The answering of the phone
One day in the late summer of 1987 the phone rang at Roger and Janie’s house and the wrong person answered.
It was a time of great changes and great busy-ness.
Janie and I had just gotten married and bought a new house.
The liquor stores which were my business career had just unexpectedly become mega party stores (Liquor Barn) and my primary responsibility.
I had just completed an eighteen month performance schedule of directing one play (BULLSHOT CRUMMOND – Actors’ Guild), singing and acting in two (A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC – UK, and MAN OF LA MANCHA – UK), acting in three (THE CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS and THE EBONY APE – Actors’ Guild, and DEATHTRAP – UK), and singing in one friend’s doctoral recital.
Whine, whine, whine… too much goodness…too much opportunity… woe is me.
But I truly was stretched thin and worn out at that moment.
And then Dr. James Rodgers called and Janie answered.
In 1987 Janie knew there were two phone calls to which my answer was nearly always “yes”; Jim Rodgers and Joe Ferrell. Well, why waste time? Jim wanted me to do a show. She said; “Of course, Jim, whatever you want.”
Well there’s no lettin’ Jim down once you’ve promised. I was now a member of the cast of DRINKERS OF THE WIND.
Jim wrote DRINKERS. It was a celebration of the horse, a compilation of poetry, songs, stories, and chants by Shakespeare, Shel Silverstein, Saki, Steinbeck, Greek legend…and Doc Rodgers himself. Jim wrote the piece! Another reason why ya don’t let him down. It’s his baby!
Yes, it was a celebration of the horse, but in one scene I had to play a goose. Go cypher on that for a while.
I hated that goose.
At least I wasn’t alone. Jim had recruited a stellar cast; actors that I admired and was challenged by; Billy Breed, Martha Campbell, Trish Clark, Russell Henderson, and Eric Johnson. Unfortunately, it seemed that everyone in the cast was experiencing personal pressures of their own. It led to a grumpy group meeting each night in the face of Doc Rodgers’ sunny instructions. Despite that, progress was made.
BUT…there was the challenge of Helen Hayes looming.
UK’s College of Fine Arts wanted to enhance their visibility. To do so, they scheduled a “Gala”. It was held in the Singletary Building and featured performances by various disciplines of the College capped by an appearance by the legendary Helen Hayes. It was a big deal and the night of the Gala the Singletary was packed and the crowd was decked out to the nines and all a’twitter.
Jim had committed our cast to provide a scene for the Gala and not just any scene. The most difficult scene in the show was a retelling of the legend of Bellarion and Pegasus. It was long, it was complex, and it included Billy Breed as Pegasus dancing to the words – words, mind you, not music. Any misplaced or mis-stressed syllable would pretty well leave Billy hangin’ high and dry.
Ah-h-h, no pressure there. It was a week before our opening night and instead of having a useful working rehearsal, we were doing our hardest scene in front of 1000+ people and Helen Hayes.
I remember, before the show that night, looking around the small dressing room in which we were all crowded and thinkin’; “Well, at least we’re rockin’ these tuxes.” You seek solace where you can.
In that dressing room we decided to run the lines for the scene one…more…time. As we did, I noticed Billy over in the corner marking his choreography with tiny moves as we recited. I’m not namin’ names, but one us skipped a line.
Soul-crushing silence ensued.
A silence of the damned ensued.
We immediately looked at Billy and he had acquired the hue of Casper the friendly ghost…with a facial expression that was far from friendly.
We were called to the stage.
We were introduced individually. Little Martha Campbell was first. When her name was announced, she marched martially and grimly to her place, fists clenched. She picked up her chair, ate it, and spit the splinters into the lights. She gave the audience a look that said; “I got yer Helen Hayes right here.”
It gave me a kind of perverse courage.
We did the scene.
Billy lived to tell the tale……and later move to Oregon, about as far away from UK as you can go.
We hadn’t embarrassed ourselves in front of Helen Hayes (though I don’t believe she bought season tickets).
Now, we only had to do the show.
A week later we opened. After the Gala we worked diligently, confident in the knowledge that our loved ones would still love us (as long as we didn’t press the matter) and that we probably wouldn’t derail the performing career of Billy (as long as we destroyed the evidence). Plus, we were still rockin’ those tuxes.
Then Jim dropped a little bombshell.
It seemed there was something called “The Dean’s Circle”. This was a group of donors to the College of Fine Arts. One of the perks of being in The Dean’s Circle was having a Q&A with the cast after Theatre Department production opening nights. The cast of DRINKERS did not see it as a “perk”.
Whine, whine, whine, whine.
I mean, if anyone from the audience asked me about my motivations while playing that damned goose…well, the College of Fine Arts was probably gonna be lookin’ for a few new donors.
We did the show.
We peeled off our tuxes…slowly.
We trudged upstairs to face Judgement.
It was a love fest.
There were no questions. It was a contest between audience members to extol their favorite scenes from the show. They liked everything and everybody……except for the goose.
The grumpy cast members looked at each other. The shame in each other’s eyes was palpable.
The rest of the run featured an enthusiasm fueled by “make up for”.
It was great.
But (sigh) …it wasn’t over.
The National Tour
Jim reassembled the cast and reconstituted the show that early spring (you cannot say “no” to this man!). He had booked us in colleges and junior colleges in Eastern Kentucky for the week of UK’s spring break.
For three days the cast (sans Jim who had developed a convenient cold/flu-like symptoms/plague/pneumonia/hangnail) loaded our stools, boom box, and tuxes into a van and charged out to the exotics of Cumberland, Betsy Layne, Somerset, Hogwarts, Riverdale, etc. Eric was driving – a poor choice. The redbuds were blooming – an excellent choice.
We arrived at one venue (which will remain nameless) after driving on a mountain trail on which I swear I saw while peering down the rider’s side of the hill, Gandalf crying “Fly, you fools!”, and then through the back of a bedroom closet through Narnia, and then through the rabbit hole, and then down the yellow brick road. I’m sure there was probably a more direct route but, as I said, Eric was driving.
We were scheduled for two performances at this stop. We set our stage (six stools) and our technology (one boom box), donned our tuxes (still and always stylin’) and waited in place to be introduced. I was in the wings stage left and could clearly see Trish in the wings stage right.
A small matronly lady marched to center stage and said; “Y’all settle down now, y’hear?”
And they did.
That’s when I knew I was in the presence of a mensch.
I confess to being impressed and more than little intimidated.
Then she said; “These people have come all the way from Lexington.”
And walked off the stage.
I looked across the stage at Trish and she gave me a wide-eyed shrug that announced; “We’re on our way, Buster!”
And we were.
We had lunch in the cafeteria and pulled ourselves together for our second show. I will admit that there were some unkind aspersions made in respect to Jim Rodgers’ health. Something to the effect of “If he thinks he’s sick now, wait till I get a’hold of him!” But it was all in good fun……right?
I was stage left.
Trish was stage right.
The mensch marched.
And said; “Y’all settle down now, y’hear?”
And they did.
Then she said; “Yer ‘bout to see some real good actin’.”
And left the stage.
I looked across at Trish and she gave me a wider-eyed two-thumbs-up that announced; “We’re stars, Buster!!”
And we were.
I’m proud of that show.
I’m happy for the time I spent with my friends…yes, even Jim.
And that one sentence from the mensch might be the review in my life I’m most proud of.
Be that as it may, I try to answer the phone at home before Janie whenever I can…and I still hate that goose.