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Interview with Trace Beaulieu of MST3K and Cinematic Titanic

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A two-part exclusive interview with Trace Beaulieu, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and now with Cinematic Titanic

Crow T. Robot enjoying the latest issue of mental_floss magazine

Many of you have experienced Trace Beaulieu's work as an actor on Freaks & Geeks and as a writer for America's Funniest Home Videos, but most will remember him as mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and the wisecracking Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000. You probably haven't heard about his other real-life roles: Trace the artist, Trace the ice show roustabout, Trace the chicken farmer, or Trace the child who refuses to grow up.

Beaulieu currently tours with several other original MST3K stars and writers under the moniker Cinematic Titanic. The crew is still riffing on movies, the older and the cheesier the better, and they're doing it live. mental_floss research editor Kara Kovalchik interviewed Trace a few days ago to talk about the troupe's upcoming shows in Detroit and Durham, NC (where the _floss was founded), the origins of MST3K, and how he earned the label of "Renaissance Man."

Kara Kovalchik: You did some kind of presentation in L.A. on [February] the 16th. Could you tell us about it?

Trace Beaulieu: That was [with] Dana Gould, who's a stand-up comic and writer. We've known him for years and years. He has been a huge fan of the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space, and has a very personal relationship with that film, and actually was a very good friend of Maila Nurmi, who portrayed Vampira. And so he asked Frank and Josh and I to come out and riff on that with him last night at Meltdown Comics.

KK: Was it scripted like Cinematic Titanic, or off-the-cuff?

TB: Frank and I joined Dana in Seattle a few months ago, and we did this same film. We kinda walked through it once. It was pretty free-wheeling and impromptu, very much different than CT. You know, it's really going back to the roots of Mystery Science Theater, too, because that was all improv'ed at KTMA when we first started out. It's kinda come full circle.

KK: You're kind of the "Renaissance man" of the CT crew. You used to do stand-up, you were part of an ice show, you helped build the sets for MST, you've written for America's Funniest Home Videos, you appeared on Freaks & Geeks...
At left, Beaulieu on TV's Freaks and Geeks

TB: I think I get pinned with the "Renaissance man" title because that's the type of clothing I prefer to wear. It's a little embarrassing for the others, but, tights and couplets and...

KK: And the codpiece, too.

TB: Absolutely! (laughs) That's what makes the man.

KK: Do you have a favorite amongst those jobs? What did you want to be when you grew up?

TB: No, I don't think I've ever really decided what I want to be. And I don't think I've grown up. So it's still a journey. I like a blend, and that's why I loved MST so much, because I got to do all of that stuff. It's all challenging; it's all problem-solving. I like that aspect of whatever project I'm working on.

As we'll learn later in the interview, Trace spent a lot of of his youth creating things, but he also managed to find time to plant himself in front of the television and absorb the pop-culture fodder that he'd later use in MST3K and Cinematic Titanic.

KK: Back when you were doing MST, many of the references were so esoteric, they could only come from someone who'd spent far too much time watching TV (like I did). Did you ever get outdoors as a child?

TB: It didn't take as much time to watch television when we were kids, because there were only three networks. And television ended – it wasn't a continuing 24-hour thing. It was refreshing, actually. "It's over. I can't stay up any later. Thank God!"

KK: But your parents were okay with it?

TB: I would find myself watching stupid shows like Batman or Time Tunnel, and would turn the channel over to the news when my folks came in the room 'cause I didn't want them to see the crap that I was watching.

KK: But when you parlayed that into making a living, your dad encouraged your career.

TB: Very much so. Even more than I would encourage it.

A perfect storm came together to spark life into Mystery Science Theater 3000. Creator and inventor Joel Hodgson worked with Trace to develop the show's sets in a way that gave them freedom to focus on the show's content. While the robots attracted and the bad movies repelled, the jokes kept the audience coming back week after week. And the home of it all was a set Beaulieu helped build: the Satellite of Love.


Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy on set at MST3K

KK: Each episode of MST3K gave "special thanks" to Skyline Displays [a Minnesota-based manufacturer of trade show displays]. You and your brother were involved in that, right?

TB: Everybody in my family was involved [in Skyline] at one time or another. And we thanked them in the credits because they gave us access to this warehouse and office that Best Brains [the production company behind MST3K] was housed in. They let us be in there for a year or so without paying rent. It allowed us to have a studio that we could build out to our own specifications. Also, we could have standing sets. All these other places we looked at, like real television studios, wouldn't allow us to keep the sets up. So it was a real boost to what we did, and how the show was formed. It's little mentioned and I'm glad that you picked up on that. A great deal of credit is deserved in that direction, because it gave us a home.

KK: So your work there prepared you for building sets?

TB: We grew up making stuff. There's this "maker movement" now. Well, we were doing that as kids. We had a workshop, and access to tools, and there was never any question that ... if you want something, you make it. Or you can fix stuff, and we picked up the skills as we went along.

KK: For the first five or six seasons of the show, Joel and the Mad Scientists participated in a weekly "invention exchange." Did you Mads come up with your own, or was that all Joel?

TB: Those were all really left over from Joel's [stand-up comedy] act. When we ran out of stuff to steal from his act, either he came up with more of them, or we as a group discussed what we would do. And the invention exchanges became weirder and weirder; the Mad Scientists dressed as pirates... I think we even did a Billie Jean King thing.

KK: Oh, yes.

TB: We strayed a bit from the invention exchange. (laughs)

The focus of both MST3K and Cinematic Titanic is the art of "riffing," or interacting with a motion picture in a humorous but somewhat unobtrusive way. Unlike the action at a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the comments are mostly made in between the dialogue and action.

KK: As mental_floss researchers, we have a hard time watching a TV show or movie without analyzing it for trivia or quiz use. Do you have the same trouble in those situations, always going over riffs in your head?

TB: I don't really watch with an eye towards harvesting something for CT. When looking for something to write, we're really working in a specific area. When I watch movies for just sheer entertainment, I can just get lost in just whether they're good or not.

KK: You've long expressed a fondness for monster movies. Do you still try to push those in Cinematic Titanic?

TB: We really look for a movie that has a plot that you can kinda follow, and spaces in the dialogue for us to insert what we need to do. And then all of those elements – bad acting, bad sets, bad production values. You should be able to see it. It should be lit at least reasonably well. You should be able to hear it, and it should have some coherency to it. Otherwise, you just go "What? I don't know where we are!" You're put down in a hedgerow maze.

KK: In the days of MST3K, the writers' room was where you watched movies and wrote the scripts and bounced material off one another. Do all of you still get together like that, or are you too spread out?

TB: I live in Minnesota. Josh and Frank live in L.A. Joel's in Pennsylvania, and Mary Jo's in Texas.

KK: So how does the procedure work?

TB: We each do a pass on the film on our own, and then all of that's combined into one big script, and then we tape sections of that and we go through and edit out the jokes that aren't particularly good for that moment of the film. When that pass is done, that goes to Josh, who'll do a final look-see joke pass on that, and then we'll all get it back again and make notations or corrections. And when we get together when we're going to perform it, we do a full rehearsal and rewrite session. And we're constantly working on it. As we go from town to town, we're making improvements, or finding things that work better.

KK: I would imagine that on MST3K, your jokes could be more esoteric because you had a much larger TV audience, whereas CT performs live in front of smaller crowds.

TB: Well, we want the immediate feedback, so we want the jokes to work and to land right away. But we still find ourselves thrilling in really obscure and really just-for-us jokes. In this one joke Josh and I were talking about last night, we make a reference to Pat Paulsen wine. [Deadpan 1960s comedian Paulsen tried his hand as a vintner in the early 1980s.] It just does not get a laugh at all. But in spite of the fact that it didn't get a laugh, he called it back later in the show, just to further prove that it wasn't funny.

KK: Isn't it weird that Josh is now known as J. Elvis, and your last name is the same as Priscilla's [Elvis Presley's ex-wife]?

TB: It's creepy. And I often dress as Lincoln.


The cast of Cinematic Titanic: (L-R) Joel Hodgson, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Frank Conniff.

In addition to his behind-the-scenes work on MST3K and his role as Dr. Clayton Forrester, Beaulieu was also the voice and puppeteer behind Crow T. Robot, he of bowling-pin beak and hockey-mask hair. Beaulieu's seven seasons in character were the most of any actor. (The role of Crow was taken over in Season 8 by Bill Corbett.)

KK: When you riff – now, or like you did as Crow – do you put on a "mask" of sorts that allows you to act and react in a different way?

TB: I think it's all an extension of my personality. Crow was more of the character, and I was able to get away with a lot more through that character, because robots can say anything.

KK: So you're not the life of the party like Crow?

TB: I'm probably quieter. Yeah.

KK: I've handled a life-size Crow puppet before, and it's a difficult thing to control. Joel designed the robot, but you helped fine-tune it, especially on the inside. How did you bring him to life?

TB: I had a little bit of experience puppeteering, just being around theater and making goofy props for friends and for myself, but nothing that formalized.

KK: Crow was pretty heavy, right?

TB: Yes, I had forearms like a major-league pitcher. We had the advantage, we could rest it on the table a little bit. It did get pretty heavy. It was like puppeteering a car jack.

KK: When Bill Corbett took over as Crow, he mentioned that for the first couple episodes, the robot looked like he'd had a stroke since he was still learning how to maneuver the eyes properly.

TB: I kind of figured out how to work it because, building the mechanism and having worked it for such a long time, I could figure out how it was supposed to operate. But I was gone long before Bill picked up the puppet. I think he did a fantastic job given the nature of that pile of plastic. It wasn't easy to operate when I was doing it. It was unwieldy.

Click here for Part 2 of Kara's interview with Trace Beaulieu, where he reveals his skills as an artist and children's poet, talks about his brother's amazing work with green housing, and what to expect at a Cinematic Titanic show.

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8 Gonzo Facts About Hunter S. Thompson
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Hunter S. Thompson in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson (2008)
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Like any real-life legend, there are many myths surrounding the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson. But in Thompson’s case, most of those stories—particularly the more outlandish ones—are absolutely true. The founder of the “Gonzo journalism” movement is one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. In celebration of what would have been his 80th birthday, here are some things you might not have known about the eccentric writer.

1. HE WAS NAMED AFTER A FAMOUS SCOTTISH SURGEON.

Hunter S. Thompson was reportedly named after one of his mother’s ancestors, a Scottish surgeon named Nigel John Hunter. But Hunter wasn't just your run-of-the-mill surgeon. In a 2004 interview with the Independent, Thompson brought along a copy of The Reluctant Surgeon, a Biography of Nigel John Hunter, a biography of his namesake, which read: "A gruff Scotsman, Hunter has been described as the most important naturalist between Aristotle and Darwin, the Shakespeare of medicine and the greatest man the British ever produced. He was the first to trace the lymphatic system. He performed the first human artificial insemination. He was the greatest collector of anatomical specimens in history. He prescribed the orthopaedic shoe that allowed Lord Byron to walk."

When pressed about what that description had to do with him, Thompson responded: "Well, I guess that might be the secret of my survival. Good genes."

2. HE MISSED HIS HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION … BECAUSE HE WAS IN JAIL.

Just a few weeks before he was set to graduate from high school, at the age of 17, Thompson was charged as an accessory to robbery and sentenced to 60 days in jail. 

“One night Ralston Steenrod, who was in the Athenaeum with Hunter, was driving, and Hunter and another guy he knew were in the car,” Thompson’s childhood friend Neville Blakemore recalled of the incident. “As they were driv­ing through Cherokee Park, the other guy said, ‘Stop. I want to bum a ciga­rette from that car.’ People used to go park and neck at this spot. And the guy got out and apparently went back and mugged them. The guy who was mugged got their license number and traced the car, and within a very short time they were all three arrested.

“Just before this Hunter had been blamed for a nighttime gas-station rob­bery,” Blakemore added, “and before that he and some friends got arrested for buying booze under­age at Abe's Liquor Store on Frankfort Avenue by the tracks. So Hunter had a record, and he was already on probation. He was given an ultimatum: jail or the military. And Hunter took the Air Force. He didn't graduate with his class.”

3. IT WAS A FELLOW JOURNALIST WHO COINED THE TERM “GONZO.”

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While covering the 1968 New Hampshire primary, Thompson met fellow writer and editor Bill Carodoso, editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, which is where Thompson first heard him use the word “Gonzo.” “It meant sort of ‘crazy’ or ‘off-the-wall,’” Thompson said in Anita Thompson’s Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson. Two years later, in June 1970, Thompson wrote an article for Scanlan’s Monthly entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” which became a game-changing moment in journalism because of its offbeat, slightly manic style that was written with first-person subjectivity.

Among the many fellow journalists who praised Thompson for the piece was Cardoso, who sent a letter to Thompson that “said something like, ‘Forget all the sh*t you’ve been writing, this is it; this is pure Gonzo.’ Gonzo. Yeah, of course. That’s what I was doing all the time. Of course, I might be crazy.” Thompson ran with the word, and would use it himself for the first time a year later, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

4. HE TYPED OUT FAMOUS NOVELS TO LEARN THE ART OF WRITING.

In order to get the “feel” of being a writer, Thompson used to retype his favorite novels in full. “[H]is true model and hero was F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker. “He used to type out pages from The Great Gatsby, just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way, and Fitzgerald’s novel was continually on his mind while he was working on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was published, after a prolonged and agonizing compositional nightmare, in 1972.”

"If you type out somebody's work, you learn a lot about it,” Thompson told Charlie Rose in 1997. “Amazingly it's like music. And from typing out parts of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald—these were writers that were very big in my life and the lives of the people around me—so yeah, I wanted to learn from the best I guess."

5. HE RAN FOR SHERIFF IN COLORADO.

In 1970, Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on what he called the Freak Power ticket. Among his political tactics: shaving his head so that he could refer to his opponent as his “long-haired opponent,” promising to eat mescaline while on duty, and campaigning to rename Aspen “Fat City” to deter "greed heads, land-rapers, and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name 'Aspen.'" Unfortunately, he lost.

6. HE STOLE A MEMENTO FROM ERNEST HEMINGWAY.

In 1964, three years after Ernest Hemingway committed suicide at his cabin in Ketchum, Idaho, Thompson traveled to the late author’s home in order to write “What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?” While there, according to his widow, Hunter “got caught up in the moment” and took “a big pair of elk horns over the front door.” Last year, more than a decade after Thompson’s death, Anita returned the antlers to the Hemingway family—which is something she and Hunter had always planned to do. “They were warm and kind of tickled … they were so open and grateful, there was no weirdness,” Anita said.

7. HE ONCE USED THE INSIDE OF MUSICIAN JOHN OATES’ COLORADO CABIN AS HIS PERSONAL PARKING SPACE.

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Earlier this month, musician John Oates—the latter half of Hall & Oates—shared a story about his ranch in Woody Creek, Colorado, just outside of Aspen, which is currently on the market for $6 million. In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Oates recalled how when he first purchased the cabin, there was a red convertible parked inside. “I happened to ask the real estate agent who owned the convertible, and he said ‘your neighbor Hunter Thompson,’” Oates said. “Why is he keeping his car in a piece of property he doesn’t own? The real estate agent looked at me and said ‘It’s Woody Creek, you’ll figure this out. It’s a different kind of place.’” After sending several letters to his neighbor to retrieve his vehicle, Oates took matters into his own hands and deposited the car on Thompson’s lawn. Oates said that the two became friends, but never mentioned the incident.

8. AT HIS FUNERAL, HIS ASHES WERE SHOT OUT OF A CANNON.

On February 20, 2005—at the age of 67—Thompson committed suicide. But Thompson wasn’t about to leave this world quietly. In August of that year, in accordance with his wishes, Thompson's ashes were shot into the air from a cannon while fireworks filled the sky.

“He loved explosions," his widow, Anita, told ESPN, which wrote that, “The private celebration included actors Bill Murray and Johnny Depp, rock bands, blowup dolls and plenty of liquor to honor Thompson, who killed himself six months ago at the age of 67.”

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15 Memorable Quotes from George A. Romero
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Hollywood has lost one of its most iconic horror innovators with the death of George A. Romero, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 77. “He died peacefully in his sleep, following a brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer, and leaves behind a loving family, many friends, and a filmmaking legacy that has endured, and will continue to endure, the test of time,” his manager, Chris Roe, said in a statement.

Though he rose to prominence as the master of zombie flicks, beginning with Night of the Living Dead, Romero honed his filmmaking skills on a far less frightening set: shooting bits for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

“I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made,” Romero once said. “What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.” (Rogers returned the favor by being a longtime champion of Romero’s work—and even called Dawn of the Dead “a lot of fun.”)

It’s that high-spirited sense of fun that made Romero’s work so iconic—and kept the New York City native busy for nearly 50 years. To celebrate his life and career, here are 15 of his most memorable quotes on everything from the humanity of zombies to the horror of Hollywood producers.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING A SENSE OF HUMOR

“For a Catholic kid in parochial school, the only way to survive the beatings—by classmates, not the nuns—was to be the funny guy.”

ON THE HOLLYWOOD WAY

“If I fail, the film industry writes me off as another statistic. If I succeed, they pay me a million bucks to fly out to Hollywood and fart.”

ON BEING PIGEONHOLED

“As a filmmaker you get typecast just as much as an actor does, so I'm trapped in a genre that I love, but I'm trapped in it!”

ON ZOMBIES AS A METAPHOR

“I also have always liked the monster within idea. I like the zombies being us. Zombies are the blue-collar monsters.”

ON FINDING OBJECTIVITY AS A FILMMAKER

“There are so many factors when you think of your own films. You think of the people you worked on it with, and somehow forget the movie. You can't forgive the movie for a long time. It takes a few years to look at it with any objectivity and forgive its flaws.”

ON THE REAL VALUE OF THE INTERNET

“What the Internet's value is that you have access to information but you also have access to every lunatic that's out there that wants to throw up a blog.”

ON THE HORROR OF DEALING WITH PRODUCERS

“I'll never get sick of zombies. I just get sick of producers.”

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF COLLABORATION

“Collaborate, don’t dictate.”

ON THE BEAUTY OF LOW-BUDGET MOVIEMAKING

“I don't think you need to spend $40 million to be creepy. The best horror films are the ones that are much less endowed.”

ON HUMANS BEING THE REAL VILLAINS

“My zombies will never take over the world because I need the humans. The humans are the ones I dislike the most, and they're where the trouble really lies.”

ON BEING IMMUNE TO TRENDS

“Somehow I've been able to keep standing and stay in my little corner and do my little stuff and I'm not particularly affected by trends or I'm not dying to make a 3-D movie or anything like that. I'm just sort of happy to still be around.”

ON THE HUMANITY OF HORROR

“My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I'm pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible.”

ON THE ENDURING APPEAL OF HORROR

“If one horror film hits, everyone says, 'Let's go make a horror film.' It's the genre that never dies.”

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF SURROUNDING ZOMBIES WITH STUPID PEOPLE

“A zombie film is not fun without a bunch of stupid people running around and observing how they fail to handle the situation.”

ON LIFE AFTER DEATH

“I'm like my zombies. I won't stay dead!”

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