By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
Chuck Barbee is right where he wants to be, enjoying the view from his riverside home in Kernville, sipping coffee next to his partner, Tam Hartman, and regaling listeners with his tales of his life in film and television as well as his retirement passion project about the history of the Kern River Valley, Wild West Country. Born in Virginia, Barbee’s parents bought a house in Encino, California, in 1949 designed by renowned architect Bill Sullings, who became friendly with the family through the transaction. Coincidentally, Sullings designed and built the Kern Lodge, and he extended an open invitation to the Barbees to “come up anytime,” which began the family’s connection to the valley. When Barbee’s father was diagnosed with emphysema, the family moved here permanently “to get the clean mountain air,” and so young Chuck entered Kern Valley High School for his eleventh grade year, when he was 15 and a half years old.
While Barbee enjoyed his time going to school and carousing with his buddies in and around the valley; when he graduated from KVHS he got the itch to explore. “I felt like I gotta get outta here. See what’s out there,” he said. Barbee enrolled at Bakersfield College intending to study architecture and got married. With tuition and a new family to support, he needed a job, and thanks to carpentry experience he gained from his teenage part-time job at the original Dam Korners, he was hired as a prop man at local TV station, KLYD. It was a job that changed his life. “I had an epiphany. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” He changed his major to Radio, Television and Film, got his AA at BC, then moved to San Francisco and enrolled in SF State with a major in Film. After graduating with his degree in 1966, Barbee hit the ground running as a cameraman and editor in the wildly creative atmosphere of San Francisco in the 1960s.
Barbee worked for two years shooting and editing documentary films at San Francisco TV stations KPIX and KGO, where he worked as a film editor and news cameraman, but he found he didn’t like doing the news, so Barbee switched to documentaries and did short Christmas specials for the ABC station. “I had a knack of putting music and images together that people responded to.” One of the people who responded was legendary and prolific network producer Lee Mendelson, mostly known for his Charlie Brown specials. Based in the Bay Area, Mendelson saw some of Barbee’s work and offered him a job. During the next ten years Barbee gained invaluable experience co-producing, directing, editing and photographing live-action, prime-time network specials and series for Mendelson Productions.
Barbee’s work immediately garnered him national attention and rave reviews for his “spectacular” photography and “cinematic poetry,” including a George Foster Peabody award for his work on the NBC series Hot Dog, and an Emmy for the CBS special It’s Been 25 Years, Charlie Brown. During this time, Barbee was also privileged to be able to work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and pop culture at the time, including Woody Allen, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, George C. Scott, Arthur C. Clarke, Charles Shultz, Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali, Carl Reiner, Jonathon Winters, Flip Wilson, Telly Savalas, Carl Reiner, David Niven, Dick Van Dyke, Vincent Price, and Roy Rogers, to name a few. After ten years with Mendelson, Barbee got divorced, remarried, and decided he needed another change. “I wanted to see if I could make it in Hollywood,” he says, so he packed up his family and relocated to tinsel town, where he immediately obtained work freelancing doing second unit work for television, then foraying into special effects and camera work on feature films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and multiple network television shows, culminating with several years with Night Court, where he received two Emmy nominations for Best Lighting.
“Pretty cool for a kid from Kernville,” he smiles.
What followed were years of working in Special Effects as a Lighting Director, Co-Producer, Director of Photography and Director on various feature films, behind the scenes documentaries for features like Silent Running and Twins, network TV series, magazine shows and specials, and even large format Vista Vision and 70mm simulated “ride films” like The Thrill of Motion shown at the 1994 Olympics in Atlanta. The years working with some of the biggest names in the industry provided Barbee with enough stories and anecdotes to fill volumes. At this point, his second marriage was struggling, work opportunities started to wane a bit, and Barbee worked on many low budget features and taught cinematography at the American Film Institute, but he felt unfulfilled. He began to yearn for the mountains and rivers of his youth. “I got older and more tired of doing things that didn’t excite me, so I decided to retire from the industry in 2002 and return to my roots here in Kernville.” However, Barbee was far from done with his creative endeavors. “One of my ambitions after moving up here was to be a filmmaker and work on my own projects.”
By some kind of serendipity, at that time Barbee’s brother introduced him to the Bob Powers books, and Powers’ widow, Marge. “I just fell in love with the books,” says Barbee. “I asked Margie if I could do a Ken Burns style documentary based on them. I was delighted that she said yes, and so we drew up the contracts.” Thanks to his friends in the valley and his stint as a teacher of Filmmaking at the local Cerro Coso Community College, Barbee found many eager volunteers who were willing to be in, and work on, the project for very little to no money. “Now I have the permission, the talent, time and equipment. I started pitching the project to get funding, but there were always strings. My friend Mike Gallagher told some mutual friends, the Gordons, about the project. They came over, spent several hours, loved what they saw and then read the pitch. They called me later and said they wanted to finance the project with no strings. I was floored,” recalls Barbee. The financing secured, Barbee was able to focus completely on Wild West Country for the next year. He and his volunteers scanned over 6,000 photos from Powers’ collection and over 1,000 pages from the books. They spent hours organizing everything into chronological order and meticulously cross-referencing until Barbee was able to create the script for Part One of what he envisions as a three-part series, revealing and retelling the entire history of the Kern River Valley through a combination of docudrama-style reenactments, first person narratives, and the latest technological tricks, completing the project early in 2009. “By going to Marge Powers and doing it the right way with her support, now I’ve amassed this enormous collection, and I’ve kind of become the “go to guy” as the visual historian for the KRV.”
Through the Wild West Country project, Barbee developed a relationship with the Rankin family, and put together a documentary on the relocation of their family-owned “J.J. Lopez House” to its new location on the Kern County Museum grounds, entitled The House With Three Lives. But his struggles dealing with the politics and red tape with the County made him “tired, over it. I lost my mojo.” In 2012, Glenda Hill Rankin and Dianne Hill Sharman were able to convince Barbee, “grudgingly,” to do an eighty-minute film celebrating the Rankin Ranch’s 150th anniversary, entitled, Rankin Ranch: An American Story. But the two women had more in mind for Barbee, and, “when those Rankin sisters make up their minds, you better get on board or get out of the way,” laughs Barbee. The sisters formed their own nonprofit called Citizens Preserving History and got Barbee to sign on to make their next project, a documentary about relocating Merle Haggard’s childhood Box Car home, a reality. Next up for the Rankins and Barbee will be collecting and preserving the story of the Bakersfield Sound with help from Laughton Jiles and his book, The Birth of the Bakersfield Sound. In addition to working with Jiles and trying to coordinate a jam session with the old timers at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame for the project, Barbee has begun preliminary work on parts two and three in his Wild West Country documentary trilogy. Barbee’s now actively seeking and recruiting volunteers to do research, help with production, and some reenactment work in front of the camera as well.
Life seems to have come full circle for Barbee these days. “It’s been a fun career, and no, it’s not over. In some ways I feel like I’m busier now than I’ve ever been, but now I’m just doing what I want to do. What I really care about. The awards and glamour don’t mean a damn thing. The love and appreciation mean the most to me. And what I’m doing now, I get more love and appreciation from that than anything I did in Hollywood.” Barbee’s been gifted with good fortune and fate along the way, but he doesn’t take any of it for granted. “I’m having the best time in my life. I live in a beautiful place; I have my health and a wonderful lady to share it with. I’m blessed.” And the Kern River Valley is blessed to have a person like Chuck Barbee around to remember and care enough about this area’s legacy to preserve and share memories with the world for posterity.