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


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.


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


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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Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) in Young Frankenstein
(And the plea of screenwriters throughout the world)


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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“I write everyday for at least two hours and I spend the rest of my time largely in the society of ducks.”
Novelist Flannery O’Connor (and Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA grad)
DSC_2242Sometimes it takes years—even decades— to build a name for yourself, and sometimes infamy can come from just an email that takes a second to send. I just Googled “University of Iowa” as a test, and sure enough the first result (out of 125 million) was this USA Today headline: “College teaching assistant e-mailed nude pics to class.”

First was not about the school founded in 1847, not the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, not the winning Hawkeye wrestling program, not the Princeton Review naming the University of Iowa the number one party school for 2013-14.  Not even a mention of the Iowa college student who was arrested at a football game in September with a blood-alcohol content reading of 0.341. Nope all those took a back seat to a teaching assistant who university officials said sent, “inappropriate content to her students.”

Reports are the email from the math teaching assistant stated, “Hi Class, I attach the solutions for number 76 and 78 in this email.” (New math? Nude math?) I don’t think the nude photos of the TA (you know, teaching assistant) were the solutions, but I’m sure they will provide David Letterman, Jay Leno and others at least enough material for one night. And I don’t know if the TA will become a professor, but I imagine an LA agent and realty show are already in the works.

I happened to be in the Iowa City area the last couple of days. I was doing a video shoot close to the University of Iowa yesterday and the client graciously reserved a room for me at the Coralville Marriott.  The hotel has one of the best features I’ve ever seen at a hotel. (And I’ve seen the ducks at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, and dolphins at The Kahala Hotel on Oahu.) They have a library that features only books from writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.


Last night I spent a little time there reading the book The Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Stephen Wilbers. The book was first published in 1980 so it doesn’t include writers from the workshop over the last three decades, but it does a super job of telling the early history of the workshop.

While I have no connection to the University of Iowa, this blog and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop do share a connection in that regionalism played a part in starting both. (And there’s a Diablo Cody connection, of course.)

“As Wallace Stegner proclaimed in an article for the Saturday Review of Literature, the regionalist were convinced that Iowa had ‘definitely come of age.’ In sum, the twentieth century was imbued with the spirit of regionalism and charged with the special energy that emanates from sense of place and pride of locale. In addition to the stimulus of the University itself, two other factors—the Midland and the tradition of the writers’ clubs—reflected and contributed to this spirit.”
Stephen Wilbers
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop began in 1936 and to date faculty and graduates affiliated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have won twenty-eight Pulitzer Prizes. The library at the Marriott has a special section of just those books.

What I also learned from Wilbers’ book was that fundraising and publicity for the Writers’ Workshop program took many years to establish.

P.S. Screenwriter Diablo Cody did not attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (she jokes that it’s easier to win an Oscar than to get accepted) but she attended the University of Iowa because it was known as producing writers and she wanted to be a writer. So she joins Tennessee Williams as being an accomplished writer who graduated from the University of Iowa without attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Related Posts: The Juno—Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

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“Stan [Musial] remains to this day an icon, a beloved pillar of the community , a gentleman you’d want your kids to emulate.”
President Obama in 2011 when Stan Musial was awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

“No man has ever been a perfect ballplayer. Stan Musial, however, is the closest to being perfect in the game today.”
Ty Cobb in 1952

So we go from Superman to Stan the Man.  Yesterday I drove though St. Louis and stopped at Busch Stadium to take the above picture of a statue of Stan Musial (1920-2013). The hall of fame baseball player was a three-time national league MVP for the St. Louis Cardinals as well as a World Series champion and All Star player (as well as missing one entire season while serving with the U.S. Navy during World War II). In 1999 he was selected as an outfielder by the All Century Team.

Tomorrow St. Louis begins the World Series in Boston again the Red Sox, so it seemed fitting to take a photo of a statue created by artist Harry Weber which stands outside Busch Stadium.

No real film connection here. Musial did not lead the kind of up/down, rocky road life full of drama that film biographies usually warrant.

“He didn’t hit a homer in his last at-bat; he hit a single. He didn’t hit in 56 straight games. He married his high school sweetheart and stayed married to her, never married a Marilyn Monroe. He didn’t play with the sheer joy and style that goes alongside Willie Mays’ name. None of those easy things are there to associate with Stan Musial. All Musial represents is more than two decades of sustained excellence and complete decency as a human being,” 
Bob Costas on ESPN’s SportsCentury series.

Last year in Donora, Pennsylvania—Musial’s hometown— they dedicated the Stan “The Man” Musial Bridge. And just a few months ago Congress approved naming a new bridge connecting St. Louis, MO with East St. Louis, IL the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge.


Related Post: Screenwriting from Missouri

Scott W. Smith

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Did you know there’s actually a city named Metropolis in the United States? It sits on the Ohio River in the southern part of Illinois.   And if you expect a real life town of Metropolis to embrace Superman and build a giant replica of the fictional character, you will not be disappointed.

I took the above photo of Superman this morning back on my way up to a few productions in the Midwest this week. It was hard to show the scale of this  giant statue until a couple Superman admirers stepped into the frame.  While one of the creators of Superman said he based the fictional Metropolis on Toronto, back in 1972 DC Comics declared Metropolis, IL the “Hometown of Superman”.

Just around the corner from the Statue is the Massac Theater which hasn’t aged as well as Superman. The art deco building opened in 1938 just in time for that great year in movies—1939. There is currently an effort to restore the theater at savethemassac.org 


Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (see the post The First Black Feature Filmmaker) was born in Metropolis in 1884.  When they have a grand reopening of the Massac I suggest they show a couple Superman films in the day, and a double feature at night with one of Micheaux’s films with the classic Fritz Lang directed film Metropolis (1927) written by Thea von Harbou. (Anybody have any memories of the Massac Theater in its glory days?)

Related Posts:

The Superman from Cleveland
Putting the $ in Superman

Scott W. Smith

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