Kier Cline on the Making of “Welcome to Spivey’s Corner” and His Career as a Filmmaker
By Daniel W. Patterson
Kier Cline’s Email Letter, His Overview of Making the Film Thirty-Four Years Earlier:
“My first experience with the hollering thing was from Charles Kuralt when he was doing his Sunday morning show and it kind of stuck with me. I started looking around for similar events that really dealt with local culture and had the elements for a documentary film. I contacted several festivals and the first to respond was Spiveys Corner. So off I went ... a one man band armed with a 16mm camera, nagra SN recorder, shot gun mike and lots of film and tape. I met with the organizer of the event and he set me up with several old timers of hollering for interviews. I knew I was in for a good time just by the directions I got on how to get to their place … go down the road a mile and a half take a right go another mile and stop at JimBobs food and gas and ask him how to get to old Leonard’s place ... so on and so forth and I did get there and all three on-camera interviews were great, getting a lot more info than I expected. I just set my equipment up and let it roll. I was able to get a lot of good atmosphere shots going to and from the interviews. The guys I met and interviewed were all in their late 70's and 80's.
The actual hollering contest was more of a challenge than I anticipated ... the stage was a problem getting a good spot to shoot from because of all the news and other film outfits there, like IBMs Big Blue Marble crew, also from Chicago, which was good for me because I knew the sound engineer who helped me get some good sound thru his set-up. The hollering event started out in someone’s back yard and had grown to fill the high school football field. After the contest I hung around to get interviews with the contestants.
This was my first documentary on my own from start to finish. It was a moving experience to say the least.”
Information from a Telephone Interview with Keir Cline:
Kier Cline grew up in Kansas and says, “In college at Wichita I was in the Fine Arts program. I was doing paintings and drawings. They had a commercial part where you do art work for ads, but that didn’t really interest me.”
In the early 1970s, after graduation, Kier moved to Chicago and worked there for the Whitaker-Guernsey Studio. “I hired on as an apprentice artist, and I got to work in all the different departments there.” The company basically used graphic arts and still photography but did multimedia shows—sales films and marketing films—for several firms. “That’s where I got involved in multimedia and slide shows and then a little bit of film. And that’s when I checked out Columbia College in Chicago. They had a really good film department. All the instructors there were working in the industry. I got to know them really well, because I was so much older than all the rest of the kids there at Columbia. I had already graduated and been up and earned a living.” Kier was “twenty-six going on thirty.” He launched out on his own and did a good deal of work for Coronet Films, which produced widely used educational films. Kier was used to doing pre-production and casting, with a crew to do lighting and sound, and he enjoyed the work.
In 1978 he “got the bug” to do documentaries. He saw Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” program one Sunday morning when Kuralt featured Spivey’s Corner. “I thought that was cool, so I started doing some research on other festivals and sent out queries on local festivals. Spivey’s Corner was the first to respond.” So Kier went there as “a one-man-band” and spent a week. “I was just going on instinct,” he says. “Something happen, I’d just try and get it on film. A lot of it was just being at the right place at the right time.” Working without anyone assisting him, it was about all he could do “just to keep things rolling.” Luckily, a contact had shown him a new piece of technology, a Nagra SN recorder small enough to fit in a pocket. He carried it in a little case that he could hang on his tripod, hooking the sound up to his shotgun microphone. Like larger Nagra models it was a reel-to-reel machine with synch capability and ran at the same speed as his Arriflex camera. The reels were only about three inches in diameter but could hold sound for two reels of film shot at thirty frames a second, and they were easy to change out. He brought all his footage back to Chicago and did all the editing and post-production work at Coronet Films. The editing just fell together with no problem. “Then when I got it all together I screened the rough cut for the guys I knew there at Coronet, and they brought in a guy they had there” in a distribution arm called Perspective, which handled an adult type of film distribution. He saw it and wanted it for Perspective. “So they bought it outright from me.”
“After I did ‘Spivey’s Corner’ and had some success, I had several others that I wanted to pursue. One turned out to be a big bust, and that was the Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa.. I went down there with friends and some gear, and we hung out down there. Turns out the Hobo Convention was started by the town fathers as a way to get some tourists in there in the summer time. And the town fathers would dress up as hobos, and they’d just have music and dancing and food. It was a big train center and there were a lot of big freight trains going through there all the time. They did attract, after several of those, a couple of fairly legitimate old guys” who would “show up and say they were hobos. And I met them, but there just wasn’t the real thing there like at Spivey’s Corner. Most of the hobos that showed up turned out to be just itinerants looking for a free meal. We went into a supposed hobo camp one night, and there were a couple of guys there that were hobos. All they wanted was some Mogen David 20/20 and to sit around the campfire and then go sleep in what they called the Hotel Corn, which was a cornfield. So that one was kind of a bust.” Kier says, “I had some footage and had one guy that showed me how you get on and off the trains and told me some stories. But there just wasn’t enough there” for a film. “There was some kid there that had come from California with a film crew that he put together. He had on a French beret and was parading around. I got burned out on that.”
After that Kier needed to make money and started doing productions again in Chicago, working on commercials and sales-marketing films. Then in 1979 or 1980 while he was working in a high school in Madison, on a project for the University of Wisconsin, a girl in a wheel chair approached him and struck up a conversation. She had OI—osteogenesis imperfecta, brittle bone disease—and Kier grew interested in her story and made a half-hour documentary film featuring her, under the title “Kathy.” Film Ideas was his distributor. PBS took the film and showed it for two years. In 1982 the film won an Emmy Award in the Daytime Television category. This stimulated Kier to make a follow-up film in 1985, “Kathy: On My Own,” about Kathy’s life after college. The second Kathy film was “more of a handicap-awareness film than the first,” which had focused on her as a person overcoming challenges. The second film, like the first, did well in distribution. “So that was my fifteen minutes of fame back then.”
His wife had been an executive producer in the advertising world and had done some international projects for firms like Ford and McDonalds. She and Kier decided to start up a production company of their own. They called it Butler Productions. Kier had worked at the Cinema Video Center for several years, and this firm gave them office space and let them work out of there. His wife had major connections. They did commercials and got hooked up doing films for regular clients like Chicago Mercantile and the Chicago Board of Options. Eventually, they ran up against “young computer guys” with new ways of putting together material. To Kier “that was the end of the art of filmmaking, when you didn’t have to do story boards or work out your productions.” So he and his wife moved to Colorado, continuing for several years to do work for old clients but taking no new ones. They had mostly quit after 1995. So they “rolled out of the business easy.” Kier says, “We really loved the business and loved Chicago, but nothing stays the same.”
When Tom Davenport first contacted Kier Cline, asking to put the Spivey’s Corner film on Folkstreams, Kier said, “I was like ‘Woah, this is cool!’ but I only had one VHS copy of it—and it wasn’t that great.” He tried to find other copies. But years earlier Simon and Schuster had bought out Coronet and Perspective, and then been bought out by some other large company that wanted their book publications and probably just let go of the film-distribution wing. Kier says that at this point his film simply disappeared. “I could never track it down. Nobody knew what was going on with any of the films there that came from Perspective. So I kind of lost track of that.” Kier also had outtakes from “Spivey’s Corner” but has no idea where they are. “They were stored at Cinema Video Center, because it processed the film for me. After I edited the work print, it conformed the negative to the work print, and stored all the stuff, and then quit doing the film processing end of it.” The chemicals the company used were causing problems with the building inspector, who shut down the processing. The firm sold the property, and the building was torn down. Kier “lost track of the A and B and C rolls of the negative that they were making prints off of (because they were selling all 16mm prints back then). Even the guys that I knew from Coronet and Perspective didn’t know what happened to the film. When all that film became obsolete, nobody even thought about that any more.”
Looking back on his experiences at Spivey’s Corner, Kier Cline thought his own background gave him a preparation. He says, “I had relatives that had a dairy farm, and my dad worked for them for nineteen years delivering milk in and around Wichita. So I spent a lot of my years growing up out on the farm, being around those folks.” He enjoyed the rural culture of Spivey’s Corner. Word of his filming clearly also sped through the community and prepared people to open up to him. “One night,” he says, “I was going down this dusty old road, and there was this guy walking along in a pair of OshKosh B’gosh overalls barefoot. He flagged me down, and I stopped, and he said, ‘You know, I’m Elvis Pressley’s cousin.’ I said, ‘Really!’ He said, ‘Yeah, you want to hear me sing?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ He started singing ‘Hound Dog’ and stuff like that. And I’m like, ‘Oh, I think I better get out of here.’
The first interview he undertook in Spivey’s Corner was with Leonard Emanuel, and when Kier got to the house, “he was there waiting for me. He had a chair sitting outside, and he had his clean shirt on and his clean bib overalls and his hat. . . . I just let him talk. I was so fascinated that I think I shot more film on him than I did anything else. I didn’t want to miss anything, and it was giving me a good idea of what might be in store for me from other interviews.” Another man he interviewed “lived in a fairly modern structure, but they had kept the original building that his family had built. It was like a log cabin, and they had kept it exactly the way it was when he was growing up. You walk into that room there in that cabin, and it was like going from TV and all” through a time warp. “The culture down there” struck him as “so amazing.” His timing was lucky, he thinks, because “it was still pretty much the local culture that came through—and enough of the other stuff to show how it was spreading.” He adds, “But I’ll tell you, I haven’t met any friendlier people than those folks down there.”