About this project
This project made its funding on December 4. It all happened suddenly toward the end, so there was not time to write about stretch goals. A "stretch goal" is a new or added goal, beyond the original goal, in the event the project exceeds its funding. In our case, we have a number of people lined up who are ready to pledge, so I want to emphasize that we can still take those additional pledges and that they will continue to advance our cause. Here, then, is our stretch goal.
Funds beyond our target will go toward a commission. We will approach Johnny Simons with a proposal that he create a new original theatre work that will complement the archived works on our website. The idea is that he will write a piece -- perhaps to be premiered at the Hip Pocket Theatre in 2014 -- that will round out the works that we are digitizing from the early Simons and Balentine years. We will find a way to videotape the performance, using some of the digitizing/editing activities that will be underway at that time. This -- the newest in a long line of Simons originals -- will then cap the website archives, demonstrating the ongoing vitality and creativity of live original theatre in Fort Worth.
We hope that we can raise enough in these final countdown hours to award this special commission to Johnny as a special thank you for his prolific output, and as a tribute to Douglas and their very special creative relationship. So please, keep those pledges coming!
New pledges from this point may request that donor names be associated with this new commission, as well as with the website itself.
Project in a Nutshell
At the end of this one-year project there will exist a website with 25-30 of Doug and Johnny's shows (video and audio), plus early home-made tapes, garage recordings, and the visual reference material that goes with them. An archive if you will, of the important collaboration between Johnny Simons and Douglas Balentine in those early years of the seventies and eighties at Fort Worth's Hip Pocket Theatre.
My name is Bruce Balentine, but this project is not about me; it is about my brother, Douglas. I want to preserve his music and see it live again. Doug worked for some 30 years with Johnny Simons—his collaborator, mentor, friend, and soul-brother—producing innovative musical theatre in Fort Worth, Texas. Johnny wrote the scripts and lyrics, Doug composed the music. Johnny directed and choreographed; Doug played piano, assembled the musicians and rehearsed the singers. In 1977, they and Johnny’s wife Diane founded Hip Pocket Theatre, a Fort Worth institution. You can learn more about them here:
The theater is still flourishing today, and will be starting its 38th season in June 2014.
The image above shows Doug at his keyboard at the original Hip Pocket Theatre on Highway 80 (1979). The theatre moved later to two subsequent sites, but always retained the rustic and improvised texture that is its unique trademark -- as if the theatre and its music grew spontaneously right up from the scrub brush and oak trees on the west side of Fort Worth.
Douglas died in 2008. He left behind a room full of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes: more than 30 full-length musical theatre pieces, plus albums, songs, half-finished scraps, and the scores, scripts, and printed materials that go with them. Some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard lies buried in those tapes; and some of the most moving lyrics, Johnny’s lyrics, are brought alive by Doug’s musical interpretation and by the stories and staging captured on the ¾-inch U-Matic video cassettes filling a second storage room.
These old analog tapes are degrading with each passing day that we do not digitize them. I have devoted much of the past four years to converting those tapes into digital form. I already have more than 50 hours of material on my hard drives. Digitized music is in the form of 44.1 KHz stereo .wav files, and video is MPEG2. But it is very time-consuming, and I have a full-time job. I am increasingly worried that the material is vanishing faster than I can get to it.
What’s needed is a professional who is paid to do the digitizing. This professional needs to have the following skills:
- Knowledge of analog tape formats;
- Skill with tape splicing;
- Skill with tape “cooking”;
- Ability to handle NAB hubs and reels; and,
- Ability to edit multimedia (audio & video) files on computer.
We have located and lined up those professionals. But it costs money. The first phase of this project involves getting these fragile tapes digitized and secure.
Phase I: There are three phases to our plan. The first is by far the most important: digitizing the analog tapes to stop their continued degradation. We have found several firms able to do this work both in San Antonio (where most of the tapes are) and in Fort Worth (where video cassettes are stored). My brother Jim is in San Antonio to supervise the tape work there, and—since the Hip Pocket Theatre is located in Fort Worth—that area holds many long-time aficionados who can help with labeling and indexing. During digitizing, the transfer specialists will set levels and ensure the best copy. They will also encounter old worn-out splices and broken tapes, requiring splicing and other repairs. In some cases they must “cook” the tapes (due to an unfortunate design flaw in a particular brand of Ampex recording tape popular at the time). We have the appropriate tape decks, cooking and splicing equipment and will provide them to the audio company. We will also work closely with them to assist in this digitizing phase.
Here is a breakdown of the tape collection:
- 115 reel-to-reel tapes (7" and 10.5")
- 165 audio cassettes
- 90 video cassettes (VHS)
- 75 video cassettes (3/4" U-Matic)
That's 280 audio and 165 video tapes -- a total of 445 tapes representing some 720 hours of material. Many of the tapes will run easily at real-time (for example, it's been my experience doing this in my home studio that most of the cassettes have remained in good shape and experience no problems). Others -- the larger R2R tapes especially -- will exhibit a lot of damage. We'll go from easy to hard to make the early phase produce output quickly. Almost half of the budget is targeted at Phase I based on the expectation that we'll experience problems with about a third of the R2R tapes but little problem with the rest.
Phase I digitizing will require six months.
Phase II: Once we have the tapes in digital form, we can distribute the rest of the archiving effort thoughtfully across many people The second phase is for organizing, labeling, tagging, and preparing the material for uploading. Most of this work will be done by me at no cost, but some significant budget is set aside for data entry and cataloguing tasks that must be done by team members associated with the Hip Pocket Theatre. Peggy Bott Kirby is the main person assigned this task. We expect to receive offers of assistance by the many scores of Hip Pocket exes who have enjoyed this remarkable theatre for so many years to help with this effort instead of (or in addition) to their backing pledges, as described in the rewards. Phase II will require six months.
Phase III: The third phase develops the website and populates it with these materials -- audio, video, and images. Much of the work can be done by website talent already working with the theatre -- for example Robert Bourdage -- who maintains the current hippocket.org website now. But we will need to bring in outside expertise for some of the details associated with content management and copyright protection issues. We have dedicated the rest of the budget to that technical assistance. Phase III will require four months.
The phases overlap as shown in the figure above. Phase I will begin with the easy tapes. So we will have several shows ready after two months to begin the indexing and cataloguing effort. Phase I and Phase II then proceed in parallel for the majority of the project, which is scheduled to last exactly one year. By the seventh month, we will have a very large body of material ready, and can then begin the website itself. That development is expected to take four months, during which any difficulties with the digitizing and cataloguing of the "problem" tapes can be addressed. In this way, we'll meet our schedule even if an unexpectedly large number of tapes exhibit difficulties.
The End Result
There are more than 30 full-length musical-theatre productions that represent the Simons and Balentine early years. See the video for the top 14 (approximately 2:30 in the Kickstarter video above). When this project has ended, the website will contain as many of these 30 shows as we can locate and catalogue -- one page per show. Each page will hold the musical selections and any video footage that we have been able to recover, as well as photographs and images of scripts, programs and posters.
Above is a wireframe showing one concept for the home page of the website. Design details will be worked out in the early phases with the finished wireframes presented to the web developer for rendering.
The wireframe above shows one concept for user-selection -- in this case, material from the early years prior to the founding of Hip Pocket Theatre. Songs from the Christmas albums, "The Lake Worth Monster", and Casa Playhouse shows contain many of the concepts that seeded the theatre and its early burst of creative output.
The wireframe above shows what one of the show pages might look like. In this case, we have a well-archived show called "Elder Oaks." Along the right, the user can listen to and/or download each song from the show (in mp3 or wav format). In the gray boxes will be promotional materals, a synopsis of the play, and other visual (scanned) material. A scrapbook link and download buttons are placeholders for other materials, which may grow to include scrapbook photos, scripts, cast listings, and a video of the original show performance (if it exists).
There will be some 25 or 30 of these pages, depending on how many shows have survived and what kind of condition the tapes are in. We cannot know for sure the exact page count until Phase I is complete.
I have a detailed project plan showing budgets, timelines, and the technical inventory of all of the tapes. Get in touch with me if you want to see and review it, or if you want to contribute some of your time to assisting in its execution. - Bruce Balentine
Risks and challenges
The first and most important part of this project is the digitizing, and there is ample money in the budget to accomplish this. There will be snags -- tapes will break, some material may be lost forever -- but getting it into digital form is the immediate goal. We have lined up several different recovery specialists, and failure by one will lead to hand-offs to another.
The greatest risk is that we experience more problems than expected with the analog tapes. In severe cases, the plan is to try to locate alternative sources. There are thousands of ex-Hip Pocketeers scattered around the world, and one of them may have the cassette of a show that otherwise is taking too many hours to digitize. This Kickstarter project will have the added value of exposing our predicament to all of those performers, stage hands, audience members, and backers that will now have a central focus -- recovering this material -- and we may receive many tapes from people with whom we've long lost touch. In other cases, we'll have to settle for fragmentary pages -- for example a show that has no audio record other than the original piano rehearsal tape recorded by Doug in his home studio. Making these choices will be the dominant activity by those of us immediately responsible for this project, and, of course, we will keep every one of our backers notified as we discover the state and demands of a given show.
Loss of material by having to ship tapes is another obstacle, so we have selected local specialists for most of this work. We also will deliver the tapes (now secure in air-conditioned storage) in small lots to prevent unexpected loss due to theft, fire, incompetence, or other contingencies.
After digitization, there are two major hurdles: first, the material must be annotated, labeled, and organized. Second, the website must be brought up. Much of the former is an act of love (read: no charge) by those who know this material well. But we must pay someone to organize and coordinate the tagging and final labeling, the metadata, cross-referencing, and the uploading. There is money in the budget to accomplish this if we're careful, but the contingency in the event that this task is underestimated is for each of us on this project to chip in the extra that will be required to get everything upload-ready. Luckily, once the material is digitized, this activity will be safer -- we'll be working from copies, and the digital version will not be degrading like the analog tapes are doing.
The final part is the website, and this requires technical skills (i.e., a webmaster) who can develop an effective and accessible website using content-management software. The domain names are already purchased, but there will be server costs (this is a lot of audio and video) and development costs. All of this is budgeted, but unexpected setbacks could delay the work. In such a case, we plan to go to our backers and ask their indulgence as we bring up a subset of the website -- something that they can see and touch and hear -- while we complete the rest in phases.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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