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Frank Worth, Oscar Micheaux and the Hoisington Tornado

The following are excerpts from Mark’s book TRULY INDEPENDENT FILMMAKING;

 

Mark Adams, John Sealey and Frank Worth in Great Bend, Kansas after filming at the B-29 Memorial Banquet

During the summer of 1999, a famous and well-respected filmmaker came to Great Bend from London to shoot part of a documentary for the BBC. In World War II, when he was only 19, Frank Worth was the youngest Combat cinematographer in Burma. Risking his life, he frequently made it up to the front lines and to the most dangerous areas to film the allied operations all along the Arakan coast, and assault landings in Burma including the re-capture of Rangoon. During this time Frank filmed the rescue of a B-29 crew that successfully ditched in the Indian Ocean, one of the first of it’s kind for such a large and new aircraft. Over 50 years later Frank found out that Brig. General Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the B-29 bomber named the “Enola Gay” which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was coming to Great Bend for a special visit. A B-29 Memorial Plaza, the only one of it’s kind in the United States at the time, was planned for the Great Bend Municipal Airport. In World War II the airport was the Great Bend Army Airfield, one of four bases in Kansas used for training of the B-29 Bomber. Brig. General Tibbets was speaking as part of a fund-raising banquet, and Frank Worth decided that would be a perfect central location and venue for a special reunion.

            Frank asked five of the remaining survivors of that B-29 crew that he filmed back in World War II to come to the banquet for a special reunion and to be part of a documentary he was producing called “FRANK WORTH’S WAR” for the BBC. As a dramatic moment to the festivities Frank would show to the audience the original news reel using his footage of the rescue, which would be the first time that the survivors ever saw the film from over 50 years ago. He also filmed their reaction to seeing the film for the first time and conducted interviews with three of the five survivors.

            For months before the banquet Frank would call and try to coordinate some of the events and his plans with Linda McCaffery, BCCC History Instructor, Oral History Library Coordinator and one of the people helping to put on this ever-growing and increasingly complicated banquet. Since I was the only video production person at the college, and I was setting up the video projection equipment and videotaping the event, Linda thought I would better understand what Frank needed. He arrived with his producer/camera operator John Sealey ready to begin, but quickly came face-to-face with a near-disaster. First problem: the lighting (or lack thereof). The banquet was being held in the Great Bend Holiday Inn Convention Center, which had a very low lighting set-up. A very pathetic track lighting from above was also attempted by the hotel’s staff, but no one realized that it was not up to broadcast video quality (or that there was a difference to begin with at all). Frank assumed that the TV camera crews sent there to cover the event would have their own lighting equipment, but he quickly found out that there were no TV cameras beside myself. I had a light kit, but they were small video lights that could not be set up anywhere near the ‘stage’ area. We borrowed two theatrical spotlights from the college and the high school to light Frank Worth when he stands up to speak (he’s NOT one of those shy filmmakers who prefers to stay out of the spotlight), and to dramatically turn the second spot light on the three B-29 survivors who are conveniently sitting together.

Second problem: No cameras. John Sealey brought a really nice, and brand new, digital video camera to use. Of course it was PAL and in the USA we are NTSC, but that wasn’t the major problem. They didn’t bring any videotapes. Apparently their format was prevalent throughout London and England, and they assumed they could go to any nearby store and buy them in Great Bend. Now remember that Great Bend is a town (they prefer to call themselves a city) of less than 15,000 residents, and you can find VHS VCR’s and tapes…and that’s about it. They never had Laserdiscs, finally got DVD’s (but had a terrible selection), and certainly there were no broadcast quality ANYTHING available anywhere. But in all fairness the local NBC affiliate in Great Bend, KSNC-TV called their parent station KSN-TV in Wichita to find these tapes, and no one in Wichita had ever heard of or seen such a digital videotape either. (I never found out later if these were MiniDV tapes, DVCAM or some other digital tape format.) KSN-TV & KSNC-TV both used the MII tape format, which Frank Worth and John Sealey had never heard of either. So ultimately their camera was useless. While in London, again Frank assumed that such an event would bring major press coverage, and that he could borrow some of the footage from these various networks and TV stations. What he couldn’t understand until he arrived in the middle of Kansas was that “major-press-coverage” would consist of me, Tim McQuade from our local KSNC-TV affiliate showing up with a S-VHS camcorder (although he didn’t show up, because he knew he could borrow some of my footage for the news), and a reporter from the Great Bend Tribune newspaper. The Wichita network affiliates did show up for a press conference with Brig. General Tibbets the afternoon before the banquet, to shoot a little something for the local evening news. But it turned out that I was the only video camera planning to tape the banquet itself, and for the moment when Frank Worth would show his film and give the B-29 crew copies to take home. So Frank, John and I got together to make this work out for these documentary filmmakers who had traveled so far and found themselves in the middle of rural America.

I had two broadcast quality cameras that they could use: a Sony Evw-300 3-chip Hi8 Camcorder and a Sony DXC-3000A 3-chip camera that could record to a portable ¾” deck. And KSNC-TV let me use their one and only new MII camcorder. The night of the banquet during Frank’s presentation, John Sealey ran my Hi8 camcorder on a tripod in the back of the room that was receiving the wireless microphones and was supplying the video image to the two large video projectors in the convention center. The unmanned ¾” camera was shooting a medium shot of the B-29 survivors table for when the light hits them and Frank walks over to hand them the tapes. And I ended up running the MII camcorder hand-held at the survivor’s table, which turned out to be the most important camera. When Frank announced (very dramatically, of course) that the survivors seen on the film, “are with us tonight, and are sitting right over there!”, and the survivors stood up, the crowd was so overwhelmed that they gave them a standing ovation! It was a wonderful surprise for the event, but when Frank made his way to the survivor’s table, the standing crowd blocked the view of the Hi8 & ¾” cameras. Only my hand-held MII camera captured the pictures of Frank’s gifts to the survivors and their reactions, which were very important to the documentary.

For three days I worked very closely with Frank Worth and John Sealey to get things together, and they were wonderful people to get to know. John had worked for a long time in the British film industry, and told me about his efforts to preserve its history. And Frank was an incredibly interesting man with a thousand interesting stories about his life and his filmmaking experiences. He told me about his trip to China to scout for locations, and teaching a small village to disco dance, his maverick-like approach to his World War II Combat filming, in order to get the most impressive shots in the most dangerous situations, his attempt to shoot a movie recording the dialogue completely on location using the ambient audio, and having to deal with a rather loud dredging barge in a very picturesque harbor town. And some of his stories that I can’t print about how his combat filmmaking led to some erotic nights with his female companions. I wish I had more time to sit down and talk with him, being a fellow filmmaker who can see that a man like Frank Worth has a lot of valuable insights and experiences. When Frank was saying good-bye to me he told me; “I’m the one who rescues people, but this time you rescued me. I’m very grateful. Thank you, Mark.”

Producer Bill Shaffer filming at the 2001 Oscar Micheaux Golden Anniversary Memorial Celebration for KTWU's SUNFLOWER JOURNEYS

           In March of 2001, an event took place in Great Bend, Kansas to honor a pioneer black filmmaker. Largely unknown to the general public, the first African-American to produce a feature film in 1919 and the first talking feature film in 1931 was named Oscar Micheaux. Although he made his films while living in Harlem, New York, he was buried in Great Bend, Kansas in 1951. He had no tombstone until 1988, a year after he received his star on Hollywood’s ‘Walk of Fame’. A local lawyer named Marty Keenan decided to honor Oscar Micheaux on the 50th Anniversary of his death with a two-day film festival and celebration, and asked me to record the event. Several prominent Oscar Micheaux experts and historians, including Pearl Bowser, Charlene Regester, and J. Ronald Green, came to speak about an independent filmmaker responsible for the production of 43 feature films in his lifetime. The more I learned about Oscar Micheaux, the more I became intrigued by his films and his experiences in making them. Chuck Berg, University of Kansas Professor of Film and speaker at the festival, had this insight, “I think Oscar Micheaux can probably be best framed by taking a look at what he means to so many aspiring filmmakers, and indeed practicing filmmakers and videomakers who are African-Americans…that have been closed out of the mainstream of Hollywood. And as a result, Micheaux’s independent approach to filmmaking in the late nineteen teens and 1920’s really has been just a huge boost of inspiration for everyone who wants to make a film. Parenthetically it might also be said for any independent filmmaker, in a sense, bucking up against the system – Oscar Micheaux again is one of those people: he did it! And therefore, I think a lot of people look to him as someone who they can emulate because of the success he had, ‘Dog gone it, if Oscar could do it back in 1919 or 1923, I can do it in the year 2001!’”

Independent Filmmaker Kevin Willmott discusses the making of his film NINTH STREET at the 2001 festival honoring Oscar Micheaux

Another KU Professor and independent filmmaker, Kevin Willmott shared this sentiment, “Well clearly I think (Oscar Micheaux) is considered the patron saint of black filmmakers, and really should be considered the patron saint of ALL independent filmmakers because he is a true independent. I think for me personally, seeing that he made films during probably one of the most racist periods in American history and for him to get as much work done as he did in that climate – leaves very little excuse for one today. So that’s where I take a lot of inspiration from him: in terms of how he got his films made and the dedication and perseverance he led with that. Oscar Micheaux was a true independent filmmaker because he took his own money and made his own films. Filmmakers often say this thing about, ‘Don’t put your own money in your own movies.’ Well, if you don’t want to put your own money in your own movies, you don’t really want to make movies. And that’s the reality of it. There are a lot of filmmakers who want to make ANY kind of movie. And there are some filmmakers who want to make personal, vision movies that have a great deal to do with themselves and what they want to offer the world. Oscar Micheaux was one of those. Those people will put their own money in their own movies. Those people will not dwell on the results of what happens to film after it’s finished. Those people are the people we typically celebrate.” I found Kevin a source of inspiration as well. He was able to make a low budget film called NINTH STREET in Kansas City, yet attract an actor like Martin Sheen to help out and act in it. Martin Sheen did not do this because of money, but because he believed in the vision Kevin had with the film he was trying to make.

Ceremony at Oscar Micheaux's tombstone on Sunday, March 25, 2001 in the Mark Adams documentary TWO DAYS OF OSCAR

Don Shorock's photo of Mark Adams filming at the Micheaux tombstone ceremony in Great Bend, Kansas

            No one asked me to make a documentary about the Oscar Micheaux celebration, I just wanted to try my hand at a documentary about a subject I found intriguing. The event attracted the PBS affiliates in Topeka and Wichita, and we ended up working together to sit down and interview the various speakers and local Micheaux relatives at the same time. Although it must have been a strange sight to sit in front of three separate video cameras and crews for a simple interview in the lobby of the Crest Theater in Great Bend, Kansas. One of the producers was Bill Shaffer, Producer and Director of SUNFLOWER JOURNEYS on KTWU in Topeka. We talked about how much he liked my earlier film WAR, DEATH AND PIZZA and how his earlier documentaries about the original CARNIVAL OF SOULS were used on the Criterion Collection DVD release of the cult film. I found it to be a great time working with them, though at times it was hectic having to run back and forth between the interviews and the event itself in the theater.

Professor J. Ronald Green offers insights of an Oscar Micheaux film

Oscar Micheaux Scholar Pearl Bowser answers questions from the audience

            In the end I made the 54-minute documentary TWO DAYS OF OSCAR: THE OSCAR MICHEAUX GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY MEMORIAL CELEBRATION (2001) from the nearly 14 hours of raw footage. I combined the interviews we shot with the footage of the event and the Wreath Laying Ceremony at Oscar’s grave with James McDaniel, the actor who portrays Lt. Arthur Fancy of NYPD BLUE. I had the premiere of the video on the college’s cable channel, and it was received well. I entered it into the 2001 KAN Film Festival with high hopes. Marty Keenan told everyone about this and expressed his hopes as well, “Mark has entered this documentary (TWO DAYS OF OSCAR) in the KAN film festival at the Lied Center in Lawrence. Frankly, I’ve seen the documentary, and if he doesn’t win first prize for documentaries I’ll be stunned.” Unfortunately my documentary TWO DAYS OF OSCAR wasn’t even selected as a finalist, to which Marty replied, “I’m stunned that the Micheaux documentary didn’t make the finals (of the 2001 KAN Film Festival). Really stunned.”

            The judges comments show a glimpse into why it wasn’t selected as a finalist, “Could use more editing of stock footage/photos w/interviews” and, “Narrator a bit industrial – could be more expressive.” I was the narrator, by the way. Although they did add, “Interesting subject!” and, “Brings knowledge of important & interesting African-American to recognition.”

                Ultimately the two reasons why my documentary didn’t make it was that TWO DAYS OF OSCAR was more of a highlights tape of the event rather than a true documentary, and of all the categories in the KAN Film Festival the documentary category receives the most entries of higher quality. Frankly, my documentary wasn’t as good as the other more professional productions – even though I didn’t see any of the documentary finalists that year. Usually the documentaries are more professionally produced in the KAN Film Festival than the narrative works, therefore there would be more competition in that category.  

 

Click here to see the "TWO DAYS OF OSCAR" Trailer on youtube

            Locally the Oscar Micheaux documentary was received well, but not as well as I had hoped. Something else happened that caused the momentum of public interest to shift. A week and a half before the premiere of the documentary on the Cougar Channel, a disaster struck the area. On April 21, 2001 a F4 Tornado struck the town of Hoisington, Kansas, just 9 miles from Great Bend.  One-third of the town was completely destroyed from a direct hit of the deadly tornado. By the time my documentary was shown no one even took notice, everyone was still recovering from the tragedy. Many college students and employees were directly affected by the tornado, and for a week after the event volunteers from the college went to help with the clean up. On April 24, I followed one of these groups to film them helping clean up the home of Rod and Julie Knoblich, both employees of Barton County Community College. As I stopped to get footage of the devastation, I ended up losing them and wandered around the area until I found them.  

Hoisington residents survey the destruction of the F4 tornado

A house in the path of the April 21, 2001 tornado in Hoisington Kansas

            The destruction was brutal and breath taking. For a two-block width and several miles long, homes were completely destroyed. Nothing was left except for a hole where the basement was located, and piles of debris everywhere. Trees were completely stripped of vegetation and limbs, and most had twisted metal and wrecked cars wrapped around them. In fact, cars were everywhere – tossed about like toys and dropped in piles in yards or in the exposed basements and smashed beyond recognition. For another two to four blocks on either side of where the tornado touched down the homes had been partially destroyed, or damaged heavily. When I stood in the middle of the path, I could see nothing but destruction and devastation everywhere around me as far as I could see. I found the group of college volunteers at the Knoblich residence, and saw the shell of a house. Theirs was the only one directly in the path of the tornado left standing, only because the walls were constructed of limestone blocks. The house next door had no basement, and the only way the people survived was that they hid in the interior hallway which was the only thing left intact of the entire house.

The aftermath in the path of the F4 tornado videotaped by Mark Adams on April 24, 2001

BCCC volunteers help clean up what's left of the Knoblich residence in Hoisington, Kansas

            I edited a highlights video of what I had shot and played it on the college’s cable channel. I called it simply HOISINGTON TORNADO AFTERMATH (2001). I was surprised by the response; people kept calling asking for a copy of my video. I didn’t want to sell the tape and make money from such a disaster. So I just said, ‘anyone interested in the program to bring me a blank tape and I’ll dub it for free’. I didn’t keep track of how many tapes I made, but at one point I felt that nearly everyone in Hoisington wanted copies. Many wanted more than one copy, so they could send tapes to friends and relatives in other parts of the country who have no idea what a tornado, and it’s destruction, is like. For over a year after the disaster people kept calling and bringing me tapes to dub. Tower Productions in Chicago wanted to use my footage in a show they were making for The Weather Channel called STORM STORIES. I understood why people wanted this video, with the way this event touched so many people on many levels. It was just bad timing in terms of it completely overshadowing the Oscar Micheaux documentary.  

 

Click here to see clips from "Hoisington Tornado Aftermath" as well as other early Mark Adams documentaries in "The Barton Documentaries Part 1"

Opening montage of THE RETURN OF OSCAR featuring Corey Creekmur, CARNIVAL OF SOULS and Kevin Willmott

Opening montage of THE RETURN OF OSCAR featuring Matthew Jacobson, Pearl Bowser and Marty Keenan

            In 2003 Marty Keenan held another Oscar Micheaux event called The Micheaux Independent Film Festival. This time he wanted to open the festival to films and filmmakers other than Oscar Micheaux, as the theme states; “Celebrating Artistic Independence”. Even though Micheaux had made over 40 films, only very few survive. Most of his canon is lost. So instead of showing his same films over and over, it was decided to have a festival that celebrated independent filmmaking in general. Kevin Willmott returned to show his new film CSA: The Confederate States of America , a fake documentary (or mockumentary, perhaps) taking a look at America if the South had won the Civil War. Although it was very controversial, not only showing what our society would be like if slavery still existed and how close we really are to that reality, CSA was an excellent film and showcased Kevin’s talents as a filmmaker.

Kevin Willmott places a wreath at the tombstone of Oscar Micheaux on June 13, 2003

Bill Shaffer and John Clifford in their interview with Mark Adams about CARNIVAL OF SOULS

            Another film showcased was the cult classic CARNIVAL OF SOULS that was filmed mainly in Lawrence, Kansas in the early 1960’s. Bill Shaffer returned with the writer of CARNIVAL OF SOULS, John Clifford, and I enjoyed a lengthy interview with the two of them for the new documentary I was making about the 2003 event. This time I produced THE RETURN OF OSCAR: HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE MICHEAUX INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL (2003), a 57-minute documentary about the two-day festival. I even had the honor of having my film LOST SOULS AND EVIL THOUGHTS be the last film shown at the festival (although I wanted to show DECONSTRUCTION because I thought it was a better written script, but I think Marty Keenan wanted the attraction of having a film with Martin Sheen’s brother). The attendance was low to the 2003 festival, however, and many had concerns about future events. Some felt that it wasn’t as new as the 2001 celebration, and people assumed that it was the same thing again as before. Others thought that the 2003 event the admission charge of $10.00 a day (and the original 2001 event was free) kept people from coming. Marty was hoping for more local support, but expressed his concerns afterwards about the fact that an all-white Kansas town with a 1% African-American population was not interested in attending what was perceived as a ‘black event’. In the end the 2003 festival was a success for those who did attend, and I hope there will be future events to celebrate independent films.  

 

Click here to see clips from "Two Days Of Oscar", "The Return Of Oscar" and other early Mark Adams documentaries in "The Barton Documentaries Part 2"

 

Mark Adams introducing LOST SOULS AND EVIL THOUGHTS at the 2003 Micheaux Independent Film Festival

For more photos and information on the Oscar Micheaux events in Great Bend

visit the Oscar Micheaux Home Page at

http://shorock.com/arts/micheaux/

 

For more information on SUNFLOWER JOURNEYS visit

the KTWU web site at http://ktwu.washburn.edu/

Click here to read about more documentaries Mark made at BCCC

 

If you have questions or comments, contact Mark@AdamstarPictures.com

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