From XXX to UFO: Cinema boasts eccentric history


BUCKHANNON — He made his living by lying.
But stretching the truth never bothered renowned writer Gray Barker. Some may know that he was one of the most prolific science fiction and supernatural authors in American history, but not many are aware that Barker had ties to Buckhannon, having managed the old Colonial Theatre on Main Street from 1973 through 1979. Barker was a ufologist, specializing in the pseudoscience of ufology ­— the study of reports, visual records, physical evidence and other phenomena related to unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. However, despite his interest in ufology, Barker didn’t believe in UFOs, according to his family and friends, mayor David McCauley said.  
On Tuesday, city officials and residents gathered at the old Colonial Theatre, 48 E. Main St., to honor the late Barker’s legacy on what would have been his 92nd birthday. The city is currently in the process of remodeling the theater, which McCauley and other city officials hope will one day function as an arts center and/or community building. At Tuesday’s special ceremony, a sign recounting the history of Barker’s life was unveiled.
So, who was Gray Barker and what did he accomplish? Born in Riffle, W.Va. in Braxton County on May 2, 1925, Barker published his first article about UFOs — “The Monster & The Saucer” — in 1953. That’s also the year he introduced the magazine “The Saucerian,” which zeroed in on UFO sightings and extraterrestrial encounters. The magazine, which remained popular through the 1960s, is still published today as “Saucer Smear.” His first book, “They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers,” described Albert Bender’s meeting with three men dressed in black that led to the downfall of the International Flying Saucer Bureau. The famous Oscar-winning “Men in Black” movies starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were based on Barker’s books.
The “Men in Black” movies aren’t the only modern-day films Barker’s work inspired, however. He was also the author of “Silver Bridge,” which detailed Mothman sightings that supposedly occurred near Point Pleasant, W.Va. “The Silver Bridge” spawned the movie “The Mothman Prophecies” starring Richard Gere that was released in 2002.
As one of the numerous writers who made his living during the “heyday” of UFOs, many who knew him claimed Barker didn’t actually believe in UFOs, but nonetheless took advantage of the hype surrounding them to make his living. He was also an infamous prankster, often playing jokes on people with the goal of leading them to believe that UFOs were, in fact, real. As one of his literary colleagues, John Sherwood, wrote, “The U.S. government’s bibliography of UFO publications reflected Barker’s high status among the flying-saucer faithful, as he’s among the handful of authors cited more than a dozen times. Here’s the dark side: Until Barker’s death in 1984 at age 59, he hawked his books and magazines by embellishing stories and encouraging others to fabricate more. He launched hoaxes, joined others’ deceptions and manipulated people’s beliefs. And I was one of those who helped.”
McCauley said it’s exactly that quality — the willingness to milk tall tales about out-of-this world phenomena — that he finds most fascinating about Barker.
“What really stands out to me is the fact that he came to grips early on with the UFO stuff being unbelievable, yet continued to hype the stories,” McCauley said. “He really found his niche in something that wasn’t true, but embellished. He was a creative genius.”
City architect Bryson VanNostrand — who is doing the design work on the Colonial Theatre pro bono — said Barker reopened the theater in 1973 after it had been shut down by the city for showing X-rated movies.
“Apparently, the people of Buckhannon wanted good, wholesome movies, so when Barker reopened it, the theater was rebranded as Cinema 5,” VanNostrand said.
VanNostrand said the first film ever shown at Cinema 5 was the James Bond movie “Live and Let Die.”
“He also showed the fist Star Wars movie in 1977,” the architect noted.  
Councilman CJ Rylands said it’s important for the city to continue telling its story, and a key component of that is being authentic.
“These days, everything from sauerkraut to motor oil is labeled authentic, the word is so overused and applied that we’ve become numb to it — it’s almost lost its meaning,” Rylands said. “The reason we recognize authenticity is that we’re primed to respond to it. We know it when we see it, and it feels good, it feels true, it feels like something real, which is why it resonates so strongly with us.
“If we need any more evidence for why this trait is so important, we need to ask ourselves whether we feel better being ourselves or pretending otherwise,” Rylands continued. “If we’re being honest, it always feels better to be authentic or true to ourselves … the same things are true for our community. To be authentic, we must have the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable and truthful. Why lie when the truth will do? Authenticity isn’t the presence of something, but the absence of everything that isn’t authentic. Let that sink in. We’re not here to add anything to become more authentic, we’re only here to take away anything that isn’t real. And that’s where we’ll begin. Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”
At the ceremony’s end, McCauley thanked the city street crew for installing the memorial sign and The Sign Guy for creating it. He also encouraged members of the public who want to help with the restoration of the theater to donate funds to the project prior to July 1; money donated by that time is likely to be matched by grant funds from the state.

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