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Reel Talk: New Media Artist Revives Historic Celebrity Conversations

Prof. Liss Lafleur hopes to make her radio host grandfather’s collection of more than 300 interviews, including an interview with Liberace, accessible to the public.

At the age of 11, Visiting Assistant Professor of Digital Art Liss LaFleur inherited 300 reel-to-reel recordings of famous interviews from her radio host grandfather. Until now they have been sitting untouched in a chest that he built.

"I've always been hesitant to listen to the tapes because it's really the only thing I have left of my grandfather, but I realized that they need to be heard," said LaFleur.

Liss LaFleur

She has launched a kickstarter campaign that will run until Nov. 22 with the goal of raising $10,000 – the cost to digitize all 300 tapes. Donors can choose to give a dollar, which digitizes a minute; $35 for one tape; or $70 for two tapes. The recordings include interviews with famous figures such as George Bush, Bill Archer, Kathy Whitmeir and Bishop James Pike.

Three of the tapes have already been digitized and animated through the PBS series "Blank on Blank." The first to be released is Liberace on "What He Would Do as President of the United States," coming out this fall, while Marlene Dietrich on "War & Warriors, the American Credit System, Space Exploration, Sex, Success and the ‘Youth Cult'" and Timothy Leary on "LSD" will be released in the Spring.

"Once I heard one of the tapes, I needed to hear them all," LaFleur said.

As a new media artist, LaFleur is looking forward to how the project will allow her to work across media, thereby making the material accessible to a wider audience. She plans to incorporate radio, text, video and public art to tell the stories.

She worked with PBS's media lab to animate her grandfather and bring the characters back to life. "It's so weird to hear his voice," she said. "I remember him telling me stories as a child, but I had no idea how knowledgeable he was, nor that he had this whole other life. It's like I'm hearing him as a new person."

The Man Behind the Mic

Who exactly was LaFleur's grandfather that he had the opportunity to interview celebrities, politicians and so many others? Jay Kent Hackleman was the host of KTRH Public Radio Station in Houston from the 1950s to 1970s, one of the first talk show radio hosts in the city. The interviews were aired on his show "The Way We Were."

LaFleur said, "He left the tapes to me when I was 11, and I don't even know what I was interested in at 11, but he must have seen something in me that I didn't see in myself – maybe a compassion for others and their stories, or an obsession with observing things."

When LaFleur discovered that one of her grandfather's tag lines was, "the past is prologue," she said got goosebumps because her own work not only focuses on nonfiction and community-based storytelling, but also blends documentary and experimental modes of representation to explore questions of identity and queerness, performativity and historic parallelism.

"I've always known that I wanted to be a storyteller, but had no clue that this curiosity was so embedded in my genes," LaFleur said.

Ironically, her grandfather had wanted to sell recordings from the collection to PBS for a broadcast series and donate the originals to an academic institution. "He really believed in higher education and the power of education, so it was really important to him that the tapes could be used as a resource to be researched and studied," she said.

If LaFleur reaches her $10,000 goal, she will first archive and digitize the tapes, then snipits from each recording will be placed on a website grouped by theme and date. She will then raise funds to support the creation of a book, film and interactive website. And, in accordance with her grandfather's thoughts, she plans to eventually place the original tapes within a collection at a university for further research and safe keeping.

"What I really hope is that viewers can use the tapes to look back on history and have a new conversation about these topics with the tapes informing those conversations," she said. "I believe that they can shed light on things that are important to a lot of different people."