The Gatton Signals

Imagine being in a play, standing onstage, in front of a hundred…or a hundred thousand people, and not remembering what your next line is.

I wouldn’t think about that if I were you…you’d only get depressed.

Being on stage, pretending to be someone else, is such a high, why doesn’t everyone wanna do it? I have always suspected the fear of “going up” on your lines is a major deterrent to participation.

It’s an understandable fear.
But it so rarely happens.

It happened to me once, and that once was before I was ever cast in a show. In the eighth grade I was asked to introduce my friend who was running for Student Council President of Bryan Station Junior High for his campaign speech to the ninth graders. I moseyed to the podium and announced to my upper classmen; “I seem to have forgotten what I was going to say.”

I collapsed and died on the spot, blocking the podium, and requiring the County Coroner to be called to determine the cause. My candidate lost his election, turned to drugs and dog-fighting, read way too much Bukowski, and eventually voted for Nixon twice and would have voted for him again if given the chance…a wasted life.

Ah-h-h-h! None of that really happened except losing the election.

What also didn’t happen is; I never have gone up on my lines again…after well over a hundred shows (knock on wood).

In all those shows, I have only ever been on stage twice when another actor has blanked out. Both of those events were presaged by the eyes of the suffering actor immediately doubling their size and shedding the ability to blink. Think of deer in the headlights. It’s an obvious tell. It’s a look that screams; “I don’t know who I am, or why I’m here, or why I have this great seat to watch this show, but you Buster, are now on your own.”

It’s a tough moment for all concerned, but I find it kind of exhilarating. I mean, all bets are off at that moment. I can now take this evening any direction I please. It’s like being Billy Taylor on the piano and Chet Baker turning to you and saying; “Take it.”

Oh-h-h-h-h!
My goodness!
Here we go!

Whoa.
Calm down, Rog.

Thankfully there are alternatives to Roger rewriting the evening in bad iambic ramblings on the fly.

There are the Gatton Signals.

I give my friend Joe Gatton full credit for this onstage survival semaphore system because that’s where I learned it. Joe himself attributes (blames?) it on another actor. But I’ve never heard of nor met this legendary critter so the laurels fall to Joe.

The signals are precise.
– If an actor looks pensive and places his finger on the side of his nose, he’s saying; “I don’t know my next line.”
– If an actor looks down and, starting at his forehead, runs his fingers through his hair, it means; “I’ve forgotten what play we’re doing.”
– If an actor raises both arms above his head and pumps them repeatedly, he’s screaming; “I don’t know who I am, or why I’m here, or why I have this great seat to watch this show, but you Buster, are now on your own.”

The third signal is dire and usually followed by the actor in question abruptly exiting the stage, forfeiting his right to ever “lunch” again in this town, and leaving his colleague to sort things out or, in my case, to turn the drama into a personal and bizarre cabaret presentation.

What fun!

It plumb evades me why everyone doesn’t wanna do this.

Game-Stopper!

The word “improvisation” in the theater sends me cowering to the nearest corner.

I leap away from the word, hissing like ol’ Christopher Lee when facing a crucifix.

It’s irrational, I know.

It seems to me that improvisation in the theater usually means one of two things.

I love the first meaning. It is the air I breathe in rehearsal. When I am immersed in the script and the character and the moment; when I am listening and alert and listening and watching and listening; every gesture, every glance, every inflection has the immediate potential to send us spinning into places we’ve never been…maybe places where no one has been. Sometimes when we reach those places, we find the character we’re searching for. Sometimes we find bits of ourselves…which may be the same thing. It is thrilling and addictive.

The second meaning though…
…is theater games.

Theater games are disguised as “fun” and “team-building” and “warm-ups.”
They can involve balls and circles and imaginary boxes.
Notice please, they don’t as a rule involve characters or scripts. I sign on for characters and scripts…not imaginary boxes.

Theater games tend to be just that; games. They usually decay rapidly into competitions won by the clever and the funny. How that furthers our explorations of MacBeth plumb evades me. I’ve yet to hear MacBeth described as clever or funny.

(Insert various grumpy comments here. Any will do. “Get offa my lawn!” is trite but appropriate enough.)

I mostly despair of any good rehearsal time lost to theater games.

Mostly…
There are special moments, however…

Once upon an evening, I was involved in a particularly useless “warm-up” game before a rehearsal. The cast formed a circle with one member in the center. The person in the center had to chant; “I’m (state their name) and (state some fact about themselves).” At that point, every person in the circle for whom the fact stated was also true had to abandon their spot in the circle and assume another spot. The center person would try to poach an abandoned spot and whoever was left out would be relegated to the center and would repeat the process.

Whee!

Most of the chants proceeded along the lines of;

– “I’m Jane Doe and I went to the movies today.” (scurrying and giggles)
– “I’m John Doe and I drive a Chevy.” (scrambling and guffaws)
– “I’m Becky Doober and I like pizza.” (chasing and chortles)

All very helpful when ferreting out the subtext of a Sam Shepard script.
You can only imagine the utter hilarity that filled the room.
Ri-i-i-i-ght.

This jocular exercise continued until a middle-aged fellow (no. not me) found himself in the center and chanted;

“I’m Joe Doober and I’m a convicted felon.”

The silence of the group…
…was of the soul-searching, exit-locating variety.

The stillness of the group…
…was as profound as a sudden wish for invisibility.

The director broke the meditative moment by chirping;

“Well, that’s enough for tonight. Let’s get started. Set up for Act I.”

Resolution, 2019

Resolution, 2019

1. I will not be distracted.

I will sift through the daily barrage of “Hey! Look at this!” and try to keep my eye on what’s important.

I will decide what’s important; not President Trump, not CNN panelists, not Rachel Maddow, not the Fox channel.

I will sift through the daily barrage of “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

I will shine the brightest light I can on the smoke-and-mirrors-enshrouded “man behind the curtain.”

I will not be distracted.

I will decide what’s important.

What’s important?

– The man lies. What he says is brazenly not true; consistently and to a malevolent purpose.
– He mocks the afflicted. It’s recorded on video. There’s no spin here.
– He cheats…on his spouses, his charities, his contractors, his investors, and his country (bone spurs?).
– He attracted and hired and continues to listen to Stephen Miller.

These are the important things we know.

Russian collusion, being under an unnatural sway to Russia (and perhaps other countries), cheating on his taxes, and leading his campaign manager, personal attorney, and his children into criminal careers may also prove to be important.

Khashoggi, Puerto Rico, Pruitt, Zinke, DeVoss, Flynn, Carson, Mnuchin…

This are enough for me. I want someone else to be president.
I will not be distracted.
I will resist.

I think one resolution this year will have to be enough.

Foxy’s and the Flaming Embers

I’ve written about how I got into the alcohol business (see “My Last Job Interview” in the blog archives), but I haven’t described that gem of a first retail job.

It was a tiny liquor store on North New Circle Road across the road from the Flaming Embers Inn and next to Foxy’s Diner. It was a choice location…for something…but not for a liquor store. The store had been purchased by the owners of the new chain Shoppers Village Liquors for the liquor license. They were building a large and fancy new wine shop on Reynolds Road and needed a license. At that time this was the accepted procedure for obtaining a liquor license; buying an existing business. Obviously, if an existing business was willing to sell, it probably was not doing much existing business…at least not enough to continue existing.

But there’s the rub. In 1972, you couldn’t just buy the store, close the store, and idle the license until your new location was ready to go. The license had to be in use. Thus, a tiny shop with lousy access to busy highway offered an employment opportunity to a theater hippie who needed a summer job/40+ year career.

My first day on the job consisted of learning how to operate the cash register and the price gun (22 minutes), how to break down a cardboard box (30 seconds), how to lock up and set the alarm (5 minutes), and how to pronounce “Spañada” (a heinous, cheap, and versatile jug wine concoction from Gallo – you could boil it like a toddy, freeze it into ice cubes, spike it with fruit and/or grain alcohol, and pick up thirteen TV channels, three in color). After my grueling 30 minutes of apprenticeship, I was left on my own for that 4pm-12m shift and every other weekday night shift for the next seven months until the store closed in November.

The first night I finished my duties by 5:30 and the customer flow dwindled to practically none after 6:30. I was left with nothing to do until midnight except watch the small TV (three channels, none in color). I didn’t own a TV myself at that time so it was a novelty…for about an hour. At midnight I closed the store and vowed to not spend another night watching TV. It was another two years before I owned a TV of my own.

Instead, I brought books.

Until college, I read two or three books a week for curiosity and entertainment. In college, my reading was hijacked by the required reading. I reverted instantly to my pre-university habits. That summer, I averaged reading a book a night, and still sold my share of Spañada. If I finished my book early, I was left to contemplate the neon sign across the street and meditate on what kind of business plan would lead one to name their hotel “The Flaming Embers Inn.” It smacked of prophesying an insurance claim.

My typical day that summer consisted of an evening of voracious if indiscriminate reading, closing the shop at midnight, slipping next door to Foxy’s for an exquisite Foxy burger, and then home to work on the musical extravaganza Chuck and I were writing until about 3am. It was an immersive routine of consuming and producing art, consuming dubious but affordable food, and paying the rent.

Thanks to that summer, I don’t believe there’s anyone but me that understands and admires the opening scene of “La Boheme” as I do.

But even as I write that, my head tells me only about a million current and past theater hippies have had the same experience. That fact represents the hope of the world.

My heart interrupts my head to shout; “You lie!”

My head and my heart; those two have never gotten along for any length of time, and with any luck they never will. To brutally paraphrase Nikos Kazantzakis; they are both made stronger by the tussle.

I’m thinkin’ neither was made stronger by Foxy’s burgers.

Welcome to the 60’s

I have a friend who recently turned 60, or as he ruefully admitted to me; “I’m entering the 60’s.”

My reply to him was that he’s a little late. I entered the 60’s almost 60 years ago and enjoyed the hell out ‘em.

Oh, certainly there were unfortunate things in the 1960’s; things like assassinations, Viet Nam, George Wallace, Nehru jackets, Manos Hand of Fate, Tiny Tim, the Association’s Cherish, Richard Harris’ MacArthur Park……and tie dye.

But these travesties we more than offset by Woodstock, the Kennedy’s, bell-bottoms, the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, and the whole British Invasion, Bob Dylan, Sean Connery’s James Bond, Psycho, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, La Dolce Vita, Cool Hand Luke, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie and Clyde, Joni Mitchell, going to the moon……and tie dye.

And as I think about my impossibly young friend, he was born to enjoy the 60’s. He’s smart, well-read, and sometimes wears a beret. He questions all authority, thinks the moon is pretty cool, and knows all it is worth to know about popular music.

And he even likes Manos Hand of Fate.

He’d have loved the 60’s and I’m sure he’ll enjoy the hell out of his 60’s.

But, enough about him – what about me? Would I like to go back to the 1960’s?

Nah.

As Mr. Dylan said; “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

Besides, if I went back, at some point I’d probably have to hear the Ohio Express informing me; “Yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy.”

Talk about TMI.

Cowboy Bob and Peyton Place

My grandfather, Papaw, moved in with us when I was in junior high. Later, when my dad was transferred to Omaha during my high school years, Papaw went along with the rest of the family. I stayed behind to finish high school.

Papaw was a taciturn man of occasional wit and wisdom…and slightly more than occasional whimsy. One day in Omaha, he returned from his afternoon walk (he could cover miles) with a four-foot high marijuana plant he had recognized growing on a railroad easement. He added it carefully to dad’s tomato patch. He’d heard the controversy about the plant and was curious. When my dad got home that evening, he felt that curiosity was gonna get the whole family tossed in the hoosegow and destroyed the evidence tout suite.

Papaw accumulated 78rpm records whenever he ran across them and would play them on his turntable for hours. His hearing was no longer sharp. Thus, he cranked the turntable to life and cranked the volume up to eleven and leaned in. It was a sight to see. I couldn’t help but think of RCA Victor’s logo and caption; “Listening for his master’s voice.” I can’t truly say that Frankie Carle and his Orchestra writ scratchy and large made me a better man, but my Papaw seemed to find great value in the ensemble.

One day we were at a flea market and he noticed my interest in a cardboard box of about 20 “Tom Swift” books. When we returned to the car, the books were in the back seat, courtesy of Papaw. I can’t say TOM SWIFT AND HIS MOTOR-BIKE made me a better man, but I cherished the books then and still have them…he said bookishly (that’s a joke that only Tom Swift cognoscenti will get…and wince at…sorry).

Papaw believed what he saw on TV.

He believed it was real.

He was an uneducated, unsophisticated man, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew movies were stories and not real.
But TV…

Here was a window through which you could see things that were really happening somewhere and not get arrested. You could look in on other people’s doin’s.

Don’t laugh too quickly. The plausibility of Hitchcock’s wonderful Rear Window depends on just that premise.

Remember, this was decades before “reality television.” But Huntley and Brinkley were real, weren’t they? Ed Sullivan was live. Lawrence Welk was live (I’m not quite sure about Myron Florenz, but Bobby and Cissy were certainly a lively and charming young couple). All those game shows were live – maybe crooked, but live. The baseball game of the week was live.

The possibility of confusion was real and live on TV.

Papaw seriously proffered that Dorothy Malone and other members of the cast of Peyton Place had better mend their ways before disaster came a’knockin’ at the door. He would not miss an episode and wondered if Brother Bob from our church should go see those folks.

He believed professional wrestling was real.

Fervently.

I spent the summer of 1968, between school years, in Omaha. The professional wrestling scene in Omaha was thriving. Every Saturday night at the arena, there were hours of “championship” matches, blood matches, barbed wire challenges, and tag team mayhem, all accessorized with glitter, capes, masks, top hats, canes, and keffiyehs. Three or four thousand fans would pile in to scream and throw things.

It was a real good time.

During the week, to promote the Saturday events, portable rings were set at the local malls and the lesser stars of Omaha’s wrestling world would go a few rounds to whet the appetite for Saturday night.

On Wednesday evenings, one of the local TV stations would set up the portable ring in their studio and surround it with 70-80 rickety chairs on rickety-er platforms. For an hour, the stars of Omaha’s grappling firmament would prance, sneer, yell, leap, kick, bite, slug, strut, threaten, and make imaginative use of folding chairs.

The invited audience would scream insults and jeers at the villains (no expletives had to be deleted – the crowd understood it was live TV, and it was a different time) and then line up to get autographs after the bouts.

Wednesday evenings would find my Papaw in the chair closest to the TV. This is not because he was being pushy. The rest of us wanted sit behind him and watch him watching wrestling. It was quite a show. He flinched with every punch. He rose from his chair with every leap from the turnbuckles. He kicked with every drop kick.

We laughed and had a whee of a time pointing out sheer fakery of the presentation. He was oblivious to our questions;

– How can a fighter smack another fighter on the head with a metal folding chair and a) not send him to the hospital, and b) not send the chair swinger to jail?

– How come every bout ended exactly in time for the commercial break?

– How can a fighter hide a mysterious debilitating substance in those skin-tight outfits?

– Why can the masks never be completely removed no matter how comatose the masked scoundrel is?

– Since this is in a TV studio and all the wrestlers are using the same dressing room, wouldn’t they just destroy themselves there?

– Isn’t it convenient that Cowboy Bob, wrestling good guy and horse owner/trainer, would return to Omaha every summer when the local race track opened, defeat Iron Mike for the regional championship, fight and race all summer, and then lose the championship back to Iron Mike a week after the track closed for the year?

Papaw was undeterred in his faith.

One Wednesday night, he got so caught up in the TV action, he flung himself backward, overturned his chair, and dumped himself on the floor.

We didn’t laugh at that.

Dad decided this had gone beyond amusing and into the realm of; “Oh yeah, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt or a perfectly good chair gets busted.” He obtained three tickets to the next Wednesday’s wrestling broadcast.

There we were: three generations; Will Senior, William Junior, and June’s Boy, watching the participants laughing and joking with each other as they assembled the ring and warmed up. And there we were a half an hour later when the bouts began. It was all I had ever imagined; shouts and grunts and growls and screams – 250-pound men in tights leaping from the top ropes of the ring – dead men, face down on the mat – same dead men miraculously resurrected for a jaw-dropping thirty seconds of inexplicable victory – chairs flung, tables smashed, mysterious substances deployed – loud vows of vengeance to be inflicted; “Just wait till Saturday night at the arena! You won’t want miss it!!”

I was pretty sure I wanted to miss it.

We skipped the autograph session and headed home.

Papaw was pretty sure we had witnessed some clear illegalities that evening and that perhaps we should notify the police. His faith in the veracity of wrestling remained unshaken.

My grandfather lived to be 99 years old.

I love him and still miss him. He was a good guy and a real good time.
But I suspect…
…he would fallen hard for reality shows…
…he would have voted for Trump.

Kill the Lights – Eat the Cannoli!

In the prehistoric days of Lexington theater, spring of 1970, to be precise, a new theater entity was born; The Third Floor Theatre.

The Home of the Golden Arches currently on South Limestone was then the site of a Jerry’s Restaurant and in the back corner of the Jerry’s parking lot was a three-story brick building that housed Pasquale’s Italian Restaurant. Pizza had just been invented. Pizza delivery had not. Thus, “Italian Restaurant” meant lots of spaghetti and meatballs and cannoli and lousy brownish Chianti in straw-covered bottles.

<< Side note from the wine guy in the house >>
Those straw-covered bottles actually have a name. They are “fiaschi.” One bottle is a “fiasco.” Cool, huh? Don’t be fooled. The wine inside is far from cool, but the bottle looks great with candle stuck in it.
<< End of side note >>

Pasquale’s used the first two floors for the restaurant, leaving the third floor an empty space.

Empty space!

Nature has nothing on theater practitioners when it comes to abhorring a vacuum.
According to the visionary British stage director Peter Brook, an empty space is a major ingredient for theater. He’ll get no argument from me. I’ve performed on sidewalks, a frigid restaurant basement, two libraries, in front of a movie screen, two big stairways, under a large tree, a church sanctuary, several school cafeterias and gyms, two chapels, a crumbling abandoned night club, and in a park with trains.

Thus, it was no surprise that a couple of UK theater alumni approached the owner of Pasquale’s about using the vacant third floor as a theater. I can imagine the sales pitch.
“Think of the theater crowds…the lasagna you’ll sell!”

The room was tiny. It probably sat 20 folks at most. The stage was a 6-inch-high 4X8 platform. The lighting system consisted of four coffee cans, light bulbs and an on/off switch. It was briefly considered to light the arena (insert <<snort!>> here) with candle-festooned fiaschi, but it was decided that the fire marshal gods had been challenged enough by our mere existence.

Obviously, the roster of possible plays that could be mounted in that empty space was also tiny. “Oklahoma” and “Ben Hur” were scrapped from consideration fairly early. The Third Floor Theatre was pretty well capped at 2-3 performers, no orchestra, and certainly no horses.

It was decided to do a play by Strindberg. The title has faded from my jaded memory through the years, but I recall it was a laugh-a-minute romp (not) featuring two female performers who didn’t like each other (neither the characters nor the performers themselves), of which only one actor actually spoke. What could be more enthralling…a haircut perhaps?

I ran the lights for the show. I bray this fact to refute the calumny I’ve endured for decades about my legendary lack of skill or will on the technical side of theater. Though it’s true that all the tools in our home belong to Janie and the only hammer I own is engraved “This side down,” I’m trainable and perfectly willing to perform simple tasks.

<< Another side note >>
There are indeed dissenters to that last statement. For extra credit, you might read “I Killed Peter Pan” in the archives of this blog site.
<< End of another side note >>

Where were we?
…willing to perform simple tasks.
Yes.

And running the lights for this Strindberg faux pas de deux was as simple as it gets. When the actors took their places at the beginning of the show, I flipped the light switch “UP.” When the last line was spoken to end the ordeal, I flipped the light switch “DOWN.”

UP.

DOWN.

Hold my beer.

Well, the show ran pretty well the first weekend. Of course, there was Saturday night when Pasquale’s was rockin’, and the owner (our landlord, remember) made the executive decision to seat his overflow in our chairs in our theater. But since our chairs were his cast-offs and our theater was his real estate and our rent was zero, we acquiesced and waited until the last chicken marsala left with the last patron. It delayed our curtain for an hour and left a distinct garlic “je ne sais quoi” hovering over our Swedish play.

But it was OK.
I was on top of my game.

UP.

DOWN.

Hålla min söl och titta på detta.

The second weekend, however, didn’t fare so well.

I suspect word had leaked that Strindberg was not the Swedish Neil Simon and we were offering no laughs, orchestras, or horses. Our audiences dwindled. By curtain time one night, our audience consisted of one gentleman in coat and tie.

We assembled an impromptu discussion group of the evening’s principals; the actors, the audience, and the lighting guy. We identified two options;

1. We could not perform, refund the gentleman’s money, and invite him to return another evening for free, or
2. We could do the show for an audience of one.

The gentleman explained he was from out of town and only in Lexington for this one night and he’d really like to see the show.

I surmised the gentleman from out of town was more than a little smitten by one of our actors and was hoping to see bit more of her. I longed to explain to him this was Scandinavian drawing room material from the 19th century. The ladies would be wearing dresses that, if they had a headpiece, would be considered a burqa today, and they would retain every stitch until long after the final lighting cue and the gentleman had left the building.

I remained silent.
We did the show.

UP.

DOWN.

It occurred to me later, we had twice as many light cues as audience members that evening.

The Third Floor Theatre soldiered on for few more months until they lost the space. Pasquale’s got optimistic after that overflow evening and envisioned vertical expansion leading to riches. Alas, I believe they went out of business within a year. I’ve always blamed their failure on losing the theater crowd.

The Third Floor Theatre moved to St. Augustine’s Chapel on Rose Street, directly across the street from the Guignol Theatre. The name was changed to The Canterbury Pilgrim Players and new legends were launched……sans garlic.

Funeralville II

I’ve been watching parts of various stages of President Bush’s funeral over the last few days.

I have wept a bit for a man and a family I did not particularly admire.

I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

Maybe I was moved by the fact that he was my President. He was the President of my United States, duly and fairly elected by my US countrymen. He was not inserted in the White House by gangsters from another country. That’s a good reason, but not a particularly high standard.

Maybe I was moved by his family life and his faithful devotion to the singular partner of his life. That’s another good reason, but not a historically high standard.

Maybe I was moved by President Bush’s volunteering for military duty at the age of eighteen in defiance of his parents’ college plans for him, at a moment in history when the rightness of our country’s military activities seemed clear and the success of those activities were far from clear. It was no time for bone spurs.

Maybe I was moved by President Bush’s advocacy for the rights of, and his lack of mockery of the disabled. I mean, who would do that?

Maybe it was simply the passing of a man more competent, more dutiful, more loyal, and perhaps kinder than I will ever be…
…but then…
I’m not President.

<< snort! >>

Can you imagine?

Electing someone President who’s not more competent, more dutiful, more loyal, and kinder than you are yourself? What would be the point of that?

That would be enough to make you cry…
…or resist.

Pitchin’ Steel

The last traces of a flaming rose sunset flee from another Bluegrass summer day. The birds go silent. The bats dart and dip. Yellow squares on dark blocks mark the welcoming windows of home and the neighbors; open windows seeking relief from the viscous warmth of the evening. Windows open also to the sounds of the evening; anger and laughter from the flesh and blood within or on television (The Honeymooners perhaps).

Also open to the sounds from without; the passing cars, porch conversations, sirens, and…

Two and a half pounds of steel gliding forty feet through the night air.

Two and a half pounds of steel slowly flipping once and once only like a gymnast in slow-motion.

Two and half pounds of steel crashing into dust and sand, sliding to a violent rendezvous with a one inch steel stake firmly anchored in a cubic foot of concrete sunk far below the surface of the planet. Its cry of defiance of the dying of the day pierces the night.

THUD!

CLAN-G-G-G-g-g-g-g-g!

This is repeated three more times.

Some neighbors’ windows close. Some expletives are un-deleted.

The twelve-year-old mind behind this performance trudges the forty feet to pick up his horseshoes and prepare to continue his metallic meditation in the other direction.

And make no mistake: a meditation it is.

Each shoe is banged against another to remove the dust gathered from the previous throw. Every bang rings like a mighty bell. This backyard, this horseshoe pit, is 500 miles from the nearest ocean, but ships at sea spring to emergency stations upon hearing these mad night bells from Central Kentucky.

Each ring of each shoe is a soul-centering om-m-m-m-m to this nocturnal pitcher of steel.

Probably not so much for the neighbors.

Each earthward swing of the arm, each precise release of the shoe, each slow arc of the flight, each moment of mayhem when steel meets steel, is a mantra of serenity deliciously smashed by gravity.

I loved to pitch horseshoes.

My dad built the pit. He dug the hole and poured the concrete and angled the stake. He built the frame and filled the whole schmegegge with sand. Pretty soon the sand was mostly beaten away and dirt remained, but everything else endured my constant pitching.

I pitched for hours. The ring, the swing, the fling, the flight, the landing, the clang, the trudge, repeat ad infinitum.

I thought no great thoughts. I solved no personal problems.
I simply became one with the dust and the clang and the air and the motion and the gravity and the steel and the night and the summer…

…and then my mom framed in the yellow square of our back door;

“Roger Lee! It’s time to come in. You’ve bothered the neighbors enough tonight.”

Can I get an amen?

An Opera House…in Kentucky?

You Can't Take It 10It would have been about 1:00 in the afternoon on a weekday in 1970…
…in an opera house…
…in Lexington, Kentucky.

Why was I there?

Was it to see a production of Carmen, or Madama Butterfly, or Rigoletto?

Nah!

I was there for the weekday bargain matinée at the Opera House Movie House on a fairly sketchy block of North Broadway. For a $1.50 I was settling in for a cinema mini-festival of the Barbra Streisand/Jack Nicholson classic; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (she sang, he didn’t…thank God) followed by Waterloo featuring Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer in the mud (neither sang as I recall…thank God).

The theme of this film pairing is strikingly apparent; tedious films employing and contrasting singing and cannon fire as mediums for selling a ticket or two…and maybe a tub of Buttercup Popcorn.

Frankly, I don’t recall much of the afternoon that was indelible in an uplifting way. I recall a long afternoon of affordable and forgettable flicks. I recall dimness, not just in the screening room, but in the lobby (skimping on lighting – a double savings; lower electric bills and less spent on actual housekeeping). I recall passing on the Buttercup offerings; the dim lighting couldn’t obscure the sharp, refinery whiff emanating from the butter(?)-dispensing mechanism. I recall the occasional skittering noises of the legendary rodent cleaning crew in the dark rows of the screening room celebrating the discarded remains of the Buttercup offerings.

Hey!
Buck fifty.
Two films.
You get what you pay for.
Plus Yves Montand and Ivo Garrano…and Mickey and Jerry (without Tom).

Well…that was then.
Eight years later, at age 27, I’m playing the 70+ year old Grandpa in Studio Players’ production of You Can’t Take It With You on the Opera House stage – same building. The seats are new. The balconies and boxes are gilded and populated with Lexington theater-goers. The lights are bright. The lobby, halls, staircases, carpets, and aisles are proudly pristine. No Buttercup products are in sight (or in smell).

What happened?

In the 70’s, the Opera House was attacked by ice storms, gravity, and old age. The wrecking ball loomed.
The city of Lexington and a group called The Opera House Fund said “No.”
A serious architect, and a serious Lexington, and a serious Opera House Fund (thank you Linda Carey and W. T. Young) redesigned and restored the structure – not to a museum roadside attraction, but to a thriving driver of Central Kentucky’s performing arts community.

A year after the success of You Can’t Take It With You, I played a deliciously young and foolish Cornelius in Studio Player’s production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker in a Saturday afternoon performance to 54 (count ‘em!) attendees in a house that seats about a thousand. Another fairly grim afternoon in the Opera House, but at least the grimness was in striving for something good, not in hygiene or affordability.

I should mention here that in both of these shows I got to work with my friend Paul Thomas. Paul has retired a myriad of times from the teaching profession and is now the House Manager of the Opera House. I believe the Opera House muckety-mucks value his participation, but are unaware that his best and highest use is ON-stage, not off. Such is fickle fame.

In 1981, I urged everyone to “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” in Lexington Musical Theatre’s production of Guys and Dolls. This was a notable production for Paul’s vocal exploration of musical scales of which Schoenberg never dreamed.

In 1982, Paul and I played in Brigadoon, also for Lexington Musical Theatre. Paul demonstrated a technique for holding a gun that the NRA is still trying to explain and justify.

Both of these edifying experiences were on the Opera House stage.

In 1987, I had the totaling fulfilling experience of playing Dr. Watson to my friend Eric Johnson’s Sherlock Holmes in the world premiere of my friend Chuck Pogue’s luscious script; The Ebony Ape, on the Opera House stage in an Actor’s Guild production. A two-story set, perfect and beautiful costumes, Fred Foster, Julieanne Pogue, Martha Campbell, Rick Scircle, Matt Regan…a glorious time for Mrs. Leasor’s little boy.

This was also on the Opera House stage…thank you very much.

A year later, in The King and I (a Lexington Musical Theatre production directed by my friend, Ralph Pate), Janie and I appeared in our one and only show together. She was lithe and lovely. I was…not so much, but I got to sing some beautiful songs for which I was not particularly suited (not, alas, an uncommon occurrence).

This was also on the Opera House stage. Sorry…but look at Janie! Isn’t she fine?

Carousel 01Now…
…skip ahead with me to 2006.

I’m asked to play the Star Keeper in the University of Kentucky Opera Theater’s production of Carousel at (you guessed it) the Opera House.

Well, I guess I could.

I walk out on the Opera House stage, count the stars – the stars!– , revive the protagonist and inspire him to return to life and assure his daughter that she’ll “Never Walk Alone.”

Whoa.

This is a far cry from 1970 and Waterloo and…

“On a clear day, rise and look around you and you’ll see who you are.
On a clear day, how it will astound you that the glow of your being outshines every star.
You’ll be part of every mountain, sea, and shore.
You can hear from far and near the words you’ve never heard before.”



Well…
…maybe…
…not so far.