Like many children of the 1950s, Clark Santee grew up admiring legendary comedian and actor Jerry Lewis.
"When I was 9, I wanted to BE Jerry Lewis," the Gresham resident said.
Launching into his long career directing television and video, Santee never would've dreamed his career choice would lead to him directing his childhood hero.
But in the early 1980s, Santee found himself working on Lewis-starring movie "The King of Comedy" directed by Martin Scorsese.
As part of the movie, Santee directed television show segments within the movie featuring Lewis as a late-night talk show host. He describes working with Lewis as an almost out-of-body experience.
"My God!" he marveled at the memory, "I'm telling Jerry Lewis what to do."
He recounts spirited conversations with Lewis, perfectly imitating Lewis' unique voice.
Santee, now 78, was a sought-after television director specializing in filming music performances. Racking up more than 1,000 productions, he's worked with everyone from Leonard Bernstein and Frank Zappa to Barney, the big purple dinosaur. He tells of touring South America with Sting and working on public television's "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" and "Austin City Limits."
"He's a big deal," said Martin Jones, CEO of Gresham-based MetroEast Community Media. "He has an amazing body of work."
Fitting right in
Santee was in the first graduating class at Troutdale's Reynolds High School in 1958. He went on to the University of Oregon, but admits he was just sort of slogging through. A flyer for a USO show forming to entertain troops grabbed his attention.
"That's it," Santee thought. "That's going to completely change my life."
He was right.
Santee was determined to join the show. He concocted a short audition and — though he claims he couldn't sing, dance or act — won a spot on the USO tour. The group left in the middle of the 1962 Columbus Day storm and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"It was one of the most incredible adventures you can imagine," says Santee, still clearly amazed at the memory.
He came back from the tour and was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the job of clerk-typist, but Santee — stricken by the show-business bug — secretly altered his assignment sheet to the role of television production specialist. He had no TV experience, but "embellished" his resume to land the position.
He was sent to Army television school at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Despite his dearth of experience, he was assigned to a local station as the news director.
"I went to the library and read everything I could on television production and watched the news on TV," he said.
The cramming ploy worked. After the Army, Santee was able to go right into television directing without the usual entry-level jobs of volunteer and production assistant.
Supporting the stars
He started his career in Portland, but moved around the country chasing better and better gigs. In Philadelphia, just as public television was taking off, he began working on a program called "The Show."
"The Show" involved high school students, and Santee thought it needed to up its music game. So Santee headed to New York City, visited multiple talent agents and booked James Taylor, Grand Funk Railroad and other rising stars.
After that success, Santee began freelancing. He directed the video of Leonard Bernstein's landmark 1973 music education series "The Unanswered Question" and a PBS taping of Aaron Copland's opera, "The Tender Land," with the lauded composer conducting.
Around this time he also worked on iconic children's shows like "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," "Zoom" and later "Barney & Friends."
With the growth of cable television in the 1980s, which Santee called "a great piece of luck," Santee worked consistently in that fledgling media.
He directed the film "A Night With Lou Reed" at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City, and a Frank Zappa concert.
He won a television Emmy Award in 2007 for "Christmas at Belmont" for Nashville Public Television, a challenging assignment that involved more than 500 performers.
The business has changed dramatically in the more than five decades Santee has worked. Technology, of course, has evolved tremendously. Cameras are better and more complex, he said, and hand-held cameras transformed the craft.
Also "people's ability to absorb information quickly has accelerated. Now you can get away with a one-second shot. That would have been considered a mistake" years ago, he said.
Editing a show "used to be extremely expensive. It could cost $400 an hour. Now we edit at home on our desk for nothing," he said.
Looking back, with pride
Santee is now retired, but still works now and then, including filming popular band Pink Martini's New Year's Eve Special in Portland. He served on the board of MetroEast for years until recently, and still volunteers there.
Martin Jones, who plans a MetroEast celebration and a screening of some of Santee's films in late October (see sidebar story), admires Santee's modesty as much as his accomplishments.
"He's one of my favorite people" Jones said. "He's a gem of a man."
"I guess you could say I've been lucky," Santee said, but his life has had its share of sadness. His first wife died of cancer in 1978, and their adopted child passed away recently. A second marriage to a production assistant from Austin City Limits ended in divorce after 10 years. He's been married to his third wife, Christine, for 19 years.
Even with the ups and downs, Santee can't help but marvel at his career path.
"The established stars were the nicest," he said, noting that folksinger Odetta "was one of the most magnificent people you could ever imagine."
Some were incredible professionals, he noted.
"Kenny Rogers just walked in and said, 'Tell me what you want me to do.'"
"Frank Zappa was brilliant," Santee said, adding that Sting, Bernstein and Copeland were also blazingly intelligent. "Tom Waits is just brilliant."
Santee considered Tony Randall, who was also in "King of Comedy," as the funniest person he worked with in his years of directing.
Santee modestly admits that his contact with many of the stars was limited, but he's still awed by the creative people he worked with and interesting projects in which he played a part.
"These people are just amazing," he said. "I love being around them."
MetroEast Media will honor Clark Santee and his long career in television and video production at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25, in the new MetroEast screening room at 829 N.E. Eighth St.
The celebration will feature an hour of some of Santee's favorite productions, which will likely include performances from Grand Funk Railroad, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Brian Setzer, Tracy Nelson and Richie Havens. There also will be a short film highlighting his career.