Cambridge's Peter Dowd is on a speedy path, from internships for Errol Morris and the Harvard Film Archive to, at 23, the head of film programming at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Walk into the Eastman lobby and there's a TV monitor with Dowd on a loop giving a talking-head lecture on silent cinema.
A top-level serious job has done nothing to quell Dowd's grand humor, and he was responsible for the cleverest April Fool's gag. His clownery occurred at the Eastman House this April 1, when Dowd, after placing chairs and a pitcher of water on stage, walked to a microphone to introduce the evening's screening, the 1977 John Landis-directed comedy, The Kentucky Fried Movie.
Dowd set the scene for me: "I'd donned my camel-hair academic sportscoat and announced that we got a call from Landis, who was shooting in Toronto, that he was thrilled about the screening and he might try to show up. I said, 'We have a great surprise. He's here, and he's provided the director's cut of The Kentucky Fried Movie. Ladies and gentlemen, John Landis!'"
Some of the audience applauded wildly, others seemed mystified, as a middle-aged man with a beard, dark shades, and a director's baseball cap came out from behind a curtain. Was this John Landis? Who knew what the director of Animal House and The Blues Brothers looked like?
Dowd and "Landis" took their seats. "I compared him to Kubrick, known for three hundred takes," said Dowd. "He explained about a shot in The Kentucky Fried Movie, in the episode called "Catholic Girls in Trouble,' in which breasts are squeezed against the shower glass. That shot required 319 takes to get it just right.
"I then compared him to Bresson as a spiritual filmmaker, as The Blues Brothers is about men on a mission for God. I mentioned that the American Film Insitute was compiling a 'greatest lines in the history of cinema,' such things as 'You takin' to me?' I said that any list would have to include the El Guapo line from Landis's Three Amigos.'Everyone has one El Guapo in his life.'"
sAnd so it went for fifteen minutes, until "Landis" (actually Sid Rosenzweig, a film professor at SUNY-Rockport) stormed off the stage in a tizzy because he was caught by Dowd claiming, erroneously, that he had directed Ghostbusters.
Then the movie started. "We never yelled out, 'April Fools!' Dowd said. "So a lot of people still think it was John Landis that they saw."
Dowd and I conversed as we drove through Rochester on our own mission. Louise Brooks, the silent movie star, immortal as the bob-haired nympho Lulu in G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box, had spent her final decades residing here. She'd arrived in 1956 when she was down and out, and James Card, Eastman House curator, courted her with personal attention and with retrospectives of her important films, such as A Girl in Every Port and Beggars of Life.
In her Rochester days, she wrote opinionated memoirs, collected in her 1982 autobiography, Lulu in Hollywood, and she was visited on film-historian pilgrimages, most famously by Kenneth Tynan for his book, Show People. She died in 1986.
Could we visit Brooks's Rochester residence? We found the address, 7 North Goodman, but the woman who occupies Brooks's very modest two rooms said no, wanting privacy. Every six months a Brooks fan rings her buzzer, the property manager, Jennifer Galvin, said. "And people have told me they only want to live here if it's in her apartment."