Monthly Archives: March 2017

Julie et Jim

The title is a total stretch but there’s a “Julie” and a “Jim” in the tale. I couldn’t pass it up. Sorry.

The Southeastern Theater Conference (SETC) was held recently in Lexington and I’ve enjoyed reading articles about it, and my friends’ reports of their activities during the event. I was particularly interested and inordinately proud of my friends Julieanne and Chuck Pogue’s efforts. Chuck conducted two sessions; “Auteurs-NO!  Raconteurs-YES!!” and “Tips for Adapting Plays from Sanskrit and/or Cave Paintings”. Julieanne packed the house with her session; “Concatenations from the Clash of Jung and the Restless in Tennessee Williams’ Mother Plays”. I may not have those titles exactly right, but I was mightily impressed – so impressed, that it triggered a remembrance of my first visit to SETC.

It was spring of 1970 and SETC was being held in Memphis. I had never been to Memphis, I had a ride with other UK theatre folks, I had twenty bucks, and my friend Jim Varney agreed to split the cost of a hotel room with me. Hey, as Christine Kane says; “When courage comes, you never see it comin’.”

The conference was being held in the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. I believe today it’s called the Sheraton Peabody. Jim and I couldn’t afford the Peabody. We went across the street to something called; The Hotel Tennessee. It was five dollars a night, which we split.

There were cockroaches…lots of ‘em…big ones…and bold. One of ‘em sat on the end of Jim’s bed and bummed cigarettes off him. Another one sat on the back of the commode and charged a quarter for access. I went downstairs to the desk to complain and noticed the clerk had six arms and I quailed. I was dubious, but it was cheap and had the asset of proximity.

The proximity paid off the next morning. I awoke to Jim practicing his smile in the mirror (he had just discovered Pearl Drops Tooth Polish and was pretty sure that his new “all-teeth” smile was gonna launch his professional acting ship tout suite). He urged speed with ablutions and let’s get our “petite little small-ass bods” over to the Peabody. We might miss something!

He was right.

The Peabody had a fountain in the middle of its lobby and people gathered around it at nine o’clock AM and five PM for the ducks. That’s right, ducks. At nine AM, the PA system wheezed to life to blare; “Welcome to the Peabody Hotel and the Peabody Marching Ducks!” The elevator doors would then open and a red carpet would roll out to the foot of the fountain. A Sousa march would play on the PA and three white ducks and one brown duck would regally march down the carpet, hop up on the lip of the fountain, and splash into the water to swim the rest of the day until five PM when they would, with similar pomp reverse the process and return to their evening penthouse quarters. The crowd loved it and would applaud. The applause would prompt the brown duck to turn to the crowd from the lip of the fountain, spread his wings, and……well……quack.

Yes, the crowd loved it, but Jim was enthralled. In the brown duck, Jim had found a spiritual brother. He never missed a duck event. He got there early and would sit akimbo next to the carpet and croon in “duck language” to the bird. The duck would pause, turn to Jim, and conduct a quick inventory of available exits in case this madman turned ugly.

It was a great conference and just got better from there.

At that time and perhaps still today, one element of SETC was a mass audition of actors looking for summer work. That year, 43 casting agents representing 43 southern theatres were observing those auditions. There were 568 hopeful auditionees. I was number 438 and Jim was 437. We stood leaning against the hotel hall wall for hours awaiting our chance for the Golden Ticket/Everlasting Gobstopper/Maltese Falcon/Holy Grail/Door #3.

While we waited, we rehearsed and fretted. (I’m convinced that if the proper studies were conducted, scientists would discover the leading cause for cancer is fretting.)

We were promised one minute for our audition – one minute.

I was good with that. I had a killer one minute segment from Tom Stoppard’s “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” that was gonna land me on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” within the week.

Jim agonized. He had two pieces and he couldn’t choose. Should he do Hamlet’s first act monologue (“Tis not alone my inky cloak…”), or Tom Wingfield’s diatribe from “The Glass Menagerie” (“I’m goin’ to opium dens…”)? Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams? Argh-h-h-h. Plus, at the rate this is going, we’re gonna miss the ducks!

Fretting…I’m tellin’ ya, it’s deadly.

Then the SETC officials came out in the hall and announced the audition time would have to be cut to 50 seconds or they couldn’t get everybody in.

50 seconds.

A five hour drive and my twenty bucks for 50 seconds.

Fretting went through the roof. What was I gonna do? Pragmatism was all I had to offer at that point…I was simply gonna have to speak faster.

Jim however, became serene. His quandary was solved. Somehow, 50 seconds made things clear; he would do BOTH monologues.

They took us into the audition room in groups of ten. Thus, Jim and I were in the same group and I got to witness the deed. 43 auditioner heads hovering 2-4 inches over their tables and notes in utter fatigue and defeat. Hope had left the building with Elvis.

Jim’s turn came, right before mine. He loped to the center of the room, announced his number, and began;

“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems.”
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

The tones were round and pure, the diction crisp, the anger immediate and like a knife to his betraying mother.

And then, without pause or breath, as if from the same son centuries later;

Well you’re right, Mother. I’m going to opium dens. Yes, mother. Opium dens. Dens of vice and criminals’ hangouts, mother, I am a hired assassin, I joined the Hogan gang, I carry a tommy gun in a violin case, and I run a stream of cat houses in the valley, they call me Killer, Killer Wingfield, see I’m leading a double life, really, a simple honest warehouse worker by day, but by night a dynamic czar of the underworld, mother, I just go to gambling casinos, spin away fortunes on the roulette tables, mother, I wear a patch over one eye, and a false moustache and sometimes I put on green whiskers, on those occasions, they call me “El Diablo,” I can tell you many things to make you sleepless, mother, my enemies plan to dynamite this place, they’re gonna blow us sky high! And I will be glad? I will be very happy, and so will you be. You will go up, up, up, over Blue Mountain, on a broomstick with seventeen gentleman callers! You ugly, babbling old witch!

43 sagging heads snapped to attention. In today’s litigious times, there might have been a rash of whiplash claims the next day. Jim finished and one voice intoned; “Thank you, Mr. Varney.” Forget about his number. He was Mr. Varney now.

I followed that.

When the callbacks were posted, Jim had 34. I had 15.

Maybe it was the Pearl Drops.

Theatre sucks.

Part-Time Jobs

Caught by surprise last November, I withdrew into stunned silence; afraid and ashamed and angry.

The anger faded. It will do no me no good. I will resist every unfair, greedy, and unwise effort I can identify, but I have always done that – it’s a reflexive urge taught to me by my Southern Baptist Sunday School childhood – nothing’s changed as far as that’s concerned.

I was afraid of what the results’ results would be.

I was ashamed of my own surprise and fear of my neighbors’ choice.

Why didn’t I know?

What have I missed?

What should I have done?

I must do better.

I must listen harder.

I must seek a better and more useful understanding.

I must act on what I learn.

I must…because I want to be a good neighbor.

But, (isn’t there always a “but”?) …so must others.

I have no answers, but I have glimmers of a suggestion.

If I have lost connection with my neighbors, so have my political representatives…and how could they have not? They must solicit campaign funds 24/7/365. They must run campaigns to retain their offices for six to twenty-four months (President Trump has already declared his re-election campaign’s beginning for 2020). They serve in legislative sessions for months at a time every year. They have homes in Washington and regular living quarters in Frankfort. They are full-time governors and lawmakers elsewhere, away from me, all while they’re supposed to be representing me and Janie on Providence Road.

That was not what was intended by our founding fathers.

George Washington was president, but he also went home to run his farm. He had to listen to and represent his neighbors. The same was essentially true for all elective officials.

I would suggest considering a move back to those conditions.

Rather than point fingers at how little time the Senate and the House of Representatives spend in session in Washington, perhaps we should reduce the length of campaigns and legislative sessions (and the participants’ pay).

Send them home to local concerns.

Perhaps we should rescind the expansion of the Kentucky legislature from bi-yearly sessions to yearly sessions. Have we really been improved by having the legislature meet every year?

Send them home to local concerns.

Make all of them part-time lawmakers and full-time neighbors.

Just a thought…

The Voice of the Turtle

Before there was Opus and Bloom County, Michael Doonesbury and Walden Puddle, Calvin and Hobbes in their spaceship box, and Alice on her manhole cover in Cul-de-Sac, there was a swamp in Georgia inhabited by Pogo Possum and his friends. The swamp was furnished with tree-stump homes with never-locked doors, flat-bottom boats with ever-changing names, fallen log pillows always near at hand, and endless time for big dreams, small-minded schemes, and more than occasional wisdom.

Walt Kelly was the creator of this world. He is a hero to me.

When I feel caught in a maelstrom of conflicting, negative news (all too often in these days of the 24/7/365 news cycle) I find it useful to dig out my old Pogo collections, drift into the lagoons of Okefenokee Swamp and jettison my final consonants. I drop in on Pogo’s home to see what he might have in the larder for lunch; whether he’s home or not – don’ matter – door don’ have a lock an’ he don’ mind.

With any kind of luck at all I’ll avoid crossin’ paths with Wiley Catt, or Mole, Deacon Rat, or Sarcophagus MacAbre the funereal buzzard; who needs that negativity? I’ll delight if I happen to run across Freemount Bug and receive his universal assurance that everything is “Jes fine.”

And then there’s that giddily chirping turtle in his pirate hat; Churchy LaFemme. Churchy’s lament from the 1950’s resonates with my own reactions to the news reports from the last few weeks.

“…I is doin’ my duty as a citizen…night an’ day! Lyin’ awake worryin’ at night – afeared to sleep in case I gits blowed up in my bed an’ never knows! An’ all day – scannin’ the sky – not knowin’ when…wonderin’ whether to wear pajamas that night so’s to be found decent – wonderin’ whether to take a bath…whether to pack a light lunch.”

I know the feelin’.

It’s reassuring to me to know we fretted about the viability of our world 60 years ago – that we didn’t invent the urgency we currently feel – that it all might be solvable and survivable.

That light lunch sounds good too.