I recall being among that first group of eager and apprehensive citizen-journalists who gathered together inside one of the Saint Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN) studios on Jackson Street in downtown Saint Paul on a gray day in November 2007. Everyone present had been accepted to participate in the initial launch of the Saint Paul News Desk Project. We also became temporary members of SPNN by virtue of our participation, and Sherine Crooms, the project producer, not only made us feel at home, she even thanked us for signing up for the opportunity. We were told at the first meeting that we had the green light to make at least four video segments of approximately three to four minutes in length. The segments could be about any subject we chose—as long as it pertained to Saint Paul. I learned that more than a few of those on hand already had extensive experience as television producers and/or videographers. For complete novices like me, SPNN planned to offer crash courses in video camera operation, lighting, and editing. The classes were quick but comprehensive, and gave me enough confidence to take the plunge into shooting my first video. I submitted my proposal for the project and felt ready to check out the necessary equipment and start filming.
My subject was Tom Fletcher, co-owner and operator of The Essence of Nonsense, a marvelous toy store on St. Clair Avenue, which has been in business since 1996. What’s unique about Tom is that for the past twenty years, he has sponsored the St. Paul Annual Marble Tournament. The tournament is held annually in the store’s back lot. Players are sorted into divisions by age. Men and women as well as boys and girls are welcome. The name of the game is St. Paul Ringer, and at least two people are needed to play. First, the players agree upon the size of the circle, which can be created with a string or drawn in the dirt. A coin flip decides who goes first. The rules state that players must “knuckle down” with at least one knuckle touching the playing field when shooting, and may not lift (heist) or slide (hunch) at risk of losing a turn.
Each person puts five small target marbles inside the circle and then agrees, “Game set.” Taking turns, the players use a larger shooter to try to knock one or more of the smaller target marbles out of the circle. Knuckling, flicking, and popping are all acceptable shooting styles.
If the shooter knocks a target out of the circle but remains inside it, the player gets another turn. The first player to knock six marbles out is the winner. Play can be “for keeps” or “for faith,” the latter meaning that each player’s marbles are returned.
Tom collects marbles from all over the world in a fabulous array of color, design, and sizes. The basic sizes are peewees, shooters, and boulders. Peewees are the smallest; they are the marbles that are contested for in a game. Shooters are used to knock the peewees out of the circle, and boulders are the largest marbles, which are usually given to the winner as a prize. Steelies are marbles that were originally ball bearings. Tom showed me some large (25, 35, and 50 millimeter), particularly colorful, handcrafted marbles awarded as prizes to the winners. Included in his collection are marbles made by Tom Reddy, a renowned Saint Paul glassmaker, who makes no two marbles alike.
Making a three-to-four-minute video is exciting but arduous. I did not have a car at the time. Lugging around the video camera and lights on the bus or in a taxi was a challenge. After arriving at the location, I immediately began setting up the equipment so I could shoot. One thing you get is plenty of what is referred to as B-roll: extra footage that invariably comes in handy when you begin editing. After my first shoot inside The Essence of Nonsense, I returned to get some B-roll footage of the exterior and interior of this Saint Paul landmark. Editing, I discovered, is the most time-consuming and labor-intensive part of making a video. I spent hours and hours in the editing suite, assembling and perfecting the final product. Once I saw the fruits of my labor on both television and the Internet, I knew it had not only been worthwhile, it was also extremely gratifying and exhilarating. My segment, “For All the Marbles,” was one of twelve featured on the News Desk, channels 15 and 16 of SPNN, from June through August 2008. It can still be seen on YouTube: