Skip to main content

Building Housing for Alzheimers' Patients.

Architect David Hoglund and Alzheimers expert Beth Deely. The two were instrumental in designing Woodside Place, a community for patients suffering from Alzheimers disease. Woodside Place, outside of Pittsburgh, was specifically designed to help clue patients into their surroundings through symbols and the building's layout. A three-year study of Woodside found that its new philosophy of nursing home design led to a slower rate of deterioration, and higher levels of socializing and physical activity. Hoglund works with Perkins Eastman Architects out of New York. Deely is the Director of Alzheimer's Disease Programs at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh.


Other segments from the episode on December 2, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 2, 1997: Interview with David Hoglund and Beth Deely; Interview with Michael Penn.


Date: DECEMBER 02, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120201NP.217
Head: Woodside Place
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the traumatic aspects of having a loved one with Alzheimer's disease is deciding whether to put him or her in a home. If you decide on a home, the next problem is finding a good one. Most nursing homes are designed for people with physical disabilities, but many people with Alzheimer's disease don't have physical disabilities. In fact, they hate sitting still and like to wander, which can be considered quite a nuisance in a nursing home.

My guests are two of the people who have created a new model in the design of residential homes for people with moderately advanced Alzheimer's disease. It's called Woodside Place. It's located in a suburb of Pittsburgh. It was the subject of an article by Malcolm Gladwell in a recent edition of the New Yorker devoted to thinking about the future.

Beth Deely is the director of Alzheimer's Disease Programs for Presbyterian Senior Care, which runs Woodside Place. David Hoglund was the principal architect of Woodside and other homes for people with AD. He's with the firm Perkins, Eastman Architects. He told me about designing safe places for people with Alzheimer's disease to wander.

DAVID HOGLUND, ARCHITECT, PERKINS EASTMAN ARCHITECTS: We felt it was very important that the wandering behavior have some purpose to it; that it be focused around finding activity. So, the building is planned and designed so that there are interesting activity places. There's a TV room, a music room, country kitchens that are open where there's coffee and cookies being baked. So that while they're wandering around, they're engaged.

We also felt it important to combine the opportunity for wandering or walking around in the inside of the building with outdoor space. And I think that's one of the key things about Woodside Place and other models is the freedom for the residents to wander both inside and outside in a secure way, and that there are courtyards and a wandering garden that are enclosed with fences and things so that it's a safe type of wandering.

GROSS: You've said that you didn't want to build a "psychiatric racetrack" for the residents to wander in. What did you mean by that?

HOGLUND: Well, there are many older models and sometimes even built currently, where the corridor just makes one big circle racetrack, and so residents can wander in a continuous loop so they're not getting lost. But the difficulty is that there's no engagement; there's no activity; there's no purpose. It is a -- it is purely focused on the ability to just keep moving.

And again, we really felt it important that there be activities to engage them; that there be natural light that came in; and that they could see outside; that they could understand the time of day, the time of season, the weather changes -- and relate back so that there was a cycle to their life and that there was a relationship between the inside and the outside.

GROSS: Beth, you watch residents. What are some of your observations?

BETH DEELY, DIRECTOR OF ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE PROGRAMS, WEST PENN HOSPITAL: Well, one thing we know from the research done at Woodside is that we have a creation of a very rich social life -- first, at an individual level, because of the interaction that we see with others; and then also at a complex level. We see a lot of sustained relationships at that level.

And then finally, at -- the functioning of a community -- we have a real community at Woodside where residents sometimes just -- they take care of each other. They communicate even on a non-communicative basis with each other just beautifully.

GROSS: Now, there are three houses in the center that we're talking about -- Woodside Place -- and each house has 12 residents. So, there's a total of only 36 residents in the whole facility. Then there's common areas, as well as these, you know, three individual houses. I understand that it's patterned in part on a traditional Pennsylvania Shaker village. Is that right?

HOGLUND: Yes, we looked for prototypes. As architects, we like to look at examples, and we looked at some of the Shaker communities and things where people lived in a collective or a collaborative way, which was really a model of Woodside, in wanting to create a community, but maintain each person's individuality. And also to try to create the sense of a family unit.

So, the three houses of 12 gave us the opportunity to create that family unit, but then the sense of community -- so much like some of the Pennsylvania architecture Shaker communities, where the housing is kind of connected to the barn, is kind of connected to other community spaces; we used that as a model to design the building.

GROSS: Are you using the simplicity of the Shaker village, too?

HOGLUND: To some degree. The interiors of the building is based on that in that the -- all of the resident rooms have plate shelves so that they can display things and have peg rails so that they can hang things on them. We don't hang the chairs on the walls, but we do hang other things that are familiar to residents so that it helps to personalize their room.

We also used Dutch doors at the entrances to all the residents' rooms, with the hopes that we could close the bottom half, maybe discourage some wandering into other people's rooms because they could actually see into them. And then at the same time, hopefully they would also recognize their room as they're going down the hallway 'cause there would be personal items on display.

GROSS: Beth, in your experience, what are some of the best visual cues that you can give people with Alzheimer's disease to let them know this is their room?

DEELY: I'll tell you one of the best visual cues is having staff that are consistent and same; caring, loving staff. I think they make the biggest difference in helping the residents know where they are, where they need to be. As far as the environment goes, it is very individualistic. Some of our residents respond very well to pictures of themselves at younger ages -- not current pictures, but younger ages. And that seems to be a nice cuing direction for people.

Other people respond to the color. Some people respond to -- we have quilts in the different houses at Woodside -- and some people respond to the different quilts. It's so individualistic, and the idea of an environment is to create it as flexible and as creatively as possible, so that you meet the needs of all people.

HOGLUND: We tried very hard on the issue of cuing to try to do it with the environment in many different ways. We did things like one side of the corridor having fabric wallcovering and the other side having vinyl wallcovering so it would feel different when you touched it. We used -- in the hallways where you walk, we used carpeting on one side and a ceramic tile border on the other so that it would feel different when you walked.

We've been really unable to test how many of those ideas have worked for people, but I think what we have discovered is that it is so different for each person, so that for one person, the color works; for another, the quilt theme might work; and for someone else, the photograph outside their room may be the key important issue.

GROSS: Beth, what are some of the things that people with Alzheimer's disease find most threatening that you try to eliminate from the environment?

DEELY: I think one of the most upsetting things for residents with dementia is when people don't know who they are as individuals; if they don't know what their life history is; if they don't know that, for instance, Mr. Smith was an engineer or a plumber and liked to work on the sink and instead people get real upset when Mr. Smith is working on the sink, when that's what he did all his life.

I think that staff who is very well knowledgeable about working with people with this disease and about the life history of these folks, then I think that that can get rid of, in essence, a lot of the behavioral challenges.

HOGLUND: We've also worked very hard to make the environment as -- on one hand as calm as possible so that there isn't a lot of background noise that may be misinterpreted; that the wallcoverings don't have patterns that might look like faces or eyes staring at them; that there aren't things on the floor that look like things that should be picked up off the floor.

So that we try to remove those kinds of issues for people so that what comes through in the information to them are the more interesting things to engage them in the activities. This is always a catch-22, because on one hand we want it to be calm and soothing, but we also don't want it to be boring. And so, it's always a challenge on this issue of -- each of the individuals, offering them as much stimulation as they can handle, but not make the environment so banal that it's so uninteresting and they're so unengaged in it.

GROSS: Tell me how you deal with bathrooms at Woodside Place. I mean, people have to be able to find them -- people with very little memory have to be able to find them; and they need to have privacy so that other people aren't walking in and out while they're in the process. So how have you dealt with this? David?

HOGLUND: Well, I'll start and Beth can add in. I think this is probably one of the single areas that we have explored as we've moved past Woodside and other designs to really challenge this issue. Woodside is arranged such that it's primarily private rooms and each room has a powder room -- a toilet and a sink in each room. And then in the public areas, there are public bathrooms as well.

What we learned from Woodside was that while it was nice that each person had their own bathroom, was that what we didn't do correctly was make it visible from the bed, so that if people woke up during the middle of the night, maybe the recall of seeing the toilet -- the visual connection to that -- would remind them maybe perhaps why they woke up.

So, what we have done in more recent designs is to provide a design that allows from the bed to be able to see into the bathroom, but from the hallway, to maintain that person's dignity by making sure that it's screened so that anybody walking down the hallway cannot see in, because it's entirely realistic to expect that some people may not remember to close the door.

And we're always looking to try to balance privacy and dignity for people, even if they may not be totally aware of it themselves.

GROSS: Beth, anything you want to add about that?

DEELY: Well, the thing I'd like to add is that some people with this illness, they'll sort of go wherever, and I like to challenge the architects to try to find how we can do rooms, perhaps, that have corners that are impermeable or impenetrable to urine, or make rooms that don't have any corners.


GROSS: Wait -- well, do you have a problem with people urinating in the corners of rooms?

DEELY: Yes, yes. We occasionally do.

GROSS: And David, how have you responded to that problem?

HOGLUND: That may be one of those problems we can't solve. What we do try to be careful of, though, is to make sure that the design does not encourage it any more than possible. So we're always very careful about -- and for instance, a good example -- cabinet heaters that typically sit under windows as a form of heating -- for people who don't understand what that is may think that that's actually a toilet.

So, we have with our heating systems designed systems so that there are not low cabinets that look like something else. Waste cans, things like that that again may be misinterpreted are all part of being as careful as we can with the design and the operations.

GROSS: You, you know, worked on these plans for Woodside Place and, you know, hoping it would really answer the special needs of people with Alzheimer's disease. You've had, what, six or seven years to actually watch people with the disease function at the center. And I'm interested what you've learned by watching people functioning within the plans that you came up with?

HOGLUND: Well, we learned quite a deal and we have worked on a number of facilities since then that have opened. We learned things such as that 12 people in a house was maybe too many people. It was hard on the staffing side; sometimes led to issues.

So in some of our more current designs, we've looked at households that are closer to maybe 10 people. We learned that the front door is a very important place for people with dementia. They love to sit and watch at Woodside and you can watch out the windows and watch people walk down the sidewalk and come to the front door. And that can then be very distracting and agitating 'cause the doors are locked and people are trying to get in; they're trying to get out.

So in our more recent designs, we've worked it so that the front entrance is really almost invisible to the residents inside the environment, but visible to people who are obviously coming to the building.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Beth Deely, director of Alzheimer's Disease Programs for Presbyterian Senior Care in western Pennsylvania. She directed the development of Woodside Place for people with Alzheimer's disease. David Hoglund is an architect who was the principal designer of Woodside Place, as well as a number of other assisted-living residences for people with Alzheimer's disease.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

We're talking about innovative approaches to designing assisted living residences for people with Alzheimer's disease. Beth Deely is the director of Alzheimer's Disease Programs for Presbyterian Senior Care in western Pennsylvania. She directed the development of Woodside Place for people with Alzheimer's disease and has won several awards for its innovative approach. David Hoglund is an architect who is the principal designer for Woodside Place and a number of other assisted living residences for people with Alzheimer's disease.

I'm sure what a lot of people are wondering is how much does it cost? And do you think -- does Medicare or, you know, health insurance cover the cost for the people at your facility at Woodside?

DEELY: No, unfortunately we do not get Medicare/Medicaid funding within Woodside at this point. However, we are exploring some of that and we are -- Woodside costs less than a traditional nursing home. And that was always our goal, to be below costs of nursing home because the majority of people at Woodside, if they were not at Woodside, would be most likely in a nursing home.

GROSS: So...

DEELY: We also care for -- excuse me -- we also care for a number of people at Woodside who are low-income elderly people, and that's just because of our mission.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. What do you do to keep the prices down?

DEELY: Well, we don't have the intense medical care that -- or medical model, I should say, that perhaps a nursing home would. We don't have all that technology. We are just a simple place that hopefully allows people to do what they want to do. We enter into the world of the person with Alzheimer's disease or other dementias, rather than inflicting our reality upon them.

We don't have the high costs associated with that. The majority of our costs are direct care providers, 'cause we have a one to five ratio throughout most of the day. So, that's how we do it. And I think -- I think Woodside has shown that this can be done; that we can have models of care that are less expensive than the traditional nursing homes; that can create a better quality of life for people with this illness.

GROSS: So, you don't have doctors in the residence. What happens if one of the residents get sick? Where do they go?

DEELY: Well, the doctors come into Woodside. We try not to have the resident go to the doctors unless it's at the family's request because it can be very disturbing for the resident to go to a doctor's office, as you can imagine, when you have such severe brain disease.

HOGLUND: The other thing from the cost standpoint is the building itself. By not having to follow the regulations of a nursing home, we did not have to build as much square footage. For instance, instead of a nursing home which requires eight-foot-wide hallways, we only did five-and-half-foot-wide hallways. We did not have to put in a nurse call system because it's not a nursing home, and we also knew this population wouldn't really be able to use it.

So there were savings on the construction and design side that I think contributed in part to trying to look for a model that was less the medical model and also less expensive.

GROSS: Now, you've both traveled around the world looking at the designs of other centers for people with Alzheimer's disease. What are some of the things that you learned about what went right and what went wrong around the world?

HOGLUND: Well, I'll start. I spent a great deal of time in Northern Europe looking at Swedish and Danish models, and was very impressed by their ability to do smaller-scale residences and facilities, even to the point that they would rent just a four-bedroom apartment and provide services for people with dementia or for older, frail adults; integrated in the community.

They also had many models that were of the scale of Woodside Place, where they were providing special programs. So I think I was very interested and every encouraged by the ability to watch in Sweden and Denmark the ability to create these small models; that they did not have to be following the traditional models that, you know, every nursing home has to be 100 beds or every housing project has to have 150 units.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Beth.

DEELY: I would agree with that, too -- when I want to Australia and England, the idea of home-like place, personalized setting that allows people to move about safely. But what we learned mostly, I think, in the countries that I visited, was the philosophy of care and how important it is to, as the Beatles song is, almost to like "Let It Be." You know, when people -- at Woodside when they -- they get up when they want to get up. They go to bed when they want to go to bed.

We serve meals at the times that you or I would eat, but if somebody doesn't want to eat at that time, for whatever reason, that's OK. Our kitchen's, you know, 24 hours. Food is a big part of our life and it is a big part of the lives of people that we care for.

So this type of philosophy that is -- that includes individual -- individualization and tries to maximize that, versus a regimentation that you might see in other care settings, I think is one of the reasons that you see and hear so much about Woodside.

GROSS: What if somebody's already eaten lunch and they forgot they ate it, and they go to the kitchen and they want to eat lunch again?

DEELY: Well, my gosh, certainly they can eat lunch again. Sometimes at Woodside, we serve five breakfasts before lunchtime 'cause if somebody's up at 2:00 a.m. because they're ready to go to work; because they were always, let's say, at night, their whole lives, we might help them get breakfast, and then they're hungry again -- give them breakfast. Or they've forgotten that they had breakfast.

I mean, we're not going to argue with them that they haven't -- I mean, that's why they're there, that they can't remember that they -- so they might have something else.

And because our kitchen is located right at Woodside, we can prepare meals that the residents would eat. For instance, many of our folks at Woodside wouldn't eat things like raisin toast because the raisins would be perceived as bugs; or parsley would be perceived as grass. So we can't, you know, put that kind of thing on the plate.

Some of our residents at Woodside won't eat stew because it's just too complicated and they don't understand it enough to want to eat it. So we might have to break out the components of stew for people.

GROSS: David, have you found that more new institutions are interested in creating innovative approaches to dealing with people with dementia?

HOGLUND: Yes. I think one of the most satisfying things about Woodside Place is the mark that it's left on this industry; the interest that it has attracted from architects in creating models that don't follow the old examples.

I think the other thing that has changed is that -- the perception of people who are making decisions for their family members. We're looking at a generation now which have quite different expectations than perhaps the older generation that we're placing. So the children are looking at facilities and saying: "this isn't a place I want mom in and it's certainly not a place for me."

So, we're seeing the market really change the way we look at senior housing and long-term care. We're finding more interest in residential environments. We're finding more interest in all-private room facilities and not sharing rooms. We're finding interest in private bathrooms. Those are things that the market is telling us that they want, and it's gratifying to see that happening at all levels.

GROSS: Do you have any recommendations for someone who's looking for an innovative facility for somebody who has Alzheimer's disease -- how to find one in their area?

DEELY: Well, I would recommend that the families explore through their local Alzheimer's association. If they can't -- don't -- or don't have a local Alzheimer's association, then I suggest they call the Chicago, which is the national-based Alzheimer's association. And those are the people that should have a handle on their own communities and knowing which facilities are available.

GROSS: Beth Deely is the director of Alzheimer's Disease Programs for Presbyterian Senior Care, which runs Woodside Place, which is located in a suburb of Pittsburgh. David Hoglund was the principal designer of Woodside Place. He's with the architectural firm Perkins, Eastman Architects.

We'll close this half hour with a duet recorded in the mid-30s featuring French violinist Stephane Grappelli and gypsy guitarist Jango Reinhart. Stephane Grappelli died yesterday at the age of 89.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: David Hoglund; Beth Deely
High: Architect David Hoglund and Alzheimer's expert Beth Deely. The two were instrumental in designing Woodside Place, a community for patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Woodside Place, outside of Pittsburgh, was specifically designed to help clue patients into their surroundings through symbols and the building's layout. A three-year study of Woodside found that its new philosophy of nursing home design led to a slower rate of deterioration, and higher levels of socializing and physical activity. David Hoglund works with Perkins Eastman Architects out of New York. Beth Deely is the director of Alzheimer's Disease Programs at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Spec: Health and Medicine; Architecture; Woodside Place; Cities; Pittsburgh; Alzheimer's
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Woodside Place
Date: DECEMBER 02, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120202NP.217
Head: Resigned
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Michael Penn is a musician in a family of actors that includes brothers Sean and Christopher. Michael Penn is a songwriter, singer, and guitarist who has also started writing film music. He composed music for the film "Boogie Nights" and scored that director's first film "Hard Eight."

Penn's first CD, "March," was released in 1989 and made it into the Top 40. His latest CD is called "Resigned." Let's start with a song from it called "Me Around."


MICHAEL PENN, SINGER, SINGING: That's why I left this town, you see
(unintelligible) in effigy
I suppose baby don't want me around

She threw my stuff into a pit
Laughed aloud as I dove after it
I suppose baby don't want me around

This is the place you wanna be
Out of the woods, out of control
And is it really only me
Who never gets here with you?

She changed the number, changed the lock
A rubber door in case I knock
I suppose baby don't want me around

GROSS: That's Michael Penn from his new CD Resigned. Michael Penn, welcome to FRESH AIR.

PENN: Thanks.

GROSS: I think that's a really catchy tune. Any stories behind writing it?

PENN: No, not particularly. Just sort of, you know, the general notion of the song occurred to me and I decided to go the funny route on the lyric, so.

GROSS: Was there an alternate version that was about pure misery?

PENN: Yeah, you know, generally sort of, it can start either -- on either end of that, and I don't think there was a version, but I was like sort of, you know, just sort of struggling through how I was going to say this particular song, and I just decided to go to the extreme.

GROSS: Now, when did the rhythm come to you?

PENN: I -- you know, it -- hmm -- they're all different that way and this one, if I can remember it right, I probably sort of came up with that sort of initial chord progression and it just sort of had that sort of swing feel to it. So it was -- it was all sort of suggested by the chord progression for me.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now you came from a film family -- not just your brothers, but your father Leo Penn was an actor and screenwriter; your mother, Eileen Ryan, a stage actress. When did you start to feel the pull of music?

PENN: Really young, like when I was probably around seven, and I don't really know why, but it's just, like, oh, that's what I want to do.

GROSS: What were the first records that you heard?

PENN: The first ones were probably, you know, you know, kid records -- Disney records or something. And then somebody at some point gave me a Beatle record, and then I said: "oh, well, this is boss" -- or some word...

GROSS: Or cool or groovy, whatever.

PENN: ... of the time. Yeah. And so that was it. You know, that was like OK, do -- as I got older, do some chores and save up for something that were once called "45s" and that's what I would do with my loot.

GROSS: Now clearly, you know, in listening to your records, the Beatles were a strong influence on you. I think in your songwriting, the arrangements you have and in your singing as well, what do you think you heard in them as a child? I mean, a lot of people responded to like their fame and to their charisma. What were you hearing in their records?

PENN: Well, there was just such an -- there was such an energy about them, and I mean it was like, one of the things that I was -- when I was sort of reassessing what I was doing musically before my first record, one of the things that just sort of struck me as I was going back listening to old Beatle records again was they made acoustic guitars really powerful.

And that was sort of the MO behind "No Myth" in a way, which was, you know, acoustic guitars don't have to be these sort of tender and precious things. They can be, you know, really powerful rock instruments and sort of evoke that kind of emotion.

GROSS: Well, I like what you were saying about the Beatles showing the power of acoustic guitars. Why don't we listen to No Myth, which was from your first CD and I believe made it into the top 20?

PENN: Yes.

GROSS: The lyric in No Myth is kind of about not being larger than life, so it's easy for someone to break up with you because you're not a myth, you're not larger than life. Is that what you were thinking about when you wrote it?

PENN: No, actually I was thinking more about sort of the notion of romantic icons in -- and sort of how a lot of people are looking for certain things within relationships that I think are sort of reflected in literature, in romantic literature, and how I think we have forgotten, by and large, that these are not attributes to sort of be held up. I mean, "Romeo and Juliet" is a tragedy. It's not good, you know. I mean, it's like these are...


GROSS: Right.

PENN: ... like -- these are stories of warning. There's a term that psychologists have for this phenomenon called "limerance" (ph) which is not love; which feels like love, which a lot of people think is love, but it's high drama and desperation and all these kinds of things that sort of are much more tied in with sort of parental issues than actually the person that you're, you know, staring at longfully.

GROSS: Now, do you feel in relationships, you're the one who does this or has it done to?

PENN: Oh, I've been -- you know, I've been guilty of both positions on that.

GROSS: All right. Well, let's hear No Myth and this is Michael Penn.


She says it's time she goes
But wanted to be sure I know
She hopes we can be friends

I think, yeah, yes I guess we can say I
But didn't think to ask her why
She blocked her eyes into curtains
With knots I've got yet to untie

What if I were Romeo in black jeans?
What if I was Heathcliff?
It's no myth
Maybe she's just looking for
Someone to dance with

GROSS: That's Michael Penn from his first CD No Myth, and his latest CD is called Resigned.

Now, you also did some of the music for Boogie Nights. Most of the music in the movie is disco hits from the '70s, but there's some original music that you co-wrote. Tell me how you got to do some of the score for the movie. And I should mention you also did some of the score for Hard Eight, which was Paul Thomas Anderson's first film.

PENN: Well, he -- he apparently liked what I did and started calling me up insisting that I look at this movie that he had made, which at the time was called "Sidney" (ph), which became Hard Eight. And I didn't really want to get involved in film-scoring particularly, and was kind of ignoring him.

But Paul's a very energetic, persistent guy and finally got me down to a screening of this film that he had made, which I really, really liked and thought was really unusual and agreed to do it. And it was -- it was a really good experience, and I think -- I think an experience that was fairly unique and sort of eliminated some of my fears about scoring movies, which mostly sort of centered around the idea of doing music that, you know, a committee of people would be sort of passing judgment on and making changes to.

And the relationship with Paul was really sort of one-on-one and like, you know, him describing what he was going for, and trying to find stuff. And it was just -- it was just a lot of fun and then he made Boogie Nights and (unintelligible).

GROSS: Is this kind of gloomy circus march music?

PENN: Yeah.

GROSS: What about that seemed appropriate for a film about the pornography industry in the '70s and '80s?

PENN: Well, you know, it's -- it's about those people who were involved in pornography in the '70s or the '80s.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PENN: And the thing that I was trying to address was sort of very, very sad kind of freak show aspect of this family that's created -- of this sort of circus family that's -- that, you know, is the best that they can do because of their own past and their own troubles in their own lives. And I -- you know, the -- it was just trying to find something that captured that and also captured the sadness of it.

GROSS: So here's the "Big Top Theme" that you wrote for Boogie Nights performed by you and keyboard player Patrick Warren (ph), who's also featured on your own records. So here it is, from Boogie Nights.


GROSS: That certainly shows a different side musically of you than your songs do -- just a completely different sound; different type of instrumentation.

PENN: Well, sort of honing in on an aspect of instrumentation that I use. That's actually almost entirely an instrument called the "Chamberlain" (ph). And it's an instrument that, for some reason, I've had -- I've felt a kinship with for a long, long time. I had this band in Los Angeles called "Doll Congress" for a long time before my first album, and we used that -- Patrick was in that band and it's just a kind of a remarkable contraption.

GROSS: Why don't you describe it a little more?

PENN: Well, it's essentially an antiquated sampler. It was invented in the '40s by a guy named Harry Chamberlain here in California, and the intention of it was sort of to be a parlor instrument for people to entertain their friends.

And he just kind of kept developing it. And basically what it is is a keyboard, and when you press down a key, it pushes an eight-track analog tape against a tapehead, and so it's -- I think it has 32 keys on the model that I use -- and essentially, that means that there are 32 little tape recorders inside this box and eight different sounds.

So in the Big Top Theme, there's -- that sort of calliope organ is one sound on it, and the violins are one sound that come at the end, and the cellos are another -- and all those things.

GROSS: My guest is songwriter, singer, and guitarist Michael Penn. His latest CD of songs is called Resigned. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Michael Penn is my guest. His latest CD of his own songs is called Resigned, and he also does music that's on the Boogie Nights soundtrack.

I want to ask you about growing up. I know you moved to Los Angeles when you were two -- is that right?

PENN: Somewhere around there, yeah.

GROSS: Where did your family live before that?

PENN: Manhattan.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So did you grow up in a very film industry-oriented world?

PENN: Not really, no. I mean, my parents moved out to California and my dad, who was an actor in New York -- they came out here as actors. And, my dad started to get work directing television. And it was just sort of like that was a world that really didn't -- I mean, it wasn't like, you know, they were hobnobbing with celebrities or anything.

It was, you know, they had this -- a small circle of friends that were not necessarily in show business, you know. And he just kind of -- just kept working and occasionally, you know, I would see somebody growing up that I would go "oh, I've seen that guy on TV" or whatever.

But it was not, you know, it wasn't like celebrity and show business and all those things were not really a part of my -- of any of our lives. I mean...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PENN: ... it's like that's not what home was about for us.

GROSS: I just got an Ida Lupino movie -- a film directed by her, that I haven't watched yet, called "Not Wanted" that your father's featured in.

PENN: That's right, yeah.

GROSS: Have you seen that one?

PENN: Yeah, I have. He's suave, boy. He's -- there's one scene where he takes a cigarette and flicks it and -- God, wooh dad. Ooh.


Yeah, that was sort of an early -- an early -- it was kind of a racy movie at the time. It caused a bit of a stir because it's -- it was -- A, it was Ida Lupino and B, it was about an unwanted pregnancy. My dad plays this sort of roguish jazz musician, which was kind of interesting.

GROSS: Oh, now I really want to watch it. Now, I think your father also wrote and directed episodes of "Starsky & Hutch" and "Lost In Space." Did you watch those shows?

PENN: I think he did direct some Starsky -- he didn't write any of those. He directed. He wrote -- he directed some Starsky & Hutch; he directed some "Columbos" which -- which I still enjoy watching when they -- when those come on.

He did a lot of -- he did a lot of TV. He did, I mean, he did a lot of "Marcus Welbys" and "Bonanzas" and he did a "Star Trek." I mean, he gets -- he probably gets more attention as a director from this Star Trek episode just because the fans are so sort of fervent out there. What else did he direct? He did, you know, just '70s TV -- he was like, you know, he was doing a lot of it.

GROSS: Your father was blacklisted.

PENN: Yeah.

GROSS: What was your understanding of that as a child?

PENN: My understanding of it as a child was zilch. But obviously, later on, as I sort of began to understand what he went through -- you know, before I was born, really, it was just kind of astonishing to me that -- that A, that you know, it's just -- it's sort of just a really sort of profound and personal way to sort of understand that period of this country's history, and go "well, my dad was personally affected by this." And you know, how the country kind of went crazy for a while -- or at least part of the country did.

And it, you know, it certainly affected him. It certainly affected the choices that he made in his life, and -- but, you know, I think he, you know, he was dealt that card and he did amazing things with it. You know, he cut it up and put it together again in a pretty incredible way.

GROSS: Did he do a lot of television work because of the movie blacklisting?

PENN: I think -- I think that things relaxed a bit in California before -- or I guess stage was still a problem in New York, and television was a little bit easier, so he started doing some live TV. And once he started doing television, I think California was the place that it was centered in, so they moved.

GROSS: My guest is songwriter, singer, and guitarist Michael Penn. His latest CD is called Resigned. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist Michael Penn. His latest CD is called Resigned.

Now obviously not only were your parents actors, but your brothers Sean and Christopher are actors, too. Did you ever have an interest in that yourself? Did you ever feel like you ought to?

PENN: I never felt like I ought to, and no -- I didn't have an interest in it. I mean, maybe it was because it was the family business, you know, and I mean everybody else was. But I think it was more just the fact that I had a real sort of instinctual response to music early, and kind of held to it, and it continued to hold fascination for me and be something that I wanted to do.

GROSS: Your brother Sean Penn became famous before you started recording and making a name for yourself. And I'm wondering if you ever got worried, you know, that he'd become really famous and that your music wouldn't catch on and, you know, that fame would be, you know, hard to get -- you know, and all the kind of sibling rivalry-type stuff.

PENN: Well, I was involved with this band Doll Congress and we were sort of -- we were sort of in our own struggle of trying to get signed and dealing with all that stuff. And you know, Sean -- Sean was working as an actor and his career was starting to grow and, you know, I was -- I was happy and supportive of what he was doing, and didn't really think about -- think about any of these -- of those issues.

I wasn't feeling -- I wasn't feeling any kind of sibling rivalry. I mean, had he been a musician and been, you know, very successful, that probably would have been difficult.

But then later, when my first album came out, I was -- I was very sort of paranoid about it, mostly because not having to do -- not having anything to with Sean as a person, but just because I, growing up, was very aware of sort of the phenomenon of show-biz families, and just had a real sort of gut-level revulsion to them.

Not, you know, not speaking about any of these people as people, but just the notion because it's such a -- it's such a press-created kind of freak show thing. It's like -- you know, especially when you consider that -- you know -- that the creative arts are sort of a way to deal with dysfunction.


GROSS: Right.

PENN: It's like -- let's -- let's parade that, and oh, by the way, look! Here's a whole family of them! You know, so.

GROSS: Tell me more about what you observed about the phenomenon of show-biz families.

PENN: Well just, you know, just this sort of, I don't know, just the idea -- just the nepotism, you know; just the sort of -- the freak show aspect of it like the sort of tabloid magazine notion of it. You know, I don't know. You know, I don't even have a very articulate sort of analysis of this that I've constructed.

It's just -- it was more just like "I don't want to hear about that." I don't -- you know -- and then when I got signed and my record came out, and it became clear to me that there was going to be a focus on the fact that Sean and I were brothers, it was -- I became a little paranoid about it, just like, you know, "I don't want to talk about that." I just did not want to talk about it.

You know, I want this to be about this music, and not about -- I didn't want the issue to be "here's a show-biz family." I just didn't want that to be in there. And then, naturally, because this is the way it works, the fact that I didn't want to talk about it became the issue, you know.

GROSS: Right. Yes, I've read many articles about you saying: "yeah, and he wouldn't even talk about his brother Sean."

PENN: Well, no, but even -- that was one aspect of it. But even another aspect of it was -- was just like "yeah, he's Sean Penn's brother, but you know what? It doesn't matter." You know?

GROSS: Right. Yes, right, yes.

PENN: You know what I mean?

GROSS: Yes, right, yes.

PENN: So it had to be in there in some way...

GROSS: Right.

PENN: ... in some context, and so you know, you know, I was right, you know, that -- just as an example, People magazine very early on -- on my first album wanted to do a story on me. Now, there was no reason for People magazine to want to do a story on me. The record wasn't charted yet, you know, it was just starting to sort of bubble under and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It was, you know, it was all about the family connection. And you know, I just -- you just don't want to do that.

GROSS: Yeah. So in retrospect, do you think you handled that well?

PENN: You know, I think I probably could have handled it better, but I think I made a right decision...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PENN: You know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Well, I want to play something else from your latest CD Resigned. We were talking earlier about the influence of the Beatles on your music, and on the last track of your latest CD, I can tell -- I think you can hear that really clearly in the piano that opens it up; in your singing; in the string arrangements. You know...

PENN: Although there's a...

GROSS: Yeah?

PENN: ... there's a nod to David Bowie at the end. The end is sort of a little tip of the hat to "Life on Mars."

GROSS: Ah, OK. OK. Something I find interesting about your singing -- your singing seems very influenced by John Lennon, would you say?

PENN: Not consciously. I'm sure -- I'm sure it is, you know, I mean as far as like the Beatles go, that stuff's just so locked in my gray matter that, you know, that's like I was weaned on that, so ...

GROSS: Right.

PENN: ... so that stuff comes out. But you know, that's just the way -- that's the way I sing.

GROSS: OK, well this is "I Can Tell" from Michael Penn's latest CD Resigned. And Michael Penn, thank you very much for talking with us.

PENN: Oh, thanks for having me.


PENN SINGING: Whatever news you have
Whatever shoes you have
Whatever made you mad enough
On the promenade, you can give it a rest
Give it a seat, rim the glass
You can cut your feet

Pardon me, flesh torn
And everything else seems a little worse for worn
Simple thing, I admit
Out I never did figure it
I can tell that I'm about to
I can tell when I'm without you

Seen you juggle
I've seen your best
I've seen you running out
Love you pressed
I've seen the scores on how far up you fast
'Til the thinner air is what you're breathing, now

So catch your breath
Just stand there holding it
I've seen you die each little death
I'm pretty sure you were here
Lately, things tend to disappear

Like the days I never got around to
I can tell when I'm without you
I can tell when I'm without you

GROSS: Music from Michael Penn's latest CD Resigned.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Michael Penn
High: Musician Michael Penn. His latest album, "Resigned," was released this fall. Penn's other albums include 1989's "March" which spun the single "No Myth" and won him an MTV "Best New Artist" award, and 1992's "Free for All." Penn also contributed to the film "Boogie Nights" by writing its score music; his song "The Big Top" appears on the soundtrack.
Spec: Music Industry; Michael Penn; Resigned
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Resigned
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue