by BOB DORAN
"I got to play for President Nixon one time," George recalls, explaining how his band set up on a flatbed truck at the airport when Richard Nixon came to town along with Lyndon Johnson and then Gov. Ronald Reagan and their wives for the dedication of the Lady Bird Johnson Grove.
Chag Lowry and Jan Kraepelien at KEET studio
Living Biographies grew out of an idea that came up early in community meetings during the planning phase of the trust, said Peter Pennekamp, HAF executive director.
"Out of the process came all these things that people believed collectively would take culture in the county to the next level of public engagement.
"During the focus groups there were plenty of ideas that got discarded. We looked for ones that got picked up in a variety of places. An example is the Living Biographies program which was first suggested by American Indians, then some Portuguese people from the Eel River Valley got really excited about it.
Merv George during video interview
"When we met with some ranchers, they were falling out of their seats they were so excited about it. We interviewed some of the new Hmong immigrants and they were excited about it. Eventually you see that this is something that's on people's minds."
The basic idea is simple: People tell their stories and someone records them. How the stories are recorded and shared has changed over time.
At first the program was administered through the Humboldt Historical Society. Kathleen Stanton was hired and she coordinated a series of public meetings, looking for people to tell their stories.
One meeting held at the Humboldt County Library invited people to share old photographs. An announcement caught the attention of Kay Gott Chaffey who had a strong interest in history.
"My husband's folks were long-time residents here," said Chaffey in a recent interview. "Keith [Chaffey's husband] taught here for years and years and so did his mother, Adele. His grandfather built those barns you see in the Arcata Bottom, the ones that are falling down now. They had a history here.
"Keith thought nobody was interested in his stories. I was going through pictures his mother had. I said, `Here's a picture of you with your class at Dow's Prairie,' and he said, `Nobody wants that.'
"He had written every child's name under their picture. I took it to this program at the library around the time Living Biographies started. They had somebody there to photograph your photographs. I took Keith's pictures down and they ended up displaying them."
The other purpose of the meeting at the library was to find people who wanted to tell their stories. Chaffey signed a list. Next the word went out seeking people who wanted to do the interviews.
Since I had some knowledge of Humboldt history and experience doing interviews from my work at the Journal and other publications, I volunteered. Before long I found myself recording meetings and teaching other volunteers how to operate a tape recorder.
Stanton pulled a group of high school students from St. Bernard School into the process. Her feeling was that connecting young people with their elders was perhaps as important as gathering stories. She was also busy collecting names and profiles of elders in the community in preparation for the interview process.
When she distributed the first list of names I looked down it and saw Kay Chaffey's name. Kay was my folk dance teacher in college, and I knew that she had written a book about her experience as a WASP, the Women Airforce Service Pilots. I told Stanton, `I know her. I know she has some interesting stories to tell. I'd like to interview her.'
I ran into Kay in town and mentioned that I was involved in Living Biographies. She was thrilled at the prospect of having one of her old students interview her. She said she was ready any time and we talked about when we might get together with a tape recorder.
The interview didn't happen right away. Stanton wasn't quite ready to go. By the time we did sit down, Living Biographies had changed hands. In March 1999 the program's administration moved from the Historical Society to the Humboldt Arts Council and KEET, the public television station.
Our day finally came in June 1999 and my interview with Kay was one of the first. A crew from KEET led by Kraepelien set up lights in the Chaffeys' living room. The student videographer, Katie Musick, ran the camera while Kay and I sat in comfortable chairs. I had a couple of pages of notes and Kay had stories to tell.
In this case, my role was minor. I steered the conversation, but for the most part all I had to do was let the stories unwind. We started with her childhood and moved quickly to her experiences flying planes during World War II. Chaffey is passionate about the subject and these were tales she had told many times.
"I'd just written a book about them," she adds, "so they were fresh. And for the 50th anniversary of World War II, I had given 21 presentations."
Left, Kay Chaffey holds a model
She was comfortable with the process, in part because she has been an interviewer herself. She is part of an organization, the North Coast Vintage Aircraft Society, and for years has been helping to gather the oral histories of their members on tape. She knows the importance of sharing stories.
"To them, to the individual men, it's important that somebody besides their family has interest in what they have to say, in their life, in what they did. The fact is they are part of history, an important part."
Eventually our interview moved on to her place in Humboldt County history -- flying supplies during the flood of 1964 --to her career as a dance teacher at Humboldt State. Few will dispute the fact that Chaffey is responsible for the level of interest in international folk dance on the North Coast.
After we finished, the camera was packed up, the lights and cords were put away, and the next phase began. A copy of the tape was made for Katie Musick, the videographer. She made a log of what was on it, noting highlights that would eventually be used for a half hour program. (Music has since gone on to Sonoma State University where she found work in the media department because of her video experience.)
At the KEET studio the three and a half hours of talk were edited down and photos from Kay's personal collection were added. The show became the first in the series.
Since then Living Biographies Program Administrator Shelley Mitchell, Kraepelien, a crew from KEET and a lot of volunteers have been busy.
"We've done over 100 interviews so far," said Kraepelien. "There will be 200 by the time we're finished. The interviews we've done so far have a wide range of topics and subjects.
"We've talked to people from pioneer families. People like Silas Morrison whose family moved into the Bear Creek area in 1852. Gladys Strope's family has been here since the late 1800s and worked with Noah Falk who set up the town of Falk. His first mill was where Humboldt State University dorms are now.
"Sam Swanlund talks about his dad who was the mayor of Eureka. Sam does hand-tinted photographs. He learned the technique from his mother. That's how he put his kids through college. He'd get up at 6 a.m. every Sunday morning."
A program called "The Ladies of Orick" shows two old friends, Blanche Blankenship and Jean Hagood, sharing stories about the past with each other, laughing and having a great time.
Blanche Blankenship and Jean Hagood,
Ben Chin today, and at bottom, in his WWII military police uniform.
An interview with Ben Chin introduces us to one of the first Chinese families to come back into Humboldt County after the entire Asian community was banished in the late 1800s.
Gladys Strope's interview moves from recollections of her family history to her personal role in setting up the county's mental health facilities. It's an example of one of the programs goals, to connect personal histories to the history of the whole community.
"Through the Living Biography program you meet Gladys as a person first, then we interweave these other elements. She was instrumental in getting the facilities here," Kraepelien said. "It's the same with the show on Silas Morrison. We see his family history, then we learn about his work with developmentally disabled kids. It's his life and that was an important facet of it.
Gladys Strope, whose family
has been in
"As we move into the second portion of interviews we want to draw in other ethic communities -- people from the Portuguese community, the Italians, the Swiss, Latinos and the Hmong and Laotian community."
The Native American community is already an important part of the series. So far about 25 have been interviewed. Chag Lowry came on board in October 1999, filling a position funded primarily by a grant from the California Council for the Humanities.
"My job is to facilitate interviews with Native elders," said Lowry. He stressed the fact that it was important that those conducting and videotaping the interviews come from the Native community.
"For years our people have been approached for their songs and their knowledge by people who put it away in museums and used it without their input. The way we're doing it, they are involved every step of the way. For instance we won't air this program on Merv without showing it to him first."
"Merv talks about his parents' experience in the boarding schools," Kraepelien continued. "They weren't allowed to speak their own language in boarding schools. That was one of the things that almost killed the culture. You couldn't dress Indian, you couldn't speak Indian, you couldn't be culturally Indian at all."
In one Living Biographies segment two Yurok women, Jessie Van Pelt and Evelina Hoffman, speak in the Yurok language as they demonstrate the construction of a traditional basket.
Jessie Van Pelt and Evelina Hoffman discuss traditional Yurok basketry.
"One thing we're doing is preserving our language," said Lowry. "We will use these tapes to teach the Yurok language. The Yuroks are the largest indigenous tribe in California but there are less than 20 fluent elders who speak the language.
"Jessie Van Pelt was raised by her grandmother who was raised here prior to contact. This is really the last generation that has those memories of what Indian life was like before settlement. It's important to reach out to them now, to get their stories now and show them now -- not just to preserve them but to show them as living, breathing, human people.
"We have a couple of younger people doing the videography. They are now involved in their culture, in their ceremonies. They are good role models. It's important to connect them with elders in their community.
"In one of the interviews, Aileen Figeroa -- who is 88 years old, she's a Yurok elder -- she taught songs to a Yurok girl, Ashley Bones. Ashley's sister Cynthia was the videographer. Here's Eileen who has songs from her family that are over 200 years old. She's sharing them with Ashley, and Ashley sings them in our ceremonies today. That whole process being captured on video is priceless.
"The knowledge needs to be recorded, the basketry, the sacred sites, knowledge about ceremonies; it all needs to be preserved and used in a respectful way," Lowry said.
"And it's been great working with Jan and with KEET. They are very respectful. It's gone a long ways toward healing in the Indian community, righting some of the wrongs that have been done in terms of how our history and culture have been shown in the mainstream in Humboldt County and California."
Kraepelien videotapes a gathering of
Max Brotman, teen videographer.
A half hour Living Biography show is aired on KEET-TV 13 each Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and repeated Sundays at 10 a.m. with a newly edited show featured the first Wednesday of each month. The Merv George interview is sceduled to run on Dec. 13 and 17, delayed by the KEET Holiday Auction.
Left to right,
Emilia My Sumelius,
COULD AN ORAL HISTORY program like Living Biographies serve as inspiration for a wacky Dell'Arte-style comedy?
"Michael Fields wrote a grant specifically to do a theater piece based on the interviews in the Living Biographies series," said playwright Lauren Wilson, who wrote this year's Dell'Arte holiday show, "The Rag and Bone Shop."
The show is funded in part by a grant from the Creation and Presentation program of the National Endowment for the Arts, said Fields, explaining that the grant's purpose is to provide greater access for the arts.
"The holiday tours are seen by over 8,000 people," he added. "That's a larger audience than anything else we do."
Fields introduced Wilson to Jan Kraepelien (see main story above), who gave her a pile of the tapes to watch. Wilson looked at almost all of the edited shows and at raw footage from a few others. Then for good measure she talked with some of the interviewees.
Playwright Lauren Wilson
Wilson found that those who were interviewed for the series were profoundly affected by the experience.
"All of them said how wonderful is was that people were showing an interest in them. They weren't used to it. They were more used to being treated as senile or in the way by the younger generation."
In her story the old people are literally in the way. Stephen Buescher --is simply amazing -- plays Bucky, an overly energetic advance man for a dot-com. The company he represents wants to put a warehouse on the lot where an elderly couple, played by Emilia My Sumelius and Laura Muñoz, operate a curio store.
The play is by no means realistic. It's a wild romp full of strange characters with lots of word play and -- since this is after all a Dell'Arte show -- healthy doses of physical comedy.
Sumelius and Muñoz disappear into a number of additional roles, including a sweet turn as an old shoe and a frilly hat. Bridget McCracken steps in to address the audience directly, introducing different sections and occasionally slipping into the action. (She is marvelous playing Fatty Arbuckle, star of a film Donna McKillips was in when she was young.)
While the piece is nothing at all like an episode of Living Biographies, Wilson succeeds in conveying the overall message of the series. After being mangled in a series of misadventures, Bucky learns to respect and embrace the wisdom of his elders.
Since it opened the day after Thanksgiving, "The Rag and Bone Shop" has played to communities throughout the North Coast including shows at schools and a jaunt up to Oregon. The North Coast Co-op and Coast Central Credit Union once again joined with dozens of co-sponsors allowing Dell'Arte to forego admission.
The show returns to Dell'Arte's Studio Theater for performances Dec. 8-17. (See Calendar for details.) It is recommended for audiences aged 7 to 107. Admission is free with a ticket, which can be picked up at Coast Central Credit Union branches and the Co-op.
You are asked to bring canned food items for Dell'Arte's holiday food drive. For more information call 668-5663.
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