Wednesday, May 09, 2007

By George!

-- And I Do Mean, "By George" --
and By Gerianne (Smart)!
A Wednesday AM Ode to
The Summer of Walter Hacks

I’ll be out almost the entire day with poet and fellow Center for Cartoon Studies faculty Peter Money and however many of our students can join us to hike the local mountain I’m most intent upon hiking. Thus, it seems proper to set my blog compass closer to home and savor a couple of the great things about my home and home state.

So, a little taste of Vermont today, and hope you enjoy the change of pace.

  • You'd be hard-pressed to find much on my old high school pal George Woodard online,
  • even on Wikipedia,
  • though he's a Vermont treasure.

    Oddly enough, a web search won't take you to George's most visible and vital online presence,
  • the site George and Gerianne Smart created for their in-post-production feature film The Summer of Walter Hacks. It's well worth a visit (give it a couple of shots to load; for some reason, it's a tough nut to crack via some servers, but it'll pop up eventually).

  • However, even that site is woefully incomplete, in part because George is such a truly humble, self-effacing fellow. Allow me to toot the man's horn this morning a bit, since he won't.

    has always been comfortable performing on stage as long as I’ve known him, but painfully shy about public speaking or any public arena requiring his expressing his own emotions -- it’s a conundrum puzzling to those who assume performing is the same as exposing one’s feelings publicly, when in fact these are polar opposites. George is a born performer -- give him a guitar or banjo and turn him loose, he’ll have a fine time and see to it you will, too. Ask him to mingle at a party or speak at a microphone, and he’d just as soon crawl under a rock. It’s just how he is, how it is, for many performers -- actors, musicians, etc. Fortunately, George’s performing chops extend to film performance, too, and he’s become one of Vermont’s finest actors, along with Stowe resident Rusty DeWees (The Logger).

    I've known George and his brother Steve (now Waterbury Center's best vet, as in animal doctor) since grade school, having grown up within driving distance of the Woodard family farm in Waterbury Center, VT. George and I ended up appearing on stage together in some plays at our high school, Harwood Union High, in Duxbury, VT -- including a co-star stint as Barnaby (me) and Cornelius (George) in Harwood's musical production of Hello, Dolly -- and sharing a few key teachers at Harwood, primary among them creative writing teacher Carol Collins (about whom I'll write more in a bit, promise). We did some other stuff together, too -- I have very fond memories of catching a few choice 1970s movies with both George and Steve on the big screens back in the day, including a classic AIP double-feature of Yog, Monster from Space (aka Space Amoeba, its current DVD release title) and The Return of Count Yorga at the Paramount in Barre (I've since tracked down the video/DVD releases of both and sent copies to George so he could savor a little blast from the past.)

    George still runs the family dairy farm in Waterbury Center, and somehow juggles that daily workload with raising his son Henry, an active life performing on stage and onscreen (yep, an acting career!), and everything else he does in and around the state.

    This past Saturday, Marge and I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing George's current stage show at the Randolph, VT Chandler Center for the Arts and Music Hall. It was the concluding event in Randolph’s first annual Fiddlehead Festival, and though we missed the rest of the town’s grand to-dos, we sure enjoyed the show.

    George’s partner Gerianne Smart made sure we had choice seats, and it was a grand time -- as in Grand Ol' Opry, which George semi-annually honors with his own venerable Ground Hog Opry music & comedy stage show -- peppered with George's songs, guitar picking, comedy routines (two incorporating volunteers from the audience) and all-around fun. George's stage presence is infectious: his warm generosity of spirit, his sense of play (and fair play), his extraordinary musical skills, his jokes win over one and all. Well, maybe not all his jokes, but most of 'em. Almost three hours flew by in no time at all, and the audience stood on its feet and cheered until rewarded with one more song, one more joke.

    I was overjoyed that George and Gerianne included some of George's own filmmaking ventures in the lineup, too -- his two short films (Johnny, Get the Christmas Tree! and Whatever Happened to Baby... Bear?), shot around 1998-99 during George’s film student studies at Burlington College and edited years later (2004, I think), and the current, expansive preview trailor to George’s (and Gerianne’s) first feature, The Summer of Walter Hacks.

    The audience responded favorably to all three, though it was interesting to overhear, en route to our car after the show, a conversation between two elder audience members likewise making their way to their parked vehicle. One wondered aloud whether the Walter Hacks preview was mocking the conventions of 1950s films (the trailor uses that era’s style of preview -- dialogue clips accompanied by shadowed titles ballyhooing the film’s story content and high emotions (“The story of a boy... his horse [as he mounts his bicycle]... and his sidekick [as the preteen female lead’s face graces the screen]...”), integrated by a lush orchestral score -- and expressing her dismay if that were the case. I was tempted to interrupt them and say, “George is dead serious -- he loves those films, and Walter Hacks is a completely earnest film,” but that warn’t my place. Hopefully, they’ll brave seeing the film themselves.

    There isn’t an iota of 21st Century cynicism or requisite irony in George as a person, or in his and Gerianne’s film: what Marge and I have seen thus far (George has shown us, over the past few months, about an hour or more of rough edit and refined sequences) has been marvelous. If anything, the film may end up a bit of an aberration for its honesty and integrity, it’s utter lack of irony -- what will 2008 audiences make of such an earnest drama?

    Henry Woodard -- age 11-12 -- as Walter Hacks

    The Summer of Walter Hacks is shaping up to be an excellent coming-of-age tale; set in 1952, the film chronicles the life-altering transition in young Walter’s life when he loses his father, he and his older brother try to keep the farm going, and Walter learns how treacherous the adult world can truly be. What begins by and large as an idyllic barnyard-set meditation on a child’s rich imaginative life edges into sobering collision with what it is to be cast adrift too young, to be left to one’s own devices, in keeping one’s moral compass in an adult world corrupted by and capable of calculated manipulation, trickery and deceit. Though the film is lovingly grounded in Walter’s (and George’s) affection for westerns -- Walter plays ‘cowboy’ through much of the film, which like most childhood fantasy lives acts as his escape, his filter, his shield and his means of confronting the darker aspects of real life -- what we’ve seen is ultimately closer in spirit to darker films of the ‘50s and early ‘60s like Night of the Hunter and The Fool Killer. Yep, it's that good.

    Walter Hacks is also a kindred film in its rich black-and-white imagery. George has been a lifelong student of cinema, clearly soaking up an abundance of knowledge as a viewer which is somewhat surprisingly blossoming on screen -- George has evolved a keen grasp and expressive palette of the nuances of black-and-white composition, light-play and editing technique. Aiding George in this capacity is Vermont’s own Michael Fisher (who I’ll be interviewing for this blog soon enough), bringing his considerable visual and cinematic skills and knowledge to the production. Michael has a fantastic eye and knows how to get what he sees (and imagines) onto the screen with rare intensity, and he and George have forged a striking dynamic working together on this film, challenging one another and coaxing the best from each other. George has always been a natural storyteller, but The Summer of Walter Hacks is promising something truly extraordinary.

    There's history here -- George's history, and that of Vermont filmmaking as a whole. It was in Randolph, VT that one-time teenage movie ingenue Marjory Wilson (she declined a marriage proposal from none other than William S. Hart, one of the first movie western stars -- and Marjory’s senior by many years) co-wrote, co-produced and directed two feature films between 1920 and 1921, The Offenders and Insinuation. The former she did not star in, and turned over to the financers (who reportedly released the film, tentatively and to little success, a couple of years later); Insinuation, however, was Marjory’s pride and joy. She starred in it as well as directed, incorporating all the regional talent within reach and opening the film in November of 1921 at -- the Chandler Music Hall. Wilson then personally roadshowed the feature around North America, appearing in person at most (if not all) venues; years later, she returned to Randolph for a repeat showing at the Chandler, with what might have been the only extant print of Insinuation. Alas, both films now seem irrevocably lost. Marjory herself abandoned her film career after Insinuation and became a renowned radio personality and popular author, focusing on speaking/writing about manners, etiquette and proper behavior in both media. Much of what I’ve uncovered about Insinuation comes from her own autobiography.

    Just outside the Chandler Center for the Arts gallery space, the Chandler folks have framed and displayed photographs and a few choice regional clippings about Marjory and her films. I pointed them out to Marge and savored them during the intermission in George’s show, and couldn’t help but meditate as well on the rightness of George and Gerianne including George’s films in the evening’s program, 85 years later. Marjory Wilson would have no doubt approved.

    You Mystery Science Theater 3000 (aka MST 3000) fans may not know it, but you're already George Woodard fans. George's first lead role in a film was as the villainous J.K. Robertson of Rutland-based director David Giancola's debut feature, Time Chasers (originally titled Tangents, 1994), the first Edgewood Studios production of any scope -- and I could go on about Edgewood, but that's for another post, another time. Anyhoot, Time Chasers has been immortalized thanks to MST 3000's mercilessly ribbing of David's first sf opus, though it's also a solid example of resourceful low-budget filmmaking on its own modest terms. Judging from
  • the board, it’s already shocked more than a few MST 3000 fans to see George pop up in unexpected places in other films!
  • Heck, George had already appeared in a key supporting role in Ethan Frome (1993), holding his own with Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette and Joan Allen -- heady company indeed, on screen and on the set, and quite a baptism of Puritan fire, but George brought quite conviction to his role as Ethan’s right-hand man, stoic and reserved as only a New Englander can be. George went on to appear in supporting roles in Anthony Hall’s Mud Season (1999, which starred Rusty DeWees) and Michael Burke’s devastating The Mudge Boy (2003), on TV and direct-to-video programs like Rescue 9-11, Unsolved Mysteries, and the children’s vid fave Road Construction Ahead. George stars in Nora Jacobson’s excellent pair of narrative features My Mother’s Early Lovers (1998) and Nothing Like Dreaming (2004), both of which offer outstanding evidence of the man’s real acting skills; highly recommended by this viewer, and among the best films to emerge from my home state.

    If you want to sample George’s musical skills, check out the extras on the DVD for Disney/Buena Vista’s feel-good documentary America’s Heart and Soul (2004), in which George and friends perform one of his favorite tunes on the front yard of his farm and home, with its breathtaking view of the area. George figures prominently in the documentary, too, a ‘role’ -- himself -- he’s proud of in a film more attuned to George’s own world view than most of the narrative films he’s appeared in (though I personally find it cloying, largely for its relentless two-dimensional caricaturing of the fascinating people and personalities the film showcases -- but George loves it, so I won’t get into that any further).

    All in all, George has racked up thirty years of farm and theatrical/film experience. He left Vermont for a stretch -- his family kept the farm going as he spent several years in Los Angeles honing his acting skills on stage and film -- until he was called back to Waterbury Center to take over the farm when his family no longer could. While farming, he's kept up his film and TV work and founded the Woodchuck Theatre Company, crafting numerous stage productions in northern and central Vermont. George has always loved community theater, and keeps that passion in practice -- he even played Dracula on stage! He and Gerianne co-founded Pasture Productions as an independent film offshoot of the Woodchuck Theatre Company, and Walter Hacks is the first fruit of that collaborative effort.

    Walter Hacks producer and co-scripter Gerianne Smart is a real sweetie -- Marge and I love ya, Gerianne! -- and I’m happy whenever I get to see her and George in action. Gerianne was everywhere in the Chandler Saturday night, keeping the show running, the audience happy before the show (an audience composed in part of many friends from the area, including a row of some of George’s high school classmates), and it’s clear that Walter Hacks is a harmonious collaborative venture. Gerianne entered this collaboration with her own remarkable set of skills and lifelong passions -- she’s a full-time marketing, promotion and advertising professional who runs her company, Smart Communication, out of Ferrisburgh, on the other end of northern VT from where George's farm overlooks the mountains. She is also the advertising director for Vermont Life magazine, the state’s most venerable newsstand magazine. Gerianne’s passion for the stage and screen isn’t a recent one: she’s as much a veteran as George in that department, and if anything her credentials are more ‘respectable.' Gerianne is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts; she lived and worked in New York City, and in her words “performed in many productions off-off (off!) Broadway” while appearing in industrials and the 1980s soap opera Loving. Gerianne relocated to Vermont in ‘91; her ongoing efforts to continue performing on stage, in regional theater, led to her involvement with the restoration of the historic Vergennes Opera House -- she in fact became the restoration organization’s president, instrumental in the reopening of the stage after a quarter-century of non-activity and the subsequent revitalization of Vergennes itself.

    I suspect (though I don’t know) that it was the Opera House that initially brought Gerianne and George together. Seeing Gerianne a couple of times now working a theater space, her contagious comfort with the entire theater setting, her skillful juggling of multiple tasks and needs (on and behind the stage as well as in the audience) while at all times working the floor and keeping everyone engaged and happy -- she’s a real people person -- I can imagine what it was that might have brought them together. In time, while helping George with the daily barn chores, it was Gerianne who galvanized George’s desire to make his own feature film -- he’d always wanted to, but it took their chemistry to get it in motion.

    Together, amid the daily milking chores, they began jotting down the fragmentary story and sequence concepts George had floating around in his skull on -- udder wipes. If there’s a more classic origin to any Vermont film in the state’s long cinematic history, I’ve yet to hear it!

    While George’s young son Henry delivers (in the edited sequences we’ve seen) a solid and engaging performance as Walter -- Henry inhabits the role without guile or pretension, he is Walter more than he plays Walter, if you know what I mean -- the onscreen performer here who captures the eye and heart is Francesca Blanchard, playing Walter’s classmate and ‘sidekick’ Margaret. Francesca is a natural, the camera loves her, and she brings real charisma and energy to her role. Her comfort with performing isn’t illusory: she began performing (vocal recitals in France) at age ten, continued working onstage shortly after she and her mother Jennifer (who plays Ada, the local diner proprietor and Margaret’s mother, in Walter Hacks) moved to Vermont in 2002 -- playing Gladys in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Scout in the Vermont Stage Company’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird, Jack in A Child's Christmas in Wales, and Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker -- all before age 12 -- and (inevitably?) starred as Annie in her Middle School’s production. Francesca has also appeared in a couple of short films, but Walter Hacks is her big-screen feature debut, and she effortlessly holds the screen every time she appears.

    Needless to say, Marge and I are eager to see more of George and Gerianne’s movie, as it comes together. I convinced George and Gerianne to take part in last week’s WRIF (White River Indie Film) festival panel of Vermont and New Hampshire filmmakers, where they debuted the Summer of Walter Hacks preview trailor.

    This is a primo year for regional filmmaking hereabouts -- George and Gerianne's film is just one of the many features currently in production and post-production in VT, and a more diverse, eclectic and creative spread of films has yet to exist in my home state! -- and I’ll share more on this and many other films and filmmakers here as time permits.

    I also have to mention that Marge and I ran into one of George’s and my favorite Harwood Union High School teachers in the audience in Randolph, too.

    Carol Collins taught Creative Writing at Harwood, and it was she who really fanned the flames of my pre-teen love for writing into a passion that continues to this day -- to this blog!

    So, if you enjoy reading this daily blather, or anything else I've written or had a hand in over the decades, let’s hear it for Carol! I owe much of it to her encouragement, teaching, patience ("Lordy!" she used to exclaim when confronted with one of my juvenile horror opuses during my Lovecraft reading phase of life -- the word 'ichor' was a real favorite of mine that drove Carol bonkers) and tolerance.

    It was terrific to see her after all these years, to shake hands and chat again with her husband Fred (among the finest men on Planet Earth, in my estimation), and to meet Carol’s brother, who was also enjoying the show.
  • Carol and Fred still run an active business on Route 100 in northern Vermont, just about across from Harwood Union High School, and Carol's site is worth a visit, too, especially if you're (like Carol) into all things wool and woolly.

  • If you see this stand (built by Fred, a master carpenter and builder-of-all-things-good) out on Route 100 between the drive from Waitsfield to Duxbury, or vice-versa, pull on in -- it means Carol's open for business, and please tell Carol and Fred that I sent you!

    Hey, I gotta go.

    I’ve got a nearby mountain to climb with Peter and our CCS students -- those who dare to come!

    See you all tomorrow, no doubt a bit wearier and bone-sore from the hike. It’s been a long time since I climbed up a mountain... but, hey, if George can make music and movies while running an active farm, I can climb a damned ol’ mountain.

    For that matter, you can, too.

    Have a great Wednesday, one and all!

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