By Joe O’Shansky
Calls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story
Discovering the legacy of Park Grubbs (“G-r-u-double-b-s.”) is kind of like finding out that Death or Pure Hell were black punk bands that existed before anyone had heard of Bad Brains. Even if you were a Jerky Boys fan, a Roy D. Mercer acolyte, or a regular Crank Yanker, this group of disaffected, prank-calling kids who lived in Bartlesville during the early ‘80s probably never crossed your radar.
The story is an age old one: smart misfits and weirdos finding each other in a boring football town, because they’re not jocks, religious, or even particularly socially acceptable.
Judging by the opening scenes of Call to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story, Bartlesville hasn’t changed much. But during the socially arid, pre-internet ‘80s, intelligent outcasts had to disappear into nerdy, specialized pursuits—to the general indifference of their mainstream peers.
Park Grubbs, collectively, were the geeks who decided to fuck with people.
Under their de facto leader, a Larry the Cable Guy meets Roy D. Mercer alter ego called Park Grubbs (Steve Rapacz), and fueled by no shortage of boredom, friends Rapacz, Jim Blanchard and Kenwick Cook (along with a fellow named Brother Love) scoured newspaper classifieds, prank calling unsuspecting “victims” and recording the results in a series of cassettes that squeeze awkward laughs out of Rapacz’s Mid-Western absurdist improvisation.
Their underground, bootleg exclusivity and subversive nature tangentially aligned the existence of Park Grubbs with the punk movement. A bauble passed between like-minded friends because it’s cool and no one really knows about it, since “it” never had the chance to be appropriated. The infamous tapes were copied far and wide, finding fans in author Daniel Clowes and The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne (who doesn’t really remember them, but hey, there’s a camera).
Calls to Okies occupies a pleasing place between mockumentary (the “reclusive” Grubbs appears early on to disavow his part in the proceedings) and affectionate documentary, even revisiting some of the pranked 30 years later—who are as amiable to talking about their experience as they are baffled that any one remembers or cares.
Directors Bradley Beesley and Ben Steinbauer, with editor Matt Leach, squeeze a hell of a lot of story into 17-minutes while never letting the object of their affection feel truncated. They utilize their time amazingly well, between the interviews with the original members and the more famous fans (including Coyne), and the curated snippets from the original tapes—which feature bravura performances from a then 17-year old Rapacz. If you weren’t a fan, you will be. It’s hard to overstate how well Rapacz captured that character. Comedians twice his age would be envious.
Calls to Okies boasts the look of an attractive and well-made Behind the Music retrospective (meant in the best way possible), complete with songs from The Flaming Lips and Mudhoney. But its true success lies in capturing a slice of life that would otherwise be lost. One that reminds us that creating our own entertainment used to be the norm, and that caller ID sucks.
Calls to Okies will screen at Circle Cinema Thursday, August 13 along with The Verdigris: In Search Of Will Rogers, directed by Beau Jennings. Both filmmakers will be present and participate in a Q&A after the screening. You can purchase tickets here.