We lost another pioneer this week with the death of Gary Austin. When The Committee started its run at The Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles, Gary joined the cast in San Francisco under the direction of Del Close, and he was part of the company when it made its early breakthroughs in longform improvisational theater. Austin continued on with The Committee with various ensembles under various directors, evidently soaking up everything he quickly learned. It’s hard to imagine that The Committee’s cultural influence would be so widespread without Austin to evangelize their work. The Groundlings, which Austin founded in 1974, became a force in comedy that for years was matched only by The Second City in the talent that it attracted and nurtured. As a teacher of acting for forty years, Austin helped players bring their full selves to the stage and to play at the top of their intelligence. Thanks, Gary, for your commitment to elevating the art form and for your life of service.
pictured: Gary Austin
This month we’ve made a lot of progress: we located and secured an amazing trove of rare Committee-related photos and just this weekend wrapped up two more interviews, with Howard Hesseman aka Don Sturdy and Gary Austin.
Howard, of course, was an important member of The Committee’s ensemble – his work was captured both in The Committee’s feature A Session With The Committee and in numerous late night television appearances, from Dick Cavett to The Midnight Special. With a limited window of time available to us (many thanks to IO West for allowing us the use of the Del Close Theater on short notice), Howard was concise, comprehensive, and hilarious. We discussed Howard’s introduction to The Committee, the birth of “Don Sturdy”, seminal Committee sketches such as “Acid” and “20,000 Came Home”, the ABC/”Music Scene” deal and its fallout on the company, and the influence The Committee’s cast played on “WKRP in Cincinnati”.
Pictured: Justin Chin (DP), Sam Shaw (Co-Writer, Co-Director), Howard Hesseman, Jamie Wright (Co-Writer, Co-Director)
On Sunday we met with Gary Austin, Committee castmember and founder of the The Groundlings. The Committee introduced Gary to improvisation and the pioneering work of Viola Spolin, and he carried this influence through The Groundlings to help shape generations of performers, scores of whom have swelled the ranks of Saturday Night Live.
Gary traced for us the path he took from Committee stage manager to performer, and helped us paint a picture of Committee performer Chris Ross, an improvisational genius who died from a drug overdose at the age of 25.
While we plan on another trip to LA in early 2016, we’re starting the winter in the editing room. Stay tuned.
There are two separate strands of inquiry that lead us to this trunk.
The first was inspired by Larry Hankin’s reference to a Tarot Card deck that featured members of The Committee. He couldn’t remember the name of the photographer. We chased this around for a while, but hit dead-ends and abandoned the search.
Our second, more direct, route was revealed via the tapes that we received from John Brent’s son Jeremy Paz. These tapes consisted of recorded interviews conducted by Peter Elbling in 1985 with members of The Committee, in remembrance of John Brent, who died that year.
Elbling’s interview with Howard Hesseman shed light on a production company that Howard ran with photographer Jerry Wainwright in 1970-71. Dubbed “Narcissistic Purposes Productions”, the company’s output included a series of theatrical still-lifes, featuring Committee members, that were used as artwork for the theater lobby. (We already had an example of this work on-hand: an 8×10 image of John Brent as mad scientist Dr. Servo de la Lune which was provided to us by Ruth Silveira. For some time we mistakenly took this image as an ad for a John Brent solo performance. This link from a year ago also shows how off the mark we were.)
Jerry Wainwright (1926-1997) was a prolific photographer who documented The Committee extensively. Wainwright later helped to bring to life the ethnic/hippie fashions trends of the day with his and Alexandra Jacopetti Hart’s book Native Funk and Flash.
To make a long story short, after a great visit with Jerry’s widow Ann, we left with the trunk pictured above.
Ann has entrusted us with a significant piece of history.
The trunk holds an overwhelming amount of negatives, a few printed photographs, a few contact sheets here and there. All are from the late 1960s/early 1970s.
Most of the negatives are 35mm, in paper sleeves. A few negatives are 4×5, and one appears to by 7×9. After crudely separating Committee-related material from his other work, here are some highlights.
- 19 4×5 negatives of Narcissistic Purposes stills, featuring Don Sturdy, John Brent, Ruth Silviera, Gary Austin, Julie Payne, Morgan Upton, Alan Myerson, and many more. The stills read like silent movie posters, with titles, loglines, etc. These are from 1970. (example)
- The Tarot Card photo series, featuring members of The Committee.
- studio portraits of John Brent, Larry Hankin, Morgan Upton, Ruth Silveira, Diann Hendrickson from the early ’70s.
- Action shots of The Committee 1983 reunion/Bread and Roses benefit.
- Action shots of The Committee at 622 Broadway
- Country Joe and the Fish photographs, including Narcissistic Purposes Productions album cover
- Congress of Wonders photos.
- fashion photography
We took the Narcissistic Purposes negatives to the lab to be scanned immediately.
For the archive, our priority to make sure the material is safely stored (smaller boxes, new sleeves). We are determining the cost of developing the Committee-related negatives to contact sheets, but will soon start developing the material that intrigues most.
We intend to work closely with Ann and Wainwrights’ estate as we move forward to make use of the treasures in this trunk. If you have question or tips email firstname.lastname@example.org.