Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How Old Do You Feel?

Produced, edited and scored by Peter Rosen. Photographed by Matt Gephardt and various other photojournalists.

KUTV'S Man in Havana

I've never met Fidel Castro.

But I'm only one degree of separation away from him.

I’ve met Evelio, a translator and English teacher, who was once called upon to translate for the Cuban President.

"I peed in my pants," he said.

And at the Sundance Film Festival, I interviewed Oliver Stone, who spent some time with Castro while filming his documentary "Looking for Fidel."

Stone said Castro didn't impress him as a ruthless dictator, but "a very warm, very bright, very driven man, very moral man..."

The film was temporarily shelved after Cuba jailed dozens of dissidents in 2003.

I've been to Cuba twice. Once on a cultural exchange trip, once to go to music school.

And I never really felt like I was behind enemy lines.

Between music classes, I shot a short feature story for KUTV...and it was a clandestine operation.

I used an inconspicuous home video camera. I hid my tripod in a book bag. And when a security guard approached, I stopped tape and moved on.

Not because I thought I’d end up in a jail cell with the dissidents, but because I didn't have a journalist's visa or permission from the music conservatory bureaucracy and I was afraid someone might confiscate equipment or tape.

I didn’t really see much of Castro.

The late revolutionary Che Guevara was everywhere. On buildings, billboards, t-shirts.

At the Museum of the Revolution, in a glass case, I saw Che's socks.

But I never saw Castro’s socks.

I saw a picture of him in our music rehearsal room.

And in journalist Jorge Miyare's (another one degree connection) parent's house.
The same way many Utah homes feature images of the Salt Lake Temple, this one had Fidel and Che, framed, side by side.

And sightings of Castro, himself, people said, were rare. He shuffled between several residences, perhaps to avoid poisoned cigars and exploding mollusks, so no one could say where he was at any given time.

Evelio said Cuba had two problems.

The second was Castro's politics. That, he said, was bad. (He used a different word.)

The first problem was the economy.

Cuba didn't feel like a Forbidden Island.

It felt like a very poor one.

Where being called "fat," we were warned, was a complement. (Hint: Don't go to Cuba for the food.)

Where buildings were falling apart. One did, in fact, a few feet away from me. The cornice of a decrepit Old Havana high rise collapsed onto the street. Luckily, someone's parked car broke the fall.

A country where, by necessity, car owners drove crumbling American collectibles.

Where everyone seemed anxious to attach themselves to Americans and their money. After one double date, a fellow American got a marriage proposal from a Cuban Olympic silver medalist.

People didn’t seem to be as eager for an end to Castro’s rule, as they did for an end to the American embargo.

The last time I was in Cuba and saw Fidel Castro, he seemed in fine health.

That was in the Havana airport, waiting (hours) to pass through immigration. Castro was on the TV, lecturing to the people.

Also in line was a Californian who had a Cuban girlfriend and child and visited often.

This, he explained, was Castro's regular Friday night broadcast.

It was followed by the Friday night movie. Often an off-the-new release-shelf American VHS tape. Everyone, he said, tuned in. For a brief escape from reality.
Though sometimes, he said, Castro went on (as he had a reputation for doing) for so long, he preempted the movie.

And left an entire country crestfallen.

Cubans weren’t concerned about Castro.

They just wanted to watch a movie.

The Cult of Little Marcy

Just about everyone who visits artist William Robbins' house is exposed -- I think that's the proper term -- to "Little Marcy."

Even though it undoubtedly makes Robbins' wife cringe, "I've introduced everyone to the Cult of Marcy."

"It's an acquired taste," he says.

Little Marcy is Marcy Tigner, an inspirational trombonist who wanted to sing the gospel. She went through three voice teachers before her husband suggested that, rather than try to change her very childlike voice, she
exploit it. With the assistance of Miss America 1965, she developed a Christian ventriloquism act.

Little Marcy, Tigner's inner wooden child, sings gospel favorites like, "When Mr. Satan Knocks at My Heart's Door."

And that makes Robbins smile.

"I can't explain it. As soon as I saw Marcy going through the thrift store, I smiled. I thought, this was great. It's almost genetic."

I can see the attraction. Because I've seen Robbins' work.

Last year we took a Fresh Look at a local drive-through art gallery where Robbins was exhibiting his art.

Like a fiberglass zombie minibar with illuminated brains.

An Andy Warhol Pez dispenser.

And a painting of a Metrosexual Frankenstein. (The monster with a really nice haircut.)

At home, his living room TV is filled with fish.

And a tree grows out of his son's bedroom dresser.

You get the idea.

That's why when Robbins, a vinylphile, leafs through musty stacks of thrift shop LPs, he snaps up treasures like "Music for Bachelors," "Archie and Meatheads Best Arguments," "Stop Smoking and Overeating with Ravine," the Bourbon Street chaplain and auto dealer duo, "Bob and Fred," and, a Cold War enthusiast's must-have, "The Coming War with Russia." *

(If you enjoy these musical and spoken word recordings, you might like to browse this blog.)

You can hear selections from Robbins' record collection on this Fresh Look on Life.

And then maybe you, too, will be indoctrinated into the Cult of Marcy.

*In 2001, Jack Van Impe, the televangelist who made this record, was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for astrophysics for the assertion that black holes fulfill the technical requirements to be the location of Hell.

Postscript: February 14, I phoned Robbins to tell him the airdate for this story. He told me that morning he and his wife had celebrated his son's birthday. And just 20 minutes before I called, his wife had given birth to a little girl. That's some Valentine's Day.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Holy Grail is in West Valley City

I thought it was just a big pile of dirt and garbage. And maybe a feature story. But I had no idea.

Several years ago, every day driving to and from work at the old KUTV studios in West Valley City, I passed a field of dreams. An empty weed-strewn lot. What remained of a 50-year-old garbage dump.

There they were every morning and every evening. And during some of the hottest days of the year. Armed with shovels and metal detectors. Treasure hunters prospecting for antique bottles.

Like Brandy. Blonde and 20-ish and covered with a thin veneer of dump dirt.

Photographer Adam Eakle and I decided to make a story out of our neighborhood dirt pile. And she was our interview subject.

Alongside a half-dozen other dirty souls, Brandy spent her days looking for old glass. Sorting marbles and bottles, she said, from false teeth and toilets.

"I've done it like like a job every day. I'm here at eight o'clock in the morning until sundown."

So dedicated a digger, she was, Brandy said she was out there with shovel and child when her water broke.

Brandy was more than willing to show us around the dump, but we could tell not everyone wanted the media exposing their hunting grounds.

"People are weird out here," she said, "They really get 'you jumped in my hole, you got that from my hole.' I mean it's seriously, it gets bad out here. It's like gold mining, it is. It gets bad."

She pointed out a worn, thin man. He was the best bottle digger of the dirt pile. At one point he walked over, look at us, kicked the dirt, and walked away.

Looking for other interviews, we approached a couple men screening dirt on the other side of the field. The more heavyset of the two, it turned out, was a preacher. A man of God and bottles.

He didn't want to be interviewed and tried to convince us not to air our story and share their garbage dump with the world.

He'd make a deal with us.

Hold the story a few months and he'd grant an interview and tell us what he was really digging for.


He leaned in, lowered his voice, and whispered with all apparent seriousness, "The Holy Grail."

I can't believe that he believed what he was telling me. But I think he believed that we believed it.

Brandy kept digging.

"My mom just looks at me and shakes her head. I come home all filthy. My nails are dirty, she's like where's my little girl," she said. "I need this dump over. I need to get a job."

A few weeks later the dump was over.

In preparation for development, the property owners fenced off the lot and the bottle diggers disappeared. Brandy among them.

But, even though Dan Brown's never said so, could the best treasure of all still be under the dirt?

You'll have to go ask the preacher.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Olympic Taxi

Produced, edited and scored by Peter Rosen and photographed by Kurt Smith during the 2002 Winter Olympics. This is not an endorsement of Carl's Jr. restaurants, but we do enjoy the occasional Santa Fe chicken sandwich with zucchini fries.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Atomic Bombs and Lightning Balls

The Wendover Airfield has always felt a little other-worldly.

The second to last time I was there, strolling through the endless desert acreage of this military ghost town, I stumbled across an atomic bomb casing filled with cement. A dummy "Little Boy" used by the Enola Gay crew for target practice.

The last time I was there, I toured the Wendover branch of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The group's sponsored avant-guard art installations like salt sculptures, artificial traffic jams, a museum of practice targets and a radio tower that receives orders from a local fast food drive-through. And they're a Fresh Look on Life. (For more information about visiting CLUI, click here.)

But my favorite Wendover Airfield story, is one I never shot.

KUTV producer/photographer Ken Fall did, and it literally fried his camera.

In the 70’s, Robert Golka, a modern-day Nikola Tesla, turned the old Enola Gay hanger into his high voltage laboratory. There he tried to create ball lightning with a Tesla coil* more than 100 feet tall.

The flash of the blinding artificial lightning burned the tubes of Fall's camera.

Director Robert Frank made a mocumentary about Golka, “Energy and How to Get it,” featuring writer William Burroughs as the Energy Czar, director Robert Downey as a Hollywood agent, musician Dr. John, and Golka himself.

Eventually Golka he was evicted from the hangar.

He continued his work in Leadville, Colorado, but left there, I read, after a wall inexplicably fell down.

I don’t know that Golka made great scientific breakthroughs, but his story certainly adds to the unusual aura surrounding Wendover Airfield.

*A Tesla coil is basically a transformer that can turn standard AC outlet electricity into millions of volts capable of producing one's own personal lightning storm. I remember attending a Tesla Society gathering at a Colorado Springs hotel. A member tried to demonstrate a large Tesla coil, but it triggered the hotel's smoke detectors and sprinkler system. He moved his lightning to the hotel parking lot.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Subsonic Ping Pong Balls

On our Fresh Look on Physics, University of Utah physics demonstrator Ziggy Peacock fired a ping pong ball through a Coke can at just under the speed of sound.

How'd he do that? It's no magician's secret.

Peacock put a ping pong ball inside a length of PVC tubing. He covered each end with a piece of clear packing tape. He evacuated the air inside with a small vacuum pump. And then he punctured one taped end with a pocket knife.

The ball launches fast enough to pass through one and a half soda cans.

And leave one serious welt on a BYU physics professor. (Kids, don't try that at home.)

The Basic Elements of a Story

Photographer Mike Sadowski and I were downtown burning up time and gas until our next assignment.

Me: Did you see that?
Mike: What?
Me: Drive back around the block.

There, parked on the side of South Temple was an RV that looked like it had been tagged (“God plays dice with Einstein,” " Astronomers do it all night”) by a gang of high school physics students.

It was Randy Schroeder’s “Bicentennial Big Bang RV.” Its exterior was graffiti-ed with posters of heavenly bodies, lunarscapes and charts of nuclides. The stuff planetarium gift shops are made of.

He developed his style of customizing when, years ago, he patched a dent in his car with what he had at hand -- a periodic table of elements. Schroeder was a construction worker who hurt his knee and went to community college in search of a new profession and rediscovered chemistry.

And now couldn’t stop talking about it.

He was a science-minded vagabond barnstorming the country, hawking his own instructional periodic table of elements to college bookstores, and delivering a non-stop monologue on the wonders of chemistry and physics to any TV reporter who’d listen.

The conversation bounced from spectroscopy to anti-matter to Californium to quarks to a few bars of Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements,” (There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium) to his late Mom’s ’76 Dodge.

He towed the beater everywhere he went. It was autographed by seven Nobel physicists and two Nobel chemists. There, indeed, were the signatures of Sir Harry Kroto, the knight behind the Buckminster Buckminsterfullerene and F. Sherwood Rowland, who helped discover the hole in the ozone layer.

Schroeder was just passing through town. Looking for directions to the local planetarium. Until he made a feature reporter’s day.

There on the side of the road were all the elements of a great story. (“And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium, And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium…) And then some.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Stampede on Main Street

Produced, edited and scored by Peter Rosen. Photographed by Mike Sadowski.

I Bugged My Boss' Office

I took my first full-time broadcasting job sight unseen.

I mailed all my possessions from a Washington, DC post office and hopped on a plane to Colorado.

There, in small market radio, I learned a few things.

When reporting on a gasoline spill, don't stand in the spill.

And when a program director decides you should do your traffic reports actually from the traffic, don't total the brand-new traffic car. At least not the first day.

I was fired shortly after the accident (which wasn't my fault. They hit me first.).

I fended off starvation by disc jockeying at a classical music station (where I learned how to mispronounce words in French, German and Portuguese.) and ripping and reading newswire at a pop station from 2 to 6 am.

At the news gig inbetween naps in the sleeping bag under the audio console, I did what I could to combat fatigue and boredom.

On Thanksgiving, I interviewed a turkey (which I found on and old sound effects LP). During a story about lung cancer, I coughed a lot.

I was such a devoted employee that, unable to drive to the studio because of a record snowfall, I worked the home phone, recorded and played back interviews with police and fire departments with an answering machine and filed reports in my pajamas. (I think we all should stay at home and work in our PJ's. No doubt, this could reduce stress in the workplace.)

My employers were fair and honest. But they were the kind of employers, who, when you asked for a raise, gave you a booklet of Burger King gift certificates instead. (I took them.)

My last day in the radio business (I was defecting to TV), I bugged my boss' office.

He was both the program director and the morning DJ. And although he was masterful at talking up to the songs he played, he was not adept at singing along with them. Although he did so constantly.

So I planted a tape recorder in the control booth, recorded a few (of his) songs, smuggled the tape out, quickly produced a mock commercial for a fictitious "school of boss jocking" (One that taught its students how to sing off-key with the hits), and dubbed it onto a cart.

Before the days of digital recording, these 8-track look-alike cassettes held recordings of songs, commercials and public service announcements. I swiped the label off of one of that morning's PSA's, placed it on my "commercial," and slid it back in its proper place.

Just as planned, he placed the cart in the machine and hit the button that played it on the air.

Within about six seconds he realized he'd been had. By someone he couldn't fire.

He listened through to the end of the "commercial."

And then, a smile on his face, he played it again.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A "Michael Jordan" Lives in Sandy

He's the undisputed world champion. Hands down.

He's held that position for 20 years.

In Europe people line up for his autograph. A woman from Siberia drove 18 hours just to meet him.

They just made a movie about the guy.

But chances are, you've never heard of him.

Because he doesn't play baseball or basketball.

John Brzenk is an arm wrestler. (And a Fresh Look on Life.)

In 1985 Brzenk entered a Las Vegas tournament held in conjunction with the filming of Sylvester Stallone's "Over the Top." The biggest thing that's ever hit the arm wrestling world.

In the movie, Stallone's character enters a competition and wins an eighteen wheeler. Brzenk was the real-life winner. He took first place and the truck.

And arm wrestlers around the world all agree he's been the champion, the "Michael Jordan" of the sport, ever since.

Brzenk has beaten just about everyone there is to beat.

A few years ago, filmmaker Sevan Matossian started to make a documentary about arm wrestling. It turned into a movie about John.

At the beginning of the promotional video for "Pulling John,"
the soundtrack, a stirring chorus of choir and strings and percussion, swells.


Bum bum bum.


Bum bum bum.


I thought when I asked how much of his success is strength and how much is technique, I'd hear about the technique.

No, he said, in the end it comes down to brute strength.

Friend and arm wrestler Bob Brown says, "He is just a freak."

And he means that in a good way.

Brzenk is just that strong.

He doesn't lift weights. He just, as arm wrestlers say, pulls. It's about focus and genetics.

I heard a story about Brzenk, lost in the wilderness and in need of firewood, ripping trees out of the ground.

And started thinking about Paul Bunyon.

To be sure, Brzenk is very smart and very competitive.

Friend and arm wrestler Kevin Bongard says he and Brzenk, at their regular wrestling practice sessions, used to box.

One time they were relaxing after an especially long wrestling session.

"Hey, maybe we ought to get the gloves," Brzenk suggested.

"No, we've been wrestling," Bongard said.

"Hey, ya sissy."

"OK," Bongard said, "get the gloves."

"And we went at it and we went at it," Bongard recounted. "We wouldn't quit. His wife was yelling at us. And the back of his leg was all cut up from the rosebushes. I had a fat lip. He had a black eye. It got crazy."

The thing is, in person, at his suburban Utah home, Brzenk doesn't come across as a superman or a Paul Bunyon.

He's a humble, soft-spoken airline mechanic and family man, who isn't prone to self-promotion. Not at all.

Asked about being the best he said, "People have told me that. There are guys out there that are as good as me. It's just they're far away and there's so little money in the sport."

I called Brzenk to tell him the air date for the KUTV story, but couldn't reach him. Brown said his friend was in Denver. A couple minutes later I walked by a TV tuned to ESPN and there was John Brzenk in a wrestling tournament. And commentators were using that word "legendary."

When you're that good at what you do, you don't necessarily need to promote yourself. Word gets around.

Even to Siberia.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Cheers to the British Lawn Mower Racers

In the dusty, salty, uniquely American landscape of the the Utah desert, you could almost hear Sousa playing in the distance.

This week Bobby Cleveland of Locust Grove, Georgia, celebrated Independence Day by trying to set a land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats. On his racing lawnmower.

Racing and mowing. How American is that?

Turns out, it's not. At least, not completely.

The sport of lawnmower racing is a British import.

In the 1970s, an Irishman who got fed up with the high cost of automobile racing, was looking for a cheaper alternative. He and some friends gathered at a West Sussex pub to discuss it, looked across the way and saw inspiration. A greens keeper mowing a cricket field.

They founded the BLMRA, the British Lawn Mower Racing Association.

The same nation that brought us Teletubbies, extreme ironing, and the lawn mower itself, gave the world a new grassroots sport.

It wasn't until an April Fools day about two decades later that the first official race was held in the States.

Gold Eagle, an automotive additive company, the same one that sponsors Cleveland, formed the USLMRA, the US Lawn Mower Racing Association, as a funny PR gimmick.

The idea, as a USLMRA president said, spread like crabgrass, and now the organization sponsors more than a dozen events across the country. (None, sadly, in Utah.)

Racers haven't drawn big lawnmower sponsors because, no doubt, those companies think doing 30 to 60 miles an hour on your Toro could get you hurt and get them sued. (Well, it's not like they leave the lawnmower blades on or anything.)

And the now sport has "legends."

Like Bobby Cleveland. A Snapper engineer who started popping wheelies on an in-house mower at the factory. And ended up an eight-time lawn mower racing champion.

When he became Gold Eagle's "Engine AnswerMan," (He drives around the country dispensing advice and company PR) he told Gold Eagle executives he could build them a 100 mile-an-hour lawn mower. They eventually gave Cleveland the green light.

This week Russ Wicks brought a 225 mile-an-hour stock car to the Salt Flats. And Bobby Cleveland brought his lawn mower.

He wasn't geared up to break the 100 mile an hour barrier. But was clocked at a respectable 80.79 miles an hour. A new world lawn mower racing record. Because, he said, there is no other.

Cleveland said he thought this was a fitting way to spend the Fourth. When I asked his girlfriend Diletta if she felt especially patriotic about it all, her eyes teared up. It was very special, she said.
Bobby Cleveland is an American original on a really fast lawnmower.

But he owes a little something to the British. And their lawnmowers.

A Standup Kind of Reporter

Any good news director will tell you (I know because they’ve told me), that a proper package (a taped story with reporter narration) needs a standup. A standup is video of the reporter standing (or sitting) while trying to say something intelligent.

Here are a few of my more memorable standup attempts:

-Standing in front of the knife-thrower. Two takes. Both perfect. Fear does wonders.

-On the interstate, in the back of a Honda Accord with a beaver. I'd never been so close to such a large rodent that didn’t bite me.

-At the West Jordan animal shelter, walking down an aisle of cages, showing off Max, the illegal pet alligator confiscated by animal control officers.

Peter: "Dog, dog, pig, dog, dog, alligator."

-Leaning against the Kearns building, faking some guitar strums as I lip-synced to a preproduced story-song about a barefoot marathon runner. A security guard asked me to stop leaning against the building. He thought I was panhandling for change.

-Running through a wooded area of a local Frisbee park while dressed in a gorilla suit. It was an April Fool's Day "story about Bigfoot. Though, technically, it was not a standup because I was hunched over and I wasn’t speaking (because, as everyone knows, Bigfoot is mute), I felt the body language was so powerful, I was truly communicating. (Saying “what some people will do for a news story.”)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Movie Star, Aerobics Instructor, Dentist

George Hardy travels to screenings around the country. Fans cheer him, mob him for autographs and recite all his lines.

But Hardy is not a movie star.

He is a small town Alabama dentist.

And his movie isn't celebrated because it's that good.

But because it's that bad.

Worst ever. (And the subject of a Fresh Look on Life.)

Hardy came to Utah a few decades ago to do a residency in pediatric dentistry and stayed and joined a practice in Holladay.

He'd always been a ham. He's quick to point out that he was a cheerleader at Auburn University.
And he had a brief stint as a TV aerobics instructor on Hooked on Aerobics, the BYU program that got airplay across the country.

One of his patients suggested that Hardy, no doubt because of his outgoing personality, get an agent and try acting in commercials.

Eighteen years ago he got his first audition. It was for a 'B' rated horror film produced by some visiting Italian filmmakers.

Hardy remembers lots of cigarette smoke. And the fact that the filmmakers didn't speak English.
"All I remember is Claudio, the director, saying 'You have good energy! You have good energy!'"

That's Claudio Fragasso, screenwriter of "Women's Prison Massacre" and "Terminator II" (not the 1991 sequel starring Arnold Schwartzenegger, but the 1990 Italian version) and second unit director of "Zombie Creeping Flesh."

Hardy got the part.

The movie was called "Troll II."

It had nothing to do with "Troll" (I).

And it had no trolls.

Just goblins.

Vegetarian goblins who fed people green Kool-Aid, green yogurt, sour milk and corn on the cob with green icing -- food which apparently turned human prey into vegetable matter -- and then ate them.

Hardy played Michael Waits, whose family goes on a house swapping adventure in the town of of Nilbog. (That’s "Goblin" spelled backwards. Ingenious.)

Direction, because of the language barrier, was non-existent.

Productions values were rock-bottom.

The goblins were little people outfitted with laughable rubber masks and (literally) potato sacks. (The wardrobe was provided by Laura Gemser, sex symbol star of the Emanuelle series -- "Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals," "Emanuelle Reports from a Women's Prison" and "Erotic Nights of the Living Dead" -- turned costume designer.)

The script, written in Italian and translated into English (it apparently lost something in translation), made no sense.

Joshua: A double-decker bologna sandwich!
Creedence: Aaahhh! Think about the cholesterol! Think about... THE TOXINS...!

(In "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy defeats the witch with a bucket of water. The young lead of "Troll II" has a double-decker bologna sandwich.)

"Some of the older actors mentioned that, when they saw some of the effects, 'Well maybe it'll look better in post-production,'" said Michael Stephenson, who, as a 10-year-old, played the lead in the film.

It didn't.

The film, amazingly enough, never got a theatrical release, but went straight to video.

Hardy got a copy and popped it into his VHS machine.

"I remember trying to get through the first two or three scenes. I was just sick to my stomach."

"I'll be really honest, I just couldn't do it, I just couldn't," Hardy hides his face in his hand.

"That was so bad, that was so bad, so bad."

Hardy got about as far away from Nilbog as he could. He set up a dentistry practice in his hometown in Alabama.

When he got eyeglass video monitors for his dentistry practice, he did show his patients Troll II to distract them from the drill.

"Did it get rid of the pain?" I asked.

"They completely forgot about going to the dentist after watching "Troll II.""

But Hardy, himself, never watched the whole thing through

Not until last year.

Now he's seen it 15 times.

About a year ago, Dr. Hardy got a phone call from a student producing a radio documentary about the film.

"Do you know about the world-wide cult phenomenon around "Troll II?"" the student asked.

Hardy had no clue.

The film had been banished to late night cable TV, and just in the past year or so, it developed a cult following.

Hardy went on line to the Internet Movie Database and saw all the postings on "Troll II" message board.

One, from Blair Sterrett of Provo, invited cast members to a screening in Utah.
Sterrett, of the Lost Media Archive (see the blog entry below), hosted a regular Incredibly Strange Movie Night.

He was looking for films that were bizarre, yet suitable for LDS audiences, and someone suggested "Troll II."

He rented the movie and was dumbfounded.

"I couldn't believe what I had seen," Sterrett said. "I had to keep staring at the case to prove to myself that this film actually existed."

It was just that bad.

He thought there was something strangely Utahn about the movie. The way people dressed, the way they spoke, and the way they acted as if they were performing in a ward road show.

When he found out it was indeed filmed in Utah -- in Morgan, Salt Lake City and on Guardsman's Pass -- and when someone told him one of the actors
was in their ward, it hit him: "I bet they're all here."

Sterrett postponed the screening a couple of weeks and started searching the phone book.

"I thought, how are these people going to react? Are they going to be embarrassed about it. Are they going to deny they were in it?"

A couple of the actors wanted nothing to do with "Troll II."

But several others did.

George Hardy flew out from Alabama.

And in April 2006, the first-ever "Troll II" reunion was held in downtown Provo.

Fans came from out of state.

Since then, there've been screenings and cast Q&A's in New York, Houston and Seattle.

Three hundred people showed up in Boston.

Austin's Alamo Theater sold out. The premiere of "Lord of the Rings" didn't draw as big a crowd there.

(The Tower Theater in Salt Lake City is hosting a screening and Q&A with the actors and the director August 11 at 10:30 pm.)

It's become a Rocky Horror-like picture show.

Audience members recite the lines along with the movie. They sing songs and dance along with the actors. They throw popcorn and, of course,
bologna sandwiches.

"There was a kid that came dressed up as a tree and his friend dragged him in a pot into the theater," Stephenson says.

There are Troll II My Space pages, tattoos, Youtube videos, songs, and Troll II parties.

Six weeks ago, Hardy got a call from Iraq.

"Is this Farmer Waits?"

It was.

Hardy could hear an excited soldier yelling to his friends. "Oh guys, this is Farmer Waits!"

He was holding Troll II parties in Iraq.

"They were showing to the Iraqis and the Iraqis were loving it," Hardy says.
Once Hardy and other cast members ran from Troll II. Now they embrace it.

The dentist sells the video at his practice.

He goes to screenings.

Hardy and his on-screen son, Michael Stephenson, are producing a documentary about Troll II called "Best Worst Movie."

Jason Wright, who played the horny teenage boyfriend of Hardy's on-screen daughter, is now a conservative writer and consultant. The website that includes photos of Wright with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Andy Card, also proudly highlights his role in "Troll II."

And it was all an accident.

No one was playing it for laughs.

"Everybody on set showed up to make a good horror movie," Stephenson said.
"We all took this seriously. We wanted this to be a good movie"

They failed.


Troll II ranks among the worst movies ever. Among such classics as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

And George Hardy seems pretty happy about it.

"A perfectly done bad movie," Hardy says. "Perfectly done bad. It delivers."

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Son of the First Jewish Archbishop

Author Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, says some of the inspiration for his highly successful and rather dark children's books, "A Series of Unfortunate Events," came from...opera. From the condensed melodrama of it.

"...A lot of terrible things happen in a short period of time and they also have time to pause and sing about how terrible it is that it's going on."

Handler, himself, was made possible by an opera. That's where his parents met.

During an interview yesterday at The King's English Bookshop, he explained that at nine years of age his idea of getting into trouble was sneaking downstairs and listening to Alban Berg's opera, "Lulu." His parents, he said, thought the material was unsuitable for young children. (The plot involves murder and suicide and brothels and lesbian countesses.) Though, he said, they didn't appreciate the fact that the youngster didn’t understand much of the German expressionist opera.

"I'd heard the phrase 'lady of the evening," he says," and I didn't know what that meant but it sounded intriguing. It sounded sort of vampiric."

In his hometown of San Fransisco, Handler appeared in operas as a boy soprano.

His father, he said, is a great opera lover and sadly tone deaf and so has been only spear-carriers. His father, Handler said, likes to brag that he was the first Jewish archbishop.

“It was only in the Opera ‘Tosca,’ but still something of an achievement.”

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Elusive J.J. Farnsworth

Before every Alta High School football home game, announcer Rique "Oach" Ochoa summons a particular player.

"Would J.J. Farnsworth come to the press box please? J.J. Farnsworth."

The announcement echoes through the stands and surrounding homes.

But Farnsworth never responds.

We profiled Ochoa during last month's game against the Eagles. (The Fresh Look on Life airs 10pm Sunday, November 4.)

The history teacher has found a way to mix football and education by inserting current vocabulary words with his play-by-play.

impenetrable: incapable of being penetrated or pierced
impervious: impenetrable
permeate: penetrate
fathom: comprehend covert: secret
regale: to entertain sumptuously
epitome: embodiment
exhort: urge strongly
infringe: to encroach
intrinsic: belonging to a thing by its very nature
stringent: strict
surmise: to conjecture

Students get to know the words.

But no one's ever met J.J. Farnsworth.

Because he was a lower string player from Ochoa's East L.A. high school football days.

Jamie Farnsworth. Called J.J. by a teacher/football announcer who gave everyone a middle 'J.'

During his 20 years of football announcing, R.J. Ochoa has been testing the booth mike by, instead of counting to three, calling for J.J.

Not long ago he overheard some students, speaking of J.J., say "Boy, that kid's gone here a long time, hasn't he?"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rubber Band Boy

And now, the eighth wonder of the world, (A wonder because so many people wonder "why."): The new biggest rubber band ball in the world.

That title, held for years by John Bain, a Delaware man who began building his ball (Where else?) in a law firm mailroom, has been seized by Steve Milton of Eugene, Oregon (who likes to use it to crush computer monitors. Apparently rubber band balls are very useful for smashing things.).

Bain's ball weighs more than 31-hundred pounds.

Milton's weighs more than 45-hundred.

And Anthony Mallas' ball weighs 25 pounds. We featured the Salt Lake eleven year old and his ball on Two News at Five. Anthony hopes one day his ball will
eclipse both Milton's and Bain's.

Godspeed Anthony.

I scored the piece for gopichand (an Indian folk instrument), acoustic guitar (not the strings, but the wood) and, of course, rubber bands.

It just kinda sounded like the right thing to do.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Question to dying man: How do you feel? Dying man: With my hands.

I can only imagine what the paramedics thought when they rushed into the warehouse to find a half-naked man in a wheelchair wearing a bearskin and Shirley Temple wig who had tumbled off a platform and hit his head while filming a movie with Crispin "Back to the Future" Glover.

They probably shared a reaction similar to that of some of the people I talked to about this story.

At first, for reasons I'll discuss later, I wasn't sure I could tell it on TV. But I figured I had to. Click here to watch the story.

Everybody has dreams. Some dreams are a little different than others. But everybody has dreams.

Even the man in the Shirley Temple wig.

Steven C. Stewart was born in 1937 with a severe case of cerebral palsy, a condition that left him without a lot of control of his muscles. He couldn't walk. His arms flailed about involuntarily. And his speech was very hard to understand.

We're featuring Stewart on a Fresh Look on Life Sunday, March 18, on Two News at 10pm. Watch KUTV's 1977 profile of Stewart here.

No doubt many people who saw Stewart thrashing around and pushing himself backwards down the sidewalk -- that was how he got around -- and heard him trying to speak, thought he was mentally handicapped. But he was not.

"When (people) first talk to me, when I answer, they can't understand. A few listen carefully. They're my friends."

His good friend, Roger Brown, calls him "the most enthusiastic, energetic, inspiring person I've ever known."

Stewart, among other things, lobbied for rights for the disabled (The first curb was cut in Salt Lake City because of Stewart.), wrote radio commercial copy, produced a radio show, once conducted the Utah Youth Symphony, ran for the Utah legislature, worked in public relations, wrote two books and appeared in two movies, one of which he wrote. (We'll get into that later.)

Brown says Stewart believed if he wanted to do something, he could.

"I think a lot of people think that fate or destiny plays a part in their lives and they don't have any choice, but those are people who never met Steve Stewart."

He didn't like to hang out with other people with handicaps, Brown says.

He didn't like their attitude.

He got his attitude came from his mom.

"She (instilled) in Steve the drive and desire. That he was a normal human being," his friend David Brothers says.

He was the first handicapped child in Davis County schools. Thanks to his mom.

"The teacher thought I had no right to be there," Stewart told Two News. "So every year my parents had to fight to keep me in school."

He said he always knew he was different, but it didn't hit him until he got out of high school.

"All my friends were getting married, having children. I felt alone."

He lived at home until his mother died when he was 29.

And then he moved into a nursing home. He had to. That was the only way he could get government assistance.

That was where former KUTV producer (and later news director) Diane Orr and the late C. Larry Roberts interviewed him for a profile for the station news magazine "Extra" 30 years ago.

He was writing letters, spending two to four hours to type each one, to elected officials to complain about the way the system treats the disabled.

Stewart told Larry Roberts that he had an idea for a movie. Roberts introduced Stewart to his friend, photographer and set designer David Brothers. And Stewart convinced Brothers to help him write his script.

Stewart slowly dictated the words and Brothers typed them.

"And the story just got weirder and weirder," David Brothers says.

And Brothers couldn't get it out of his head.

He introduced a his friend of his, actor Crispin Glover ("Back to the Future," "Williard"), to Stewart and three of them decided then, 27 years ago, that they were going to make Steve Stewart's movie.

Fast forward to the year 2000.

Stewart was in his 60's and his health had deteriorated.

His lung had collapsed. Because of lack of muscle coordination and the danger of asphyxiation, he could no longer take solid food by mouth.

From a nursing home, he contacted Brothers and Glover and told them it was now or never.

"Well I did think he said, we should make this before I kick the bucket," Glover recalls. "You kinda say, don't kick the bucket yet, jokingly, but ultimately it was true. He kept himself alive to make the movie."

Stewart had appeared in Glover's previous movie, the aptly-named, "What Is It?" It was an avante guard piece involving a cast of people with Down Syndrome, nude porn stars wearing animal heads, swastikas, snails and Steve Stewart.

That was when the paramedics showed up and thought who knows what.

Glover and Stewart were playing "dueling demigod auteurs" when Stewart tumbled off a platform and onto his head.

"I'm so glad that we didn't kill him," Glover says.

Stewart rolled away from the incident with a half-dozen stitches in his head.

"He was a tough monkey," Brothers says.

Glover and Brothers started making plans to shoot Stewart's movie.

Glover took a lucrative job, playing the creepy Thin Man in "Charlie's Angels," in part, so he could pay for the production, which cost him 150 to 200 thousand dollars.

Over the course of a year, in a non-descript Salt Lake City warehouse, in between Stewart's hospitalizations, they made "It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE."

The film (which I have not seen) is a dark fantasy. A man in a wheelchair seduces beautiful women and then kills them.

And Steve Stewart played the leading man.

There are no subtitles. In Stewart's cinematic world, everyone understands what he says.

And he gets the girl.

Something that usually didn't happen in real life.

But not because he didn't try.

Brown says Stewart would convince strangers to push him inside ZCMI so he could try to chat up the women behind the perfume counter.

"That woman. I've gotta go meet that woman," Brothers recalls. "He was fearless. He really was fearless."

No doubt he knew his chances were slim, but "if you're raised with that attitude of anything's possible, you keep trying because maybe somewhere in there, there's someone that would go for it."

The 1977 footage shows Stewart on the dance floor with an able-bodied woman.

"I've loved two girls," he said, "but they couldn't accept me. I want to love, to have sex. I have the same emotions as anyone else."

Stewart was married for 15 years, but divorced.

"Mentally," David Brothers says, "she wasn't up to the challenges of Steve."

Now here he was starring with a cast of beautiful women. Often naked beautiful women. (Because of the explicit nudity I debated whether I could put this story on TV. Even much of the movie trailers wasn't fit for broadcast. In the end I decided that the story was much bigger than the film. It was about Steve Stewart.)

Glover hired, among others, Margit Carstensen, a favorite of German director Rainer Fassbinder, and Jami Ferrell, Playboy's Miss January 1997.

"Tragically, he was a romantic without a means to express it, except for this film," Brothers says. "Steve was exceptionally romantic because he never had a chance to express it, to a real person."

Part of the message of the film, Brothers said, is the man who couldn't walk, couldn't feed himself and could barely talk, was a human being with a full range of emotions.

"I said, 'Steve, you're portraying an unfavorable handicapped man.' He said, 'I don't care. I have that right.'"

"Even though you're disabled," Brown explains, "you may have the darkest, blackest thoughts of anybody out there. So don't feel terribly sorry for me because I have the same black thoughts that someone has who has a normal life."

The film action, at one point, switches from the warehouse movie sets, to a real nursing home. And the audience realizes this isn't a piece of fiction. This is a real man living out his fantasies.

"This movie," Stewart wrote in his script, "is not really about sex or even a serial killer...This movie tends to look inside the heart and mind of a severely handicapped young man.....This movie is to show that these people can have feelings, too. Feelings of good and ill."

"I have never killed anyone," he wrote, "and never intend to."

Brothers remembers the smile Steve Stewart had on his face every day he came to work.

These were the happiest days of his life, he Stewart told Brothers.

"I said, "Oh, Steve, you'll have happier days."

"No!" Brothers imitates Stewart's shout and emphatic flail. "These...are...the happiest...days...of my life!"

Though while living out this fantasy, while filming a nude love scene, Brothers believes, Stewart had an epiphany.

"Is that all there is? Is that all there was?"

The best part of the production, Brothers guesses Stewart realized, wasn't the nude scenes.

"I don't think this is what I really wanted. What I wanted was hanging out with the actresses, but over in makeup and wardrobe."

Stewart relished all the down time on the set. Just sitting around and talking. Forming relationships.

Brown and Brothers say Stewart did fall in love with a 20-year-old actress on the set. But, just as his film character finds the woman of his dreams and is rejected, the love was unrequited.

"A certain sadness (overcame him)," Brothers says, "when he realized he wasn't going to get what he expected. And only he knew what that was."

"Ultimately I think he was a tragic figure because he had no way to express himself, except for though this film. I think that explains the anger in the film."

After the filming was over, Stewart asked Brothers and Glover if they needed him anymore.

"(He) asked us if we had enough footage," Glover says, "and I was very sad to say 'yes.'"

Stewart was asking permission to die.

The doctors wanted to scrap his lungs again, a procedure he did not want to endure again. He wanted to remove himself from life support.

"Steve, of course, we're not done, you can't die," Brothers told him. "I realized that was selfish."

Now Stewart was lying in a hospital bed. He was dying.

Make-up artist and friend Gyll Huff was at his side.

Brothers recalls the conversation.

"How do you feel, Steve?"

Stewart mumbled.

There was five minutes of failed communication. The Huff was able to understand what Stewart was trying to say.

"With my hands."

"That took it to this whole new level of absurdity."

A month after the production wrapped, Steven C. Stewart died. He left his share of the film, which, because of the limited commercial appeal, Brothers admits will never turn a profit, to that 20 year old actress. But in Stewart's mind, Brothers says, it was worth something.

In his final few days, Brown says, the crew brought some of the "dailies" to the hospital for Stewart to watch.

He had had no food for ten days and was very weak.

But, Brown says, he sat up in his bed. His eyes lit up.

"He was thrilled beyond imagination," Brown says.

Here was a movie that he wrote and starred in.

"I think at that time, he said, 'OK, I've done all. I've done it all.'"

"It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Crispin Glover says he will now tour the country with the film.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Shoes, the Musical

I can only imagine what musical director Ralph Woodward thought when I asked him if the Salt Lake Children's Choir would sing about women's shoes.

A highly astute observer of human behavior, I've noticed that many women have a closet shoe fetish.

Even my mother, an Old World woman who thought a dishwasher was far too extravagant for her family, accumulated dozens and dozens of pairs.
It wasn't until after she passed and we extricated all the shoe boxes from her closet that we realized the true scale of the collection.

My wife has tried to educate me about the matter of shoes and handbags. (There is a well-established correlation between these two items.) All I have gleaned from these discussions, is that Kate Spade makes some women drool.

I figured there was a song in there somewhere.

So I interviewed Utah real estate agent Cindy Wood in her closet with her shoes.

And then I phone Woodward to see if the Salt Lake Children's Choir would sing about it.

The kids were, no doubt, used to making music for a higher calling -- performing Schuman and church hymns -- not singing the praises of Manolo Blahnic. But they gave a fine performance.

And I would like to thank them.

They present performances throughout the year, including their annual Christmas concert.

I don't think their programs includes any shoe songs.

Friday, January 2, 2009

When the golf pro said he had a birdie...

The last time I called golf pro Jeff Water, it was about a cat.

The one that was lying in wait on the seventh hole of the Mick Riley Golf Course and stealing golf balls. (Watch excerpts here.) It turned out to be two cats, Buffy and Gutsy, who had a taste for Titleist. (They didn't like the cheap brands.)

This time he left a message about a bird.

Turned out a starling has made itself the Mick Riley mascot.

Apparently imprinted on humans, the juvenile bird now enjoys perching on golfers' shoulders.

So we shot a Fresh Look on Life about the bird.

The guys at Mick Riley called the next day to tell me I'd forgotten my notebook.

"You should be disbarred for leaving your notebook," Waters said as he handed it over.

He was wrong, of course. I should have been disbarred years ago for passing off golf ball-stealing cats as journalism.

I'd brought my two year old son, Zach, along for the ride and the bird.

The bird wasn't to be found, which was fine with Zach, who was much more interested in the golf carts.
A few weekends ago we'd driven six hours to show him the splendor of the Grand Tetons and all he was interested in was the golf carts driven by the lodge custodial staff

But as I strapped the boy back in his car seat, I noticed a bird on the putting green.

Watching golf.

Its little bird head followed the swing and then the ball and then looked up, as if to say, 'Nice, but you didn't follow through. Got any Fritos?' It then jumped onto the man's golf bag and pecked through the pockets to look for snacks.

I walked over and, a small morsel of raisin bagel in hand, picked the bird up and brought it back over to show my son. Then I set it back on the ground and continued to strap Zach into his seat.

That's when the gregarious, bagel-eating bird, jumped in the car.

It hopped onto the steering wheel.

I opened the driver's door.

It bounced over to the passenger seat.

Now Zach was belly-laughing. This was even better than the golf carts.

Eventually I was able to extricate the bird and it went back to analyzing golf swings and panhandling for Fritos.

On the way home, Zach kept asking for the "birdie bagel."

So, if you frequent Mick Riley, don't worry about that cat hazard on the seventh hole. Regulars say they haven't seen Buffy or Gutsy in quite some time.

But don't give a ride to any strange birds.