Living UneditedAn Indie Filmmaker's Reflection on Life, Friendship & Film
© Copyright 2021 by Chris Doerner
visiting one of my closest childhood friends, probably for the last
time. "How's that for a teaser?" As Tom would say. Or
"Don't give away the ending too soon". Anyone who knew
Thomas Kennerly III, knew he was all about the "Film" or
more accurately, the stories he wanted to tell through film. Treasure
chests of yellow legal pads are redolent with story ideas, rants,
raves and character outlines. Peer intently into scenes from his full
length Indie features or shorts and you'll see bits and pieces of him
on public display, his DNA integrated into every scene much as a
child is the product of a parent. But woe betide you if you tried
prying anything out of him any other way. This contradiction was part
and parcel of the person I've known for decades. Presented for your
approval-- A man tending toward guarded privacy when interacting with
people one-on-one, allows everyone in the world to view his pains and
triumphs publicly. He might say that's what an actor does. It was
certainly true with him.
Crack open any of Tom's books on his "No-Budget" Film-making strategies and you'll always find a nod to the 3-Act story structure. Beginning, Middle. End. It's classic story telling and the formula audiences expect in films. Tom imbued everything he wrote or filmed with this life lesson in mind. He was adamant about the need for this jumping off point; that leads to the arc of action; that leads to a dramatic and satisfying denouement. I am trying in my own meager way to honor things that were important and impacted Tom's life. Some you might know. Some you might guess at and some you'd never believe. Others have different recollections or none at all. That was classic Tom. You only ever got a sliver of his true self. A bright light never on for very long and then always snapped quickly off. It is in that spirit I feel the need to apologize. I record what I remember based mostly on my direct experience and a few other folks with their own unique glimpses and glimmers of Tom's true self. So meander with me a little way down the road, while those that knew Tom; reminisce.
In honor of my Friend, here's our opening:
We met in
7th grade. Specifically Mr. Farias' homeroom at Samuel M. Ridgeway
Middle School in 1974. Back then, Edgewater Park, NJ didn't get many
older transfer students. They were quite the novelty. Enter Tom,
designated the NEW kid, all nervous energy in a classically
irresistible blonde hair/blue eye combo. Under normal circumstances
it would have made any 7th grade girl swoon. Sadly, he was
fire-hydrant short and just as stout. I don't know, maybe Vince
Farias saw something deeper than a chub factor when he decided to
seat that new kid smack dab next to the other fire
sized 7th grader in the class. I don't remember exactly how we hit
it off, it just seemed that after a couple of days Tom started coming
over to my house or I would inexplicably find myself at his. The
bonus was he lived only a few blocks away in Edgewater Park's "new
Tom's father, Thomas Kennerly Sr. (along with mom Edie, and the Kennerly's three other kids), recently transferred from California to New Jersey via the mighty Morton Salt Company. Tom Sr. was apparently quite the salesman and moved around from one area to the next, wherever a territory needed his magic touch or perhaps just a bit of his salty humor. I remember so many items with the Morton Salt logo on them. Likely, there were hundreds. Plates, coffee mugs, clocks, or shirts, whatever premium Morton Salt gave away that month found it's way into their house.
Like Mr. Kennerly, it seemed Junior was always destined for sales. This meant our boy enlisted the services of both me and my younger brother Steve to do chores he should by all rights probably have been doing by himself. It may be an antiquated notion now, but back then, a 12 year old could in fact deliver papers, collect money and return home without being snatched up to disappear onto a milk carton. Tom delivered for the Burlington County Times. In 1974, daily newspapers were delivered 7 days a week, and quite hefty. Wednesday and Sunday papers were even larger behemoths of girth and weight. And the average paperboy's route was large. Often two canvas bags barely kept papers from spilling out and even the coolest banana seat spider bike looked unwieldy. On the plus side, Tom's route was within the confines of the Edgewater Beach apartments. His "friendly" sales approach went something like this.
Tom Kennerly,12- stands in front of a huge mountain of newspapers.
Tom's two friends Chris-12, and Steve-11, stand on the other side of the pile in wide eyed amazement.
So you want to ride today?
I'd really like to go riding
with you but…
(gestures toward the enormous pile)
…if there was only some
way I could get all
these papers done…
What about this?
We can split up the pile and get
it done in no time.
That might just work!
A flurry of activity ensues as the boys add inserts to the papers, roll, bag and pack them into delivery bags. Each rides off in different directions. Tom hangs back. In all the frenetic activity Steve and Chris don't notice Tom has not placed any papers into his own bag. They exit.
(tiny evil giggles)
I think I need to
go to Fidalma's Deli.
Tom gets on bike & rides off.
In our defense, we were pretty young and easily bamboozled by a fast talking flimflam boy. Or it might have been the fact Tom paid us in Cokes and Tastykakes.
TK regaled us about the oddball folks he delivered papers to and worse, collected bills from. His best one- a middle age red headed woman living at the complex's farthest cul-de-sac. No matter the weather; cold, hot, rain, snow, she always came to the door wearing a see-through blouse; barely buttoned. The oddest paid her bill with one hand while grasping an enormous butcher knife in the other. This is a true story, he took me with him one time to collect. I agree that it was the largest butcher knife two 12 year olds had ever seen.
Embarrassment of others was always the frosting on Tom's Tastykake. He was smart and sneaky about it, but also brilliant too. Early on he got us a lot. Between Steve and I, he also got a twofer. How galling to enter his house and then stand stupefied as Tom screamed upstairs in his loudest outside voice:
"HEY MOM, CHRIS AND STEVE ARE HUNGRY AND WANT SOMETHING TO EAT".
Awkward silence from me and shrinking into nothing reaction from Steve, the shy brother. God bless Edie, she never embarrassed us and there was always snackage afterward.
only a few short months before Tom, myself and Steve became
inseparable. Over time Tom befriended our other childhood friends.
Chris Keller, Ray and brother Andy, Lori Van Sciver, Bob Mason,
Bonnie and Bob Montgomery; Carolyn, Sherry, Debbie Montgomery (no
relation to Bob and Bonnie) and peripheral acquaintances all merged
freshman and sophomore years into what other students in Burlington
City High mockingly called The Doerner Gang. We never really cared
about the name and it seemed awfully funny that while we were
considered outcasts, many students sat next to us at lunch. Maybe
the other kids thought we were funny or we didn't judge or we didn't
put up with other kids getting picked on; but a lot of that was Tom.
While he often sought out the embarrassment potential of others for
humor, neither he nor any of us could stomach bullies. And having
been raised as a Marvel Comics true believer, you wouldn't put up
with them either. In 1975, before all the films and computer games
and darkly-themed graphic novels; Marvel comics were a 9-grader's
bible on hero behavior. Tom's hero? Thor. When we all thought we'd
make an 8-mm movie about our comic heroes there was no other
superhero Tom considered playing. "The Mighty Mjolnir" was
indeed Tom's phrase of personal power; and sometimes used to describe
a certain part of his anatomy in an effort to make time with girls.
It was awkward to hear him talk about things "that way"
when none of us really had a clue about the opposite sex.
This was also the year Tom got his first and I suspect only nickname. Just a word about nicknames--they're awful. You don't get to pick your nickname. It's always assigned to you and usually by someone you don't like. So our rotund little Thor lover was in sophomore German class with yours truly. It's one of the cooler languages no longer taught in most small schools. Not a bad class overall and Teacher "Herr Harry" Seals was a school favorite. I still fondly remember Mr. Seals' dulcet tones of "Meine Damen und Herren, Bitte wiederhole es sie ", Ladies and Gentlemen, please repeat after me. He oozed that middle high accent like a German TV announcer but never came across as hoity-toidy. He was well liked even by students that did not take German. I don't remember why Mr. Seals wasn't in class that day, although as I recall he was close by. The final bell caused a dervish of activity as last minute students sprinted into class. Sophomore year included a few seniors trying to fill in their credit requirements. It was well known Mr. Seals could be a soft touch in that area. The fact was not lost on the athletic department either, so Jocks were sprinkled in with, well; the rest of us. For some reason a couple of these Jamokes decided to pick on Charles. Charles Yates was the son of a famously wealthy, local businessmen. He was large; a soft-spoken, bookish type not generally given to violence. These goons started picking on the guy. While Charles stolidly tried to ignore them, the potential for violence escalated. The class saw Charles was outnumbered three to one, but no one else was making any moves. That's when Tom looked at me. I looked back. Exhaled a deep sigh, and we both stood up. Tom was a little ahead of me desk-wise. So there we were, back-ups to the big, but outnumbered underdog. Awkward for us two little fire plugs. I think one of the goons laughed. He turned to Tom and said
" What you gonna do---SPANKY?"
God forgive me I remember thinking I was glad I wasn't the one in first position or I might have taken that hit.
Then Charles surprised everyone by shouting at the top of his lungs something along the lines of "you want to go, lets go." Then flipped over two desks with a swipe of one massive hand. Both landed about five feet away and clattered the way only chrome and laminated desks can clatter. Thor himself couldn't have done any better. Fortunately before anything could proceed to cage-match level carnage, Mr. Seals came careening into the room. I remember him actually snapping his fingers and saying firmly "stop that right now". No fight ensued but the ultimate loser was Tom. He put up with that nickname until he moved between junior and senior year.
For us, there was only one way to salve the cruel sting of a bad nickname. A movie theater. From 1970 to 1985 there were about a dozen theaters located within easy driving distance. And wonder of wonders, a single theater just on the other side of route 130 in Willingboro, NJ. That one was an easy BIKE ride, just across a super busy highway.
The Fox movie theater had definitely seen better days. It always smelled dank. Tattered, velvet covered seats had seen their fair share of soda spill, old chocolate shmear and teen angst soaked into their very core. Popcorn was always a little stale and candy choices a bit odd. I tasted Necco wafers for the first and last time there, as well as a candy called Jellies. "The Fox" as we liked to call it, was cheap. When Jaws came out in 1975, a huge line snaked it's way almost into the Willingboro Plaza parking area. Part of the line length was the film. The other was the cost of entry. How much? About a $1.25. Movies were more than a child's escape then. Our teenage minds merged "the Real" with "The Reel" and came up with a fervent desire for what happens on celluloid to somehow manifest into this 3D world. The wish, as it were; made flesh, so to speak. And when it doesn't or doesn't in the way we believed it should've, we decided to take matters into our own hands and make our own films.
really our own films. Oof- a blatant rip-off copy of "Monty
Python and the Holy Grail", recreated, as envisioned through the
minds of School students. I discovered my parents 1965 era, 8 MM
movie camera and promptly confiscated it. Film cost was exorbitant at
$2.50 per fifty foot reel. Development was $2.19. Then send it out,
with editing on the return. There's a reason why making movies was so
expensive then. Film costs. A lot. Add in extra film for mistakes. We
realized our expense issues after the first few reels. Allowances and
bike repairs could only go so far. My first big lesson in film
making. Fifty feet of home movie film equals three minutes of screen
time. Tom of course played King Arthur. Chris Keller played his
trusty servant Patsy; while the tall, awkwardly proportioned Brian
McNeil played the dreaded Black Knight. The rest of us made costumes,
acted and even did special effects. My second lesson in film
making--ketchup on celluloid film does look pretty real. And another
tumbler in the lock that was Tom Kennerly appeared to click into
the year of Burlington City High's musical "The Fantastiks".
That production truly infected Tom with The Actor's Disease. This
comedy about a boy, a girl, a wall and their father's feud was our
junior year opportunity to finally shake off the Doerner gang image
and get into the wider world of high school musicals. And also to
maybe date some girls. We all tried out for parts and amazing but
true, Tom actually landed one. Mortimer, a hammy actor that always
died so well his fans wanted him to die again and again. Not a lead
but a great character supporting role. Bob Mason, one of our other
friends, was Mortimer's partner-in-crime. He played Henry, a world
weary and crotchety old actor. As with most high school performances,
I don't remember the play being that good but Tom and Bob brought the
house down, they were so funny together. It seemed they got some of
the loudest applause when taking their bows. Tom fell in love for the
first time with Valerie Cox, the female lead. A gorgeous strawberry
blond that seemed to fit the form Tom the Adult would date in later
years. While they never actually consummated their relationship with
a real date, she paid enough attention to him so he might have
realized that there actually might be a dating life for him
somewhere, far off in the future. So it was right there that Tom
decided to be an Actor.
Or he might have been a motocross rider. Tom and Steve had a part time business repairing broken bicycles, inside the Kennerly garage. Kids really did pay them for repairs. It wasn't a mint but kept them in Slurpees and junk food. When not tinkering with repair gigs, Steve and Tom spent their summer on specially designed bicycles; riding the sandy dunes of Muskrat Hill near the border of Edgewater and Beverly. Muskrat Mountain or Hill, depending on your township; wasn't really a mountain but a long string of hillocks that ran uninterrupted from Palmyra to Bordentown. Only kids with steely endurance could make it the whole way. Prior boasts by older kids proclaimed it could be done. Yet none of those kids ever actually knew someone directly that made it round trip. I always thought it made for a great story though. And with my two gimpy legs, corrected with hip replacements at 19 and 25, I was in no shape to make a go of it. Tom and Steve spent their sophomore-junior summer weight-lifting and bike sprinting
to master the endurance needed to complete "The Ride". You might call them 70's era adopters of the x-games bike racing.
After an exhausting day of workouts we'd retreat to my parent's garden shed roof to wait for the quiet coolness of the evening to wash over us. We sprawled out and watched stars turn. And talked. Those late night bullshit sessions covered the universe. No subject was taboo. Whether girls and girl parts, or world problems or Steve and Tom running away from home to form an Enduro racing team, or the latest 45 or LP release; that roof was the place to talk about it. A place to make it real and spin it off into the summer night as a wish that might indeed be capable of coming true. Even a hushed whisper to live as motocross champions. It was during one of these sessions Tom disclosed he had a feeling he wouldn't live past fifty. Eventually TK squirreled enough cash away to buy his own motocross bike. That first purchase graduated Tom into the big leagues and afterward he only rode the dunes mechanically. He never rode a bicycle again.
summer rumbled big changes. Tom finally shed his height and weight
issues. Friday night parties hosted by Bob Mason and his niece
Patty-Anne became quite the talk in Burlington City. With few
exceptions, Bob talked to and was liked by every female in school.
Maybe the girls sensed something us fellas could not. Err, maybe we
didn't have the sophistication and education to realize, but looking
back it was obvious Bob was Gay. Apparently that equaled chick magnet
in BCHS, circa 1977. Girls always came to Bob's parties. It also
didn't hurt that Bob's sister also bought us, Booze! That's right,
what would likely end in a parent's arrest today was just another
70's era right of passage. Patty-Anne's mom was older than Bob by 12
years. It always puzzled us how an Uncle could only be a year older
than his own niece. But the direct line to alcohol and lots of it
didn't have us examine that situation too closely. The Mason's
backyard became a bi-weekly festival. Real lit candles. Party
lanterns. Music. Food. Some of the weirdest non drug-laced incenses,
with names like patchouli, vetivert and ylang ylang. A chance to
actually talk to a girl, fast dance early and grind into your last
dance partner for the 9 minutes it took Led Zepplin's "Stairway
to Heaven" to finish. When Ray Rebilas followed suit and began
having his own basement parties on alternate weekends; it seemed the
old Doerner gang would also finally shed the weight of it's high
school credibility problems.
Then the bottom dropped out. Mr. Kennerly transferred to Midwest Morton Salt in Naperville, a small town outside Chicago. The Kennerly's moved again. Less disruptive for the kids to move during the summer apparently. Tom's sudden exit left a friend-sized hole in the Doerner Gang. For me it was the loss of that person owning the other side of your brain. The quick wit and verbal short hand that becomes a language all its own. A "finish the other's sentences" connection. I also missed speaking German with Tom. But it was tougher on Steve.
Steve was always cursed with a shy streak. My personality ran more gregarious. Despite some physical limitations at the time; I was more comfortable socially. But those awful, awkward social situations were anathema for my brother. Steve and I shared the same bedroom for years, so he could follow my lead when we were out and about. It gave him the protection of distance since he had someone ahead of him to act as "scout". This stomach-ache ridden shyness kept him anxious and guarded during his teen years. But with Tom, he could be himself. Steve's quiet nature allowed Tom to be the leader as he served as Steve's social shield. Mix in my brother's aptitude for tools and willingness to work in silence if necessary and both were content as Tom prattled on about last weekend's party, their plans to buy a van and head cross-country or his lust over the fiery, red-headed Novak sisters that refused to vacate his high school fantasies.
spanning 1978 and 1979 was a long, rough patch. Remember, no
technology keeping you instantly connected. At best one landline for
an occasional long distance call or hand-written letters to send.
Steve wrote copious amounts of them that year, and was by turns surly
or morose. Most conversations centered on one of them going out or
coming back. Steve constantly begged my parents to let him visit
Chicago. I was surprised when they relented, although he could go
only by train. No flying.
Years later, Steve disclosed that first year our parents allowed the visit ONLY if there were an adult to ride along with him. It was Mrs. Kennerly that stepped up and volunteered to chaperone. During his return trip Mama K said Tom too was near inconsolable and talked about nothing but trying to get back to Edgewater.
makes the heart grow fonder. That is true. Distance however, just
makes a person--distant. Tom's senior year was his time for
re-invention. Our hero was now taller, thinner and had the looks,
finally; that made those corn-fed Illinois girls swoon. Ever the
salesman, Naperville students caught tales of a rough and tumble
urban NJ high school experience. Like West Side Story, BCHS was
presented as a leather-jacketed thug and any given day might erupt
into switchblade knife fights or rumbles. Now make no mistake;
Burlington is one of the tougher, blue-collar schools in the area.
Still is. It could be dangerous. The anti-bullying
today were not around in the 1970's. Truth was, real fights occurred
occasionally while fights with weapons were quite rare. Never one to
let reality stand in the way of a good story, Tom spun a tale to
create an invulnerable outer shell. Apparently the girls loved it, or
at least bought the illusion. Blend in a city boy/country boy dynamic
that Tom pressed to his advantage, and most of those Naperville
school-boys lay cowered and intimidated. At any rate the pain of
Tom's absence from the Doerner Gang healed somewhat over time and we
learned to get along without his quick wit.
It's also fair to say I moved past his absence with a great deal less pain than Steve. Not a particularly conscious decision on my part, but one that occurred with surprising ease. Senior year I juggled with my own angsty issues: steady jobs or lack thereof, a loose cannon of a girlfriend and fretting about college-- given my rather average grades. Between limited funds and actually attending college, I couldn't do the one thing my brother had been anxious to do since gaining his driver's license and working for real as a contractor's apprentice. Travel to Chicago. As Steve tells it, "Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town was newly released" (this is how my brother recalls his life events…) and was smitten. Every bar and measure of Bruce's music was dissected for insight or inspiration. Forlorn or rousing interpretations kindled a creative musical energy of its own. After squeezing every ounce of serenity or wisdom or rhyme scheme, Steve moved on to other artists. Steely Dan in July became Elvis Costello a few months later or Joe Jackson during winter months. Music's healing balm doused many of his anxieties. But Springsteen stood out louder and larger than most. It's not surprising this blue collar working man's rocker was exactly the kind of persona both tried to emulate. Remember the Thor lover from 1975 reinvented himself and Springsteen became the new role model. So Steve jetted off to the Midwest off and on through 1979 and 80, to visit his friend. It's interesting to note the younger brother, the shyer brother; felt this relationship important enough to maintain despite how anxiety producing the travel might have been.
Sadly, I couldn't claim that much energy and consequently felt the sting of Tom's move less and less, especially once a couple of years passed. Our relationship appeared in my rear view mirror and I suspected Tom felt the same. Looking back now, Steve commented those years really made him feel like he was waiting for something to happen. We were all stuck in some cosmic waiting room with reality right outside the door, poised to bushwhack you. It was true; none of us seemed old enough or experienced enough to push forward into that full time 40 hour work week called Life or young enough to crawl back to that hippie carnival in Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain".
However, Steve's Naperville forays always rejuvenated him. Perhaps the brand new surroundings intrigued or maybe Steve was finally sloughing off his anxieties. Or it might have been that Steve's old comfortable social shield was new and improved. And knew girls. I was in the loop through my brother's visits, so was at least aware of Tom's bigger accomplishments.
Tom dated his first major girlfriend, Melinda. With a break-up up shortly after prom. Mrs. Kennerly sent my parents their senior prom pictures. The pictures show a happy-ish looking couple wearing a ton of hair product while the boy sported a reddish velour tux with trim. Quite flamboyant by today's standards, but was all the rage then. And both our couple's assets on prominent display. Just to be clear, the hair product was Tom's. Melinda looked lovely.
Tom attended Northern Illinois University. His major fun fact-- he and Jim Belushi often attended the same classes together. As one of the most famous alum of Northern, Tom felt Jim was cashing in on his brother John's fame and really didn't have that much talent. NIU coeds were very accommodating as well. This was never spelled out to me specifically, I just assumed. Then graduation and an entry-level position as a junior executive toiling in one of the premier financial companies in Chicago's business district.
But the world turns. Mr. Kennerly relocated back east again. The move spun their family closer to home. A little town near Harrisburg. Camp Hill, PA became home-base for the next fifteen years.
the cliché says, goes on. Tom's distance in the measure of
miles now become distance as measured by time. And, by inclination.
Steve continued to invest in their relationship and traveled to
Harrisburg, most weekends. Friday evening, after a hard day of labor;
my brother barely brushed the sawdust off before jumping in his truck
to be PA turnpike bound, before the 5 PM rush. Edie Kennerly waited
patiently, knowing Steve would be in Camp Hill soon. She'd have a
delicious dinner cooked with love and ready on the table by his
arrival time. Tom's appearance occurred shortly thereafter, and was
followed by a 10 minute teasing session with his mom while they ate.
A quick shower, and the boys were ready to prowl by 9 PM. Wake up
late Saturday morning. Send girls home. Grab the $1.29 West Shore
Diner breakfast. Movie. Wash. Repeat. Ahh, the energy of youth.
I, however, remained that feller on the periphery.
Steve's cycles of weekend debauchery continued through the early
1990's. During that time period I broke up with my first girlfriend,
struggled through college; taking 7 years to finish a four year
degree, worked night shifts, did occasional freelance gigs and hoped
to realize my dream of becoming a director. Steve settled into his
skill set and became a Master carpenter. He gained his first serious
girlfriend, lost parts of two fingers and gained a business partner.
Tom finished his degree and then a Masters at Penn State. Finally, he
rolled out of an institution of higher learning with an advanced
diploma. He parlayed that right into a job at Johnsonville Food
company. They're famous for their Brats. Then came Coca-Cola. Then
Nabisco. Then AMP Electrical. And more still. These speedy job
changes occurred in no particular order.
Whether Tom took jobs that required him to move from place to place or actively sought out new locales he never said. He was famous for saying he never took vacations. If he wanted to go somewhere to visit he'd go there to live. Mamma Kennerly mentioned his 18 moves over 22 years. So you have to look quickly or you might miss 6 months in Harrisburg becoming a year in Conshohoken, PA, which in turn became time in LA that rolled into Belgium and Tahiti twice a week for the defunct airline People Express; to the next and the next and the next. The same could also be said for the ladies he dated. Color Tom, unsettled.
Between big, well paying jobs and not, there was always one occupation he just couldn't quit. Bar tender. During the 80's Harrisburg underwent a reinvention of its own, rising from the doldrums of urban decay and rebirthed as a city fit to be Pennsylvania's capital. Tom apparently reveled in the pace this new version the city produced for itself. Formerly abandoned buildings and shabby hotels revitalized, becoming hubs of night life and magnets for a young, thirsty crowd. Drinkers crowded brass and glass or wood and velvet bars, clamoring for booze and all too eager to toss a ten spot at a hot looking waitress or bar tender. One end of town sported the "VIP Club". This was fly-over PA's version of New York City night life. "Jackets required" and the dance floor lit up just like Tony Manero's dance scenes from Saturday Night Fever. IROCs, valet parked; lined the side streets. Club dancers spritzed themselves in the ladies room with Eternity. For the men, only Grey Flannel Cologne would do. Harrisburg's alternative rockers, had the "Metron". Later--"The Met". This was punk city. Day-glo Mohawks and swollen metal studs clash-danced with mesh, leather and lace-clad hotties. Spray painted graffiti fought with disturbing images broadcast on TVs lining the walls. And every bar space in-between. Tom was in heaven and swam the waters of these two extremes like a great white shark. Gorgeous career barbacks with names like Sandy, Lori and Candi glittered like planets around Tom's orbit. Girl's came and went and with few exceptions never stayed long. I actually met a few of these kids during Tom's stint as a local business owner of a luncheonette called Hoodlemeier's.
was named after Tom's grandparents. Mostly a sandwich heavy menu, but
what was unique was his marketing. The eatery opened at noon to
catch state worker's lunch hours, closed at 3 to re-opened again at 9
PM. Customers packed the place from 11:00 PM on until a few hours
past last calls. Vintage memorabilia, old radios and antique pictures
festooned Hoodlemeier's, and everything on the walls could be
purchased. For my money, a pretty sweet setup. Also sweet, a
groupie-sized batch of young ladies loitering inside the shop; vying
to make time with our man Kennerly. Sadly, it seemed during this time
period Tom attracted ladies either looking for something Tom couldn't
provide or worse, were "Fixers". You might know the type.
Women sense something is amiss in another person and feels she'll
be the one to correct the wrong. Instead of a self-examination, they
fixate on another. So it was with Tom. I believe that impenetrable
persona grew a harder shell, making it damn near impossible for
anyone new to get inside. He became a surface impression only guy.
Nice. Funny. Good looking. All surface. I suspect Tom Sr. and Edie
wondered what was going on. I'm sure they knew a bit about how many
ladies their son dated and were perplexed why their eldest couldn’t
just seem to find the right girl and settle down.
And why not? When I studied Communications in college I learned about something called initial decisions. These are not the "should I order chocolate or vanilla?" thoughts but deep down life affecting affirmations that determine how a person will compose and comport themselves for life. I believe young Tom was deeply hurt by how he was judged for his appearance, and one of his earliest initial decisions was discovering a way to make those girls pay. When he moved, got taller, thinner, and better looking; he had just the weapons he needed. For proof I submit exhibit A: A scene from "The Happy Caterpillars", Tom's second feature film. Actor Eric Nelson plays Ted, the only male lead. At one point in the film he discloses to Maura (played by Lacey Carmany) about being overweight and overlooked by everyone. Ted confesses he used his better looking body changes like a flail on women. That was one of Tom's most private revelations on open display for all to see. I was the Unit Production Manager (UPM) and a producer for that film and it left me stunned.
I'm not sure what Tom was thinking about during these years. I couldn't know. Except for an odd appearance or two, I didn't wander into his world often. But even my limited sight allowed me to see this hardened exterior was crustier and grew more deeply inward as Tom aged. I already knew he did not always treat the ladies he dated very well. He was impatient. Things said or promises made never had any follow-through. Over time this harshness included my brother. Steve grew protective and walled off his vulnerable parts. Bar friends came and went. More girls went than stayed. Then Steve's visits slowed. It was over. A relationship dies in neglect. And in Steve's mind, Tom no longer wanted or cared to maintain anything. At best, this was a passive-aggressive way to say I've moved on. However you slice it, the young boy aching to get back to Edgewater Park would never, ever visit that hometown again. Steve mentally centered himself and severed most communications. He started seeing his future wife. I had gotten married and was splitting my occupational time as a trainer for the disabled and running an auction business.
The 1990's moved into the 2000's or "aughts" as they say. And it seemed no one was talking to anyone anymore.
mean to say is, just because we didn’t talk anymore didn't mean
there weren't trickles of information. For decades my parents and the
Kennerly's exchanged Christmas cards, usually with short notes
attached. Occasional guest appearances occurred. My wedding, Steve's
wedding, Tom's graduation. One of these appearances actually became
part of the Doerner family history. When Steve married Anne, our
niece Jessica was only three. Daughter to Katie and hubby Mark,
Jessica demanded inclusion in the wedding. Shy but cute as a button,
Jesse was dressed adorably in a little white dress just like Anne's!
Kate kept reminding Jessica that it was Anne
not her. Enter Tom. He actually agreed to be one of Steve's
groomsmen and waltzed into the church, spiffy as the devil. His charm
with women was on full display. Shy little Jessica took one look at
that blond-haired bastard and leapt into his arms. She certainly
never did that for any of her uncles. Jesse also rubbed salt in the
wound by chanting over and over again. "Tommy. My Tommy."
Too cute; damn him. But otherwise we were mostly AWOL from each
through the Kennerly grapevine Tom continued his restless job moves.
In 2003, he paused long enough at a health care software company to
knock one out of the park for them and scored a multimillion dollar
K-mart contract. That commission bought his first house, right on one
of Harrisburg's premier golf courses. Tom always fancied himself a
writer and that house purchase fanned desire into a real writing
flame. The house of course, needed work. Work by professionals. Where
to find that…hmm.
It was a dated little California-style house. Less house than bungalow, it sported overhanging roof lines and wide frame angles. A huge selling point for a young bachelor was the Jacuzzi on the back. But the house needed fixing. At this point Steve was 20 years a contractor. So there was Tom on the phone actually hiring Steve to work. Repairs over several weekends. Tenuous, but a sliver of connection. I helped Steve with his last repairs and we were able to go out for dinner. I remember thinking how civilized we'd all become. It was in that house we met Tom's creative partner, John Burnheimer. He and Tom developed and produced a song and dance comedy act. John was a rather large and friendly fellow and could have been a Kevin James stand-in. John achieved local fame as a DJ around many Harrisburg Clubs. Large, in charge and in demand; he was treated in his own way like a king at every nightclub he frequented. I remember going to one and standing there agape, as a writhing dance crowd parted like the red sea to get him up to the DJ booth. And he wasn't even scheduled to work. John was kind and thoughtful even if it irritated Tom that most days he wouldn't wake up until mid afternoon. Steve and I couldn't help but murmur whether this was an incarnation of Tom, had he not gotten taller and thinner.
Their comedy act notwithstanding, Tom's cycle of job changes continued. He worked network contact (or it might have been one of his bar buddies) Brian Kennedy. Brian owned a financial business servicing mortgages. Tom got himself all licensed up to sell. Then he went to work for another friend, Tim Straub. Tim owned the busiest real estate company in Camp Hill. I don’t remember if TK actually sold real estate but I know he moonlighted; fixing Tim's properties for rent or sale. After putting the finishing touches on his musical comedy duo, "The Trailer Kings" became successful in its own way and developed a cult following. Tom played guitar and was the straight-man foil played against John's costumed character excesses. These ranged from an extravagantly oversized woman to a farmer that had an inflatable sheep stuck on his overalls. The bits were pretty funny. I still have some of their shirts.
Trailer Kings was successful enough that Tom considered filming it for broadcast. I was invited to critique the show and what would be needed to record. Small things at first. But it started something.
Tom began calling, and talking Film. We never really lost our interest after all and this became my tenuous connection. The limited media technology pre-2000, left me few professional opportunities for broadcast employment. There seemed to be no way to break in, so I called it a day. A thoughtful mature decision, although a bit sad. My training days were over, thanks to a periodic layoff in the non-profit industry and I devoted full attention to my auction business. Those Film conversations clearly planted something in Tom's head and he apparently spent a lot of time planning. Because this time Tom made a BIG move. To California.
reached out next, he'd been in LA nearly six months. His and John's
relocation landed them in an overcrowded flat with a diverse cast of
brand new actors. Tom was pushing forty but his due diligence
directed him to Central Casting, and regular Extra work. It landed
him on IMDB. His headshot's a killer. The blond hair, those blue
eyes. You can see a Mona Lisa smile blended with uptown snark.
Classic Tom. There's a joke and he sees it but he ain't letting you
in on it. Tom writes about this time in his life for his book "On
the Lot". Central Casting worked him every day with barely a
Saturday off. But he truly loved it. Exhibit B: Look closely at the
opening sequence from the "Desperate Housewives" pilot. There's
"Executive" Tom in business suit, to the left of
Bree. He and his car also had a regular gig playing a neighbor on
Wisteria Lane. Or watch Will Ferrell's "Bewitched" when
Samantha, played by Nicole Kidman, wiggles her nose. Look at the door
to the left. There's Tom, going bananas along with the rest of the
group. Or "The Good German". Tom stands inches away from
George Clooney. Or "Smokin Aces". He's just behind Ryan
Reynolds and plays one of two cops dashing up an escalator. After
take 6, Tom said something funny afterward. Reynolds thought it
hilarious and they spent time hanging out.
To all appearances Tom was permanently ensconced in Hollywood. He learned to navigate the choppy world of film done LA-style. Spare time was spent developing networks of locals that knew the lay of the land. His main guide was Greg Swartz. Greg directed some small time LA shoots and knew a few D-list Hollywood elite. They grew quite close. It also didn't hurt Greg was a transplanted Harrisburg local too. TK learned no- is a no-no in LA. Who wants to be the dud that passes on the next Titanic or Blair Witch Project? However, Greg's main access to stardom was via Amber Benson. She played Tara in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". They sold Tom on the virtues of tax incentives for Films. Tom learned about sizeable breaks in Pennsylvania that could be re-sold. Even better, this was in his wheelhouse; so he began planning how he might leverage a PA tax deal into something bigger. Short term, Greg, Tom and John planned their own film.
John had a club contact back in Harrisburg with a ten thousand dollar check in hand for filming "57 Sunny Days"-- screenplay by our boy. It was filmed in Harrisburg and shown locally. It garnered festival love, but Tom really ached to do a Feature. And there was that whole funding thing. Well, at least Tom was back in Camp Hill again.
Fund raising for films sounds easy, according to 99% of the books on the topic. Here's the setup: Get five producers together. They find 10 people willing to put up a few thousand each. Then your film gets made. Or get some friends & family to give you money. Trust us, it doesn't work. We tried. Tom believed surely it would be easy to raise a few hundred thousand. Tom was a master of sales. Jay Robert Scott, a new producing partner found in a casting call; excelled in Pharma sales. An overall exercise in futility. In fact, most small features get funded because someone needs a tax write-off! The odds on a film then getting into distribution are even smaller. But Tom was a clever fella.
He continued to pick my brain about film equipment and all the media stuff I used to do in college. It was nice to feel needed. My auction business trundled along well enough and I enjoyed the shop-talk. But my own brain churned after discovering a contact from my non profit days won a large court settlement. This cat had millions of dollars and was eager to invest. More importantly, he loved film. After reading the script, he liked the hook and was open to hearing Tom's pitch. More than open in fact. Tom's screenplay "Swag" appeared close to getting green lit. Tony Williams gets his name in lights, a "Produced by" credit and as many half-naked starlets as we could stuff into his accessible van. I finished my task of signing on a producer. He was our whale and intended to stroke a 1.2 million dollar check. The crew were giddy. It looked to be a go.
Then Tony Williams had a stroke. A decade plus friendship dissolved and he no longer remembered who I was, complicating the trust needed to willingly sign an eye-popping check. That was a crushing setback. But Tom was not discouraged. All right, he was discouraged. But persevered. The high budget screenplay "Swag" went back into a closet, while he waited for inspiration. An idle thought became the story line that became "The Two Roomer".
I would point anyone interested in the details of filming "The Two Roomer" to read "On The Lot". Suffice to say we had a classic Indie film experience and learned what went into feature-film making outside LA. In the meantime Greg also returned to Pennsylvania and connected with Aurora Films. This Harrisburg-based production company financed Greg's dream project "Another Harvest Moon" and fielded a treasure trove of 50's era actors. These included Ernest Borgnine, Doris Roberts, Ann Meara, and Robert Shiff. Both "The Two Roomer" and "Another Harvest Moon" released a few months apart. Harvest cost $600,000 and ran one hundred thousand dollars over budget. The Two Roomer? $14,000. Split between 5 producers. Yes, Tom had certainly learned a thing or two in LA.
important thing was our re-connection. Decades old echoes of riff and
rhythm started rolling again. The process was a bit creaky. Rusty
joints needed more oil, while hairlines were grayer, or thinner. But
the dust gathered over old relationships was brushed off and 30
year-old hopes held in emotional storage for so long were finally
getting unpacked. While my brother needed the healing power of music
to cope, film was the medium that started bringing us back together.
It started healing us all.
"The Two Roomer", filmed over 10 days and edited in two weeks; was ready for release. A distribution deal occurred 30 days after Tom sent off screener copies to distributors. York International gave us a nasty deal front loading all the profits to York first. But we had arrived. A full-length feature, delivered and in distribution. Organized a successful premier that garnered local Harrisburg press. Paid for said Premier and sold out on tickets. We even covered the cost for two of our LA actors to fly out for the party. And Tom was flat broke. Months spent concentrating his All into this pure beam of light during production ate through everything the man had. His exhaustion was clear and the evening we wrapped, he finally slept for 24 hours. But it was a clean, healing sleep. It was the sleep of satisfaction.
So Tom wrote more. Scripted more. Spent time with Wilhimina Modeling Agency organizing acting seminars. He sold mattresses. But the power of Film never left him. It gripped him like nothing else. No job, no sport, no occupation, no drug or woman could compare with his new-found direction. This was his dream come true, his real superpower; an ability to get full-length Indie features across the finish line.
His next project- The Happy Caterpillars. This was a faith-based inspired film. He hoped to cash in on an audience that appreciated denser writing styles. Hapcat, our working title; was an ensemble piece with four main characters and some extras. We lucked out location-wise and filmed 90% of the movie at Camp Hebron, 40 minutes west of Harrisburg. We rented an unused cottage for cast, crew and principle photography. Production meetings occurred during the ride to camp, or on the way back. Tom directed while I served as unit production manager and executive producer. We lucked out by getting Lacy Carmany to throw her young back into the project. She stars as Maura on screen and did double duty as "den mother" to the cast and crew. It didn't hurt she was smack dab age-wise between the cast and Tom and myself. Every contact he could think of was tapped to help carry the load. After principle photography was over,--damn it if he didn't do it again. Film done. Edited. Ready for distribution. Another sell out for the Premier Party at Hershey Antique Car Museum. Lessons learned from the debacle with York, Tom made the film available on Amazon. By November, 2012; Tom had another 90 minute feature under his belt. All completed for the tidy sum of $4,800.
After Hapcat's wrap, I noticed real change in the man. While there were occasional sparks and gruff bluster, it softened. Tom called more. My wife Elaine noticed if I was unavailable, he would talk with her --sometimes for an hour. Tom never used to do that. I was thunderstruck when Tom mentioned he always respected Elaine for never getting in the way of our desire to make films. Amazing, since I wasn’t sure he had respect for any woman. Then he reached out to Steve, despite having no substantive interactions for years. He was warmer now, in his calls and approach. Self-deprecating humor replaced snark. Closed off Tom disclosed more personal things about himself than I ever heard before. I suspect his newly aware vulnerability stemmed from a hospital visit, mid 2012. Poker-hot chest pains sent him into the ER. He thought heart attack and was relieved to find out that it was just a severe attack of reflux. "It's the coffee", he complained. Lab tests and doctor's recommendations suggested cutting back on coffee and any foods that exacerbate reflux. They cautioned some of the acid trickled into and around his heart area, causing some level of heart damage and was something Tom should keep an eye on. However, after a few months of care, Tom was back to his normal level of health. Once again he focused on merging his professional business life with this new skill-set/love. And he wanted to make another film.
project this time was a horror/romance called "Not Love."
The premise? A May December relationship has Cliff, fall for a new
neighbor; a much younger and energetic Kelly. Kelly has some issues,
especially her boyfriend's inattention. Cliff's bluster is a shield
to keep people at bay but his heart softens for this anchorless young
woman. Two broken characters yearn for true love, perhaps with each
other. Tragically, Kelly gets murdered and her ghost appears to
Cliff. Only he can see her. She's doomed to walk the earth since she
does not know her killer. Kelly begs Cliff to help in the search. The
hook? She's starting to decay. Cliff was Tom's last appearance in
a feature. There were some production and casting problems inherent
in this production. We abandoned what we learned earlier and it bit
us. Filmed only on weekends. Tiny crew and minimal set dressing. The
result has an interesting Spartan look, but actually lay in the can
for awhile while we tried to figure out what to do with it.
Tom changed jobs again. His desire to merge work life with movie life appeared complete when he was hired by a Lancaster-based production company that made training films. A senior vice-president made a film short a decade earlier and was impressed with Tom's track record for features. But Mr. Kennerly was actually hired for his sales prowess. Tom took me there once to look over their production facilities and gain insight into how the facilities might be used to everyone's advantage. I even remember being tested by his production crew on how well I identified a plethora of science-fiction movie posters. Apparently I passed since they treated me like a long lost relative after getting the posters correctly identified. The junior partner wanted Tom to co-produce. You could feel it. Gears spun in both their heads as Tom organized a pitch to make a larger budget film using company resources. Tom was about as happy as I'd ever seen him. The staff were good homey folks and Tom genuinely liked the atmosphere.
It came as a surprise when the owner fired him. Apparently not performance-based but rather something to do with the owner's insecurity. Tom knew both sides of production and sales. During the exit interview the owner even disclosed he was afraid Tom might take over his company. Inwardly, Tom probably chuckled to himself. Outwardly, our polished professional thanked him for the opportunity. There was a fair severance and out the door our man went. He was 53.
Tom released "Not Love" into the internet wild, making it freely available on Facebook and Youtube. This film failed only in the sense we never determined its final fate. A casting issue became apparent in the rough cut, making it unwieldy. Our cinematographer's efforts to re-edit showed he was clearly out of his depth. Some film occupations need to be kept separate for a reason. Enter to save the day one Lacy Carmany. This kind and beautiful woman jumped in, tightened up the rough spots and got it into an approximation of something TK could stomach releasing. He re-titled it "Death's Embrace"-- a moniker I never really liked. Yours truly got another producer credit and a third feature escaped Tom's yellow pad noodling. The film was online for a few months when Tom got an interesting call. How about that--A distribution company inquired about purchasing rights for Death's Embrace.
Tom also received another call. Customer Focus, a California software company with headquarters in London, became Tom's next job incarnation. Training to occur in LA. And the world appears to spin in circles. We must be doomed or blessed to tread over the same territory. While there, Tom reminisced with his new fellow co-workers about his acting gigs. He met Lamont Wilson's daughter there. Wilson was the Son in the 70's hit "Sanford and Son". Some of the old Kennerly charm was used to get her to go out with the group after work. They got along famously.
knew when Tom birthed a new film project. Cycles of phone calls
rotated faster the closer we were to pre-production. Those contacts,
often and easy; reflected a Tom more at home with himself. More
mature. Serene. His superpower ready for use again. I only wondered
what the film was. A script he'd previously written or another that
had no title yet? Tom occasionally recycled scripts into new
directions so it might be one of them. No. It was new. The
distributors interested in Death's Embrace would pay a premium if Tom
produced a Christmas story too. "One with a dog in it", he
told me. In 10 days he wrote 66 pages. His title: "A Third Floor
Christmas". Here's the pitch: A grizzled and cranky older fella
is redeemed by a young woman that never had a proper Christmas. They
live on the third floor of a smallish apartment building. Comic
characters and oddball adventures crash into their lives. Key is the
fact that no pets are allowed. No one knows that cranky feller
actually owns the building. Girly saves the life of the man, he rips
up the no pets allowed signs and girly gets a dog at the end. Get
I recollect discussions with Tom after Death's Embrace wrapped about whether we might be getting too old to "make films" anymore. Tom's ambivalence teetered between concentrating either solely on his career or totally on his passion. But like any drug--he couldn't leave it alone. I've always maintained as long as there's something to say and a way to say it, why not? Personally I regretted never taking my shot and moving to LA after college. I used two bad legs as an excuse but the reality was-- I was afraid. Too far from everything I knew. So I chose to stay. And then this big, hunky blond guy came traipsing back into my settled life. That's right--- I'm old enough to say it now and not be embarrassed. That Kennerly was one good looking cat. He appeared and upended the routine of my regularity with that whispered phrase--
"Come make a movie with me."
I never had children of our own, but our god-daughter Dina comes
close as you can get. She too has been well and truly bit by the
Acting Disease. For years she wanted to be a player in Tom's films.
"When you are a little older" I'd respond, and her eyes
shone as one film came after the next. Now that she's in college she
needs to do whatever she can to make her acting dream come true. She
needs to go when she's young, before she knows enough to be afraid to
go. She needs to flounder and go from job to job and have no money
and room with oddballs. She needs to make ends meet and lose it all.
She needs to Act and Dance and Write and argue with parents that
don't understand why she won't just settle down. She needs to fall
and rise again. She needs to scream at the world and not harden her
outsides into an impenetrable shell. Or rather, harden them just
enough so she can take it and be successful. And maybe when all that
happens… when all that happens and more….there will be
someone close to her. Someone who whispers in her
make a movie with me.
I got a call that Tom Kennerly the third died of a heart attack on January 29th, 2016.
So here we
are, only a few days before TK's memorial service. We've traveled
near the end of Tom's story line. His jumping off point, that leads
to the arc of action; that leads to a dramatic and satisfying
denouement. Sadly, we have no satisfying dénouement. Tom did
not escape the clutches of whatever gripped him. No super-powered
hero came in to save the day. No last minute rescue that only happens
with celluloid heroes or when scribbled on yellow legal pads. What is
saddest for me is we will never get a chance to see what was
happening inside my friend. What might have
happened in a
year, or three, or ten? What was still evolving inside when he took
his last bow? I saw real kindness again and felt his decades old
impenetrable shell begin to soften. My last, whispered wish for Tom
would've seen him remove that shell for good.
"The course was changing", Steve noted when we raised a glass in Tom's honor. Back to what he was when he was young and didn't know any better.
Once a person passes, the fluid spontaneity of their life becomes static. The record of their life lays behind them like pages in a worn scrapbook with no further opportunity to add to it. But all is not in vain. Tom's inability to verbalize his true feelings and his affections for others is not lost. Look. Just look at his films. Look at the shorts and his features. Go online to his web pages or the pages of his scripts. Read his diary or any of his books. It's there--- in all his children.
"That was the Martini Shot.
We are now in Post…."
Thomas S. Kennerly