In the early 1980s, when cable television was still in its infancy, if you lived in the greater Kalamazoo area, there’s a good chance you saw Chuck Bentley on your TV screen: a man with kind, intense eyes and a mop of curly hair resting softly on his shoulders.
Bentley was one of the first private citizens in Kalamazoo to use cable TV’s then-new Public Access platform to showcase his art. He’d been an independent filmmaker since 1968, but with the advent of Public Access he was on the verge of finally making a name for himself locally.
“I couldn’t go anywhere without people recognizing me,” he says. “I’d be in Meijer and someone would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, aren’t you that guy on Public Access?’ If you had cable, you saw our show.”
In total, Bentley, 72, has made more than 100 films, beginning with shorts in the late 1960s and moving into feature-length films (of which he is on his 45th) in the early 1980s, taking on the task of writing, directing and editing them all, paying for production costs out of his Social Security retirement and money saved from a video production business he used to run. The fact that he performs nearly all the production tasks himself saves him money, with his most significant costs going toward paying for the music scores for his films, penned by local composer Randon Myles Chisnell.
Bentley is proud of the fact that he is beholden to no one, that his creations are his and his alone. As his website says, Bentley has “no investors to pay back, no gatekeepers to appease, and no requirements to fulfill, and, as such, has made no Faustian deal to compromise his vision or distort his truth.”
Bentley had production facilities in the Park Trades Center until 1993, when he moved them to his West Main Hill home. There, in his basement, specifically constructed with towering ceilings, the tools and props of his trade are scattered about — candelabras, frilly dresses, statues, a knight’s suit of armor, a broadsword. He’s made the move to digital film production, but a plastic box full of old tapes he has been converting to digital sits next to knickknacks and props.
“Those should be in the fridge,” he says of the tapes. On a door that leads into a room with walls covered in dozens of press clippings highlighting his work over the years, is a “Things To Do” board so full of Post-It notes that the surface underneath can’t be seen. Some of the notes go back 30 years. Bentley gives the board a once-over and picks out one particular to-do item.
“Sh–,” he says, “I forgot to do that.”
One can’t blame him for that, not after all he’s done. He won a Community Medal of Arts in 1997, an annual award bestowed by the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo as a sort of lifetime achievement award for an individual’s “significant creative contributions and leadership in the arts.”
And though all the world’s a stage, as one of Shakespeare’s characters said, it is Kalamazoo that is Bentley’s main stage. Bentley doesn’t hold auditions for roles in his films. He handpicks his actors from local theater groups, as well as those studying at his alma mater, Western Michigan University. He often makes use of local places for location shots; he’s shot his films at O’Duffy’s Pub, The Heritage Co. and several other local spots.
“Kalamazoo is unique in that it is not only a place full of incredible art and talented artists, but a place where one can manifest those talents,” he says. “Much of my work is made for and about the people of Kalamazoo.”
But overseas destinations also play a significant part in his films as well. Over the years, he has taken casts to France, England and Italy to shoot portions of his films. Cast members pay for their airfare and food, while Bentley picks up the accommodations and other transportation.
Bitten by the bug
A Grand Rapids native, Bentley came to Kalamazoo in 1966 with his then-high school sweetheart, Donna Kaminski (she is now his wife), to attend Western Michigan University. The couple have been Kalamazooans ever since.
“WMU has had a major impact on our lives,” he says.
At WMU, Bentley majored in English and physical education and got involved in theater, where he was bitten by the stage bug.
“I got hooked,” he says.
So he replaced the physical education major with theater, quickly seeing the staying power of filmmaking.
“We perform for people on stage, but I thought, ‘Why not broaden the horizon?’” he says. “With a film, there’s a record. My work could be exposed to a wider audience. And here we are, 50 years later. Some of my earliest material still exists.”
Bentley’s production process bucks the usual way of making movies.
He chooses his cast first, then writes the script around their personalities, focusing on themes of attraction, lust versus love, commitment, the nature of humanity and how sexuality is changing. He has also starred in many of his own films. He describes his work as “art house,” “sophisticated comedy” and “a comedy of manners for the modern era,” he says.
He debuts his films at the Goodrich Kalamazoo 10 movie theater on West Main Street in Oshtemo Township. The movies then make their way to the Public Media Network, which is the local public access cable network, and online to Bentley’s YouTube and Vimeo sites and to his website, chuckbentleyproductions.com.
‘A Renaissance man’
Being in a Bentley movie is a true experience for his actors.
Laura Kay Henderson is currently working in Bentley’s latest (and 45th) feature-length film, When I Was Lost, parts of which are set in Florence, Italy.
This is her eighth Bentley film, and Henderson plays the main character, Sydney Peterson, a writer in a coma who, while dreaming in her unconscious state, realizes all the people she sees in her dream are folks she knows and has written about.
As the story unfolds, Peterson interacts with them, sometimes turbulently, as the familiar faces are not happy with how she has written about them. In the end, Peterson re-humanizes these people as she builds empathy for them.
“She becomes softer, kinder,” Henderson says. “She gains humanity herself too.
Henderson has good things to say about Bentley. “On set, he (Bentley) is wonderful, creative and driven,” she says. “Off set, he is gracious, generous and kind. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Bentley was looking for an older couple to be a part of the cast of his film An English Country Wedding, set in England’s visually striking Lake District, where he and Kaminski have a residence and where they’ve lived part-time for more than 30 years.
Ron Dundon and Dixie Edwards, a retired couple who regularly act in Civic Theatre productions, were recommended to Bentley, and after a few interviews were cast in the film.
“Anyone in the acting community here has heard of Chuck,” Dundon says. “Being in his films is a great opportunity for local actors.”
Dundon says the film, which premiered in October 2019, was “a joy” to work on. He and Edwards paid for their own flights and food, while Bentley provided the cast with lodging in a seven-bedroom house where much of the film was shot. Dundon says he and his wife “felt like family.”
“We were welcomed into his world,” he says. “It was a skeleton crew on a tight budget, but he spared nothing to make us feel at home. He treats the people who work with him very well.”
“He’s a wonderful actor in his own right,” Dundon adds. “He’s a true artist in every respect. In many ways, he’s a Renaissance man.”
‘Because I have to’
It’s almost as if the films Bentley has made and the imaginative juice he squeezes from his mind have covered him in a youthful verve. There is a palpable energy that emanates from him as he sits on a plump couch in his living room, heavy purple drapes hanging from the ceiling like a pregnant belly, the room looking like a film set, with trinkets and pictures from around the world scattered on small Greek columns and heavily decorated walls.
In the backyard of his home, Greco-Roman statues and columns are illuminated with spotlights, creating what Bentley calls “a theatrical illusion.”
When he speaks, his voice still holds the authoritative grace of a trained actor. As he discusses his decades as a filmmaker, his eyes gleam, his stance stiffens at attention, his hands swirl in front of him, like he’s casting a spell. Through it all, his wife, a computer science professor at Western Michigan University, sits cross-legged on a loveseat nearby, a look of quiet admiration painted on her face, perhaps still mesmerized by the man she married 53 years ago.
“She’s been here from the beginning,” he says of Kaminski, who is often the logistics organizer on his films, coordinating trips, accommodations and props. “She truly is my biggest support.”
They have no children, but Chuck speaks of his films like one would talk of their offspring. They have challenged him, frustrated him, taught him things he otherwise wouldn’t have known about himself and given him the kind of sincere and authentic joy that comes from creating something out of nothing and sharing that with the world.
“Some artists stop after they peak,” he says. “Maybe it’s because I never reached the pinnacle of fame that I am still hungry. Sometimes success can be as devastating as failure. Creative inertia keeps me going. I am creative because I have to be. I feel like I don’t have a choice.”
So, is he planning on hanging it up anytime soon?
“Sure, I’ll stop,” he says, “when they pry the camera from my cold, dead hands.”