Media Archives pays tribute to Director Stuart Gordon

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Gordon

Stuart Gordon has died.

In most of the obituaries you will read, he will be largely (and justifiably) remembered for his film work. He came out of the gate with a classic in Re-Animator (1985), which was the first of many features he made for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures (rebranded as Full Moon Entertainment). 

If none of the follow-ups can quite claim to have caught the debut’s lightning in a bottle, each nevertheless brought to the screen a combination of surprise, humor, and audacity found in only the best genre films of the era (though for what it’s worth, I do know one eccentric who maintains that 1986’s From Beyond is his best work).

His legacy as a filmmaker rests largely on these fondly-remembered vehicles, though I would also make a plea for his last few features, King of the Ants (2003), Edmond (2005), and Stuck (2007), which veered away from the explicit sci-fi and horror trappings of these earlier movies but made up for it with greater discipline and were, if not exactly sedate, maybe a bit less self-consciously garish.

He’d only made four features since 2000, and I’m very sorry that we won’t get to see what he would have done next.

This video features footage of the preparation for the opening of the Organic Theater’s “Warp” on Broadway at the Ambassador Theater. Writer Stuart Gordon, actor Cecil O’Neal, and writer Lenny Kleinfeld (who co-wrote the play under the pseudonym Bury St. Edmund) talk about the production and the process of transitioning it from Chicago to New York. See notes here

As important as his cinematographic contributions were, we at Media Burn would like to remember him for his place in Chicago theater and television. Re-Animator actually was first conceived as a stage show to be mounted by Gordon’s Organic Theater company, and only moved from stage to screen once it was determined that pulling off the necessary special effects would be nearly impossible in a live setting (ironically, Gordon’s last credited work was a musical-theater production of Re-Animator, which had a well-regarded run in Los Angeles in 2011).

Gordon’s theater work indulged in his taste for outré subjects and staging from the very beginning. As a student at the University of Wisconsin 1968, he put on a version of Peter Pan inspired by the then-recent Democratic Convention, in which the Lost Boys were represented by hippies and the pirates by riot police. On-stage nudity, LSD references, and the general subversive nature of the production got the company in trouble with the local D.A., who threatened to bring obscenity charges.

Though he would eventually beat the rap, Gordon found little support from the University’s theatre department, and went back home to Chicago sans degree. Here, he and his wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, founded the Organic Theater Company.

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Operating by its own mandate to create work which “always attempts to astound and amaze by being totally unpredictable,” under Stuart’s direction, the Organic embarked on an ambitious campaign of mounting unconventional literary adaptations as well as original plays. In honor of his achievements, we’d like to present a set of our videos documenting some of his work at the Organic.

Inspired in equal parts by silver age Marvel Comics and LSD, Warp is the strange tale, told in chapters like an old serial, of Lord Cumulus, a schizophrenic space lord who travels through the dimensions of space and time to battle Chaos, the Prince of Madness. The play was a huge success locally, and Gordon and company took it on the road, spending $300,000 to bring it to audiences outside of Chicago.

In 1973, TVTV alum and Videopolis founder Anda Korsts shot footage of Gordon and his Organic co-conspirators Cecil O’Neal and Lenny Kleinfeld as they prepared to mount a production of Warp at New York’s Ambassador Theater. There are two parts to this piece; the first may be found here, the second part is here.

This video features footage from a 1974 performance of “Bloody Bess,” produced by the Organic Theater Company in Chicago and performed at the Uptown Center Hull House Theater. The play was conceived by Stuart Gordon and written by William J. Norris and John Ostrander. It tells the story of Elizabeth Presberty, daughter of the Governor of the island of Tobago. After being taken prisoner by a group of pirates, she returns home to face betrayal and the murder of her family members. She eventually transforms herself into Bloody Bess, a rugged pirate captain out to bring those who have done her wrong to justice. See notes here

Appropriately enough, the only full recording we have of a Gordon-produced play is one that involves pirates. Bloody Bess, presented here on three ½” reels shot by Korsts, (Reel 1 is here, reel 2 is here, reel 3 is here) is the story of the headstrong daughter of a colonial governor kidnapped by brigands and who, after her initial ravishment, assumes leadership of the gang through sheer force of will (a movie adaptation of Bess, to have starred Re-Animator players Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs, was supposedly being prepared by Gordon for Empire in the late 1980s; it was never realized.)

Although Gordon only earns a “conceived by” credit here, anyone with even a passing familiarity with his other work, and who shared his taste for outrageous, broad, blood and thunder thrills – theatricality in its most vulgar connotation, but remember that vulgar just means popular – will find much to appreciate here.

Though it’s an early work, it’s among his least well-known, so consider it one final visit from Gordon’s peculiar imagination, from beyond.

Dan Erdman is an Archivist at Media Burn in Chicago

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