January 22, 2016 Off

Remembering Terry Kline (Unedited Version)

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Terry Kline operating a spotlight at the Dane County Coliseum. (Photo via Facebook)

Terry Kline operating a spotlight at the Dane County Coliseum. (Photo via Facebook)

As Stephanie Wild sees it, there’s a reason her union brother Terry Kline died on a Monday.

He had a sense of duty.

“He was a stagehand and he knew that when there’s a Broadway show in town” — in this case Beauty and the Beast at Overture Center — “everything else in life gets put on hold until Monday,” said Wild, a member with Kline of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Local 251.

Kline, 61, a fixture backstage at venues across Madison, pioneer of live video streaming and tireless experimental filmmaker who documented Madison street life and live music, succumbed to cancer Monday at St. Mary’s Hospital, about a month and a half after he was diagnosed.

As an nonmember “extra” for Local 251, I occasionally worked alongside Kline. I knew him as many in Madison knew him, even if not by name: the gentle soul in Daisy Duke-style cut-offs in summer and snowmobile suit in winter, a video camera in hand when he wasn’t backstage or behind a spotlight or soundboard.

“He was like a character actor in Madison that people saw all the time but didn’t know his name,” Wild said

I didn’t know him well. It turns out few people really did.

He lived alone and died alone. A deeply private person, he left no documented instructions for friends or family on how to handle his remains, finances, apartment or car. After he passed, hospital staff called the only contact number they had for him: Justina Vickerman, secretary of Local 251. She wasn’t particularly close to Kline, but after visiting him earlier at the hospital, she knew the end was near and recognized his need for help.

“He didn’t want to be a bother,” Vickerman said. “I think he was just hoping that he’d fade away.”

Yet Kline had a profound impact on many in Madison. Within 48 hours, a GoFundMe funeral fund Vickerman started overshot its goal of $3,000 and was closing in on a new goal of $4,000, mostly in donations of $25 and $50. Tributes and condolences poured in.

In the tributes emerges a singular portrait of Kline’s compartmentalized life: a countercultural agitator, alternative philosopher, artistic visionary with a sly sense of humor and a quiet man whose kind, sensitive nature made him an emotional anchor among hotheaded stagehands.

“I think Terry would be surprised that his life touched people,” Vickerman said. The irony? “They would’ve done it for him when he was alive, if he’d let them know.”

***

When he wasn’t backstage, Kline pursued his passion in experimental video through Madison’s public-access television station WYOU and his personal website, greatdome.net, which houses 250,000 video files by one estimate.

Before Periscope or Youtube, Kline had a vision for “live, real-time web streaming for everyone,” according to his WYOU coworker Guy Swansbro. As early as 1999, at a time when few people had a connection fast enough to watch it, Kline was figuring out how to rig a system to live-stream footage of street festivals, concerts, open mics and everyday life.

“He was driven. He had some kind of particular magic with the Internet,” Swansbro said. “In his own strange, anonymous way, he was known around the world.”

Art Paul Schlosser, a busking institution on Madison streets, was both Kline’s subject and a friend. He remembers Kline as a peaceful and smart truth-seeker who enjoyed filming people having fun and being themselves.

“He wished the world would be more honest,” Schlosser said.

Kline’s artistic vision and encouragement made an early impression on Shaun Kangas. Now a member of Local 251, Kangas remembers meeting Kline at WYOU in about 1998. Two years out of high school at the time, Kangas saw a WYOU ad seeking “people like you.”

Inspired, he and some friends created a WYOU talk show called “On Another Level.” They pushed for discussions on controversial topics, solicited home videos from viewers and rummaged through the WYOU archives for bizarre footage to air, notably a topless skydiving video that left them “mesmerized.”

After six or eight months, the powers that be at WYOU booted Kangas and his crew off the air for violating community standards. Kline was supportive of the show.

“He totally loved everything we did, but it really wasn’t his say,” Kangas said. A couple of years ago, Kline encouraged him to bring back “On Another Level,” this time on Youtube. By then, they were friends and frequently talked at length about technology, history, astrology and politics.

“I’m sure he’s up in heaven with George Carlin, making fun of Republicans,” Kangas said.

Another friend of Kline’s, Nica Von Wende, now a technical engineer in Palm Springs, Calif., recalls that he exposed her to a “greater world of theater” and instilled direction in her life during a period when she was directionless: “I followed and learned. He showed me the person I wanted to be.”

Now she has the chance to pay it back. She’s transferring greatdome.net to her own web-hosting service and archiving Kline’s tens of thousands of videos as a memorial.

•••

One of the biggest live-streaming video projects Kline undertook was to document “Rockstar Gomeroke,” the Gomers’ popular live band karaoke show at the High Noon Saloon.

The band didn’t seek him out. He simply showed up to the weekly event around 2005 with his own cobbled-together audiovisual rig and started filming performances, intercut with found footage, old movie scenes and other video data.

“He got really into it, really into it,” the Gomers’ Biff Blumfumgagnge said.

The band quickly recognized that Kline was overflowing with creative ideas, had a “cartoons-meets-Vonnegut” sense of humor and understood the Gomers’ community-centered approach to music as an outlet for “truly a cross-section of people who live here,” Blumfumgagnge said. That creative connection eventually led the band to make Kline an admin on their Facebook page.

Thinking back, Blumfumgagnge describes Kline as a “one-of-a-kind, vintage sci-fi technology batman.”

“It’s so funny to think that these videos are what he left us, the art that he left his friends,” he said. The way they’re archived on greatdome.net is like a “Salvador Dali icon dream.”

•••

Kline was born Aug. 9, 1954 in Grinnell, Iowa, and came of age in Ames. One of the few people in Madison who knows a little about Kline’s pre-Madison life is fellow stagehand Matt Leaverton. The two met in the early 1980s working backstage at Ames’ Hilton Coliseum and, coincidentally, “we were dating girls who lived together,” Leaverton said.

Kline, seven years older than Leaverton and more established, soon got on a national opera tour and left Ames. Sometime in 1985, after Leaverton moved to Madison, he was surprised to bump into Kline downtown at the Plaza Tavern. He learned that Kline had settled in Madison after the opera tour, drawn by the American Players Theatre in Spring Green and also by clean-up work associated with the tornado outbreak that devastated Barneveld in 1984.

The two stagehands ended up working together for years as A/V technicians at the Memorial Union and for big arena shows at Camp Randall. Leaverton remembers Kline as an illuminating person who shared what he knew “without being dictatorial, boorish or patronizing.”

“It’s very sad he’s gone. Madison’s poorer,” Leaverton said. He saw Kline for the last time at the hospital two days before he died. Kline was too sick to speak but he chuckled when Leaverton asked him if he remembered the roommates they dated 35 years ago in Ames.

“He never let on that his death was imminent,’ Leaverton said.

By the account of several friends, cancer wasn’t the only major disruption in Kline’s life in recent months. He had to move apartments, he struggled with insurance bureaucracy, his father’s health declined and a close friend was killed by a hit-and-run driver who’d been huffing keyboard cleaner.

To add insult to injury, his “home away from home” coffeeshop, Steep & Brew, closed down after 33 years on State Street.

“Steep & Brew was kind of his roost,” said Bob Wasserman, a longtime friend and member of Local 251.

The last time Wasserman visited Kline with friends in the hospital, he said Kline pulled the bedsheet over his chest and lower neck when he realized they were there.

Yet he kept his sense of wry humor. Swansbro said that Kline learned he was terminal at 6:30 a.m. on the Tuesday before he died and responded by telling the doctor, “Well, it must be a bummer for you to get up so early and tell someone they’re going to die.”

Kline’s lightheartedness helped put people at ease backstage, where personalities often clash under stress.

Blumfumgagnge, who’s worked a few calls with Local 251 as an extra, remembered one such lighthearted moment on the job with Kline last spring.

“He did a handstand. He literally flipped himself over and landed on his feet,” he said.

Wild recalled Kline telling her several years ago about a dream he’d had.

In Kline’s dream, “everyone at work was fighting and he climbed up on a roadbox in the middle of the loading dock, raised his arms in the air, and said, ‘Can’t everyone please just get along?’”

A funeral for Kline will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27 at the Adams Funeral Home in Ames, with burial about 80 miles away at a rural cemetery in Malcolm, Iowa.

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