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One of the people I got to know when I lived in Iowa was actor Gary Kroeger who was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Kroeger left Iowa to attend Northwestern University where he started an improv group with Julia Louis Dreyfus. The two ended up with Second City in Chicago and then on Saturday Night Live.

Kroeger went on to work on various TV shows (LA Law) and movies (The Big Picture) and co-wrote the script for The Chameleon before returning to Iowa in 2003 to work as a creative director. And he continues to do theater, TV and films. A few years ago I saw an exceptional theater performance by Kroeger as “Professor” Harold Hill in The Music Man–written by Meredith Willson from Mason City, Iowa. (I wrote about it in the post Talent and Trouble in River City.)

In 2004 he had the opportunity to work with Seinfeld creator Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm.  (The two met while working on Saturday Night Live.) Since I’ve been blogging about golf the last few days I thought a fitting scene to show was one from Curb Your Enthusiasm where Gary Kroeger (as a weatherman) and Larry David have a nice confrontation.

Today I asked Kroeger about getting the role and how it was shot and here’s his reply:

“I auditioned for Larry by improvising a weathercast. Once on the sets there is no script, only an outline for where the scene needs to go.  When I got to the golf course I was told ‘This is where Larry will confront you with his notion that you say it’s going to rain to empty the course.’ I wasn’t even told whether or not my character consciously did that, it was left to me to decide. They roll a camera on each actor and just ‘go.’ Every line is made up. Larry and a producer may then make a couple of suggestions and we’d do it again.”
Gary Kroeger

 

P.S. It’s interesting how many times Northwestern has come up on this blog. Here’s some other talent that’s come from Northwestern.

Scott W. Smith

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Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.
Ya Got Trouble. lyrics from The Music Man

There’s an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
Iowa Stubborn, lyrics from The Music Man

This weekend I went to see the Cedar Falls Community Theatre production of The Music Man. I had watched the movie before but had never seen the play. It was an overall great experience.

The story takes place in fictitious River City, Iowa which was inspired by Mason City, Iowa where the author of The Music Man, Meredith Willson, was raised. The Music Man first opened on Broadway in 1957 and won five Tony Awards and went on to be performed 1,375 times on its first Broadway run. (There have been two revivals of the play on Broadway, 1980 & 2000.) The film premiered in Mason City and today if you go there you can tour Willson’s boyhood home and visit The Music Man Square museum which celebrates Mason City’s musical tradition.

(As a sidenote, Mason City had a part in what Don McLean called “the day the music died.” In 1959, Buddy Holly and three others took off from the Mason City airport and shortly afterwards during a snow storm their plane crashed in a field eight miles away killing all four.)

Willson was actually nominated for two Oscar awards in his career, though neither were for his work on The Music Man, but rather for The Little Foxes (Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture) and the classic Chaplin film, The Great Dictator (Best Music, Original Score.) In 1958, the music from The Music Man beat out West Side Story to win a Grammy  Award (Best Original Cast Album).

The original play The Music Man starred Robert Preston as con man Professor Harold Hill. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and also starred in the 1962 movie. The local production here starred Gary Kroeger who was a writer/performer on Saturday Night Live between 1982-1985. I agree with the people who saw the play and know Kroeger (who lives here now)— it was a role made for him. Some people even remember when he had the lead in the same play back when he went to high school here. His co-star in the play is Kristin Teig Torres, who can be seen on the demo reel at RiverRun.tv from a project we shot a couple years ago.

And while I’ve been to plays in large theaters in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles there is something special to walking eight blocks from your home to downtown Cedar Falls to have dinner, and then watch a play in a restored 100 year old theatre. It’s nice to sit close enough to see the faces of actors you know who are performing words and songs written by someone who was raised an hour and a half away, knowing that that play has been performed and entertained people all over the world for more than 50 years.

So before the Field of Dreams, The Bridges of Madison Country, and Sleeping with the Enemy there was The Music Man to pave the way for future stories set in the quintessential heartland.

By the way, Nancy Price, who wrote the novel Sleeping with the Enemy, was at the performance Friday night which added a little extra reminder that every once in a while something other than corn comes out of the state of Iowa.

So wherever you live check out the community theater in your area. There’s magic and talent in community theaters all over this country. (I hear even Charlie Sheen is getting into the community theatre spirit by volunteering his time to work with a quaint small town in Colorado.) I think as films become less and less expensive to make you will not only see a growing regional film movement, but one that is the equivalent of community theater. Keep in mind that our local community theater raised $1.2 million to renovate a historic theater a few years ago, so there are people and businesses ready and willing to invest in the local arts community.

Oh, and speaking of The Music Man, remember a little kid named Ronny who played Winthrop Paroo in the 1962 movie? Hard to forget him singing, “O the wells Fargo wagon is a’comin’ down the road, O please let be for me.” He went on to act in a few more productions such as The Andy Griffith Show, American Graffiti and Happy Days. These days that young Oklahoma-born actor  is more well-known as the director Ron Howard.

On Saturday in Chicago he’ll be honored for a Career Achievement Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. And what a career it’s been—Apollo 13, Cocoon, Parenthood,  Splash, Frost/Nixon (Oscar Nomination), and two-Oscars wins for A Beautiful Mind (Best Director, Best Picture).

* The Music Man photo taken by Bill Sikula. More shots at www.facebook.com/osterregent

Scott W. Smith


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“Ohh Nooo!!!”
Mr. Bill

“You could make a really good-looking movie right now for ten grand.”
Steven Soderbergh

The other day I saw Mr. Bill in a commercial and I realized I hadn’t seen him in many years. That took me back and I somehow I ended up looking at screenwriters from Louisiana because that’s where Mr. Bill’s creator Walter Williams is from and now lives.

The New Orleans native discovered Super-8 film when he was 17 years old. According to the Mr. Bill website he began making comedy films that were shown in local clubs and bars and he ended up with his own UHF TV show.

In the pre-You Tube days of 1975 Saturday Night Live put out a call for home movies and Mr. Bill debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1976 and ran until 1980. (Williams was eventually hired by Lorne Michaels as a staff writer.) The years ’76-80 were the early golden years of the program with a cast that included Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin and John Belushi.

Mr. Bill and his supporting cast Mr. Hands and Sluggo were quite an inspiration to me in those years because they were my high school years. One of my first films in Annye Refoe’s creative writing class featured my version of Mr. Bill. I don’t remember the story line but I do recall the obligatory destruction scene where Mr. Bill is standing in front of the door as the entire class leaves for the day flattening Mr. Bill. “Ohh, nooo!!! (My art teacher mom had to make a few Mr. Bill’s for the stunts.)

It was that class that set me on course for film school and an over 20 year career in production. Looking back on the years ’76-80 there was an eclectic mix of inspiration for a young creative mind:  Star Wars (77), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (77), David Lynch’s Elephant Man (80), Rocky (76), Raging Bull (80), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (77), Saturday Night Fever (77), Grease (78), Animal House (78),  Apocalypse Now (78) Kramer Vs. Kramer (79), Norma Rae (79), …And Justice for All (79), Breaking Away (79), Halloween (78)Being There (79), The Great Santini (79), Silent Movie (76), Silver Streak (76), Heaven Can Wait (78), Mad Max (79)  along with those movies I probably saw at the now defunct Prairie Lake Drive-In Theater–Smokey and the Bandit (77), Up in Smoke (78) and The Kentucky Fried Movie (77).

Mr. Bill is an American icon from the 70s and it’s nice to see him (and Williams) kicking around 28 years later. Williams has not only directed Mr. Bill in spots for Lexus, Burger King and Ramada Inn but in non-profit efforts to help restore the wetlands in New Orleans.

In 1978 there was a 15 year-old over in Baton Rogue, Louisiana who began to make animation and short narrative films (perhaps inspired by Mr. Bill’s success) who would go to make his mark in 1989 writing and directing and shooting sex, lies, and videotape. (Winner of the Palm d’Or at the ’89 Cannes Film Festival some credit the film with starting the modern day independent film movement.)

Steven Soderbergh went on to win an Oscar for best director for Traffic (2000). (That same year his Erin Brockovich was also nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. That’s called having a great year.)

Soderbergh has done an amazing job of making big budget features with actors as such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and then turning around and making a DV feature like Bubble with amateur actors in Ohio and West Virginia. (Though from what I’ve read, it’s not a favorable outlook on small town America.) His next two films, Guerrilla & The Argentine (on Che Guevara) were shot with the new revolutionary RED camera which shoots digitally –no film or tape. (Am I the only one who thinks it’s ironic to make a film on a Marxist leader with a camera called Red?)

Now that I think about it, do we really need two more films on Che Guevara? From a guy who was executive producer on Syriana? (Justifiably cynical at best, anti-American at worse.) It’s good to be reminded in film critic Andrew Sarris’ review of Syriana that despite this countries problems, ” The world is too full of people who’d kill us (Americans) for the shoes on our feet.”

We need counter-cultural writers and filmmakers who challenge us (even our capitalistic & materialistic faults that helped bring on the mortgage crisis), but do we need to make socialist, marxist, communist, dictators, and/or terrorist our heroes? (And I’d bet that there are more than one pro-Taliban scripts floating around Hollywood.)  But I do look forward to seeing what the RED camera footage looks like on the big screen and I’m sure Benicio Del Toro performance as Guevara will be worthy and increase sales of Che Guevara t-shirts.

Politics aside, Soderbergh is also unusual in that he is the director of photography on most of his films, and sometimes the editor as well.  I think he and multiple creative hat wearer Robert Rodriguez will be the inspiration and model for filmmakers of the future.

Anne Rice, novelist and screenwriter of Interview with the Vampire, was born in New Orleans which is where many of her stories take place. Novelist and essay writer Walker Percy (The Moviegoer, The Second Coming) spent his last forty plus years in Covington and most of his stories take place in Louisiana.

Ernest J. Gaines  whose A Lesson Before Dying was nominated a Pulitzer Prize and made into a TV movie is a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafaytte.

Other well-known writers with a Louisiana connection are Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes), Stephen Ambrose (writer of Band of Brothers and consultant on Saving Private Ryan), and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire).

John Kennedy Toole after years of publishers rejection won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize A Confederacy of Dunces over a decade after committing suicide. Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood) was born in New Orleans but belongs more to Alabama where he grew-up.

On the production side, Louisiana has been aggressive over the years in making movies in the state:
The Apostle
Southern Comfort
The Big Easy
Dead Man Walking
The Cincinnati Kid
Live and Let Die
King Creole
Tightrope
All the Kings Men

Even Shreveport is getting into the action according to an USA Today article last month titled “Hooray for movie locations outside Hollywood.” According to writer Alexandyr Kent, Shreveport has attracted “at least 18 projects in 2008, totaling more than $200 million in production budgets, and more than 80% of that will likely be spent in Louisiana.”

Shreveport is where Katie Holmes filmed Mad Money and where Josh Brolin was arrested in an incident outside a bar in July while there for filming Oliver Stone’s W. (No, Stone didn’t use a RED camera.)

To learn more about the film industry in Louisiana contact the  Louisiana Film & Television Office of Entertainment Industry Development and Louisiana Movies Blog.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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