Conversations about Creativity
Musician & Filmmaker
Everybody has a Unique Story
August 29, 2017
Dennis “Eric” Cosh (ParadigmVideoProductions.com), filmmaker, photographer and musician, has been involved in the arts since the early 1960s. He was a member of the famed “New Christy Minstrels” singing group and later the folk duo, “Eric & Errol.” Photography and filmmaking have always been his passion. He has won awards for film production, been frequently featured as a writer, speaker and judge for the Event Videographers Association and created numerous commercial productions. Eric now focuses on producing biographies and family histories. He teamed up with writer Ellen Palestrant to produce and direct the films, Sammy The Journey and A Holocaust Trilogy. Eric is based in Phoenix, Arizona.
Ellen: Eric, you’re a singer and a musician. Did you grow up in a musical environment? Were both or either of your parents musical?
Eric: My father was very musical. He was a teacher and wrote our High School song. He was just a natural musician even though he had never had any training of which I’m aware. I remember one uncle who was a doctor singing all the time, especially when he and others were drinking. Both of my parents always encouraged me to sing.
Ellen: So music and singing were part of your life since childhood?
Eric: Singing came totally naturally to me. I sang in the choir from the time I was about four years old and I remember my parents telling me that our neighbor recorded me singing when I was 3 years old on a wire recorder. I don’t remember hearing it.
I used to sing along to records, starting with the old 78’s but never bothered to know the words. Later in life when I actually saw the words to the songs I was singing, it blew me away. As an example, one song that I loved to sing but didn’t understand, was Lambs Z dotes and dotes Z dotes and little Lambs Z Divie, a kidle e dive e do wouldn’t you. The actual lyrics are Lambs eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy, a kid will eat ivy too, wouldn’t you. I also loved to sing along with The Great Caruso on old 78’s and 45’s.
Ellen: Did you actually know any of those lyrics?
Eric: Talk about murdering lyrics and vocals trying to sing Italian along with Caruso, but I still really enjoyed it.
Ellen: I can picture you doing that. What about your singing during your high school years?
Eric: I sang the solo at my High School graduation.
Ellen: And when you were in the Air Force after high school?
Eric: I still sang, in fact the drill sergeant had me sing the cadence during basic training.
Ellen: Would you say you were driven to sing or perform, Eric?
Eric: I think it was more that I just enjoyed it. Even though I have always sung, I was also always very nervous when performing – and that continues to this day.
Ellen: So singing for you was both a needed and natural form of expression and also, an act of courage. What about musical instruments? Did you play any instruments as a child?
Eric: How a child is taught is so important. A good instructor can have a lasting affect on the life of an individual and sadly, so can a bad instructor. For me, my introduction to playing a musical instrument was not positive. The first instrument that I ever played was the piano and I must admit I hated it. I don’t think that I actually hated the piano, but did hate the instructor. Back then, music theory was all about scales and all I wanted to do was play music. The instructor had a pocket watch and he continually looked at it during the lesson making me feel that I was wasting his time – talk about confidence building.
Ellen: How long did you have to endure this kind of treatment from him?
Eric: I either quit or the instructor quit or maybe my parents just decided that perhaps piano wasn’t the instrument for me. They were right! During the next fifteen years, I went through the following instruments: Trumpet, Trombone, Tuba, French Horn and several other brass instruments until I discovered the Guitar. By that time, I was in the USAF.
Ellen: All this before you became a member of The New Christy Minstrels. The road to becoming a part of that group was anything but direct. First the Air Force, and then many detours and ups and downs along the way. Could you please tell us something about that road taken sometimes with intention, and sometimes, it was pure serendipity?
Eric: My bumpy road to The New Christy Minstrels was more like Gulliver’s Travels. I think it really started when I was in the Air Force, stationed in Sioux Lookout, Ontario in 1958. Sioux Lookout was an isolated radar station where temperatures in the winter would sometimes hit 65 below zero, and that was without a chill factor. There really wasn’t a lot to do there except maybe, listen to music. The problem was unless you had a record player, the only music you could get was from the Armed Forces Radio Television Network.
Ellen: What kind of music was that?
Eric: Most of that music was horrible. One day though, I heard a song from a new group called The Kingston Trio. The song was Tom Dooley. I just loved it and would sing along with it. Two of my buddies loved it too and one of them played guitar. As fate would have it, our base commander decided to put on a show for the town’s people who lived in Sioux Lookout. You must remember that Sioux Lookout was very small, the total population, probably less than three thousand with no traffic lights. In other words, we were starved for any attention or recreation and so the show was exciting for us.
Ellen: So Sioux Lookout was where you made your grand entrance?
Eric: Entrance indeed – Enter myself and my two buddies singing Tom Dooley. About half way through the song during the bridge, the audience exploded with applause. That was when I decided just what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: sing and perform. It was just that simple. We formed our group. I’m not even sure what we called ourselves. Since I hadn’t yet discovered playing the guitar, it was decided that I would be the drummer. Gene Krupa to this day has never forgiven me for attempting to be a drummer. Our career was very short lived even in entertainment starved Sioux Lookout.
Ellen: What happened next?
Eric: Things changed for me while serving my final time in the Air Force on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I purchased a guitar for ten dollars, learned to play three chords and could now play almost any song the Kingston Trio had recorded. I was an instant hit among the college crowd on Cape Cod, not because I was good, but because I had a guitar. I was invited to every beach party that summer of 1960. I was discharged the summer of 1961 and I think this is when my musical career really began.
While still in the Air Force, I put together a group called The Lakeshore Four. We all lived in a large house off base in Falmouth, Massachusetts. One guy played bongos, one played or at least tried to play ukulele, and the last member had a car.
Ellen: A car – that’s essential. So now you had everything you needed to get discovered?
Eric: An Air Force Commander heard us play and for some reason loved us and got us an engagement at a local nightclub. I believe that we lasted two or maybe three nights before they fired us. Things just went downhill from there when Frank, the guy who had a car, got shot and almost died while trying to siphon gasoline from a police station off base because he was out of gas and couldn’t make it back to base. He lived, but our so-called group didn’t. I was discharged from the Air Force in July 1961 but stayed on the Cape and continued to play at beach parties until the end of July when I returned home to Vineland, drove a Pepsi truck for the month of August before driving to Corpus Christi to start college.
Ellen: Did you have any clarity at that point about what career you would pursue at college, Eric?
Eric: In September of 1961, I entered The University of Corpus Christi which is now Texas A& M Corpus Christi. I wanted to become a doctor and follow my brother Glenn who was in Medical School in Kansas City.
Ellen: But singing still beckoned strongly to you so you then dropped out of pre-med and instead headed for Hollywood in order to devote your life to a career in music. You took a chance doing so. Were you driven to perform?
Eric: I’ve never really thought of the question of being driven before. Singing has always come naturally to me so I’m not sure I was actually driven to perform in that sense. I was driven to sing. One of my first real musical buddies was a guy by the name of Randy Boone who played really good guitar. We became instant friends. He taught me to play Scotch and Soda by The Kingston Trio and for a long time that became my song. It was that month in July on Cape Cod that I fully realized the importance of music in my life. Perhaps fortuitously, on the drive to Corpus, I ended up with mononucleosis, the so-called kissing disease. I guess the girls really liked my singing and guitar playing more than I had realized and mononucleosis was the consequence.
Ellen: Mononucleosis changed the course of your life. Instead of becoming a doctor, you opted for a career in music.
Eric: that’s right. My switch from medicine to entertainment was fortuitous. I didn’t have any money, was getting behind in my studies and so I decided to see if I could get a job singing in one of the clubs in Corpus Christi. I got a job and the very first night, I made two hundred dollars in tips singing requested songs at tables. Two hundred dollars in 1962 was like maybe two thousand dollars today. That was the final, deciding factor – school wasn’t for me! Also, several of my friends from Cape Cod were now working at The Troubadour in Hollywood and said I could live with them at The Troubadour.
Ellen: And that’s when you headed for Hollywood?
Eric: The next day, I traveled cross-country with two other guys in an MG to Hollywood to join my friends. We arrived late the second day and I was dropped off outside the Troub. My friends were elated to see me, and Dick, who ran lights for the Troubadour, asked me if I’d like to sing since it was Hootenanny night. Of course, I agreed and they announced me as some kind of superstar. Superstar? Are you kidding – me? I was okay as a performer in a very small pond but this was Hollywood where on any given night at The Hootenanny, stars like The Kingston Trio would often show up to steal songs from other performers. After two songs, I realized that I was in the wrong place. I felt that instead of having egg on my face, it was one big omelet – and quite a lesson to learn on my first trip to California.
So I then became a serious student and became entirely focused on trying to learn from everyone I could. I ended up living in what later became know as a commune. What it was in reality, were twenty of us living in a large house in Pasadena, paying about fifteen dollars a week for a bed and fifteen dollars a week for food. That was it. My roommate was Hoyte Axton, who later became a famous singer-songwriter, guitarist, and actor. In fact, I was with him when he wrote Greenback Dollar.
Ellen: How did you earn a living at the time?
Eric: I ended up getting a job running lights at the famed Ice House in Pasadena. Several days later, an acquaintance of mine by the name of Randy Sparks asked both Hoyte and me if we’d be interested in auditioning for a new group he was putting together called The New Christy Minstrels.
Ellen: So Randy Sparks was the actual founder of the group?
Eric: That’s right. I rode with Hoyte in a used Jag he had just purchased from a fellow friend, Barry Kane, and we tried out for this new group at Columbia Studios.
Ellen: Did you become a member of the group?
Eric: The story is just too long to go into for this interview, but neither Hoyte nor I made the group at this point. The producer of The Andy Williams show was the one auditioning everyone, and the first question he put to us (there were approximately twenty-five of us in the room) was “Is there anyone in this room that can’t sight sing”? Hoyte’s reply was “I can’t read a God Damn note”. He was excused and I was picked in the first group to sing Moon River. I also couldn’t sight sing, meaning you have to be able to sing any song in key just by reading the notes. I too failed. Hoyte later went on to be a movie star (The Gremlins) and wrote Greenback Dollar, Joy to the World, The No No Song for Ringo Starr, and many others. After that experience, I decided that I’d had enough of Hollywood and of starving and flew back to Vineland, New Jersey.
Ellen: Back home again. But at least you had tried. It wasn’t the end of your showbiz career though, was it?
Eric: I moved back in with my parents, got a job at Sears & Roebuck, kept singing and also acted in Community Theater.
I worked on The Holland American lines as part of the cruise staff, got fired because I fell in love with one of the passengers and I didn’t want to dance with the 80 year-old women.
On my way to Port Authority bus terminal in NYC, I ran into my old buddy Nick Woods of the The Christy Minstrels. He asked me if I’d be interested in joining the group because they were presently in the recording studio putting the album “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee” together. Since I had my guitar with me, I of course said yes, auditioned and was immediately in. I was the first person ever to record an album with the New Christy Minstrels without being an actual member.
Ellen: So you were now in the group?
Eric: No, because there was a problem – two members had just quit the group the week before (Barry McGuire and Barry Kane) and two replacement members had already been hired. Just as fast as I thought I was now a member of the world famous group, I was out in the cold once again. George & Sid, the owners of the group really liked me and told me to call them the following week and that they would get me into the group as soon as they could. I think I called every week for perhaps two months, and then finally, I just gave up. The album I was on hit #27 on the album charts and stayed there for sometime.
Ellen: What did you then do?
Eric: I continued to sing the entire summer at The Hootenanny in Atlantic City, and then was scheduled to play at the College Inn in Denver, Colorado when I got the call to join The New Christy Minstrels. I had to make a very quick decision since I had an agent and a booking that I had to walk away from. But I made the decision and the next day, I was on a bus for NYC. Four days later, I played my first gig with The New Christy Minstrels.
Ellen: You traveled the world performing with the New Christy Minstrels, Eric. This must have been a heady experience for you.
Eric: It’s almost impossible to define the experience. It is one you have to live in order to understand. When dealing with a small musical group like a duo or even a trio, most fans recognize one or two of the members, but when you’re in a group like The New Christy Minstrels, fans generally think of the entire group as a single personality and not a collection of individuals. The only exception to this in the beginning was of course the creator and the leader of the group himself, Randy Sparks, and perhaps, Barry McGuire, who sang and wrote Green Green.
Ellen: So the whole group was comprised of individuals who were regarded as one entity?
Eric: Yes. When I joined the group in 1965, the entire group was thought of as the stars and we really were treated as such. Wherever we would go, people came up to us to ask for autographs. It made me realize what group-life for The Beatles for example, must have been like – in reality, pretty lonely. We’d usually finish the concert and then be whisked right into a limo and off to the motel or hotel, grab a quick bite, and then off to bed because we’d have a very early flight the following morning. We pre-boarded our flights and were usually asleep before any of the passengers came on board. I certainly don’t mean to imply that we didn’t have some really good times on the road, but our main contact was with the audience.
Ellen: And the other members of the group?
Eric: We always had such great confidence in and appreciation for the fellow members of the group. At the time, we were considered to be one of the most popular groups in the world and even today most people over 60 know who we were. I eventually left but have always felt honored to have been a member of this group.
Ellen: Eric, what about your career as a theatrical performer? Did you resume that?
Eric: No. My entire acting career took place prior to the Christy Minstrels at a community theatre while living in Vineland, New Jersey. I had two major parts; one in The Man who came to Dinner and I had the lead in Under the Yum Yum Tree. Who knows what would have happened if I had resumed a theatrical career after I left The New Christy Minstrels. I’ll always look at that time as just a link in the chain of entertainment.
Ellen: Life is seldom static. Things change. We change – a sign of our adaptability. There came a time when you realized that actually, you preferred being behind the camera.
Eric: You know Ellen, for whatever this means, it would seem that I’ve always had something to hide behind. I’m not sure what the psychology would be, but even with performing, I’ve always felt more comfortable and secure with either a camera or a guitar in front of me. Maybe it’s the first line of defense but whatever it is, I just love being behind the camera. It’s like having the opportunity to recreate something that although there, can be created differently. I’ve also really preferred to do it all. By that I mean, I never wanted to be just a camera operator – although I’ve had to do that many times for clients – but I like to be involved in the entire process, from writing, filming, casting, directing, sound, lighting and editing the final product. I really cut my teeth filming and editing high-end weddings and events where each is a full production – and you really do have to do it all.
Ellen: What is the main thing about filmmaking that attracts you?
Eric: I would say the main thing that attracts me to filming is that you have an opportunity to create a lasting moment in time. Many times I think of it as being a photographer shooting twenty-four individual photographs every second. You don’t miss anything. Years ago when I first started filming with 8mm film, it just took forever before I could see what I had just filmed because it had to be developed. Today, it’s instant. If you don’t like what you shot – with the exception of real time events – you can just shoot it over. That has outcomes that can be good and not so good. Many people today, who have only worked in the digital realm, just keep shooting because it really doesn’t cost them anything. To me, that is much like the 100 monkey syndrome – if you put 100 monkeys in front of a computer, one of them is going to actually type a real word.
Ellen: If you had all the choices in the world with regard to what you would presently be doing, what would it be and why?
Eric: I really believe it would be recording moments, whether as stills, movies, or stories. Life can’t get any better than that as far as I am concerned. If money wasn’t an object for getting through life, I would still do what I’m doing, except, I’d be able to choose the subjects that I really feel are worthwhile and helpful to people.
Ellen: What is it about filming biographies that fascinates you?
Eric: One of my domain names is “Everybody has a Unique Story” (EverybodyHasAUniqueStory.com). I sincerely believe that everyone has a story uniquely of their own. The problem is, people all too often, don’t think their story or stories are that interesting or important. Everyone’s story is important and interesting if it’s told or recorded the right way. Maybe that’s the secret. Most stories told or filmed turn out to be very boring and resemble a typical home movie that no one is interested in watching. What a shame that so many of these stories are never therefore shared with people’s children or families or shared with the larger community. If it isn’t shared, it will be gone forever. Of course, years later, someone else may try to tell your story, but it’s really not your story anymore. It’s their story – their version – and that just isn’t the same.
Ellen: You are so right. Stories that should be known just disappear. Also, you can so easily lose the audience for whom the story is intended if it is not told well. How you tell a story is of prime importance. Eric, when we produced the documentary feature film, SAMMY THE JOURNEY together, I could see how moved you were by Sam Harris’ story. What was it about little Sammy’s story and Sam Harris, the man that you found so powerful?
Eric: I think I tried to put my own childhood in the place of Sammy’s and imagined how, if I had faced the terrible circumstances of having to hide in fear of being found in a Concentration Camp for so many years as a child as he had to do, how would I have coped. Would I have done what he did? I don’t think so as much as I would have tried.
Ellen: How do we ever know in advance how we would cope in the worst possible of circumstances?
Eric: Of course none of us know just what we would have done in a similar situation to little Sammy. We have been fortunate enough to never having been subjected as children to that kind of horror, but we can in a way, live what he endured through film – through Sammy. I pretty much hung onto every word that Sammy said during our interview and I kept thinking – “How did he do this?” More importantly, how did he not only survive that horrible experience, but how did he come away from it without allowing hatred to invade his personality? To me, it was a great lesson of trust and knowing that the world is essentially good. Sam chose to be positive.
Ellen: Then there are the films you have done of people at work such as the one of narrative sculptor Dede Harris. You filmed her both welding and discussing the subject of her HOLOCAUST TRILOGY.
Eric: What a moving story – and to have had the pleasure of filming and editing with you Ellen. It all flowed right from the heart. Dede was able to bring the audience right into her sculpture with just the right amount of doing and much sincerity in the telling. A true artist is able to do these kinds of things without over-explaining them. As I filmed her, I actually felt the pain endured by the prisoners of these different concentration camps that she had depicted through her welded sculptures. Good art contains emotion. Dede gave us this through what she created without us having to see the actual faces of those prisoners or hear the sounds of their pain. We felt all of that through Dede’s narrative art. To me, a real artist can do these things. It’s magical.
Ellen: Do you think that the films you do showing the passion some people have for their work, is not only a peephole into the individuals themselves, but also a biographical statement saying, this is who I am and was and this is what I did during my time on Earth?
Eric: I think that films can be a reflection into one’s soul if the viewer is open to receiving. Films can be inspirational and experiential, and I feel with many, the impact is so strong that no force in the Universe can dislodge it because the experience is yours. It’s personal. So if I am able to help someone experience real inspiration, then that’s my reward – something that no amount of money can purchase.
Ellen: Another entrance into the biography of people is what they collect over the years. You have filmed subjects such as a person’s clock collection. That is an interesting aspect of the particular individual and tells us a lot about the person.
Eric: When I put together the Empire French Clock Collection for John W. Teets, former CEO of Greyhound and Dial Corporation, that movie brought tears to his eyes when he watched it for the first time. That was my reward. To this day, that was one of my finest accomplishments, not because someone else couldn’t have done just as well if not better, but because someone of John’s business and public stature, was affected in that profoundly emotionally way. That was the joy it brought him – and to me, too.
Ellen: Your internal musical ability is clearly apparent in your filmmaking. I think that a rhythmic sensibility is a very important part of filmmaking and storytelling. It influences how a story unfolds. Your intrinsic rhythmic ability has served you well in your filmmaking.
Eric: I’ve never really thought about it that way. I never went to film school to learn how to film. I’m not saying that because I think it wouldn’t have helped me technically, because I really think it would have. I made a lot of mistakes in the early days because I didn’t have the technical training, but what I lacked in technical experience, I had to make up with creative work a rounds. I really believe in education and devotion to attaining knowledge.
Ellen: But you are an autodidactic?
Eric: Yes, I suppose I am self-taught. I am constantly teaching myself. A formal degree can put you on the right track to becoming successful, but what is the most important, is passion.
Ellen: Passion for your work is essential. Now I want to ask you about storytelling. I think that how you tell a story is very important. That is the same for film. It is all too easy to lose the reader or viewer in the telling. What are your thoughts on that, Eric?
Eric: I totally agree Ellen. I think the main mistake that so many artist make is trying too hard to explain what they’re doing and why. I believe that you should never get too far ahead of what you’re trying to expose. I try to let each individual start making their own assessment of what they’re seeing and feeling. Some of the best movies actually take place in an individual person’s imagination. You have to allow the audience to fill in the blanks and trust them. I constantly am amazed at the things people tell me they saw in my films when actually, it was their vision, and not one I specifically intended them to have.
Ellen: Today, there is so much technology available to film a story. But is technology, though so wonderfully helpful, enough? Filmmaking is an art. What are your thoughts?
Eric: Great question Ellen. Years ago, I wrote an article called “The playing field is level” that had to do with exactly what you’re talking about. In the early days of film and video, the boys and girls with the biggest toys got to play the game. The cost of filming equipment was out of reach for anyone unless they were very wealthy. When video came into vogue in the early 80’s, it wasn’t much better in quality than 8mm movies so only companies that had a lot of money could afford the bigger cameras and editing equipment. Back then if you owned a very expensive camera, you got almost all of the corporate jobs, even if your productions were awful. It wasn’t about content. It was about visual quality. I remember writing about that in an article that stated “If you give an amateur a million dollar camera, they’re going to produce High Class Garbage”. Nowadays, anyone can produce a real movie with their smart phone and actually win film festivals. Tangerine from Sundance Film Festival is a perfect example. It was filmed with an IPhone, an Anamorphic Lens and a $15 App called FilmicPro.com, plus of course lights, microphones, tripods etc… Now it’s all about creativity and real story telling. If you have the talent and creativity, you can make a feature film with very little money.
Ellen: In closing, would you say that our individual story is one that needs to be told, because it is not there in isolation – it is connected to our personal histories, our collective histories and to our future? These stories are connected to people who have travelled before you, together with you and who will travel through their own lives in the future? They might learn from you and also get to know you.
Eric: I think what you’re doing Ellen is very important for all of us; not just for those involved in the world of the arts, but for everyone in every walk of life. We all learn from experience – personal experience – not just experiences found in textbooks. I really believe that we can have a better world if more people would share their personal stories of struggle and despair and also of overcoming the odds that are often stacked against them. Stories like you’re doing can be an inspiration to so many people because they can realize that they’re not alone in their quest for happiness and success. They will realize that obstacles are planted in front of us to make us stronger and better people. To me, this is really what makes life worthwhile.