His Life

Edgars Autobiography - (Written By Him in 2004)

Edgar Stroke’s AutoBiography (Arts/Career-Related)

I supposed my career in the Arts formally started when my Mother enrolled me in violin lessons in kindergarten. I was also the only boy enrolled in the local ballet class. Later I took piano lessons as well.   I had all kinds of artistic influences as a child, ranging from visiting the major museums throughout Europe, to enjoying my father’s Francoise Hardy and Django Reinhardt records, as well as the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.   I was taken to all kinds of theatrical and musical performances from an early age. I also had some very early influences in lighting and photography. My father was one of the pioneers of the science of Holography (3-D photography). So it was not unusual for me to find lasers in the closet at home, or have Nobel prize winners at our home for dinner. And in fact, early indications were that I would likely follow in my father’s footsteps (in scientific areas). That was until he had had an affair with a young woman, and soon left the family. That likely contributed to propel me in another direction.
At age 11 (1970), my Mom and I got introduced to Theatre and the Arts in a more involving way. My Mother was quite devastated from my Father’s leaving, and needed to get involved in something new. This turned out to be something called “The Slavic Cultural Center”, in Port Jefferson (Long Island), New York. It was founded by a man named Edward J. Czerwinski, in order to introduce and promote Slavic and East European culture to American audiences. (My parents were both born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), hence the connection.) Ed Czerwinski’s vision was to bring all kinds of artists and artistic product from East Europe, including Theatre/Plays, Music, Film, Visual Arts and so on. 
As it turns out, in this time period, some of the highest quality theatre work was coming out of East Europe, and specifically Poland. Artists such as Jerzy Grotowski, Jozef Szajna, Witold Gombrowicz, Slawomir Mrozek, Tomaszewski’s Mime Theatre, Jan Svoboda, Andre Serban and others were having great influence on world theatre. And I got introduced to these artists both through their work and in person at an early age. 
My early experiences involved such things as handing the flowers to the classical singer, turning pages for the pianist, ushering and so on. But almost immediately I was acting, puppeteering, house managing and getting involved in anything that needed doing around the Cultural Center. We turned what had been an old Moose Lodge into a theatre, coffee house and art gallery. During the Summers, the Theatre was used by the State University at Stony Brook for their Summer Playhouse, and other local theatre companies rented the space as well. So I also began to get exposure to non-Slavic theatre, such as Pinter, Neil Simon, Albee, etc.. During one of these summers in the early 70s, a techie handed me a C-wrench. I have barely set it down since. 
The first show I ran lights for was run on resistance dimmers and auto transformers, and with all my hands and feet! I remember the first time I had to run the “God” cue in “Steambath”, with lots of crazy flashing lights. I was hooked! I then designed lighting for my first show on my own at age 14. I also started doing set designs, and later (after much more experience and training) became the Tech Director of the Slavic Center.  
The Slavic Center was doing a large variety of incredible work in the 70s. This included mounting American and World premieres of East European plays (with American actors and directors), as well as importing Directors, Designers, Playwrights, Actors and entire touring companies from East Europe. Initially most of the work was done at the Slavic Center’s facilities in Long Island. But soon we began touring our productions to various other theatres. We would take shows to such places as Washington DC, Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago, Provincetown Playhouse in NYC, New England Aquarium in Boston, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, and many more. 
So from this early age, I was working with some of the most important theatre artists in the world, including Jozef Szajna, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Kazimierz Braun, The Warsaw Mime Theatre, etc. And I was designing lights (and sets) in places like Brooklyn Academy, renowned Off-Broadway Theatres, and so on. I was also hanging out with people like Andre Serban, Robert Wilson, Arthur Sainer, Ellen Stewart, Ida Kaminska and other luminaries of the Theatre community.
Oh by the way, to enhance my “hands-on” experience, I also began taking college lighting and tech classes at State University of New York at Stony Brook, while I was still in high school.   (Oh didn’t I mention I was doing all this work, and still getting “A”s in Junior High and High School.) 
Is the mid 70s, I started to discover popular music more. (Cat Stevens was I think the first r record I bought. But soon I was listening to Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and more.) I started playing drums. (Violin was of less interest to me now, although throughout junior high and high school, I was one of the best players, winning numerous awards, sitting at the front of the orchestra, etc.). Then at one point I started DJing in the Coffee House at the Slavic Center. I also began doing a Slavic Rock and Jazz show at the local college Radio station!  
In the Fall of 1976 I went off to pursue full time undergraduate work (In Theatre and Communcations) at Syracuse University. Due to my Father deciding to stop paying my tuition during Christmas break, I was only there for one semester.
I returned to Long Island, and enrolled in undergrad courses at Stony Brook. I also began running a nightclub at the Slavic Center, which included booking local bands, running lights for them, and DJing between sets. So I began to develop my musical-related lighting skills, at the same time as listening to a lot of new music. (I had the honor of working repeatedly with one of the very first Reggae bands to appear in the U.S.) I also continued to do theatre work, now for a variety of companies.
The Slavic Center was not doing much theatre work of their own at this point, mostly due to financial reasons. One day I learned that the rock band “Foghat”, which lived in the area, was looking for a building to turn into a recording studio. I realized that the acoustics and design of the Slavic Center Theatre, as well as the support areas of Coffee House, etc, might make this a good location for them. I called them up, and connected them with Ed (the Slavic Center’s owner). I still remember with excitement the day that the entire band “Foghat” loaded in and came over to play a set (and test out the acoustics) in the Slavic Center Theatre, with an audience of one – ME! (This was when they were at the peak of their success.) That was to be the beginning of my professional relationship with major rock musicians.
So Foghat loved the facility, and Ed agreed to rent it to them. They had to remodel to create the Recording Studio.   So they hired me to help. And I became a member of the band’s regular crew. This was 1978.
During this same period, at one point I had decided that straight DJing in nightclubs was not the most exciting entertainment, but that it could be enhanced by a little theatricality. I began adding things like hats, sunglasses and props, as well as dancing around pretty ferociously. This soon developed into an alter ego called “Devastation Dan”. I was soon hired to DJ at a club in the famous Hamptons. Over time, the act developed more, and the unique concept of a “theatrical DJ show” developed. In addition to spinning records, I was running lights, throwing flames, changing costumes (from Michael Jackson to Donna Summer), doing magic tricks, and all the time dancing and bouncing around like the Energizer Bunny on speed!
By the mid 1980s, The “Devastation Dan Show” grew to rolling into nightclubs with several people on the crew, other performers, 1000s of vinyl records, a full lighting and sound system, numerous trunks full of costumes and props, a full set of drums and percussion, pyrotechnics, magic tricks, and an occasional motorcycle.   The show was all about dancing, incredible hype and craziness, and constant visuals, all designed to incite the crowd to “Dance ‘Til They Drop” (by 4AM). “Devastation Dan” was really just a sideline for me. But it was something incredibly fun and entertaining, as well as successful and popular. (I even performed twice for the Jerry Lewis Telethon.)   But when I moved to LA in 1985, I had to put “Devastation Dan” on hold. I actually have partially resurrected the show a couple times in the new millennium. I hope to do so again, although I’ll probably have to limit the previous jumps off the tops of 8’ speaker stacks to the center of the dance floor!
So back to the late 70s… I was working for “Foghat” , doing “Devastation Dan” in the Hamptons on weekends and also continuing my undergrad coursework at Stony Brook. I also continued some theatrical lighting design once in awhile. 
In the Fall of 1979 I was offered a job as the first Asst. Tech Director of a brand new Fine Arts Center at SUNY/Stony Brook. This was going to be a major roadhouse for touring shows of all kinds, as well as having several other theatres, a recital hall and art gallery. And I would be working under a recent graduate of the MFA Tech program at Yale. I decided to take that job, and give up the fulltime work on Foghat’s crew. I did continue to work for them on and off part time over the next couple years. And I still have a relationship with some of the surviving members.
From the Fall of 1979 to August 1985, I worked at Stony Brook, first as ATD, and later as Technical Director. My responsibilities included lighting, sound and set design, theatrical electrics (master electrician), stage management, teaching Theatre Dept. courses,equipment maintenance, rigging, set construction and other technical work throughout six theatres and an art gallery. Events included touring companies, in-house productions, theatre rentals and campus functions. Major touring events averaged one per week. Concerts lit included Pat Metheny, Dizzy Gillespie, Modern Jazz Quartet, Richie Havens, and numerous classical legends from Yitzhak Perlman to Jessye Norman. Other events included Dance Theatre of Harlem, Nikolais Dance Theatre, American Repertory Theatre, John Houseman’s Acting Company, among MANY others. So once again I was lucky enough to get to work with some of the top performers in the arts.
During this time at Stony Brook, I also finally completed my undergrad course work. I graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1984. During this period, I also began to get more and more interested in Directing, first forlive theatre, and later for film and video. I directed several plays and made several films at Stony Brook. By late 1984, I had decided to go to grad school for filmmaking.
While all this was going on, something else started to develop in me, which was not so desirable… In 1981 I noticed a small pea-sized bump behind my right ear. I asked a doctor about it in August. They said it was a swollen lymph gland. That was not true. Mistake #1. But I didn’t know. By 1984 it had grown to the size of a golfball. I was referred to a surgeon, who made Mistake #2. He went in and operated without diagnosing the mass first. A couple days after surgery I found out I had something called “Acinic Cell Carcinoma”… a very rare salivary gland cancer.   I was advised to get postoperative conventional radiation therapy.   Mistake #3. I chose to do it at one of the top cancer hospitals in the world…Memorial Sloan Kettering. They also mishandled my case. I wouldn’t know that for about 9 years. But after their treatment, it seemed that my cancer was gone, I had made the right choices, and I could move on with my life.
So in August 1985 I headed West to the USC School of Cinema-Television in Los Angeles… one of the top film schools on the planet. I studied there until May 1990. During that time I made lots of movies, including some award-winning ones. I learned all about Directing, Writing, Camerawork, Editing, Cinematography, and all aspects of Film, Television and Video Production. I also directed the most ambitious “Movie For Television” produced at the school up to that time (also award-winning).
During film school, mostly in the Summers, I continued working in various showbiz areas to pay my bills. This included such things as Lighting Design, various Tech work (including a Summer atShowlites), Puppeteering on the remake of “The Blob”, Camerawork, Editing, etc .
After I graduated with my MFA, some of the work I did included:
-         Producing and Directing documentaries for USC.
-         Screenplay Writing
-         CameraWork
-         Video Coordinating on Television Programs
-         Design and Tech work on Fashion Shows and Industrials
During this time I started to develop some lower back pain. This began around 1990. It was mis-diagnosed as a slipped disc. No one mentioned the possibility that this might be cancer related. I didn’t think of it either. Pains increased over the next three years, with escalating sciatic pains, problems sitting, etc. Finally, in April 1993, a resident at one of my cancer follow-up visits suggested that maybe a bonescan should be done to look at my lower spine. This turned out to reveal a huge metastastic tumor (of my original cancer) that had grown in my sacrum (at bottom of spine, between my hips). I also found out at the same time that I was the only patient on record with this cancer in this location. 
That was when I realized that it was time for ME to start taking more responsibility for my own health care. I began doing research, and almost immediately found out that my case had been mishandled in all the early stages. I also very quickly found out that there was an unusual form of radiation treatment (Fast Neutrons) that should have been used on me in 1984, and was my best chance for treatment success now. It’s only available in a few places in the world, and one of them is Seattle, Washington. So in July 1993 I went off to Seattle, and was treated there until some time in October (also for a small local recurrence near my ear). By the time I was done recovering, I had spent most of 1993 dealing with almost nothing else besides my cancer situation.
So when I came back to LA after all that, I went through a bit of self-evaluation. I decided that whatever I was going to do career-wise, it had to be very satisfying and enjoyable.   I decided that Hollywood filmmaking did not qualify, at least in the short term.   The money was great, but the enjoyment not so much. My roots were in live show-production. The time it takes to complete a production in the live arena is usually MUCH less than in the film/video area, especially if you are a writer/director. (You can easily work on a project from 1 to 10 years, with perhaps no applause at the end!) I needed to so something that could be much more immediately gratifying. I decided that the work I really enjoyed the most (but hadn’t taken as far as I’d like to), was Lighting Design for Music/Concerts/Tours.   This also coincided with my incredible love of music. I began to focus on Concert Lighting more exclusively than anything else.
So in 1994 I began designing rock shows, and searching out new music clients. Over the next couple years, I was able to build up quite a nice client list, including recurrent work with artists such as Pat Benatar, “General Public” (and Dave Wakeling), The Corey Feldman Band, “The Buddhaheads”, as well as numerous “one-offs” for names such as “The Fixx”, Marc Cohn, Sonia Dada, “The Wailers”, Dave Mason , Dave Davies, and many others. In addition to working with some bigger names, I also did shows with up and coming bands around LA, if I enjoyed their music. 
During this time, I would also occasionally take on a non-music project, especially if it was somehowinteresting or exciting. That’s how I got involved with Yosemite National Park and ongoing work in that region. I would also take on some work more for bill paying. That included a lot of Fashion Shows, Hair and Makeup Shows, Industrials, Nightclub Designs, Religious shows, and so forth.   Although I would occasionally do non-lighting work (Design, Various Tech, Directing, etc.) my main focus has been Lighting Design, with the primary emphasis on music/concerts.
In early 1999, I started the year off with designing a big “Devo” (and Violent Femmes and Ween) show at Universal Amphitheatre. I put together a practically tour-level show in a few days. Soon after that, I got a call from my old friend Jeff Ravitz asking to assist him on the Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band Reunion Tour. Even though I don’t usually Asst. Design, this was an opportunity not to pass up. So off I went to Asbury Park, and hung out with Jeff and Bruce, Nils, Max, Steven, Clarence, Patti etc for a few weeks. Then we all went off to Barcelona to start the tour. After that, my work was done. I took a few days to tour around Spain, and returned to LA. 
Three days later (while I was working on an industrial), I suddenly I couldn’t walk, stand or sit. My sacral tumor had decided to start growing again.   I spent the next 7 months lying on my stomach, most of the time on my living room floor.   I couldn’t go anywhere without assistance, and wherever I went, I had to lie on my belly. I searched high and low for medical assistance…with little or no success, and a lot of frustration.   I had an essentially inoperable tumor, a cancer with no standard successful treatment options, and a bunch of doctors with no solutions. I could not be re-treated with Fast Neutrons, as that would likely cause more damage than help.
This is when I first began to make use of the internet for medical research and communication.   I quickly realized that the internet was this great new tool for getting AND GIVING information. I also began to realize that I seemed to know more than just about anybody else about this rare cancer of mine. I had also learned about the various mistakes that had been made with my case…that seemed to also be getting made with other people. I decided that I needed to do something with my knowledge to help those other people out there. So I created two entities… one; an email group about the cancer, where patients could “chat” about various subjects (and I could advise them), two; a comprehensive informational website all about this cancer, for patients, physicians and researchers.   Both of these entities have proven themselves to be extremely valuable to acinic cell patients out there, as well as physicians. They seem to be helping a lot of people avoid some of the trauma I have suffered.
Last time I checked, was getting about 1500 visitors a month. I am still attempting to complete the website, which is designed to be extremely comprehensive. I also get emails from cancer patients (or physicians) several times a week at least. Responding to them has become a job in itself. I have also become involved in helping develop a Tissue Bank, which will hopefully be used for research on this rare cancer…and maybe help find a treatment.
By November of 1999, my sacral tumor grew some more, causing more severe symptoms. This led to a surgical procedure where a little tumor was removed, but more importantly, some stabilization hardware was installed, to keep my spine from dropping out my ass. Little old me now had two 3.5” lag bolts installed, connecting my lower spine to my right hip. (These were the largest bolts the orthopedic surgeon had ever put in anyone!)  As it turned out the stabilization worked, and I was soon standing, walking (and driving!) again. 
2000 continued to be about the cancer project. I tried some chemotherapy experiments (which is usually ineffective on this cancer). I was also trying some “alternative” approaches, including various vitamins and supplements. For whatever reason, the sacro-iliac tumor remained stable…and as it turned out, stayed that way through 2003.  
After 1999, I entered a period where juggling of my “showbiz” and “cancer careers” became more challenging. It was obvious that the cancer was not going away, and even when it was not growing, there was always the possibility that it could (and when it did, it could be very disabling). Medical insurance coverage was critical. And there were several challenges with maintaining that insurance. All of this added up to challenges with how much and the kind of work I can take on (when I could work). Physically, I cannot do many of the things I used to, as I have to wear a brace even to carry groceries. Taking on long-term projects that pay well can jeopardize my health coverage. And one never knows when I will suddenly develop new symptoms or end up on my stomach on the floor. Just the routine maintenance on my case involves regular radiology tests of all kinds, numerous doctor visits, and constant vigilance. That is a job in itself.
All of this has led to me having to be very selective or careful about the jobs I take. There is some recurrent work for regular clients. There are occasionally exciting or interesting projects I pursue. There are a lot of low budget one-offs I do for friends, usually for free or cheap (so I can exercise my creative juices). And there is a LOT of frustration about the shows or tours I cannot take, due to this medical situation.
In early 2004, I had new symptoms, and found out that my sacro-iliac tumor was growing again. This eventually led to constant severe symptoms and heavy medication. But that didn’t stop me from going up to work at Yosemite National Park for a month on their theatre season, or designing the annual Corey Feldman Band Birthday show last week. I have to continue to do medical research, to try to find that elusive treatment that might actually get rid of the cancer completely. But I also plan to do a lot more rock shows this year, as long as I can walk… and press buttons!
My routine has become one of juggling showbiz projects against medical crises or medical maintenance, trying to squeeze in time to continue building and improving the cancer info. website, and then the almost daily advising of cancer patients.   It doesn’t quite allow me to pursue everything I would like to. I do hope to still take the concert lighting career to the next level. I have numerous artistic desires I still want to fulfill. And I don’t give up. I’ve proven myself to be pretty resilient. I view each new challenge as yet another “project” I need to find creative solutions for.   And I seem to keep getting through them… I just keep bouncing along, like that Energizer Bunny. Oh, and I do hope to do another “Devastation Dan” show at some point!   Hope you can make it.