Forgotten Past Re-Emerges in Digital Age

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Ellen's picture

Or How a Woman Rediscovered Her Acting Past with the Aid of YouTube

You know how there's an old favorite movie or TV show you saw when you were a kid and you just loved it but, years later, you wondered what happened to it? And you waited for it to come out on DVD and it took FOREVER? And then sometimes it just never happened at all, like Jean Shepherd's The Fourth of July and Other Disasters starring a young Matt Dillon and broadcast on PBS American Playhouse in 1982? You keep checking back at the store and then online, and all you see are some used copies of the VHS version? You wonder why the owners of the rights to these little gems would not want to make them available to a wider audience. You look and you look and you look and it never appears. Weeks become months, months become years and then you finally stop looking. I've spent half of my adult life waiting for AMC's melo-dromedy Remember WENN? from the mid-1990s to make it to a format compatible with the late 20th century.

But what if this gem you'd been waiting for all your life had actually been out for years - even on DVD - and you had never noticed? You were so jaded by previous failures that maybe you weren't looking so hard. And what if this show had been broadcast on television, and you had missed even that? How could you know about it then? You knew it existed because you had been in it – actually on screen – even if it hadn't been broadcast. But no one else had ever heard of it.

You may be surprised to learn that this actually happened to me. I spent more than twenty-five years searching for it. At least I thought I had. I believed that the film had never been broadcast on any TV or cable network, and had never been produced on video tape or DVD. It had fallen off the face of the earth. It had to have. Otherwise, I would have found it. Right? Then I stumbled upon it on YouTube. I think I missed something.


The other day, my eye caught a flash of color from the bookcase in my study: the sky blue spine of a paperback I had forgotten about, Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Literature. I had been putting my yoga mat away in the closet and then there it was. I had bought the book in the mid-'80s, shortly after I left graduate school. I had never cracked open the spine. Over the last several years I'd been trying to consolidate my book collection: either read it or toss it. In this same spirit, I pulled the book out and flipped to the opening pages of the introduction, Good Readers and Good Writers. I read the epitaph: “My course, among other things is a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures.”

I smiled, remembering the day in January 1985 when I had a close encounter with both Mr. Nabokov and Christopher Plummer at the University of Pittsburgh. That day I sat in the Cathedral of Learning along with dozens of other young people dressed variably in poodle skirts, bobby socks, sweater jackets, and narrow trousers. This book. It was different. I not only had to keep it. I had to read it.

In those days, I had been a student at Carnegie Mellon University, a mile and a half east of the Pitt campus, getting my masters degree in professional writing. Before I left on Christmas break in December, I had seen a flyer on the English Department bulletin board: A call for students in 1950s dress for the filming of a new PBS pilot. It was based on Nabokov's lecture on Kafka's “The Metamorphosis” and would star Christopher Plummer, I utterly adored Mr. Plummer and had since I was a preteen and I saw him in the Sound of Music. How handsome and debonair he was no matter what else was going on around him! And those blue eyes!

Those interested in being part of this PBS pilot were to show up at the Cathedral of Learning on a Sunday morning in January dressed as students from the late 1950s. The gig was early enough in the semester that it wouldn't interfere with my class work or my teaching. I wrote it all down and vowed to show up whatever the cost. I had never been to Pitt before, so it would be an adventure. But I could not miss this opportunity to see Mr. Plummer in the flesh. I would kick myself for ever after.

After break, I walked to the Cathedral of Learning tower at Pitt in a horrible outfit I had concocted from the limited number of clothes I kept at the apartment I shared in Squirrel Hill with another student. I had nothing that bespoke the 1950's era, but decided that a full, below-the-knee cream-colored cotton skirt and a light blue wool cardigan under which only the white yoke and collar of a short-sleeve polo shirt showed. This was lucky because that polo shirt also sported turquoise and yellow patches on the shoulder. These patches did peak out a little along the collar of the sweater, but I thought I could snug it closer around my throat and hide the distracting colors from the camera. My hair was short in front and just above my collar in back in that classic '80s Pat Benatar look. I gelled it and pushed it behind my ears so it looked like my hair was pulled into a ponytail.

When I got off the elevator there were crowds of students in '50s get-up. We were handed little tickets that said “Nabokov on Literature starring Christopher Plummer, Sunday, January 13, 1985, 9:00am to 1:00pm.” I clutched it tightly. It was proof that I was actually there. I met another young woman in the hall who was on her own. We chatted while the crew made the final adjustments to their cameras and lights inside the lecture room where we would be filming. We vowed to sit next to each other when we got in. I wish I could remember her name, but it is lost in the annals of time.

When we entered the lecture hall we were ushered to seats in the back. I knew I was unlikely to be caught on camera there, but it would be enough for me to see Mr. Plummer in person and in action. I was excited to see Peter Medak, who directed such films as The Ruling Class, at work. He was very active on set, even getting behind the camera.

The script was taken from the actual lecture notes and writings of Nabokov on Kafka's “The Metamorphosis.” I heard that lecture ten times that afternoon, but I never grew tired of it. As soon as Mr. Plummer entered the hall where we “students” were already assembled, the rich tones in which he spoke the words of Nabokov's opening lecture on “Good Readers and Good Writers,” as well as the pauses in between where we were left hanging for a few microseconds, kept my attention and helped me hear the import of Nabokov's words:

Literature was born not on the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf
came running out of the Neanderthal Valley with a big gray wolf
at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying
wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him.

I walked away from this experience with the impression that I not only needed to read the “The Metamorphosis” again, but that I loved Nabokov's lectures and writings on literature and must read them all to gain insight into the artistic mind.

After the filming, Mr. Plummer took off his jacket and sat on a wooden bench with peeling paint and signed autographs. He signed my ticket. (And no, those aren't lipstick stains where I kissed his signature. Hey, I was a graduate student. I didn't get out much!)

For months I waited with baited breath to hear that the program would be broadcast. All the next summer, even as I worked as an intern at IBM, I kept track of the television listings. Of course, a few months is not long enough to produce even a short film, let alone get into the televisions schedule. But I didn't think of it at the time. Soon, I lost patience and then forgot about the film. I went off and got my first job, became a swinging single in Huntsville, Alabama, and married my husband, Dave. But, I swear, I did look. On and off. For awhile anyway. And I seemed to be the only one looking.

Yet somehow I missed the initial broadcast of this program on PBS. The best explanation I can come up with is that it wasn't broadcast until 1989, well after I had given up on them ever broadcasting it. According to the DVD packaging, that is the copyright date of the film. 1989. It also didn't help that I didn't own a television from 1980 until 1990 when I married my TV Freak of a husband. Also unhelpful was that these were the days before Al Gore invented the internet. The IMDB wasn't available until 1995. I couldn't even Google it until 2007. By then, I had given up looking. Life had interfered. But every few years, I would come across the pictures and the autograph in my scrap book and wonder what happened to the little film. But I just wasn't curious enough to go the extra mile. Soon I forgot the film and the desire to see myself on screen entirely. I even forgot about the burning desire to read the Nabokov lectures.

I don't know why, after picking up that book of lectures by Nabokov that fateful morning, I decided to give it another go. But I did. A Google search went straight to a YouTube video AND an IMDB entry. According to comments on YouTube, some folks had seen the film in college when studying Kafka or Nabokov. On I found out that its been available on DVD since 2007.

I had missed the entire digitization of my movie career!

Actually, I'm kind of glad it took so long for me to find the film. It was so much fun unraveling the facts that day and finding out the truth about a little gem of a movie that was also a little gem of a memory for me.

And as far as my screen debut in all its glory, if you go to the trouble of watching this film short, you can just see me in the back of the lecture hall. Look for me at around 2:58 into the clip below. You can just see me over Plummer's right shoulder as he enters the room and steps down the aisle. I'm wearing the blue sweater, white shirt one chair in from the aisle inthe back row. My first professional acting gig (and last)!


Ever learning, Everlasting