Star Trek History Beams in Nebraska

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The man who created Klingons for Star Trek will find his way home this weekend in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska. Sadly, while screenwriter/producer/novelist GENE L. COON is no longer with us, his spirit lives on with millions of Star Trek fans from the obsessive ‘Trekkies” to the passing fans. March 2-4th, fans can experience the rare treat of discovering more about the man who inspired generations of fandom and became a globally recognized phenomenon of entertainment and pop culture.

In the first season of this unique science-fiction tv series in 1966, Gene Roddenberry took exploration into space quite seriously. After the first 13 episodes, Coon joined the Star Trek production team and forever changed the navigation of the franchise by adding humor and heart. In addition to giving birth to iconic characters like Klingons and Khan, Coon is credited to the key to Star Trek’s success by injecting levity into interstellar drama such as the occasional good-natured ribbing from McCoy and Spock.

David Gerrold, fellow Star Trek writer from the original series, should know. Gerrold wrote the famous “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode and will be headlining as guest speaker at the Gage County Classic Film Institute this weekend to discuss working with the famed Nebraskan. Recently, I got a chance to chat with fellow classic film buff and local historian Jeanelle Kleveland, an organizer for this 3 day festival, that will showcase guest speakers, historical insights and screenings.

Interview with Jeanelle Kleveland: 

Kellee: “How long have you been a classic film fan? Did anyone in your personal life inspire this passion?”

Jeanelle: “I don’t remember a time that I didn’t like classic films.  Obviously, they are far more available today than when I grew up, but I would watch them on late night tv when they were on.  Then I remember when Turner showed quite a few on TNT before TCM existed.  I was on the TCM chatroom with other classic film lovers shortly after TCM started.  That was a lot of fun.”

Kellee: “When did you become deeply interested in Nebraska/Gage County history, beyond being a resident?” 

Jeanelle: “Gage County has a very interesting history.  The Oregon Trail comes into Gage County.  We have the Homestead National Monument.  We have Clara Colby who published a suffrage newspaper from Beatrice.  She was friends with the best known suffragists.  I’m sure I got more interested as I got a little older—probably in my 30’s.  My mother always enjoyed it and I enjoyed going to things with her.”

Kellee: “How long have you been involved in the Gage County Historical Society?”

Jeanelle: “Probably at least 30 years.  My mother always got me a membership along with the one she got for herself and my dad.  We almost always went to the annual dinners and programs.”

Kellee: “When did the Gage County Classic Film Institute begin? What is its goal and what do you hope for its future?” 

Jeanelle: “We formed under the umbrella of the Gage County Museum in 2014.  We had our first event in 2015 and we have had four events.  Two of them were on Robert Taylor*, a true Hollywood legend, and two were on John P. Fulton, special effects.  He won three Oscars and his father, Fitch Fulton, won one.  A couple of films also included Janet Shaw as a character actor.  She’s also from Beatrice.” 

(*For my report on the Robert Taylor event, read it here: “Hometown Pride Honors Robert Taylor…”)

“Our Institute was formed for the purpose of educating and show casing people in the entertainment business that are from Gage County. Last year we did Fulton and one of his grand daughters brought one of his Oscars and we all got to have our picture with it.  We didn’t know it was coming but it was a real treat to hold a real Oscar.”

Kellee: “What led you to choose Gene Coon for this year? Is there a process for who is chosen for each year?”

Jeanelle: “Gene Coon has been on our radar and Star Trek is very popular and Star Trek Discovery was coming out and we felt the time was right.  He was a prolific writer and worked on dozens of series.  He was kind of a fix it guy.  He wrote on a number of westerns and we will be showing a couple of those as well.”

Kellee: “Would you describe yourself as a trekkie or SciFi fan?”

Jeanelle: “Yes, I suppose I am.  My favorite Star Trek would be The Next Generation.  In fact I have a life size cardboard Riker that friends of mine gave me for my birthday because I was a big fan of Number 1.  He’s my very low maintenance cardboard boyfriend.  He is on display right now at the Beatrice Public Library watching over the Gene Coon exhibit.”

Kellee: “Was there anything that surprised you in researching Gene Coon and David Gerrold?” 

Jeanelle: “Always some interesting things that one learns when planning an event.  Gene Coon and a colleague came up with the idea of the Munsters as a satirical response to Donna Reed Show.”

“David Gerrold was mentored by Gene Coon.  I can’t wait to hear him speak.  He wrote The Trouble with Tribbles and it was produced by Coon.  We’ll be watching it Friday night.”

Kellee: “There are a variety of classic film festivals that fans can attend across the country, tell us why they should journey to Beatrice.”

Jeanelle: “They should come see the programs and hear the stories about Gene Coon and learn about where he came from.  While here, he was a teenage newscaster on the local radio station—KWBE.  Going to where someone grew up and where his family lived gives you an understanding about what they are like.  Gage County is a relatively small county.  I find it amazing that we have a number of celebs from here.” 

“We are tentatively looking at Harold Lloyd for next year.  That would be fun.”

Kellee: “Anything else you want to add so that interested fans can learn more about attending this fest?” 

Jeanelle: “I think people will enjoy discussing the similarity between the westerns and Star Trek.  Coon was the moral center of Star Trek.  You see that same thing in many of his other stories.”

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For my own research, I was surprised to learn that Coon was also responsible for the controversial episode that featured half-white/half-black faced humanoids that tackled racism, “Let This Be Your Battlefield.” Coon had his own battles- with Stanley Robertson, NBC’s first African American broadcast standards exec- to get this story on air.

According to wired.com, (Andreea) “Kindryd, (his production secretary and) an African-American civil rights activist who had worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, was uneasy about working with an old white guy named Coon—especially after Coon told her that his father had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan—but Coon was passionate about injecting anti-racist messages into Trek.”

Tolerance and enlightenment had a future thanks to Star Trek. And thanks to Gene L Coon, there was a place for more heart and humor, too.

For more information and to purchase tickets to this festival, you can follow their FaceBook page and/or explore their site: Gage County Film Institute Fest 2018.

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