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June 1998
It
Happened Here
NCAR archivist Diane Rabson sheds light on our institutional history in this bimonthly series.

Cut to the chase: Woody Allen at NCAR

In February 1973, Stephen Schneider, a young climatologist, was doing research in the ML Library when an unusual-looking man walked in. In Steve's recollection, the visitor was:

"A nebbish!* Short, balding, reddish hair, and freckles. Saddle shoes, green corduroys, hands deep in trench coat pockets, taking in the scientific scene through thick, black-rimmed glasses. Probably the new visiting scientist from Brooklyn being shown around. Must be the one coming to study the effects of droughts on the world food supply. But where have I seen that body before? At Columbia University? On College Bowl? Can't be . . . it is. It's Woody Allen!"

Sure enough, Woody Allen had come to town with some of his production team to scout out the Mesa Lab as a potential backdrop for his latest comedy, Sleeper, a science-fiction farce set in 22nd-century Colorado. Henry Lansford was NCAR's public information officer at the time, and he got to accompany the Hollywood entourage around the building. Saddle shoes and screen persona notwithstanding, the comedian's demeanor was serious and low-key. "He just asked a few questions about the building," Henry recalled.

Apparently impressed, the production company returned in early May to film two scenes at the Mesa Lab. They also used one other Boulder locale: the Brenton House in Wonderland Hills, designed by Boulder architect Charles Haertling. (The Brenton House not only served as a set for Sleeper, it also landed in the National Enquirer's "Weird Houses" column.)

Director at work: Allen on the ML driveway.

A casting call was issued for NCAR staff who wanted to work as silent extras in the film. Because of union rules, a speaking part would net vastly more than the $20 a day--minus 15% for agent's commission--paid to extras. The Damon Room turned into "Casting Central," and would-be actors were scrutinized for the proper futuristic "look." Former CGD scientist Bob Chervin was one of those turned down after being told that "hairy faces were not part of Woody Allen's vision of the future." Staff photographer Ginger Hein (now with Health, Environment, and Safety Services), who was "very pregnant at the time," was also unsuccessful. Though denied her chance in front of the camera, Ginger spent the next three days behind her own camera, recording the mayhem.

When 2173 was recreated in 1973, the resulting fashions were something to behold.

The lucky dozen or so employees who got their day in the sun were instructed to take vacation time for their absence from work. NSF charged a small fee to the production company for use of federal property--money that went straight into the U.S. Treasury, according to a Staff Notes Monthly article at the time.

Those familiar with Woody Allen's films from the '90s, but not his earlier work, would find Sleeper quite different. The movie is jammed with Allen's hilarious brand of physical comedy, including references to films like Duck Soup and The Blob; Yiddish and contemporary East Coast in-jokes; and a variety of other verbal and sight gags. Woody plays Miles Monroe, owner of the Happy Carrot Health Food Store in Greenwich Village. Monroe checks into St. Vincent's Hospital in 1973 for peptic ulcer surgery and, when something goes awry, is consigned by his cousin to frozen oblivion. Inexplicably, the capsule containing his frozen body (enshrouded in tinfoil) is discovered two hundred years later in the post-nuclear-war Rocky Mountain West, an area now called the "Central Parallel of the American Federation."

A true stranger in a strange land, Miles awakens to a society where people's brains get "electronically simplified," where "deep fat and hot fudge are known for their health-giving properties." He is advised that tobacco is one of the healthiest things for the body. The doctors who discover Miles oppose the Big Brother government of 2173 and want to use him to uncover the government's sinister plans for the "Aires Project."

Ensuring Allen's safe descent from the ML's north tower was a tricky job.

Asserting that "I'm not the heroic type. . . . I'm a screamer," Miles at first refuses this noble endeavor. In some of the film's best satiric moments, Miles is taken to the archives and asked to identify a variety of photographs and TV films that date from the years 1950 to 2000. The doctors are utterly mystified by Joseph Stalin, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech, and a Howard Cosell sportscast ("we think criminals were forced to watch him.")

This latter-day Rip van Winkle literally flies through a multitude of misadventures, including a stint as a robot, before finally saving American civilization. Very much the "shlemiel," or classic Yiddish fool character descended from the Purim pranksters of medieval times, Miles Monroe is a little man who bumbles his way to success, using his wit and moral sanity rather than strength.

The Mesa Lab has its own starring roles, both as the "Function Complex," a place where Miles Monroe works as a computer tape technician, and as the site of the Aires Project. Only exterior shots were used, notably the circular drive, the main entrance, and the north tower. In one scene, former SCD programmer Pat Downey plays a gatekeeper who checks the thumb prints of Miles and his partner, Luna (Diane Keaton), as they file into the building with other workers. Pat was surprised by the length of time filming takes. Two to three days of work produced only a few seconds of final footage, he recalled: "There was a lot of standing around and waiting."

Downey also appeared in the climactic chase scene, as did Steve Schneider and current JOSS director Karyn Sawyer, then Karyn Smith. As black-suited security guards, they pursue Miles and Luna at least seven different times down the stairs north of the fountain and out to the driveway.

And here's where I give away the whole plot. As part of the underground rebellion, Miles and Luna dress up as surgeons and pretend to clone the evil leader back to life from the only body part left of him after an assassination attempt: his nose. They grab the nose in the operating room and run away with it, pursued by the NCAR extras.

If things had gone as planned, Miles would have dropped the nose in the driveway and a trained hawk would have picked it up and flown away with it. However, the hired hawks refused to cooperate, preferring to pick out the baited meat from the nose and fly away with that. Allen finally changed the script and hired a steamroller. Julian Shedlovsky, then an NCAR staffer, was the lucky one who got to retrieve the steamrolled nose. His quizzical expression is priceless.

Woody Allen (center) observes filming from the ML entrance plaza.

In a delightful unpublished article about the filming of Sleeper at NCAR, Steve Schneider remembered that one of the trained hawks not only stole the meat and left the nose, it promptly flew with its prize into one of the ML windows and got knocked unconscious. Ever the observer, Steve also studied Woody Allen as director. He was impressed, noting that "most of the extras [came] away with respect for Woody Allen as an artist and human being. He acts, directs, confers with his peers, and deals with his subordinates with humor and patience." Allen at one point turned to the extras and photographed them, talking and joking. Allen's costar, Diane Keaton, asked them what it felt like to have a Ph.D.

Karyn Sawyer recalled that Allen spent a lot of time throwing a little ball against the side of the Mesa Lab. She also thought he had his psychiatrist with him, but that person may have been his French tutor. Henry Lansford's impression was that virtually everyone at NCAR involved in the filming had a great time, although a few people who vacated offices in the north tower to accommodate filming were less than thrilled. Nonetheless, the fun and silliness and, above all, the little window into Hollywood provided a great diversion from the uncertainty of the times. (From 1972 to 1974, as a result of a major outside evaluation of the institution, NCAR and UCAR underwent a large-scale reorganization that had profound impacts on management as well as mission.)

Woody Allen was not the only film director interested in the Mesa Lab. The producers of Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), a film chronicling the war between two evil supercomputers, also considered the building but then moved on. Perhaps this was serendipitous, considering NCAR's more recent experience as a supercomputer site.

Right: Auteur Allen directs filming.

Below: Onlookers perch along the ML driveway as Woody Allen rappels to freedom.

Sleeper, of course, is available on videotape at local stores. Steve, Pat, Karyn, Julian, and the Mesa Lab are all recognizable if you roll the tape back and forth a few times. I am considering an appeal to United Artists to obtain all the relevant outtakes for the NCAR Archives. And I can't help but wonder if I.M. Pei--who has said the Mesa Lab is one of his favorite designs --has seen the film. •Diane Rabson

*Nebbish: Yiddish for "weakling, a nobody."


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