Sunday, April 15, 2018

2001: A Yost-Verner Odyssey

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Saying it's a favourite film is something of an understatement, so my advice is if you have a chance to see it, don't pass it by.

Years ago I was a cog in a big bureaucracy. One of the ceremonies of life in that job was to hold one-on-one meetings with team members every two weeks. One afternoon at one of those meetings we got to talking about favourite science fiction movies. I mentioned 2001 was mine. My colleague hadn't heard of it. I said it came out in 1968, and explained a little about the story and why I liked it. His only response was he didn't watch movies that were made before he was born. I felt ready for the rocking-chair, but after the nausea passed, and I considered his comment further, I realized his response was odd, but understandable. And as it turns out, I've heard similar comments about 'old' movies from other people since then.

I probably would have had the same reaction to movies that predated my birth if I hadn't been raised on a steady diet of TVO's Saturday Night at the Movies and Magic Shadows during the '70s and '80s. Both were hosted by the legendary Elwy YostSaturday Night at the Movies, as the name says, was a movie program that aired on Saturday nights at 8. The show ran two movies over the course of the evening, usually with interviews of Hollywood directors and actors from the golden age between the two. I seem to recall the earliest shows tried to mimic an afternoon at a movie theatre in the '30s by also showing short features along with the double bill. I remember watching many sci-fi serial instalments with my father before the movies started. This was one of the few times we'd watch tv together, but he'd usually leave soon after the movies started.
When written down in black-and-white, the show doesn't sound that much different from lots of other time-filling movie shows that crammed the channels back then. The difference here was the host. Elwy Yost was highly knowledgeable about the movies, and through his genuine and enthusiastic presentation skills you knew he loved movies and wanted you to love them too. Without Elwy as my teacher I would never have come to love movies, especially so-called 'old movies'. I was lucky and got a real education.

Ok, so the '70s are rolling on and I'm getting my movie education and reading Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman with something akin to religious fervour, and then along comes D. Derek Verner's The Lido Theater in the March '76 issue of MR. This is not some namby-pamby kitbash, or folksy balsa build, this is real deal model making. There's photo-reduced signage, fibre optics, a custom machine that sits inside to create chase lighting, realistic detailing inside and out, casting 'neon' lighting, all presented in that long-gone sophisticated MR style. But back then it was too costly and time-consuming for me to build, so I had to admire it from afar.
So, here we are in the 21st century. Peter, who runs one of the only movie rental stores left on the planet just down the street from my house, is chatting with me about movies to watch in the Criterion Collection, and I'm awash in 2001 nostalgia with it's reminder that the tragic 2001 has come and gone years ago and the vision of that Kubrick and Clarke dream never materialized. But in that slurry of remembrance were some good memories of how I came to love movies and maybe should finally build a Yostian tribute theatre with some Verner inspired model making. Debra's telling me I should jump in as soon as the Airfix Gromit airplanes are done. Maybe so. I put it on my to-do list a long time ago - maybe this is the year.

When names from my model railroading past pop up I naturally make a beeline to Google. I didn't find a lot, but was surprised at what I did see. D. Derek Verner was the son of the famous magician, Dai Vernon, who, as it turns out, was born here in Ottawa in 1894 - 4 years before E. L. Moore. I found a 1999 documentary on YouTube called Dai Vernon: The Spirit of Magic. His life story is fascinating and disturbing. The movie is well worth watching. D. Derek Verner makes an early appearance around the 50 second mark and, along with his brother, provides insightful commentary throughout.

In the Model Railroader archive I found a brief biographical note about D. Derek Verner's model railroading activities in the Bull Session column of the January 1975 issue, but to get a sense of what his interests were, here's a list of his MR articles (I don't know if it's complete as he published a lot more than I had realized),

Lettering store windows, Sept '58
Modeling with fiber optics, Apr '73
Detail your interiors with a camera, July '73
Minicalculator: Tool for modeling, Jan '75
Vacuum de-airing for better casting, Sept '75
The Lido Theater, Mar '76
Deluxe cutting board, July '77
Zap-texturing for foliage, Sept '80
Shrink modeling, Nov '81
Modeling a campfire, Mar '85
Build a Dustroyer, June '85
How to simulate flickering fires, May '92
Light up the night with Neon, Aug '92
Painted power, Feb '93
A carload of sound, June '96
Video animation, Dec '96

You can see The Lido Theater was but one of many high quality projects. There's a lot of good reading there for me to catch up on. I also found D. Derek Verner mentioned in a couple of Genii: The Conjurors' Magazine forum postings here and here. Summarizing them a bit, there's mention of a couple of electronics articles he wrote (although I suspect he published more than these),

Low, low cost intercom, Nov '65, Electronics Illustrated;
A Non-Serious Circuit, Apr '93, Popular Electronics;

and, sadly, there's discussion about alcoholism. He died in March 2016. I suspect there is much more to his life story than I've mentioned here.

I didn't see 2001 in '68 - I was too little to see it on my own. Frankly, I was only vaguely aware of it, and my parents weren't interested in that sort of thing. I finally saw it sometime in the mid-70s. I don't think I saw it on Saturday Night at the Movies - maybe I did - but it was likely on some crummy Dialing-for-Dollars '70s vintage tv on some long Sunday afternoon. I've watched it many times since then. And no, I didn't rent it from Peter. I still own my own copy on DVD. 


  1. Followed those links to the old PE and EI issues, Wow did that ever bring back some memories ! Thanks.

    1. I suspect he wrote a lot of stuff for electronics magazines of that era. I'm hoping I can find more in the months ahead.