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Archive for October, 2013

“What I’m really involved in when I’m writing is something that no one ever mentions when they see any play. Writing is like trying to make gunpowder out of chemicals. You have these words and sentences and the strange meanings and associations that are attached to the words and sentences, and you’re somehow cooking these things all up so that they suddenly explode and have a powerful effect. That’s what absorbs me from day to day in writing a play.”
Actor/Playwright/Screenwriter Wally Shawn
EsquireThe Secret Life of Wally Shawn by Don Shewey

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And I wish we could sit upon a bed in some motel
And listen to the stories it could tell
John B. Sebastian/Stories We Could Tell

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When artists, speakers, and musicians come to Cedar Falls they often stay at The Blackhawk Hotel.  Over the years Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane have stayed at the historic hotel.  And just a few days ago singer Brandi Carlile was a guest.

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Architect Dan Tindell and his wife Kathy bought the hotel a decade ago almost on a whim. And they took to restoring it as a passion project that has turned into a profitable business venture, as well as an anchor building for downtown Cedar Falls. (May all your passion projects go as well.)

I’m sure the hotel has many stories to tell in its 100 year plus history, but one of my favorite ones is film related.

“After graduating from college Wally Shawn went off on his own to write nightmarish little plays. For years, he couldn’t write unless he was in some exotic locale far from home. He wrote his first play on a trip to Italy, the second in Ireland, the third and fourth during an off-season visit to the tiny West Indian island of Bequia. When he could no longer afford to go abroad, he sold one percent of his future earnings as a playwright to six of his friends (one was screenwriter Jacob Brackman), which gave him enough to spend a few months holed up in a four-dollar-a-night hotel in Cedar Falls, Iowa, writing his fifth play — all of this happening, incidentally, before a single word of his had been spoken by a professional actor.”
The Secret Life of Wally Shawn by Don Shewey
Esquire, 1983

That four-dollar-a-night hotel was The Blackhawk Hotel decades before its restoration. And before Wally Shawn ever spoke that single word that he is most known for today—”inconceivable.” In fact, that word from The Princess Bride written by William Goldman has to be up there in repeated movie lines.

If Shawn visited The Blackhawk Hotel today I imagine he’d be surprised at the transformation of the former $4 a night hotel. And you may be surprised to know that Shawn is a screenwriter.  Along with being an Obie Award-winning playwright his first produced feature film (co-written with Andre Gregory) was My Dinner with Andre (1981) and currently in post-production is Fear of Falling which is his adaption of Ibsen’s The Master Builder.

But it’s okay if you know him more as the voice of Rex from the Toy Story films. There are people in Cedar Falls that still remember Shawn as a young man who lived at The Blackhawk and played in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony and dated a professor at the University of Iowa.

I’ve been staying at The Blackhawk myself the last few days working on various projects and taking some photos for their website as well. I took the top photo many years ago around Christmas time and here’s a more recent shot of what the hotel looks like these days.

Black Hawk Hotel

Seems like a fitting end to this post is Brandi Carlile’s video The Story.

Scott W. Smith

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“I wear glasses and braces. I do all my clothes shopping at Walmart and second-hand stores. I spend more time on algebra than I do on my hair.”
15 year old Maya Van Wagenen

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Yeah, teenager Maya Van Wagenen may still live with her parents in rural Georgia, but she doesn’t need to shop at second-hand stores anymore. (Unless she likes the style in that early Madonna kind of way.) A few months ago she signed a two-book deal with Penguin books reportedly for around $300,000. Sure you have to pay taxes on that, but yesterday Deadline reported  that “Van Wagenen has become the youngest non-actor to ever make a feature deal at DreamWorks.”

Her first book Popular: Vintage Wisdom for Modern Geek is set to be released in April 2004. From what I could find online the story takes places in Brownsville. Texas where Van Wagenen used to live and revolves around a high school girl who decides to use a 1950’s book Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide to win friends at her school.  I had never heard of Van Wagenen or Cornell before yesterday, but I saw the movie instantly in my head. And the movie poster can pull a line directly from the book cover; “The secrets of how you can be prettier and more popular.”

So much room for satire, commentary, and insight—and potentially entertaining every step of the way. Perhaps a dash of The Breakfast Club, Easy A, and Blast from the Past. And talk about a built in audience—what percentage of high school girls today do you think want to be popular, pretty, and smart?

My guess is we’ll all be learning more about both Van Wegenen and Cornell in the near future.  Couldn’t find much out about Van Wagenen, but she won 1st place in flash fiction for a story called The Princess on Route 4B that was a competition connected with Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia.

From what I could gather online, Cornell was a junior model in the ’40s and had her first book published in 1951 offering advice on everything from boys and dress to hair and diet.

“If you don’t know what foods are fattening, ask your chubby friends, because they will know.”
Betty Cornell
(Found on a blog called Embarrassing Treasures)

By today’s standards I’m sure there are some things Cornell wrote more than 50 years ago that seem insensitive and politically incorrect, but I can also see why Steven Spielberg’s long time assistant, Kristie Macosko Krieger,  was attracted to and will be producing the movie. According to the Deadline report Amy B. Harris (Sex in the City) will be writing the screenplay.

Talent comes from everywhere. Congrats to Van Wagenen. And best wishes on your writing today.

P.S. How many manner, etiquette, and beauty books from the 19th and 20th century will find their way into movies in the next couple of years? What’s old is new again. (And all the better if the source material is in the public domain—anything published before 1923).

Scott W. Smith 

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“GIVE MY CREATION LIFE!”
Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) in Young Frankenstein
(And the plea of screenwriters throughout the world)

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Yesterday I went to see Young Frankenstein  at the historic Oster Regent Theater in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  It was a good turnout for the 1974 film directed by Mel Brooks. The theater opened in 1910 as the Cotton Theater and is now home to the Cedar Falls Community Theater, as well has a venue for musical groups and occasionally old films.

Last month a bronze statue of Merle Blair standing behind a movie camera was unveiled. According to Melody Parker at the Waterloo Courier , “For many years, Merle Blair owned the Regent Theatre when it was a movie theater. Eventually Merle and Winifred Flair and the Beck Trust of Mason City gave the building as a gift to the Cedar Falls Community Theatre.” The sculpture of Blair was created by Loveland, Colorado artist Thelma Weresh.

A nice Iowa tie into showing Young Frankenstein the week of Halloween is that Gene Wilder (who co-wrote the script with Brooks and stars as Dr. Frankenstein) went to school at the University of Iowa and Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman (who plays Frau Blücher in the movie) was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa.

P.S. As I’ve pointed out before, two movies have their roots in Cedar Falls. Both Robert Waller (The Bridges of Madison County) and Nancy Price (Sleeping with the Enemy) wrote their novels in Cedar Falls. And this blog started back in 2008 just a few blocks from the Oster Regent Theater.

Related Posts:
BOOM! and the Fat Lady from Kansas City (Gene Wilder quotes)
Sleeping with the Enemy Nancy Price quote 
Postcard #39 (UNI) Robert Waller quote

Scott W. Smith

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Okay, it’s not really a photo of Brandi Carlile because I’m not sure if I can show any photos /video I took tonight of the Brandi Carlile concert tonight at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Artist Center where she performed with “the twins” (brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth) and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony. (The purpose of the photo/video shoot was archival in nature.) It was a super concert with a blend of folk, country, and rock. She ended the concert with a remarkable cover of the Leonard Cohen/Bob Dylan song Hallelujah. Few concerts (or movies) end as satisfying.

Here’s the version Carlile recorded with the Seattle Symphony.

Last year Carlile performed with the Seattle Symphony and guest conductor Jason Weinberger—the same conductor of tonights concert in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Carlile was born in Ravensdale, Washington and lives in the greater Seattle area. While her music has been features in movies and TV programs, perhaps a better movie movie connection to today’s post is that one of Carlile’s influences was Pasty Cline. If you are unfamiliar with Cline’s music and life check out Sweet Dreams (1985) written by Robert Getchell and directed by Karel Reisz. And one super performance by Jessica Lange as Cline.

Scott W. Smith

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You may be familiar with the 1960 French film Breathless. You probably know that it was directed by Goddard and the script written by Truffaut. But even if you know that the film co-stars Jean Seberg, you may be surprised to learn she was born in Marshalltown, Iowa. I drove through Marshalltown late this afternoon and discovered that they have a film festival named after her.

In fact, this year the Jean Seberg International Film Festival held at the Orpheum Theater in Marshalltown will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Seberg’s birth (she died in 1979). They will not only be showing Breathless, but a the world premiere of the documentary Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg by filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle and Garry McGee.

Related Post: TRON: Legacy (Part 1) Director Joseph Kosinski (TRON:Legacy, Oblivion) was also also born in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Scott W. Smith

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“There’s no way to learn how to write a hit song. There’s no formula for it. You just have to have it inside of you.”
Beach Boys’ Al Jardine
Postcard from Big Sir by Rick Petreycik
Fretboard Journal 30

 

 

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