BYE, DR. MANUPELLI
I met George Manupelli because I knew Betty and I knew Betty because of George. I had noticed his last name on a mailbox and introduced myself to the woman who lived there. I knew the name Manupelli because I knew that an Ann Arbor Film Festival had been started and I was interested in film. Also there was a pamphlet that had a page for every local cultural organization and on one page was a description of the Ann Arbor Film Festival with a picture of George and on the facing page was a picture of me and description of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. Don’t laugh. When I first met Betty I asked if she was related to the filmmaker. Well yes, she was merely just his ex-wife.
The first time Betty took me to the schoolhouse it was to see George’s movies. I fell asleep. I think it was during Bottleman. I probably was not the first one to fall asleep during Bottleman but I have always wondered if George noticed that my eyes closed. I hope not. Even so, I still clearly see in my mind images from the film, they were that beautiful. George was a meticulous photographer. All his art was meticulous. The prints he made, the assemblages, even to the last pieces he did when blind. Even his funny country-and-western song lyrics were carefully honed.
George was a notable talker. Not just with friends but anywhere he went. In front of a group or just one or two others—George had no problem telling stories or making observations or riffing on some concept. He was funny and innovative and saw things in ways not many others would see them and he was pleased to pass on the concepts. George was never at a loss for words. No one ever said that.
Once George and several others were gathered in our living room engaging in the usual morning coffee banter. For some reason, George began to speak in a Scottish accent. It was funny and we laughed. He had another quip as a Scot that was funnier. And another. And more. He referred to himself as Sandy MacTavish. Sandy took over George’s speech. No matter what direction the conversation took, George was compelled, literally compelled, to speak with Sandy's accent. Strange and funny. Sandy wasn't at a loss for words either.
George told me this story several times. Shortly after he bought the church and was making it into a place to live rather than to take communion, he wanted a deck. Harold and Joe came to build it with him. During construction, George noticed that if a nail was bent in construction of the underside of the deck, Joe and Harold might just pound it flat into the wood and start another one. “Joe, what are you doing? Pull it out, don’t bend it over. That looks terrible” Meticulous George was annoyed and he pulled them out himself. “George,” Joe would say, “it’s under the deck, it doesn’t matter, no one is going to see it.” After the day’s work was done, the three of them went to get dinner. George drove. For music, he had a cassette deck in the trunk, probably playing bluegrass. As they drove along, the cassette batteries began to die, the music slowed down, and for miles they drove on, with “ I want you darlin--wwhaa—woh—woh—darlin we can go—whaa—woh—wuuuuuuhhhhh” getting slower and lower and more deformed as they went. Joe complained, several times. Finally Joe had to beg, “George, please stop and turn off the tape, this is torture.” “It doesn’t matter Joe,” George said, “no one can see it.”
I moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1980 with no plan but to leave Ann Arbor. George came that fall set to become Dean of the College of the San Francisco Art Institute. He plunged into the job, as was his way with projects. Then he called me late in the fall, “Al, Al, I have a job for you. We need a counselor at the Institute.” I didn’t want it. “I already told them you were perfect for it, you had the right experience. It pays $16,000 a year” No, I had no college counselor experience, I could not live on 16 thou, I did not want to do it. The next day, I saw George. “Al, I got you $18 thousand. I told them 16 no, 18 go.” George, please. Then he told me that I was needed because the Student Life office was a mess. It was not really counseling, George said, it was working with student government, arranging student activities like parties, stuff I would enjoy. The guy who had done it before was just some ex-student, George said, not a professional. “You know”, he said, “a goofy kid with a propeller beanie.” And then he mimed with his finger a goofy kid spinning a propeller on his beanie, and went prrrrr, prrrrrrr, prrrrrrrrrr. So I had to say yes.
Two years without a dean had left a leadership vacuum and George was looking forward to filling it. I thought it was the right place for George, get him out of York University classrooms, get him where he could put those George ideas to work. Most of the faculty liked him and he liked them. Some were filmmakers who had shown at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. There were painters and sculptors who had reputations outside the Art Institute and George liked that. He had a position created for his office manager as Assistant to the Dean so she could do the dean tasks that bored him. Melinda from the Development Office became his co-conspirator and constant companion. He never missed a student show and liked being the old professor with them also. George was having a lot of fun. The college of the San Francisco Art Institute looked like the perfect place for George. Of course this could only lead to friction.
There were two galleries at the Institute. One was the Diego Rivera Gallery, which was the smaller one, had a Rivera mural on one wall, and was for student shows. The larger one was the McBean Gallery and it presented shows by artists who often had no connection with the Art Institute but had some recognition outside it. The gallery director apparently intended to make the Art Institute a player in the larger art world. She had been instrumental in hiring George, having gone to New Hampshire to interview him. My feeling was that she saw him as a mere classroom art teacher with no administrative experience who had once started a film festival. Plus he was said to drink a lot. This man would not threaten her position of influence. She did not get to know George very well in that interview.
An early sign that things were not going to be smooth was when she requested to George that students not come to openings in her gallery. Too scruffy looking, trailing dust and paint from the studios, and besides they ate all the wine and cheese. George objected. George arranged for an exchange art show with Mills College, the Mills students to show at the Art Institute and SFAI students to show at Mills. The gallery director objected. George had planned an art show that she was not involved with. At the end of the year, she arranged for Laurie Anderson, who had no connection to the Art Institute, to be recipient of an honorary doctorate. George saw this as impinging on his role as dean. Battle lines were drawn and George intended to have the last word, as was his way.
George had some clear arguments on his side. One was that since students’ tuition furnished a major part of SFAI’s income, it was only right that the focus of the place should be on the education program they paid for. If the McBean Gallery used budget funds to cover costs of their openings, George saw it as fooling around with student money for non-college projects. “They’re playing house with the school,” was how he said it. George didn't neglect performing his dean role, but he couldn't keep away from registering his objections when he saw what he took as harm to the college “They break our hearts, we break their backs”, he said.
Stress piled up. George got overly combative. And he had stress in his personal life. "Too many girlfriends," I told him. And he did drink too much. An issue arose, I don't remember what, but which George wanted resolved. He insisted that this issue be presented to the faculty for a vote. The faculty meeting was arranged. Before the vote, George announced that if he lost the vote he would quit as dean. He lost. He quit and returned to York. "San Francisco is not my town", he said.
From then on I only saw George when he visited. He came once to go to the opening of a show Makepeace Tsao had set up in a small gallery outside of Sacramento. I picked him up at the airport and drove him there. He had consumed most of a pint of Absolut vodka on the plane and finished it in the car. When we got to the gallery he got out of the car and immediately fell in the parking lot. I helped him up, he entered the gallery, and was charming and personable to everyone with no sign of Absolut vodka. He told me once that he had never had a hangover and that could lead anyone to drink more than good for them. George came to San Francisco from time to time over the years to visit friends and family. The last time I saw him I met him at Joe and Betty's and he and I went to the Universal Café to have a talk, like in the old days. His ankles were so bad he could hardly walk the couple of blocks. I know he was in pain. After that we had phone conversations, just from time to time over the years.
George is still a presence. Even now, as I write this, I catch myself thinking 'I have to show this to George'. I think of him every time I sign my name. Once he saw me signing something and said "No, Al. Don't make it so round and short. You need verticals. Make the letters more vertical." Because of George I met so many people I was fond of or interested in or impressed by or loved. I think of Eugenio Tellez, David and Jacquie, and Pat, of course, and Doug and Buster and Alvin Lucier and Steve Paxton, and Melinda and so many from the Art Institute. I may know Ingrid and Aune because I know Betty, but George still was the father no matter how distant. At the Institute I used to refer to George as "the father of my daughters".
The final time I spoke to George was a couple of months before he died. I had been warned that he might not have a grasp of things, but I didn't find that. He did speak of visiting us in California which seemed unlikely, but otherwise quite straight. His voice was very hoarse, however, and he spoke slowly, and there were long pauses. I said I heard that his daughters had visited. "Oh yes, they were great, just great." Very hoarse. Pause. I mentioned the Art Institute. A laugh, then he croaked, "We sure turned that place upside down." Another pause. Then he said "I'm going to die, Al." I was shocked to hear him say it. I responded after a moment with something so stupid and meaningless that I can't repeat it. Another long pause. A few brief comments pretty much on nothing. Then he said, "I have to say good-bye, I am too tired to talk anymore." We said good-bye and hung up. At a loss for words.