There’s something dark and strange about the fellow who calls himself The Musicianer. Not even The Musicianer himself knows what it is.
But people around him sense it. He’s a charming throwback of a street busker who seems out of place in these modern times. It’s almost as if he’s made an ill-fated trade for immortality with — well, you know who.
“He’s never sure where and when he is,” said Beth Harrington. “Everyone around him knows more about him than he knows about himself.”
Singing and strumming for tips in the park one day, The Musicianer meets an ethnomusicologist headed for a hifalutin’ academic conference. Intrigued, she invites him to watch rare footage of a striving hillbilly musician from the 1920 — one Yodelin’ Vern Lockhart.
That’s how the earthy sound of American roots music blends with supernatural spookiness in the pilot episode of “The Musicianer,” an original digital TV series now under development by Vancouver documentary filmmaker Beth Harrington. The pilot gets its world premiere at the Kiggins Theatre on Jan. 27, in a special event that also includes a related premiere — a Harrington music video called “The Ballad of Handsome Ned” — and a Q&A with the filmmaker and her lead actors, Grey DeLisle Griffin (ethnomusicologist Jo Cullen), Lowell Deo (Reggie) and the musician and actor who goes by the moniker Petunia.
If You Go
What: World premiere of the pilot episode of “The Musicianer,” written and directed by Beth Harrington.
When: 1 p.m. Jan. 27.
Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.
Tickets: $10 in advance or $12 at the door.
Check out a creepy musical preview of “The Musicianer” at themusicianer.com/trailer
Beth Harrington, a Boston native who has lived in Vancouver for 22 years, will receive a Lifetime Achievement award from the Clark County Arts Commission at 6 p.m. Feb. 5 in the county council chambers, 1300 Franklin St., sixth floor. A reception will follow at the Kiggins Theatre. In addition to being a working filmmaker and documentarian for decades, nominator Elizabeth Holmes wrote, Harrington is a loyal Vancouver booster whose “faith in this community gives confidence as we pursue a bright future for our local arts. ... You can count on Beth to provide encouragement, wisdom and a push for action when needed.”
Harrington, 63, said she is honored — and a little worried. “Does this mean I’m supposed to be wrapping it up?” she laughed.
There’s something truly uncanny about Petunia himself, Harrington said, and that’s how the idea for “The Musicianer” was born.
Harrington, who lives in east Vancouver, met Petunia, who lives in that other Vancouver — the one up in Canada — after the longtime documentarian achieved a new level of success with “The Winding Stream,” a study of the trailblazing women of country music who set the stage for Johnny Cash’s stardom. Released in 2014, “The Winding Stream” received great reviews and got Harrington noticed.
That’s when a mutual friend introduced her to Petunia, whose vintage charisma and Jimmy Rodgers-esque yodel seemed to step right out of the pre-Cash era.
“There is something really powerful and mysterious about Petunia,” Harrington said. “He really could be from another planet or another time.”
And Petunia, who really does yodel like he was born doing it, told Harrington: “If you ever need somebody to be Jimmie Rodgers in a film, I’m your guy.”
Something like two-thirds of the pilot for “The Musicianer” was filmed on location in Vancouver, Harrington said: sites such as Esther Short Park, Providence Academy, the Hampton Inn (for academic conference scenes) and the Fruit Valley rail yard at night (for super-creepy atmosphere scenes). “It was just a joy, it was so easy to literally shoot in my own back yard,” Harrington said. She did need to get permissions and permits, but “the city was so helpful,” she said.
Another star of “The Musicianer” is Grey DeLisle Griffin, a singer and voice actress whom you might know as the voice of Emily Elizabeth on “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” or from numerous video game soundtracks. She has voiced more than 700 different characters in all, yet this is one of her first on-screen parts.
“Her role is equally important to Vern’s, and if we have the chance to develop this you’ll see her character come out more. Each character features prominently” in the eight-episode story arc that Harrington has mostly scripted already, she said.
Future episodes will also include a rich assortment of guest-starring musicians and singers, she said.
“It all clicked so well, we would love to keep doing it,” she said. The good news, she added, is that industry hunger for new independent small-screen series and pilots seems to be growing. “It’s the first time in my career as a filmmaker that I can see, there’s the glimmer of the idea that they need us more than we need them,” she said.
That’s a big change for the longtime maker of documentaries and historical films (like her recent half-hour episode of the Oregon Public Broadcasting show “Oregon Experience,” exploring Fort Vancouver). Harrington said she’s both thrilled and anxious to see how the audience likes it.
Scripting fiction from her own imagination “was very freeing, I guess we’ll find out if I’m any good at it,” she laughed.