The Colgate Scene
November 2007

People on the go

Comic actor, writer, and producer Michael Torpey '02 (center) in the "Gunrunner" episode of Black20.com's comedy net_work. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Just another Friday afternoon at the Brooklyn-based headquarters of Black20.com: About a third of the dozen or so staff members are dressed like an '80s heavy metal band while "Rock and Roll All Nite" plays from a laptop. There's a skateboard (and a wheelchair) discarded in the middle of the office floor, a wall clock that says 4:45 p.m. (always), and a refrigerator stocked mostly with breakfast food (cheap, easy) — because, after all, a few staffers live here. And then there's Michael Torpey '02, who is gently painting a coworker's face with black and white makeup a la Gene Simmons.

Such is life at a start-up broadband network (a website that creates short video shows specifically for the Internet). At Black20.com, Torpey is a writer, producer, and an actor. Every Friday is shoot day for the site's weekly comedy series net_work, about office life at (where else?) a start-up broadband network.

Today they're filming the season two premiere, where a drum kit that was mysteriously delivered to the office transforms the staff into out-of-control drummer personalities. (Because, Torpey explained, "Who doesn't love drums?")

The net_work plotlines stem from weekly writers' meetings — "the best part of my week," said Torpey — but the scripts evolve as they steal new punch lines from passing office conversations, where the staffers are constantly cracking jokes, trying to one-up each other. End product: genuine, organic humor, neatly edited into clean, punchy episodes.

So, like all the staff members, Torpey wears a lot of hats. He has what can only be described as a dream job for any actor who longs for quirky roles and creative control — not something you'd get starring in a TV series on, say, NBC. Which is actually where Torpey and his Black20.com cofounders were working before they decided to ditch the world of corporate television, head to Atlantic City to gamble their remaining production budget on a roulette wheel (you already know which space), and then use the big winnings to fund their web series and play by their own rules.

Black20.com launched in December 2006. In addition to net_work, the site broadcasts two other original series: the satirical Black20 News and The Middle Show, a tongue-in-cheek social commentary drawn from candid, on-the-street interviews. They also host a live music series and a library of virals, the buzzword for humorous, short videos that are designed to get passed on quickly from user to user.

Black20.com has gained a small investment, seen a steady rise in traffic, and even landed a New York Times arts and culture feature. By July 2007, they estimated that between 15 and 20 million people had seen one of their videos in one spot or another. Eventually, they want to be a full-blown network with more frequent updates and a broader range of shows.

It's a big dream for Torpey and his colleagues, crammed into a makeshift office/studio/apartment with a broken clock and a diet of breakfast food. Fortunately, there's plenty of room on the web. — Elisa Benson '06


For 40 years, the historic Fort Herkimer Church has flourished thanks to Donald Fenner '51.

On the center of the German Flatts town park in Herkimer County, N.Y., stands the Fort Herkimer Church, a landmark with a beautiful stone fa8dade. For Donald Fenner '51, the preservation and supervision of this monument of history has been an ongoing passion for four decades.

Last spring, the Preservation League of New York State awarded him their 2007 Individual Excellence Award for Historic Preservation, for his efforts as the church's restoration chairman, project director, and restoration coordinator.

"People are thanking me for something I love to do and have fun doing," said Fenner of receiving the honor. "They see that if you are persistent about something, you will get it done."

The construction of this old Dutch church began in 1753, was interrupted by the French and Indian War, and completed in 1767 — two levels of gunports were discovered in the original structure. After the congregation grew, a second story balcony and a belfry were added in 1812, but over time, area demographics changed, and beginning around 1923 the church ceased to maintain a congregation and was used only for isolated events.

Fenner, who was director of his family's funeral home in nearby Herkimer, first became a volunteer leader in the stewardship of the area landmark in 1966. By 1974, the oldest building in the county (and one of the oldest churches in New York State) had been deemed in immediate danger of collapse.

With America's upcoming bicentennial celebration, it was an opportune time to publicize the need for funding to save the church. Grants and donations started flowing in, and the most important structural problems were fixed in time for the traditional Thanksgiving morning service (an interfaith service that draws nearly 400 people) in 1976.

Once the structure was stabilized, many other facets of restoration could be accomplished as funds became available. Fenner meticulously searched for the most qualified preservationists and advisers who would maintain the authenticity of the building's history, he said.

There were times when the work became discouraging, but "in spite of the problems and roadblocks," he said, "the place is so beautiful I couldn't give up."

That perseverance is what earned Fenner the Preservation League of New York State award.

"If you see it [the church], you'll realize what I'm talking about," he explained, noting that his Colgate experience was instrumental in "teaching the finer aspects of life, including the past and how we learn from it."

"I couldn't leave it. I wanted to see it through and see it finished."

Today the Fort Herkimer Church is being used for weddings, family reunions, church services of all faiths, historical tours, and school visits.

"I'm a firm believer that the church belongs to God's people to enjoy," said Fenner, "and I take pride in knowing that it is in wonderful condition and that other people love the place and feel attached to it." — Rachel Pancoe, editorial intern

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