Mike Cherniss had a wry sense of humor, and he probably had the last laugh when he died on April Fools’ Day (2013) after a long and difficult illness. At the remembrance party held recently at the home he shared with spouse and partner Jane Garrett, many wonderful stories about Mike were shared by his friends and colleagues from the English department at the University of Kansas, where he was one of two senior medievalists. Although I did take a Chaucer seminar from Mike in the early 1970s, what we talked about outside of class was mostly about pop culture and the movies. Mike was from Los Angeles, a graduate from North Hollywood High and U.C. Berkeley, so it’s no surprise that he loved the movies. I’ll repeat here the same story that I told the group gathered at the remembrance party.
When I first arrived at the University of Kansas as an undergraduate in Spring of 1969, I was dismayed to learn that the five movie theaters and one drive-in in Lawrence only showed the usual Hollywood fare, that there were no foreign films in sight. Fortunately, I knew some students who were involved with Student Union Activities at the Kansas Union, which had a good offering of movies for students nearly every night of the week. I asked Katherine Giele, a wonderful lady who ran Student Union Activities at that time, if I could have one night a week for foreign films. She readily agreed, and so it came to pass that, every Tuesday night during the fall semester in 1969, I was able to show 16mm prints of my favorite foreign films at Dyche Auditorium on campus, adjacent to the Natural History Museum.
Even though the admission charge was only 75 cents, we never had much of a crowd at any of these foreign movies. The same twelve people would show up for the films, week after week. Among the apostles were Mike Cherniss and Jane Van Meter, a local legend whom many called “The Blue Lady” because she always wore the same blue dress, blue bonnet, blue shoes, and always carried the same blue purse. She had been married to a famous Shakespeare scholar; had lived in Paris in the 1930s, worked at “Shakespeare and Company,” Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore, a favorite gathering place for writers and artists. Rumor had it that Jane still had in her possession letters from Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and James Joyce. But, sadly, in the 1960s, after he had been teaching at the University of Kansas for a number of years, the famous Shakespeare scholar divorced Jane and married someone younger. And so “The Blue Lady” fell on hard times. When she showed up on Tuesday nights for the foreign films, she would fish inside her blue purse, and count out the pennies, slowly, painstakingly, one by one, all 75 of them. One night, Mike Cherniss, who was standing behind her, exclaimed impatiently, “Oh, for God’s sake!” He pulled out a dollar from his wallet, gave it to me and said, “Jane is my guest tonight, and you can keep the change.”
But the twelve apostles came only when I showed films by more familiar directors like Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Pasolini, Bergman, Kurosawa; and not for less familiar names like Rene Clement, Mauro Bolognini or Serge Bourguinon. One particular Tuesday night, when the special treat was a film by Henri Verneuil, the only two people in attendance were Mike Cherniss and “The Blue Lady.” When it became evident that no one else was going to show up, I turned to Mike and wailed mournfully, “Perhaps I should have scheduled a more familiar name.” Mike put his arm around me and, with a beatific twinkle in his eye, he said sonorously, “It’s okay, Paul. Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” And so the three of us watched one of my favorite foreign films, Henri Verneuil’s ANY NUMBER CAN WIN.
“The Blue Lady” is long since gone. And now Mike Cherniss, too, is no longer with us. Perhaps her spirit is back in Paris, and his is hovering over the Hollywood hills. I am happy that I was able to share my passion for foreign films with them. In retrospect, I am even happier that Mike Cherniss was able to share his passion for Chaucer with me and countless other students through the years. Perhaps Mike’s departure on April 1st was premeditated, because it now brings to mind the famous opening line from THE CANTERBURY TALES: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote…”