Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Jack Schaefer & Harmon School (Back in the Day), 3

Okay, so we're back in the early 1970s. Harmon (Middle) School. Aurora, Ohio. I'm teaching seventh graders at the time. And I've been writing here about teaching about Westerns in my class.

As I've written in my two earlier posts on this subject, I'd loved Westerns since boyhood, and this class at Harmon allowed me to indulge my affections (vices?) like an addict. I showed Shane (kids wrote about it; we discussed it); kids read Western novels (of their choice--some read Shane; others, True Grit or The Cowboys or others); we talked about the whole idea of the Western in American popular culture.

This unit of study also re-ignited my interest in Billy the Kid, an interest that would effloresce so abundantly later on that some Harmon kids and I would write a musical comedy, Billy the Kid, which we twice performed at Harmon School, once in the spring of 1979 (when I was no longer at the school--I had taken a position at Lake Forest College; four years later I would return to Harmon and retire there in January 1997), another time in November 1984. I would go on to collect Billy-abilia, visit the "shrines" in New Mexico, and deliver at Western Reserve Academy a multi-media talk on the Kid in ... 1980? 1981?

At Harmon, my Billy-phase was in the early stages of its resurrection. I had the kids watch Arthur Penn's film about the Kid, The Left Handed Gun (1958), a film that featured the young Paul Newman as the Kid (link to trailer for the film).

this poster adorned my
classroom walls for years
The film was based on an earlier TV play by the young Gore Vidal--The Death of Billy the Kid, a script which I found in a Vidal collection and duplicated to read with my students. It had originally appeared on The Philco Television Playhouse, July 24, 1955, an era when TV regularly offered live dramatic productions. Paul Newman had played the Kid in that production, as well, and some of the other cast members would return for the film, too.

Vidal lost any voice in the film, though, when producer Fred Coe rejected his screenplay and replaced him with Leslie Stevens. (Vidal was not happy: It was he who had brought Newman into the project.) You can get some more details about this in Jay Parini's recent fine biography of Vidal--Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.

Director Arthur Penn would go on to do Bonnie and Clyde (1967), altering the face of American films (and putting his career into Skyrocket mode). Vidal would go on to write bestsellers. And then in 1989 appeared Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, a TV movie with Val Kilmer in the title role. (Link to trailer.) You can see the entire film on YouTube, by the way.

I should add that the films I showed were films--16mm prints that we ran on those big old reel-to-reel projectors that would occasionally lock up and melt a frame or two (occasioning, always, cheers from the students). No cheap VHS for us! No wimpy video computer files!

Well, my Western phase eventually slowed and died. Times changed. I got interested in The Call of the Wild and The Diary of Anne Frank and Shakespeare, and other writers and texts.

But while I was still lost in the sagebrush, I read another novel by Jack Schaefer (Cleveland-born author of Shane)--Monte Walsh (1963), a novel that begins with this: A boy and his horse. And there was a (not very good) film in 1970 with Lee Marvin ... and (once again!) Jack Palance.

Well, yes ...

my beat-up copy
from the 1970s

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