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When he’s 64, he’ll recall meeting the walrus in ’69

When he’s 64, he’ll recall meeting the walrus in ’69

Jerry Levitan
Courtesy of Jerry Levitan
The young Jerry Levitan, off-screen star of the Oscar-nominated “I Met the Walrus.”

And the Oscar goes to … 14-year-old Jerry Levitan?

If so, the Academy Award will have been decades in coming. (We’ll know for sure in about a week.)

Some explanation is in order. Thirty-nine years ago, the adolescent Levitan, armed with a 1960s-era reel-to-reel tape deck, interviewed his hero, John Lennon.

Five minutes of that half-hour chat, audiotaped in a Toronto hotel room where the late Beatle and Yoko Ono were staying, form the basis of “I Met the Walrus.” Now, thanks to the wildly creative animation by Josh Raskin, “Walrus” is nominated for Best Animated Short. And Levitan, now 50-something, is the producer.

The movie starts playing at Lagoon Cinema today in one of two Oscar shorts programs, and can also be glimpsed on YouTube.

“I knocked on the door,” recalls Levitan by phone from Toronto, “said, ‘Canadian News’ in my lowest, 14-year-old voice, and, before I knew it, four feet in front of me was John Lennon.”

Levitan remembers hearing on the radio that Lennon had been spotted at the Toronto airport. “That was all I needed to hear,” he says. “John Lennon was in my hometown? I was on an immediate mission to find him, even if it meant not going to school the next morning.” (Indeed, the pint-sized Beatlemaniac par excellence didn’t.)

Yesterday and today
Watching “I Met the Walrus,” wherein an adolescent’s probing questions trigger a free-associative succession of hand-drawn images (peace signs, turntables, strawberry fields, etc.), one can be forgiven for thinking that Levitan must’ve been born a journalist.

“I wasn’t born a journalist,” laughs Levitan, now a musician, lawyer and producer. “I was born a precocious kid who had a lot of dreams. My earliest memories are of our family getting our first television and watching ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ My dad was a musician who played the mandolin. I was always thinking of bigger things. And then the Beatles came along. They were so much a part of my life.”

As much as David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (a movie that, speaking of the Oscars, really ought to be nominated for Best Picture), Levitan’s loving testimony of his late 1960s fixation amounts to a stuffed file cabinet of bygone analog-era pursuits: endless trips to the record store, long-distance calls to the record company (“What’s the shipping date for ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ again?”), autographed album covers.

“It was a time of very limited access to media,” says Levitan of 1969. “Which is why it’s hard for the generation of today — or even a couple of generations before today — to understand the power of the Beatles. Whether people liked them or not, the Beatles were recognized by everyone as being the leaders of musical innovation and fashion and sociological change. Even the adult world — the media — recognized that and followed everything [the Beatles] did.

“When Lennon made that comment about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus, it started a worldwide storm,” he says. “When Paul McCartney admitted he took LSD, it was front-page news. As a kid, waiting for a new Beatles record was a magical thing. ‘What was it going to say? What was it going to sound like? What would be on the cover?’ “

When Levitan finally met his hero, Lennon was halfway through recording the Beatles’ LP “Abbey Road,” whose two distinct sides — Lennon’s and McCartney’s — reflected the band mates’ different directions at the crosswalk.

Instead of toting the foursome’s “Sgt. Pepper’s” album to the hotel for Lennon’s signature, Levitan presented a rare copy of the “Two Virgins” album (featuring a photo of Lennon and Ono in the buff). Levitan thinks it was that visible recognition of Lennon’s desire for independence that helps explain why the rocker took a fancy to the interloper and allowed him to hang around.

“He saw my ‘Two Virgins’ album,” recalls Levitan, “and said, ‘Wow, I thought the Mounties came in on horses and took them all.’ He really liked the fact that I had a John and Yoko album. He drew a fun cartoon on the cover and wrote, ‘To Jerry, Love and Peace, John.’ “

Giving peace a chance
Ask Oscar-nominated Levitan about his odds of winning the Academy Award and he defers to his hero’s wartime message, now timely again.

“Part of the reason for the buzz around the film in the U.S. is the fact that it’s a movie with John Lennon talking about peace and love after all these years,” says Levitan, now also known as Sir Jerry, a maker of kids’ records that have been described as “Raffi meets ‘Sgt. Pepper’s.’ “

“People in the United States are upset with what’s happening in the country and the world, and here is this beloved figure who’s back with a very simple message: ‘Give peace a chance.’ “

Rob Nelson, a member of the National Society of Film Critics, writes about film for MinnPost. He can be reached at rnelson [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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