Retired Teacher Turns Passion for the Arts into Busy Lecture Career
February 15, 2015
By ARLENE GROSS. Special to Newsday
By ARLENE GROSS. Special to Newsday
Opera, classic films, the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein -- these are just a few of Richard Knox's favorite things. And for the past few years, the 68-year-old retired teacher from Merrick has been sharing his love of the arts with audiences around Long Island.
Before retiring, mathematics was the foundation of Knox's career. He taught junior high school math in Brooklyn for 18 years and served as math coordinator for kindergarten through eighth grades for 21 years in the Copiague School District. After leaving there in 2005, Knox worked for two years as a districtwide math supervisor in the Oyster Bay-East Norwich School District.
As much as he enjoyed math, Knox wanted to follow his passion, and six years ago started hitting the lecture circuit with his program, "Lights! Camera! Trivia!" So far, he has developed more than 20 different lecture for Rich's Multimedia Retrospectives that encompass the performing arts. He keeps a busy schedule at public libraries on Long Island and gives Hutton House lectures at LIU Post.
It's what he calls his "labor of love," and while there are many speakers who book shows at libraries or other venues every so often, Knox speaking engagements average one per week. He gets paid $150 to $200 for each appearance.
"If you want to know what someone's passionate about, don't watch them when they're working, watch them when they're not working, when they devote their time and energy to things they truly love," said Knox, who is married with a grown son and daughter.
For as long as he can remember, Knox has been especially drawn to Broadway musicals. As a youngster, he cherished summers at sleepaway camp where the highlight was putting on musical theater productions of "South Pacific," "Guys and Dolls" and other shows.
Back home in Brooklyn, Knox would often spend Saturday afternoons at movie houses, engrossed in films like "The Incredible Shrinking Man" and "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers."
"As I got older and my taste in films grew a bit more sophisticated," Knox said, "I began to study the behind-the-scenes elements that made some films stand above the rest, whether it was a creative director, outstanding musical score or innovative cinematography."
His love of opera came from his dad, with whom he spent many weekends as a teen, watching standing-room-only performances at the Metropolitan Opera House when it was on Broadway. Even listening to an opera radio broadcast was an unforgettable experience, he said.
After developing his first movie trivia program, "I wanted to expand it to include the other things that I'm really interested [in] -- musicals, musical comedy, great composers like Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter," Knox said.
Responding to the popularity of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," he cobbled together a program about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for his lecture circuit. An audience member suggested that Knox do a tribute to Gene Kelly, and soon, Knox added it to his list of offerings.
Typically, his audiences are familiar with the subject matter, but he enjoys highlighting the nuances of it. For example, after watching a Hitchcock film, Knox will point out subtleties they may have missed, like the art direction or the director's use of the camera. "Unless you're a student of the particular art, you're not really thinking about it," he said. "You can't really put into words what those factors are. What I try to do is give a new perspective to the people watching it."
Impressed with Knox's command of his material, Maryellen Cantanno, programming librarian at the Freeport Public Library, plans to make Knox a bimonthly lecturer there. Noting the scope of his lectures -- he spoke about Hitchcock for Halloween and presented an African-American theme for Black History Month -- she said, "His repertoire doesn't keyhole him to a
specific group. He has such a nice temperament. He's the easiest man to work with."
The audience enjoys him because he stops to answer questions, she said. "He's not a person who wants to ramble and hear himself talk. He likes people to add their interests."
Knox is a favorite speaker at LIU's Hutton House lectures, said director Kay Sato. "You can tell that he enjoys the challenge of teaching our population of savvy adults with whom his discussions make each presentation even more rich."
Asked how he can do a program repeatedly, seeing the same movie over and over, he replied, "I get enjoyment out of watching it again and seeing how the audience reacts and getting them interactively involved in it" by giving them quick quizzes.
But some of his prized moments come from connecting with audiences at assisted living residences. Many who attend the show have memory loss and seem to really enjoy the movies. "When they hear a song or they watch Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger . . . it's like the lights go on behind their eyes and you can see them perk up. And they'll remember the lyrics to a Rodgers and Hart [song] that they haven't heard in 50 years."
At a recent lecture at Jericho Public Library on the role of music in the movies, Knox spoke enthusiastically to three dozen or so attendees about great composers who used their music to punctuate dramatic cinematic moments. He illustrated his point with iconic examples, including Bernard Herrmann's strings-only theme for "Psycho," and the soulful notes resonating throughout Elmer Bernstein's score in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Introducing a film montage, Knox noted composer John Williams' 49 Academy Award nominations and offered the trivia tidbit that Paulette Goddard was on the short list to play Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind." At the end of the program, Joan Filderman, 71, of Merrick, said, "I think he's very interesting, very informative, entertaining, enjoyable."
The program was one of the Knox's latest attended by Judy Davidson, 78, of Syosset. "I like all his lectures," she said. "He's very interesting."
The lectures bring out the best in him, said Knox's wife, Dana. "He's so inspired by what he's doing, and he's sharing that with others," she said. "It's very nice to see him in his milieu here."
For Knox, it's simply the way he wants to spend his time. "I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't thoroughly enjoy doing it," he said.