Anthony Ladesich never got to buy his father a drink.
Ladesich was just 19 when his father, Vincent Floyd Ladesich, died after a brief illness in 1992. Afterwards Ladesich vaguely remembered how, when he was about 12, his father had called him to the basement one day, excited to play him some tape recordings of his friend from World War II.
Ladesich, a self-described punk, was more interested in riding his skateboard than listening to his dad's old tapes. But after his father died, Ladesich dug through old boxes and found the reel-to-reels.
After threading the first one, Ladesich hit “play” and what he heard blew his mind.
It was the mesmerizing voice of Charles “C.B.” Embree, who wrote under the name Riff Charles for Esquire magazine in the 1940s and ‘50s. On tape, Embree was reading one of his Esquire stories called “Be It Ever So Humble, There's No Place...,” about the death of Kansas City jazz.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, for all the Freudian existentialists, for all the Zen Buddhists, for all the subterraneans of the Beat Generation, who as Lord Buckley so beautifully put it, don’t know where they’re going, but they know that where they are isn’t it: a fantasy entitled 'Be it ever so humble, there’s no place.'”
The melodious sound of Embree’s voice, the rhythm of his words, his Beat references, Ladesich says, “completely obliterated my brain.”
Listening to his father’s friend, he realized: "If my dad's friend was this cool, then, ipso facto, my dad was this cool too."
Vincent Floyd Ladesich and C.B. Embree had been stationed together on the Naval base at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. During the day, they were in charge of photography and graphics for the Navy base. But at night they turned the graphics lab into a studio where they recorded jazz standards and made up fake radio shows (they called their imaginary radio station WOLF – “broadcasting over the Rational Broadcasting Corporation").
After the war they kept in touch by sending each other reel-to-reel-taped “spoken” letters, which is what Ladesich discovered in his father’s boxes.
“It was just a mind-blowing experience to think: My dad had a life before he was married, before he had me," Ladesich says. "Not only that, but it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
More than two decades later, Ladesich – now a filmmaker and musician — has turned the tapes into two short movies.
The eight-minute “Be it Ever So Humble” is what Ladesich describes as a “cosmic collaboration” between Embree’s words and his own filmmaking. Set to the audio of Embree reading are images Ladesich shot at the Mutual Musicians Foundation (including Kansas City jazz musician Bobby Watson as the “ghost” of Kansas City jazz).
The five-minute “Studio A” includes Ladesich’s interview with the still-living Embree in Los Angeles, along with archival footage of Embree, Ladesich’s father and a man named Ken West, the third conspirator in their Navy-base after-hours recording sessions.
Ladesich might never have been able to buy a father a drink; instead, he recreated part of his old man’s world. For Ladesich, the experience was transformative.
“I’m an artist, a musician, a filmmaker – I’m never fitting into square society, I’m never going to be able to sit behind a desk do something normal for a living,” Ladesich says. “But the one thing I did know was I would never not tell stories, never not do something creative, no matter how good it is or not.”
Seeing his father working with other creative people, he says, validated his own artistic pursuits.
“I come from a long line of renaissance people,” Ladesich realized. “These guys were the best role models ever.”
Editor’s note: This story was originally published before a November 12 Kansas International Film Festival screening of Be It Ever So Humble, There's No Place...