HIGH-TECH'S MISSING LINK

IS JAMES J. DILETTOSO A TECHNO GOD OR JUST ANOTHER FLOPPY DISCIPLE? EVEN HE CAN'T SAY FOR SURE.

James J. Dilettoso stomps bandy-legged through a field in South Phoenix. The sheer volume of his graying ponytail seems to bend his whole body forward as he puffs furiously on a cigarette.

The field has been recently plowed under; there's not a blade of grass clear down to the canal bordering Baseline Road, but Dilettoso sees studios and housing for movie directors and technicians, high-tech Hollywood in Phoenix, and he thinks he can help it happen with his own Hollywood contacts. It's a grand vision, perhaps grandiose, in keeping with his style.

Dilettoso, 44, is a small, wiry man with a big, soft beard. He favors baggy pants and sneakers, a tee shirt that says, "Everything I need to know I learned from television." If he resembles a character in a Nintendo game, it may be because over the past two decades, he has bounced and beamed and hyperspaced through the rock and film and space subcultures. What all of those fields hold in common is that they are increasingly computer-driven; Dilettoso has a brain that can convert sound and images into the ones and zeros of computer programs.

He designed visual special effects hardware and software for movies--including Tron and Blade Runner--and for the videos and road tours of such rock groups as the Moody Blues. He played keyboard for the Box Tops. He worked for NASA, and still investigates UFO sightings. He was one of the developers of the digital musical synthesizer, of digital film colorization. And he's now working on data compression technologies that will allow movies to be modemed over telephone lines, a feat he likens to "trying to send an elephant down a rabbit hole."

Often his stream-of-consciousness rap--delivered in the knowing and emphatic cadence of Hollywood--is so densely technical and philosophical at the same time that it makes your head hurt. And makes you question his sanity.

Clark Higgins, a film special effects expert who works with Steven Spielberg's LucasFilm, says of Dilettoso, "He's as sane as many of the creative geniuses running around. He runs at a very furious pace, but he's one of the most talented fellows I've ever met to bring abstract concepts into reality."

By virtue of his genius and his accomplishments, Dilettoso should be a wealthy man, but instead, he lives a seat-of-his-pants existence. He couldn't drive himself down here this morning, for example, because he has car trouble; seems he was a bit distracted pulling his homemade sports car out from his shop in Tempe and forgot about the median curb down the center of University Drive when he made a left turn. The little white vehicle lies dead in his parking lot with four flat tires and few vital parts scraped off the bottom, but when he gets a chance (and the cash), he'll get that taken care of.

He's having house trouble, too. The epicenter of the "smart community" he envisions is a ranch just off Southern Avenue, which he'll acquire just as soon as his investors come through on the computerized graphics service bureau he's setting up, and which he sees as the linchpin for Hollywood in Phoenix.

Dilettoso likes to have the companies he does business with pay the leases on the houses he lives in. It simplifies his life, he says--at least until the deal runs its course and the company stops paying and Dilettoso gets thrown out on his ear, which has happened more than once. Just last month, he was tossed out of the Paradise Valley ranch he'd lived in for a couple of years and claims he was trying to buy, but a check bounced and the owner defaulted, and so on.

Clearly, his business sense is not as highly developed as his vision. He is charismatic, able to rope in investors with the scope and enthusiasm of his projects, and just as likely to piss them off a year down the road.

He can conceive of an entire marketing strategy, then lose interest in its execution. His computer programmers complain that he'll think up computer software that will do something no one else has been able to do, then give it away rather than exploit it financially. He'd rather have someone else work out the details just so long as he can incorporate the finished project into the next stage of a picture no one else can see.

"I think Jimmy is a perfect person to be paid X number of dollars and be put in a think tank," says Dr. Gary Berg, dean of faculty at Western International University. But it's not likely to happen, partly because Dilettoso is the sort to suffer "failure to thrive in captivity syndrome," partly because regardless of ability, he doesn't have the credentials. His persona and biography may be his greatest inventions.

@rule:
@body:Jim Dilettoso's bio is a tangled circuit board of fact and fiction, disputed achievements, inventions and connections that can't be documented, others he won't talk about. He claims he has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from McGill University in Montreal, but the registrar's office there never heard of him. He claims an undergraduate degree from the University of Hartford, but its records show he took a single math course there. When confronted with these apparent fabrications, he first admits he'd never have the patience to sit through so many years of classes. Then he just digs in deeper and deliberately raises more questions. On another occasion, he offers that these are notions put forth by others, left uncorrected, until by some logic, they become true.

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