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.”)