“It is only possible to participate fully in society if one understands its channels and modes of communication.”
Legendary scholar Dr. Gerald “Gerry” O’Grady — one of the architects of film and media studies in this country — died this past spring, on March 26. O’Grady was a tireless advocate for new ways of experiencing, understanding, and creating media. While he is celebrated for his founding and directing of the hugely influential Center for Media Study at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo beginning in the 1970s and for his associations with Harvard and MIT, too few acknowledge the importance of O’Grady’s groundbreaking earlier efforts in developing media culture in Houston, Texas in the 1960s. It is here in Houston that he began a revolution of new “mediacy” — first as a teacher of literature and then as a catalyst for city-wide cinema engagement working under the auspices of John and Dominique de Menil.
“An absolutely unique and mesmerizing man” is how photographer Geoff Winningham describes the eccentric Medieval literature professor he first encountered during his undergraduate studies at Rice University in the early 1960s. I spoke with Winningham, who cites O’Grady as life-long friend and mentor, and the sole insistent encourager of his creative pursuits from the beginning. He related to me that O’Grady rarely said “hello” or exchanged any pleasantries before launching into excited strings of observations and analysis about books, films, and art. “Gerry was a master of academic and artistic spin, and you either fell under his spell or you backed away from him, like ‘Oh my God, who is that?!'”
With eclectic and ever-widening interests, O’Grady’s study of language expanded far beyond Chaucer and into all manner of contemporary media. Before there were such things, O’Grady became a self-taught film scholar and media theorist, enthusiastically championing New Wave films and a new movement of “Expanded Cinema.” Winningham recalled frequently joining O’Grady at Houston’s Al Ray Theater to see foreign films such as Fellini’s 8½, and driving with him to the Vision 65 conference in Carbondale, Illinois, which featured presenters Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek. “Gerry just fell in love with VanDerBeek’s style and method, and he made me appreciate it.”
After five years teaching at Rice, despite awards and popularity, O’Grady was not promoted. This was partly for his straying from the strict literature focus he was hired for, but also for his frequent voicing of student concerns that were unpopular with the administration at the time. “The real reason he didn’t get promoted,” says Winningham, “was that he was constantly on the side of students in cases where they needed an advocate.” One can glean from O’Grady’s later writings some disappointment in the rigidity of the university in many regards, including its stubborn adherence to racist policy. (Rice was one of the last private universities in the country to integrate, in 1965.)
O’Grady left Rice in 1967 and was preparing to teach at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo when he was summoned to a dinner meeting with John and Dominique de Menil, the legendary Houston-based patrons with a passion for re-envisioning arts education. When the de Menils asked him if he would teach an undergraduate cinema course at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where they’d begun to establish an art department, O’Grady politely declined. But after an evening of stimulating conversation, he felt compelled to share his thoughts on how film studies might be developed in Houston.
Heavily influenced by Marshall McLuhan, O’Grady sent the de Menils a bold manifesto for bringing film studies to a city that had absolutely none at the primary, secondary, college, or adult levels. “It was an abstract design in development,” O’Grady writes in the book Art and Activism. “It never occurred to me that I would be involved in carrying it out.” The de Menils agreed to support O’Grady’s ambitious approach in full, as long as he would lead the charge. He agreed to serve as founding Director of a new Media Center at St. Thomas, though he said a more accurate title would have been “teacher in residence for the city of Houston,” since the approach was to include screenings and studies for all ages and communities.
What followed was a completely unique, unbelievably ambitious and hyperactive couple of years that kick-started Houston’s media landscape for the next half-century. O’Grady mobilized each day to bring film studies to Houston’s youth, holding screenings and discussions at various elementary and junior high schools in the mornings and high schools in the early afternoons. Then, in the late afternoons, from a bungalow on Mt. Vernon Street, he taught courses such as The History of Cinema, World Cinema, and Experimental Film to St. Thomas undergraduate students. Finally, in the evenings, he presented film screenings that were open to the public.
O’Grady hired two people to join him in running the Media Center at St. Thomas. His friend and former student Geoff Winningham was brought on to teach photography, and to teach filmmaking he brought in Stan VanDerBeek, who’d been making collage films, collaborating at Bell Labs on computer-aided film work, and producing Movie-Drome multi-projection events. A jawdropping roster of guests came through the Media Center to show and speak about their work, including underground filmmakers Andy Warhol and Shirley Clarke, photographers Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, and countless other notable artists.
O’Grady quickly expanded the Media Center’s reach, working with hospitals, libraries, and public interest groups of all kinds; initiating televised showings and lectures on the films of Ingmar Bergman on KHTV; and organizing a conference on film education attended by hundreds of teachers from around Texas that culminated in a screening at the then-new Miller Outdoor Theatre. At a time when there were only a handful of film courses in the country, O’Grady began to establish curricula for media studies and teaching classes at five different universities — eventually traveling each week via the de Menil’s private jet between St. Thomas in Houston, UT in Austin, SUNY Buffalo, and New York City’s Columbia, NYU, and New School. In 1969, he published the seminal essay The Preparation of Teachers of Media. O’Grady later recalled of that exciting time: “We were at the forefront of a revolution in the arts and humanities.”
Upon Stan VanDerBeek’s departure, O’Grady hired filmmaker James Blue, who’d directed award-winning films (The Olive Trees of Justice; The March) and who had gotten to know many of the young directors of the French New Wave while studying in Paris. Blue replaced VanDerBeek as the head of filmmaking before the fall of 1969, though it turns out he would be working in a slightly different Media Center.
The Media Center moved from St. Thomas to Rice University in the fall of 1969, and opened there in early 1970. The reasons for this unusual and sudden transition had to do with fundamental differences between the de Menils and St. Thomas’ Basilian fathers about the future of arts programs at the school, and about ecumenical Catholicism in general. These issues were made especially urgent after John de Menil’s cancer diagnosis hastened the couple’s desire to establish the department they’d envisioned. In an extremely bold move, the de Menils announced that the entire art department’s faculty and resources would move from the University of St. Thomas to their newly formed Institute of the Arts at Rice University. Or, I should say, all faculty but one.
“The problem was, Rice wouldn’t have O’Grady back,” Geoff Winningham told me. “He had been turned down for tenure in the English department, and he’d been too frank and candid with the administration about certain student causes. He was persona non grata at Rice, for all the wrong reasons. And so the Media Center was founded without him.” O’Grady felt similar unease with the institution, later writing, “My design for developing the Media Center was not consonant with Rice’s history.”
So, while he’s loosely considered a founder and guiding spirit of the Media Center, he never officially directed the Media Center at Rice. O’Grady returned to SUNY Buffalo, and founded its now legendary Center for Media Study, while continuing to have a big influence on the Rice Media Center’s development via continued conversations with the de Menils and his Houston colleagues. The funky navigations between and beyond institutional boundaries are why O’Grady is often left out of official histories. As is the case with so many of Houston’s innovators, his activities and profound impacts here were in association with institutions that weren’t forward-thinking enough to appreciate it.
James Blue carried the flag as director of the Rice Media Center, presenting weekly screenings of classic, foreign, and experimental films, hosting guest filmmakers and scholars, cross-listing courses with other humanities and science departments, and initiating outreach in high schools and underserved areas of Houston and throughout Texas. Geoff Winningham continued to teach photography at the Media Center, and has been there since its founding. Built upon O’Grady’s approach and with support from the de Menils during its first dozen years, the Rice Media Center has continued to be an invaluable part of Houston’s cultural history for 50 years.
“He and the de Menils did some big-idea thinking, and committed themselves to getting it done in Houston. What was so exciting is that their vision of media was for everyone. Including me.” Filmmaker and educator Ed Hugetz had known O’Grady since the late ’60s — first as a member of the audience of his film screenings, then as a student in his filmmaking programs, then as a member of the staff of the Media Center. He told me, “I remember O’Grady saying to me that what was interesting to him was blurring the lines between the filmmakers and the film audience. In other words, making the producer a consumer and the consumer a producer.” Hugetz added, “There were a lot of us in Houston who loved to watch films who, thanks to the Media Center, learned to make films. For that I will always be grateful to Gerald O’Grady.”
Designer and author Don Quaintance said of O’Grady, “He was a generous and funny spirit who never set out to impress but did so pretty much every time he opened his mouth, as the depth of his intellect and range of interests came pouring out. He was a quintessential teacher, always eager to share his insights.” Quaintance also mentioned that there was often a tinge of befuddlement or misdirection sensed in interactions with O’Grady. “He inhabited an absent-minded professor persona because his mind was always racing to the next thought, or he was anxious to finish whatever project was before him so he could speed to the next.” Geoff Winningham echoed this, adding, “The guy was tireless. He always had a hundred things going.”
Many recall, with a gleam and the reverence of lost legend, various funny and fantastic little moments from O’Grady’s screenings and artist interactions in the late ’60s. (Too many to wrangle here, though I hope some readers will post personal memories in the comments below.) There are tales of O’Grady’s locking the doors during screenings of films by Andy Warhol and Jack Smith so they couldn’t be shut down for indecency. And of course, in the middle of that perfect storm of wild ambition and precarious analog technology, there were media mishaps. Don Quaintance recalled a packed preview screening of La Chinoise with Jean-Luc Godard in attendance that was brought to an abrupt halt when the projector damaged the director’s only 35mm film print. Rice film professor Charles Dove related to me that O’Grady would sometimes disappear to hidden spots in projection booths to catch quick naps. I’d like to think that’s where he is right now.
In an instance of extremely bad timing, the day after O’Grady’s passing in March, Rice’s administration informed faculty that the Media Center’s building was “beyond its useful life” and would be permanently closed and demolished immediately following the end of that semester. It was shocking to all who work there that a place of such importance would be closed so hastily without consultation, and that its activities might be halted indefinitely. The date for the building’s demise has since been pushed back long enough for transition plans to be finalized and for this year’s 50th-anniversary programming and celebrations. It has also since been clarified that, while the building will come down, there are plans for the department’s classes and cinema programs to continue.
Soon, I’ll dive a little more into the Rice Media Center and its upcoming 50th-anniversary programming, in an article to follow this one. But first, upon the recent passing of this too-often unsung figure in our media culture, just before disappearance of the Rice Media Center and the restructuring of its activities, and in an era when rigorous creative engagement with audiovisual media is more relevant and necessary than ever, I think it’s a good moment to unearth this unique, hidden Houston history and to remember its foundational spirit. Reverberations of Gerald O’Grady’s prescient vision, infectious excitement, creative encouragement, and rigorous investigation still ring throughout Houston and around the country.