Film chronicles tragic turn

The tragic coincidence of a rare brain disease killing two Ashland musicians within two months of each other in 2009 shocked thousands of their fans and students — and will be remembered in a documentary video, which producers hope to release to film festivals at the end of the year.

Dave Marston, the leader of many choirs and the fun-loving Beatles cover band, the Nowhere Men, died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in June at the age of 56, and was followed in death by jazzman Robin Lawson, who succumbed to the same disease in August. Lawson was 70.

A 40-minute movie, showing their musical highlights, as well as soundbites of the two men and their many friends, will focus on the coincidence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease striking two musicians in a town of 22,000. The disease is believed to affect only one in a million people, said the film's writer, Ann Batzer.

The production is also about the legacy of music and world peace the men worked for and left in their many students, she adds.

"It's a really compelling story of who they were, incredible musicians with amazing talent and both peace activists," says Batzer. "I think its appeal will be broader than just local.

"Dave led the first American choir at Hiroshima, the Peace Choir. Robin was born in England and taught American jazz there. Their legacy, especially to young students, is very inspiring."

In addition to film festivals, the documentary will be distributed to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease support groups and medical centers, libraries and schools, said executive director and producer Cici Brown, noting the seeming coincidence of their musical missions, as well as their unlikely deaths from the same rare disease.

The film will do a poignant take on the unhappy coincidence, notes Brown — highlighting that they were among the two most widely known, diversely talented and relentlessly creative musicians in the region. They also lived healthful lives — neither smoked or drank, making their deaths all the more unexpected, they said.

To underline the coincidence, the film is called "Two in a Million." The four creators of the documentary, including videographer Mark Brown and co-producer Kay Stein, all were close friends of the Marston and Lawson and have backgrounds in film production.

The group, working as Three-Part Harmony Media, have produced a 5-minute trailer for the film, which is being used to raise $2,500 for song royalties, distribution and travel costs. Some $1,170 has already been raised. Donors and those wanting to view the trailer can Google Kickstart and "Two in a Million."

In taping 17 interviews, the crew talked to Dr. Michael Geschwind, who treated both men at University of California at San Francisco's Memory and Aging Center. They learned the disease that struck down Marston and Lawson was termed "sporadic" and had nothing to do with Mad Cow disease or any other known link between them.

The film shows an interview with Susan Rubinyl and her son, Ben Anderson, who has Asperger's Syndrome and was taught music by Marston, using unconventional approaches to engage his talent. Rubinyl wrote a book about the relationship, "Natural Genius: the Gifts of Asperger's Syndrome."

Video cuts have been trickling in from all directions and will be used to make a film that is told by his friends and students, and interspersed with actual performances, said Mark Brown, who worked with Lawson in TV news and described him as his best friend.

Marston was a former music director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, artistic director of the Siskiyou Singers, leader of the Marston Family Singers (with wife Tami and their combined six children), The Ancient Men, the Rogue Valley Peace Choir, the Children's Peace Choir and choirs at the First Methodist Church, the Congregational Church and the Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland.

Lawson was a jazz pianist, actor, broadcast journalist and press secretary to Congressman Bob Smith. He was a British immigrant, who enlisted in the U.S. Army after studying jazz in California. He hosted a magazine show on KOBI-TV, performed a long-running one-man show as Winston Churchill and worked in both radio and television as a journalist.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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