It never fails that whenever I am looking for places in Burbank, I get lost. I forgot to look up the video transfer house on the internet so I could get thelocation map and directions. Plus, I was driving in Burbank.
I was looking for this specialty house that could take old, half inch reel-to-reel video tapes like the ones I had recorded almost forty years ago in New York and transfer them to a more permanent, up to date format, as in digital. Although I am now hearing from experts that even digital formats, DVDs, and CDs may not last. It could all be a dream that goes up in smoke when we all die and may not last as long as paper.
I was asked to show the old tapes of the Native American Sundance I had recorded in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, back in 1972 and had shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
At that time I ran a studio called “Video New York.” I was a “video artist” and supported by the New York State Council on the Arts. Our little group was located at an old church that doubled as an arts and media center called “The Space for Innovative Arts.” The sponsor was a rich king of women’s beauty products named Sam Rubin. Sam never put his face in in to our three-story house of dance, acting, and video arts. At least I never saw him there. It was left in his wife, Sema’s hands, her beautiful face, and in the hands of people the Rubin hired, like myself and the managing director, Maurice Tuchman.
“Space,” as we called it, was a fabulous deal. I ran my own video studio, which owned a number of portable video cameras known at that time, in the late 60s, as Sony Porta Pak’s. We also had editing equipment and a small contingency of lights. Plus, we actually had a budget and could pay ourselves a weekly salary. I hired my soon-to-be wife Laura Weisbord, niece of Sam Weisbord, the late William Morris agent and CEO as my assistant and office manager. We got married while we worked there. That is a whole other story of our marriage and love affair. For now, I just want to talk about getting my first grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts.
Prior to coming to Hollywood, I actually had no idea who Laura’s agent uncle was and it might not have mattered to me. Then again, it might have at least impressed me, as I had been around show business and acting on TV since I was a teen and was certainly aware of the power of the WilliamMorrisAgency. As one famous comic said, “If your agent was William Morris and they told you there was no work for you, you knew that there was no work for you in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong.”
In those days, video artists in New York, like me, and just a handful of others were in our own special world. We were these little mini-studios. We made our own material and products and distributed our own work, “short films,” in the form of half inch reel-to-reel video tapes. Where did we show these videos? All over New York and at showings around the country and in Canada, South America and Europe. It was truly a special time and era. We could create what we liked — little dramas, mini-documentaries of any event, and video installations – or capture moments we saw fit to record in our wonderings and travels and then edit them down or even leave it long and unedited, which is what I did with the Native American Sundance at Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota that I had showed at MOMA. It was a lot of fun. You felt powerful and rich, even though most of us were neither. Some young artists did have family money but still asked their parents or some board of directors for money to buy a portable video recorder in 1965, which seemed like asking to buy a ticket on a rocket to land on the moon.
Gaining a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts was not an easy thing to accomplish. Especially for a college dropout from Queens whose mother was a telephone operator and whose father was a waiter. True, dad worked at one of America’s top nightclubs, the Copacabana — but a State Council grant was still a stretch. One would think that grants were for the poor, but you really had to have some kind of a hook, some connection to the un-poor elite, or be a non-profit entity to get one. Even the influence of a brilliant young woman from New York’s Jewish Alps, the Catskills, who had a little bit of wealth from her family, who owned one of New York State’s biggest laundries, which serviced the hotels of Sullivan County, was no help when it came down to which artist or group of artists got the recognition and the money from the State Council on the Arts. Yes, the money was what everybody wanted and needed. Like eating a bag of Lay’s potato chips, “You can’t just eat one.” You need one after the other – hoping the bag is never going to empty. Once you got one grant, well then you could hopefully to get one every year. Or would the council admit it was wrong the first time? Not usually.
When it became known that the Arts Council was first planning to give out money to anyone with a Sony Porta Pak recorder who was willing to say they knew how to use it, the “video artists” came out of the woods of Central Park and the communal lofts of Soho.
The first day I went to apply for a grant and had wormed my way into a meeting at the council, New York African American video artists were marching up and down in front of the Arts Council offices on 57th street. That was when I began to find out that almost everyone asking for a grant had some hook, some power elite connection going for them, either the weight of a near riot, or as one fellow I met, an uncle who was once the “Comptroller of New York State.” Whether that helped him or not I don’t actually know. It certainly didn’t hurt.
After that first meeting, I was not being invited back to any more of the “video artist” meetings. My phone calls were not responded to. I heard meetings were taking place and I was not informed they even took place.
When I called the man to call at the Arts Council and asked for Russell Connors, I was informed by his assistant secretary that I probably did not stand a chance of getting a grant but that I could possibly get one if I found an umbrella group to sponsor me. It looked hopeless to me. I had to go to one of these defensive and protective artists and ask to share in his or her grant. Fat chance. I paced the floor at night and worried. I was officially out of the loop. I owned no equipment and needed my own to make any videos at all.
Then I remembered where the grants were coming from, at least partially, through the gratis of the Rockefeller Foundation and certainly under the influence of the then Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller.
Governor Nelson Rockefeller once told me, in person that if I ever needed any help, to give him a call – to tell him, “I need help.” Really? Most politicians say things like that to people, but do they ever really help? I thought I had nothing to lose by writing him a letter and asking.
By the way, I never considered myself a video “artist;” I just always loved to shoot video. I shot film for years before that. I grew up next to a professional photographer, an artist – professional performer Rene Von Muchow. He was part of a famous variety show act called “Renald and Rudi”, two handsome German acrobats. They traveled the world, and during Rene’s off time, he did photography while little seven year old me watched. We worked in a darkroom for hours and I watched the wonder of photos come to life amidst the acrid smelling liquid. There were pictures of me on the roof of our building at 867 Amsterdam Avenue, between 103rd street and 102nd street. At the time, my baby feet held high in Rene’s hands, me standing tall, confident, as Rudi held Rene high off the ground. I seemed fearless, staring down at the black tar roof that doubled as everyone’s beach in the summertime. We are talking about 1950, when life seemed full of adventure and I had no idea I was poor.
Years prior to this “video arts work” and prior to being drafted into the U.S. Army and serving a year in Vietnam, I had worked for the National Broadcasting Company at Rockefeller Center as an NBC Page. I had that job when I attended the AmericanAcademy of Dramatic Arts. It paid well for those days, $2.50 an hour, and if you were a student you could select the hours you worked.
That happened because I lucked out in getting a job in the NBC mailroom right after a stint at the Summer Stock Company in New London, New Hampshire. Most hire-ons in the mailroom and the NBC Page Staff were college graduates with degrees in journalism, communications, or broadcasting. I had none of the above and was just out of high school and doing my first year at AADA. But I had made a “keen observation” of the Human Resources interviewer’s upturned shirt collar and he thought that I was so nifty that he hired me. I didn’t think it was such a big deal myself, at least not enough to get me the job. But it did. I saw him often as I learned the NBC mail route and delivered the daily mail from office to office.
I lucked out again when the NBC mailroom chief made me NBC President Robert Sarnoff’s “special messenger.” Robert was the son of the Chairman of the Board, founder of RCA and NBC, David Sarnoff. My job was to sit in a chair under a little red light and when that red light lit up, I was to run up these private back steps that lead directly to the reception area of Sarnoff’s office. At the top of the staircase was a reception desk and a beautiful little doll of a girl from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Debbie, who would usher me into Mr. Sarnoff’s large outer office. In the office stood Sarnoff’s six foot tall executive secretary. Her thick, gray hair was short and looked like a man’s. She was a huge woman who always wore short, low-heeled shoes with her gray skirts and suit jackets. She would greet me with the manor of a drill instructor, inspecting me up and down — looking to see if I was dressed neatly, shoes shined and if my hands and fingernails were clean and neat. This routine got me into using the fancy men’s barbershop on the lower level of RockefellerCenter, where in those days, I surprisingly could afford to get a manicure and haircut. Pretty cool for a kid just out of high school. But then I could go to the Copacabana when I felt like it too, and that I surely could not afford.
Besides bringing her the mail a number of times a day, Madam Secretary would often send me on some errand for President Sarnoff. I hated it when she would tell me to use his limousine to pick up something like a valuable piece of art or deliver an expensive gift to somebody important, because then I would have to walk out of 30 Rock and head to the limousine garage over on 48th street. This was a tough chore, for I had to find and then usually extract Ralph, the president’s driver, from his usually early morning card game.
In those days, all the drivers were black and they all seemed to be big, tough looking men. They sat in a room filled with smoke above the first level of the garage on 48th street, all in black pants, white shirts, and black ties, black suspenders; their black suit jackets hung on the backs of their chairs. If Ralph was winning, he did not want to leave, and if he was losing he was pissed off. He’d see me enter the room from below. I was blinded by the huge collection of cigar and cigarette smoke. The large table and dozen or so chauffeurs glowed in their clean white shirts under the bright light that hung above the card table.
“Oh no! What the hell do you want?” Ralph knew why I was there the moment he saw my white face enter the room. Not to play cards, for sure. I would have to bug him if he dallied. He’d show off and tell me to “Shut the fuck up, kid!” I took it because we both knew that all I had to do was go back to the bosses executive secretary and say, “Ralph couldn’t come because he was playing poker with the rest of the 30 Rock chauffeurs.” Then a million tons of crap would hit the fan. It might even make the gossip columns. In short enough time Ralph would end his hand, put on his black chauffer’s jacket and we’d head downstairs and call up the limo. “Where we going, kid?” I liked Ralph and he liked me. I am sure I was a lot cooler than most of the people he dealt with, other messengers and all. I always rode up front with him as we’d head uptown to Mr. Sarnoff’s Park Avenue apartment, or wherever else the errand was taking us.
When school started in the fall of ’62 I could no longer work in the mailroom and asked if I could be switched to the NBC Page Staff. The lounge and the locker rooms for the Pages and female Guidettes were on the second floor, supervised and watched over by Curtis Harris, a handsome, polite southern gentleman, and not obviously gay, who never hit on any of the handsome Pages, as far as I knew. A man I miss to this day. He had the greatest friends – from Tallulah Bankhead to actor George Maharis of Route 66 TV show fame. Curtis Harris was very cool and thought I was bright and capable. I did score very high on the Page Staff Test you take to become a Page. I already knew all the executives’ faces, all the important phone extensions and offices by rote, having done my year in the mailroom. But he was still impressed with my 98 score. A lateral move in the same pay grade was not usually done at NBC, I was told. However, since I had won a scholarship back to AADA, they allowed the move to happen so I could work the staggered hours that were common on the Page Staff instead of the nine to five schedule of the mailroom. NBC was a great company in those days. You had full medical coverage from the first day you worked there. Amazing.
I heard a few years later, when I no longer worked at NBC, Curtis went back home to South Carolina on vacation and was murdered. Shot dead. Probably because of his gayness, I thought, but I was never really sure.
The Pages and Guidettes had to look sharp, like soldiers on guard. I even wore solid gold cuff links, a Christmas gift from the Perry Como Show. We had our own head of laundry and dry cleaning, a very well dressed and sharp looking Irish man, John Connolly. He retired, I heard, from the New York Court system, where he had been a bailiff or the like. My Uncle Marty ran an elevator in the main city courthouse downtown and he knew this Mr. Connolly by name. John had a diamond pinky ring, wore 500 dollar suits and could give a damn less about the laundry. Never touched the stuff. On occasion he might hand a Page a clean starched shirt — but rarely. There was always another guy who really took care of our laundry and dry cleaning. It usually was this light-skinned black guy who spoke little English or sometimes a Page who worked the two jobs.
The girl tour guides handed their uniforms through a little two-way door in the wall over John’s desk. If you stuck your head through you could see right down a row of lockers and catch one of the cuties in a slip. They would giggle and never seemed to mind. There was this unwritten kind of mutual respect between the Guidettes and the Pages. Of course, in a few years there would be female Pages and male Guides, but in my day, in the early 60s, it was still segregated. I learned a surprising fact from working on a morning radio show with radio producer Mike Klepper — that NBC still used a blacklist. Persons tainted by the communist witch hunt of the previous decade in the 50s, such as stage actor Zero Mostel, were still being banned from radio talk shows in 1962 — and I thought that NBC was kind of liberal.
Our Page Quartermaster John Connolly’s phone was always ringing and many times John was not around. So on a few occasions I picked up the receiver to stop the insistent ringing. No voicemail in those days. You could ring a phone for hours. I was always surprised to hear an official sounding woman’s voice on the other end saying something like, “Hi, this is Chet Huntley’s office. Could you have John call us?” Or, “This is vice-President’s Crawford’s office. Have John call us.” I’m thinking these people get their shirts done? John sends their suits out to be pressed? Not very likely. I have never seen anything but dark black Page uniforms and light blue Guidettes uniforms on the racks. One jovial moment, at some birthday toast or the like, I was dumb enough to ask John about the calls. Checking his money-clip, he blew me off with a grin. “Yeah, I do their laundry, kid. What else?”
Well, I did have others sources. I asked my Uncle Marty, who as I said, knew Mr. Connolly, the ex-bailiff, but never said a word to me until I asked. “Oh, don’t you know?” Uncle Marty said, “John gets all those important executives and TV people out of doing jury duty.”
Now John and his strange phone calls made perfect sense to me. New York has its insulated secret ways. Politically Correct was unheard of and it all seemed to work fine. I never told anybody. I would learn to use the system myself soon enough.
The most crowded I ever saw the Page lounge and locker room was the day that President Kennedy said he was sending troops to Florida so that they could possibly invade Cuba to institute a blockade of the Russian ships coming with missiles to Cuba and that he was prepared to go to nuclear war unless the Ruskies and Cubans removed the missiles already on the Island. Lordy, not a smart word was spoken by all those smart-assed communications grads working on the Page Staff. We were all scared to death. A real war meant we would all be switching uniforms. No more double-breasted blazers with an NBC colored peacock on our breast pocket. Army green would be our colors.
The Russians blinked and the Pages and Guidettes could think about our careers once more with no nuclear war on the immediate horizon. The Pages had loads of parties. It was a good scene. I cannot however, remember sleeping with any Guidettes, although I did date a few. The female NBC tour guides were all gorgeous, as were the Rockettes across the street. I loved dating the dancers. The Rockettes went to lunch with a ton of make-up on their faces and could sneak you into Radio City Musical Hall to see the shows when we were on our long afternoon breaks between NBC shows.
One quiet Sunday morning I was alone on stand-by in the Page lounge reading a magazine with the ever-present TV tuned to NBC. Production-wise all that was happening at the time was an interview show with Martin Agronsky up in studio 3B. They needed no NBC Pages.
Curtis Harris walked into the Page lounge, saw I was the only one dressed and ready to work, and motioned for me to follow him. “Cavestani,” he said, “you will be going downstairs with me. To that special and secret elevator we have in the sub-basement. You know it?” I did know it because that summer I did a few weeks replacement work for the morning disk jockey and funny man, Big Wilson. My job was to monitor traffic reports from radio stations CBS, ABC, and WOR that had traffic helicopters, copy their traffic reports and hand them to Big Wilson (famous Disney CEO Michael Eisner had the same job the summer before me). The other part of the job was to go down to the coffee shop in the inner depths and lower streets of 30 Rock for our morning hit of java and Danishes at 5:00 am. There were more than five sub-basements and a number of semi-secret elevators to the studios. Limos could drive right up to these selected elevators. The last time I rode a guest up in one it was a very nervous Peter Lorre. I literally had to hold his hand as I escorted him from the rear elevators and through a waiting throng of Tonight Show fans. “Get me out of here please!” he squeaked in that famous voice of his. I almost laughed, but I had a job to do, so I grabbed his shaking hand once more and pulled him past the screaming crowed and got him to the Tonight Show elevator that was being held for him.
Curtis seemed particularly serious that Sunday morning. “Come with me. You will meet Governor Rockefeller and his security. Take them to make-up on 3B. Stay with him until he leaves. And mind your manners. Don’t be given’ him your acting resume or whatever. Got it?” I did. After he introduced me to the governor, Page Supervisor Curtis was taking off the rest of the day that Sunday and left the building.
I stood near the governor’s security and watched the show. It was a uneventful day, except the interview seemed to go on forever. On top of that, the governor and Martin Agronsky did not seem to get along. After the taping, Rockefeller was steamed. He accused Martin of not closing quotes on some comment he had attributed to the governor and Rockefeller wanted to do the whole show over again, or at least that whole section. This was exactly what they did.
Much later, I walked the governor back to the make-up room. It was locked solid. The make-up people were long gone. “I am not going out like this,” the governor said while looking at me with dried make-up obviously on his face. His security guard was close mouthed. “I studied make-up, sir. I can take that off you,” I said confidently. AADA gave a make-up class which I liked and got an “A” in.
“You can? That’s fine with me. Let’s do it.” I suggested to his security that we use the very large and well-adorned men’s room on the third floor. NBC was designed in the late 20s and had huge marble and tiled restrooms that had strong, long mirrored marbled sinks you could actually sit on. This is what I did with the governor of the EmpireState, his security politely waiting outside after checking the empty restroom. Sunday afternoons, the NBC and the RCA building were practically empty of staff.
As I took the makeup off Nelson Rockefeller’s face, we talked. He started it. “What are your plans, son? What do you want to be?” Now, old Curtis warned me but I was not stupid. This was not a resume; I was just answering a question. The governor had just lost a son, listed as missing in the South Pacific near New Guinea, Michael Rockefeller, an explorer and anthropologist. It was believed that he was killed by a tribe of cannibals after his boat overturned. His body was never found but many years later a skull thought to be his was discovered.
Michael’s collection of vibrant woodcarvings and photographs and shrunken heads that he had brought back over the years from the Asmat tribe were on display a few blocks from NBC and RockefellerCenter and around the corner from MOMA on 54th Street. I, for some strange reason, knew about Michael Rockefeller’s exhibit and had gone over to see the Asmat native art on a recent lunch break. Well that really kicked off the conversation. The governor was impressed that I had done that (the other bizarre ironic fact is that years later on that same 54th street — and I believe not far from that same building that held Michael Rockefeller’s exhibit — was the building in which the Governor had a heart attack and died while he supposedly was making love to his mistress). We peed together, like men sometimes do, washed our hands and headed for the elevators – the normal ones in the center of NBC.
As the sun set over the Hudson and we got to the governor’s car, now parked down on 50th street and out that famous NBC doorway and he turned to his man and said that “If this young man, Mr. Cavestani here, ever contacts us or needs help. I want you to take care of him.” “Yes sir,” was the reply. The governor shook my hand and got into his car. I thought to myself, well that is what people like governors and mayors say to people. Besides, I will never need to call him for help.
Needing help, eight years later, I wrote a letter to Governor Nelson Rockefeller about my situation and how I needed a grant to carry on my video work and how I was being dismissed by others who seemed to have political clout which I did not have. I was sure to mention that he had told me to ask him for his help if I ever needed it; as well as remembering the fine conversation we had about his son Michael.
Soon after I mailed the letter, Russell Connors’ assistant at the Arts Council called to tell me I was invited to an upcoming meeting as an independent artist. Not a word said about any letter to the governor. Actually, I had not heard back from the governor’s office since I had wrote to him and figured that was that.
When I arrived at the Arts Council meeting, the office was full. Video grants were a new entity to the Arts Council and people were literally elbowing for attention in the room. Artists were crowded — sitting and standing around a long table. I still felt like the low-man on the totem pole. Not one of these “liberal artists” looked at me and I only knew a few of the faces from the downtown video scene. I saw no place to sit and stood off to one side. Russell Connors approached me and ushered me into a back room full of chest-high black filing cabinets.
Russell leaned one arm on a file cabinet and looked me in the eye and leaned in. His face was uncomfortably close to mine. He spoke almost in a whisper. It all seemed odd and a bit scary to me. I took a moment and noticed he was nervous. I could say he looked scared. “Frank, I heard from the governor’s office. I didn’t know you knew him personally. They’re concerned about you. We did not mean to hurt your feelings in any way.” He spoke softly. His voice was quivering. I felt bad for him. “I can assure you, you will get a grant. We’ll find you an umbrella group for you. Alright?”
He was really asking. “Sure, that’s great,” I answered. He looked absolutely frightened. I didn’t want him to have trouble. He motioned me back outside. I knew I shouldn’t say anything to the others. Then he asked once more before he opened the door, his hand on the doorknob. “Everything is okay now. Right Frank?” It was as if he was asking me, “Can I keep my job?”
“Everything is fine,” I said. “Thank you.” I went outside and found a seat. The meeting droned on and I sat there knowing I would get a grant to do video for sure. I guess some politicians do keep their word. I’d just gotten a serious education in how things could work.
Governor Rockefeller was about to run for President for the 4th time. He was a moderate, he loved and supported art. I thought maybe I would vote Republican, this one time. I was a Democrat. But hey, it’s a free country. I mean actually I never could vote Republican; I always felt there was some link missing in their gene pools. How could they be against child labor laws? I was not even political until I returned from the Vietnam War anyway. Then I was outraged.
However, Rockefeller never ran for office again and the riots at Attica prison happened. I felt strongly that he had overreacted by sending in the State Police shooting and killing prisoners and guards alike to show he was not weak on crime. I thought he had made the wrong choice for political reasons. Nevertheless, I did like him as a person. I felt I knew him. We were buds right? Well, we did pee together.