Winter 1997

Sound and Screen
by Sherri Eisenberg

When Chicago played at JMU in the spring of 1984, sophomore Keith Howland ('87) stood in Godwin Hall's stands mesmerized by the band's rendition of "Hard to Say I'm Sorry." Peering backstage after the concert, he mused that Chicago guitarist Chris Pinnick was a very lucky man.

Today Howland is the lucky man. The 31-year-old has been Chicago's guitarist since the spring of 1995. After the band's

1984 JMU concert ended, Howland, then a still-aspiring guitarist, joined the throng around the van as it prepared to whisk the band away. Lead singer Peter Cetera rolled down the window, and Howland had the chance to squeak out a question. "How do you sing so high?" Howland says he managed to ask. "He [Cetera] just rolled the window back up," laughs Howland. "It was so stupid." And possibly premonitory. Two years later, Howland, a communications major who had spent his years at JMU playing the band scene with the Spark Plugs and Chuck Taylor and the All Stars, decided to take the professional plunge. After graduation, Howland packed up and went to Los Angeles, where he enrolled in a music institute and over the years landed stage support assignments and studio musician assignments. In between he was offered spots with Olivia Newton John and Patty Smyth.

His big break with Chicago came two years ago. Then a stage hand, setting up and tuning the instruments before big-name bands like Aerosmith and Toto came on stage, Howland heard that Chicago was auditioning for a new guitarist. News of auditions are hard to come by, and information travels through word of mouth. Howland, feeling fortunate to have heard the rumor, made a few calls and found the auditions were closed and every minute had been scheduled. He didn't let that stop him.

"Keith sat on top of his car in the parking lot and played until one of them came out and heard him and gave him an audition," laughs Keith's father, Earl.

Howland junior got the job, but it's Howland senior who savors the irony. He and his wife, Joan, were the ones who had regularly taken their young sons to Chicago concerts at Maryland's Merriweather Post Pavilion. The audition story is true, he says, though "Keith probably won't embellish it the way I will."

Ever since his unusual audition, Howland has played guitar for the chart-topping '70s band responsible for 20 Top-Ten singles like "You're My Inspiration" and "Saturday in the Park" and 12 Top-Ten albums. He credits his success as a musician to his tenacity and a willingness to take risks.

"Persistence is probably the one biggest factor," Howland says. "It is always going to beat out talent. I had to mentally make myself focus strictly on being a musician. I created a void where I had to make a living playing I haven't gotten where I am in my career without doing things that were a little unorthodox."

Phoef Sutton ('79), the two-time Emmy winner whose own tenacity and scriptwriting talent took him to the top post of one of television's most popular and highly acclaimed comedy series ever, is now making his transition to the big screen. Today the former writer and executive producer of Cheers has some big-name, big-budget, big-star studio films under his belt.

After Sutton left Cheers, just before the show called it quits still at the peak of its 10-year run, Sutton went on to produce another TV comedy, Bob, consulted on several other shows and then made his move to movies. Two of the films for which he's written the screenplays, Mrs. Winterbourne and The Fan, premiered in 1996.

Sutton says he enjoyed working with screen giants Robert DeNiro and Shirley MacLaine and has found that film is a medium with a milieu completely different from television.

Writing for film is more relaxed, Sutton explains. Screenwriters work from home, set their own hours and are rarely on the set. But less pressure and structure also brings less control over the project. "As a writer, you're the whole show for a year," he says. "Then the director comes in, production begins and you're no longer important."

At the moment, Sutton seems nostalgic for the small screen he's left behind and possibly for the sway he exercised in his dual roles of writer and producer. He misses the family atmosphere, the immediacy and perhaps even the frenetic pace of creating a weekly half-hour television show. And he especially misses the cohesive staff he had at Cheers, which he credits with the show's success.

His screen preferences, however, depend on his mood, he says. And with Men in Black, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, to follow later this spring on the heels of Mrs. Winterbourne and The Fan, Sutton's track record shows success on screens both big and small.

When The Fan's credits rolled, they revealed yet another JMU talent. For Sutton and former Dukes center Vladimir Cuk ('96), who landed a part in the movie, the film amounted to a remarkable near miss. The two alumni never met during the project and haven't still. For Cuk, presently an M.B.A. student at JMU, his role in The Fan and his earlier appearance in Celtic Pride were diversions from the career he plans to pursue on Wall Street.

Cuk says he was surprised and amused when The Fan's director called from New York and offered him the part.

"It was hard to believe," Cuk laughs, "I never tried to engage in acting."

Taking a gamble on his towering 7-foot height, Cuk had flown to California to try out for a part in Eddie, another basketball flick, this one starring Whoopi Goldberg. He didn't get the job, but was considered funny enough that his audition tape began to circulate in Los Angeles. Eventually it reached the right people, and Cuk was called to Boston to play Lurch in Celtic Pride, a basketball comedy with Dan Ackroyd, Damon Wayans and Daniel Stern that made good use of both his height and his sense of humor.

"In that business," Cuk mocks, "you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself every day and not mind it."

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