RR LogoThey Shoot Mimes Don't They? - Filmmakers Christine and Mark Bonn

We are not quite sure how we first met documentary filmmakers Christine and Mark Bonn, except to say that the introduction came through social media. Like so many who work hard at their craft, it did not take look to understand that Christine and Mark are very passionate about filmmaking, they are very good at storytelling and they really do care about the people whose stories they tell. While their Second World War documentary series about the lives of veterans, serves as a fabulous tribute to the those men and women who served America and preserved our freedom, it may very well be their next release, They Shoot Mimes Don’t They, which garners this husband and wife team the most notoriety. The film, which they hope will be released at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, chronicles the life, career and escapades of mime Robert Shields a native Californian who came to the attention of those in San Francisco through both his performances and what some might consider to be outrageous acts at Union Square in the 1970s and many will know him as one-half of the mime team Shields and Yarnell (Lorene Yarnell). Shield and Yarnell had their own television program for one season during the seventies and appeared on significant shows of the day including, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Red Skelton Show, The Muppet Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

“We were thinking that we really have vetted ourselves as documentarians doing these types of stories and a weird thing happened when we ran into Robert at a local art fair. He is an artist now and he travels around. We told him what we do and he told us about the Sedona International Film Festival (in Arizona). We ended up entering that with Vi’s film (Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story) and we won the Audience Award. This is a big festival, a really big festival. For us to win we were blown away. The next year, Robert was back at the art fair again. We had communicated back and forth and we had sent him all of our films. We said thanks again, we won. He said Oh My God, you guys are those filmmakers. Somehow it just came out and we said if you ever think about doing your story and before I even got story out, he’s like yes! That was very cool. We started thinking that this is the type of story that might get us more national recognition, as far as television and stuff like that. Then we can go and say, here is what we are also doing and we really need help doing this. Maybe we will be able to find funding to finish the In Times Of War project,” says Mark.

The three films already completed for the In Times Of War project Letters To Defiance, In Times Of War: Ray Parker and Wings Of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story have to date won twenty-two awards at film festivals in the United States and Canada.

The following year the Bonns ended up at the Sedona Film Festival again and got permission to enter some of their older films including the film about Ray Parker, which won an Audience Award. Robert Shields, who now sculpts, is a metal Art craftsman and he designs jewelry lives outside Sedona and so Christine and Mark Bonn filmed him for four days.

Mark says, “It all started to come together quickly and then like a VH1 behind the scenes, tragedy struck. Christine was thrown from a horse and she was laid up for a good five months. We have just started getting back to this project and it is going like gangbusters.

This will be our first feature film and the way that it all kind of weaves together, it is going to be neat. Luckily Robert kept almost everything that he has done and that has been recorded. He sent us a box of tapes.”

Christine laughs, “He sent us three boxes.”

“There are about forty or fifty hours of just amazing stuff from the sixties and the seventies,” says Mark.

Christine and Mark Bonn have also been able to utilize a lot of vintage film and television clips of Robert Shields, due to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and fairness of use, because they are not repackaging it and selling it, but simply using the clips to tell a story. They say that at most they might use thirty seconds from a particular scene.

Apparently Robert Shields is not a very sedate individual during filming. “He is hard to keep in his chair. Usually we are shooting someone who is eighty-six and Robert is up and down, up and down. I couldn’t take my hand off of the camera, whereas a lot of the time I can stand back and just relax,” says Mark and he laughs.

Christine says there are so many layers to the Robert Shields story, “It is weird how one thing after another keeps coming into play. There is a whole side of it that we just discovered in the last two or three weeks and we had no idea about. That is the Popping Community. They call it Underground dance, but now it’s not so underground, because you see it on So You Think You Can Dance and that kind of thing. It is a style of dance.  We have Madd Chadd and he claims that Robert is his inspiration. He thinks Robert is really considered by the Popping Community to be the grandfather of Popping. Here Robert is from the late seventies and early eighties and he is still a huge sensation with kids.”

“They are all of a sudden using this mime that Robert does. His mime isn’t traditional mime. He did the robot first. It is kind of a weird style, but these kids have taken it and moved it into dance. They may have heard that Michael Jackson watched the Shields and Yarnell show and taped it to try to learn the robot. He got Robert to teach him how to do the robot and then he took that and turned it into dance,” says Mark.

“As Robert is wont to say, Michael would phone Robert and ask Robert to come over and teach him that, but Robert says, I have to tell you that Michael took it to a whole new level.  He gives credit where credit is due and he understands that he was an inspiration, but…,” says Christine.

Mark adds, “This is what the Popping community sees, this is the guy who taught Michael Jackson the robot. christine and mark bonn photo 2

Robert told us that he had been arrested four or five times doing his act in Union Square. One of the newspapers (we looked at) had two of the arresting cops names, so Christine contacted the San Francisco PD and she found one of the cops. We went up to San Francisco and we interviewed him.  He was hysterical. The guy was so funny, because he was such a cop. He was great. He worked in San Francisco in the sixties and the seventies and he saw a lot. (He recalls the officer saying) ‘We show up (where Robert had been performing) and he’s not talking and (an attitude of) I don’t have time for this. We removed him from the situation. I don’t speak mime (Christine and Mark laugh). He was a card. That was great. We found him. During the interview, Robert had mentioned he had one photo of a woman named Amy Hill and while Christine was laid up, I just started doing searches on the web for people and stuff like that and I found a letter to the editor that she had written five years ago and it had her email address on it, so I emailed her and said is this the same Amy Hill who knows Robert Shields? It turns out she was.”

Christine says, “Robert credits her with helping to bring him to San Francisco. That was the start of his career pretty well.”

“She was the first female reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine and she wrote a big article about Robert. After writing the article about street performers in San Francisco and (after meeting Robert), she told him that he needed to move to San Francisco. This one gesture is probably the biggest thing that has ever happened to him in his career. The years that he did up in Union Square made him pretty well famous,” says Mark.

“That is where Red Skelton discovered him,” adds Christine.

Mark recalls, “Francis Ford Coppola put him in The Conversation (1974, starring Gene Hackman).”

“The mayor of San Francisco gave him a proclamation for being one of the biggest tourist attractions for San Francisco, second only to the cable cars,” says Christine.

“Amy told us you have to talk to Billy Skudder. It is kind of neat this whole path. It turns out that Billy is really important, because he is the first one to ever put Robert into mime makeup. Robert showed up at the renaissance fair and Billy was a mime. This is the late sixties and Robert asked Billy what are you doing? Billy did a little finger motion, come here, and put white face on him and they walked around all day together,” says Mark.

“Billy is famous for being Charlie Chaplin in the IBM ads during the eighties,” Christine informs us.

Before starting their own film production company My Monkey House in 2002, both Christine and Mark Bonn had already established solid reputations in the film and television industry.

“Christine and I originally worked together at WNED TV in Buffalo, New York, back in 1986 and we really enjoyed working together, but it was for a brief time. On Labor Day weekend 1986 I moved to L.A. and began working for Fox. After 9 / 11, it was a weird time here in the States, things at work were slowing down and we thought well, we either take what is given to me at work or we try to find our own work, so we started talking about it and we decided to buy an editing system. We started doing at home, what I did at work. Right away we got very busy, which was great and then work started picking up again, so we were trying to do both and there was a period of four months when there was so much work, I didn’t think that I was going to make it,” Mark remembers.

Mark talks about the work he was doing away from My Monkey House, “I do work for the on air promotion department of Fox Network. I ended up getting some work with UPN at the time doing shows for them and then Warner Bros. I was working for a couple of different companies, but cutting promos again. It is an art, but it is also a grind. You are taking a forty-five minute show and telling the story in twenty seconds, fifteen, ten or five.  For example at Warner Bros., ER was doing an international launch and it was season nine, so they needed all the promos cut for the entire season. That was a thirty, twenty, ten, fifteen, five seconds for every episode. There were twenty-four episodes and they needed those done in three weeks. When it was presented to me they said we have the scripts, all we have to do is cut them. I thought, I can easily do that in two weeks or less. Well that’s not what it was. It was no you need to write them and it was crazy.”

 “Because of that, Mark started out working seven days a week with me helping him out on the weekends at home with My Monkey House. The problem was it became more than eighty hours a week and we started to realize about three months in that he was doing something that he didn’t necessarily enjoy at work, so why were we making ourselves do it at home. That was the tipping point for us as to whether we were going to continue My Monkey House as a postproduction thing or did we want to take it somewhere else,” says Christine.

Mark says, “I still do work for Fox and it is a daily hire position. It is a freelance union job and next Sunday I will have been there for twenty-four years. It is a daily hire, daily fire, but I guess I have been there a while (being just a bit cheek and they both laugh).  When I started it was only two nights a week of programming and we had 21 Jump Street and a couple of not so great shows, so I thought, I will do this for a couple of weeks and this thing will go belly-up.

What has been nice is they (FOX) are very understanding about the projects that we (My Monkey House) are doing and they have given me the time off whenever I have needed it, to go shoot or to go to a film festival.  I give them a lot of credit for that and it is really cool. They could just as easily say, no we need you to work this day and if you are not available then you are not available and we don’t need you.”

The first documentary of consequence for My Monkey House was the 2004 film, Letters To Defiance, based upon letters that Christine Bonn’s Uncle Fran had written home during the war, while he was serving overseas.

“I had been telling Mark for years about my uncle’s envelopes. I remember them so fondly. When we started to talk about doing documentary films, my uncle sent me a copy (of some of his letters). He had Xeroxed about ten of his envelopes and Mark said, ‘Oh these would make a great documentary.’ We originally thought the documentary would be just about the envelopes, not even realizing, which is silly of me, that they were World War II envelopes. There were 614 of these envelopes. That’s a lot (she laughs),” says Christine.

Christine and Mark Bonn photo 3“We sent Christine back to Defiance, Ohio and we would talk on the phone. I was here in L.A. Every day she would call up and say (something like), I just read his Mother’s Day letter. Oh my God I just read his Christmas letter. Then the whole thing just turned and we realized that we needed to have Uncle Fran, not just talk about the envelopes, but to read the stories. It turned out he was an amazing writer. In the movie, he reads about eight or nine of the letters. His grasp of what is going on in that moment is just so great. It is a time capsule. He captured a moment in time, wrote them down to his mom and he just truly poured out his feelings,” says Mark.

“One of the things that hit us the most was the dropping of the atomic bomb. I grew up knowing that an atomic bomb had been dropped and with them ringing those alarm bells at school and you would go out into the hall and cover your head. To me it was a second nature thing. I don’t know if that makes any sense. To hear Uncle Fran read this letter about that day and the fear of what it meant for the future and that this was the first time for them that an entire city was wiped out by one bomb in one second. For us, we grew up with that and it didn’t really hit me until hearing him talk about it, as it happened and how scary that had to be. What did this mean for the future? That was the thing too, his thinking beyond just that day. I think that really hit home in terms of capturing the time and what it had to be like,” says Christine.

Letters To Defiance begat In Times Of War: Ray Parker.  “Exactly. What is funny about Letters To Defiance is we thought this was going to be a one off and we actually had shot a documentary before this one that we still need to finish. Letters To Defiance went out to some film festivals and it received really good reactions. We thought this was great, this is kind of a fun story and we should share it with everybody. Every town that we went to, we would meet somebody who would say, oh you need to talk to my neighbor or you need to talk to my uncle or you need to talk to this person. We were in Durango, Colorado and a worker at the festival said, ‘Hey you have the World War II film and you should talk to my neighbor Ray Parker. He’s got a great story. I gave her my card and Ray called me,” says Mark.

Mark extended an invitation to Ray Parker to join him at the showing of the film that night and he purchased a ticket for him. Ray Parker and his wife Ethel sat behind Mark Bonn as the film played.

“At the end of the film Ray leaned forward and he said to me (Mark imitates a deep voice) ‘Well son that is quite the business card that you have.’ We went out for coffee and Ray said let me think about it. By the time he got home he said, yes, I would like to tell you my story. That just sparked this whole thing and it started us on a roll. We started getting story after story.

Ray’s story is just amazing. He was a young guy growing up in Compton, California and working as a copy boy at the Los Angeles Examiner. All of the teletypes went off and he went oh my gosh, what is that? The editor asked what it was and he said that the Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor. Ray looked at the editor and said, where is Pearl Harbor?

He signed up the next day and he joined the air force. He flew his first mission with Jimmy Stewart. He got shot down on his tenth mission and he was taken to a prison camp. At the camp they found out that he had worked at a newspaper, so they put him in charge of the underground newspaper. Everybody was organized at these camps, just in case they tried to take over at some point. Ray ran an underground newspaper for thirteen months,” says Mark.

“It was a daily newspaper. Ray got caught right before the war ended,” says Christine.

“Christine found five of these papers and we had Ray read his old paper,” Mark says.

“We don’t actually know for sure (how the papers were saved). I am assuming somebody hid them in a wall or something and once they were liberated someone took them out. The papers that we still have are major events, (like) D-Day, the liberation of Paris and the end of the war. We think that somebody saved them and our theory is it was the guy who was doing the cartoons. The D-Day one has his name on the cartoon, which I doubt he would have done, while he was still a prisoner, so I can see him adding his name after the fact,” says Christine.

As one can imagine, there were times when it became difficult for the veterans to recall their experiences and Mark acknowledges that at times they would talk for perhaps ten minutes and then would start to break down.

Christine says, “My Uncle Rog, who was in anti-aircraft, looked me in the eye at one point and he pointed to his head and said, I know this was sixty years ago, but I tell you, and then he pointed to his heart and with tears were starting to come he said, but it feels like it was last week.”

“A lot of these guys did go through a lot of trauma, so that is the hardest thing about doing these stories. I will watch their eyes, while I am filming and I can tell alright, we need to wrap up in about five minutes. I have little signs that I give to Christine and that means we are coming towards the end, so get the questions out that you want. The last thing that we want to do is to put these guys through anymore trauma,” says Mark.

Christine and Mark Bonn are self-funding the In Times of War documentary films and so even though they have shot interviews with a lot of veterans, which still have not been released, they are up against time, because so many of those who served our country have passed on or are very, very old. It is the opinion of this publication that even in difficult economic times there are enough wealthy individuals and companies and departments of the government that could collectively invest in preserving for this generation and future generations the stories of the men and women who ensured a free nation exists and that created the environment for the accumulation of that wealth. It is time to give back. Christine and Mark Bonn already have.

Wings Of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story is a great example of why it is important for these documentary films to be made. How many people today know about The Women Air Force Service Pilots (W.A.S.P)? During the Second World War the government created a division of the air force for women to test fly the aircraft being built and to fly them to their points of departure, because there were not enough men left to do so, as they were serving overseas. Vi Cowden was one of those women.

Why is it important to Mark and Christine Bonn to tell these stories?  “It’s history told by the people who lived it. Once it’s gone, it’s hearsay. What we are doing is capturing the person’s actual tell and it is important to learn from history, because if you don’t we are going to repeat it. I think too, you see all of the stories on the history channel about the big battles and the big ships and the big bombs, but we (also) think that it is important to get that individual story. The telling of the story personally, so that you can see it in their eyes. You can really feel it. I would hope that Vi’s is a testament of that. For her it was more that joy and you could really see that. She has been such an inspiration to so many women, young girls and men as well. We have had high school students come up to us after watching the film played at festivals and say to us, we so wish this was in our schools, because we learned so much more watching this,” says Christine.

After watching Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story, this writer wishes that she still remained with us, but she passed away in 2011. We would have liked to have said thank you, instead we will say thank you to the veterans of all wars who still remain with us and a special thank you to Christine and Mark Bonn for making sure that we never forget that armies and navies and air forces are made up of men and women, who are the sons and daughters, and fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers of real people and they have made and continue to make tremendous sacrifices.

Please visit the My Monkey House website to learn more about Christine and Mark Bonn and their films.

Top Photo:        Christine and Mark Bonn at the Sedona International Film Festival, holding their Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Short 2011

Middle Photo:    At the Yanks Air Museum with Vi Cowden

Bottom Photo:   Mark Bonn films from inside a B-24 bomber as Vi Cowden flies in the P 51

All Photos are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved and are the property of Christine and Mark Bonner and My Monkey House

Interviewed by Joe Montague, 2012

This interview is protected by copyright © and may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved