Columbia Heights' civic website talks about the elevator in City Hall and Abraham Lincoln's funeral railroad car, which was once displayed in the city. But it doesn't mention that Minneapolis' northern neighbor might be the epicenter of Minnesota humor.
A surprising number of Columbia Heights High School alums became movie writers, mostly of comedies.
There'd barely be anything funny from the mid-1980s to the mid-aughts without 1965 grad Pat Proft, whose credits include "Police Academy" movies, "Real Genius," "The Naked Gun," "Bachelor Party" and some of the "Scary Movies."
Among the school's 1963 graduates, Mike McManus, Greg Norberg and Tom Sherohman sometimes collaborated with Proft, with writing and producing credits that include "Mr. Magoo," "Mafia!" and "Hot Shots!"
And there are plenty of laughs in the work of 1984 grad Nick Schenk, author of three Clint Eastwood movies, including "Gran Torino" and this fall's "Cry Macho."
Some might say there's something in the Columbia Heights water. But Kristen Stuenkel, director of community education and communications for the school district, thinks there's something in the classrooms. Her informal research comes from interviewing recipients of the high school's Alumni of Distinction award, which Proft won in 2011.
"They talk a lot about how the teachers gave excellent instruction but went above and beyond to engage students," said Stuenkel, who also notes that the Heights Theater made it easy to get hooked on the movies and that Minneapolis was just a stone's throw away. "They were growing up in what is basically a small town on the edge of a big city, so they had the drama of a city literally down Central Avenue, while living in a town where they could run amok."
In a Zoom interview, Proft (who now lives in Medina), Norberg, McManus and Schenk (who all are in California) talked about why they think so many Hylanders have made it in the movies (Sherohman died in 2018). The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On writing beginnings
Schenk: I backed into it, like everything else in my life, because I have no skill set. A friend and I started doing cable-access comedy stuff.
Proft: It's all I ever wanted to do, comedy. I treated every school I was at as a vaudeville stage.
Schenk: My hair fell out in eighth grade. You learn to be funny.
McManus: A fellow named Stu Anderson, the drama coach guy, pushed Greg and Pat and I into plays and skits. He was the cool teacher.
Proft: His classroom was a free-for-all. Improvs would start.
Norberg: And he was the father of [eventual "MacGyver" star] Richard Dean Anderson.
On humor at the Heights
Proft: I always hung around with funny people in Columbia Heights. There were a lot of them.
McManus: Pat and I used to go around with an 8-millimeter camera and film skits at the barbershop and in Huset Park, for our own amusement.
Schenk: We made some Super-8 movies with my one rich friend who could afford to develop that stuff. I think Heights gives you a solid grounding and you carry that decency with you.
On the road to comedy
Proft: After we graduated, we began fooling around at the Brave New Workshop.
McManus: That was the start for a lot of people.
Proft: Half the Brave New Workshop was from Columbia Heights then.
Schenk: We did little sketches like a mock hunting show. We grew up with [outdoorsman] Babe Winkelman and all the fishing shows so we did "Clown Hunting" instead of "Deer Hunting," strapping clowns on the hood of the car.
Norberg: We started doing skits and stuff for high school pep rallies.
Schenk: Everybody wanted to be Pat and these other guys. That was the goal. Everybody watched and re-watched those movies. When Pat friended me on Facebook, I was stunned. Also, coming out of Minnesota, [comedy] was the only big ticket.
On the use of paper
Proft: I sometimes don't have a story. I just think, "This sounds interesting," and I hack away at it. I have fragments of paper all over the place.
Schenk: To this day I still write like this [holds up a sheet of scrawled-on paper]. It doesn't feel as serious. You just have to make sure to upload them before they don't make any sense to you.
Norberg: At least you can read your stuff. Working with Proft, he had a stack of old papers on his deck he had not thrown away. Didn't have a clue. Couldn't read it.
McManus: Those scraps go all the way back to high school. We'd all be together, writing stuff down.
Schenk: When you have a tight enough group, you're just trying to make each other laugh. That's the goal. Then the producer comes and [expletive] it all up.
Proft: Twice, I had a [Harvey and/or Bob] Weinstein who all of a sudden knew comedy.
Norberg: Well, look who's laughing now.
On breaking into movies
Proft: We were all doing stand-up at the Comedy Store and the Improv in L.A. when we started making films. Was "Hot Shots!" the first?
McManus: No. The [Ken] Shapiro thing, "Groove Tube."
Proft: Right. We would sit in a room, getting screwed over by [director] Ken Shapiro. That was in the days before we knew we could get money for doing this. Then, I partnered up with Neal Israel. He had gone to a bachelor party and hid under the bed and saw all this crazy stuff going on. I think we made it for $4 million or something and then it was brought to 20th Century Fox. I got lucky. After "Bachelor Party" [Tom Hanks' second hit], it was, "What do you want to do next?"
Schenk: The first movie I sold was written with Rich Kronfeld, who's from St. Louis Park. It was called "Kevin and Mike's Daycare" based on our cable-access show. We were so green. When we turned it in, there were 236 spelling and punctuation errors and they thought it was part of the shtick. It was not.
On sneaking Minnesota into scripts
Schenk: I put my friend Tim Kennedy's name in every script. I put [former WCCO personalities] Don Shelby and Mark Rosen in "The Judge" and I got a heavy rewrite so his name ended up being Old Shelby Road, instead. So Don called me up and said, "Now I'm Old Shelby?" Rosen got completely cut.
Proft: Most of my life I was on Jefferson Street, so there's usually someone named Jefferson somewhere. Or Sullivan Lake. I spent a lot of my life there.
Schenk: By St. Philip's [Lutheran] Church?
Proft: Yeah. Right behind it is the Target. I liked living in Columbia Heights and I have a lot of good memories. So I like to slip in a teacher's name or a park. It's kind of a "hello" to all.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367