A Runner Stumbles to 1977

I had a time-warp moment last Sunday.

After our matinée performance of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians at AthensWest Theatre, there was a talk-back session with members of the audience. Talk-back sessions are not a thrill for me. They’re usually sparsely attended and fairly short, with a few timid questions and typically one unpredictable pompous answer that serves to evaporate any remaining questions, comments, or conversation.

But this show is atypical.

The innate civility of the script seems to invite participation. Several dozen audience members have been lingering each night. People are moved and want to share…emphasis on “share”. They have been challenged to listen and think and explore without judgement or solution. They have not been challenged to either change or be considered deficient. There are no instant triggers to defend feelings or questions or beliefs. Curiosity and civility seem to be in ascendance. Pomposity has left the building.

After Sunday’s talk-back concluded, a lady approached me and said; “You probably don’t remember me…”

She was wrong.

Seeing her took me back 31 years.

I play a pastor in The Christians. The last time I played a religious leader was in 1977 at Studio Players. I played an erring priest in The Runner Stumbles. My Sunday questioner was my director. How cool is that?

Runner Stumbles 06
The Runner Stumbles (1977)

However, rolling my mind back to 1977 and that show reminded me that I first met two great friends and actors in that production; Gene Arkle and Paul Thomas.

At the first company meeting of The Runner Stumbles, we were polled by our director to give our first impressions of the script. The gentleman to my right replied that the script reminded him of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. He went on to elaborate, but he had lost me at Mahler. To me at that time, “Mahler” was just a clever rhyme in the song “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch” from Sondheim’s Company. I recall my impatience by the irrelevance of his remarks and being more than a little intimidated. The gentleman was Gene Arkle. My impatience was quickly unveiled as the young know-it-all’s folly it was. Gene and I went on to do a bunch of plays together (some of them were pretty good), and because of Gene, I delved into the symphonies of Mr. Mahler (ALL of them were pretty good – go figure).

During the first blocking rehearsal of Runner, I was sitting in a scene awaiting my church superior, played by an actor I had never met; Paul Thomas. He entered and intoned; “Father Rivard, it has come to our attention…” That’s as far as he got. My guffaw brought him to a halt.

I said he “intoned.”

Actually it was more of a cross between Gabby Hayes and a soupçon of Ethel Merman, with maybe a smidgen of dentist’s drill thrown in.

I truly thought it was a rehearsal gag. I was ashamed when I was discovered my error and have spent the ensuing 31 years trying to make it up to my gifted friend. Paul and I have performed together about two dozen times and I was his best man when he and Lisa wed.

All of this flooded my mind when my Sunday lady prompted; “You probably don’t remember me…”

How wrong can a person be?

Moments of origin can’t be forgotten…certainly not by actors. We remember the people, the time, the place, the temperature, the wind direction, the smell, the sound. We dredge those moments from the past and use them to create today and hope always to launch new moments of origin…that won’t be forgotten.

It’s a powerful reason to get up in the morning…

Marilyn Moosnick…Firecracker!

One of the blessings of having been around the arts of a small city for a long, long time is the surplus of memories that every moment evokes.

One of the curses of having been around the arts of a small city for a long, long time is the surplus of memories…

The other night before the start of AthensWest’s production The Christians, during a period of “quality green room time” (thank you, Paul Thomas for that concept) in the men’s dressing room, a few old Lexington theatre stories were spinning. Marilyn Moosnick was mentioned.

I’ve written before of Marilyn and the affectionate place she fills in my mind and heart (see “I Killed Peter Pan” in this blog).

Summertree 11
One o’ them Moosnicks (Greg) on the right

In college at UK, I acted with her sons in two plays; Summertree and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. She and her husband Franklin would pick the boys up after rehearsals and we would occasionally chat a bit. I perceived the pride she felt in her boys and the high standards to which they were held. They were standards for creativity…way more than standards for behavior. She expected her boys to respond with imagination, respect their elders, and respond with imagination…in that order. Oh…and learn their lines.

Marilyn had the gift of total attention.

When she turned to listen to you, the world was depopulated except for you. What you had to say might possibly change the world…or her opinion on the matter at hand, which was pretty much the same thing to me. It was daunting. It made you think…and think again before you blurted. Talking to Marilyn was playing with live ammunition.

That said, Marilyn was fey.

The stories of impetuousness are telling.

Her son Greg tells of a night at Studio Players. Marilyn and Franklin had been dating, but there as yet were no commitments. Marilyn was in the show and Franklin attended…with a date. As Franklin and his escort were exiting the performance, an errant jar of cold cream sailed from the second floor window of the theatre and shattered on the walkway, rendering the walkway hazardous and Franklin’s interest in his friend even more so.

Decades later, Marilyn and I served on a committee to raise funds to refurbish the Guignol Theatre. Marilyn volunteered to solicit Harry Dean Stanton – they had dated (once) when both were Theatre Department undergraduates in the fifties. She later related to the committee her phone conversation with Stanton. Harry reportedly said; “Marilyn, honey, you sound like a real firecracker, and I’m sure we had a real good time…but I’m broke.”

She encouraged me. She scolded me. She encouraged me. She listened to me. She encouraged me.

She did the same for Lexington…in that order.

She was a firecracker.

I miss her.

Two Sharp Knives

Movie night!

Tonight’s opus gruesome is TWO SHARP KNIVES.

This is a 1950’s made-for-TV dramatization of a story by Dashiell Hammett.

Aha!

That’s why I watched it. How bad could something written by the author of THE THIN MAN and THE MALTESE FALCON be?

Well…

It was part of the Westinghouse Studio series. Westinghouse’s slogan at the time was; “You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse”.

Sure of what?

You certainly couldn’t be sure of a quality piece of entertainment.

No.

No sir.

However there were points of interest;

  • A very young Abe Vigoda plays a very young cop. I’m stunned that such a thing was possible as a very young Abe Vigoda.
  • The commercials for Westinghouse washers and dryers feature a Westinghouse store owner inviting you to bring your dirty clothes to his store for a free demonstration. Now there’s a gig.

I came away thinking (to paraphrase George Kaufman); Westinghouse should close the studio and keep the store open late at night.

I watched this…so you don’t have to…you can owe me.

Dinner With Nick and Nora

Movie Night!

Didja ever play the mental game of planning the guest list for an ideal imaginary dinner party? I do it all the time. Most of the time I include Nick and Nora Charles from THE THIN MAN.

If Nick and Nora are among your guests, you’ll feel secure in the success of your dinner party as long as the bar is amply provisioned and a stylish cocktail shaker is at hand. You know there’ll be no awkward gaps in the table chatter and there could quite possibly be some fascinating party crashers named “Rainbow” Benny, “Face” Morgan, or “Spider” Webb.

Warning: there could also be gunplay.

Throw in some weepy drunks, a befuddled police detective or two, a crooked bookkeeper, a murderous jockey, an inscrutable Asian, a socialite grande dame with sleepy siblings, a bitter rejected lover, a gardener with or without his mustache, and you’ve got a shindig that Anita Madden would covet.

I would even let them bring their dog. Our Chloe would totally ramble through the house with their Asta. The pups could swap tips on expanding their respective household dominance which is already near total.

I could pretty well watch “Thin Man” movies forever.

Another Hamilton?

Neil Hamilton…Whatta Career!

Let me pose a question for all my geezer theatre friends. If I offered you an acting career that included roles;

  • As Beau Gest’s brother
  • As Nick Caraway in THE GREAT GATSBY
  • In two Fu Manchu films
  • And two Tarzan films
  • TV appearances in MAVERICK
  • ZORRO
  • 77 SUNSET STRIP
  • THE REAL MCCOYS
  • THE OUTER LIMITS
  • PERRY MASON
  • THE MUNSTERS
  • And MISTER ED
  • Oh wait…and then you get to play Commissioner Gordon in the TV show BATMAN.

Would’ja take it?

Well, that was Neil Hamilton’s career and he’s starring in tonight’s 1941 cinematic delicacy; DANGEROUS LADY. It’s a “Thin Man” knock-off and not great, but Hamilton’s not bad and it ends with a frozen-in-place “THE END” kiss – well worth the price of admission (in this case; free).

Did I mention an appearance in MISTER ED? Whoa!

Livin’ on the Edge With Joe

My stage director/mentor/friend Joe Ferrell had a birthday this week.

Who cares?

I gather he’s getting old.

Who cares?

Well…

I kinda do.

I’ve read a bunch of tributes this week from various actors and students and friends. I am humbled by their reminiscences and the life-changing echoes of those reminiscences.

I have some of my own, of course…some might get us arrested…

May I share a silly one?

The year was 1984.

For some inexplicable reason (at least to me) Lily Tomlin came to the Guignol Theatre at the University of Kentucky one evening and practiced a reading of the beginnings of a new one-person play. She was the “one-person”…go figure. It was free and the house was packed…go figure. I was on the front row. Thus, Lily Tomlin spit on me. I didn’t shower for two weeks. My social life dove from pitiful to non-existent…go figure.

The next day, Ms. Tomlin held a q&a in the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs) for the Theatre Department students. I took the day off from work and lurked in the back of the house (sans shower remember). Joe Ferrell was the moderator of the session.

Commenting on the barrenness of the stage – nuthin’ – no chairs, no stools, — nuthin’, Joe introduced Ms. Tomlin and suggested that they simply sit on the edge of the stage. Ms. Tomlin’s eyes twinkled a challenge echoed by her voice; “I’ll sit on the edge if you will.”

I knew Joe and I knew the answer to that challenge from anyone, anywhere, anytime, in any theatre.

They sat on the edge.

That’s my Joe, and I’m standin’ by it……on the edge.

Broken Things

I’m old enough now to have been several things. Over the last six decades, I’ve been a library clerk, a husband, a retail store manager, a stepfather, a student, an advertising manager, a wine consultant, a friend, a singer in musical theatre, a husband again, a Frisbee artiste, a party planner, a government relations director, a voracious reader, the president of a chain of liquor stores, a book collector, a singer in a rock-n-roll band (the whitest soul-singer you’ve ever seen), and……an actor/storyteller.

I’ve been pretty good at some of these things. Others? Well…I still throw a decent Frisbee.

During the “ugly hour” (thank you, David Bromberg for that troubling concept) of looking in the morning mirror, the person I most often see is that last listed; actor/storyteller. It feels like I have consumed a huge chunk of my life by instantly pondering in every situation; “How am I gonna tell other people about this?”

Storytelling and acting…it’s my comfortable place.

So…

It is my comfortable pleasure to mention that I am rehearsing a play.

christians

Athens West Theatre’s production of The Christians by Lucas Hnath will open on Friday the Thirteenth (QUEL HORREURS!) in April at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center. I invite you to come.

I am currently spending my evenings rehearsing a gripping and relevant script with a literate and incisive director and a cast whose passion humbles me.

It’s a real good time.

What enhances the rehearsal process are the spaces in which we are rehearsing.

We rehearse in various rooms at a private school in Lexington. One night we may be in the school’s cafeteria, the next in the school’s music room, the next in the school’s theatre office. The spaces are warm and clean and neat. Everything works. Everything points to civility and creativity. Their hygienic competency inspires us to leave the spaces as pristine as we find them. That’s their message to us; “Work. Create. Dream. Respect those that follow.”

I have worked in rehearsal spaces (and theatres themselves) where we tried to create an Antarctic setting in the basement of a downtown building that was thermostat-challenged in January (I assure you imagining the cold was no problem at all), where we rehearsed Sam Shepard and Sherlock Holmes in a building that shook with every passing car and the dust hovered in the air looking for a parking spot in our lungs, where water fountains spewed burnt-siena-tinged fluids, where traffic saluted our presence with their horns, where rain and heat and barking dogs (sometimes simultaneously) ruled.

I’m here to tell you our storytelling efforts were not improved in these environments.

It reminds me of a Christmas I witnessed where a six-year-old boy received a bonanza of presents. Every complicated gizmo advertised on TV that holiday season was unwrapped Christmas morning. He was thrilled and overwhelmed…for a day. By the next day, every toy and gizmo’s charms had faded. The six-year-old with six-year-old motor skills had compromised every item in some way. He sat in his play space pitifully surrounded by things that did not work. They were all broken…in some way……by him.

Surrounded by broken things.

What good can possibly come from that?

I’m thrilled and made envious by the bubble created by the private school. I wanted to play with all the guitars and drums. I wanted to share their meals and thrill to their daily discoveries. The message to these students is clear; “We don’t expect you to merely survive. We expect you to thrive. We expect you to make things better.”

But outside the bubble…?

What about the broken things elsewhere?

Bridges, water slides, county water systems, sinking cities, neighbors sinking into substance abuse…

We are surrounded by broken things.

We are not improved by the messages those broken things impart.

We must fix the broken things for everyone.

It’s not dramatic…or sexy…or rapid. I’m old and may not see the harvest of such a sowing, but I know it’s the better path and I’ll sleep better and tell a better story if we’re heading in a better direction.

Work.

Create.

Dream.

Respect those that follow.

These are not hard questions.

Just Act the Hell Out of It

In the theatre, I have been blessed to work with inspiring directors. Many of them seemed to enter and re-enter my life at times when they could fulfill dual roles; stage director and off-stage mentor. Just as I could not have become the on-stage kings, fools, lawyers, doctors, and errant knights required, so I could not have become the geezer I am today (for better or worse) without their genuine care and, at times, curious advice.

Perhaps preeminent among them, if for no other reason than my bewildered youth at the time, was Charles Dickens.

That was his real name.

Charles was my advisor at UK. On Tuesday, during the “advising” session required before classes began on Monday, Charles filled out my roster of classes (my input was restricted to an awed and tiny “ok”), and informed me that my part-time job at the public library wouldn’t impede my freshman theatre activities since they didn’t cast freshmen anyway…but that I should attend and participate in the Sunday auditions of the season’s opening show (which he was directing) for the experience.

I responded; “ok”.

Monday morning, at 9:00, I attended my first college class (Physics: 101 – we learned to bend water with a comb) and was cast in my first show (“Playboy of the Western World”). I was slack-jawed at my Physics classmates (“Is that real water?”), and dazzled by my sometimes shabby but always quick cast mates in rehearsal. My path was clear.

That was in the fall of 1969.

In the spring, Charles cast me in his elaborate production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. By then, I was a complete “gym rat” in the theatre. Every day began and ended in the Fine Arts Building; the Guignol Theatre, the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs), the Green Room, the Scene Shop, the Costume Shop…even an occasional classroom. I lurked in every rehearsal I could find.

During “Measure”, Charles was deep into his Peter-Brook-THE-EMPTY-SPACE period. I may have learned half of what I know about the theatre listening to him coach actors in these rehearsals. One night, Bill Hayes, a nice actor and UK alumnus brought in by Charles to play “Angelo”, paused rehearsal to question the meaning of the line; “Let’s write ‘good angel’ on the Devil’s horn, tis not the Devil’s crest.” Charles sprang to the stage and took Bill’s script and they pondered…and pondered… Finally Charles handed the script back to Bill with the profound instruction; “Just act the hell out of it.”

Just act the hell out of it?

I had fallen in love with Shakespeare with “Measure for Measure”.

I knew what that line meant!

I could say that line!!

I could change people’s lives with that line!!!

I swore if I ever got the chance…

Well, of course, having sworn, I did, 23 years later.

In 1993, the uber-smart Ave Lawyer cast me as “Angelo” in her production of “Measure”. This production featured a remarkable cast; Eric Johnson, Sidney Shaw, Holly Hazelwood Brady, Laurie Genet Preston, Jeff Sherr, Joe Gatton, Glenn Thompson, Donna Ison, Karen Czarnecki, Spencer Christiansen… WOW!

I had my chance.

I said my line.

I acted the hell out of it.

I got up the next day and went to my day job.

Hoops and High Notes

I have listened to or watched University of Kentucky basketball ever since eventual mayor of Lexington Scotty Baesler was the “sixth man” on an early 60’s Adolph Rupp-coached team. My mom and dad and I would sit around our yellow linoleum-topped kitchen table in North Lexington listening to the radio broadcast. Mom would keep score on the pad of paper we used when people came over to play cards, and dad would cuss and slap the table. I kept score in my head and memorized my dad’s vocabulary for later practice when I was alone in bed.

It was a real good time.

Cotton Nash was a god to me until Dan Issel came along. Mr. Issel was a god to me until Jack Givens came along. Then Kenny Walker. Then the Unforgettables. Then Jamal Mashburn. Then Antoine Walker. Then John Wall. Then Anthony Davis. Then……Wenyen Gabriel?

Fifty-plus years of watching the same dribbling, running, screening, and shooting on the same hardwood floors — why?

Why keep watching?

Because of Wenyen Gabriel.

Because, at any moment, a young person could have a transcendent moment in their life and by watching, you could be a vicarious participant in that moment.

Especially now, with daily political news being so unrelentingly grim and disgusting, I feel a renewed resurgence of hope and possibility for fixing things. To see a young person succeed beyond the expectations of today’s alarm clock, to see them rejoice in that unexpected success, to see them exult in simply being young and capable, is enough to keep me progressing, persisting, and resisting.

It’s just a game.

I know that.

The meanings I impose on that game are mine – perhaps the foolish dreams of an unrepentant hippie of the 70’s. I would not want my priorities to intrude on today’s young people, but I will gladly accept the inspirational intrusions of today’s young people on my priorities.

That said…

Tomorrow, Sunday, March 10, at the Singletary Center there will be a gathering of 26 singers from around the world competing for scholarships to be part of the nationally-admired University of Kentucky Opera Program. This will be the next wave of remarkable performers to shape Lexington’s vocal music experience. These will be the singers we will hear throughout Central Kentucky in our churches, and schools, and public concerts, and operas, and musicals, and recitals, and national anthem renditions, during the next few years until they mature and grace the planet with their talent.

It will be a magical day, a day of hope and inspiration, a day every bit as startling as Wenyen Gabriel’s 7-for-7 from 3-point range.

It will be a real good time.

Alaska Daydreaming?

Some ponderings on a snow-threatened evening in Lexington…

I recently passed my two-year anniversary of my time with the Canadian-owned Liquor Barn. It has since returned to being a Kentucky-owned business.

The anniversary prompts me to meditate.

My last two years with the very large group that owned Liquor Barn involved a lot of travel. It probably wasn’t that much travel compared to other hardy folks, but to this fixed-foot Lexingtonian, it was too much travel. Boston, Mobile, Tampa, Montana, Chicago, San Antonio, Phoenix, Washington…and Alaska required visits. These are all places that have interest for me, but for a business trip…meh.

I hated the travel. For those who know me you know I use the word “hated” rarely and deliberately. The air travel that was a delight in the 60-70’s has decayed from delight to ordeal. Hotels are amazing…but not my home. They try to substitute free breakfast, daily clean linens, and tiny plastic bottles of shampoo, for my wife, my critters, and my trusty roster of pizza delivery partners. LOUD BUZZER; thank you for playing.

Given that, I generally enjoyed my times in Alaska. There were things that stirred me to think;

  • Alaska’s young. They just recently celebrated their 100th We have neighborhoods in Lexington twice that age. There are whole periods of architecture not present in Alaska because of that youth. To quote one of my favorite songwriters; “It feels like something’s bein’ born.” There were no buildings in Anchorage that didn’t scream; “We think this is the way to be, but check with us tomorrow, we may change our mind.”
  • Anchorage is often suffused by an “end-of-the-continent Western light.” I’m paraphrasing Jack Kerouac’s description of a late 1940’s San Francisco. When this happened in Anchorage, I felt like I was walking in a nickel postcard from the 1950’s, a fantasy ideal, again quoting Kerouac; “What will happen! Hey!!”
  • Alaska is young but it lives in the shadow of instant destruction every day. Earthquakes and tsunamis…we don’t let those things affect our days in Kentucky.
  • The color pallet of Alaska seems to only include 12-14 shades of green, not the 1,248 we have in Kentucky. That’s a serious problem for me.
  • High humidity lingers for 15 minutes in Anchorage, not the four generations we occasionally live through in the Bluegrass State.
  • The distances that are part of Alaskans’ lives dwarf ours. No, they double dwarf ours. Their state capitol is a 750-mile flight over water away from their home, not a twenty-minute drive from my house. On clear days, Anchorage citizens can see Mt. Denali. That’s the equivalent of me walking out on my front porch and seeing Indianapolis. Damn!
  • Their mountains are towering, jagged, snow-covered, around the corner, and intimidating as hell. Ours are round, green, womb-like, enveloping, and seductively on the horizon.
  • Their nights are sharp and invigorating, challenging us to plunge ahead into the night’s adventures. Ours are soft, narcotic (thank you, Tom Waits), and contemplative, inviting us to go for a stroll.

All that being said, let me be clear; I enjoyed being in Alaska, not going to Alaska. It was a lo-o-o-ng journey for this geezer.