I have periodically featured guest posts here by John C. Tibbetts, a faculty member at the University of Kansas, a prolific writer about cinema and other popular media, and a long-time host of television and radio interview programs. Tibbetts has been using these posts to find his own voice as a blogger and to connect insights from his interviews with key creative artists to contemporary cinema. I am happy to announce that Tibbetts is now running his own blog, Adventures in the Arts: Alarms and Excursions. For those who have enjoyed his work here, you are strongly encouraged to check it out. Today, he is sharing some thoughts about the life and work on one of the late 20th century’s best American directors, Robert Altman.
ROBERT ALTMAN: BACK TO KANSAS CITY!
By John C. Tibbetts
Now that the late, great filmmaker Robert Altman is in the news again with the publication of Altman, by his widow, Kathryn Altman, and the subject of a major retrospective of his films in New York, it’s time to bring him home once again. Home to Kansas City. Home to where he got his start as a film and television director. And the home to which he returned periodically. I recall an interview I did with him, March 5, 1991, during one of his return trips, when he attended a festival of his films. “I’m here in Kansas City,” he told me at the time, “because I was invited to be honored at this Film Festival. I got a letter from the Mayor and he said he was going to give me a key to the city. “They used to lock me up for getting into trouble in this town. At that time, they threw away the key. Now, they’re giving me one!”
Robert Altman was born in l925 into an upper middleclass family on West 68th Street in the tree-lined suburb of Prairie Village. The Altman name was honored in Kansas City. His grandfather, Frank Sr., was an entrepreneur who erected several important downtown buildings, including the Altman Building at llth and Walnut in l895 (destroyed in l976) and the New Center Building at l5th and Troost (later the site of the Calvin Company); and his father, B.C., was a prominent life insurance executive. During young Robert’s school years at Rockhurst High School and Southwest High School, he divided his spare time between the fabled jazz clubs of the l8th and Vine area and moviegoing at the old Brookside Theater.
“I was l4 or l5 years old in the late 1930s, when Kansas City was a wide open town,” Altman recalls. “There must have been at least 50 jazz clubs, all strung out along these streets around 18th and Vine. They all played here, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins. All the bands, all the players would wind up here, play a night here. It was a wild mix and a new style of blues and jazz came out of it. At the time you didn’t think about all the vice that ran rampant everywhere, with the gambling, drugs, the crime. And the gangsters–like the Italian mobster Johnny Lazia–my dad told me you paid them protection money if you didn’t want your business wrecked. The one place you didn’t go for protection was the police force! All I knew was that the jazz and the songs I heard were really hot stuff. Now, these days, I come back and don’t see the same city, but I smell it and I feel it.
“I spent my first 19 years here. It’s where I got all my chips. I was just a kid when I was seeing my first movies at the Brookside Theater. I was fascinated with them. The movies I saw there just seemed to happen–nobody made them. I guess that’s the way I still see movies–I want them to be occurrences, to just seem to be happening. I wasn’t aware that all the time I was being taught and that I was learning. I was just observing and catching things by osmosis. Growing up, I lived on West 68th Street and went to Rockhurst for a year, Southwest High School, Wentworth Military Academy, and then the Air Force (where I co-piloted B-24s).
I was just a kid when I went to work for Calvin Films. It was a Kansas City company that made industrial films. It was at l5th and Troost, a 7-story building. My grandfather built that building. It had its own l6mm lab. I learned all the tools of the trade there. I earned $250 a month, and it was mostly OJT. You can learn anything by just getting your hands dirty. At Calvin I did a lot of films for Gulf Oil and some safety films for Caterpillar Tractor and International Harvester–stuff like “How to Run a Filling Station.” They were training films. They weren’t a goal for me, just a process to learn how to do entertainment and dramatic films. It was a school, that’s what it was. I worked there for six years, on and off. Then I went to Los Angeles and wrote some film treatments. I left Calvin three times, but couldn’t get anything happening out there. So I’d come back and they’d drop me in salary a little bit each time I came back! A little punishment. The third time they said it was like the Davis Cup: They were going to keep me!”
Another, tender memory comes to light. “I remember when I was about four years old, I went to Union Station with my mother to meet my uncle. She bought me a red balloon, full of helium. But it slipped out of my fingers and flew up to the ceiling. I remember I cried and cried. I can still show you the exact spot on the ceiling where it rested, out of reach.”
The 70-year filmmaker tracks with his mind’s eye the flight of an errant balloon. Whether it represents his lost youth or the elusive artist’s dream, it seems entirely likely that it’s still there, waiting for him–but just out of reach.
John C. Tibbetts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film & Media Studies at the University ofKansas, where he teaches courses in film history, media studies, and theory and aesthetics. He is an author, educator, broadcaster, as well as an artist and pianist. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in Multi-Disciplinary Studies (Art History, Theater, Photography and Film).
As a broadcaster and journalist and scholar he has hosted his own television show in Kansas City, Missouri; worked as a news reporter/ commentator for CBS Television (KCTV) and National Public Radio; produced classical music programming for KXTR-FM radio; written (and illustrated) ten books, more than 200 articles, and several short stories.
His most recent books are Peter Weir: Interviews and Douglas Fairbanks And The American Century. Other books include The Gothic Imagination (Palgrave Mcmillan, 2011), Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography (2005, Yale University Press), Schumann: A Chorus of Voices (2010, Amadeus Press), and the three-volume American Classic Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2010).
His current radio series are The World of Robert Schumann (currently being broadcast worldwide on the WFMT Radio Network) and Piano Portraits (A 17-episode series of interviews with world–class concert pianists).