A Life on Stage

Friends remember a man who championed the preservation of mid-Missouri culture.
Sunday, March 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:43 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

To those who knew him, Jerome Wheeler was the consummate collaborator — a songwriter, musician and playwright others found impossible to turn down. At the time of his death on Feb. 20 of congestive heart failure, Wheeler was involved in several projects, including a plan to document on video the music and culture of the mid-Missouri river community.

But at a memorial service at Unity Center four days after he died, Wheeler’s 27-year-old daughter, Ruby, spoke about his role as a father. This was a change of pace for Wheeler’s friends and creative partners, who knew little about his family life. But as Ruby made clear, Wheeler’s dedication to the arts often came at the expense of his children and wife, whom he divorced in 1991.

“Ruby is someone from a different part of Jerome’s life, and she added a different dimension to the celebration of his life,” said folk musician Lee Ruth, a longtime collaborator of Wheeler’s.

Except for artistry and creation, little else mattered to Wheeler, said Glen “Bummer” Ward, a longtime friend. Ward, along with Wheeler and Forrest Rose, was a member of the band the Barbecue Brothers in the early 1980s.

“The art is where we justified our existence,” Ward said.

Wheeler, who was born in Columbia, began his musical career in Osage Beach. In the late 1960s, he started the Celebrated Renaissance Band, which had a local hit, “Vibration 2.2,” in 1969. The following year, the band went to Boston, where Wheeler spent the next six years commuting for various projects.

In 1976 in an interview with the Columbia Missourian, Wheeler said his creative impulse was inspired by the countercultural revolution of the 1960s.

“People are looking for a creative channel,” he said. “Art went off the streets in the late ’60s, and I think it’s time to come back out again.”

Fortunately, Wheeler had no trouble selling his vision to others. Recruiting a cast and crew for his productions was easy. He simply posted sign-up sheets around downtown, and he typically received a surplus of volunteers.

“He had this concept called guerilla theater where you’d basically go into a bar like The Blue Note and convert it into a theatric environment,” said Pete Szkolka, a musician who owns a recording studio. “We would do the staging and the set constructions based on the physical layout of the bar … and people would come like they would normally come to a bar, but they would be watching the play or musical.”

Between 1976 and 1981, Wheeler wrote and produced five plays or, as Szkolka called them, rock operas: “Heaven’s Bright Babies,” “King of Fools,” “Ernwhazalot,” “Gomez and the Catnip Mouse” and “B-Movies from Outer Space.” “Gomez and the Catnip Mouse” was geared toward children, and “B-Movies from Outer Space” was a bizarre story about an insane asylum on Jupiter.

Szkolka often worked on production, recording and songwriting with Wheeler.

“We never really made any money doing it, and it didn’t matter to us because we just wanted to do it for the sheer abstract pleasure of pulling it off and just to sort of develop our own skills,” Szkolka said.

Wheeler was not a man who only exercised his passions in his spare time. They were his life, which Ward compared to that of a starving artist.

“When you focus on the art, you hope the money comes,” Ward said.

It rarely did, but that didn’t stop Wheeler from believing that the pursuit of art was the most noble of ambitions. Neal Miller said that Wheeler encouraged him to explore his artistic and creative side.

“I could have just been a schoolteacher, but he challenged me to be involved in the community,” Miller said. “We did concerts to help raise money for everyday people. We played for people that no one else wanted to, and had he not challenged me, I wouldn’t have been involved in any of it.”

In the late 1960s, Wheeler began performing on occasion under the name “Cesspool” Baker, an alter ego he created, according to Miller, just to see if local radio stations would broadcast it. In an interview, “Baker” told a Missourian reporter that Columbia is at its best in summer, when the students are gone, and described the city as “small enough to be quiet, but enough goes on to give it a cosmopolitan atmosphere.”

In 1988, Wheeler finally got serious about something other than his latest creative endeavor. The City Council had approved a proposal to build a pipeline to transport the city’s treated sewage to the Missouri River. Although the city had agreed to investigate possible alternatives to the pipeline, including a wetlands project, Wheeler thought it was his role to help raise public awareness. After the council vote, Wheeler wrote the “Talking Columbia City’s Pipeline Blues,” about “all of us Boone County fools who have to drink downstream from our latrine.”

When the council reconsidered, and then rejected, the pipeline in favor of the wetlands project in 1990, Wheeler completed his role as activist by writing “Talking Columbia’s Wetlands Project,” which congratulated the city on its foresight.

In 1994, after a major heart attack, Wheeler moved to O’Fallon to live with his father, who had Alzheimer’s disease. Dorieann O’Brien, who became Wheeler’s companion and caretaker, said his first heart attack occurred after a performance at the Blue Note in August 1983 and that he suffered total of five attacks.

“He was basically disabled after the 1983 heart attack,” O’Brien said. “In 1994, he decided he couldn’t live by himself. He was afraid because he was on the floor and

couldn’t get to the phone.”

Whatever physical limitations Wheeler faced, he didn’t let them stop his involvement in creative projects. Perhaps the one that will be most enduring is “Everybody’s Got Love,” a two-CD collection of Lee Ruth songs performed by some three dozen musical groups and musicians. The project was produced by Steve “Radio Ranger” Donofrio and Szkolka. Wheeler contributed to the project musically, most notably a solo performance of “Scorpio Love Song,” on which he sang and played banjo. Wheeler was also involved as “a sort of associate ears to the producer, in a music consulting capacity,” Szkolka said. “Similar to how Jerome’s productions went, people came out of the woodwork and just did their recordings for free.”

Ruth and Wheeler met in 1964, when Wheeler was just out of high school. By then, Ruth had become a singer/songwriter who preferred to perform alone. Wheeler was one of the only people who could persuade Ruth to join other musicians in collaborative projects.

“He was one of those people that is hard to say no to,” Miller said. “You didn’t get a part of Jerome; you got all of Jerome.”

Wheeler had big plans for the Ruth project, O’Brien said. He wanted to feature the music and performances on television to help spread the music and culture of mid-Missouri.

“Jerome talked about how the Lee Ruth project would stand as a historical documentation of what was going on musically at this time, in this area,” O’Brien said.

Late last year, a few weeks before Christmas, a handful of people gathered at Cooper’s Landing to discuss another Wheeler-inspired project. An offshoot of the Lee Ruth project, the idea was to provide videotaping capabilities to people and organizations that wanted to put together educational and cultural productions on mid-Missouri music.

It had long been Wheeler’s dream to celebrate in a concrete way mid-Missouri culture so future generations could experience the music and talent he enjoyed so much. In January, the group named the effort the Missouri River Cultural Conservancy.

On Feb. 22, two days after Wheeler died in Columbia, the conservancy met at Cooper’s Landing to begin their work. At the top of its agenda was “Keeping Jerome’s Vision Alive.”

“He loved his community, and he loved music,” Miller said. “Those were the things that came first in his life.”

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