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FRONTLINE: Profile 2

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Weird Tales
The amazing adventures of gonzo inventor/entrepreneur John Young.

Light shines through the cabin, and Bill Murray stumbles out of bed.

“I’m Tripper Harrison. I’m your head counselor. And this is my wake-up show. I’ll be coming at you every morning about this time, hoping to make your summer camp experience the best available in this price range. Of course, across the lake, over at Camp Mohawk, they won’t be getting up for another hour or so. And when they do, they’ll be awakened by servants bearing croissants and café au lait.”

Following the path of light from the screen back to its point of origin, one discovers an old 16mm Eiki classroom projector sitting on a sidecar of a 1977 BMW R100/7 motorcycle. It looks like the sort of contraption George Lucas or Jim Henson might have created in their younger years. But at the same time, this innovative oddity somehow seems completely natural.

In the glow of the projector’s light, 40 or so fun-seekers sit around an old barn laughing as the 1979 Bill Murray classic Meatballs comes to life in vintage drive-in style. A rainbow of colored canoes line the walls, wooden rafters provide the summer camp aroma, and a tin roof echoes the intermittent light precipitation outside.

This isn’t 1979, however, and it’s not Camp North Star. Rather, it’s May 2007, and this converted feed and grain store at Northbrook Canoe Company is the latest location for the West Chester Guerilla Drive-In, courtesy of John Young and his 1977 Beemer motorcycle with attached sidecar rig (which, according to its owner, is purely for panache).

But who is John Young?

Well, besides being the founder of the Guerilla Drive-In, he’s the creator of the International Federation for the Betterment of John Young (two members strong and growing). He’s also the inventor of the Ultimate Water Gun and the tongue-in-cheek RetroPod, an iPod hidden inside an ’80s-era Sony Walkman casing that actually got the attention of Sony’s lawyers, who slapped him with a cease-and-desist order so he can’t sell the thing. Then there’s his blog, Tikaro.com, which has been featured on NPR. Young is also the brainchild of the Gorilla Suit Construction Workshop, coming this fall.

Brainchild—that’s a pretty good word to describe Young. An intelligent technophile with a love of gadgets and all things Popular Mechanics, he also excels at doing what children do best—having fun. This combination results in countless little “projects” that keep Young, his family and friends (and Web browsers throughout the world who stumble upon Young’s initiatives) highly entertained.

Young, 36, and his wife, Kate, daughter of state representative Barbara McIlvaine Smith, are both Chester County natives. Lydia, their daughter, is 3. Young grew up in Exton and went to the Westtown School. After studying philosophy and math at Earlham College in Indiana (where, according to his blog, he masterminded one of the greatest haunted houses ever created), Young pursued philosophical studies at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Today, as junior vice president in technology for Digitas, an interactive technology and marketing company in Manhattan, Young is a far from his philosophical roots. The irony is not lost on him.

“My Old Testament professors are amused that the exegetical skills they taught me get daily use interpreting 400-page coding style guides,” he jokes. “Now, the intent of the document’s original author, given their historical context in 2001, was …”

Young has worked for Digitas since 1999, commuting to New York City from Chester County for the last five years. It is the commute that gives Young the opportunity to pursue his side projects.

The long ride from Exton to Penn Station is two hours, 19 minutes each way. Young leaves Exton at 6 a.m. and arrives back in Chester County just after 6 p.m. Accompanying Young on his nearly five hours of commuting each day is his laptop and its trusty wireless card. “It’s just like being in the office,” he says, “except nobody can find you to ask where the conference rooms are or if you’ve finished the TPS report yet.”

During his commute, Young devotes his time to writing his blog, which he began in 2000, and pursuing his version of playing. During his workday, he builds websites for Fortune 100 companies. His goofy ideas (as he calls them) and his blog are ways of blowing off steam. “It’s cathartic,” he explains.

It’s also something he’s incredibly good at. Philosophy student that he was, Young likens the projects to Nietzsche, of all people. Young relates to Nietzsche’s idea of the “will to power”—but he has a different take on it.

“It always gets interpreted as the ability to bully other people around,” he says. “But a more useful reading is: just doing something you’re good at. According to Nietzsche, exercising the will to power is one of the primary motivators for humans. One of the things I’m best at is getting enthusiastic about goofy stuff. So going ahead and getting really enthusiastic about really goofy stuff makes me feel like I’m fulfilling part of my destiny as a human.”

Coming from Young, that somehow makes perfect sense.

APPARENTLY, WEST CHESTER Guerilla Drive-In is part of John Young’s destiny. The idea, he says, came from his wife. “Kate found an article about the original folks that were doing it in Santa Cruz, Calif., and showed it to me,” he recalls.

The Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In began as a way of bringing people together outdoors in a place where they wouldn’t have to spend money. Movies are shown in clandestine spots throughout the area, and attendees learn of a showing through word-of-mouth and e-mail blasts.

Unlike the Santa Cruz GDI, Young gets permission from landowners before holding a movie viewing. And unlike the Santa Cruz GDI—and other Guerilla Drive-Ins that have since popped up around the country—Young’s movies are shown from atop his motorcycle’s sidecar. “The sidecar is just natural,” he says, “since everything is cooler when it’s done from a sidecar.”

Young also tries to link up the drive-in location so it reflects the theme of the movie (e.g., Meatballs at the Northbrook Canoe Company). Pillow Talk, a 1959 feature starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day, the inaugural Guerilla Drive-In feature, was shown at a 1950s-style cabin in Westtown.

There were 21 members in the audience for the first feature; the audience doubled for Meatballs.

It’s an easygoing crowd, a mix of friends and new acquaintances. A few have become regulars, and the Guerilla Drive-In community is growing. Young’s GDI showings continue through the fall.

“I’m grateful for them, too,” Young says, speaking of the regulars, “since one fellow was a projector operator in the Navy, and so he knows what to do when the take-up reel starts getting all cattywompus-y.”

The old-school technology employed by someone so well acquainted with the latest technology is part of GDI’s charm. Young built his own AM transmitter (dubbed the MacGuffin and outfitted in a bright orange case comically displaying an image of Che Guevara decked out in 3D glasses) to broadcast the audio of the films to audience members.

Attendees are asked to bring their own transistor radios so they can tune into a specified AM frequency and listen on their radios. When the transistor itself goes cattywompus, Young employs the use of his brother-in-law’s camouflage-covered 7-foot-tall amp stack to broadcast the audio (think massive heavy metal sound system and you’ve got the idea).

More than anything else, the GDI—like all of Young’s projects—has character. And in a way, Young is creating his own mythology with these projects, becoming a grown-up—or not so grown-up— character not unlike boyhood literary heroes Tom Swift, Danny Dunn or the Great Brain.

His Ultimate Water Gun is a prime example. The aptly named device includes a fire extinguisher filled with water that’s hooked up to a nozzle mounted to the top of a motorcycle helmet. It’s every child’s (and many adult’s) dream weapon of choice for the summertime.

“That spontaneously invented itself from a bunch of shiny objects I’d gathered,” explains Young. “Ooh, look at that gold metal-flake motorcycle helmet! Ooh, look, you can refill that fire extinguisher! Ooh, look, a horde of kids with Super Soakers, thinking they rule the block!”

The Ultimate Water Gun really is the ultimate water gun—in that only one such device exists and has traveled the world. Young loans it out to interested parties if their cause is a worthy one. Worthy is an arbitrary word, and Young himself is the arbiter of the Ultimate Water Gun.

Young’s escapades, inventions and commentary are all chronicled in a highly entertaining blog called Tikaro. The domain name comes from a red stuffed pig that Young’s aunt sewed for him when he was a baby. He spontaneously named it Tikaro, and today it belongs to his daughter, Lydia.

Young’s life, as depicted in his blog and his projects, is full of wonderful, entertaining, humorous anecdotes. And it seems that’s just what Young wants. Not only is he fulfilling his Nietzschian destiny, but he’s realizing the dream of Beowulf and the stars of the epic poems of yesteryear—the dream of having one’s stories live on in eternity.

“I’m grandstanding for my grandchildren, who will hopefully not just see an isolated string of hobby projects in an otherwise totally normal life, but will fill in the blanks and make me out to be a romantic character right up there with the Pirate King of Borneo,” Young quips. “I plan to be wearing an eye patch by the time I have grandchildren, so that will help.”

Young may be only half-joking. He treasures stories from his own family, including a short diary from his maternal grandfather, a medium he notes is not unlike a blog. From Guerilla Drive-In to Gorilla Suit Construction Workshop, the adventure is sure to continue. Move over Tom Swift—and meet John Young.

Follow the amazing adventures of John Young at tikaro.com.

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