RectorWriter

Adventures in storytelling by Bob Rector


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LETTERS FROM THE FRONT NOW AVAILABLE IN PRINT & KINDLE

For years it was only available as a script on 8-1/2 x ll 3-hole punched paper, and only to those who actually worked on the show. This is better.

For years it was only available as a script on 8-1/2 x ll 3-hole punched paper, and only to those who actually worked on the show. This is better.

What’s the difference between writing novels and writing plays? Both involve the ancient craft of storytelling. Both use words as the essential building blocks. Beyond that, well . . . Having done both, here’s what a play means to me.

Standing Os. Cheers. People coming up to me and shaking my hand, saying thank you, telling me what my play meant to them. Face to face. Night after night.

Wouldn't it be nice if this was happening when people read our books?

Wouldn’t it be nice if this was happening when people read our books?

We seldom get that response with our books. Perhaps at a book signing. Or when somebody writes a particularly flattering review. With my play Letters From The Front, I got it after every performance, year after year, all over the world.

I wish every writer was able to experience that.

MargueeHutchinson

After releasing my one (and so far, only) novel Unthinkable Consequences, I’ve often wondered how people responded when they read it. A few have been kind enough to leave enthusiastic reviews, but that was after they’d read the entire book and had time to analyze their feelings toward the work.

It’s very different with a play. The reaction is spontaneous and continuous. Night after night I sat in the dark with hundreds of others and watched and listened to their reaction while the performance was in progress. A laugh here, a tear there, a gasp, a groan, shuffling in their seats when their attention wasn’t being held completely, leaning forward when it was.

aud-react1

Do people react that way while they read our books? No doubt they do. We’re just not there to see it. Its been hard for me to get used to that.

That little observation aside, what is Letters From The Front about?

It’s been called an emotional roller coaster. I’ve watched audiences ride that roller coaster enough times to know that there’s evidently some truth to the statement. CBS Evening News called Letters From The Front “A patriotic tribute to the men and women who so bravely serve.” NBC’s Today called it: “A wonderful show.” The Shreveport Times said it was “A tear-jerking, hand-clapping, mind-blowing stroll through history.”

I guess it’s all those things.

A scene from the show. Katharine Hartgrove (Melanie Collup) reminisces about the war years in an opening letter to her grandson in Vietnam.

A scene from the show. Katharine Hartgrove (Melanie Collup) reminisces about the war years in an opening letter to her grandson in Vietnam.

Here’s the official blurb: This play weaves actual letters to and from soldiers and their loved ones going as far back as Valley Forge, into a story set during the waning days of WWII. The personal themes in the letters are honestly reflected, as is the commitment of everyday Americans to preserve freedom.

Popular essayist Katharine Hartgrove, whose son is fighting in Northern Italy, has been commissioned to write a play based on these letters. She enlists boyfriend, Johnny Chastain, America’s favorite radio wise guy, to assist her. He provides an unseen twist to the story, along with plenty of comic relief. When the laughter and tears subside, Johnny is the most unlikely of heroes and Katharine is healed from emotional scars that have haunted her for 20 years.

A scene from the show. Katharine Hartgrove (Della Cole) gets the phone call she's been hoping for. Beside her is boyfriend Johnny Chastain (Bob Curren).

A scene from the show. Katharine Hartgrove (Della Cole) gets the phone call she’s been hoping for. Beside her is boyfriend Johnny Chastain (Bob Curren).

Letters From The Front is a heartfelt and surprisingly humorous story of heroism, hope, and redemption.

Okay, but to me what the play is about is better summed up by a statement made by Katharine Hartgrove midway through the show:

“To me, this play isn’t about individual wars or the politics behind them or who was right or who was wrong. It’s about the fragile and precious nature of life. It’s about everyday people who suddenly came face to face with their own mortality, or the prospect of losing a loved one. It’s about people reaching out to each other, maybe for the last time. Each of these letters was affirmation on the part of the writer that at their darkest moment they were not alone.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s about people, what’s in their hearts, who they love, how they deal with life’s adversities. At the core is a conflict of massive proportions – World War II. Millions are thrown into the conflagration.

A scene from the show. Katharine Hartgrove (Michele Rosen) shares a poignant war letter with Johnny Chastain (Neal Matthews).

A scene from the show. Katharine Hartgrove (Michele Rosen) shares a poignant war letter with Johnny Chastain (Neal Matthews).

But Letters From the Front focuses on just two people as they struggle to understand, adjust, put events into some sort of meaningful perspective, and discover the depth of their love for each other.

Maybe the song As Time Goes By captures the sentiment best: “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory.”

Inside the playbill handed out as people enter the theater there is a comment card. Over the years we’ve collected tens of thousands of them. Here are examples of comments from people who have seen the show.

Inside the playbills are comment cards

Inside the playbills are comment cards

~~ “I was touched beyond belief. I am a better person for having seen your show.”

~~ “I have never been so deeply touched as I have been with this production. You have brought the reality of the home front to light with such clarity and tenderness.”

~~ “You broke my heart and brightened my day. Fantastic!!”

~~ “Some of the best theater I have seen. Better than most from Boston and New York. Impressed!”

~~ “Uniquely heartwarming, tearjerking, hits home hard. Thanks.”

~~ “At the base of every conflict is the men and women who have fought it. The wants, needs, desires, and fears never change no matter the time or place. Your group presented this in a truly memorable way. P.S. I cried about ten times.”

~~ “It was without a doubt one of the most touching and patriotic shows I have experienced. It was filled with humor, tears, laughter, sadness, and a wonderful sense of being an American.”

~~ “Hits close to home, close to the heart.”

Della Cole originated the role of Katharine Hartgrove and was an audience pleaser for many years.

Della Cole originated the role of Katharine Hartgrove and was an audience pleaser for many years.

I hope you’ll take the time to read Letters From The Front. Being a play, it’s a fast read. It’s available both in print and Kindle at http://goo.gl/ZQQGqN. You can learn more about the play itself at the blog https://lettersfromthefronttheater.wordpress.com/

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IMPAKTER EZINE FEATURES MY ARTICLE ON “THE JOURNEY DOWN THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD”

10 September, 2014 at 09:32

IMPAKTER is a classy new international Ezine about culture, style, society, and philanthropy. Here is my article as it appears in Impakter.

Scene from The Long and Winding Road starring Alva Sanders (maiden name)

Scene from The Long and Winding Road starring Alva Sanders (maiden name)

My previous Impakter article ‘The Birth of Music Video TV’ tells how The Now Explosion TV show was created and how I landed my dream job of making music video-films for the show.

’The Long and Winding Road’ by The Beatles was my first assignment. And almost my last. I had exactly one day to turn it into a music video-film.

That’s right. Twenty-four hours.

This was my audition piece. I wouldn’t be paid for it and the show was under no obligation to hire me if they didn’t like what I came up with. I was provided raw stock and processing. Everything else was up to me. No problem. I was a bull pawing the ground ready to charge.

A photo of me about the time I made The Long and Winding Road in spring of 1970

A photo of me about the time I made The Long and Winding Road in spring of 1970

THIS IS A BLOW-BY-BLOW ACCOUNT OF THOSE 24 HOURS.

You might say I couldn’t I miss with a Beatles song, right? Wrong. In 1970 The Beatles were the biggest phenomenon in pop music. It would be easy for my film to get lost in their shadow.

I had to do something special, something that complimented the lyrics yet stood on its own as a narrative, something that would still be compelling even without hearing the music.

Otherwise my career would be over before it got started.

I hurried home and loaded up my 45. Not a pistol, a record player. There was only two ways to listen to pop music in 1970: radio or 45 RPM records.

I played the song over and over trying to find the heart that The Now Explosion’s young audience could identify with. To me, it was about the loss of the first true love of your life, and the devastating heartbreak when that person rejects you.

I had two things going for me. I knew the perfect location: a winding country road not far away, and I knew who I wanted to be in the film: Alva Sanders.

Tight close up of Alva Sanders as she appears in The Long and Winding Road

Tight close up of Alva Sanders as she appears in The Long and Winding Road

I had worked with Alva on a short experimental film a few months earlier. She was lanky with long black hair, pretty, and had a graceful way of moving. When I called Alva, I didn’t ask her if she wanted to be in the film; I told her she was going to be in it and that I’d pick her up at 4:30 the following morning. She was quiet for a moment then simply said, “Okay.”

We arrived at a field of wildflowers near the country road location a half-hour before sunup on Friday morning, twelve hours before my deadline. It was late March, chilly and a little misty. Alva was wearing a thin shirt and bell-bottoms, and was shivering.

The first shot was a dreamy long lens angle of her running out of the rising sun toward the camera in slow motion. I positioned her and the camera directly in line with the sun. I asked her to tie her shirt up leaving her belly bare, a popular look of the time. Good thing 16mm is not high resolution enough to show goosebumps.

This became the iconic shot from The Long and Winding Road. The morning sun and Alva did all the work. I just turned the camera on.

This became the iconic shot from The Long and Winding Road. The morning sun and Alva did all the work. I just turned the camera on.

When the sun was above the horizon, I cued Alva and she started running, her long hair flying out beautifully. We got it in one take. We continued working through the shots depending on sun position. The scenes of the road itself we shot last because I needed the sun higher.

Alva didn’t just strike a pose and look pretty. We had talked on the drive that morning about what I was trying to accomplish. She listened quietly, asked a few questions. When I started rolling film, especially for the close ups, she was clearly channeling something inside and it comes across in the footage.

By 10:30 we were finished and drove back to her house. Her mother made lunch for us then we shot the scenes of her at the window. I had no artificial lights so had to rely on the natural light coming through the window. Fine with me. I wanted her to be almost in silhouette.

I was worried whether Alva could shed real tears for the camera and was ready to use artificial ones if needed. No problem. When I started rolling film, tears streamed down her cheek, but she didn’t over-emote, just stared out the window, the pain and sadness in her eyes appearing honest and real.

I grabbed a few more shots in downtown Atlanta, took the film to the lab, and an hour later was pulling into Ch. 36 on Briarcliff Road, the Now Explosion studios. My deadline was three hours away. The producer showed me to a closet-sized editing room and within minutes, film was flying.

16mm editing station very similar to the one I used to edit The Long and Winding Road. The equipment shown is exactly the same.

16mm editing station very similar to the one I used to edit The Long and Winding Road. The equipment shown is exactly the same.

As stated before, when the show’s creator Bob Whitney saw my finished film, his response was hardly enthusiastic. I also explained why.

I was devastated. I’d had my shot at my dream and blew it. I went home very morose and consoled myself that it would be run at least once or twice over the weekend. Come Monday I’d start looking for another job.

The show was broadcast “live” at the time with audience members calling in their requests – just like Top-40 radio. The DJs chucked and jived with them while a technician cued the videotape.

An hour or so into the broadcast I heard DJ Skinny Bobby Harper say, “And here’s a new one by the Beatles, The Long and Winding Road.” There it was on TV. My film. I just stood there and watched with mouth open.

Then something remarkable happened. The Long and Winding Road started running over and over again. It became the most requested film ever shown on The Now Explosion. The producer called the following day, told me I had the job and to report to work Monday morning.

That was 44 years ago. I still get emails today from people telling me how much the film touched them and how it has lingered in their memories for decades.

Blows my mind.

Not bad for a day’s work.

Thank you Impakter and Michele Bonanno for allowing me to contribute to your fine ezine.