The Man Behind The First Film Shot Entirely In Las Cruces

Dec 2, 2019

Commentary: When I arrived here in August 1969, I immediately became friends with three very creative gentlemen: playwright and actor Mark Medoff, poet Keith Wilson, and filmmaker Orville (“Buddy”) Wanzer. Sadly, all three have left us.

Keith, portrayed his native New Mexico in magical poetry. He and his wife Heloise were the center of a warm and lively poetry scene here for decades. His Collected Poetry is a fine poetic exploration of New Mexico.

Mark was a talented writer and charismatic actor, who continued to grow as a playwright and a person. We recently saw Mark's last play, Time and Chance. A week later, we heard his delightful granddaughter, Grace Marks, sing and play guitar. I'd have liked to congratulate Mark on both; but he died in April.

Buddy taught film, and for decades (with John Hadsell) ran the Film Society, an oasis where folks could see great international films. Today, we're so used to Netflix,TCM, Hulu and YouTube it's hard to imagine how isolated we were then. There weren't even videos to rent.

In 1965, Bud made a feature, The Devil's Mistress, which was distributed nationally. Back then, all feature films in the U.S. came from Hollywood. Newspapers around the nation ran the AP story on the professor making a film in the desert.

Shooting with local actors and crew, he did a hell of a job. It wasn't a great film, but it was a fairly original concept. Making such a film, working essentially alone, was almost heroic.

It was a big deal here. Local actors, local investors, and a packed premiere at the Rio Grande. Fast-talking distributors ripped off the locals so badly that they got no money back. In 1969, Bud didn't even have a copy of the film. (One morning, leafing through film-rental catalogues, I spotted The Devil's Mistress. Bud rented it and illegally copied it.)

Bud was a fun, informal, and iconoclastic teacher. People still tell me how greatly he affected their lives. Some of his film-making students had film careers in Kuwait or India, some became network sports personnel, and others independent film-makers and photographers. Some also taught.

In 1984, when Bud planned to retire, we bought some land in Derry. Working alone, he built a little house, using only materials he took there in his Datsun. He lived there 29 years, enjoying his solitude and creativity. People still read, and discuss on-line, his enviro-fantasy novel The Elfin Brood; and whenever I see stained-glass for sale it looks like child's play compared to Bud's work. He also had to build or repair most everything. He fell off the roof at an age when doctors would have forbade him to be up there. Eventually, he moved back to town, and later into Good Sam's.

Native New Mexican Julia Louisa Smith teaches film at CMI. When she learned of Bud's work, she started a documentary by interviewing him a few times before he died in February, and has continued the project. She calls The Devil's Mistress (which never was a conventional western!) an “acid western.” She showed it in Shanghai. She's intrigued that he created a local community of film-makers, way before CMI. (It's interesting to see a piece of my youth through her educated eye.)

Film Las Cruces and the LC Film Festival will show The Devil's Mistress at 7 p.m. this Thursday at the Rio Grande Theater. A reception, at nearby 575, will follow.