WVUM's Matt Gajewski Upholds a Storytelling Tradition
BY JAWEED KALEEM
In a Little Haiti record store, 50 people gather around a small stage on a recent Saturday night. While a few guitarists strum and hum in the background, a lanky, disheveled man holding a stack of paper tilts his head downward and, for the next hour, reads in a precise, unmodulated voice, his words soft and clipped.
Today's tale: a server at Neil Armstrong's Giant Leap for Mankind Pancake House laments love lost in a dying town famous for its human-eating tar pits.
More than half a century ago, TV largely wiped out radio drama, but there's at least one place where storytelling thrives in South Florida. Every week, Matt Gajewski, a 24-year-old T-shirt company assistant, brings the tradition alive on the University of Miami's WVUM-FM 90.5. Part This American Life, part dark comedy, Pure Imagination is in its fourth season and has gained dedicated followers who also flock to Gajewski's monthly performances at Miami's Sweat Records, 5505 NE Second Ave.
Gajewski, who debuted the show as a junior at UM, has continued it since earning a degree in music engineering and jazz guitar two years ago. He writes and records all the stories - he has stockpiled about 60 so far - and underlays them with ambient music borrowed from a troupe of musical friends. The final product makes its from his MacBook to studio equipment and to growing numbers of fans at 9 p.m. each Monday.
"The stories mostly concern things I'm familiar with," Gajewski says. "I grew up in the Midwest, so there are lots of Midwestern settings and lots of ordinary people and places: janitors, restaurant servers, community swimming pools. And then I incorporate fanciful, fabulous elements."
Welcome to Neil Armstrong's Giant Leap for Mankind Pancake House. My name is Matt, and I will be your server this afternoon.
For starters, can I get you anything to drink?
How sweet is The Eagle Has Landed Iced Tea? That is an excellent question. I would say that it is sweeter than unsweetened iced tea. It is sweeter than grapefruit juice, and blood, and a mouthful of dirt. But it is not as sweet as, say, a refreshing Pepsi-Cola product, or a dripping honeycomb, or the kiss of a lover who's been chewing spearmint gum.
You've never kissed someone who's been chewing spearmint gum? Why, that's very unfortunate. You should try it as soon as possible!
You're a priest. My apologies, Father. How very discourteous of me.
Let me then describe for you what it's like.
Gajewski grew up in Madison, Wis., where as a child he obsessively read humorist Dave Barry. By his late teenage years, he had developed a passion for music and storytelling and penned a monthly sports column about an imaginary championship-winning croquet team for his high-school newspaper. He fell asleep listening to classic radio storyteller Joe Frank of Santa Monica's KCRW, who until 2002 produced the popular dramas after which Pure Imagination is modeled.
As a UM freshman, Gajewski gave radio a stab as the 4-7 a.m. DJ at WVUM, but the gig didn't satisfy his creative appetite. After Gajewski attended a summer concert in Wisconsin, which oddly included the song Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, he got an idea: why not start his own radio drama - realist, yet outlandish?
CRAFTING OF STORIES
Within two months, he had written and produced more than two dozen half-hour episodes. He labored over each story for three days; today's hour-long pieces take twice the time. He crafts the stories during vacations from his part-time job. He rarely revises.
"It's hard to make yourself sit down and write," Gajewski says, but discipline kicks in. He begins most stories while the sun is up and completes them early the next morning.
Gajewski marched into WVUM in the fall of 2005 and handed someone the first episode of his radio drama: It's Not Easy Being a Werewolf. Hungry for a new show, the station gave him a time slot. By spring, he was broadcasting weekly. When the archived shows went online, the fan mail began to pour in.
"I've gotten e-mails from Canada, from California, Virginia, Maryland," he says between post-broadcast calls at WVUM's Coral Gables studio. He has just aired Jokes Have I Known.
A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar. It is Line Dancing Night, and they are wearing Stetson hats. Seated near the holy men are three women, one in tight blue jeans, one in motorcycle leather, one in shiny, metallic chaps. . . .
A Spaniard, a Chinese man, a Polish man, and Prometheus walks into a bar. It is Tragedy Karaoke Night, and whoever recounts the most emotionally debilitating personal anecdote, in conjunction with a '70s pop favorite, wins a hundred-dollar cash prize. . . .
God, Satan, Denise, and Gladys walk into a bar. It is Happy Hour, and they are on a double date. God and Denise sit on one side of a booth, Satan and Gladys cozily occupying the other. . . .
Gajewski, who does the show as a hobby, didn't know the extent of his budding fan club until his live shows at Sweat REcords kicked off last summer. One early listener was store owner Lauren "Lolo" Reskin.
"I was driving home from yoga class one day. I had WVUM on, and I heard this story and thought 'Wow, what is this?' By the time I got home, I didn't want to get out of my car," Reskin says. "It's not just about what happens to people. It's their thoughts and feelings, how they deal with the ridiculous situations they find themselves in. You feel for the characters."
At Reskin's store, half a dozen musicians accompany live shows. Under dim lights, saxophone, upright bass, drums and tambourine players improvise tunes as Gajewski performs his poetic absurdities.
Devin Smith of the Miami band Airship Rocketship, who does special effects at live shows, says Pure Imagination is a "big inspiration" for him. "It always manages to strike some emotional chord."
The stories aren't unified by much beyond their humor, and most are timeless, although some riff on current events. Case-in-point: Stimulus. a mock IRS guide to getting the most out of the economic-stimulus package. Advice includes conducting a "series of contrived, arbitrary challenges" among your children to decide if and how to dole out that check.
The first challenge, as explained to your children in the comfort of your living room or study, entails your daughters' dressing up in their Girl Scout uniforms and converting the neighbors, door-to-door, to a fictional religion picked out of a hat. Debbie gets the Hyper Crystal Suicide Cult, which requires all followers to make a spiritual and ultimately fatal pilgrimage to Akron, Ohio; Jo Jean gets WKKZ-FM Orthodox, which promises eternal paradise to the seventh caller in a biweekly radio contest; and Sheneneh gets Scientology, which, though technically not a fictional religion, was created by L. Ron Hubbard, a writer of fiction, and is simply too good not to include in your handsome wool felt fedora.
Gajewski is compiling an illustrated book of Pure Imagination stories that he'll self-publish in April. A guitarist in two bands, Van*gloria and Sirens & Sealions, he'll also tour with the former come March.
Yet, most of all, he just wants to keep writing and recording.
"Writing keeps me waking up every day," Gajewski says. "There is something about experiencing a radio show that is fundamentally different than experiencing a TV show or reading. Like with reading, you have to supply action and visuals with your own mind. You have to pay attention and sit there and move your eyes. With radio, you sit and let it sink in."