Dayton, Ohio Pt. III: Media House

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Built in the twenties, the building had been the lavish home of the owners of a posh downtown hotel, until bad times turned it into a boarding house. Luckily, or unluckily, even worse times made its real estate value plummet to the level that filmmakers Jim Klein and Julia Reichert could buy it, and fill every inch of it with young people hungry to do grass roots political media work.

They called it Media House.

It was enormous. The main floor had a huge living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a bedroom, and an enclosed porch that Julia and Jim used for the office of New Day Films, the feminist distribution company they founded to release their movies, as well as those of some of their filmmaker friends. The second floor had five bedrooms, and a sleeping enclosed porch, which is where my buddy Andy Garrison lived. The third floor was an attic with two maid’s rooms: one was a sound studio and the second was Cathy Cartwright’s room. (In lieu of a fire escape, Cathy had a trusty axe and a rope ladder for safety.) The basement had a toilet the Media Housers converted into a darkroom, and Tony remodeled a lot of the rest of the basement into a lavish bedroom for himself. That’s probably why Tony was the first one to hear me when I arrived in the middle of the night.

Julia ReichertIn general seven or eight people lived at Media House, but when I got to Dayton they were gearing up for a big project they called “Summer Lights,” and there were even more people who came in just for that. It was kind of one of those little cars at the Circus where the door opens and more and more clowns come out, but in this case you could sit on the couch in the living room listening to NPR and be engulfed by an endless cascade of youthful political types. In addition to Tony, Andy and Cathy, I’m told that some of the other people that lived there around them were Sherry Novick, Eric Johnson, Tricia Hart (married to Eric), and Barbara Tuss.

Jim KleinEverybody put in all their earnings except Julia and Jim who put in part and left the rest for New Day Films. There was only one house checking account. Everybody was responsible for certain chores like cleaning the bathroom, shopping, doing the books, paying bills, etc., and most assisted in various ways with Julia and Jim’s filmmaking. They each got a weekly allowance of around $12 a week to do something fun like get a beer or see a movie. As alien as all this share-the-wealth mishegas was to me, the atmosphere didn’t scream POLITICAL COLLECTIVE!   It wasn’t a super serious place, more like “Friends,” with a dollop of Marxism thrown in to spice up some episodes. It was a relaxed place to hang out and they were kind enough to let me do that all the time. I do remember a fight I had with Jim when the Time/Newsweek covers came out on Bruce Springsteen. He said Springsteen was all hype, and I—who had been listening to the first album for a long time—maintained that he more than deserved all the praise he was getting. Jim was mainly expressing his suspicion of media flim-flammery (soon to be my profession), but I played him the record and he just didn’t get it, and that really puzzled me. (Of course, if you remember Holly Near, then you know who was Number One on the Hit Parade at Media House.) Jim himself was a wonderful musician, and some of my happiest memories of those days involve listening to him play the piano.

I must admit I thought it was a pretty sweet deal for Julia and Jim. Everybody paid, and I assumed they owned the place. They got the mortgage paid, cooking, cleaning, and assistance on their films, etc. Their new film, “Union Maids,” was going to come out and it was going to have their names on it, and they would derive the most benefit. But since then I’ve reflected and I see that it took great vision, commitment and risk for them to put the whole thing together, and every single person, myself included, got a tremendous amount out of being a part of it. Many of the people who lived at Media House have gone on to great success as filmmakers in their own right.

The boogeyman for Media House’s “Summer Lights” project was the evil Dayton Power & Light company, and its nefarious utility-related crimes and ecological misdemeanors. I believe that DP&L had recently instituted a policy of flushing the toilets when poor people were taking showers, and they had drawn up plans for a mini-nuclear power plant in the PermaFilm room at Twyman’s. Honestly, I didn’t care much about DP&L—as I would soon be on a different power grid--I just wanted to be friends with the Media Housers, meet girls, and have something to do, so I passionately signed on to the anti-DP&L cause. Viva la Revolucion!

“Summer Lights” was a series of shows put on local parks in “working class” areas. Before the shows, members of the Media House contingent would pick a poor neighborhood, and go door-to-door, like left-wing Jehovah’s Witnesses. They spent time with people, got to know them, listening to their concerns, taking their photos, while, not so incidentally, peppering them with their anti-DP&L shpiel. The Media Housers treated these people with real respect. I doubt many young people came by, listened to them, and asked to take their pictures. It was good for everyone, as the young people received training in photography, among other media skills, and got valuable life experience.

When it came time for the “Summer Lights” show, the Media Housers leafleted the whole neighborhood, and put up a huge screen in the park so that all the locals who agreed to be photographed became “stars,” their giant faces gleaming down at their friends. It was the kind of thing that could make you feel really good.

Unfortunately there was a live component to the “Summer Lights” events, and I’m embarrassed to say, it was “Guerrilla Theatre,” featuring me. (Does anybody use the term “Guerrilla Theatre” anymore? Nowadays, all you hear is “Guerilla Marketing.”) I played a character called “Reddy Kilowatt,” after the cartoon corporate mascot for the electrical industry. ReddyThe real Reddy was just shoes, gloves and a head, connected by bolts of electricity. He was always smiling, and I could never figure out why, because with that much juice shooting through him, Reddy was a goner. My Reddy was just me in a t-shirt with a star on it and a top hat who held an electric light bulb. I don’t remember if the bulb lit up, but I do know that when I was a kid I had an Uncle Fester toy light bulb from the Addams Family that did, so I understood the underlying technology for this kind of prop. (Julia and Andy claim to still have pictures of me in this getup, so they know.) I don’t remember, but it’s likely that I represented big bad DP&L. Cathy Cartwright’s 12-year-old sister, Nancy, who would later become the voice of Bart Simpson, played Margaret from “Dennis the Menace.” Maybe somebody from Media House can explain what Margaret from “Dennis the Menace” had to do with Dayton utility issues? If we could have seen the future, maybe Nancy should have played Mr. Burns at “Summer Lights,” and I should have played Margaret, or even better, Ralph Wiggum.

And then there was—I’m sad to report--a song about solar energy. Come on! Everybody join in!

It took a little while for me to figure out who was involved with who in the community that centered around Media House. What fine young lady was already in a relationship or gay? Who might possibly be interested in me? It wasn’t like it was that big a group. It was more like a bar at closing time: choose or lose. I’m sure that thoughts like these never once occurred to high-minded guys like Tony and Andy, but they consumed me during my hours of toil at Twyman’s. There were two attractive feministas I had crushes on who were willing to make a pilgrimage to the Rosefelt bachelor lair. The first one came over on a Saturday afternoon. My memory is that we had tea and talked about how swell it was in Mao’s China. The second one came for an evening movie. For some reason, I brought home “Casino Royale,” which I hadn’t seen and still haven’t because we didn’t get past the credits. So the second one, whose name was Judy, was now my girlfriend, and the other one was really hurt. I think it meant something totally different to her to be invited over for tea and Mao than it did to me, and I betrayed that. The truth is that there was a part of me that was sensitive and responded to her sweetness, and another part that was selfish and only thought about myself, and Judy was by far the hottest of the two, and therefore there was no contest.

Not that Judy was any intellectual slouch. She had just come back to Dayton (where she grew up) to be near her mother after her father died. A friend of hers had joked that some filmmakers from Antioch had moved to Dayton to organize the masses, and she decided to check it out. But Judy’s involvement in “Summer Lights” came from a perspective that was the complete opposite of mine--for her, it wasn’t political enough. She had issues with, in her words, “Alinsky-style organizing.” She talked like that.

It’s very difficult for me to look back on those days from the jaded perspective of today and figure out what I actually thought about Judy’s politics or those of anybody at the Media House. What ideas did I honestly share with them and to what extent was I bluffing to be liked and accepted? After all, I had been a true believer for a lot of my college years, definitely saw myself on the left and still basically do. It’s too facile, and actually wrong to say in retrospect that I completely rejected everything, just because I’m quite sure I didn’t swallow it whole. In essence I was on the same side of the fence as everybody, just a lot closer to the fence than they were. They were way out there. I think the following anecdote illustrates this very well:

When I left for New York, the Media House people kindly let me store my bigger stuff in their basement. A few months later, when I returned to Dayton to get everything, I found out that they had given away my TV, and had cut the lock on my beloved bicycle and had started using it, which would have been fine if they’d asked, or at least taken care of it. I discovered it buried in a snowdrift. I went everywhere on that bike all through college, kept it oiled, tuned, and gleaming, and now it was basically a junker, capable of transportation, nothing more. And my TV! Were they nuts? I never signed on to their stinkin’ Mickey Mao Club! In fairness, they did consent to drive me across town, so I could go into these strangers’ living room and cart the TV away like a repo man.

This was the essence of the difference. I would never in a billion years have even thought of actually living at Media House. Sharing?  I was too selfish, and didn’t feel guilty about that at all.  I could talk the left-wing talk, but ultimately I didn’t believe it enough in order to plunge in fully.  So what was my politics at that age?  What was my anything?   If you cut through all the shiny surfaces of  everything I was  trying to project at 22 years old, you would find inside somebody who had no idea who he was, and was trying to keep the show moving fast enough so that nobody else could figure that out. 

The Media House collective lasted, in various configurations, for eight years, from 1972 to 1980, and then, like so many things, it ended. People scattered, and the house was ultimately sold. Tony went to Philly, Andy went to Austin, and Sherry went to the Bay area. Julia and Jim divorced in 1986. Judy went all the way to France, had kids, changed her name to Judith, and wrote a book, Feminism in the Heartland, on the women’s movement in Dayton. The film that the people in the Media House were working on while I was there, “Union Maids,” which Tony and Sherry shot, ended up being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. I designed the ads at my drawing board at New Yorker Films. Julia and Jim would receive a second Academy Award nomination in 1984 for their last joint collaboration, “Seeing Red,” which my PR firm represented. Julia has continued to make award-winning films with her new partner, Steven Bognar, including the Emmy-winning “Lion in the House,” and the Academy Award-nominated “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” Jim has worked steadily as an editor and directed the features “Letter to the Next Generation” and “Taken for a Ride.” But for a lot of these people, the bonds that were forged at Media House have never faded, and they continue to collaborate. For example, Jim edited all three of Tony’s films, and Tony came to Ohio to help Jim edit his last two movies.

You can even hear Jim’s piano playing on the soundtrack of “The Last Truck.”