Vice in the Theater
I never intended to become a documentary filmmaker. I guess I technically still am not since the film hasn't been made. I think of myself as an actor who somehow got interested in a subject, found out that there had never been a documentary made about that subject, and decided to try to do it. If only I had known how painfully frustrating and hard it would be.
It started one night in early 2006 when my now ex-wife was out of town on a business trip. I had put our two-year-old daughter to bed and randomly turned on PBS. There was a special about former Vice-President Henry A. Wallace. I had read about him in passing when I read David McCullough's massive Pulitzer Prize winning biography "TRUMAN," but didn't know anything about him beyond the facts that he had been FDR's second VP, was dropped for Truman, then ran for the presidency in 1948 under the Progressive and Communist parties. It was fascinating.
My good friend and production partner had been making a series of short films about social issues that mocked educational videos and news magazines - I had been in two - and I thought one about the vice-presidency could be funny. But the more research I did on the subject, the more wonderfully weird and fascinating the subject became. I discovered that no one had ever made a documentary film about the vice-presidency. I pitched the idea of making one ourselves. After doing some research on his own, he agreed and we began reading, researching, writing, and coming up with a format for the film.
We have a title, "Vice-Precedence: Being Number Two in the White House," along with a trailer, a website, a Facebook page, Twitter feed, blog, a podcast, a children's book written by my production partner Jason Klamm, a graphic novel about Aaron Burr that Jason and I are writing with local writer Jack Phinney, and two great interviews with experts on the subjects - one a celebrity - but no movie.
In the past six years or so, I have become, to the best of my knowledge, one of the world's few experts on the United States vice-presidency. If you're wondering what this has done for me, the answer is: "essentially nothing."
Actually the more I think about it, that's not true. I was the guest expert at a local production of "The Encyclopedia Show" where I talked about the Vice-Presidency and did a little Q&A to a very kind and receptive audience, and also got to show the trailer for the film. I also managed to meet and interview the late Gore Vidal for two hours. At the end of our interview, he told us that he thought we were "better interviewers than Ken Burns." It was an amazing experience and one I will always treasure. Those have been the highlights of the last six years or so of trying to make this movie.
In the course of my research, I have been intrigued to find connections between my work in the theater and the history of the vice-presidency. Unfortunately, they begin tragically.
The first vice-president to become president following an assassination is, of course, Andrew Johnson, who became president after Abraham Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth while attending a play, "Our American Cousin," at Ford's Theater. Booth was an actor. Not just an actor, but a star from a star family; his father Junius was an acclaimed British actor who had come to America and been worshipped by audiences. His brother Edwin Booth is still considered by historians to be the greatest American actor ever. John Wilkes, who everyone called "Wilkes," was not considered as good an actor as his brother, and was jealous of his talent, but was still a star in his own right. He was 26, and considered the handsomest man in America, some thought the world, and had thousands of fans. Women flocked to him, and he had lovers in every major city across the country. (When he killed Lincoln, it would be the equivalent of today, if say, Bradley Cooper, or for the sake of keeping the "famous family" thread going, Stephen Baldwin, killed President Obama.)
Acting was considered a despicable occupation by most of America at the time, and this didn't help. Actors across the nation received threats in the aftermath of the tragedy. When Lincoln's hearse made its way through the streets of Chicago, members of the "Dramatic Profession of Chicago" bravely marched behind it to the hisses, boos and threats of the crowds to show that the majority of actors were patriots. Still, the damage had been done. So this was the first connection the Vice-Presidency had to the theater. It would not be the last.
Almost 80 years before Barack Obama was elected President, Charles Curtis of Kansas became the first person with minority blood/Native American heritage to be elected to the executive branch back in 1929 when he was elected VP along with Herbert Hoover.
Curtis, whose mother had a mix of Kaw, Osage, and Potawattomie heritage, was raised for a time by his grandmother on a Kaw Reservation where he learned to ride horses in prairie races "Indian-style" - or bareback - for miles and miles. Curtis was proud of his Native-American heritage and during the 1929 Presidential campaign co-wrote a book on his life with a Republican ghost-writer titled "From Kaw Teepee to Capitol: The Life Story of Charles Curtis, Indian, who has risen to high estate."
Curtis was chosen as VP by the Republican party because they worried that Herbert Hoover was both too inexperienced (he had never held elected office before) and too liberal (Hoover had been in charge of feeding starving Europeans in the destructive wake of World War I), and if there is anyone Republicans don't trust, it's some millionaire who cares about feeding poor people. Just joking.
With Curtis, the Republicans felt that they at least had someone with experience whom they knew and trusted in the White House. Curtis had been in Congress since 1893, and was very popular with his fellow Republicans having been Senate Majority Whip, Senate President Pro Tempore, and was the first Senate Majority Leader to ever become VP.
These are all things you can see on Curtis' Wikipedia page. However, what that page WON'T show you is that to many historians and VP scholars, Curtis was a joke. It can basically be summed up in the following quote: "Charles Curtis of Kansas, one/eighth Kaw and seven/eighths incompetent." Sol Barzman, VP scholar, author of "Madmen and Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States"
In his book on the vice-presidents, "Bland Ambition," Professor Steve Tally ripped up Curtis so badly and made him such a laughingstock that the Curtis family threatened to sue.
What the hell does all that have to do with theater? Well, legendary American composers George and Ira Gershwin made Curtis an even bigger national joke by basing the ridiculous, pitiable non-entity, Vice-President Alexander Throttlebottom in their Pulitzer-Prize winning musical "Of Thee I Sing" on Curtis. The show was recently performed here in Minnesota by the Lakeshore Players. In the musical, Vice-President Throttlebottom is recognized by no one, is unable to get a library card because he doesn't have any ID, and can only get into the White House by coming in with the public tour.
The other thing I have learned over these six years is just how incredibly hard it is to make a movie with no money. Don't try it. It's a draining, frustrating and depressing experience.
The worst experience was one involving Minnesota's own former VP, Walter Mondale. For four years, starting while I was still living in Los Angeles, I had tried to arrange an interview with Mr. Mondale, and, finally, after years of requests, in the summer of 2010 I received a confirmation for an interview from Mr. Mondale's personal assistant.
At the time, I was unemployed and working on my first ever show for the Minnesota Fringe Festival that I was producing, co-directing, co-writing and performing in, and my production partner had just started a new job. But there was no way we were going to miss this opportunity. To say that we were both thrilled is a HUGE understatement, but we both knew more work had to be done.
We used a fund-raising page to raise money to fly my production partner out from L.A., and I worked hard to find a local film crew, and managed to find one from a local college. Thanks to donors, and my production partner digging deep into his dwindling funds, he got a ticket to fly here and we managed to make it all come together.
Three days before the interview and the day before my production partner was going to fly in from L.A., on my lunch break, I checked my voicemail and had a message from Mr. Mondale's assistant asking if I could call immediately. I went outside to my office parking lot, called, and when I said who I was, I was told, "Please hold for the vice-president."
Just a few seconds later a familiar voice came on saying: "This is Fritz Mondale, and I have some questions for you."
For the next 10-15 minutes I was barraged with questions by the former VP, who would cut off my answers with another question. He had read one of the requests I had sent, where I had said our film was a "comedic documentary", and he had big issues with the word "comedic".
"Do you think the vice-presidency is a joke? That it's funny?" he gruffly asked.
I assured him that it was NOT, but, like the presidency, there were comedic anecdotes in the over 200 year history of the position and that our film did cover some of these, but that we had always intended his interview to be nothing but serious. That we considered it the centerpiece of the film and that we were not joking in any way when it came to this.
He kept cutting me off, not letting me fully answer his questions. I mentioned that Gore Vidal had done an interview for the film, and that much of his interview was serious, but that he had told a few funny stories. I offered to send him my list of questions in advance. I told him that I wanted to ask serious questions about his mentor and friend, former VP Hubert Humphrey, about the burden of being the VP, about his thoughts on the nature of the office. But he would have none of it.
I could feel the interview slipping away. I told him about how we had worked on getting this interview for almost four years, about how we had raised money for it from family and friends, how we already had a local crew, but he flat out said: "That doesn't concern me really."
Then he asked me again about what I thought was comedic about the vice-presidency. I made a mistake. I stammered, "Mr. Vice-President, some historians have called the vice-presidency an absurd office, but our film is a serious film about an absurd subject."
Walter Mondale: "Oh, you think the Vice-Presidency is absurd?!"
Me: "NO! No sir, I think its serious, and that not enough Americans take it seriously. The film is just being called comedic to attract audience, but that's just the way show business is sometimes, it's Hollywood, and things need to be either comedies or serious to executives in their offices. I can assure you this is a serious film, with some comedic aspects, some funny stories and such. Even Ken Burns had some moments of comedy in "The Civil War." That's what we're doing here. We use humor as a tool to make it more entertaining, but this is the first real documentary on the Vice-Presidency, and we are extremely serious about this interview, please just listen to me sir..."
Mondale: "No no, no.." Click.
He had hung up on me. It was absolutely crushing. Three years, hundreds of dollars raised from our generous fans and family, all for nothing. All because of the word "comedic."
Still, even with this deeply disappointing setback, my partner and I are determined to finish this film.
I have learned so much about the men who have held our nation's second highest office. Some were patriots and honorable public servants. Some were...not so much. Most have been forgotten. The history of the office is filled with humor, tragedy, stunning moments, and incredible characters. What more could you ask for in a documentary? And people have been very supportive of the film and my work on it, which I am very grateful for.
I'm thinking of turning my experience of making the film into a one-person show of some kind. When I told the above story about my experience with Mr. Mondale, and some other vice-presidential stories at "The Encyclopedia Show" the feedback from the audience was just amazing. It's something I am going to try to work on in between producing the "A Drinking Game" series at the Bryant Lake Bowl ("SCROOGED" on Dec 1!), improv performances, auditions, shows, my day job and being a single dad....somehow.
In the meantime, if you ever meet Mr. Mondale, can you say to him on my behalf, in the words of Vice-President Dick Cheney to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont: "Go fuck yourself." Thanks!