There are several places in Tulsa where you can easily get that “Wow, if these walls could only talk” vibe. The fabled Cain’s Ballroom is one.
Filmmaker Tate Wittenberg has been working for more than two years on getting those hallowed honky-tonk ramparts to spill it. He’s documenting the story for a still-in-production film called “Raisin’ Cain: A History of Cain’s Ballroom.”
In his late 30s and based in Los Angeles, Wittenberg is an ardent Cain’s fan who grew up in Claremore and Tulsa. In recent years, he’s worked some notable film-crew gigs on greater and lesser Hollywood productions. When completed, “Raisin’ Cain” will mark his directorial debut.
During a brief visit to Tulsa back in March, Wittenberg discussed his intriguing project and his background.
Did you always plan on being a filmmaker?
It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do. I had always loved movies and music and knew I wanted to pursue something in the arts and media. Initially, I studied broadcast journalism at RSC (Rogers State College) — now RSU (Rogers State University) — in Claremore, where I grew up, and then in Tulsa at TCC (Tulsa Community College). I always loved cameras and studied photography as well. I decided I wanted to work in the film industry, so I moved to California. Then I studied film at AFI (American Film Institute) and UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).
Describe how the idea for this film originally took hold.
It was about three years ago. I had a friend in Northern California whose buddy was doing a documentary on a certain venue. When I heard about that, I instantly thought, “Wow, Cain’s really needs its history to be told in a film, too, as that history is so storied and varied.” I’ve always loved Cain’s, so I started really thinking about it then. I was also thinking about the music of Bob Wills and the Tulsa Sound and all the other music that figures into the illustrious history of the place — the legendary Cain’s performances by Hank Williams, the Sex Pistols, U2, The Police and so on.
Talk about what Cain’s Ballroom means to you. What was the first show you ever saw there? And the best?
Cain’s first piqued my interest when I was young. I can recall driving by that sign on the highway, riding in the car with my parents. Just seeing the signage on the rooftop, I’ve always thought it was something special.
Cain’s is where I first fell in love with live music. … I just love its history — the mystique, the magical quality of the place; it’s like no other.
… Cain’s is still the gauge by which I measure the live-music experience. … The Call was the first band I remember seeing there. I guess it was in about ’87, and I would’ve been 15. … Best performance I’ve witnessed there? … Ministry did a very memorable show there around 1990, and more recently the Wilco show, where they filmed for the “Ashes of American Flags” film. That was quite a treat.
There’s really no other venue that has stood the test of time the way Cain’s has.
I saw a nice trailer for “Raisin’ Cain” recently. Great to see so much of Elvis Costello in that. What other music-world notables would you like to interview?
Yes, I’m very thankful we got Elvis early on. He’s a great addition. Obviously, I’d love to involve as many Tulsa music favorites in the film as possible: people like Leon Russell, J.J. Cale, Roy Clark and others. But there are also the people — outside of Tulsa — who’ve publicly stated their love of the venue: Beck, Jeff Tweedy, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan. The list is pretty extensive. And, I’m pleased to say, we’ve already sat down with local legends like Wanda Jackson and Tommy Allsup.
Cain’s Ballroom is the stuff of legend here in Oklahoma. What are you hoping to share with those who have never been there?
I’d love for people around the globe … to just experience the rich musical history of the venue. My aim is to capture the spirit of it, as well as the history, and to share that special feeling you get when you’re walking into the place.
Is “Raisin’ Cain” still slated to be finished this year?
And when will the folks in T-Town get to see it? Yes, if everything goes according to plan, we’d like to have the film completed this year. … It’ll most definitely be shown here first. I think it’d be great to hold that first screening at Cain’s Ballroom.