Dennis Miller wanted to live down the street from Rod Serling. No, he didn’t want a house in some sort of Twilight Zone neighborhood where people suddenly found themselves being whisked away to random cornfields or encountering Burgess Meredith, with cracked spectacles, complaining, “That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all.”
What Miller wanted was merely to be close to a master storyteller, someone who could “take a concept and stand it on its ear.” Also, the iconic host had style.
“Rod Serling had these very sharp suits with creases you could cut yourself on,” Miller said.
But Serling died in the ’70s, and who knows what the mortgage on a house on his block would be. So when Miller, a former commercial photographer and professional musician, was looking to move out of Los Angeles, he found the next best place: Los Osos.
“It’s like the antithesis of Los Angeles,” he said. “I mean, I can see stars at night. It’s quiet. It’s everything Los Angeles isn’t.”
He paused in his description of his relatively recent move, and you could almost hear the rumbling thunder of traffic in the silence.
“The 405 is just hell on wheels,” he added.
Miller didn’t fall through the rabbit hole into this Central Coast Wonderland unequipped. He brought with him his love of tales, his memories of a childhood spent hearing stories from family members and watching Serling’s regular submissions for his approval. He was raised on a diet of Alfred Hitchcock’s macabre presentations and Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking Star Trek.
“Those shows were all terribly, terribly important to me, so I decided to just try to do it myself,” he said.
Thus, “Smoke and Mirrors” was born.
The weekly podcast sprang, Athena-like, from Miller’s crowded head in February 2011, after a favored podcast of his went off the air. He rolled up his sleeves—or at least began drawing on his recording and mixing experience from his life as a musician—and began assembling transmissions. The format is simple and consistent: Once a week, on Friday, he uploads a short story in audio format.
The source material comes from all over, as do the vocals. One of the first people to respond to Miller’s requests for readers was from New York City. But he said there are a couple readers and three or four authors from the immediate area.
“There’s an inordinate amount of talent here,” he said. “It’s really striking. It’s really amazing.”
Mark Arnold wrote “If Wishes Were Horses,” a Writers of the Future Award winner that’s also available now at smashwords.com. Anne Allen created an L.A. based tale—with beheadings—called “Vive La Revolution!” Bruce Sorenson—remember him from Fishmasters, you longtime locals?—has lent his voice off and on to the project from the very beginning. Dianne Brooke, most notably of KOTR, has also been a reader.
Miller introduces each piece himself, and the tales themselves run from dark to humorous. Sci-fi and fantasy stories can get a bit heavy, especially when coupled with the occasional chilling twist, so a little levity serves to lighten the mood. Miller describes himself as “recently mentholated” in one introductory bit. In another, he runs a parody ad for Crazy St. Al’s Vatican Surplus (“Domini, Domini, Domini. You’re all Catholics now.”) as a warning of what the show may sound like if he doesn’t find some donors.
To that end, nobody involved in the project gets any monetary compensation.
“Quite frankly, it’s a money losing—a very money losing—situation right now,” Miller said.
But he’s hoping to change that for the writers and readers whose words wind up on his website. For the moment, he compensates participants by maintaining what he calls a rogue’s gallery, where contributors can post bio information and links to their own sites to promote themselves.
And he’s looking to attract even more rogues in the near future. With almost a year’s worth of podcast experience to his credit, Miller is looking to revamp his offerings to the public. He’s seeking musicians to essentially score the segments, as well as visual artists to create work to accompany each reading, sort of like a virtual book cover.
“My first purpose, of course, is to entertain,” he said. “But a close second … 85 percent of the people I’m working with or more are trying to get established.”
He sounds apologetic when he enthusiastically talks about promoting talent, local and beyond. He says he doesn’t want to “go all Disney on ya” when he starts explaining his hope that a writer he features can get a leg up into an anthology, or a reader gets a clip that leads to a paying gig. Over the course of a conversation, Miller laments that he sounds like a Pollyanna, a Boy Scout, and a Pollyanna Boy Scout. He lacks the saccharine necessary to really put him in that classification, but he does have an almost holy fervor when he discusses his dreams for his participants.
“We’re trying to use the podcast as some sort of a pulpit to help all the people’s careers get going a little better,” he said.
While Miller used to be able to turn around a episode relatively quickly, it’s now a multi-week process—a necessary time frame considering the multiple creative types involved. He said what was a one-man operation now could use some help; a grad student should be stepping up as his P.A. in the coming days.
Together, they’ll work on bringing more “theater of the mind”—to borrow a cliché—to the masses. Considering that Miller has shepherded stories ranging from otherworldly tales that mention “the Pentagon, on faraway Earth,” to adapted fairy tales in which the Three Billy Goats Gruff meet Thor at Ragnarok (“easily the strangest thing we’ve done”), there’s no telling what his flock of fancy will look like as his site expands.
But you can bet it will be entertaining.
Executive Editor Ryan Miller—no relation to Dennis—sees something on the wing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.