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Act of Preservation

Talent writer Robert McDowell has an enormous trove of old film chronicling the philosophy and opinions of his mentor, noted author, poet, actor and artist George Hitchcock.

Before the 10 hours of footage decomposes, McDowell wants to turn it into a full-length documentary and market it to the world, a project he hopes to fund with a $15,000 appeal on Kickstarter.

As of Friday, the drive had collected $3,749 and had 65 backers. It runs till Oct. 18. Pledges may be as small as $1, and the drive must reach the full goal or no money is given.

McDowell shot the film with Kevin Brennan in 2001 at Hitchcock's Eugene home. He was a close friend and McDowell's professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Hitchcock, creator of the noted literary journal KAYAK, died in 2010.

"He was one of the great figures of 20th century literature, a true Renaissance man," says McDowell. Hitchcock shaped the century's new forms of poetry, revived the short story and was an outspoken social critic, McDowell says. Hitchcock was subpoenaed in the 1950s to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he was a hostile witness.

A New York Times obituary notes that Hitchcock told the HUAC, "I am a gardener. I do underground work on plants," and that he refused to say whether he was a member of the Communist Party "on the grounds that this hearing is a big bore and a waste of the public's money."

Hitchcock acted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the time and was asked to leave, says McDowell, but he refused, so he was put in "spear carrier" roles. McDowell is writing a biography of Hitchcock's life that will be integrated in the narration.

OSF archivist Debra Griffith said Hitchcock acted in minor roles in "Henry VIII" and "Pericles" in 1957 and was with the festival for one season. She said she could find no support in the journals of OSF artistic director Angus Bowmer or his wife, Gertrude, to support Hitchcock's claim, and "since the season was only one month, it seems unlikely."

McDowell adds, "That was theater back in those days. Today, there would be no question that theaters would stand behind him."

The film shot by McDowell is the only known movie of Hitchcock, he says, and is drawing significant attention from donors who want it saved and distributed. McDowell plans to get up to 500 copies to national poetry societies and to sell it on Amazon and other outlets.

"He was fiercely independent in an age where there was so much mediocrity," says McDowell. "He lived the life of an artist, without taking himself too seriously. He was open and not didactic and loved to be charmed and amused."

McDowell tells the story of reading his poetry before other UCSC students, all of whom lauded it, but Hitchcock said there was maybe one line in each poem — almost enough for one good poem.

"I fumed and smoked cigarettes and went back to my room," McDowell recalls, "then I read them and he was right. He didn't come from that school where everyone is special and should be praised."

Hitchcock was born in Hood River in 1914, graduated from the University of Oregon, was a labor activist in California after World War II and acted in the Actor's Workshop in San Francisco. Scores of writers, including Pulitzer Prize winners, were mentored by him, says McDowell, or were first printed in his KAYAK.

"The film will be like 'A Conversation with George Hitchcock,'" McDowell says. "He had a voice like Orson Welles or John Barrymore, a brilliant, wide-ranging mind, and we let him take off and talk about politics, art, love, opera, painting or whatever he wanted."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Talent writer Robert McDowell hopes to raise $15,000 on Kickstarter in order to turn 10 hours of footage into a documentary of George Hitchcock, founder of the literary journal KAYAK, who died in 2010. - Julia Moore