, land interviews with top names (from Charlton Heston to Leonard Maltin), arrange celebrity guest appearances and enlist the aid of corporate sponsors. Crawford’s personal charm and genuine ardor for classic movies, and for the artists who made them, help explain how he does it.

Then too there’s the grand showmanlike way he exhibits old movies.  “The way they’re meant to be, but so rarely, seen,” he said, meaning on the big screen — with all the puffery, ballyhoo and flourish of a Hollywood premiere. For his 65th anniversary showing of Kong, which has been fully restored, he plans searchlights, a 30-foot tall Kong balloon, limousine-driven guests, a pre-show and a post-autograph session.

“What I’m trying to do is recapture the magic of going to the movies I felt as a kid,” he said, “and add to it with the glitz and the glamour. You get your money’s worth at a Crawford show, don’t you think?”

Kong’s special guests will include Harryhausen, who’s flying in from his home in London, renowned science fiction author Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) and noted film historian Forrest Ackerman. The three grew up together in California and were equally enchanted by Kong.

Harryhausen, who later apprenticed under the film’s effects master, Willis O’Brien, on Mighty Joe Young, credits Kong for inspiring his life’s work. “I was 13 when I saw it, and I haven’t been the same since,” he said by phone from London. “It left me startled and dumbfounded. It started me on my career. That shows you how influential films can be.”

Bernard Herrmann

The Kong pre-show or “live prologue,” as Crawford calls it, will recreate the film’s native ceremonial ritual — complete with dancers in painted faces and grass skirts — performed for Kong’s original run at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.

On his Kong Web page Crawford promises an evening “in the Sid Grauman tradition.” Crawford is indeed a Grauman-type impresario with a flair for extravaganza. He also resembles the P.T. Barnum-like Carl Denham character in Kong who charters the ship and leads the expedition in search of the big ape. In an early scene the first mate asks the skipper about the irrepressible Denham, “Do you think he’s crazy?” “No,’ says the captain, “just enthusiastic.” Likewise, Crawford’s undaunted fanaticism is that of the true enthusiast. His fervor largely accounts for the warm reception he’s been accorded by Hollywood insiders.

“I’m delighted he takes it so seriously and takes the initiative to try and present pictures the way they were presented in the early days,” said Harryhausen. “What you need is somebody with enthusiasm for these types of things. Bruce has that, and it’s wonderful.”

Gerry Greeno, Omaha city manager for the Douglas Theater Co., whose Cinema Center hosted past Crawford events, said, “He has that exuberance that generates interest and gets people to go along with him…and he’s not bashful about it. For some it might wear a little thin, but he puts a lot of time and effort into these events. He loves doing it.”

Bob Coate, who co-produced the Herrmann-Rozsa documentaries at KIOS 91.5-FM, where he is program manager, said he fell under the Crawford spell when the promoter pitched him the idea. “I’d never produced anything like that before. He kind of got me excited about doing it. His enthusiasm is definitely infectious.” Coate, now part of the Crawford coterie, added, “He’s a driving force. I know these events are tons of work for him, and wear him out, but I think he gets energy from doing them.”

As Crawford tells it, “I try to get people to do things they might not normally do, which I’m told I do a lot of. It’s being persuasive. You have to have that extravagant enthusiasm…that charisma. Some people keep it subdued and withdrawn. I choose not to.”

Until Coate approved the Herrmann program, Crawford had run into dead-ends trying to get it off the ground. “I went to several public radio stations and they said, ‘It can’t be done.’ Of course that went in one ear and out the other. I was determined to do it come hell or high water. Fortunately, Bob (Coate) was a Herrmann fan.”

The pair collaborated for months. In typical Crawford style he pushed the envelope by making the finished product two and a half hours long.  Upon hearing it, the feature most listeners remark on is the unusually long (often complete) musical passages from Herrmann’s radio, film and concert hall career and rather spare but informative narrative segments. The same approach is used with the Rozsa project.

Miklos Rozsa

“My programs are really audio musical biographies about the subject and his music,” Crawford said. “The thing that makes them stand out is that they’re 60 to 70 percent music and 30 to 40 percent discussion. There was no model I was aware. I didn’t know what the parameters were. And of course the rest is history.”

He refers to the favorable response the programs netted, especially the piece on Herrmann, who’s a cult figure. Crawford has heard from many famous admirers. “It’s considered the most extensive, the most comprehensive, the most successful documentary ever done on any composer of the 20th century,” he said. “That’s just not my opinion. That’s the opinion of Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, David Copperfield, Robert Zemeckis…”

Part of his charm is the wide-eyed, gee-whiz glee he takes in his own achievements. In the Wonderful World of Bruce Crawford, there are only “huge” successes; “amazing” feats; movie “masterpieces;” and his own “almost superhuman” energy. When he goes on a riff about the accolades and national media coverage, he punctuates his speech with a rhetorical “Isn’t that something?” or “Isn’t that incredible?”

Well, who can blame him? He’s been brazen enough to develop world-class film connections and visionary enough to use them in meaningful ways. He’s seen himself become a touchstone figure for film buffs who bask in the glow of his and his famous friends’ celebrity. He’s been commissioned to write articles for major film publications. His services as a documentary producer and event promoter are in much demand.

This self-styled movie mogul rules over a niche market in Omaha for the celebration and veneration of classic films. Call him King Crawford. Still, even he can’t believe his dreams have come true.

“My God, who would have ever thought this was attainable? I didn’t see it coming. I did have a desire, which was obviously intense, but I didn’t know where it would lead. And then to have these giants respond to me, and not only respond, but become pretty close friends — that just doesn’t happen, man. Yeah, syncronicity.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence then he and Tami live in Camelot Village.

“My life is like a strange sort of destiny.“ he added. “I don’t know how or why that is. That’s what serendipity is I guess. Amazing. Isn’t that wild?”

The Magical Mystery Tour of Omaha’s Magic Theatre, a Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman Production

May 19, 2010 9 comments

JOE CINO with Edward Albee at a benefit for th...

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UPDATE: Ah, it’s spring again, and that means it’s time for the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, where many established and emerging playwrights and other theater professionals from the far corners of the U.S. gather their collected energies for the theater arts.  As a journalist who interviews some of the guest artists for the conference, which this year is May 28-June 4, I enjoy dropping the name Megan Terry and mentioning that she lives in Omaha. It never fails to elicit a response: first, affection and admiration for the work of Terry, a great American playwright; and then surprise and delight that she lives in the host city for the conference.  What follows below is an article I did five or six years ago on Terry and how and why she came to resettle in Omaha from New York and what she did here.

I only attended a couple productions by the Omaha Magic Theatre, an avant garde, experimental stage company led by two women who against all odds made their ground-breaking theater a success in Omaha, Neb. One of the partners, Jo Ann Schmidman was from here and made her reputation here with the theater.  The other, Megan Terry, made a name for herself in New York long before joining Schmidman in Omaha at the Magic Theatre.  They closed their theater some years ago and the two women who created such a distinct niche for themselves seemed in danger of fading into obscurity when I caught up with them and wrote the following story, which appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Basically, I wanted to capture in print just how extraordinary what they did was and just how compelling they are as individuals and as partners.

 

 

Megan Terry

 

 

The Magical Mystery Tour of Omaha’s Magic Theatre, a Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman Production

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Even in the counter-cultural maelstrom of the late 1960s, the idea conservative Omaha could support an experimental theater with a strong feminist, gay/lesbian bent defied logic.

Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?

When native Jo Ann Schmidman founded the Omaha Magic Theatre in 1968 as a center for avant garde expression in the Old Market, she followed her muse. The fact she was barely out of her teens, between her sophomore and junior years as a Boston University theater major, only added to what many must have regarded as folly. That’s not how she saw it though.

Instead of resistance, “what we discovered was quite the opposite…open-minded people with a work ethic,” said Schmidman, an Omaha Central grad weaned on local children’s theater, the work of an adventurous wing of the Omaha Community Playhouse and a summer studying in Northwestern University’s prestigious theater program.

“The pioneering spirit and the quest to work with your own hand, out of your own soul, is an Omaha, a Midwestern trait and that’s exactly the kind of theater I was interested in doing. It didn’t have anything to do with being radical, it had to do with being homemade and what is inside of people,” she said at a Great Plains Theater Conference (GPTC) panel. “It wasn’t about shocking people, it was about giving them a vehicle to reflect, a way to understand one’s self better, to go on a spiritual journey.

“I knew it was a perfect place to start an alternative, experimental theater…there was nothing like it and to date there is not another alternative theater in town. It’s either realism or naturalism.”

In a 1996 Theatre Quarterly interview she said the very qualities of this place that isolate it from the theater mainstream allow for exploration: “There is something incredibly expansive about this area and about the people that live here. The extremes of temperature, I believe, allow extremes of creation.”

She originally opened OMT as a summer enterprise. Grad students from Boston U. rounded out the company. The first season was heavy with plays by European absurdists Genet and Brecht. American works came later, including The Tommy Allen Show by Megan Terry.

The paths of Schmidman and Terry first crossed years earlier.

A Mount Vernon, Wa. native, Terry has lived a life in theater. She was “brought up” in the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, mere blocks from the home of her pioneer grandma. “I just scratched at the door until they let me in,” she said of Playhouse founders Burton and Florence James. After completing her theater studies in the Pacific Northwest Terry tried for an acting career in New York, all the while journaling. “Pretty soon, I thought my own dialogue was better than the stuff I had to perform. Little by little I started writing.”

“At this same time were all the protest movements, the marches. There was a huge political-social-cultural revolution. The new music, the new art, the Action painters and Abstract Expressionists, were at their zenith. All these things were converging,” Terry remembered. “I’d go to Washington Square and hear Bob Dylan and Joan Baez before they were famous. There were about 35 marvelous playwrights all working in New York City and we could all walk to each other’s theaters, so it was like, Can you top this? We just played off of each other.

“I mean, it was all there. I see theater really as a conservative art, where it takes from everything else and I think American jazz had to do what it did and American painting had to do what it did before our kind of theater could happen, because the other arts feed you.”

Terry churned out plays at an amazing clip, at one point having a new one produced every month. Edward Albee co-produced a double bill that included her Ex-Miss Copper Queen On a Set of Pills at the Cherry Lane Theatre. She was a founder of the legendary Open Theatre, an experimental company that produced her work, eventouring it nationally. Other Terry plays were performed at the chic La Mama. Another at the Circle Rep. Still another at the Actor’s Studio.

Along with Sam Shepard, a fellow founder of the Open Theatre, she was identified as one of America’s most promising new playwrights.

 

 

Her work is of its times, yet timeless, reflecting our culture’s struggles with violence/war (Viet Rock), spouse/child abuse (Goona, Goona), objectification (Objective Love), prison life (Babes in the Big House), underage drinking (Kegger). A key facet of her work is transformation, which bends roles, even genders. Themes predominate more than characters in her metaphorical plays.

Terry faced a transformation of her own when the NY theater landscape changed in the early ‘70s. The Open Theatre disbanded. Finding venues for her work proved difficult. Flush with the fervor of feminism, she chafed at the thought of deferring to male producers or playwrights anymore.

“At a point I worked with very strong men in the ‘60s. Joe Chaikin, Tom O’Morgan, Peter Feldman,” said Terry, who developed Viet Rock in a Saturday Open Theatre workshop that also produced HairRock was perhaps the first major work of art to deal with the Vietnam War. When Chaikin and Feldman “took it (the play) away from me,” she said, “a big confrontation” ensued.

Drawn into “the arms of the feminist movement,” Terry felt empowered to go off on her own. “After women saw Viet Rock some of them started coming to me asking me to come to consciousness-raising groups, and I did,” she said. “As more people started calling me up and saying, ‘Will you write a play for something we’re doing?, like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I realized I’m behind the careers of all these fabulous guys, but I’m way back here in the shadows and they’re getting all the glory. So, why not separate?”

Aptly, Terry’s and Schmidman‘s paths crossed in theatrical fashion.

“I met her [Schmidman} in Boston when I was asked to come to write the bicentennial celebration for Boston University’s theater school” Terry said. While in Bean Town she joined the throng gathered for a protest on the Boston Common. Out of the crowd Terry estimates approached a million people, the two found each other.

“I don’t go to rallies but I went to an anti-war rally where I met her by mistake, doing guerrilla theater,” Schmidman said. “I found her to fix my tin foil mask.” “Her mask had come off and I helped her with it. It’s just absolutely true,” Terry said.

Schmidman admired Terry’s work. Indeed, she said, “I had the top of my head blown off” by the work of Terry and her cohorts. The two got to know each other when Terry later went to Boston U. to workshop her Approaching Simone. Terry cast BU theater students. None of the perky, blonde, blue-eyed, well made-up girls fit what she wanted. So, “I designed an improvisation where one person had to stand off all of the rest of the kids in the school,” she recalled, “and Jo Ann had the power to stand them off. I said, ‘Ah ha, I can write this play around her. There’s the power I’m looking for.’’ Jo Ann WAS Simone. The play ran off-Broadway at Cafe La Mama, becoming the first student-cast production to win an Obie.
Their relationship grew when Schmidman toured with the Open Theatre, “It was a magic, perfect fit,” said Schmidman. Terry visited Omaha in 1970 to see Schmidman’s production of the Tommy Allen Show.

 

 

 

 

Viet Rock


 

 

“It was a better production then I had done out in Los Angeles. I had to admit it,” said Terry. “I said, ‘This is really good.’ I mean, she was showing me things about this play I didn’t know were there.”

With some prodding, Terry set her sights on this place, moving here in 1974.

“When the Open Theatre closed and I saw what Jo Ann was building here,” Terry said, “I could easily make that transition. She’s a great director.” Still, it was a huge leap of faith. “She was leaving where one made it in the theater. Plenty would not leave New York City, period. But for Megan I never heard a second thought,” Schmidman said.

The difference being in Omaha Terry didn’t have to take a back seat to anyone. It’s why leaving the center of the theater world was not such a hard move. “I always felt like I was camping out in New York as it was,” Terry said. “I always felt like it was temporary. The feminist movement freed me from being stuck in New York and being in that life.” She said she ended up being far more productive here.

Schmidman said since Terry’s “ego was not at stake,” Omaha made sense, as here she could “work every day within a viable company” that would produce her plays. “Megan is the kind of playwright that writes for a company of people, which is how I lured her out here.”

As Schmidman did before her, Terry found the possibilities for theater here “wide open.” Terry’s presence lent OMT instant credibility. Her career hardly suffered for the move. Her prodigious output (60 plays) continued. Her work has been taught or performed across North America, Europe, South America and beyond.

The theater became a year-round venue for the most mind-altering work. It changed locations a few times before settling at its present downtown site on 16th street in a former department store next to King Fong’s.

More than two decades before the Blue Barn Theatre opened, these women were doing Witching Hour work that made electric cool aid acid trips seem tame.

Terry and Schmidman recently sat down for interviews at the theater, an open, tiled space with a stripped-down ‘50s-vibe. They are a study in contrasts. Terry has the pale, soft, rounded features and sweet, doe-eyed look of an ingenue turned mature matron. Schmidman is a slim, dark-featured, hard-angled figure whose severe face and brooding demeanor signal intensity. Little Bo-Peep and Gothic Queen. Both exude a manic fervor on low simmer. They listen intently. They laugh easily. Each interrupts the other to complete a sentence, the way longtime companions do.

 

 

 

 

The two ceased producing at OMT a decade ago. A new group of artists use the space and the name today, inspired by what the two women did to push theater’s boundaries. Terry and Schmidman long intended handing over the OMT to a new troupe. Groups came and went. None stuck. In 2004, fashion designer Julia Drazic and a coterie of designers, visual artists and musicians hit it off with the women and took over the space. The resulting multi-media, multi-layered shows defy categorization. Sound familiar?

Schmidman, who advises the group, calls Drazic “a natural born producer.”

Drazic and Co. realize the heavy legacy they carry with the OMT name.

The Growth of the Magic Theater
A generation apart, Terry and Schmidman each studied and rejected old theater concepts in favor of a freer model unbound by, in their minds, rigid constraints and assumptions. While Schmidman’s a militant adherent of independence and a harsh critic of conventionality, Terry’s more politic.

With Schmidman as artistic director and Terry as resident playwright, OMT showcased works by playwrights thick in the canon of the American avant garde: Ron Tavel (Kitchenette), a collaborator with Andy Warhol on the Pop artist’s early narrative films; Paula Vogel (Baby Makes Seven), whose play How I Learned to Drive won a Pulitzer; and Obie and Pulitzer winner Sam Shepard (Chicago). Guest directors helmed some shows. Visiting playwrights-directors did workshops. It was all about change and challenging the status quo, even the very definition of theater.

Schmidman was well-suited to the task said New York playwright Susan Yankowitz: “Jo Ann has flung herself into roles, as actor-as director, with unusual courage and confidence, qualities that make her especially friendly to risk.”

Everyone contributed ideas to a play’s development. Everyone participated in its performance. Devoid of the usual barriers, like a proscenium stage, audiences, actors, stage hands, words, sets, music, costumes, sculptures, movements and projected images became equal elements in total, multi-media, sensory immersions.

Terry’s transformational style, in which actors interchange parts or morph into objects, was aided by soft sculptural costumes. Crew handled lights, music and sets not behind a curtain or in shadow, but out in the open, for all to see. Same way with actors changing costumes. It was part of the experience, as in the spirit of the ‘60s New York “happenings” Terry witnessed.

The experience, Omaha theater director Jim Eisenhardt said, could be formidable. “Oh, absolutely, it was intimidating, but it was a great shared experience, too.”

“In those days our object was to push previously established ideas of what theater was in new directions,” said Schmidman. “To create absolutely contemporary theater…in other words, to create theater that had to do with our lives, living and working in Omaha, Nebraska, because that’s what we were doing. So it was a pretty lofty task we set for ourselves. It was to reinvent what does theater look like, what does it sound like, what is it.

“And certainly there were plenty of roots in people before us. This was the end of the ‘60s, so we had Cafe La Mama, Cafe Chino, the Open Theatre” as models to follow.”

 

 

Body Leaks

 

 

OMT fit in well with the Old Market’s head shops and art galleries. It had the entire building that contains the Passageway. The company lived communally there and in a loft across the street, with Terry cooking big stews from French Cafe refuse. The theater became a self-supporting operation. Members did not need to take second jobs. By taking risks rather than playing it safe the women made OMT a successful, recognized home for contemporary theater.

“We were producing this fine theater that commanded national grants and international respect at a time when it wasn’t being given to the opera or the symphony,” Schmidman said. “This tiny little theater was getting direct National Endowment for the Arts support in ever escalating amounts because the work was good. They (the NEA) came out each year to see the work.”

The two women’s imprint is undeniable.

As if being an experimental theater were not enough, OMT dared to be a “‘gay,’ ‘radical feminist,’ ‘lesbian’ theater‘” on top of it, said Rose Theatre artistic director James Larson. “None of that existed in Omaha before.” Given that, he said, “it is extraordinary the Magic Theatre could survive for 30 years.” He added it’s “impressive” OMT could command large grants and he admires how  “resourceful” Schmidman and Terry were in replenishing the company over time.

OMT built loyal followings for experimental work that proved accessible. “Once the people saw the work, whether they knew what they were seeing or not, they responded to it,” Schmidman said. One reason may be the extensive research Terry did for “the big community pieces” OMT did, like her Kegger, that dealt with under age drinking. Once they had a hit, they kept it in front of audiences for a steady cash stream. OMT toured Kegger for three years, nearly surviving on its proceeds alone.

“Touring is what kept us going,” Terry said. “It helped enable us to keep doing what we were doing, reaching out to all of the communities, getting to know people at different universities and arts councils.”

Q & As usually followed shows. Often, the theater invited scholars or experts to lead discussions related to the themes/issues raised. Audiences weighed in, some testifying, as in church, to how the plays resonated with their lives.

Terry and Schmidman set a high standard.

Larson, a playwright whose doctoral thesis is on Terry, worked with OMT for 15 years. He said, “There was a time in the ’60’s and ’70’s when Megan was considered one of the top three female playwrights in the history of American Theater” along with Lillian Hellman and Susan Glaspell. “Then more female playwrights emerged, and Megan is still remembered as the leading political/feminist playwright.”

Noted New York playwright and poet Rochelle Owens said, “Megan Terry’s plays explore the boundaries of American culture…Her use of ‘transformation’ marked her as one of the most original dramatists of the experimental theater of the 20th century.” Owens said Schmidman is a “brilliant artistic director” who, along with Terry, is “an inspiration to theater artists.”

OMT was an island unto itself, isolated, by choice and by perception, from the larger theater community due to the work it did and the single-minded focus, some might say zealousness, the women displayed. “We didn’t play the local theater game,” Terry said. “Or socialize,” Schmidman interjected. “We were too busy working.”

Its 30-year run only ended, in 1998, when Schmidman and Terry, partners in life and in the theater, reached a point of exhaustion. The two share a house together in south O. The theater’s old touring van is parked on the street. The house is obscured by the van and an overgrown garden in front that seems an apt metaphor for two artists whose wild, creative vines are intertwined.

“When we closed we were playing to full houses every night,” Schmidman said. Even if she and Terry were weary, why walk away from such a good thing? “It’s just, there are other things to life. There are other art forms, like living,” Schmidman said. Besides, she said, it just never got any easier, especially the struggle to win grant money. All the late nights of preparing mountains of paperwork for grant applications and then waiting on pins and needles for a yes or no wore on them.

“The audiences were great, the work was great, but getting the damn money was as miserable as ever,” Terry said.

They closed shop to archive OMT’s and Terry’s remarkable bodies of work, all of which is housed in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley.

Thirty years of original, groundbreaking work unseen before here, some seen for the first time outside NY. Tours across Nebraska, Iowa. All “musicals,” not with familiar show tunes, either, but original, contemporary, music.

“The biggest myth of the American theater is people will only go to a show if they can leave the theater humming the tunes or they’ll only go to something that sounds like something else. That has not been our experience,” Schmidman said.

The Magic made its mark far beyond Omaha, too. Terry and Schmidman collaborated on the lyrics and book, respectively, for Running Gag, staged as an official selection of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, NY.

In 1996 the Magic represented America in the Suwon Castle International Theatre festival in Suwon, South Korea, just south of Seoul. Terry, Schmidman and Co. performed Star Path Moon Stop outdoors before a crowd of some 5,000 squatting spectators.

“It was fabulous,” Schmidman said. “They come from a shamanistic tradition, so they really got into our kind of theater,” Terry said. “They embraced it because it’s quite like their traditional, very broad, emotional, spectacle theater,” Schmidman elaborated. “Yes, their theater is very episodical and relies on fabulous stage effects,” Terry added. The festival appearance followed workshops OMT did the year before in Seoul. The theater traveled abroad once before, when they toured Body Leaks at a women’s fest in Canada.

From OMT’s inception, Schmidman surrounded herself with collaborators drawn from many disciplines/backgrounds. Rarely did anyone have formal theater training. There were painters, musicians, poets, hippies and freaks. Among the noted artists to work with OMT were painter Bill Farmer, musicians Jamel Mohamed and Luigi Waites and composer John Sheehan. Sora Kimberlain arrived as a visual artist and ended up doing set design, acting, writing and directing.

“The bottom line was if theater reflects life and if we’re creating a brand new way of performing, well, you sure don’t need to go to school for it,” Schmidman said. “You need to open your heart, open your soul, give yourself over to the work and do what it tells you.”

EDITOR’S NOTES: While Schmidman and Terry closed the original OMT a decade ago, they’re hardly inactive. Terry still writes, accepting commissions from theaters like The Rose in Omaha. Schmidman no longer directs but she consults/mentors the new OMT and other young theater artists.

In 1992 the Magic Theatre produced a book, Right Brain Vacation Photos, that serves as a great OMT primer, the American avante garde and experimental theater. Look for it at your local library or on Amazon.com.

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