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The spy nobody knows


Mike Bloebaum: undercover to Emmy awards


Michael Young

Nevada City Advocate

Watch out! Look over your shoulder. There’s a spy amongst us.

Is anyone in this sleepy little burg aware that one of its own spent time in the 1960s teaching South Vietnamese nationals how to sneak into enemy territory to get sensitive military information?

Or that upon returning to the states, he enrolled in UCLA film school and eventually won five production Emmy’s, and still shoots videos for local nonprofits, schools and performing arts organizations. 

But more on that later.

Mike Bloebaum, 77, and his wife, Margaret, have just bid adieu to a house full of out-of-town holiday guests and are trying to catch their breath when I ring the doorbell of their woodsy Nevada City home.

He offers me a glass of water. We chat about the fire raging in nearby Paradise before getting down to business, serious business.

“In 1965, we were getting more involved in Vietnam. President Johnson sent me a letter inviting me to join the Army,” he says sardonically. “Instead, I enlisted in the Intelligence Corps. A friend told me we’d end up in Germany drinking white wine and meeting the girls.” 

A seemingly good plan but flawed. Uncle Sam had other ideas.

“I went to basic training, then intelligence school in Baltimore,” he says. “My first image was guys marching in formation with black briefcases. I knew this was going to be an interesting experience,” he says.

He learned the basics of spy craft – how to use miniature Minox spy cameras, how to melt into the population, how to lose a tail, how to use dead drops to leave a message, live drops to hand off orders.

“They dropped a bunch of us in downtown Baltimore. There were three guys tailing me, but I lost them immediately because I knew the city. It was one of the funniest things I ever saw. We were all trying to be cool with dark suits and sunglasses,” he says. “It was when James Bond was big.”

Although they were trained in European intelligence, every one of them was sent to Vietnam, where none spoke the language. They were spread all over the country where their job was to meet Vietnamese nationals, assess their willingness to spy for the U.S. and then recruit them.

“I had the distinction of recruiting the first spy,” he says. “He was teaching English to Vietnamese. I walked into his classroom, introduced myself and we became friends.”

Bloebaum then turned him over to a special agent and headed to the city of Hue where he had several people lined up, that is until he contracted encephalitis from a mosquito bite and almost died in the hospital.

He was medically discharged from the Army six months later. It was a turning point in his life.

Born in Missouri where his father was an itinerant preacher and mother a secretary, they moved around a lot until his parents split and he and his mother moved back to St. Louis.

Music was a big part of his life. He sang “boy soprano” in an Episcopal theater. As he started taking academics seriously, he enrolled in Washington University in St. Louis to study English literature.

In 1963, he switched to New York University to study television production but realized that was not what he wanted to do.

He returned to St. Louis and got a job in an advertising agency writing copy for clients like Budweiser.

“They put me in charge of the (Boston) Celtics away games that Budweiser was sponsoring. It was fabulous. My partners were (legendary sports broadcaster) Harry Carey and (Celtics player and coach) Bill Sharman,” he says.

It was just about this time that the military draft caught up with him. But now, two years later, with his discharge from the Army in hand and his spying days over, he needed to determine the next step.

He decided to give film school another try. He enrolled at UCLA.

“It was 1967, the height of student discontent about Vietnam and here I am in UCLA, one of the nests of the discontent, especially the film kids. With short hair, I felt out of place.”

Despite his appearance, he shared the politics and attitudes of the left.

“My first 16 mm film was about farm workers uprising in Delano, California, with Caesar Chavez. It was called ‘Manual Has a Union.’ It won awards at student film festivals,” he says.

“My next film was called “Sideshow” about a circus freak show that I shot in Memphis. It won first place in the Esquire Magazine Film Festival.”

Those films got him his first job at MGM with the documentary unit.

“I was in heaven. They had the best, - Irwin Rosten and Nicholas Noxon, producers of the General Electric documentary series on NBC. They did three or four big network documentaries a year. I couldn’t have had a better learning experience.”

Over the next 10 years, Bloebaum earned five Emmy’s for his work on the Patty Hearst trial, a documentary on medical issues called Medix, and a news show called “Follow-Up.” But the business was insecure, so he decided to get into education, teaching at the California community college level. 

“I really enjoyed working with young people,” he says.

When a job came up as dean of the communications at Pasadena City College, he took it.

He retired in 2004 and moved here. He joined the board of directors of Music in the Mountains. He also wanted to do more documentaries so he produced “The Singing Life” with the Nevada Union Choir and Chanticleer, a professional men’s singing ensemble that performs all over the world. 

He also did films about Music in the Mountain’s young composer program. In total, he has done four documentaries and all have been broadcast on PBS.

His current project is about a vocal group in Sacramento called RSVP, Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace. All the money the group collects goes to underfunded charities. KVIE is interested in airing it, then sponsoring it around PBS.

He gets a bit somber as he talks about his time in Los Angeles where he lived for 20 years but never felt involved in the community, never helped it thrive.

“When you come to a small town like this, you know how the town works. You know people are volunteering,” he says.

“If it just wasn’t for the damn fires.”

About the photos: 

Previous page: 

Bloebaum in his office at his Nevada City home. Three of the five Emmy awards he has received are on a shelf next to him.

This Page:

Mike Bloebaum poses in a forest in Vietnam during the war. He was a spy for the U.S. military, recruiting nationals to give information.