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MOVIE-CONSULTANT ROLE MAY MAKE COLUMNIST THE 'FOLKLORIST TO THE STARS'

Maybe I should add "Folklorist to the Stars" to my credentials. Why? Because my name recently appeared in an article in the showbiz weekly Variety identifying me as the consultant on a controversy surrounding an Oscar-winning 1990 film.

Well, not MY name exactly, but "Prof. Brunvald." Close enough.Boy, was the English department secretary impressed when Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, telephoned me! He asked for help in identifying whether or not Adam Davidson's film "The Lunch Date" could possibly have been inspired by an urban legend.

Although it won the Oscar last year for best short film, I hadn't seen it. A couple of readers, though, alerted me to catch that flick if I could, since it seemed to be based on the legend known in England as "The Packet of Biscuits."

When Davis outlined the plot, I knew my readers were right. "The Lunch Date" was a variation of the same legend, known in the United States as "The Package of Cookies."

In both the legend and the film a person stopping for a snack in a cafe mistakenly believes that someone sharing the same table has appropriated his or her food. Outraged at this effrontery, the first person says nothing but begins to eat from the same dish.

The strangers silently finish their snack together, and when the first person leaves, he or she discovers that the disputed food really belonged to the other guy.

In the legends, the shared snack is usually a package of cookies or a candy bar. In "The Lunch Date" the strangers share a salad, taking alternate bites and glaring at each other.

The story has circulated in England since the early 1970s; the two characters were often a middle-class white woman and an African or Pakistani man. Davidson cast his film with a neatly dressed white woman and a black man in ragged clothes.

One folklorist commented that the oral story illustrates "the patient and indeed saintly character of the often despised and rejected." In the film the man ends the lunch by buying two cups of coffee and giving one to the woman.

The woman realizes her error after the man has left and she finds her shopping bag and her intact salad in the next booth.

Davidson said he based his script on an "urban folk tale" he heard at Kenyon College in 1985. That jibes with my rec-ords, since I've documented the story being told in this country since 1984. It has been widely told, as well as published several times, and even claimed as true by a couple of recent writers.

The film-industry controversy arose because a Dutch director a year earlier had made his own version of the legend into a short film called "Boeuf Bourgig-non." As Bruce Davis told Variety, the similarities are "obvious and startling."

A suspicion of plagiarism arose, as Variety headlined the story, because "Two Short Films Are Long on Similarities." The characters and central action are much alike, although there are important differences between the two films.

For one thing, the Dutch film is in color while Adam Davidson used black and white. Also, the Dutch film shows the couple sharing a meal of beef stew and a large dessert, and the woman leaves the cafe without discovering her error.

Davidson also followed the urban legend more closely by setting the scene in a drab little cafe in New York City's Grand Central Terminal, while the Dutch filmmaker used an attractive cafeteria in a shopping galleria patronized by affluent-appearing customers. Both directors added the coffee cups at the end.

By the time I was consulted in the matter, the academy's short-film branch executive committee had ruled out plagiarism. Some committee members were familiar with the urban legend, and Davidson assured them that he'd never seen the earlier film, which had not been shown outside of Holland.

My role was to provide the history of the oral story and verify it as a well-known urban legend. No problem, since I've written about it in two of my books, and my file on the legend is an inch thick.

My reward for sharing the information was an invitation to this year's Academy Award ceremonies. I accepted, of course, and now I'm considering having "Folklorist to the Stars" added to my business card.

Hollywood, here I come! The evening of March 30 should be legendary.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.

1992 United Feature Syndicate Inc.