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Robert Kaplow

About Robert Kaplow

Robert Kaplow is a writer and a teacher. In addition to his fiction, he writes satirical songs and sketches for National Public Radio's Morning Edition and Fresh Air, which he performs with his band Moe Moskowitz and the Punsters. Here is Robert's favorite piece about his life and his writing. It was written by James Poyner and published by Salon.

November 23, 2009

Even Free Is Too High a Price To Pay in Journalism Today by James Poyner

My innocent attempt to re-enter, if only temporarily, the ranks of journalism has been met not with a fierce resistance born of deep-seated generational insecurity but with a big ol' yawn.

An English teacher at Summit High School, which all three of my progeny attended and where my wife, Anne, teaches theater, will have a thrill of a lifetime tonight in New York City when he attends the red-carpet premiere of a movie based on one of his seven published novels. The teacher, Robert Kaplow, taught my two sons, the oldest of which lionized him like no other pedagogue.

I thought to myself, hearing about the upcoming movie release, "This would make a dandy profile for The New York Times or The Star-Ledger," New Jersey's state newspaper. And it would allow me to stretch my feature-writing muscles, atrophied for nearly 30 years.

What was I thinking?

A lot of printer's ink has flowed under the journalistic bridge since I filed my last story for publication. But I wasn't totally out of shape after blogging, in a more or less newspaper style, for the past year. I was sure I could still do an intelligent interview, subject willing. Kaplow was.

For about two hours in his classroom after school one day I pelted him with all sorts of hard-hitting questions: "When was the last time you smoked pot?" "Have you ever purchased beer for your students?" "Is it true that you had to give certain sexual favors to get your book made into a movie?" You know, the standard stuff of day-to-day reportage.

Alright, alright. That's not what I asked. My questions did concern how a 55-year-old bachelor got the book in question, "Me and Orson Welles," published and what led to the offbeat story making it to the silver screen. Kaplow spent years searching for a publisher for the tale of how a New Jersey high-school senior briefly enters in 1937 the inner sanctum of the actor/director/film auteur Orson Welles, then the author endured years more as the adaptation struggled to make it into theaters.

I had no sooner finished the interview and started banging out the first draft when Kaplow emailed me and said a reporter from The Times had called wanting an interview. My plan had been to approach an arts editor at the paper, the father of one of my daughter's best friends, with the story idea. But we both agreed that going with a sure thing was probably the thing to do, no hard feelings. I'd set my sights on the still-sizable, more local paper, The Star-Ledger.

I wrote three pieces, a long Sunday-style piece of 2,700 words; a medium-length piece of 1,500 words; and one of 1,100 words, the tightest I could manage and still capture some of the considerable color and personality of the subject at hand. (Still, I understand that, in the age of Twitter, where a comment is limited to, I believe, 140 characters, that even 1,100 words might seem like a novella these days.) I even shot photographs of Kaplow in action in his advanced-placement English class and went to his home 30 minutes away and shot environmental portraits to illustrate the article.

After hours of polishing and double-checking facts with Kaplow, I pronounced myself pleased with my work. I emailed the features and arts editors of the Star-Ledger with a teaser of the piece, certain that, in these brutal budgetary times for print journalism, a solidly written and photographed piece with a local angle and a timely news hook that I ultimately offered for the mere compensation of the clip would be gratefully accepted.

What was I thinking?

The arts editor emailed me back and said the paper was well aware of the Kaplow story and would probably be doing a piece written by the film critic who, supposedly, already had contacted him. Kaplow responded that he had had no dealings with the paper. In any event, the only thing to appear in the online version of the Star-Ledger to date has been a reference to the Nov. 15 New York Times article, which Kaplow disappointedly called "juiceless and bloodless." (You can decide for yourself by clicking on the link. A better article, an interview with the director Richard Linklater that mentions Kaplow, appeared yesterday in The Times.)

At the risk of appearing immodest, I think my piece is a fair bit better. Even my photography is better than the grab shot in The Times. But who said life was fair?

So I'm doing what any writer in these days of online instant blogging gratification would do: I'm subjecting you, dear OSers, to the fruits of my labor. No, no, not the short piece, kiddies, but the full-blown treatment that carries with it a great moral for anyone silly enough to put his/her thoughts down on paper or LCD screen: Persistence can pay off—and even if it doesn't the act itself is still a reward.

I keep telling myself that.

I'd suggest a pee break first, but without further delay—I know how anxious you ravenous readers are!—I give you Mr. Kaplow:


NJ High School English Teacher's Novel
Makes It to the Silver Screen

The paparazzi likely will be lined up on the evening of Nov. 23 in New York, jostling each other to snag a shot of fast-rising heartthrob Zac Efron; veteran ingénue Claire Danes; director Richard Linklater; and maybe even a star in the making, Christian McKay. They all will be on the red carpet for the premiere of their latest movie, "Me and Orson Welles," an offbeat romantic dramedy set in 1937 about how a New Jersey high school senior learns a thing or two about love, fame, and the hypocrisy of the real world by wrangling his way into the cast of Orson Welles' classic Broadway production of "Julius Caesar."

But the paparazzi may well miss getting a shot of a slightly rumpled, gangly guy arriving at the festivities in his 2005 Honda Accord. Reminding you a little of a dark-haired Jimmy Stewart, that will be Robert Kaplow, a Summit High School English teacher for nearly 30 years who wrote the novel upon which the movie is based.

"I think it's really cool," said Summit senior Julian Gordon, 17, one of Kaplow's students, about the movie's Nov. 25 release in New York and Los Angeles. "I went to a theater camp in Boston this summer, and some kids there were already talking about the movie. I really enjoyed telling them that my teacher wrote the book."

The story of how Kaplow, 55, got to rub elbows with movie stars illustrates what can happen when an ounce or two of luck is mixed with a pound of perseverance.

The Insurance Biz Was Not His Bag

A 1976 graduate of Rutgers University with an English degree, Kaplow knew he wanted to be a writer and maybe a performer. However, an uncle got him a job in New York City at financial-services giant AIG for fear that a "dreamy eyed, piano-playing writer" might otherwise be unemployable.

"I worked in the Casualty Service Department processing international claims and renewals," recalled Kaplow, who still retains a soft-spoken boyishness and a dreamer's eye. "I hated it immediately, then I really began to think I might be unemployable with my weird set of skills."

Those skills had begun to blossom at Westfield High School after being inspired by Sunday night listening to reruns of the old British radio comedy series, "The Goon Show," on a now-defunct New York FM station. He was schooled as well by his father's adulation in the '30s for Welles' Mercury Theater of the Air radio plays, such as the infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast.

When Kaplow wasn't editing the yearbook, he and a few friends formed a troupe called Max Cool and produced tape-recorded satirical sketches of high-school travails and triumphs.

"We were 'The Goon Show' meets 'Firesign Theater,'" the youngest of three Kaplow children explained, "doing stuff about high-school life we thought was fairly sophisticated but really wasn't at all. I actually thought we could get a record deal out of it."

A Star Is Not Born

So he set up a meeting with a representative of RCA Records in New York and persuaded him to listen to a 40-minute Max Cool recording called "Pavlov Memorial High School" for a possible comedy album.

"The last thing the guy expected was a 17-year-old kid coming into his office with a reel-to-reel tape recorder," Kaplow said with a laugh. "I didn't tell him how old I was on the phone, just that Max Cool would be the next great comedy group. To his credit, he didn't throw me and one of my buddies out immediately. He was eating peanuts and answering the phone while the tape played.

"He listened for about 15 minutes—then he threw us out."

At Rutgers Kaplow continued his fascination with audio entertainment, performing with yet another troupe on a weekly campus radio show that was "my equivalent of the Mercury Theater. We did 'Cyrano' and 'Jane Eyre', but over the course of four years we ended up doing mostly comedy and satire."

After college that troupe morphed into a comic band, "The Punsters." At local bars and cabarets, the group performed original parody songs that were sort of precursors to those of "Weird Al" Yankovic. Old videos from the early '80s can be found on YouTube of "The Punsters" singing on a locally televised variety program, "The Uncle Floyd Show." Amazingly, Kaplow looks little changed from those days 25 years ago when he played the role of a manic pitch man named Moe Moskowitz on the song "Steven Spielberg, Give Me Some of Your Money."

Radio Days

Kaplow sent a tape of that song to a National Public Radio producer in 1983, leading to periodic work over the next 20 years writing more spoofs featuring Moskowitz primarily for the popular "Morning Edition" program. Despite that success, he already had figured out a few years earlier that "Punster" gigs weren't going to cover the rent.

Feeling somewhat desperate for a steady income in 1978, Kaplow tried substitute teaching at nearby Millburn High School and discovered he "really liked the whole dynamic of teaching." By the following year he had a full-time position one town over at Summit High, where he now teaches two sections of advanced-placement English and two sections of creative writing, as well as a film-studies course. He also serves as faculty sponsor of an annual student film festival.

"He's very relaxed, very articulate but very thought-provoking," observed Gordon, an advanced-placement English student who considers Kaplow one of his favorite teachers. "He's naturally funny, but sometimes we leave the class drained of brainpower for the day. He's legit; he's the real deal."

Lauren Ciaravalli, who took Kaplow's English class last year before starting at New York University this fall as a film/television major, agreed.

The Unpredictable Mr. Kaplow

"He's very unpredictable," the 19-year-old freshman added. "On the first day of class, the first words out of his mouth were a recitation of an entire Chaucer poem in Old English, then he just stared at us for a minute. From that moment on, you were totally engaged. If you were feeling sick, you'd think twice about missing his class because you didn't want to miss some really cool activity."

Kaplow quickly learned that a teacher's schedule allowed him to pursue his writing on the side. In 1979, he published the first of what would become four young-adult novels, "Two in the City," a story of two 18-year-olds who decide to live together in New York rather than go to college. He would add to his credits the book that produced the movie as well as two novels that parody popular writers.

"I spend the school year filling journals with snippets of dialogue I hear and plot ideas," the teacher said, sitting after school recently in his classroom that is decorated with various posters including an enlarged book cover for "Me and Orson Welles." "Then the hard work happens in the summer, the two months I'm out of the classroom when I face the blank page. I write all day every day in longhand" surrounded by '30s memorabilia in his Metuchen home of the past 20 years, further evidence that Kaplow may have been born 40 or so years too late.

A Father for Inspiration

Kaplow wrote "Me and Orson Welles" in 1993 and 1994 during one of two sabbaticals he took from teaching. The story is a valentine to his father, Jerome, to whom the book is dedicated. The former Checker Cab Co. executive, who will turn 88 on Thanksgiving and still lives in Westfield, served as a model for the book's protagonist, Richard Samuels, a 17-year-old senior at Westfield High during the fall of 1937.

"A lot of Richard's sense of humor is my father's," added Kaplow. "My father's bar mitzvah speech in Yiddish is even in the book."

As narrated by Samuels over the course of a week, Welles is about to inaugurate his Mercury Theater on Broadway with a production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." The budding director/actor, in a moment of characteristic capriciousness, recruits Samuels off the street to play the bit part of Lucius, a servant of Welles' Brutus. The teenager learns in the action that follows that heroes can have feet of clay; falling in love with a beautiful, ambitious production assistant is hard on the heart; and fame can be a corrupting force.

After his own flirtations with performing, Kaplow "wanted to do a novel about people putting on a play, but I knew I had to deal with a play not still under copyright, so Marlowe or Shakespeare seemed logical. Then I remembered the Orson Welles production of 'Caesar,' so it started to come together."

A Tale of Two Autographs

Kaplow also remembered that his star-struck father, at 17, had written Welles in 1938, asking to sit in on one of his Mercury Theater of the Air radio productions. Welles wrote back explaining that wouldn't be possible due to the studio's tiny size. That letter's signature is now framed in his son's residence alongside the autograph the author got himself as a 17-year-old from Welles 32 years later outside a television studio where the now- legendary actor/director had guest hosted "The David Frost Show."

While researching the book in 1993 in the Rutgers library, Kaplow found a photograph of Welles in costume as Brutus in the actual production along with a 14-year-old actor named Arthur Anderson who played Lucius. "I thought, 'That's what I'm looking for,'" the novelist recounted. "'The window into the story is the boy.'"

Kaplow did the math and thought that Anderson might still be alive in New York City. He called every A. Anderson in the Manhattan phonebook until he hit paydirt. Anderson, then about 70, invited Kaplow to his apartment and, over the course of several interviews and correspondences, recalled in great detail what it was like to work with the wunderkind Welles, already an egomaniacal tyrant at the age of 22. Anderson gave Kaplow an autographed copy of that picture he found in the library, and it hangs framed next to his Orson Welles autographs along with other Welles memorabilia.

Kaplow also located Samuel Leve, who had designed the set and lighting for "Caesar." Leve provided still more detail of the era and served as a key character in the novel, illustrating Welles' darker side when the impresario tried to take credit for Leve's work.

The First of Many Rejections

In 1994 Kaplow finished the manuscript, "the most plot-heavy book I'd written," and triumphantly sent it to the publisher of his earlier young-adult novels only to be turned down flat.

"Nobody wanted the book for almost nine years," said the teacher, who is fond of wearing white shirts and jeans held up by suspenders. "My publisher called it a story about someone who had long been forgotten (Welles died in 1985). I think what they were really telling me was that my other books hadn't sold that well, and they weren't going to take a chance on such an offbeat story."

Determined to get some recognition for his most significant work to date, Kaplow wrote a screen version in 1997 and, through a publishing contact, got the script in front of writer/actor Carl Reiner, the creator of television's classic "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Reiner, Kaplow said, loved the script and optioned it for a year but ultimately failed to raise the production money.

Lunch With Carl and Mel

"I got lunch with Carl and Mel Brooks in New York out of it," Kaplow quipped, "so it wasn't a total loss."

His agent, Muriel Nellis, finally sent the book to a small San Francisco publisher, MacAdam/Cage, which decided the book's content allowed it to be marketed beyond the young-adult genre. Published in 2003, the book made the 2004 list of Books for the College Bound and was a Top 10 pick by the American Booksellers Association, which caters to independent bookstores.

An Austin bookseller decided to feature the unusual small-format book in its display window, catching the attention of Vince Palmo and his wife, Holly, an aspiring screenwriting team who had worked on several movies in various production roles. Upon reading the book, the Palmos convinced independent filmmaker and fellow Austinite Richard Linklater, perhaps best known as the director of "School of Rock" and "Before Sunset," to make a screen version. Linklater bought the screen rights then paid Kaplow the courtesy of sending him a draft in 2007 of the Palmos' screenplay.

"Richard asked me to tell him what I liked and didn't like," said Kaplow, "and I was honest enough to admit it was better than my screenplay.

"However, I did send 10 pages of single-spaced notes to the screenwriters. They probably thought I was crazy, but they incorporated about 80% of what I suggested. I gave them my notebooks containing the handwritten manuscript as a gift because they had stayed so faithful to the original story."

Who Would Be Welles?

Then the issue became who to cast as the larger-than-life Welles, destined to direct a few years after his Mercury Theater days what many still consider the greatest movie ever filmed, "Citizen Kane." Coincidentally, Kaplow went to a tiny New York theater with girlfriend and fellow novelist Lynn Lauber to see a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Christian McKay, portray Welles in a one-man show called "Rose Bud: The Lives of Orson Welles."

Kaplow was wowed: "Once in 100 years the gene pool produces someone like this."

He then persuaded Linklater, an Oscar nominee for his adapted screenplay of "Before Sunset," to fly up from Austin to see for himself.

Surrounding an Unknown With Stars

The director agreed that McKay was eerily Wellesian, Kaplow revealed, but worried that a relatively unknown actor couldn't attract a production budget of about $20 million. The solution? Surround him with better-known names. The 22-year-old Efron, riding the success of his lead role in three Disney "High School Musical" movies and "Hairspray," was tapped for the role of Richard. Danes, a veteran of more than two dozen films, was cast as Richard's love interest.

A British production company, CinemaNX, financed the film, shot primarily on the Isle of Man in the spring of 2008. The movie was entered in September of last year into the Toronto Film Festival, where it attracted favorable notices but no U.S. distribution deal. Just when it looked like the project might go straight to DVD, CinemaNX decided to defy convention by teaming up directly with a large theater chain in the United Kingdom and forming a consortium of investors to pay for marketing and distribution in America.

A "Slumdog Millionaire" Rollout

"I think they want to do a sort of 'Slumdog Millionaire' kind of rollout," Kaplow said, referring to the $15-million film set in India that defined "offbeat story" and won eight Oscars this year including Best Picture. "I think we have the art houses for sure. If it does well there, they'll open it up to more theaters."

The movie is expected to open initially in two or three theaters in New York and two in Los Angeles, although Kaplow hopes a New Jersey showing can be arranged quickly.

Former student Ciaravalli, whose entry won Best Picture last year in the Summit High film festival, saw the movie at a press screening in early October in New York. She called the film an "absolute delight. The film makes you feel like one of the cast members in the play. It's really exciting to see how everything falls apart then comes back together. It's really a thrill ride."

Of course, Kaplow's father attended a screening of the film as well, reliving for about two hours the era of his boyhood.

"My dad applauded when he saw my name in the credits," Kaplow reported. "'Charming,' he said. 'That's the word. You should win an Academy Award.' I said, 'But, Dad, I didn't write the screenplay.' He replied, 'You should still win an Academy Award.'"

The Eighth Novel Will Be in the Mail Soon

Regardless of how well "Me and Orson Welles" fares at the box office, Kaplow has maintained his writing routine. After two years of scribbling in spiral notebooks, he's just finished his eighth novel, "Nobody's Heart," a story of male friendship set among teachers at a suburban high school not unlike Summit.

"My agent is waiting to push it, hoping to use ("Me and Orson Welles") as a platform to get it more attention," the novelist said. "This book is fairly personal. I didn't write it thinking, 'Gee, this will make a great movie.' I wrote it because I had to. There's the death of a sister in it, and my sister, Terry, died (in 2001 at 52). It's funny and sad; it's about dealing with grief."

And, even after almost 30 years, the author is not contemplating retirement from the classroom anytime soon.

"I still like the atmosphere," Summit High's 2001 Teacher of the Year admitted. "There is a considerable amount of spontaneity involved in teaching. The students are unique. They bring to the table their own senses of humor and viewpoints. I'm constantly surprised.

"There isn't a day that goes by when they don't make me say, 'I never thought of it that way.'"

Besides, a high school can provide pretty good material for the next novel.