Growing up amid dust and dismay

What was it like to grow up amid the dark dismay of the Dust Bowl? This story tells it from the viewpoint of a former Colorado kid, now a retired teacher at 88. It's one of two stories I sent to papers about Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl," Sunday and Monday (Nov. 18-19) on PBS. The other story and the box should be right above this one:



He was a cowboy kid on the Colorado
prairie, living the only life he knew.

These days, Calvin Crabill is 88, a
University of California, Berkeley grad and a retired teacher; he's
one of 25 survivors featured in “The Dust Bowl,” the Ken Burns
film that debuts Sunday, with a local preview event Thursday. Long
ago, he knew the sound of the storms.

“Suddenly,” Crabill said, “you
had silence on the plains. (Then,) when that roller hit, all hell
broke loose. It was deafening …. You couldn't see or hear.”

Still, he did his job. He rode his
horse three miles to school; then rounded up the cattle afterward.

One day, when he was 8 or 9, a dust
cloud was already forming and the teacher closed school early. “She
said, 'Go home, children.' But I had to get the cattle in.”

As the storm encased him, he recalled
church lessons. “I just assumed it was the end of the world.”

His father, Crabill said, “assumed I
would not be so stupid as to go after the cattle when this big storm
was coming.” Then, through the dust, his dad saw a riderless horse.
“He thought, 'I have lost my boy.'”

He could have, Burns said. Often “kids
rounding up the cattle never came home. (They were) found tangled in
barbed wire, suffocated to death, choking. This is an apocalypse that
is so hard to fathom.”

But Crabill – at that point, walking
his horse with the cattle behind them – pulled through. He kept
doing that. “Survivors like Cal are the most astonishing people on
the planet,” said Timothy Egan, whose “The Worst Hard Time”
chronicles the era. “They not only lived through this horrible
respiratory exposure, but nutritional things.”

And emotional things, too, especially
when his life changed abruptly.

Crabill was 10 when, midway in the dust
decade, his family moved to Burbank, Cal. He had been in a school of
three kids; now he was with 600 or 700. “I've been in culture shock
ever since,” he said.

His family, luckier than most, still
had $500 when it reached California. That was enough to rent a modest
house while his dad – once a successful rancher –looked for labor

“I never invited anybody into my
house,” Crabill said. “Only two friends, in all the years that I
lived in that house, did I invite …. One was a person I later
married; I suppose I trusted her.”

Even in the Depression, the dust-storm
kids seemed different. “I felt that I was the poorest kid in the
high school,” said Crabill, who later learned “there were a
couple others that were just as poor.”

There was resistance to these
newcomers, Burns said. “These were unwelcome job-stealers ….
Wherever they were from, (they) were called Okies. And there were
signs in movie theaters saying,'Okies and N-word, upstairs.'”

Later, Crabill learned how long that
resentment would last. At his 55th high school reunion, he
was the moderator and mentioned that one woman was the daughter of
the people his family rented from. “She grabbed the mike from me
and she said, 'Yes, these people were 'Grapes of Wrath' people. They
were terrible. They were old and poor.'”

She and other classmates would
apologize to him, but 15 years later, that remains a vivid memory.
“It sticks,” Crabill said. So do other memories of being
swallowed by a deafening cloud of dust.

The extra pleasures of a college town

From the first time I saw Madison, Wis., one thing was clear: I really wanted to live in a college town, preferably a Big Ten type.

I wasn't sure why; certainly, I didn't want to keep going to classes. Yet, I sort of figured that this was the sort of place where things would keep happening.

This past weekend -- all on the Michigan State University campus -- offered a prime example. On Saturday, I caught two movies and a forum at the East Lansing Film Festival. On Sunday, I went to the public opening of the Broad Art Museum, then straight over to the season-opener for Michigan State University's women's basketball team.

Sure, the results were mixed. At the festival, the forum was fascinating (more later), "Own Worst Enemy" was interesting and Saragh Polley's "Take This Waltz" was brilliant. (See previous blog.) The basketball game was a trifle mismatched, with MSU beating Texas (Arlington) 83-39. The Broad is interesting, but you keep looking for the art. A note said MSU's collection has 7,500 pieces; the main exhibit, filling three galleries, has 37.

Still, those are small points. In two splendid days, it was possible to catch movies, art and basketball and (not counting refreshments) have change from a $20 bill. I like campus communities.

East Lansing Film Festival: Still some time, still some worthy film

Sure, life offers lots of distractions. Still, if you live near Lansing, Michigan, you should catch the East Lansing Film Festival. Some quick notes:

1) You can still catch part of it. There's one more full day (Sunday, Nov. 11), followed by four partial ones. Details are at

2) The previous blog has interviews with six of the filmmakers.

3) Today (Saturday, Nov. 10) I saw "Own Worst Enemy," a time-travel film that had so-so performances, but a plot that came together beautifully in the final minutes. That's gone now, though, so I won't get into it here. In a separate blog, I'll talk about today's forum on Michigan's film incentives.

4) Instead, I'll focus on films that you can still catch. Here we go:

-- "Take This Waltz" is a truly marvelous film, deeply moving. The film -- repeating at 8:30 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 11), this time at Celebration Cinema -- is that rare case of a perfect link between immensely gifted actor and director ... the sort of thing that happened, say, when Joe Wright directed Keira Knightley in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement."

This one is by Sarah Polley, an actress taking only her second turn at directing a scripted movie. The star is Michelle Williams; the result is often miraculous.

Polley's first film, "Away From Her," was long on plot, as a man painfully adjusted to his wife's Alzheimer's disease; thia second oneis far more abstract, visiting a fragile soul. Both have Polley's habit for filling her movies with decent, intelligent people whose lives still get complicated.

There is no way for us to fully understand the central character; afterward, filmgoers were still debating the ending. But Williams brought her wonderfully, richly to life, quirks and all; and her men -- perfectly played by two Canadians, Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby -- are smart, decent and interesting. That -- plus Polley's remarkable skill with words and pictures -- makes a great film.

-- The best choice Sunday would be to catch three straight documentaries that have a working-man theme.

"Brothers On the Line" (noon) tells of the three Reuther Brothers who propelled the UAW. Sasha Reuther did a surprisingly balanced job; he paused to admit mistakes made by his grandfather and grand-uncles, then returned to a rousing success story.

That's followed by "As Janesville Goes" (2:30 p.m.), which has already been on PBS. It has its  anti-union moments, alas, as a Wisconsin town -- the home of Paul Ryan, who isn't in the film -- scrambles for more industry. And "After the Factory" (5:30 p.m.), shows regular people helping revive two post-industrial cities, Detroit and the Polish city of Lodz.

-- There are lots of Sunday films I didn't see or feel are so-so, but there are some exceptional shorts. "Vanishing Act" (noon) is beautifully made by Joshua Courtade. That's a good sign for two films I haven't seen, ""Neurotica" and "Hank Danger and the Woman From Venus," both at 5:30 p.m., are also by Courtade. Other shorts I feel are exceptionally good are "Junior" (noon), "Acheron" (2:30 p.m.) and "Lightning Man"  (5:30 p.m.) 

-- "Connected" (6:30 p.m. Monday, Celebration) has Tiffany Shlain illustrating her father's theories about how events connect in human history. She beautifully rounds that out with two other events -- his death and her child's birth.

-- "The Owner" (6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Celebration) has pieces filmed by 25 directors in 13 countries on five continents. There are big flaws -- especially with the over-the-top middle portions filmed in Europe -- but it's still interesting to see it unfold in one story.

--There are two films that I haven't seen, but I've hard good things about. Both are Scandinavian, which means sub-titles, dark emotions and high style. Each is 8:30 p.m. at Celebration -- "Headhunters" (an action thriller) is Tuesday; "Turn Me On, Dammit" is Wednesday. Things conclude at 7:30 p.m. Thursday with "The Intouchables" at the Hannah Community Center; it's France's official Academy Award entry, which means more sub-titles.



East Lansing Film Festival: Meet the filmmakers

After a couple warm-up nights, the East Lansing Film Festival gets serious now. Over the next three days (Friday through Sunday, Nov. 9-11) it will show 25 full-length movies and a ton of shorts at Wells Hall of Michigan State University. Things continue Nov.11-14 at Celebration Cinnema and conclude Nov. 15 at the Hannah Community Center. You'll find the full schedule at

In particular, I'm looking forward to the free session at 1 p.m. Saturday (Nov.10), in which filmmakers discuss the tricky art of making independent movies. In addition to my stories that ran Nov. 4 in the Lansing State Journal, here's one more, profiling six directors:


The East Lansing Film Festival line-up
seems to come from all directions.

There are Hollywood pros – an
Emmy-winning editor, a top director – accustomed to million-dollar
projects. There are first-timers, making movies for $15,000 and (at
first) $2,000. There's the grandson of a labor giant, the father of
Hollywood stars … and a guy going global from Detroit. Some

– Hollywood's directors are used to
juggling art and commerce, Stephen Gyllenhaal said. “You do one for
them and one for you. You do a few things you really like.”

Then he decided to skip some of that.
He doesn't need the money – “I live simply” – and his kids
(Jake and Maggie, both movie stars) definitely don't. He could do
what he wanted.

He wrote poems, started a novel,
directed a few TV episodes. And he read an offbeat political story.

An out-of-work reporter reluctantly ran
a friend's campaign, trying to defeat a popular city councilman via a
single issue – extending the monorail that Seattle built for the
1962 World Fair.

Gyllenhaal soon pondered “the idiocy”
of a monorail that's only a mile long. “The company that originally
built it offered to extend it for free, to show what it could do –
and was turned down.”

He was charmed by the monorail and by
the start of a script by his former assistant, Justin Rhodes. “That's
when I said, 'Oh, I see; it's a comedy.'”

He co-wrote the script, putting comedy
people – Jason Biggs, Cedric the Entertainer – in serious roles.
“Grassroots” (3 p.m.Saturday, Nov. 10, Wells Hall) had minimal money and
maximum energy. “The mean age of the staff was around 26; at first,
we were sleeping on friends' couches.” The film, like the campaign,
would be ragged and fun.

– On the opposite end of the
money-and-fame spectrum are Curtis Matzke and Ken Adachi.

Both are first-time filmmakers, using
the Kickstarter computer program to raise money – but not much.
Adachi says he spent about $15,000 on “Dead Dad” (6 p.m.
Saturday, Wells); Matzke spent $2,000 filming “Complex” (2:30
p.m. Sunday, Wells) and hopes for another $6,000 for post-production.

Each made a quiet character film, with
laidback dialog. “You can say a lot by not saying anything,” said
Matzke, 24, who focuses on three people his age, in a Lansing-area
apartment complex.

And both are well-traveled. Matzke had
been all over the Midwest, before his parents landed Michigan State
faculty jobs a decade ago. He graduated from Okemos High and MSU,
where he was co-writer and cinematographer for “American
Terrorist,” an ELFF winner last year.

Adachi was 8 when his family moved from
Japan to the U.S., then moved often before settling in Florida. “I
have been more of an observer,” he said. “The ability to read
people can be very helpful.”

And both were able to use happy
discoveries. For Martzke, it was the surprise appearance of a
raccoon; for Adachi, it was finding a former miniature golf course, a
visual symbol for abandoned dreams.

– At the prestigious New York
University film school, Sasha Reuther learned a key to any
documentary: “You have to start with a good story,” he said.

And he had a great one. His grandfather
(Victor Reuther) was one of three brothers from hard-scrabble West
Virginia who moved to Detroit and propelled the United Auto Workers.

“He would tell these great stories,”
Reuther said. “Here was this man with a glass eye, from an
assassination attempt, remembering amazing things.”

Reuther began filming those stories in
1998.When Victor died (in 2004, at 92), his grandson already had 10
hours of interviews. More research was ahead, including some
fascinating phone recordings of Lyndon Johnson persuading Walter
Reuther to keep the UAW out of the Vietnam debate.

“Brothers On the Line” (noon
Sunday, Wells) is frank about pointing out the men's flaws, but it's
also long on praise. “Look,” Reuther said, “labor helped build
the middle-class. That's undeniable.”

– Lee Percy grew up in the right time
and place. “Kalamazoo was really big on the arts,” he said.

The schools – with his dad as
superintendent – loved the arts; so did the city. He acted in the
Junior Civic Theatre, studied acting at the Interlochen Arts Academy
and at Juilliard in New York, then realized his future wasn't in
front of the camera. As an editor, he's received an Emmy for “Grey
Gardens” and high praise for “Boys Don't Cry,” “Reversal of
Fortune” and more.

Then he met someone who has the
opposite of his good fortune. An Albanian immigrant, Praq Rado was
trying to build an acting career without a green card. “What struck
me most was his optimism.”

They wrote “Dreaming American” (3
p.m. today, Friday Nov. 9, Wells) and Percy made his directing debut,with Rado
playing a barely fictionalized version of himself. It's a 25-minute
short – and a continuing story.

“He took the train to the Hamptons
film festival, because he doesn't have a picture-ID for a plane,”
Percy said. “They took him off the train and I had to make a lot of

– Four years ago, Marty Shea made a
semi-drastic decision. “I said, let's do this thing we've always
talked about.”

A decade earlier, at MSU, he had
started proposing a film that leaps between countries and directors.
Now – alongside his day job working on Detroit films – he would link with
Ian Bonner on “The Owner” (6 p.m. Saturday, Wells, 6:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Celebration Cinema)

They assembled 25 directors (breaking
the “Paris te j'aime” record of 21) in 13 countries on five
continents. Each had to fund his own portion, becoming an “Owner”
owner. Shea helped supervise the story links and the editing, but did
it lightly. “We wanted an array of styles.”

He also directed the Detroit segment
and helped supervise the one central character – an old backpack.
The film went through eight identical bags, so it could deal with
crises.”You can't believe the hassles of shipping something that
has some other language's graffiti on it.”




Pia and the Anthem: A decade-long skill returns on Veterans Day

Some of TV's strongest moments have come from PBS' 4th-of-July and Memorial Day concerts. Now comes a third special, Sunday on Veterans Day. Here's the story I sent to papers about the concert and Pia Toscano, who will have two powerful songs repeated Sunday: 


For half her life, Pia Toscano has sung
the National Anthem or “Go Bless America” to mega-crowds.

She's done that for baseball, hockey
and NASCAR fans. And on the eve of Memorial Day, 2011, she sang to an
estimated 300,000 people and TV cameras. “I was such a nervous
wreck,” she said.

It was a memorable moment, producer
Michael Colbert recalled. “We opened with Pia Toscano on the
balcony of the Capitol, singing 'The Star Spangled Banner.' You could
hear a pin drop.”

So now he's repeating it, as part of
the first “National Salute to Veterans,” on Sunday.

Early in that PBS hour, Toscano sings
the Anthem; late in the hour, she sings “I'll Stand By You.” In
between are spoken pieces, plus Kris Allen, Javier Colon, Yolanda
Adams and the National Symphony.

It seemed logical, Colbert said, to
have a Veterans Day telecast. “On such an important national
holiday, there isn't a big event or national television show.”

This year – when the holiday falls on
a Sunday – is ideal. And no new music was needed, he said, “with
over 20 years of powerful concerts” to choose from.

His dad, Jerry Colbert, started the
“National Memorial Day Concert” in 1989 and “A Capitol Fourth”
a decade earlier. Now they co-produce all three events.

Recent years have brought an emphasis
on young reality-show contestants. Colon was the first “Voice”
winner; Allen was the eighth “American Idol.” Toscano, now 24,
finished ninth on “Idol” in 2011.

“I suppose it did work out, that it
happened so early,” she said. Judges groaned; fans complained.
Toscano was whisked onto “Tonight,” “Dancing With the Stars”
and “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Ellen,” “Rachael
Ray,”“Live With Regis and Kelly” and more. She signed with
Interscope records, worked quickly – “I recorded about 50 songs”
– but saw only one single come of it.

Now she's split from Interscope and is
working with producers Damon Thomas and Harvey Mason Jr.; she's
always wanted them, she said.. “Whitney Houston was in their
studio, the first time I met them.”

And that reflects her days as a
high-energy pre-schooler “The only way I could calm down was it
they played a Whitney Houston song.”

Her dad, an Italian native, soon
recognized talent. He had wanted to do music; but needed to be
practical; he became a Wall Street executive and then saw his
daughter soar.

She sang in talent shows at 4 and in
the school's “Jesus Christ Superstar” at 9. She was 13 when she
sang the Anthem to 7,000 fans minor-league baseball fans. “I
remember being so nervous about it.”

This was high-decibel stuff, he said.
“I was a big belter. I had no idea how to use my voice.”

The subtleties would be molded at La
Guardia High School of the Performing Arts (the “Fame” school)
and by years of singing with a band that did weddings and more.

Then came the post-“Idol” rush,
plus Leno, Ellen, Ray, Regis and more. On the 10th
anniversary of the Sept.11 attacks, she sang “God Bless America”
at a New York Mets game; and a few months earlier, she sang “The
Star Spangled Banner,” with a pin-drop crowd listening on the
Capitol lawn.

Veterans Day TV on Sunday includes:

– “Vietnam in HD,” 8 a.m. to 4
p.m., History Channel.

– “Band of Brothers”
mini-series, 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., Spike.

– “The Big Red One” (1980, 3:15
p.m.), “Memphis Belle” (1990, 5:45 p.m.) and “Three Kings”
(1999, 8 p.m.), G4. They also air at 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 12:45

– “National Salute to Veterans,”
8 p.m., PBS (check local listings)

– “108 Hours: A Father's Journey to
Iraq,” 8 p.m., HLN (formerly Headline News). It follows Robert
Stokely's determination to put a memorial stone at the spot where his
son died.