Book talk, ‘Wizard of Oz’ on tap at the Babcock


Jason Brown

Robert K. Elder, right, and director John Waters (“Hairspray,” “Pink Flamingos”) at a book party in Chicago, at the Music Box Theatre.

Robert K. Elder has 6-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, who’ve never been to Billings.

So when Elder brings them to his hometown town this week and next, he’s planning to take them to all those places he visited as a kid — including Cody, Wyo., Yellowstone National Park and MontanaFair. Elder also hopes that he and his wife, Betsy Edgerton, can take in one night of the Magic City Blues festival while they’re here.

“It’s a three-car pileup of things to do,” he said.

And the list doesn’t even include the two events that are bringing Elder back to Billings. One is his Senior High 20th class reunion, on Aug. 8 and 9.

The other is a book party and a screening of “The Wizard of Oz” at the Babcock Theatre this Sunday. He’ll be the guest of honor, talking about two of the growing number of books he has written while pursuing a journalism career in Chicago.

The two books both deal with movies. One is “The Film That Changed My Life,” in which 30 directors talk about the films, to quote Elder’s website, “that shaped their careers, and, in turn, cinema history.”

The other is “The Best Film You’ve Never Seen,” in which 35 directors pick a movie they really liked but which was overlooked by moviegoers or trashed by the critics.

Elder said he chose “The Wizard of Oz” for the event because it’s a movie for everyone in the family. Coincidentally, according to his website again, it was the movie that changed director John Waters’ life.

Waters says in Elder’s book that “when they throw the water on the witch, she says, ‘Who could ever have thought a good little girl like you could destroy all my beautiful wickedness?’ That line inspired my life. I sometimes say it to myself before I go to sleep, like a prayer.”

The event will begin at 6 p.m. with a reception and book signing. At 7, Jaci Webb, entertainment editor of the Billings Gazette, will conduct a short Q&A with Elder, followed by a showing of “The Wizard of Oz” at 7:20. Tickets are $5.

Elder said the event brings together a lot of threads in his life. He hasn’t done a book signing in Billings since his first book, “John Woo: Interviews,” was published in 2005, and he has fond memories of the Babcock Theatre, in the heart of downtown Billings.

It was there he saw the last Indiana Jones movie, the fourth “Star Trek” film and “The Hunt for Red October.”

“I love the Babcock,” he said. “I grew up with it.”

Elder mug

Esther Kang

Robert K. Elder

He also remembers the Hastings store where, all through junior high and high school, he rented countless movies.

He put that background to work in his professional life, when he worked as a reporter and film critic in Chicago. He worked for the Chicago Tribune and wrote for, among other publications, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Studs Terkel, the legendary Chicago journalist, wrote the introduction to “Last Words of the Executed,” Elder’s compilation of the final statements made by death row prisoners.

A little more than a year ago, he was named editor-in-chief of Sun-Times Media Local, overseeing 36 publications in suburban Chicago. But why try to summarize his many accomplishments? You’d better go to his website and have a look.

Elder said he is also excited about the Babcock event because it is being produced by Sean Lynch of 11:11 Entertainment. Lynch was three years ahead of Elder and graduated from West High, and Elder remembers contributing a story to a publication that Lynch put out in high school.

For the Babcock event, Elder said, “Sean was wonderfully supportive, as he always is.”

When asked — how could we resist? — to name the film that changed his life, Elder chose “Reservoir Dogs,” Quentin Tarantino’s violent, profane crime film of 1992. Elder first saw it on a video rented from Hastings.

“It just completely blew my mind about what a film could be,” he said, and he remembers it as being the first film in which he felt the overwhelming presence of the director. “You could really feel Tarantino’s DNA stitched inside that film.”

As for a film that he thought was underrated or overlooked, Elder couldn’t settle on one, so he named three: “State of Grace,” a 1990 crime drama starring Sean Penn; “Panic,” 2001, about a reluctant hit man played by William H. Macy; and “Without Limits,” a 1998 biopic about the distance runner Steve Prefontaine.

It sounds like he’ll have a lot to squeeze into that 20-minute Q&A.

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