The Tim Viereck aka Doc Ersatz Interview,With the preliminaries of Doc's life and times now established (see yesterday's interview post), we can now launch into Doc's and my respective and shared experiences atJohnson State College in Johnson, VT (which is still as vital as ever, per its current link, here).
Chapter the Second:
Johnson State College Daze
Map: Where we were: Johnson, VTWe were at JSC between 1974 and 1976, a mere three years after the construction of JSC's stunning Dibden Theater, which was at the time a state-of-the-art, 'tunable' (there was a working baffle system in the walls that allowed for the tuning of the entire theater!) space. When we were part of it, Richard Emerson was the theater's Technical Director; Dick was also my advisor and mentor at JSC, about which I'll write at a later date.JSC also had a remarkable art program at the time, which Doc and I also discuss in this installment. (Note: The opinions expressed herein are solely our own, and should be taken as such.)I should also introduce our compadre Jack Venooker, whom Doc
mentions; Jack was at JSC at the time, too, heralding from Bennington, VT, so Doc and Jack knew one another outside of their JSC experience. Jack was instrumental (along with Steve Perry, Mark 'Sparky' Whitcomb, Doc, and all my Governor's Hall 'Subhuman' amigos) in encouraging me to seriously pursue drawing comics professionally, eventually getting out of JSC to attend the first-ever year of studies at the Joe Kubert School. So, big hellos and perpetual thank yous to Jack, Sparky, Steve, the surviving Subhumans and everyone else we mention herein.OK, that's enough context, I think!
So, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, Doc Ersatz, Part Two --SB: Doc, what led to you attending Johnson State College (which is where we met)?DOC:
, it was like this. I applied to three colleges initially: University of Denver
(I'd been in Denver
at an impressionable age, and it was right near all those fine Rocky Mountains
), University of Alaska
(born in AK
, and I had a very cool uncle and aunt living in Fairbanks
with kids, associated with the U
) and Johnson State
. My dad badly wanted me to go to his alma mater Dartmouth
, but with my shoddy grades it would have taken some serious string pulling, and the whole deal just seemed pretty damn serious and, you know, academic and shit. U of A
rejected me (those shoddy grades!), DU
accepted, so I went as far as I could go from home - DU
. A year there cured me of cities and big universities, and I spent a year working and bumming around, visiting other friends who'd dropped out after that first year, traveling all over the country with a buddy from my DU
After that trip, I ended up working for a construction company finishing an elementary school addition in Bennington
(my dad used to be principal of that same school, and I'd done an outside project there during high school through the DUO program). One day, I found myself standing in an unfinished cinder-block classroom, rubbing the mortar grooves between the blocks with a broken piece of concrete to prep them for painting when a foreman stuck his head in and yelled "You guys better go a hell of a lot faster than that if you want to stay working for this company!"
, and I had a sort of epiphany: I don't have to be doing this shit! I have three more years of college promised to me; it's time to pick up on my free tumblers (to quote the Checkered Demon
). Someplace cheap (don't want to rashly waste the old man's money), with a good view and nearby skiing... Yes! I'm already in at JSC
. So I quit the construction biz, worked some more agrarian jobs until winter, went back to school mid-year and never, as they say, looked back.SB: You were very active in JSC's lively theater scene, and in the '70s, Dibden Stage was a real state-of-the-art college theater space. What and who pulled you into that space?DOC:
Boy, that's hard to say. I did some theater club stuff, but I guess it may have been that mad bearded dwarf dynamo Dick Emerson
(my favorite quote: "I don't care if you're stoned running a show, as long as you're straight when you're learning the cues. If it goes in straight, it'll come out stoned."
), because as far as course work goes, I started in the technical end. Lots of characters involved in those days - Speedelstein
], artist in residence, with his MGA
's (still restoring and driving them to this day), Ken
and Becka Culp-Smith
in Dance (I loved lighting dance).SB: Ya, I did, too. Ken and Becka were amazing, a real spiritual center for that whole era. What were the highlights, for you, of those JSC years in terms of theater and your own art?DOC:
One of the most memorable moments in Dibden Auditorium
was working my way to a seat in the middle of a packed house when Jack Venooker
's gravelly voiced boomed out, I mean BOOMED OUT!
over the PA system "DOC! YOUR MOTHER SUCKS COCKS IN HELL!!!"
. O priceless memories of youth...
But as for performance, I guess Beckett
's End Game
with Scott Sampietro
, and my own version of his Act Without Words #1
, for which I used a stereo tape of the stage directions in lieu of actually building all those elaborate props (thank you Bob Hoyle
, Mr. Rorer 714
of South Boston
for that idea and the encouragement to run with it), were the most memorable. Obysseus
was certainly special - I wish I had one of those damn 3 color 3 x 4 foot silk-screened posters I did for one of those - but Christ, memorable? There's that other guy Scott
who got back in touch after all these years and chatted about Obysseus
and all the stuff we'd done together and I couldn't even really place him! OK, a fair amount of organic mood enhancements were available in those days, as you may or may not recall, Steve
, and I for one availed when I could.
Here's a classic memory from those days, my friend: someone asked me, "Why the hell do we keep getting all these spaghetti westerns as Student Movies? Christ! Why don't we ever get normal movies? That's just so weird!"
The answer, of course, was that one Stephen R. Bissette
was in charge of film procurement, and he happened to be doing, as an independent study, a retrospective of Mario Bava
..."Photo of Bentley Science Building at Johnson State College. September 2004"; photo source: Wikipedia. That's the Sterling Mountains behind Bentley, home of the Bentley B-Flicks, 1975-76SB: ...which my faculty mentor Dick Emerson was overseeing! Actually, the spaghetti westerns were the Sergio Leone films, which we always showed in Techniscope on the big Dibden screen; the Bava movies were the anchor of my Bentley B-Flicks weekend movie programming, and those were the spaghetti horror films. But, ya, I kept everyone on their toes. I’m going to post my JSC movie programming list online, it was pretty amazing in retrospect: complete Sergio Leone, Mario Bava and Nicolas Roeg retrospectives, double bills like The Point and Yellow Submarine, Once Upon a Time in the West with 2001: A Space Odyssey, lots of
film noir and ‘50s crime films, Anthony Mann westerns, Carnival of Souls, Women in Love, The New York Erotic Film Festival, and so on. Do you remember when someone started a chainsaw up in Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- we were one of the first colleges in the US to screen that on 16mm -- or when the non-violence class chained the theater doors shut in protest of our showing Paul Bartel’s Private Parts on Halloween?
Beloved Bava image: Barbara Steele, Black Sunday (1960)
DOC: Sergio Leon
e -- of course. How could I forget? Easy. Those Bentley B-flicks
were fun. I remember sitting in there in the afternoon, blowing a couple of bowls of kief and laughing my ass off. Ah, ye olde college days!
I do remember the chainsaw - that was pretty wild! The film stopped, the lights came up, and there was nothing but a cloud of blue smoke in the air! Those side exits were handy, eh? I also remember going with three friends, one of whom swore he would watch all the way through; he didn't -- I finished the movie alone, and laughing (though I admit I didn't start out that way -- the real chainsaw broke spell of silly horror.)SB: “Silly horror”? Phaw! Now, about the art department --DOC:
As for all the art I did (I really was more of an Art student than Theater), nothing was that memorable compared to the characters involved: Peter Heller
was a treasure, but Peter Heller
arguing philosophy of art with Cyndi Lauper
in evening drawing class was truly priceless, a memory for life.Cyndi Lauper, post-JSC years; Time after TimeSB: Ah, yes, Cyndi Lauper. She’s one of our fellow classmates who went on to fame and fortune -- people often don’t believe me when I mention she was at JSC. I remember her as one of the more flamboyant art and dance people... any other memories of Cyndi you harbor?DOC:
Well, I had a huge crush on her, but I was too shy to approach her. I don't remember her doing dance, but she was doing voice and music. She was smart and funny and cute (and had big tits), and I loved her eclectic thrift-store fashions too. I got up my nerve to ask her to dance one night in the Student Union
, but the band quit for the night as I made my way over towards her. Ah well. I coulda been another Hulk Hogan
...SB: The beauty of the theater department -- which I ended up in via default, because the art classes had no room for freshmen, and then I found the art studies so hostile to my goals -- was we did so much creative work there. I found it much more fulfilling than the art studies, except for my independent studies with Peter Heller. Let's see, your and Scott's production of End Game had that giant skull-as-apartment-complex set, and Obysseus was memorable in many ways... didn't you cook up that show?
"Silly horror": The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)DOC:
was there before me. I kept it going for a couple of years; I have no idea if it survived after we left. There was a Hispanic poet whose name eludes me; I believe he founded it. A very nice guy - I remember doing some tech work for a show of his, and he gave everyone involved a red rose after the show.SB: I learned more about color from my technical theater studies and hands-on work with Dick Emerson and John Mabry than I learned in the art classes. Any other fond theater memories? We used to work with Socrates (whose last name I don’t recall) and Edelstein, and I got along great with Dick Emerson, Mabry, and loved Ken and Becka, too. We had some amazing shows come in to Dibden: Bread & Puppet, Mummenshanz, Daniel Nagrin, The Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe -- it was a heady time!DOC: Socrates Jost
, aka Socko
. He and I had a great gig as roadies for the Vermont Symphony
. Sometimes we would be on the road, hauling music stands and lights around in a van. Once there was a big concert at the Flynn
, and the sound shell they were planning to use behind the orchestra wouldn't fit in the van. Maestro Guigi
was upset; he thought the sound would be too dead, so I convinced him to raise the back curtain and expose the brick wall in the back, artfully strewn with steam radiators, some horizontal, some vertical. With the orchestra all dressed in their formal black and white backed up with that curious industrial backdrop it really did look cool. Other times we might get paid for perhaps eight hours of rehearsal time, most of which we sat around Dibden
watching the Maestro
fine tune the pieces, which I found fascinating. Guigi
was a tiny guy from South America
; he stood on a box behind the podium and was very temperamental. I can still hear him shouting "Faster, faster! Three times faster! Six times faster! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."JSC campus, June 2005; photo source: 'Sublime CDs' blog post, "A Day in Vermont," June 22, 2005.SB: Let’s talk about the art studies at Johnson: there was Peter Heller, who was the chair of the art department, and a tough instructor; Norm [sic] Battdorf, who taught sculpture; and the office door I remember well, Dyke & Hole: Walter Dyke and Dan Hole, who were complete opposites. Walter was an Ahab-like (in appearance) drawing instructor, who I recall actually drawing
over your drawings in life drawing, and Dan was the youngest of the art instructors. I liked him, but I got into serious verbal frays with him over the legitimacy of comics as a course of study. He’d bring in pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, arguing its inherent legitimacy and superiority to comics, which he considered an invalid medium --
not art -- and I’d go nuts because they were pirating comics images wholesale. What was your experience at JSC as an artist?DOC:
I did print making with Dan Hole
. He was a nice guy, but not a big inspiration. Walter Dyke
(and he insisted it be pronounced "Dick
", perhaps because he was one) was, well there you have it. He had zero respect for students, as far as I could tell. When taking drawing for upper level credit, he would still insist that we draw his certain way. My strongest memory of him is him saying "You must draw it like this! And then do something busy around the articulations!"
Bizarre - the antithesis of how I wanted to learn at that point. It became more clear when he had an exhibit in the Dibden
gallery - that's all he did! Gesture drawings, with "something busy around the articulations"
... Another experience was the selection of a new Art History
teacher, do you remember that?
One student from each class was elected to be on the selection committee - what a crock! We all liked the woman who was holding the position temporarily, but it soon became obvious that the plan was to hire a snotty woman whose husband was already hired for some other position. We were all opposed, we argued, it got to be end of term and we were about to leave for the summer with no decision reached, and the Dyke
himself said, in his most pompous-ass manner, "I'm sure you'll all trust us to make the best decision in this matter..
." Oh yeah. Venooker
was on that committee - you can imagine. We got up and walked out in disgust.Peter Heller was
the Art Department
. Without him, it would have been something of a waste of time, I think. Artist, philosopher, provocateur... he was a brilliant and important guy.SB: Peter ended up the be-all and end-all at JSC art studies for me; he taught me everything I came away with, really, and was a demanding task master. We put together an intensive independent studies program for me my second year. He hammered anatomical studies into me; I drew every bone in the human body, from six different views, over a six month period. I hated it, but I sure learned it! Peter was amazing, just amazing -- he made it all worthwhile. Doc gesture drawing/print; note the utter lack of "something busy around the articulations..."DOC:
That's the thing in a small place like Johnson
. There are brilliant people who are there for much the same reasons as you are: the beautiful setting, the fine under-utilized facilities, the countryside full of interesting and inexpensive places to live (but hopefully not too much of the sheer laziness that motivated me, but yes, you find that too). You have to go where the good people are - Heller, Addison Merrick
in English, Dick Emerson
, and others, regardless of what they're teaching.
By the way, it was John Battdorf
, not Norm
.SB: Oh, of course, sorry. Brain fart.DOC:
Another good guy; I took one class with him, where I pretty much fucked off but actually learned many useful things: Plastics and Mold-Making. I've used that skill in actual paying work over the years, and it should be said that I worked for Dick Emerson
's company about 15 years later too, with John Mabry
and Joel Krasnov.
____________________________...and we'll leave it at that for a while, folks. Doc and I are continuing the interview, and I'll post future chapters down the road a piece, most likely picking up the narrative thread in July, after MoCCA.The best is yet to come! We'll be getting into our Johnson State College days a little more, Doc's funding of my first-ever comic publishing experience with Abyss #1 (1976), and much, much more: Doc's stint at the Dino DeLaurentiis studio in North Carolina, David Lynch and Blue Velvet, working with Douglas Trumbull, etc. It'll be worthwhile reading, I promise.
Have a great Sunday, and see you here tomorrow...
"Why the hell do we keep getting all these spaghetti westerns...?"
Beloved Leone imagery: Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)
Labels: Cyndi Lauper, Doc Ersatz, Jack Venooker, Johnson State College, Mario Bava, Mark Whitcomb, Peter Heller, Richard Emerson, Sergio Leone, Steve Perry, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tim Viereck