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Petulant and passionate: New play imagines Bill Gates at 20

The lively "First" relives the early days of the PC revolution through the eyes of a young Bill Gates -- leisure suits, punch cards, pay phones, and all.

Actor Jeremy Kahn bears a striking resemblance to Bill Gates in the new play "First," now having its world premiere in San Francisco.
Stage Werx

There's Bill Gates the inventor, Bill Gates the philanthropist, Bill Gates the business magnate.

Then there's the 20-year-old Bill Gates who argues with his mom via pay phone and can't stop yelling about people stealing his software. That's the Bill Gates at the center of "First," a fictional retelling of the people and events that launched the PC revolution.

The play by Evelyn Jean Pine -- now having its world premiere at Stage Werx Theatre in San Francisco -- takes place on March 26, 1976, on the eve of the first Altair computer conference in Albuquerque, N.M.

Gates is poised to speak to major players in the computer industry -- including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and the late Ed Roberts, a pioneering engineer who built the first widely available home computer -- and he knows he has to give the speech of his life.

The young Gates is passionate, idealistic, a little cocky, and a lot stressed out.

"Our Bill is having a very rough day," Jeremy Kahn, the lanky, floppy-haired actor who portrays the iconic business magnate, tells CNET. "[He's] thousands of miles away from his family and friends, he's desperately trying to make his business work. Everyone is stealing his software and he's determined to get paid. No one is taking him seriously. People are treating him like a little kid. He's pretty upset. On the day the play takes place he probably should have eaten breakfast and combed his hair."

The Gates of "First" might be relentlessly petulant about software copyright infringement at a time when the hobbyists who built and owned their own computers strongly ascribed to the sharing ethos. But there's never a doubt that he's a visionary who believes that computers can move beyond, as Ed Roberts' character puts it, "university egg-heads, government bureaucrats, corporate know-it-alls, the white-coated elite," and into the hands of the everyman.

"Tomorrow will be unlike anything you've ever dreamed. And our software will be the oxygen to breathe all these machines-- and all of you -- into the future," Gates says at the end of an impassioned speech to conference-goers about his Altair BASIC programming language.

Commissioned by San Francisco Bay Area playwright incubator PlayGround to write an original new full-length play, Pine found herself returning again and again to the idea of relentlessness, and to Gates as an embodiment of that quality from the time he wrote his famous 1976 Open Letter to Hobbyists expressing frustration at the number of people using Altair BASIC without having paid for it.

Playwright Evelyn Jean Pine Evelyn Jean Pine

In writing her two-act play -- which runs at Stage Werx Theatre through November 3, directed by Michael French -- Pine conducted extensive research at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. She also conferred with technology pioneer David Bunnell, a close early compatriot of Microsoft's co-founders who created and produced the 1976 World Altair Computer Convention at the center of the play to celebrate and sell the machine that many call the first personal computer.

"It seems now, 40 years later, like a great time to revisit that moment and try to understand how that propelled us to where we are today," says Pine, who has run several online communities and is a longtime user and co-owner of The Well, an iconic online community that launched in 1985.

Part of what makes that moment so compelling is the tension between the PC visionaries and the PC naysayers.

"It's the future," Roberts says of personal computers.

Counters Kevin, an IBM salesman in a suit and too-short tie: "It's a failure. Nobody can sell them. The Mark 8 -- nothing. The Micral in France. Merde. The future of the computer business will always be mainframes."

Anyone interested in events leading up to the PC revolution will likely enjoy reliving the era of leisure suits, punch cards, 27K memory, and software shared via computer tape. "First" is a lively and nostalgic step back in time, though a number of references, to software royalties and video game addiction (in this case the apocryphal title Thrill Hill), feel surprisingly current.

"Part of the impetus for this play is we see Bill Gates asking himself how he wants to change the world," Pine says. "And I think in the audience then we're asking how do we want to change the world? What future do we want to create?"

Bill Gates (played by Jeremy Kahn, left) goes toe to toe with Altair conference presenter Valentine Smith, played by Gregory Knotts, in the new play "First." Art Siegel