Print the Legend

In 40 self-sacrificing years at the helm of the University Film Society, Al Milgrom has seen his reputation grow to mythic stature. How this grumpy old man might cope with turning over his life’s work is another story.

Still, as with that unedited film stock in his basement, Al does have a way of holding on to things. Years after the international festival moved from Stillwater to Minneapolis, he nostalgically clung to the nonsensical Rivertown name--"which river, which town" became a society in-joke--before finally relinquishing it in 1996.

"Al's a classic procrastinator, just ignoring the situation," says former employee Chris Dotson, who remembers how the society was evicted, along with other tenants, from a converted church in Stadium Village. (The university demolished the building in 1997 to construct student housing.) Milgrom hung on till the bitter end, staying even after a new office had been procured--and after the university had cut off both heat and electricity.

"In those last few days, we were packing up, and somebody came in and saw Al in his office, without any lights or phones, but still pounding away on his manual typewriter," remembers Bob Strong. With a space heater and extension cord, Milgrom kept pumping out press releases and flyers until employees coaxed him into the new space.

Few dispute that Milgrom's tenacity has kept the Film Society alive through the booms and busts of the art-house industry. Yet the Legend of Al Milgrom has done nothing to improve the group's low rank on the U of M's priority list for parking and office facilities. Last year the university stopped underwriting the society's rent for office space. You can see why rumormongers got ahead of themselves when indie-film godfather John Pierson erroneously told the film-news wire service indieWIRE in 1999 that "the university has finally closed Al down after 35 years."

As his employees attest, without Milgrom, U Film would collapse. And at least one funder has shown concern over this fact. In 1997 a panel of the Minnesota State Arts Board recommended withholding its annual General Operating Support grant, which every significant arts group in the state receives almost as a matter of course. The decision was reversed, but only after Milgrom lobbied board members around the state and enlisted the aid of legislators. "I will...grant that the UFS could have a better structured management," wrote state Rep. Phyllis Kahn to the board, "and that the director (Mr. Milgrom) may not be the easiest person to deal with. I would imagine, though, that the popes probably also had their problems with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci."

Milgrom's combination of putting off, and fighting off, the inevitable can be comic. Last year, according to Randy Adamsick, he fell off a ladder outside his house. "I was talking to him and suddenly he said, 'Ugh, I hurt my side,'" remembers Adamsick. "I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'I was out painting my house. I was getting off the ladder, I missed the last step, and I fell.'

"I said, 'Oh, really, you were painting your house?' He said, 'Yeah, the city was going to give me a citation if I didn't throw some paint up there.'

"If you see his house, there's barely any paint left on it. The idea of masking it by throwing a little paint up there was a pretty funny concept."

 

In recent years Al Milgrom has spoken more frankly, and in specific terms, about plans to pass on his life's work. But those plans have a way of falling apart. Early last summer Jane Minton of the Independent Feature Project/North approached U Film about buying the festival outright: administering it for a year, then taking full control by 2002. The offer included funding to phase Milgrom into retirement; the society itself has no money dedicated to that cause. (At times Milgrom has drawn little or no salary, supporting gaps in his income with social security.)

"The main reason why we wanted to buy the festival is that this town needs to have a highly visible, well-organized festival," says Minton. "Al is operating on a model that is based on nonprofits circa the Carter administration. It's not professionally operated. And some of the staff that are there drive people in this community crazy. I can't tell you how many phone calls I get from members and people who just moved to this community who say, 'If we can't work with Al, can we start our own film festival?'"

Minton met with the board several times. But talks fell through when Minton caught wind of the proposal on the table from Bob Cowgill and Oak Street, who had already received grant money to hire a corporate facilitator and enter into merger negotiations. "Al was doing that and us at the same time," says Minton. "I don't think he was ever even remotely serious."

The Oak Street founder says he hastily prepared a proposal of his own last August and presented it to Milgrom. This time, he wanted to avoid the mistakes of his previous advances, which, in McQuinn's words, "blew up in his face." Back in 1997 he had approached U Film board chair Kate Tennessen with the ideas of merging.

"We didn't have a merger facilitator, we didn't have a structure set up," Cowgill says. "And I was just sort of shooting from the hip. The reason I did it that way is that in my first conversation with Kate Tennessen she was sort of [saying] 'Yes, we need you.' And I think she got out ahead of where her board was."

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