October of 1969 was a golden time.
The nation had shown hope a few months before when 400,000 scruffy young people had assembled on a farm in Woodstock, New York and flipped a non-violent bird to the election of Nixon in 1968 and to anyone over forty in general, all to a soundtrack of Havens, Crosby, Baez, Stills, Hendrix, Sebastian, Garcia, Chicago, Mountain, and Traffic. I wish I’d been there.
The planet had shown hope a few months before by putting two Earthlings on the Moon. I wish I’d been there.
My own hopeful expectations for college, severely damaged by Physics 101 (“Is that real water?” –actual question from one of the 15,341 students in the lecture), and the first day in Theatre Arts 101 (we spent the hour learning to spell “theatre” and “playwright”), had been nursed back to health by being cast in all three stage productions of the Theatre Department that fall.
This particular October night was sublime. I’d had a nice late afternoon rehearsal for “The Skin of Our Teeth.” I was off-book and my character was significant but not major. I could watch and admire the work the other (older) actors were doing.
My rehearsal for “Billy Budd” followed. My part was unusual, but small. He was a slimy little fellow and his intentions were obvious. No real problems and again, older actors from which to learn…plus, I got to climb ratlines and scream like Fay Wray… it was a real good time.
After those rehearsals I retired to the Paddock Club, a bar and restaurant just a few feet off campus in the shadow of Stoll Field. It was dark and decrepit. There were the requisite neon signs (“Miller High Life – The Champagne of Bottled Beer”), vinyl booths with split-open seats, and rickety bar stools with seats in similar decay. It also featured clarinet and bassoon playing music majors from Tatooine (I suppose they paid out-of-state tuition) lurking and practicing in the gloomy corners of the front room, and ominous banjo plunking from somewhere in the back room. But it especially boasted cheap beer (denied to my 18-year-old driver’s license), barely acceptable burgers, and three battered and forgiving pinball machines (these being the unenlightened days before Nintendo). As such, it qualified handsomely as a bona fide theatre hangout.
This night, I was having my way with the middle pinball machine; Gottlieb’s fine “Target Pool”. This was a hall-of-fame machine with great rollovers, crisp and quick flippers, and a gazillion target drops for those blessed with blazing flipper skills and a keen eye. It also seemed impervious to a well-timed hip shove from the right side. This machine could not even spell “tilt.”
Had “The Zone” been invented then, it would have been inhabited by me that evening.
I had eighteen free games on the board when I finally stepped back, turned regally, and announced to the waiting players; “My gift to you…remember, and speak well of me.”
Who’s to say?
It was a noisy bar that evening…hard to tell.
I retired in my nimbus of tawdry glory to a table in the second room of the bar, a six-top table with an open chair. The other five seats were occupied by Clay, Cecil, Edd, Barry, and Bruce – fellow “Billy Budd” cast mates. While I had been pounding my way to ersatz high esteem on the middle machine, they had been pounding their way to a similar state of bliss with cheap brew and cheaper braggadocio. This quintet was from all over Kentucky; Somerset, Paducah, Madisonville, Jackson, and Paris. Just as everything looks better through the bottom of the glass, the hazy hometown memories of my friends had been brought into idyllic and even hazier focus through the bottoms of several glasses of the Champagne of Bottled Beer.
As I joined them, the one-upmanship was breathtaking…as was their hops-enhanced breaths themselves.
“We spent every summer on the creek.”
“We had the best Fourth of July celebrations at the lake.”
“We had bigger lakes.”
“We had a river.”
“We had two rivers and two lakes.”
<< (reverential and reloading pause, aka take a sip) >>
“We had barbecued mutton.”
“Grilled burgers for us.”
“Fried chicken here.”
<< (testosterone gathering pause) >>
“I can eat more mutton than any of you.”
“I can bury you eating burgers.”
<< (a moment of existential group angst – what did any of this mean and whence could it possibly lead except to another futile beer…and besides, it was almost closing time) >>
Throughout this redolent and blurry exchange, two things became apparent to my young, but sober perception;
1. Here was an opportunity for greatness.
2. But however that greatness manifested itself, it would probably be without the participation of Bruce. Bruce had spent the bulk of the debate reading a book (Antonin Artaud’s THE THEATRE AND ITS DOUBLE, I believe). He clearly had not had enough beer and would presumably be thinking clearly, as clearly as one could think reading Artaud.
I innocently suggested to the table; “Let’s put it to the test and have an eating contest!”
I like to think Stanislavsky would have been proud. I was drawing upon my sensual memory and recreating every Mickey Rooney flick I’d ever seen. I might just as well have said; “Hey kids! I know! Let’s put on a show!!”
And lo and behold…they responded just like Mickey Rooney’s film colleagues. No, they didn’t sing, but they eagerly demanded details and swore they were in.
Testosterone and beer…essential ingredients for good decision-making.
They each put up five dollars. It would be winner take all. These were serious stakes in 1969. You could eat for three days on five bucks. My monthly rent was $35. Hell, my tuition that fall was $125, not being from Tatooine.
The negotiation as to what food medium to use was fierce, but in the end, practical. We couldn’t afford mutton, hot dogs, burgers, or fried chicken. Besides, the logistics of preparing those items was beyond the culinary skills of actors and costume designers and set builders. Corn was affordable, but not on the cob. The vagaries of sizes of cobs and how to determine when a cob had been suitably gnawed, would invite snarls of unfairness; these being the unenlightened days before instant replay.
We settled on Jolly Green Giant Corn Niblets in a 7-ounce can.
It was measurable and fast; a minute or two in a pan on the stove and voila; ready to be gobbled.
A date was agreed upon.
And lo and behold, once more…Bruce looked up from his reading and murmured; “I’m in.”
The next morning a notice appeared on the Green Room bulletin board;
“Come one and come all to the FIRST ANNUAL SUPER-FANTASTIC ORIGINAL CORN-EATING ELIMINATION CONTEST AND LIGHT SHOW – PLUS SELECTED SHORT SUBJECTS”
We had agreed that Edd would be the “Light Show” since he only weighed 128 pounds and Barry would be the “Short Subject” – he was about 5’8”.
I solicited successfully a contest site, another cast member’s apartment near campus, and lined up volunteers to cook, keep time, cheerlead, and clean up the inevitable hurling incident (Cecil was a big man physically, but he went down first and hard – it was not a pretty sight).
It was a grand affair.
Wally Briggs and Mary Stephenson from the Theatre Department faculty were honored as the King and Queen of Corn. Wally composed and performed a bit of doggerel for the occasion. There was beaming all around. Bonhomie and simmering corn odors filled the air. Greatness, indeed.
The contest itself dragged into the wee hours. By the denouement the contestants were haggard and gray…except for Bruce. He sat in the corner steadily chewing while reading a book (TOWARDS A POOR THEATRE by Jerzy Grotowski as I recall).
It took till 2:30am to declare a winner.
Bruce had quietly, without fanfare, without hurling, had finished off his book and his opponents.
We all repaired to Bozo’s Diner for Bozo burgers and hash browns…Bruce was still feeling a bit peckish (as peckish as one can feel having read Grotowski).
The fall of ’69 was good.
How’d we survive all that greatness?