Beer of Dreams

Lance and Aaron Rice have a big, foamy summer ahead of them

Vermilion resident Lance Rice started collecting beer cans on Monday, July 8, 1974. As the years went on, Lance's autism kept him from having what most others would consider a "normal life." But through his fascination with the history of beer, Lance created a rich, vivacious world of his own. His nephew and best friend, Aaron Rice, is a budding filmmaker. Together, they're going to tour the great breweries of the Midwest. By the end of this tremendous summer that lies before them, Lance will be a published author. He's about to achieve his most precious dream.

So you're eyeing a 1,500-mile brewery road trip for this documentary. What sort of planning goes into something like that?

Pre-production is pretty heavy. A lot of it is contacting the breweries around the Midwest and getting them to open their doors and set up dates for Lance to arrive with the crew. At first we thought it would be a challenge. But, in Cleveland, Great Lakes brewery opened their doors immediately and they've been extremely accommodating. Even companies as large as Miller have opened up their breweries to Lance, so that's the bulk of the pre-planning.

When did Lance’s interest in beer begin?

He first started collecting beer cans in 1974. It was because his younger brother started collecting them and he just copied. He thought it was fun and that it would be fun for a summer, and then it just kinda stuck and he never let go of collecting beer cans and learning about beer memorabilia - buying and memorizing beer books. Forty years later and here we are: It’s been the scope of his whole life.

Aside from the beer cans themselves, how deep does his collection go?

His collecting ranges from the history of canned beer itself all the way through the modern breweries. Any time a major brewery puts out a new can or a new product or they can their beer in a different way, he has it. If they change the label of a Miller Lite can just slightly—update a copyright, change a logo—he goes and get it, taps it on the bottom and drains it, keeps the top intact and then files it in his collection. His collection is international and it probably ranges easily 100 years of beer cans back through the history of when they started putting beer in, you know, steel containers.

How many cans are we talking?

He hasn't counted them. He has two rooms full of cans—and then a shed full of cans that are duplicates and ones he hasn't added to his collection yet. Those are also the cans that he trades around the world. He'll write letters—old-fashioned, pen-pal style—to people internationally and then mail them a box of cans. Beer Can Collectors of America provides trading boxes which protect the cans for shipping. He'll ship a box, and then a month later a box from Russia will show up with beer cans in it. It's pretty interesting.

Were you guys close growing up?

I was adopted when I was 2, and that's when my uncle first met me. Since then, we became best friends. I got to know him before I was old enough to talk or even understand that there was something different about him. We developed a relationship that is pretty unique. Well, this is a bad example, because Tom Cruise is me in the movie, but he really is the Rain Man of beer. I've been by his side all through my childhood, through my late teenage years. It's safe to say I'm the closest person in the world to him. I actually knocked over his beer collection when I was 4. I killed an entire wall of beer cans.

Do’h! So you’ve been through the good and the bad. As a filmmaker, has Lance’s story always struck you as a story that should be told - or would be told?

Yeah, it always has. When I was a teenager, I was really touched by his life. I started realizing that, emotionally, he understood that he never went to college, that he wasn’t married, that his father passed away, that he never moved out of his mom’s house. It would bother him. But he didn’t have the mental capability to take a grown man’s emotions and work through them. When I started seeing that disparity between a man that had the feelings of an adult, but an intellect of a child, it really moved me. About five years ago, I was beginning to write films and I had an idea for a film about my uncle that would just portray the beauty of his life.

The story, in many ways, portrays the positive sides of autism. Could you elaborate on that?

It's the reason people love Rocky and Forrest Gump. The country and the world are drawn to the story of the individual that never gives up on a dream and accomplishes the impossible against all odds. It just so happens that Lance is a real-life Forrest Gump. He's different and he doesn't connect like most people connect, but he's never given up on that dream. Unlike a lot of media and film and articles on autism, Lance's story is positive. There's a ton of information on temper tantrums and social anxiety and the inability to connect. There's not a lot that shows the beautiful side of autism—that his focus and his intellect has him operating in very specific areas on a genius level. He's also been able to grow personally. He's made some emotional improvements in terms of communication. He'll communicate with his closest family, but he'll still shut down with strangers. Thirty years ago, forty years ago, he wouldn't leave the house, he wouldn't talk. So there's a really intriguing story about a 55-year-old man with autism who's actually improved throughout his life. For the autism community, that's rare, and it's something that I think will inspire families and people that care about autism. I don't think there's enough out there that shows the beautiful side of autism.

The documentary is about Lance and his life, clearly. Going forward, what is the game plan? I mean, how will it work in real time?

To get Lance in his truest form, we've created a really innovative way of shooting the film. To be brief about it, the crew is going to communicate in silence throughout the shoot. Lance knows he is going to be filmed. I communicated with him that there would be a photographer and I would be recording him—he understands that. But if he feels that he's one-on-one with me, he'll show a side of himself that the world does not see. We're using radio-controlled audio engineering and remote- and Wi-Fi-enabled cameras. The crew can communicate through walkie-talkies—beeps, like abbreviated Morse code—and then through iPads to go back and forth with silent text messages and audio cues to start rolling, to stop rolling, to give a warning that Lance's mic battery is getting low. It's a real different way of shooting. Even for the film community, this is a really innovative project that we couldn't have done even three years ago. We're going to be able to get an amazingly candid look at the emotional makeup of a man with autism.

James Bond meets the BBC, kinda.

That's us!

You mentioned Lance's "dream." He wants to write a book, and that's the backbone of this, right?

He wants to be an author. If you want to take away the brewery aspect of everything, here's an autistic man who's becoming an author after 40 years of dreaming it could happen. He'll keep a journal of sorts of his dream breweries. Some of them are open, some of them are just historic buildings that are no longer breweries. He does write his thoughts, but, typical to autism, he only writes them specific to this one dream. He doesn't write about anything else.

Does he have any local favorites?

Great Lakes. He loves Great Lakes! He is all Ohio, 110 percent through. He's never left Northeast Ohio. Indians, Browns, Cavs, Ohio State, Great Lakes: If it's Ohio, he loves it. He's really psyched about Great Lakes. And as close as he is, he's never been there. My grandmother is pushing 80 and she doesn't drive that far and he can't drive. He is really excited to go see Great Lakes. Anytime they put out a seasonal beer, he makes sure to go out and try it. Being that it's a hometown brewery and one of Cleveland's most notable businesses, he's really thrilled to be able to go there.

And this is all coming up in June, right?

Mid-June. We'll spend a few weeks in Northeast Ohio interviewing his old teachers, his family members. He had a job at a company called Becker Industries near Vermilion. The owner of that company is going to speak to us about Lance's work ethic and how much they enjoyed having him. We're going to do the typical documentary stuff those first few weeks in Ohio. The first big brewery stop will probably be an entire day at Great Lakes, because they've opened up every part of their brewery to us. They're going to allow us to film on any square inch of their property that we want to.

As far as you personally, what are some of your big goals for this project?

My personal goal for the project is to give my uncle a legacy. Like I mentioned before, he has the emotional capacity of an adult with the mental capacity of an adolescent. He’s talked to me in the past, saying, “I want to go to Lorain County Community College. I want to get married. I want to have kids. I want to have a job.” He’s been heartbroken about it, but he just can’t understand why. To have one of his lifelong dreams accomplished and to give him that sense of pride - maybe he could walk into Barnes and Noble and see on a shelf a book that says “Lance’s Brewery Tour.” That would mean the world to me. That’s probably the goal closest to my heart. Beyond that, I’m in the process of founding a charity called Lance’s Room, and it’s to fund scholarships for students on the autism spectrum, as well as to help organizations that provide vocational training for disabled people. Two things he’s talked about are always wanting to go to college and always wanting to have a job. It was impossible to go to college and it was hard for him to keep a job, because of the limitations of autism. In his name, I would love for the proceeds that come from the book and the documentary to help other people that are impacted by autism achieve their own dreams. I believe wholeheartedly this movie and this book can sweep the world over. There’s nothing like it. The beer community is so large. And the autism community is growing everyday. This could be a landmark film to impact all of those cultures.

And it just started with a few beer cans back in the ‘70s. It’s been quite the journey, clearly.

As corny as it sounds, it’s that whole “butterfly effect” thing. You just never know what’s going to shape someone’s life.

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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