• Space is the Place. So was a rooftop in West Philly
• An Introduction to filmmaking in the 1970’s.
• Behind the scenes of Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise
Picking up a part-time gig here and there was a part of my budding career in radio in the 1970’s. The pay for newscasters at the local level was okay, but augmenting it was always a good idea. For example, a radio colleague at WIOT-FM in Toledo in the early Seventies, Neil Lasher, once gave me a chance to work on a cable broadcast of a University of Michigan football game. He’d worked in Ann Arbor and had a connection to the local public access channel which somehow had rights to Wolverine games in addition to whatever national broadcaster had the game.
I was given a headset and sent to the roof of the press box at the Big House, then the largest college stadium with a hundred thousand seats. I was a spotter. I was supposed to tip off the director to any “color” I saw along the sidelines or in the student section . . . an inebriated undergrad being passed around the stands, crowd-surfing style, for instance. I did not spot a single thing worth focusing on, but I enjoyed a one-sided victory by Michigan from a dizzying height. Actually, I don’t think I earned a cent that afternoon, beyond free admission, which was fine by me.
I also didn’t earn anything when I agreed to help out a local Philadelphia filmmaker shoot a performance by Sun Ra and his Arkestra (a jazz composer and ensemble whose work was rooted in the cosmos) on a rooftop in West Philly – another “dizzying height” gig. The temperature, not the altitude, was the problem that day. Bob Mugge, the director, remembers it at “about 120 degrees,” and that’s not much of an exaggeration.
I had met Bob when I reported on his 1978 film, Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo. As he went on to become one of America’s most highly-regarded documentary filmmakers, training his camera on the likes of Sonny Rollins, Al Green, Gil Scott-Heron, Ruben Blades and a host of other artists and musical forms, we stayed friends. And I reported on several of his projects when I got to CNN.
What follows is a result of our professional and personal friendship. For my recent milestone birthday, Bob pulled together lots of old footage for a video tribute. This clip shows how I wound up being an unintentional on-screen part of the Sun Ra film:
I didn’t earn anything that day – much less any “residuals” — because I was volunteering, as were most crew members — and investors who believed in Bob. One of them was the guy I was assisting by carrying a battery belt, cameraman Larry McConkey. He became one of the first operators of the Steadicam (invented by Philadelphian Garrett Brown) and you’ve seen his work on so many of the greatest films and television series of our time.
(2020 marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise. It is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from MVD Entertainment.)
If you have a lot of time on your hands, here’s Bob’s birthday tribute to me in its entirety. (5:50)