Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, October 26, 2014

When I Met Vine Deloria ...

When I met and drew Vine Deloria, Jr., I had already read his book entitled We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf. His topic and his style had caught my attention. His introduction begins, “Every now and then I am impressed with the thinking of the non-Indian. I was in Cleveland last year and got to talking with a non-Indian about American history. He said that he was really sorry about what had happened to Indians, but that there was good reason for it. The continent had to be developed and he felt that Indians had stood in the way and thus had had to be removed. ‘After all,’ he remarked, ‘what did you do with the land when you had it?’ I didn’t understand him until later when I discovered that the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland is inflammable. So many combustible pollutants are dumped into the river that the inhabitants have to take special precautions during the summer to avoid accidentally setting it on fire. After reviewing the argument of my non-Indian friend I decided that he was probably correct. Whites had made better use of the land. How many Indians could have thought of creating an inflammable river?”

I had studied the many assertions in his book, including the need to cross the boundaries dividing fields of expertise so that issues can be seen clearly in all their dimensions, the way the country has often relied on a “war economy” so as to forestall “wholesale collapse of the social structure,” the fact that people have not yet understood “how groups relate to each other,” how membership in a tribe is similar to membership in a cooperative, ways of harnessing the tension between wisdom and new ideas, and what sovereignty really means and why it is so important. I knew that Deloria was a Hunkpapa Sioux with a law degree and that he championed the liberty of permitting Indians to pursue their own lifestyles and to interpret their own identities without cultural intervention.

With all my study, you would have thought I would have been smarter. I felt I was so in tune with Deloria’s book in particular and with Indians in general that I was not really an heir to the Indians’ enemies. Also, Deloria’s tone was so often imbued with sardonic humor that I thought he might say, “Alright. Enough is enough. Now that I’ve insulted you—which you royally deserved—let’s slap each other on the back and say what a good joke it was.”

Deloria stood at a podium before a large audience. I sat in the row directly in front of him, and I began to sketch his portrait. Meanwhile, I was listening to his speech. He said that non-Indians ruled through—and were ruled by—expensive technologies, one-sided commerce, and unfair control by banks and government offices. He talked at length about “otherness,” both real and imagined. The longer he spoke, the more uncomfortable I became.

I began to realize that, when he looked at me, he saw a non-Indian. I began to sense that he was not welcoming of what non-Indians had done and that he was under no obligation to be welcoming toward me. It began to dawn on me that he meant what he said.

My Portrait of Vine Deloria
As the themes of his presentation deepened, I found my portrait changing. My lines became harder and blacker. I added more and more lines. Usually when creating a portrait of a well-known figure, I tried to improve on the facial features, but, with Deloria, I became aware that I was drawing him exactly as he was: glasses slightly bent, hair unruly, collar askew, eyes seeing me as the non-Indian I am. It dawned on me that I was seeing him—Well, what do you know?—as the Indian he was.

There was to be no back slapping, no fraternity laugh, no college camaraderie. Deloria’s speech was an Indian speech. It was not another artificial lecture on a university campus. It was a significant, timely address with a real point of view and an important purpose.

The Deloria talk was the first time that I understood—on a gut level—cultural differences and just how patronizing I had been.

Only now, many years later, am I beginning to catch up with Deloria’s mind. Back when I drew him, he was light years beyond me. My portrait of him remains one of my favorites because I put on paper the man I saw before me, not the person I wanted him to be.   

Sunday, October 19, 2014

When I Met Harvey Phillips ...

When I went to college, I began by majoring in music with piano as my principal instrument. As we pianists were encouraged to gain as much experience as possible, I auditioned to become studio accompanist for the legendary Harvey Phillips, the patron saint of tuba performers worldwide.

I was in for a wild ride. Harvey was powerful but unpretentious. When you entered his presence, you came face to face with his colossal personality.

My Unfinished Sketch of Harvey Phillips
He was all business. He was all fun. Like others who have written about Harvey, I, too, was a guest at his famed Tuba Ranch in the countryside. Who could not feel at home there? I remember autumn evenings with bonfire sparks drifting toward the stars and with tubas and baritones playing old favorites. I, too, was there when the musicians donned Santa costumes for the Tuba Christmas honoring William Bell, Harvey’s mentor who had been born on Christmas back in 1902.

One of my first tasks as Harvey’s studio accompanist was to learn the piano scores to the tuba repertoire. Alec Wilder and Halsey Stevens became my daily companions. I was in and out of Recital Hall so often that it made my head swirl with visions of Effie the Elephant dancing like a dervish. Harvey was always there, in the back, applauding, encouraging, approving.

One day while we were waiting for a tuba student who was late, I started to draw a portrait of Harvey. I used a pencil and a plain sheet of typing paper. What a challenge! Harvey stared directly at me the whole time, and he kept up a conversation that required my participation. When I was looking at my drawing, I still felt Harvey’s eyes piercing my cranium. He had such stage presence—or just presence—yes, a monolithic presence—that I knew I was sketching an original, that rarest of rare individuals having extraordinary gifts.

The tardy tubist showed up, and I put away my drawing, which remains unfinished to this day. I don’t think I could have finished it. To try to squeeze the larger-than-life Harvey Phillips into a pencil sketch was like trying to balance a Miraphone contrabass on the head of a pin or attempting to force a monster King tuba into a piccolo case.

I will never forget a studio session when Harvey announced that a musician from Holland would be visiting. “You will accompany him on the Hindemith sonata. He’s coming in next week.”

Oh, really? So I had a whole week to familiarize myself with the entire piano accompaniment to the Paul Hindemith sonata for bass tuba! Oh, sure! Nothing to it!

I had heard other accompanists perform the piano score. No two sounded alike, especially when the seemingly endless runs of soft notes began tinkling toward the end. Many of them were faking those runs!

I spent hours and hours, all my free time, much of my sleeping time, drilling and drilling that sonata. It drove me nuts! I finally confessed to Harvey that I felt certain I could not perform the accompaniment.

“Why not?” Harvey asked with his trademark bluntness.

“Because the ending is too difficult. I don’t have enough time to prepare it, and I don’t want to fake it.”

“Let me hear part of it.”

I obliged.

Harvey stopped me. “What’s wrong with that?”

I just stared at him.

“You’ll do a fine job,” Harvey said, and he went back to work at his desk.

As I walked away from the music building, I started to laugh. I felt I was unable to awaken from a dream that could turn out well or that could take a nosedive into nightmare.

The performer arrived from the Netherlands. We rehearsed … once! That’s right. We played through the sonata only once in our practice session. Harvey nodded his approval, and the musician thanked me. That evening, the three of us met again in the hallway outside Recital Hall. The tuba player and I strode onstage to appreciative applause from a big audience.

Was I nervous? You bet! The whole scenario struck me as entirely absurd. I had been given only a week to prepare a difficult piece of music, and I had played through it only once—only once!—and now we were going to play this difficult piece in public. No one had said anything to me about how I could improve my part!

While the absurdity saturated my mind, I adjusted the piano bench, looked toward the performer, and began on his cue. Suddenly, I relaxed! I realized I wasn’t here to be perfect; I was here to accompany! I leaned into the opening and listened carefully to the tuba so as to support and blend and make music!

When I reached the daunting finale of the sonata, I faked nothing; instead, I was relaxed enough to follow the ups and downs of the rapid lines without confusion. The standing ovation was proof that the man with the tuba was a star and that I had done nothing to dim his brilliance.

And you know who was responsible for that? Harvey Phillips, who, from the beginning, had known exactly how everything would turn out.      

Sunday, October 12, 2014

When I Met Gene Roddenberry ...

When I learned that I would have the opportunity to sketch Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, I was overjoyed. I was a university student and a freelance artist tasked with the pleasant responsibility of drawing portraits of celebrities visiting the campus. My illustrations appeared in various newspapers and other publications. Roddenberry would be introducing a movie featuring bloopers from the wildly popular television series.

My First Sketch of Gene Roddenberry
Two of my fellow students and I met Roddenberry at the airport. On the automobile trip to the university, I got busy with my pad of paper and my pen. Roddenberry was difficult to draw. He was so animated that I had difficulty capturing the movements of his face. He smiled brilliantly and often. He tossed his head to laugh. He quickly turned to peer through a car window and rapidly spun back to speak to a student in the front seat. He would not hold still! I could see that I had my work cut out for me.

I tried not to pay attention to what he was saying, but his stories were so doggone funny that I could not resist being caught up in the aura of Roddenberry’s good nature. He shared anecdote after anecdote about the practical jokes that he played on his wife Majel, who was Nurse Chapel on the Enterprise, and the pranks she played on him as payback. Some were on the set; others, off.

In the seconds between stories, I kept thinking, “How do I put this guy on paper?” His face was too mobile, too protean. Well, I did a lousy job of it!

My first sketch, made during the hour-long journey to the campus, was so poor a representation of the countenance before me that I would not show it to Roddenberry until he had begged me repeatedly. When he finally viewed it, he laughed, “You got my double chin!”

Just prior to Roddenberry’s talk before a standing-room-only crowd, my brother, a true Trekkie, used fishing line to hang his model of the Enterprise from the podium where Roddenberry would stand. This was in the days before models were fancy, and my brother had rigged up custom LED lights that flashed around the starship. Nice!

Roddenberry had the audience in the palm of his hand, and the bloopers were uproarious.

After the show, Rodenberry invited his three student hosts to have dinner with him. We drove him to a plush restaurant. The server took his drink order then carded us students. I was the only one under the legal drinking age. She asked me to leave the restaurant. Roddenberry’s face fell.

“You mean he can’t have dinner with us?” Roddenberry asked.

“No, he has to leave,” the server replied.

“If he doesn’t have a drink, he can stay here. Right?” Roddenberry continued the line of questioning.

The server gave Roddenberry a stern look. “No, he has to leave,” she repeated.

“Do you know who I am?” Roddenberry inquired.

“No,” the server admitted.

“I’m Gene Roddenberry. Have you ever seen Star Trek?”

“Yes, I love it!” the server broke into a smile. “I recognize your name.”

“Then can he stay?” Roddenberry leaned forward.

“No, I’m sorry, Mr. Roddenberry. I’m afraid he has to leave. It’s the law.”

In a gesture of exasperation, Roddenberry thrust his hands outward and exclaimed, “But he’s my son!”

“Well, if he’s your son, then he can stay,” the server said.

I was dazzled! I don’t even remember what I ate, but I recall the evening as one of the most exciting and most amusing events of my life. I tried to sketch Roddenberry, but the subdued lighting made the task too difficult. Besides, I was having too good a time to work at an illustration. I never finished the sketch, but I can see that it was far better than the portrait that I did complete. Roddenberry’s mischief flashes in the merry eyes of the unfinished work!
Unfinished Mirthful Portrait of Gene Roddenberry by Robert T. Rhode
We students dropped off Roddenberry at his hotel. On our way back to the campus, we conspired. At midnight, we met again and headed back to Roddenberry’s hotel. As quiet as the proverbial church mice, we taped newspapers across his door, so that, when he would attempt to emerge in the morning, he would confront a wall of newsprint. He loved practical jokes, didn’t he?

The next morning, we were anxious to learn what he thought of our escapade. When we reached his door, there was no trace of the newspaper or tape. Roddenberry greeted us with the same radiant smile and happy-go-lucky demeanor that we had come to love about him.

We chauffeured him to the airport, said our goodbyes, and returned to the university. We were sad to see him go. A week or so later, we attended a regular meeting of the board that sponsored guest speakers. The college official that ran the meetings began by saying that he had wonderful surprises for us students. He then distributed Enterprise flight deck officer certificates to the three of us. Roddenberry had signed them personally and had sent them to the campus.

Next, the official looked slowly around the table at each of us before he said, “Mr. Roddenberry also mailed this.” He displayed a large envelope from which he withdrew a thick sheaf of newspaper with tell-tale pieces of tape protruding here and there. “He included this note, which explains that he discovered these newspapers attached to his door. He thought they might belong to you, and he thought you might want them back, as he had no use for them.”

We wanted to crawl under our chairs. We could hear Roddenberry’s distant laughter echoing. I still do.   

Sunday, October 5, 2014

When I Met Red Skelton (Almost) ...

I never met Red Skelton, although I waited near the doorway of his room and overheard what he said. While I was studying at the university, I worked as a freelance illustrator. Often, I stood at the elbows of celebrities and sketched their portraits while such stars of stage, screen, and television were on campus. When I learned that Skelton was to visit, I decided to create a drawing in advance of his arrival.

I had grown up watching Skelton on TV. Each member of my family had a favorite character that Skelton brought to life: Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader, and San Fernando Red were only a few of the portrayals that charmed us during the Red Skelton Hour on CBS. Skelton’s boyhood in Vincennes, Indiana, and his ingenuity at finding work at a terribly young age were the stuff of legend in my home. My mother told me that Skelton had performed in vaudeville and on showboats. As my mother explained, Skelton patiently worked his way up the entertainment ladder until he starred in Hollywood movies, but, across America, he was perhaps best known through his radio program. He became a beloved guest in country living rooms as he joked from radios surrounded by farm families, and city dwellers likewise laughed in appreciation of his antics. Skelton was adept at touching the heartstrings of unpretentious people everywhere.

My Caricature of Red Skelton
I spent a long time on my India ink caricature of Skelton. I wanted it to be perfect. When it was finished, I gave it a title in fine print: America’s Clown, Red Skelton. I could hardly wait to present my art to him.

In the late afternoon of the day when Skelton’s show was to be performed before a packed theater, his university host and I approached his room. I was told to wait in the hallway. The host, who was a staff member in charge of hospitality for noted visitors to the university, quietly knocked, and Skelton answered the door. Skelton was asked if he would be willing to meet with someone for a few minutes. I thought the question was far too vague. I was not just “someone.” I was a student and an artist with a caricature of Skelton in my hand. I peeked through the door. A dim lamp lit the room. Skelton was much taller than I had imagined he would be. I recall his square jaw and his hair waving up and back from the middle of his head. He was not smiling. He said he felt tired and he would prefer not to be interviewed. I think he had leapt to the false conclusion that I was a newspaper reporter. He never saw me standing just beyond his door. The host excused himself, and the door closed. I gave the staff member my drawing to give to Skelton later, and I attached a note that I hurriedly penned on a second sheet of drawing paper. I forget what I wrote, but I am confident that I told him how much I had enjoyed his television show over the years.

The performance that night was a vintage Skelton extravaganza from beginning to end! If he were still tired, he gave no indication of weariness! His energy was that of a teenager, and his friendliness reached across the footlights to every patron in the house.

While I walked back to my dormitory room that night, I wistfully thought that Skelton might never receive my art, but I had stood within a few feet of one of the greatest entertainers of all time.

Letter to Robert T. Rhode from Red Skelton
Imagine my surprise when I received a letter from Skelton a few days later! It was addressed simply to the Department of English. Skelton wrote, “Thank you, for share-ing you tatent with me. . Your work is indeed outstanding. The sketch is wonderful. I thank you, for your letter . too—I am sorry we did not meet but then there is alway’s another day. I will hang the sketch and with pride show it off. Thank you again. Always Red Skelton.” Best of all, the letter was decorated with a clown drawn by Skelton himself!

I think, when Skelton received my caricature, he remembered the knock on the
door and only then realized that a student, not a reporter, had wanted to see him, and I believe he felt genuinely sorry that he had missed meeting me. His letter certainly made me think so.

Clown Drawn by Red Skelton for Robert T. Rhode
While another day has not yet come for me to meet Skelton, there is always a day made in heaven, where, I say with considerable confidence, Skelton is making the winged angels roar with laughter at his portrayals of those hilarious seagulls, Gertrude and Heathcliff.