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The day Andy Warhol “punk’d” Oregon college students

For the art students and pop-culture aficionados lined up, the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see and meet the “Peter Pan of Pop Art” turned out to be merely a chance to be the butt of one of his irreverent pranks.

Allen Midgette with Audrey Regan of New York’s Audart
Gallery, many years after Midgette impersonated Andy Warhol in a series of lectures in Oregon. (Image: Audart Gallery)
EDITOR'S NOTE #1: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in November 2008, which you’ll find here.

EDITOR'S NOTE #2: The original version of this story got the timeline wrong. "Warhol" spoke first at Linfield, then moved on to the U of O, not the other way around. The story has been updated
and is now accurate. I apologize for any confusion my oversight caused.

On the evening of Oct. 5, 1967, students were pouring into the doors of one of the biggest rooms in the University of Oregon’s Erb Memorial Union.

It was a big day. The one and only Andy Warhol was scheduled to appear, for something he called an “illustrated lecture.” For the students, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see and talk to one of the most influential characters in the art world.

At last the man of the hour stepped out on the stage with already-legendary film director Paul Morrissey. With his crazy-cut white hair, his ever-present Ray-Ban Wayfarers and his stylish cigarette, the speaker was instantly recognizable.

But almost immediately, the lecture got off to a rocky start. The two men on the stage started an “art film” showing a young fellow running through crowds in New York City yelling, “I love you! I love you!” to everyone whose eye he could catch. The film, of course, had no narrative arc or plot — the absence of any such bourgeois conventions was de rigeur in the avant-garde art of the day — so basically it was just several dozen minutes of meaningless action, until the film ran out of the spool. Then the lights came up, and Morrissey asked if anyone had any questions.

The questioners started out curious, but soon they were sounding baffled and by the end of the evening some of them were actually angry.

“I don’t know how to say what my meaning is,” the white-haired artist told one student. “I guess it means to me that I film it, mostly.”

“That is one of the big questions,” he told another, after being asked why he made films. “Let’s just say we do it to keep us off the streets.”

As the questions got tougher and more specific, Morrissey started breaking in and fielding them, to the annoyance of students who had wanted a response from Warhol.

By the end of the event, the students from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication were starting to make their presence known, firing zingers at the white-wigged swinger on the stage. “Sir, do you give a damn?” one of them demanded. (Former students and colleagues of the U of O’s late, legendary journalism professor Bill Winter will instantly recognize the pedigree of that question.) The by-now-beleaguered speaker replied, hesitantly and vaguely, “Sure … (about) all kinds of things. It changes all the time.”

 

The Oregon  students didn’t know it, but they were looking at one of their own up there on the stage: A University of Oregon-trained actor named Allen Midgette who was now one of Warhol’s cronies in the Factory art loft in New York City. Midgette had been dressed to look like Warhol and sent out west to do a series of four college lectures for him. Warhol himself had never left New York.

The U of O appearance was the last stop on the tour, and it represented a distinct turn for the worse. At the University of Utah, where it had started out, the reception had been warmer; but almost as soon as he’d left, faculty members were wondering if it was really Andy Warhol. The student newspaper there stepped up and started pulling together evidence, including a candid shot that one of their photographers had snuck of him during the visit — “Warhol” had been very insistent that no pictures be taken, but one of the student journalists there had used a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera (one of the type one looks down into and shoots from waist level) to surreptitiously snap one anyway, likely intending it only as a personal souvenir. Close examination had left faculty members convinced that unless Warhol had had a nose job while nobody had been looking, the speaker had been someone else.

And so it was that a few days after “Warhol” spoke, Chris Hougham — then the editor of the University of Oregon’s student newspaper, the Oregon Daily Emerald — got a phone call from an editor at the University of Utah’s student newspaper, the Daily Utah Chronicle, asking if there had been any suspicion of Warhol’s identity. Hougham assured her that it had been Warhol who appeared at the U of O; but after the phone call, Emerald staffers started connecting the dots as well.

By this time, of course, “Warhol” was well away from the Scene of the Crime, and back in New York.

 

Allen “Andy Warhol” Midgette’s whirlwind tour through Oregon had started the day before the U of O appearance, when two students from Linfield College in McMinnville picked him and Morrissey up from the Portland airport. Initially they’d anticipated an afternoon round-table discussion; but “Warhol” wanted to spend the afternoon checking out Portland thrift stores.

“Let’s save all that for the evening,” he said, and so, accompanied by the two baffled college boys, the Peter Pan of Pop Art hunted through the used clothing and knickknacks at the Salvation Army on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (then called Union Avenue); then they made their way out Burnside in quest of another store.

Finally, the four of them made their way back to McMinnville and set up for the show.

In contrast to what was coming the following day in Eugene, the reception at Linfield was not particularly hostile, according to the recollections of Mt. Angel College art professor Leland John, who traveled to McMinnville to attend. John recalled that “Warhol” responded to many of the  questions by simply issuing an ironic laugh or giggle. When he did reply, it was with a degree of glib wittiness that tended to distract the questioner’s attention from the fact that his/her question was not being answered (remember, Midgette is a theatre guy; improv is his thing.)

“Some people say your films are crude or promiscuous,” one questioner began.

“Yes, I think they are, a lot of them,” the faux Warhol replied smoothly. “But most of those haven’t been shown.”

“Some people say your film ‘Harlot’ is a joke on the straight world,” another said; “what do you say?”

“It isn’t,” Midgette shot back. “It’s just a joke. Period.”

“Would you explain why you’re dressed and groomed the way you are?” asked another.

“Mainly because I like the way I’m dressed and groomed,” Midgette said. “I won’t model for you, but I like it. You explain why you dress the way you do.”

The performance went over reasonably well with the crowd, all things considered. There were a few actual artists in the crowd, and some of them were a little dissatisfied with having come for an art talk and been served an arch, cryptic bull session lightly seasoned with junior-grade media theory; but for the most part, the audience members figured it was just yet another piece of avant-garde Andy Warhol art that they couldn’t fathom, and out of fear of being identified as a stupid Phillistine, they nodded and smiled and golf-clapped when it was finished.

Perhaps it was just as well that Midgette saved the University of Oregon for last, because that one didn’t go nearly so well.

But soon Midgette and Morrissey were on their way back to the Eternal City with their thrift-shop treasures, no doubt yukking it up about the gullibility of the Western rubes.

 

Meanwhile, Chris Hougham at the Oregon Daily Emerald had been in contact with Register-Guard reporter Don Bishoff, and Bishoff just happened to know somebody who could help him get to the bottom of it.

“We had an aging hippie working on our copy desk, named Bill Thomas,” Bishoff recalled later. “Somehow he had the number for the pay phone on the wall at The Factory. So I called the number — and Paul Morrissey answered it.”

Morrissey had made a variety of arrangements in case the “rubes” got suspicious, but apparently it had never occurred to him that any of the hinterland yokels would be hip enough to actually know the phone number of the Factory’s ironic pay phone. Caught by surprise, Morrissey stammered a bit, then put Warhol on the line. And, after some head-scratching over how Bishoff could know it was the real Warhol this time, the artist confessed the whole thing.

“He was better than I am,” Warhol told Bishoff. “He was what the people expected. They liked him better than they would have liked me.”

“His explanation of how he sent the guy didn’t make sense,” Bishoff recalled. “I still think to this day he was pulling another Andy Warhol spoof, and proving a point that people wouldn’t know the difference.”

The student journalists in Utah, whose skepticism led to the full unmasking, were distinctly unimpressed. In a telephone interview, Morrissey told Chronicle Assistant Editor Kay Israel that impersonating each other was just regular hijinks for the art world’s self-styled avant-garde golden boys.

“We do it a lot in New York,” he explained breezily.

“Well, being from the West, I don’t think we’re quite used to it,” she shot back.

Paul Cracroft, the director of lectures and concerts at the University of Utah, was even more acerbic about the whole thing. Cracroft, who had learned of the scam early enough to withhold payment for it, said he’d be open to having other pop artists come and talk at the U of Utah — “if they’re wonderful and can assure us somehow that they’re coming themselves.” Asked how that might be accomplished, he quipped, “Blood tests and fingerprints.”

(Sources: Allen, Greg. “The Fake Warhol Lectures,” greg.org, 4-06-2007; archives of Eugene Register-Guard and Oregon Daily Emerald, Oct. 1967; personal recollections of Don Bishoff and Leland John, Jan. 2009)

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