Vladimir Maule was born in Prague in January, 1952. His father (also called Vladimír) had been part-owner of Prague’s high-end Savoy Hotel until the Communist coup in 1948. Following the takeover, he was arrested and subsequently sent to work as a manual laborer in Pražské papírny, a paper factory. Vladimir’s mother, Yvona, worked as a part time typist at the state export company, Pragoexport. Vladimir grew up in the Prague district of Braník. In eighth grade, Vladimir says, he and a number of school friends formed a band called The Explosive Group, which performed cover versions of songs by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Vladimir says that this group, alongside the long hair sported by the band’s members, was not viewed favorably by Vladimir’s teachers. He does say, however, that The Explosive Group made him popular with girls.
When Czechoslovakia was invaded by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, Vladimir’s parents decided to leave the country. Vladimir’s father, who was considerably older than Vladimir’s mother, was walking with crutches recovering from surgery and so decided to join the family at a later juncture. In October 1968, with faked exit permits that, Vladimir says, had cost the family savings, he and his mother traveled to Austria where they planned to apply for asylum in Canada. Vladimir, however, fell ill with scarlet fever, forcing him and his mother to return to Czechoslovakia. A couple of months later, Vladimir and his mother again found the money to purchase fake exit permits and travel to Austria. They spent around four months in Traiskirchen and Bad Kreuzen refugee camps before abandoning the idea of settling in Canada and opting to move to the United States. They arrived in Chicago on April 20, 1969. It was at around about this time that Czechoslovakia tightened its border controls, meaning that it would be another 14 years before Vladimir saw his father again.
Vladimir and his mother settled in the traditionally Czech neighborhood of Cicero in Chicago. After a short period spent working for Sears, Vladimir went back to school, first to the local Morton High School and then to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he gained a four-year scholarship to study film. Today, Vladimir owns a film production company called Filmontage which, among other projects, produced a documentary about Czech artist Jiří Kolář shortly after the Velvet Revolution, including interviews with the newly-elected president of Czechoslovakia at the time, Václav Havel, and with the author Bohumil Hrabal. A keen pilot, Vladimir today lives in Naperville, Illinois, in a home which has space for his plane in the garage. He lives with his wife, Eva, and has two daughters.
“I took German but before you… when I went [to school] in the ‘60s… before you could take an elective language you had to do well in Russian. And if you wanted to be a cool kid, you would have As and Bs but you’d have a D in Russian because that was a sign of a little bit of a protest, you know. But if you had a D in Russian, then you couldn’t get in to the other languages. So I ended up having a C or something and just squeezing by, so they let me take some German and some English – I took English for five years. But that didn’t help much when we came to the States – that’s another story. Because, you know, you learned the British English and that was kind of harsh, you know.”
The Explosive Group
“In eighth grade we started a rock and roll band, of which I was the lead singer and guitarist. And of course we played The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. That was seen like not only blasphemy but an anti-communist gesture, you know. So… we always had a lot of troubles, because of the long hair and everything else… But somehow it all sort of worked out, we squeezed by, you know. We had good grades, sort of. But my mother was frequently summoned to school by the principal and told ‘Have your son have a haircut!’ And of course I would fight it, and so they would cut a little bit, you know – the usual trials and tribulations of growing up. But for me, being in the music band changed everything because… this has nothing to do with politics, it has to do with girls. Because, you know, older girls were interested in me, which is a big thing to a young boy pre-puberty or just when puberty comes in. And we left the country when I was 16, almost 17, so my formative years – I still have the accent, when we came to the States was maybe just a little bit, a year, too late, where it never went away – but, in the school, my self confidence, being surrounded by these fans, was great! And all the politics at those moments went aside, yeah.
“Everybody listened to Radio Luxembourg and Radio Free Europe. Radio Free Europe was only… they had signals so that you couldn’t listen to the news, but they would let it go for the music. So like from two to four everyday you could listen to music on Radio Free Europe. So we would record the music on reel to reel tape recorders, so then we could then learn the music by phonetics. But it was not that difficult, you could buy records, people had collections, it was available for those who were interested, you know. And the quality wasn’t very good, because it was recorded over recordings, you know, there was a lot of hisses and scratches, but you could still listen to The Rolling Stones. So you could do that, yeah.”
“Now, my dad was over six feet tall, he used to play soccer for Sparta, he was an athlete. Up until his late 70s when he passed away he had black hair, he never had grey hair. He was a good looking, good looking guy. And he walked upright, as opposed to… the people in our building signed a petition against his walking. They said ‘He’s walking too arrogant. He’s not saying hello to the neighbors.’ There was like a meeting of all these people who lived in this building, because every building had a caretaker… The caretaker was a member of the Party, they usually lived on the bottom floor. They were snooping around, they were the ones who knew… And this was the woman who made this official complaint that my dad comes home from work and… My dad worked 18 hour shifts, I mean, he worked like a slave to make money. So when he came home, it’s possible he didn’t say hello. But not because he didn’t like her, because he was dead beat tired. But he walked upright, so she thought that he was walking with his nose up. My dad was not. But that’s the kind of environment that we lived in. My dad, of course, when he had to come up and explain himself in front of these morons, you know. So he would never join that group on any level, let alone the Communist Party.”
“They said to my mom ‘Go and apply for a job at Western Electric – a company that makes telephones – on Cicero and Cermak Road, in Cicero basically. They’re hiring.’ They told me ‘Since you’re a guy, go to a steel company called Seaco, and the chances are you’ll get a job there, they’re hiring.’ So my mom took one bus, I had to take like four or five buses to get to this location. So my mom got in, got hired. I walk into this place. I knock on the door, there’s a man who says, again, ‘How have you been?’ If he said ‘How are you?’ I would have said ‘Fine.’ But that phrase ‘How’ve you been’ I’d never heard. So again, there is this exchange, I’m a total idiot, I can’t… He says ‘I have no work for you. Go away.’ Just then, somebody comes in and says ‘I need one guy for my department.’ And the guy says ‘I’ve got no one.’ He says ‘Well, what about this kid here?’ He says, ‘He’s an idiot.’ So he says to me ‘Hey kid, you speak English?’ And I say ‘Yes!’ And he said ‘Well, if he speaks English… So, what’s your name?’ And so, somehow it came out that I am Czech and he says ‘Well, I’m Czech. My name is Ferjencik!’ He never spoke Czech, you know, but he was very proud of his… He said ‘I’ll hire this kid.’ So I got the job.
“So, to this day I don’t know what I was doing, I was in charge of some… some… something, I don’t know. But the footnote to this story is that people would always say ‘Where do you work?’ And I’d say ‘Well, a company called CECO. A sheet metal company.’ Every Friday we would get checks, and outside would come a Brinks truck and you would cash the check and you would come home with cash. One Friday we missed this truck and so I brought the check home. And on the check it said Sears. I went to the wrong place, I took the wrong bus. I thought I was working at CECO, I was working at… So, a true moron you know, but I was hired, I was working for Sears. Then I went to school. I realized that manual labor was not for me.”
“We wanted to appeal to the younger crowd, the people like us. And we were very much influenced by Dadaism and Jára da Cimrman, and we poked serious fun at the establishment. We poked fun at how badly they spoke Czech. How they mixed the English language into the Czech language. And we were ruthless. And little by little the advertisers started to check out. We finally decided to temporarily go off the air. But while it lasted we had a great time. I composed a song called ‘Emigrant’s Cry’… It was introduced by Jan Novak who said ‘Vážení krajané’, you know, ‘Dear Countrymen – the Czech Bob Dylan.’ And then I came on. So, it was great!”
Listen to Vladimir’s song ‘Emigrant’s Cry’
“My teachers at the Art Institute… the teachers were pretty much always far left, understandably perhaps and all that stuff. But it bothered me that they would not… that they saw communism as something so distant, something on another planet. A thing that really doesn’t affect us, you know. And there was this residue of McCarthyism – ‘We know what… let’s not stir up another round, you know, look where that got us, you know, just paranoia.’ So, it was troublesome, because my views were pretty much to the right of center when I came. Because I wanted to go to Vietnam and fight the communists. I actually was eligible to be drafted that one year, there was a lottery and they filled the quota two numbers before mine came up. So I came very close, but my mom would not survive it. She would do something not to let me go but it never had to come to that. So, having my American friends being completely oblivious to anything that was happening in Europe was and is still troubling.”
Return to Prague
“In 1992, my wife and I and our two daughters go back to Prague, and I’m telling them how I grew up, I’m telling them all the stories, you know. So we go, and we visit the place where I grew up – the apartment building. We walk inside, and in all of these buildings there’ll be like a little plaque on the wall with the names of all the people who live there. Our name was still there. Nobody, this is after communism, and nobody cared to change it. Other people came and went, but ours was never removed or replaced. So that was a freaky thing seeing our name. So then as we go up, I knock on the door and nobody opened so… But I tell my girls the story of when I was little, and I would go down into the cellar to fetch the coal or whatever, right? As you open the door, you walk in the cellar, but you would never see the back of the door, because it was of course this way, right?
“But as a little kid, for some reason, I looked on the back of this door. And there was a poster from the Nazis. It had, you know, the big swastika, and it said in the left column Czech and the right column German, something about not stealing property from this cellar. And finally it said ‘This offense is punishable by death!’ So, I’m telling them this story and they’re like ‘Oh my god!’ So, I take them into the cellar, we open the door and… it was still there! Semi-decayed, you know, barely clinging on, because any time anybody would open the door would go… there was no reason to ever… So that was a kind of interesting experience, you know, how little had changed in all these years.”