PART I: BEFORE // Chapter One: Where He Came From: 6

By the fall of 1965, as Gilbert was entering his junior year of high school, both Carl and Vanessa had started drinking again, this time together and openly. Sometimes they had good drunks, when they were so lovey-dovey they went to bed early, and sometimes bad drunks when all they could do was quarrel and fight. The kids never knew what to expect, and Gilbert felt sorry for them, especially the younger ones. But he told himself he had his own life to live and, for the first time, buckled down and seriously applied himself to his schoolwork. He knew that he had to get out of Maple Mansion as soon as possible; that the only way was to be accepted at a good college as far away from Ben Allyn as possible, and that the only way to do this was to achieve superior scholastic standing. And he had only two years left to accomplish this.

Unfortunately, his two-year effort was only able to bring his cumulative high school GPA up to a 3.0. As most of the large, prestigious universities were looking for a minimum of 3.5, Gilbert found himself accepted at only a few local, smaller colleges. Succumbing to the nostalgic memory of those magical Saturday afternoons with his father, he applied and was accepted at Eastern Pennsylvania College in Philadelphia. Though it was only a short distance from Ben Allyn, Gilbert figured he could live in a dorm on campus most of the time and largely avoid the drunken drama that Maple Mansion had become.

He knew he would be all right financially because of his legacy from his maternal grandfather, Vanessa’s father Emanuel Nordenborg, which he would receive upon entering college and remaining there in good standing until he received a degree.

Now Gilbert’s first love continued to be the movies, even though he wasn’t as thrilled by each individual picture as he had been when he was younger. He remembered with great fondness those Sunday afternoons in the attic at Maple Mansion when he had related to his brothers and sisters the story of his latest movie experience and talked them through the film. He was itching to get some real-life experience along those lines and eventually work his way up to directing major Hollywood films.

But when he arrived at Eastern Penn in the fall of 1967, he discovered the first obstacle in his path: The college was too small to have a film school. It didn’t even have a drama department as such; its few dramatic offerings were under the auspices of the Music Department and consisted mostly of musicals and operettas which would involve the chorus and the school orchestra. As Gilbert had not inherited his mother’s musical talent, he wisely decided to list his major as English, figuring that the considerable time he had spent reading as a child would stand him in good stead. And so he settled down to his studies that fall, largely uninspired by the freshman survey courses he was forced to take. But he stuck with it, and within a few weeks he made a happy discovery.

He was sitting in his American History class one afternoon, bored as usual, when his professor announced that today they would be seeing a film, a documentary on the Great Depression. As he heard the word “film” he perked up considerably. His interest was piqued even more when a small, nerdy-looking kid with acne and thick horn-rimmed glasses entered the classroom, pushing a cart containing a small movie projector and several metal canisters of film. As the professor lowered a pull-down white screen that Gilbert had never noticed before, the nerdy kid proceeded to take out a reel of film and thread it through the projector. Then he turned it on, let the leader run for a few seconds, and announced to the professor that he was ready. The professor motioned to someone in the back to turn off the lights and the film began.

For the next forty-five minutes Gilbert watched in fascination, not the film itself (which he thought was boring and not very well shot), but the nerdy kid. Gilbert watched his every move as he changed reels (twice) and adjusted the sound from time to time. For all his love of movies he had never really considered the technical aspects of how movies got from filmstrip to screen. After the film was over, and the professor had given his predictable talk about what would be on the next exam, Gilbert slipped outside the classroom to where the nerdy kid had retreated to coil his cables and pack up his equipment, and engaged him in conversation. The kid (whose name was Jerry) was quite forthcoming. Yes, he said, he was a member of the Audio-Visual Department. No, he didn’t think you could major in it but, yes, the department was always looking for volunteers due to the high turnover and, yes, he would be glad to instruct Gilbert in the mysterious ways of the 16mm film projector, the reel-to-reel tape recorder, and other such arcane devices. When Gilbert had learned them sufficiently, he could then volunteer for AV duty.

Thus motivated, he learned quickly and within a few weeks he was trundling carts loaded with film projectors, tape recorders and cable down the Eastern Penn halls.

His enthusiasm was short-lived however. It took less time than it had taken for him to master the machines for him to become bored with their operation. The films he was allowed to show were educational films, mostly produced by Coronet, and not only were they boring, and in Gilbert’s opinion not very well shot, but he had to show them over and over to each class, which might number as many as six before he was finally finished for the day. And the tape-recorded lectures were even worse, containing all the faults of the films plus having no visual element. His interest in the possibilities of the AV Department soon waned to such an extent that he withdrew his availability. He now understood why it had been so easy to volunteer in the first place.

True inspiration did not come to him until late October. On a Friday evening just before Halloween, he was sitting in the auditorium, idly and without much interest watching the Music Department’s first production of the semester, Gilbert  and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. It was energetically but clumsily staged, and he was amusing himself by imagining how he would stage it if he were the director, when an exciting thought suddenly occurred to him. He might not be able to direct it, but he could certainly film it. Handheld cameras that could record both picture and sound did exist, but they were very expensive. He resolved to go that very weekend back to Ben Allyn, to plead with his grandfather Emanuel to capitalize his proposed project. He had hopes because, in addition to being the financer of his college education, his grandfather was quite fond of him. Several years ago they had shared a secret: that they both were crazy about Hollywood movies and the lengths to which they would go to see them.

So on Saturday Gilbert took the bus back to Ben Allyn, the first time he had been back in the nearly two months since he had left for Eastern Penn. Getting off the bus at the southern edge of town, he carefully skirted the area that contained Maple Mansion even though it was the long way around to his grandfather’s house. He had no desire to have to answer awkward questions from his family.

Luck was with him; after a pleasant visit, he left Grandfather Emanuel late that afternoon with a check made out to him for $5,000. Grandfather could well afford it, Gilbert thought, having made a killing during the Depression by shrewd investments in failed banks and thought-to-be-worthless stocks.

Arriving back in Philadelphia that evening, it took him only the next few days to locate the one specialty camera store that could supply him with what he wanted. He was able to purchase two Arriflex 16mm movie cameras with tripods and all the necessary accessories for only $3,500. He figured he would need the rest for additional film and processing.

Monday morning Gilbert wasted no time in going to see the Music Department’s director, and hence the Director of Stage Productions, Mr. Paul C. Leaf. Mr. Leaf was a small, timid, soft-spoken, balding, middle-aged man who had been hired and kept on over the years solely because of his musical proficiency. As he had no direct knowledge of the stage, his focus was solely on the musical numbers, the dialogue and action merely providing a context for the music. Gilbert told him of his ambition to be a film director, alternately argued and reasoned with him for over forty-five minutes, and finally came away with a compromise. Rehearsals for the next production, the musical version of A Christmas Carol, were set to begin the following week, culminating in a week of performances in mid-December, just before the Holiday Break. He agreed to let Gilbert and whatever crew he could muster film one of the rehearsals from the audience area on two conditions: one, that he be given sufficient notice of such filming; and two, that Gilbert and his crew not interrupt or bother him or his cast for the duration of the rehearsal. Gilbert agreed and eagerly set about finding a crew.

He quickly recruited Jerry, his AV mentor, to be his second cameraman and was all ready to go when Jerry stopped him. “What about sound?” he inquired.

“Don’t worry,” Gilbert told him. “These are sound cameras with built-in microphones.”

“Yeah,” Jerry agreed, “but each camera’s gonna be in a different place, right? That means they’ll be picking up different levels of sound depending on what they’re close to. On top of that, there’s bound to be a difference in the sound levels and quality between the music and the dialogue.”

“Hmm,” responded Gilbert, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Fortunately for you,” Jerry continued, “I know a great sound guy. He’s even got his own equipment. His name’s Leon, sort of a hippie type, but real professional when it comes to tech stuff. He’s a junior, been here for over five years. I guess just to stay out of the draft.”

“And this guy’s good?”

“Hey, last summer he did the sound mixing for a Blues Magoos tour.”

Gilbert was sold. The next Tuesday afternoon they assembled in the auditorium to film the rehearsal. Gilbert stationed Jerry in the center aisle about halfway back with a tripod and wide-angle lens. He would film the crowd sequences that filled the entire stage. Gilbert set up behind him on a raised platform with a zoom lens to shoot close-ups. He figured he would edit them together using an old hand-editor he had picked up for fifty bucks and installed on a table in his dorm room.

Leon arrived as promised, only fifteen minutes late. He was a tall, gangling Southerner with long frizzy blond hair and a walrus mustache of the same color. He attached his mixing board to each camera and set up in the back.

As the rehearsal started, Gilbert thought the filming was going well, but after about twenty minutes he heard a shrill whistle from the back of the house. Leon was stalking down the center aisle, a disgusted look on his face.

Jerry went over to him. “Hey, Leon,” he said. “What’s the matter, man?”

“Shit, man,” spat out Leon. “It’s impossible to get a level in here. Whenever somebody’s talkin’ I have to pump up the volume. Then a musical number starts and blasts me outta my headset. Didn’t these dudes ever hear of monitors?”

So the next day, Leon brought in a couple of cheap monitors which, with Mr. Leaf’s permission, they placed in unobtrusive positions on either side of the stage by the footlights and slanted them toward center stage. Gilbert explained to Mr. Leaf what they were for, and he agreed to listen to the monitors and adjust the volume of the music accordingly.

After that things went well. After getting the film processed, Gilbert showed Mr. Leaf the rough cuts made by each camera and explained how he would edit them together. Mr. Leaf was impressed and invited Gilbert and his crew to film the final dress rehearsal, which was scheduled in about three weeks, in its entirety.

So the three moviemakers arrived for the dress rehearsal, but immediately found that they would have to work around an audience. This required both Gilbert and Jerry to retreat to the unoccupied back rows, stretching Gilbert’s zoom lens to its limit. Leon’s rock concert experience stood him in good stead, as he was able to get good sound even over the noise of the audience.

Gilbert had the film processed, then spent the following three nights editing the two films together. Then he took Mr. Leaf into the auditorium and gave him a private screening of the results. Mr. Leaf was so impressed with the results that he engaged Gilbert to film one of the live performances. If that went well, he told him, he could have a permanent position making film records of important college events.

So within a few weeks, Gilbert and his little crew found themselves in the position of official Eastern Pennsylvania College chroniclers. Their equipment, film processing, and transportation costs (when necessary) were to be paid out of the Administrative Fund. Gilbert had never had it so good.

For the next school music show, which was to be Oklahoma and be presented in early March, Gilbert began conferring with Mr. Leaf about the best ways to stage the show. Mr. Leaf was impressed by his knowledge and attention to detail, and soon gave him a free reign altogether. Gilbert would block the sections of the show that were non-musical, thus giving Mr. Leaf extra time and attention for the musical numbers which were all he really cared about anyway.


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