Reprinted from "The Philadelphia Inquirer" May 29, 1994
article written by Michael E. Ruane
this article contributed to the Zappa newsgroup bysdba...@delphi.com
SCHOOL SHOWING OF ZAPPA FILM HITS WRONG CHORD
A teacher wanted his advanced-English class to see an
Parents now want him fired.
Mifflinburg, PA - The two names can crop up almost anywhere
around here: at the grocery store, the beauty parlor, the doctor's
office, the school cafeteria.
First you hear the name of the suspended English teacher who
wears earrings in his left ear and keeps guitars in his
basement: Richard K. Hanson. Then comes the name of the late
avant-garde rock musician Frank Zappa, creator of such
albums as "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" and "Weasels Ripped My
Often what follows in this traditional, central Pennsylvania
agricultural community, with its Moose hall, American Legion
Post and farmer's exchange is a nasty argument. You might
Mr. Hanson, as his students call him, recently showed his
English classes at the Mifflinburg Area High School part of
a grotesque 1987 Zappa video titled "The Amazing Mr. Bickford".
The color film - which includes violent and raunchy, though
highly creative, Claymation by California animator Bruce
Bickford and music by Frank Zappa - brought protest to
the local school board. Now the school board is seeking to
have Hanson fired.
The incident has torn a classic division down the middle of
this rural community: One side says the film is obscene and
sexually explicit and argued for parents' rights in education;
the other complains of conservative censorship and the usurping
of teachers' and students' rights.
For this quiet Union County community, famous in bygone
times as a center of buggy manufacturing, the dispute has
been strikingly bitter. There have been student walkouts and
suspensions. One turbulent school-board meeting drew police
from surrounding communities. And some parents claim that
anti-Hanson students have been intimidated and harassed.
Hanson, 40, a native of Hackensack, N.J., has been called by
critics as a chronic "loose bolt" who, for years, has been
pushing the limits of teaching propriety. His supporters say
he is a victim of the area's powerful religious right, which
is seeking to stifle a creative teacher and creative
Caught in the middle of this conflict is: no one. Strong
feelings and opinions on this matter are prevalent and there
seems to be no agreement on how to handle this dispute of
censorship and what can or cannot be presented within this
The events began on March 4 when Hanson, a theatrical,
husky-voiced man with longish hair, glasses and a trace of a
New York accent, showed about forty minutes of the film to
eight students in a small advanced-English class. The
students had just finished studying 19th-century
transcendentalist writers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and
Henry David Thoreau, who possessed organized and relatively
upbeat philosophies. Seeking a contrast, Hanson started to
present to his class artists with an absurdist point of
view. In a recent interview in his spacious home in nearby
Lewisburg, Hanson, who was once a professional rock
guitarist, said he felt the Zappa film fit this bill.
Hanson - who came to this area to attend college in the
'70s, wrote the Mifflinburg bicentennial song and has taught
at the high school for 13 years - said modern teenagers are
"Ideally, it would be nice if they were all like Wally and
the Beav," he said, "but let's be realistic."
Zappa, who died at age 52 of prostate cancer on Dec.4,
founded the band the "Mothers of Invention" in the '60s and
went on to mix rock, jazz and classical music into a strange
but famous genre all his own.
Hanson said that he acquired the film, which contains a
series of disjointed, gruesome and nightmarish vignettes,
after Zappa's death and that he believed it would be ideal
for his advanced-English students.
The showing, at least for the students, proved uneventful.
One student dozed through part of it. Others worked on
projects at their desks and paid the film only moderate
attention. The problem came when Hanson showed it a week
later, on March 11, to about 100 students in several
standard English classes. At least one student was offended,
and the battle was joined. Hanson said school officials
asked to see the film. When he showed it to them in his
classroom on March 28, they were visibly upset.
"I was offended by it," said Superintendent Ben Van Horn in
a recent telephone interview. "I was expecting that there
would be some frontal nudity, and in many grades that is not
inappropriate... but when I saw this video and saw some
explicit sexual activity among the animated figures, I was
Hanson was instructed to provide a written explanation. He
did so on March 31.
Among other things, he wrote:
"If students are to transcend low-level thinking skills,
teachers must begin to take innovative steps... risks must
Hanson went on to write, "Many students in the Mifflinburg
area will never visit a metropolitan area, will never see a
professional theater production, will never visit an art
museum, and will never see a dance company or hear a
symphony orchestra. In short, most Mifflinburg Area High
School students will never develop or have a chance to
develop an appreciation for the multi-ethnic, multicultural,
multidimensional and incredibly diverse artistic expressions
our country and the world affords. To limit viewpoint is not
an educationally sound policy. I thought I was opening a
door to new thought and perception - a door of illumination
and comparisons. But not so in the eyes of "educational
leaders" within this community"
Six days later, Hanson was suspended. On April 13, district
officials informed him that they were seeking to fire him
from his $36,000-a-year job for "willfull... violation of
school laws" and for his display of "immorality". The case
went to outside arbitration. A preliminary hearing is
scheduled for June 23 and 24. Hanson, who is scheduled to go
on sabbatical next year, has recently filed for
"If you keep young people limited in scope and keep young
people stupid, they won't mess with your world or challenge
your views or decisions," Hanson said, "I think it's a
design, as Frank Zappa calls it, to have nincompoopery take
over... this is a dangerous thing and it is happening right
here and now."
Meanwhile, there have been volleys of outrage, both pro and
con. Some students and parents, as well as the teachers'
union, lined up on Hanson's side. Other students, parents
and supporters of the school administration along with
various civic and community leaders, were arrayed against
A local newspaper, "The Sunbury Daily Item", hosted a public
showing of the film and polled many of the 1,000 people in
attendance. Most of those polled found it suitable for
showing to high school students.
Some parents, however, refused to view the film. One was
Alice E. Shoreman, 49, long a supporter of local schools and
a mother who has spoken out publicly against Hanson and the
film. Recently, she and her husband, Neil, 49, and two
mothers of children in the school gathered at the Shoremans'
home in nearby Glen Iron to talk about the controversy. The
two other women declined to give their names, saying they
feared for the safety of their children and they feared
retribution against family members. One mother, along with
Neil Shoreman, had just viewed the film that morning. The
other had seen it at the public screening.
"I wish I had not seen it...," Alice Shoreman said. "I see
enough garbage in one day. You can't sit and watch violence
after violence and not have it affect you," she added,
noting that her family does not have a TV set. "Whatever
you've filled your mind with is going to come out," she
One of the other mothers said she took notes while watching
the film. "I saw what I believe was sodomy and what quite
possibly could have been cannibalism," she exclaimed. "I saw
an altar, which was portrayed more toward the end of
Satanism than a church altar... I saw forms of sexual
intercourse, I saw what appeared to be lesbianism. I saw
oral sex... I saw throats being slit and a person being shot
in the head... I saw nothing good... these were not just
normal cartoon figures."
"There was no theme, no moral and no story," Neil Shoreman
said. "The music was just awful, notes all over the place.
It wasn't a tune; there was just a continual collection of
sounds... the animated characters were very strange and
scary... it (the film) was 40 minutes of nothing. "I feel
there has to be... people that can be used to challenge
children's minds," he said, "that have a more wholesome
background and approach than Frank Zappa.
"I fear to go get my hair cut tomorrow," the second mother
said, "for fear my beautician is a Hanson supporter and I'm
going to come out shaved."
"There's really no room for middle ground here," Neil
Shoreman said, "you must take up for what you believe in and
fight against this depravity and immoral nature entering our
All members of this previously tight-knit community have
lamented the divisions that this incident has spawned. But
no one is backing down from their staunch support of either
for or against Hanson and what this matter means for the
future of their children's education and for future progress
within the community itself. Many parents feel that the film
genuinely portrays an alternative view that their children
would otherwise not recieve and have praised Hanson's
dedication and commitment to strive to make students think
about how to react to new stimulus and be able to understand
other points of view in the world today. As one supportive
parent stated, "...there are more things in this world than
bowling and church socials, and my children should be able
to open their minds and have the opportunity to see
alternatives," she went on to say, "I am appalled at the
accusations that Hanson supporters are violent people or
represent some threat to the community... it is they who
accuse who are the real danger... it is like the middle ages
around here and ignorance is not bliss... they have small
narrow minds and wish the children to have the same
pea-sized view of the world."
The day after the meeting at the Shoreman home, seven of
Hanson's eight advanced-English students gathered at a
bed-and-breakfast inn in nearby New Berlin run by the
parents of student Carolyn E. Kribbs, 17. Not one student
said he or she found the film offensive. Some were
interested in it and others admitted boredom from it but
none were upset by the film's showing. Carolyn's parents and
the whole of the Kribbs family saw nothing wrong or
offensive about the film and praised Hanson for his attempt
at offering lessons and materials that let students have
varied and diverse experiences. They feel that Carolyn's
education has been enriched by Hanson's methods and do not
understand the furor over this Zappa film.
"I was intrigued by the complexity of the film," said
Stefanie Hoffman, 17, a junior and the daughter of the New
Berlin police chief. "It was interesting, but it was boring
after a while... is there a crime in showing boring stuff
to kids at school... if so then many teachers would be fired
or in jail."
Jim Bromfield, 17, a junior also, expressed his views, "I
can't say I was unimpressed by the film... but it became
boring and I worked on another project as the rest of the
film was showing"
Josh Muchler, 17, a junior, like the film a lot. "I was
really impressed with it," he said. "The amount of time that
it took to make it and the intricacy that the clay figures
were formed with and the bizarre musicical score were just
incredible... I never knew films like this existed... it was
just totally incredible."
The students generally agreed that Hanson is "different" as
a teacher. When asked to grade him, Hoffman said she would
give him an "A or A minus." Hoffman went on to say, "He
never has a dull moment in class... it's always
interesting," Hoffman also said, "I'm upset that one
complaint can have this huge effect," Hoffman exclaimed, "It
just doesn't seem fair. If I ever wanted to go into
teaching, after this incident, I don't think I will now. A
wonderful teacher has fallen victim to the system that he
tried to help and his students are the big losers here...
it's totally unfair and unjust... I hope Hanson is allowed
to continue teaching. Parents only like the boring teachers
that teach us nothing of special value and don't do anything
controversial... the kind of teachers that put us all to
sleep. I want to learn new things and I feel now that I will
be denied that right... don't give up Mr. Hanson !"
END NEWS ARTICLE ------- MAY 29, 1994 -------------
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