YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It all seems like a dream now.
But those who witnessed the outlandish, exuberant, never-seen-anything-like-it rock shows of Gil Mantera’s Party Dream will never forget them.
A new documentary film will immortalize the band – one of the most unusual to ever come out of Youngstown.
“Party Dream,” a 75-minute film by Tim Slowikowski and Aaron Hagele, will get its Youngstown premiere on Saturday, Nov. 12, at Penguin City Brewing Co. Admission to the 8 p.m. screening is free, and the filmmakers will be in attendance.
“Party Dream” will be available to rent or buy in December through Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
With a trove of footage from shows and interviews, the filmmakers captured the raucous, bizarre and always hilarious band, documenting its rise and sudden disappearance just when it was on the doorstep of fame.
The two-piece GMPD – they later added a drummer to become a trio – was more of a nutty comedy act, or performance art, that also happened to make catchy and danceable ’80s style synth-rock songs.
Formed as a joke in 1999, it was comprised of half-brothers Richie Bernacki (vocals, guitar) and Glen Dietz (synthesizer, vocals), neither of whom thought it would ever go as far as it did.
For shows, the two would morph into their stage personas of Ultimate Donny and Gil Mantera and tear up rock clubs like Cedars, when it was in downtown Youngstown, and the old Nyabinghi on the West Side, before they took their act on the road.
By 2005, GMPD was gaining traction – the band was signed to a management contract by Audio Eagle, the label owned by Patrick Carney of The Black Keys – and opening shows for national acts in venues across the country.
Then, without warning, the dream went poof in 2010 – almost overnight. The future was looking bright but the physical and financial strain of keeping the band on the road was taking its toll and Dietz called it quits.
The constant travel, being short on cash, and serving as their own road crew with no guarantee that a payoff would ever arrive, proved to be too much, although Bernacki – at the time – would have preferred to keep it going a little longer.
The dust has since settled, and Gil Mantera’s Party Dream has faded into the annals of Youngstown rock history. Bernacki and his wife, Aspasia Lyras-Bernacki, launched Penguin City Brewing Co., opening their downtown brewery and pub earlier this year. Dietz has since moved to Chicago.
The filmmakers took their time preparing “Party Dream,” which debuted this year at the Sherman Oaks Film Festival in California, the Pittsburgh Independent Film Festival and the Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival, where it won the Best Feature audience award.
It’s the first and only film ever made by Slowikowski and Hagele.
The two were floored the first time they saw they band at The Metro in Chicago. Both men were living in the Windy City at the time and were studying comedy performance at The Second City.
“I remember it as clear as day,” says Slowikowski. “They were opening for Art Brut, and we were there to see Art Brut. As I was walking in, I ran into a buddy who asked me who I was here to see and I said ‘who else? Art Brut.’ He replied, ‘no, you’re not. You’ve got to get upstairs now and see [opening act GMPD].’ He was very serious.”
So they did, and “within five seconds we were blown away,” Slowikowski says. The band’s outfits, Ultimate Donny’s humor and Gil Mantera’s singing into a vocoder – a device that makes the human voice sound robotic – had the two friends hooked from the first song.
They couldn’t stop talking about it the next day and even formed a comedy sketch group that riffed off the GMPD characters.
In 2014, after the band had broken up, they decided to make a movie about the act.
“Neither of us are filmmakers,” Hagele says. “It was a passion project and we’re proud of it. Most documentaries are depressing but this one is not.”
Stacey Goldschmidt, a videographer from Chicago who had shot hours of Gil Mantera’s Party Dream performances, granted the filmmakers permission to use her work.
It took the filmmakers seven years to make “Party Dream.” They had to sort through hundreds of hours of concert footage while handling the demands of their families and their full-time jobs. Hagele had also moved to Los Angeles, which created another obstacle, as did the pandemic, Slowikowski explains.
At first, the filmmakers had difficulty reaching either Bernacki or Dietz to set up interviews. They eventually tracked them down, although Dietz declined. They then traveled to Nashville to interview Patrick Carney, and Youngstown – a few times – to interview Bernacki and others.
“[Bernacki] was our biggest interview,” Slowikowski says. “We were a little intimidated at first because we didn’t know him at all and had only seen him doing his wild antics on stage. But after the first weekend, we became friends.”
In the interview for the film, Bernacki looks back on the band’s rise and the challenges of having to move on after it came to an end.
“Following his journey was the cool part,” Slowikowski says. “It was hard to move forward for him. Ultimate Donny was his whole identity, and he was struggling to find what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.”
The filmmakers say the length of time it took to make the film made it better.
“We saw the whole arc of [Bernacki’s] life – getting married, opening Penguin City,” Slowikowski says. “He went from being lost to [becoming a successful businessman]. He has stuff figured out now.”
Bernacki says he no longer has regrets when it comes to the sudden demise of Gil Mantera’s Party Dream.
But he acknowledges that it took a while to regain his footing.
“It was a struggle for me after it ended,” he says. “I lost my livelihood and a big part of my identity.
“But it was a hard lifestyle. If we would have continued, it would have gotten a little better. But I don’t know how our health would have been. We were driving ourselves [to shows] and setting up our own equipment. It wasn’t cushy. But it was mostly fun while it lasted.”
Although he’s been asked many times, Bernacki says there will not be a Party Dream reunion show. “I’m too old for it now and I doubt we would even get that opportunity,” he says.
The act was invited to do a reunion show at The Empty Bottle in Chicago a few years ago to help celebrate the club’s 25th anniversary, “but we weren’t ready,” Bernacki says.
These days, he has his hands full making beer at his growing brewery. To commemorate the film, he is working on a Penguin City Party Dream beer that he plans to serve at the Nov. 12 screening.
He still looks back fondly at Gil Mantera’s Party Dream – and with a sense of pride.
“I’ve never seen anyone do a show like ours,” he says.
Pictured at top: Ultimate Donny, aka Richie Bernacki, is shown performing in the documentary film “Party Dream.”