At the center of the little-known Tammany Coffee House in Risley Hall, a man, Gordon Sander ‘73, embraced in the teal suede of a studded armchair, floated in the nether of lofty ideas; his face laced with a quietly sinister pensiveness immediately engulfed by a good-natured eccentricity. Impromptu, yet still dramatic lighting drew the small audience into his zone, The Sander Zone, appropriately backdropped with the twinkling stars of the Twilight Zone. All of this in reverence of the delightfully peculiar Rod Serling.
A brief background: Rod Serling is an icon best known for his work on The Twilight Zone, a late 50s, early 60s sci-fi television series. The man was a “one man show,” as Sander put it, having written two-thirds of the classic's episodes himself and introducing episodes as the dashing narrator. Yes, he was the the black skinny tie and tweed blazer behind the smooth voice of reason in the deep space of the Twilight Zone.
Though the studly Rod Serling, who unfortunately died at 51 in 1975, was not in the strange and rustic chamber, he might as well have been. Reverence infused every word spoken by Sander as he spoke of his recently reissued biography of the iconic Rod Serling, Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man.
Sander — a writer, photographer, educator and ex-Risleyite — garnished his homecoming at Risley Hall with a reading of his biography. The biography is considered by many to be one of the most detailed and efficacious examinations of Serling's life and of the history of television.
Finding that long-lost love for Cornell as the first artist-in-residence at Risley in 2002, Sander decided to stay in Ithaca and extend his work and involvement with the university. Today, he continues to employ two Risleyites as his assistants — or what he endearingly calls his “munchkins.”
His relationship with Risley is not bounded by the 18 Risleyites he has worked closely with; Sander hosts an all-night-movie-walkathon-poetry-reading called "Hanging Out" every May. The nocturnal expedition includes a midnight movie, TV run, rendezvous at the Haunt, breakfast at the state diner and culminates in a poetry reading synchronized elegantly with the rise of the sun.
Sander's ongoing relationship with Risley has symbolically brought him full circle in his literary career (he began writing in Risley and now presents his finished work here as well). The cycle is also aptly reflective of his relationship with his past literary exploits and his bond with Rod Serling:
“I like writing about unsung heroes and forgotten stories, and he seemed to me to be an unsung hero of American literature. He was someone who hadn't been given his due. That's what compelled me to write the book.”
Risley, it seems to Sander, is the closest thing to an alternative college that Cornell has.
“I happen to be a fan of Risley, and I think Serling would be too.”
Risley, much like Rod Serling, is an unsung hero. He wrote in an era when writing for television was not of literary merit.
Serling began his career writing for live television, composing plays with controversial and engaging themes like hysteria and prejudice, which according to Sander, he did not supplement. The Twilight Zone was a television masterpiece with an unprecedented quality of writing stitched with motifs of relevance and concern to the citizenry. The Twilight Zone was rich with "social subtext."
“[The book] is a historical biography in that I use Serling's life as a prison to tell the story of television, the first twenty years of television. It's a two level kind of book … I wanted to give him his due and his place in American literature.”
In the dimness of Tammany, it must have been apparent to every body in the room that Sander outdid himself. To say that Sander held Serling in high esteem would be iniquitous; Sander's study of Serling is so meticulous that one would swear they must have once been buddies.
As Sander read from his book, eyebrows raised, his passion for [hi]storytelling and due reverence hit the audience with the force of glaring the 60 hertz of white noise paradigmatically associated with his field of study. The man could not stand still, could not refrain from looking up to engage with his listeners. Every inflection, every intonation walked the crowd deeper into the Sander Zone. With every word, his head and body arched forward as if into the loophole that defied physics and took him into the twilight zone.
“Serling, he belieeeeeved in television.”
It was like watching intellect embody a child-like presence, enthusiasm rising and breaking the surface voluntarily or involuntarily. Merge murkiness with undertones of clarity and dynamic intellectual fervor, and you are now entering the Sander Zone.