Filmmaker David Wain On The Personal Legacy Of His Famous Cleveland Father
David Wain made his first impression as an entertainer as part of a sketch comedy troupe, “The State” on MTV, in the early 1990s. Members of that group would go on to make “Wet Hot American Summer," a 2001 film about summer camp.
The film bombed at the box office but subsequently became a cult favorite. Wain and his comedy colleagues have continued this streak with a number of other films and TV shows, including a new series on Netflix called “Medical Police.”
David Wain's father, Norman, started as a Cleveland disc jockey in the 1950s.
Norman Wain behind the microphone at WDOK in the 1950s [David Wain]
Norman Wain later became a salesman at pop music station WHK, where he helped book the Beatles' first local appearance at Public Auditorium in 1964. Then he and two partners started their own station, WIXY, better known as “WIXY 1260.”
WIXY quickly dominated the local airwaves by sponsoring numerous concerts, Thanksgiving parades and community appreciation days. Norman Wain told me in 2011, that this work was much more satisfying than spinning records.
“I needed something more intellectual to challenge me than just to play another record or become a bigger D.J.” he said. “And being a salesman and being a manager and being an owner really gave me a tremendous challenge and was much more gratifying.”
He continued to make his mark in town as a philanthropist and as a board member of WCPN. In a recent conversation, David Wain reflected on the bonds between fathers and sons as well as the legacy of his dad, who died last month at the age of 92. Part of that legacy was changing the family name, originally Weinstock.
“Well, my father grew up ‘Weinstock,’” David said. “He changed it when he was a radio announcer; he wanted something snappier. And at the time, leading with your Jewishness was not a good idea. And so he changed it to Wain, although he in later life said he regretted it because he felt like he would have done better in the business world as an obvious Jew.”
A strong memory for David Wain was the amount of time his father set aside for his family – a quality that he says is hard to emulate these days.
“I’ve got to say, the whole culture was so different at the time, because there was no internet,” he said. “And so, people didn't work 24/7 in the same way. And yet, he was an entrepreneur, building businesses, working hard, traveling sometimes, but mostly he was home at the dinner table at 6:00 every night. He was very unbelievably present as a father and doing so much for his business and doing so much for the community at the same time and taking care of himself and playing tennis all the time and going on vacation with my mom. He somehow figured it all out.”
Although David Wain was a child during the prime years for WIXY, he grew up with a strong sense of the station’s impact.
Some of the top hits on WIXY in December 1966. [David C. Barnett]
“WIXY was such a force in Cleveland throughout that time,” he said. “I had no choice but to really know about it growing up in my house. And we had the T-shirts and the posters, and people would stop my father on the street when I was a kid and say, ‘Oh my God, WIXY changed my life. We used to drive from Detroit just to listen to it. You know, we would drive and just parked the car just to, like, take in the aura of this incredible radio station.’ Radio is just not the same all-wielding force that it was.”
David Wain and his sisters often referred to their dad as Mr. Superlative, due to his ever-present enthusiasm.
“He'd come to my house, and I'd give him an apple and some peanut butter,” he said. “He’d say things like, ‘This is one of the best lunches I think I've ever had in my life!’ And I think what gave him a long, happy life is he really lived in the present tense. He didn't look backwards that much. You know, people would always come up to him, and be like, you know, ‘Let's do a big celebration about WIXY or the past, or, you know, he brought the Beatles to Cleveland.’ All these incredible stories. And he’d say, ‘I'm excited about today, I'm excited about what I'm doing next week,’ even into his 90s. So, I think that was always something that inspired me.”
Father and son also shared a tendency to take chances and experiment, when everybody else was telling you: “No.”.
“I think my father instilled that in me,” he said. “Just the idea of, you know, for me making a movie like ‘Wet Hot American Summer:’ We had no money, we had nobody really believing in it from the outside. But we were like, ‘We love this. Let's just go for it and make it happen, you know, by hook or crook.’ And that's sort of the indie filmmaking spirit, which is exactly what I think my father had with WIXY and his partners, just saying, like, you know, 'Let's do these crazy promotions. Let's take a risk. Let's piss people off. Who cares? Let's make it happen,' you know? And that was exciting.”
Wain and two of his old friends from "The State," Michael Ian Black and Craig Wedren, will be contemplating the happy and the challenging sides of fatherhood in a virtual panel discussion at the Mandel JCC. The conversation will center around Black’s new memoir, “A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son.”
“And it's basically a letter to his son about the challenges and opportunities of trying to define yourself in this modern world... that's changing so fast and what it is to be a man,” David Wain said. “What it means and what it could mean.”
That includes a consideration of toxic masculinity, in a time when the issues of identity and equality for women are prominent in the cultural conversation.
“In some cases, men have been left without clear guidance as to where our place is in the better world and what it is to be a better man,” he said. "And he's really going deep and exploring those issues."
And any discussion about raising boys will no doubt include a mention of Norman Wain.
“I feel myself channeling him - or trying to aspire to his level - every day and repeating things to my kids verbatim that he said to me, constantly,” David Wain said.
“In the last couple of years, he was slowing down quite a bit, but still always, you know, had a nice attitude about it. And he still had that thing of being grateful and saying, ‘It's just the most beautiful day I've ever seen.’”
David and Norman Wain, circa 1975. [David Wain]