Who is this man, and what does he have to do with this story? Keep reading!
Adolescence is a time of rebellion in life, usually manifested in the form of music.
The '50s had rock n' roll, the '70s had punk, heavy metal took center stage in the '80s, and rap really hit the mainstream in the '90s. Wherever the most danger lies, whatever will make parents fear for their children the most, that's where kids go. Music is how young people both express and test themselves, even if, most of the time, they're just following the crowd.
Another phenomeon that I find interesting is cultural amnesia, where something can be ubiguitous at one point in history and virtually forgotten in another. What makes cultural amnesia particularly fascinating is when it happens just decades apart, or within living memory. While an individual may not have been alive when something happened, I believe that if it's of enough significance, they have a responsibility to at least learn about it and not act like it didn't happen because it didn't happen to them. And this doesn't just extend to history – it includes culture, too, namely books, movies, TV shows, and music.
Before rock n' roll, the dominant form of music was swing. Big bands with leaders like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey topped the charts, and kids would jitterbug, jump, jive 'n wail to the best of 'em. Frank Sinatra became famous singing with Tommy Dorsey, and the pioneers of rock n' roll, Bill Haley and his Comets, were really just a little Big Band, even if they came out of country music and rockabilly instead of the jazz-adjacent swing. Basically, bands started big as orchestras, then got progressively smaller, losing everything except guitar, bass, and drums.
No, these aren't all the same man. From left to right, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey.
The intersection of cultural amnesia and adolescent rebellion manifested itself in me in opposite terms. I was always interested in what came before, and I only rebelled in the sense that I stopped listening to popular music and started buying albums of music from the '30s and '40s. I grew up in an era when Baby Boomers dominated the cultural landscape, and since swing music happened before they were born, they didn't really care about it. It had fallen off the cultural radar, unlike the music of their own youth, namely rock.
So I was very aware of every style of music from the '50s onward, but the '50s backward was more of a mystery. Some standards had remained, but for the most part the entire genre had not. Frank Sinatra was still active, as was Tony Bennett, and there was a bit of a cultrual resurgence when newer generations discovered them in the music video era, along with a new singer, Harry Connick, Jr.. Still, swing wasn't what it used to be. How something could be so popular and so forgotten within a few decades interested me, so I naturally gravitated towards it.
Major Glenn Miller, Commander of the Army Air Force Band, disappeared on December 15, 1944.
One thing I did know – as did everyone who had heard the name – was that Glenn Miller had disappeared. He got on a plane during WWII and that plane was never seen again. He and Amelia Earhart were both famous for vanishing up in the sky, which says something about how people are best known for their last act, not the sum total of their lives, but I digress. There was even a comic book story that ran in Echo of Future Past called "Tuxedo Junction" about what really happened to Glenn Miller (kidnapped by aliens because they loved his music so much), and in retrospect, that's probably where I first heard about him.
A panel from "Tuxedo Junction," as published in Echo of Future Past # 2, scripted by Stefano Negrini and illustrated by Enea Riboldi.
Glenn Miller was originally popular for a good reason – his music was great! (Those aliens knew what they were doing). But like a lot of people, I started to think about what happened to him, and I came up with my own story about Glenn Miller waking up in the afterlife. He doesn't know where he is at first, and then it gradually dawns on him, facilitated by a mysterious character that isn't God or anybody special, just somebody who helps people cross over. The whole thing takes place back stage, and beyond the curtains is a dance hall filled with soldiers who are also dead and also don't know it. The story ends with Glenn Miller entertaining the troops in the afterlife, which was a bittersweet way for him to end up.
The notebook and first page of the original draft of Pennsylvania 6-5000, complete with rewrites.
I called it Pennsylvania 6-5000, and I liked it a lot. I even submitted it as an assignment for my Advanced Writing class in high school, but the teacher didn't get it. (He thought it was about me, even though the character was called Mr. Miller and the title gave his identity away. Guess he hadn't heard any swing music, either.)
Fast forward to college. When presented with options for a first year English course, I relied upon practicality. One course leaned heavily on short stories and novels, whereas another was about drama. It didn't involve putting on plays, or acting, or any kind of performing, only reading them and answering the resultant questions.
What people who went to college have since forgotten is that it's a lot of work and it takes up a lot of time. A full course load is heavy, and even though I saw myself as an author, I knew that it takes a lot longer to read a book than it does a play. A play is roughly three hours, and can be read in the same amount of time it takes to stage it. A novel can be upwards of a week, depending on whatever else you've got going on in your life or in school. You can read a play in one sitting, and you can't do that with a book.
So I took the English drama course instead, and got a textbook the size of a phone book. I still have it, and that began my momentary infatuation with great playwrights and all the great plays of the 20th Century. It's where I first read Tennesse Williams and Samuel Beckett, and not as a part of the course, either.
The cover of the influentical university textbook.
Either somewhere during or after this time I got the idea to turn Pennsylvania 6-5000 into a play. It was 99.9% dialogue, so all I had to do was reformat it. I saw plays as a potential way to get my foot in the door in some capacity, and unlike everyone else around me, I wasn't thinking locally, either.
Writers can write books, plays, TV shows, movies, comic books... anything, really. Why limit yourself to one career path? And by that time in my life the Internet had been invented, so why limit yourself to one geographic location? I sent Pennsylvania 6-5000 out to various theatres in various cities, and I got a bite in Vancouver.
I'd been there before, and I knew Vancouver was where a lot of Hollywood shows were filmed, so that was all right by me. My original plan was maybe I could get something put on in a city where talent scouts might see it, and maybe one show would lead to another and people who were there to check out the actors might notice the words coming out of their mouths instead. Vancouver fit that bill.
Pennsylvania 6-5000 wasn't the first time Glenn Miller was brought to life by an actor. Ten years after his death, Miller got the biopic treatment with none other than Jimmy Stewart in the lead role.
It was the kind of plan that makes sense when you're young. And you know what? It worked! Pennsylvania 6-5000 got as far as a staged reading at the 1999 New Play Festival put on by The Playwrights Theatre Centre. On May 12, actors read the words that I'd written in front of I don't know how many people, and I got paid for it. Everything was handled via the mail, including the cheque. (I was actually paid twice: first for the in-house reading, then for the public performance. And both times, I was paid in advance!) When the money arrived in my mail box, I had officially crossed the threshold of person-who-thinks-he's-a-writer into writer.
Proof that I'm not lying: the flyer for the 1999 New Play Festival that took place at The Playwrights Theatre Centre in Vancouver. Also proof that I briefly thought it would a good idea to use my full name.
Unfortunately, it was the beginning and end of my dramatic career until 2017, when a story that I wrote called "One Of Those Days" was turned into a short film titled Eldritch Code. I didn't adapt it, but I did write the source material, and it was the first time I heard actors speak words that I'd written because I didn't make it to Vancouver for the festival. Flying over there for a ten minute reading simply wasn't practical, and I think I've already established my practicality.
Another souvenir from the festival: a nametag that I didn't get to use because I wasn't there.
There was no recording of Pennsylvania 6-5000 – union rules, and these were the days before cell phones, so there's no evidence that it existed other than the flyers that promoted the event. I was told that people liked it, so I guess that'll have to do. I still don't know who the actors were or who directed it. I don't know what they thought about doing a play about Glenn Miller, or if they even gave it any thought. I hope they knew who Glenn Miller was, or had at least heard of him before they read my play.
So my plan to go all Hollywood didn't work out, but for ten minutes, I was an author! Money changed hands, so that made it official. The staged reading of Pennsylvania 6-5000 was the first time I was ever paid to put words to page, so it passes for an origin story. Oddly enough, it wasn't the first time I was published – but that's a story for another time.
Extra! Extra! The headline says it all.
You didn't think you were going to get out of here without hearing Pennsylvania 6-5000, did you? First the studio version: