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6 Degrees? Try 1

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Brian Turtle '95 (pictured left) and Craig Fass '96 (right) pose with Kevin Bacon at SXSW.  
Photo courtesy: Brian Turtle 

While watching movies one snowy afternoon, three Albright College students created “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Twenty years later, the parlor game has morphed into a social phenomenon. To help mark the milestone, co-creator Brian Turtle ’95 moderated a panel discussion at South by Southwest with the man himself.

By Hilary Bentman

In today’s world, it’s relatively easy to go viral. Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and YouTube give millions (if not billions) of people nearly instantaneous access to your cat-playing-the-piano videos or the latest dance craze from Korea.

Within days, sometimes hours, these messages are everywhere.

But in 1994, at a time when the only wireless device in most homes was a radio, three Albright College students succeeded in creating a game that some argue turned into the first social phenomenon and one that has stood the test of time.

“Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. And to help mark the milestone, co-creator Brian Turtle ’95 appeared at South by Southwest (SXSW) with the man himself.

Turtle and Bacon moderated a panel discussion before a crowd of about 2,500 people on March 8 at the Austin, Texas-based film, music and interactive festival, discussing how a simple twist on an old idea sparked not just a parlor game but a bestselling book, board game, apps and a charity.

And if trending tweets, YouTube videos and online commentary are any indication, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and the story of how it came to be is still a phenomenon.

“It was just a way to kill some time with some movie trivia,” said Turtle. “It really just started as this snowflake that went downhill and became this massive avalanche.”

In this case, the snowflake is more than a metaphor.

On a snowy afternoon in 1994, Turtle, Craig Fass ’96 and Mike Ginelli ’95 were watching the Bacon classic Footloose at an apartment near campus. The dance film was followed by another Bacon offering, Quicksilver, and then the trio saw a commercial for Bacon’s The Air up There.

“It seemed like Kevin Bacon was everywhere,” said Turtle.

The friends starting talking about all the actors Bacon had worked with. When they reached Robert De Niro, they couldn’t find a common film (Sleepers would correct this fact in 1996).

But the trio realized De Niro had appeared in The Untouchables with Kevin Costner, who was in JFK with Bacon. Thus Six Degrees was born. Participants were challenged to connect any actor to Bacon in six degrees or less. Bacon was an ideal candidate since his body of work was vast and varied and he often appeared in large ensemble films.

“It was insatiable,” said Turtle. “We couldn’t stop doing it.”

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Actor Kevin Bacon, pictured right, and Brian Turtle '95, appeared on stage at SXSW on March 8 for the 20th anniversary of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Photo Courtsey: Jackie Aude M.

Popular at parties and social gatherings, the game soon transcended Albright’s campus.

The trio appeared on the “Jon Stewart Show” and “Howard Stern.” In short order, Six Degrees sparked a book and a board game (which Turtle parlayed into a career in the gaming industry), as well as the website “The Oracle of Bacon” and Google’s “Bacon number,” which do the heavy lifting for you. In the latter, simply Googling the name of an actor and the words “Bacon number” reveal the connection.

Turtle is old-school and enjoys the challenge of figuring out connections on his own. He’s not convinced Six Degrees would have the same appeal today since technology means information is literally at our fingertips. Plus there’s the 24/7 news cycle and all the competition for our attention.

“I don’t know if the game would have had the same kind of resonance,” he said. “There’s so much more out there now. There’s an information overload.”

For his part, Bacon didn’t always embrace the eponymous game.

At SXSW on Saturday, the star of Fox’s “The Following” said he was initially “horrified by it." He thought the Albright students were poking fun at him.

But he soon realized the power of connectivity and the potential for making a difference. In 2007, he launched the charity SixDegrees.org, which has raised more than $5 million by connecting celebrities and grassroots efforts. It bills itself as “social networking with a social conscience.”

“He has turned this into something so much bigger than what we did. It’s humbling,” said Turtle. “It’s nice to have played a role in something that’s helping people.”

Turtle didn’t realize his game was turning 20 until he got a call asking him to be a SXSW panel moderator. “The game comes up and goes away and sometimes it’s back in the zeitgeist,” he said.

During the SXSW panel, Bacon filmed a video with the audience behind him, thus giving every person there the right to boast they are just one degree away from him.

Turtle says he’s proud Six Degrees started at Albright and said it was the perfect place for this to take root.

“Albright is an incubator for creativity. We were snowed in watching a movie and this whole thing spawns out,” he said. “And after this past winter, who knows what ideas [current Albright students] are developing. It’s nice that Albright can cultivate that kind of seed.”


 

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