By Beverly Drapalik
NEW VIENNA — Clinton County is known for its farms, produce, relaxed atmosphere — even horses.
Most of us don’t think “movies” when we go about our business here. But, in New Vienna, John and Marty Riley have created what might be considered a hidden gem: a film studio.
John’s career has traveled a circuitous route in order to explore his passion. At the age of 48, he began acting, and at age 62, he rode his motorcycle to Hollywood, hoping to become the next James Dean. He became more than James Dean. He is “having fun” acting, directing — actually, wearing multiple hats as he makes short films.
John went to Northridge High School in Dayton. He started his work life with Dixie Candy and Fountain Supply Company.
In 1974, after working in the food industry for a number of years, he started his own 400-seat supper club in Franklin, Ohio. It was Benjamin’s of Franklin Square and it was ranked “one of the top 300 independent restaurants in the country.”
Many celebrities made stops at Benjamin’s, including Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The employees were a unique bunch, mostly from College Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati. John allowed them to “hone their craft” and perform at the restaurant as well as work there.
After more time in the food industry, designing management training programs and food seminars, he started yet another restaurant, Benjamin’s, The Burger Master.
It’s been 32 years, and the restaurant is still going strong at 1000 Main St. in Dayton. Employees are valued and usually stay for years at a time.
John and Marty are “hands-on” owners of the restaurant. They drive from New Vienna to Dayton often; recently they taught a new employee how to fry chicken properly.
As John says, “We do everything together. We re-met at our 30th high school reunion, and by the 35th I was crazy about her.”
John likes the food industry, but he loves performing arts. He has a favorite philosophy, “You’re never too old to dream.”
Dream he did, and he is now a member of the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame. When he started acting, at age 48, he’d had no formal training and “walked in off the street” to audition for “Sweet Bird of Youth” at the Dayton Playhouse. He got the short part of the butler, but he also got “the bug.” He acted that year and the next.
Then, he had an idea for putting on new plays — several in one weekend — and that idea became FutureFest, a festival of new and unproduced plays put on by the community theater run entirely by volunteers.
In one weekend, six new plays are produced as a full production or a staged reading. Adjudicators give critiques in front of playwrights and the FutureFest audiences. FutureFest will be held this year July 16-19.
It is nationally known, and a very convenient weekend destination.
After the success of FutureFest, John and Marty created their own First Stage Productions and brought 19 new, unpublished plays to audiences in Dayton. John and Marty read countless new scripts.
Marty is a former corporate trainer and has always been involved in the theater, so she “knows what a good play is,” according to John.
John spent years directing, producing, and acting in more than 75 stage plays. He has also been scenic designer, artistic director and board member of several theatre groups in Ohio.
A literal circuitous route was involved in John’s next dream. The love of acting loomed so large that John rode his motorcycle to Hollywood in 2002. Marty rode behind him in a car that was so piled with possessions, “it could have been in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’” They were going to stay only three months, but that stay turned into two years. John acted in several independent and student films as well as TV commercials during their stay.
The return route was in 2004, and that’s where Clinton County comes in. Originally, John and Marty wanted to retire in Charlottesville, Va., in a little place called Albemarle. However, the pull of family kept them in Ohio.
John designed their “retirement” home, and he and Marty built their house in New Vienna, complete with a film studio, editing room and sets. They did much of the physical labor and added many unique features to their home. They named their new company Albemarle Productions.
When asked about his greatest accomplishment, John says there are two: building their house is first. He drew the actual plans for the house. The task was monumental, and they enjoy every day on their property. A day might involve a make-up artist arriving at their house; or Marty keeping watch over a field of bait so that when the buzzards come to feed, John can start filming; or John deciding which storyline he wants to use with an upcoming film.
His second greatest accomplishment is a short film “The Line Shack,” set in the Old West in 1896. It is the story of two brothers, love, betrayal and revenge. The film becomes the story of Nat Sinclair who “finds peace in the solitude of an old line shack up on the North Slope. A stranger’s arrival at the ranch exposes the past, shattering Nat’s tranquility forever.”
John wrote, directed and acted in “The Line Shack.” One of the stars is actor Jon Briddell, Marty’s son. It won the 2012 Indie Auteur of the Year Award at the 13th annual Bare Bones International Film Festival in Muskogee, Okla.
“Bare Bones is home of the Indie Auteur where recognition is given to those who manage to wear a minimum of five hats (positions) bridging pre-post production and marketing.”
For the movie, John built a shack in his garage so that the inside of the shack could be filmed. Walls can be moved aside so the shack appears larger and all camera angles can be used. He also built the shack in the woods for filming the exterior scenes.
John says this movie stands out as his great work because the learning curve was huge: He was almost 70 and had to learn so many details about computers, editing and cameras.
John and Marty “light up” when talking about his recent short film, “Old Buzzards.” He wrote this movie for six high school pals.
“When six old buddies discover the body of their long time friend Dewey, they decide to hold a service and bury him. Later, they proceed to divvy up all of his worldly possessions,” the plot reads.
None of these guys had ever acted, but they performed beautifully under John’s direction. Marty says the friends think it is a highlight of their lives, and some of the guys still have the publicity posters hanging in their homes.
By the way, John says, “Marty helped immensely by watching for those ‘real’ buzzards as she read her novel by the window.”
Although she leaves the acting to her husband and son, Marty was in one movie. She was filmed from the back, loading a washing machine. That seems to be enough acting for her.
John’s acting in “Night Song” may be some of his best. This movie was produced by some of John’s friends at Mirepoix Pictures in Cincinnati.
It is the story of music journalist Kevin Hall who listens to tunes of an old blues musician, Lester Ervin. The journalist searches for Lester and finds an “aging musician dealing with dementia and loneliness,” living in Appalachia. That musician is played by John.
He says the film is special because two of his granddaughters made appearances in it. The trailer, pictures and other information about the film is found at mirepoixpictures.com.
Closer to home, the Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs presents short films. Recently Albemarle Productions presented “Old Buzzards,” Adam Bolt’s “Vanished Acres” and Michael Azzarello’s “Night Without Justice.” John created a fundraiser for the theatre.
What’s next? John indicates he would like to make another film. He would like to do some more writing soon, and he may write a movie expressly for himself.
Beverly lives in Wilmington with her husband, Jeff. They also live with a dog, a cat, a parrot, chickens and bees.