Mifflin Lowe has been riding around for a long time with the image of an inner-city cowboy galloping through his head.
The cowboy is young. Maybe 10. He’s black. And, like Lowe, he has an overactive imagination. He fantasizes about riding steer and roping cattle.
He pictures New York City as the Wild West. He pictures skyscrapers as mountain peaks, bicycle handlebars as ox horns and women in fur coats as grizzly bears.
His name is Cowboy Kareem, and his adventures have occupied Lowe’s thoughts for so long it’s hard to tell where Kareem’s dreams end and Lowe’s begin.
“I honestly can’t even remember when I (conceived) it,” Lowe says of the story. “I never set out to make a point. I just liked the idea of a child who daydreams about becoming a cowboy under unlikely circumstances.”
A Bird Key resident and former advertising copywriter from Newport, R.I., Lowe took second place last month in the Sarasota County Film and Entertainment Office’s “TV ME!” pitch contest.
He entered his “Adventures of Cowboy Kareem” in the competition’s one-off/long format category.
Although the 82-page screenplay is written as a full-length feature, Lowe says he’d be happy to see the story turned into an animated short with an accompanying soundtrack — for now.
He’s already met with an animation student at Ringling College of Art and Design and discussed staging the script with live actors at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
“I’m putting a lot of hooks in the water and seeing whoever bites,” Lowe says. “Maybe I’m spitting into the wind a little bit … eh … who knows what might come out of it.”
Jeanne Corcoran, director of the Sarasota County Film and Entertainment Office, says there’s a reason Lowe’s pitch stood out among the nearly 200 pitches she received for the contest.
“It’s not something that just popped into his head overnight,” Corcoran says. “It’s very well developed, and it has an inspirational message that goes completely against stereotype. I could see it tickling the fancy of certain networks that like imaginative family content.”
This wouldn’t be the first time his cowboy fantasy has tickled people’s fancies.
At one point, hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean wanted to produce the project. (He and Lowe share a mutual friend.) Then Mercury Records president Ed Eckstine wanted to jump on board.
Both connections, however, failed to pan out.
When Lowe finally did sell the rights to the script, he opted to take them back after producers suggested he make Cowboy Kareem white.
“I couldn’t do it,” he says. “It’s too good an idea and too a good character to compromise like that.”
Lowe, himself, is something of a character.
A musician with a degree in art history from Princeton University, he spent most of his career working in advertising and composing radio jingles.
In the mid-1980s, he wrote a book inspired by a lunch he once shared with a stingy colleague, who ordered nearly everything on the menu then weaseled his way out of paying.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” Lowe recalls. “As I was driving home that night, I thought, hey, that would make a good book.”
“The Cheapskate’s Handbook: A Guide to the Subtleties, Intricacies and Pleasures of Being a Tightwad” was published shortly thereafter with a black-and-white photograph of Lowe on the cover looking like Larry King, in suspenders, a bow tie and wire-rimmed glasses.
It was an instant success.
The publisher, a division of Penguin, printed 250,000 copies. Lowe was offered an advance on a second book, which he took, and a guest spot on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which he didn’t take — a decision that is as much a non claim-to-fame as it is a claim-to-fame for the writer.
“I don’t like to fly,” he says with a shrug. “I also think I had something to do that day.”
When his second and third humor books — “I Hate Fun,” a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the American pursuit of amusement, and “How To Be a Celebrity,” a tongue-in-cheek guide to achieving superstardom — failed to make the masses laugh, Lowe decided it was time to return to a friendlier niche: writing and performing material for children.
With his longtime collaborator and friend, Berklee College of Music professor Greg Wardson, Lowe turned his first children’s book — the 1987 illustrated “Beasts by the Bunches,” a book of poetry with accompanying songs about groups of animals — into an orchestral score for the Syracuse Symphony.
The gig led to a performance last year with the Missouri Symphony Orchestra, at which Lowe met Sarasota Orchestra violinist Carlann Evans, with whom he hopes to collaborate on future projects, namely a “Beasts by the Bunches” performance with the Sarasota Orchestra.
“I probably sound like I’m all over the place,” Lowe says, chuckling nervously. “It’s just that my imagination runs off with so many ideas. I know I need to stick with one for a moment.”
With “Cowboy Kareem” finally gaining momentum, Lowe says it’s obvious what he needs to focus on: a little boy in a 10-gallon hat.
He picks up his guitar and starts to strum a song he wrote for the story, an infectious ditty called “Homeboy on the Range.”
As he picks each chord, signing the lyrics with an appropriately gravelly twang, his face and his posture transform into something a little more rugged: his version of a kid’s version of a cowboy.
“It all boils down to doing what you like,” Lowe says. “A lot of my work is about people using their imaginations to view the world in a much happier way. I guess you could call it escapism, which is fine by me. I’ve got child-like sensibilities.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Mifflin Lowe has also recorded a rock opera for kids called “The King Who Forgot His Underpants.” To listen to tracks from the album and to learn more about the performer and his children’s programs, visit locokids.com.