Thursday, August 22, 2013

John van Dam and Michael J. Matusiak

Like many fans of the movies, I have occasionally spent some time going through the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) website, looking up info on various actors and filmmakers. So much information, and yet sometimes so little about the people themselves. Who they were, how they were, and what made them special. This piece is about two of those people, whom I considered to be friends. John van Dam, and Michael J. Matusiak.

I first met John & Mike in 1993, at a local Cable Access awards show. The creative group of friends I had worked with since high school had been falling apart fast. We had arrived thinking that we were going to win, and we came up empty-handed.  After the ceremony, my friends left without telling me. John and Mike had been there to accept an award for a Laurel & Hardy film that they had made. They were friendly, knowledgeable. They were adults (I was a very young 20 years old, at that point), and they wanted me to work with them on their next project. I literally went from one group of friends to another, in one night.

John and Mike were both veterans of local TV, and theater. John had starred as Shorty The Clown, doing stints at TV stations in both Charlotte, and Raleigh, NC. Shorty's shows were very influenced by Laurel & Hardy, and the early comedians of vaudeville and the movies. John also worked at the Main Library of Charlotte, in their film department, and founded the Laurel & Hardy fan club in Charlotte. Like John, Michael (I knew him as Mike) had appeared in a number of local TV spots, and had just done a small role in the Disney movie Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken. To someone that was just starting out, they seemed so successful. They were doing what I wanted to be doing. Doing something, now.

For much of 1993, John and Mike put together a Laurel & Hardy TV special. John played Stan Laurel, and Mike played Oliver Hardy. Even 20 years on, they did it better than just about anyone else I've ever seen, before or since. I brought a lot of youthful enthusiasm to the project. When you're young, your hopeful, and you think that everything will work out as you hope for. In retrospect, maybe it was always meant to be a nice idea, never to do beyond airings on the local cable access channel. But I learned a lot in helping to put that show together, and it served as the creative bridge to Tangents Magazine, which began in 1995. Without those days, I'm not sure that I would have found my way to where I am now. 

As the years wore on, I stayed friends with both. I often saw a lot of Mike, who struggled with life as time wore on. Mike had led a colorful life, and I often heard about a lot of that. The adventures, the ex-wife, the near-misses and could have been's. By the late 1990s, Mike had bought a mobile home in Monroe, NC, in a spot that really was out in the middle of nowhere. It still is, even with Charlotte's recent population expansion. Mike's health continued to get worse, but he received help from a local church. While I was happy to see Mike get some help, it led him down a religious path that I was not prepared for. I took him to see a Star Trek movie on Christmas day of 1999, and I think I even paid for his ticket. Mike bugged me so much about my religious beliefs, that I had just had enough. Plus, I was finally moving into a place of my own, and my work schedule was about to fall into hyperdrive. I stopped answering his calls, and passed along the word that I'd get back in touch with him soon. 

Mike later realized that he'd hit a nerve with me. In the summer of 2000, he wrote me a long letter, apologizing for the way he'd acted, pleading for me to call him. I still have the letter. I really meant to call him, I really did. I often thought about stopping at his place to say hello, and see how he was doing. But I was never prepared for the visit, I thought. Next time, I always thought, next time....

My parents saw Mike's obituary in the Charlotte Observer, and called me. He'd had a heart attack, and it had been several days before a nurse had found him at home. I spent the week in a daze. That following Saturday, July 5, 2003, I drove to Mike's mobile home. His family had cleaned it out, and dumped it all in the dumpster out front. I'm sure that it had included videos and other things that I'd given Mike, but I couldn't go through it. I walked through his mobile home, his favorite chair still sitting in the living room. I said, "I'm sorry, Mike" so many times, I lost count. I left the mobile home, and drove to Hiltons, VA to photograph what became Johnny Cash's final public appearance. Such was the emotional ebb and flow of those days. 

As for John, I had stayed in touch with him throughout those days. John had battled cancer before I had originally met him, and by 2003, it had returned in full force. John, who was always full of life, lost his voice, and much of his face. I visited him at the local cable access facility, where he had taken a job. It was good to see him, but hard to witness. I meant to call him after that visit, but life, as always, got in the way.

When John's wife a few months later called to tell me that John had died, I didn't know what to do. I just put my head down, kept silent, and went on to a shoot I had that day. I didn't go to his funeral, due to a shoot I had with a difficult client. I regret that now, although I did go to the visitation, and that was really hard. I walked out of the room before I could break out in tears. Again, I put my head down, and kept going, hiding even from myself the pain that I going through. It was another brick in a cascading wall of a bad year. At the end of the year, my cat died, and I cried. For days. Everything that had been welling up inside of me for over a year let loose, and it took a long time to come to peace with what had happened, and come out the other side. At times, I still feel guilty about not having been in touch with them more, near the end. Perhaps everything had been said. It's the unknown of such things that can hurt you, if you're not careful, even these many years later.

There is something to be said for being part of a creative group. Like a gang of friends, or a band, in creative terms. You're an individual interacting with others, which sometimes can make you stronger as a whole. While I have been essentially a solo act in my photography and writing, I still consider myself part of those creative groups that I was a part of. I occasionally reflect on what I have been able to do, or achieve, and I think back to John and Mike, the Tangents group, or my high school group, and I think, "We did it." The things that began with John and Mike, we did that. I am just the one that continued the dream.

John, Mike, I miss you guys. You were two completely different people, and yet you both intertwine so much in my memories. I look back to those times, and I realize how important you both were to me. Friends, cohorts, influence on me. You were that, and still are. I still go to your IMDB pages, and want to fill in the gaps to what their information does not say about you both. But that would take reams of words and pages, so instead I am making my statement here. And what is not spoken here about you, be it here or elsewhere on the internet, will instead live on in my head, and heart. And I hope that your young student has done well, in your eyes.

Safe travels, guys, wherever you are.

-Daniel Coston
August 22, 2013


  1. Hi I had lost track of John and had googled him. I knew him before he has the first battle with cancer and while he went through it. Did a comerial with him and one of his TV shows. When again did he pass away?

    Michelle Huneycutt Johnson