All posts by junesboy

Dial M for Ray

As the curtain rises.

In the fall of 1984 I was spinning a bit. I had filed for divorce, was living in a 56-year-old house with a 25-year-old furnace, 2 window air-conditioners, 3 shiDial 01ngle roofs on top of each other, a 30-year/1-year-old mortgage (at 18%) and a strange tortoise-shell cat. The math wasn’t favorable – the cat (Scandal) was desperately trying to pull me through.

My friends had divided themselves into two camps. Some became hard to reach – I understand that – ya got yer own lives to muddle through. Others made life better. They didn’t ask what they could do, they just did it. I will always hold a “reverse grudge” for those folks.

On stage, I was active but playing a lot of amputees and drunks; violent amputees and drunks…gay and violent amputees and drunks. It’s not an acting category for which you see much advertising frequently. Hey, it was acting/storytelling opportunities…great……but it didn’t have me “looking at the stars.”

Then Ray Smith offered me the lead in his February production of DIAL M FOR MURDER. I explained to Ray that I was going through a rough patch just now and maybe I should pass on this chance. He dismissed my misgivings; “All the more reason you should do it! It’ll do you good!!” Well…no…it would do Ray good. But the script was good, the cast was fine, and the character had a full inventory of limbs, wasn’t a drunk (though he did have excellent taste in Port), and got to wear a couple of nice suits. Hey, I’m easy and Scandal said; “Go ahead, but change my litter first, you lazy son-of-a-bitch.” Ya know…to be called pejoratively a son-of-a-bitch by a cat…it just makes ya go “Hm-m-m-m” on so many levels.

Historical (or hysterical) notes

Ray had directed me in BILLY BUDD my freshman year at UK. It occurred to me then that it was an odd choice to choose to do a show featuring a cast of 22 men and no women in a theatre department that featured 15 men and 80 women, but what did I know? I was a freshman and just happy to be there. <<Cue the big goofy grin at the camera>>

I also puzzled about the wisdom of having a tech rehearsal that began at 7pm Saturday and ended about 5pm Sunday. Is that really a good business plan? However, it did afford me the quality green room time necessary to learn the basics of bridge over the weekend.

But it seemed odd.

Later that year, I served as Ray’s stage manager for WING OF EXPECTATION, an opera based on the insanity trial of Mary Todd Lincoln. Ray discovered I was a mere freshman a few days before opening night of the show. He wasn’t happy about the newly discovered vulnerability of having his show (about to be produced at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC) running in the hands of a fellow who just twelve months ago was trying to score a date to his high school prom – go figger. He made my life a living hell from that moment through closing night.

Again…odd.

I’ve written more about that episode. See “A Horizontal Lincoln at That” in the blog archives if you’re interested.

There was also the moment one night when leaving the Paddock Club (a legendary theatre-folk rendez-vous of burgers and cheap beer and dim lights and rugged pinball machines and blurry dissections of the New York theatre scene of which we knew nothing) at closing time when vague suggestions of an advancement of blurriness concerning the student/teacher relationship hovered in the air. The “no” was definite and un-blurry and graciously accepted as definitive and un-blurry and never spoken of again. Hell, I doubt he ever remembered it.

Mama never said there’d be days like this.

Well, those were hippie days, blessedly free and easy. There was often more than a bit of confusion about possibilities and desirabilities. Clarity was a valuable commodity for all concerned but not always handy.

Ray and I had also acted together once in THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL. He played Ralph Waldo Emerson to my Henry David Thoreau. Ray was at a point where his grasp of his lines was acute but a bit exotic and his grip on his lines was fragile. One performance, Ray got a look on his face that clearly read; “Rodge, ol’ buddy, I haven’t a clue. You might wanta take it from here and save the women and children.”

I have since seen that look on other thespian faces and, thanks to Ray, it holds no terror for me. I seize it as an opportunity to practice survival skills and/or just chat for a while in front of a lot of captive people who paid to be there.

I liked Ray…a lot.

I considered him, as Kurt Vonnegut puts it; “another nice way for people to be.”

He added much to life in Lexington and subtracted little. I miss him. The math was good.

DIAL M FOR MURDER

All this is to say I knew what I was getting into with DIAL M. I hoped to entertain with our performance and I was anticipating that Ray would be entertaining along the way to opening night. I was not disappointed.

Our first rehearsal began 20 minutes late because Michael arrived 15 minutes late. Ray spent the other five minutes lecturing everyone on the infinite damage inflicted on rehearsals due to tardiness. Math was not Ray’s particular long suit but he performed some for us and demonstrated that Michael’s 15 minutes, when multiplied by the number of rehearsal participants affected, was actually 2 ½ hours. At this point I humbly asked if that meant every further minute of delay was actually ten minutes and Ray ordered the stage manager to commence the rehearsal.

But the damage had been done. I knew it. Nancy and Bob knew it. We had worked with Ray before.

Michael’s fate was sealed.

Ray had a habit of settling on one member of each cast to be the whipping boy. Michael’s initial tardiness promoted him into that position for DIAL M. Since we were all working for free, it was a brevet promotion; more grief – same pay.

Ray’s standard lecture on “magnetic toes” was demonstrated repeated and loudly on Michael’s feet. “Magnetic toes” was Ray’s metaphor for actors that habitually and artificially faced straight front. It was if they had magnets in their shoes that forced their shoes to turn straight front. It was a bizarre concept, but simple, and I kinda dug the sci-fi behind it…the first time I heard it. Michael heard it in at least 5-6 rehearsals. He was perplexed.

And then was the pipe/line/ash tray ballet.

Michael’s character held a pipe and an ash tray and had to deliver a crucial line. Ray described what he wanted;

“Start the line…pause…tap the pipe three times on the ash tray…say the next word…tap twice…look at Roger…finish the line.”

Michael took the plunge;

Tap twice…say the line.

“No, no, no!” Ray restated the agenda; start, pause, three taps, word, two taps, look, finish.

Michael winged it.

Start, tap twice, look, finish the line, look.

“No, No, no!!” Ray shook his head, took the props from Michael and demonstrated; start, pause, three taps, word, two taps, look, finish.

Michael took a quick inventory of available exits from the theatre and tried again.

Start, pause, tap, word, look, three taps, finish.

“No, No, No!!!”

……

On about the tenth repetition of this morbidly entertaining cycle, Michael gave me a look – a desperate and silent plea for release from this mortal coil. I took that as an opportunity to check in visually with the other actors in the room. Nancy was reading a book, Bob was snickering in the corner, and Paul (who had never worked with Ray before) had assumed his now classic “What kind of mind……?” posture.

Well, it was never resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

I felt bad for Michael, but damn, it was funny, and I’m glad it wasn’t me.

The SEAGULL

My favorite moment in the DIAL M experience actually happened at a different play. We were rehearsing and performing in a small theatre at UK, but the backstage area was connected through a scene construction shop to larger stage where a production of Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL was being rehearsed.

Our stage had virtually no backstage space. Thus, we lingered (and malingered) in the scene shop before our entrances. It was real good time. I recall one evening when Bob and I recreated (to the soul-killing boredom of the rest of the cast) all of Robert Altman’s movie NASHVILLE – every word in every inane song. A recording should have been made…and immediately destroyed.

The director of THE SEAGULL was not as charmed by our antics as we were (imagine that) and complained at a Theatre Department meeting that she was doing “goddam Chekov” and deserved a measure of respect. That only served to provide us with our mantra; “We’re doin’ goddam Frederick Knott!”

SEAGULL opened a week after our show. On their opening night Ray scheduled a line speed-through to prepare us for our second weekend. We started early and went really fast. We wanted to go the opening of SEAGULL. We finished and ran around to the audience entrance of the other stage. It was sold out and the only seats left when I arrived were on the very back row…except for one.

Ray, being on the faculty was allowed to cut through the scene shop and enter before the general audience. He took full advantage. When I walked into the in-the-round configured theatre I saw Ray on the front row, legs and arms tightly crossed, smoking a cigarette (ah, how times have changed). He had commandeered and defended the seat next to him and when he saw me he flung his cigarette hand in the air, raised his eyebrows to the approximate orbit of the moon, and gestured with a tilt to his head to the empty seat beside him.

I had a front row seat.

Sweet.

But…

The configuration was in-the-round. I hate theatre in-the-round for two reasons;

  1. I paid for a show and I only get to see half the show. Half the time the actors are facing away from me and playing to the other side of the audience.
  2. I came to see the play, not the audience on the other side of the stage.

This was demonstrated immediately that night. I looked out over the set on the stage and in the ineffective darkness across the stage picked out several regular Lexington theatre-goers including Anna-Mae H–, a devoted attendee. She waved gaily.

The lights dimmed (except for Ray’s cig). Ray leaned over and murmured; “I understand there’s a lot of suffering in this play.”

The lights came up and one of my favorite actresses raced onto the stage and wailed; “I am suffering!”

I looked back at Ray and his eyebrows had achieved the approximate altitude of Saturn in an expression that wailed; “What did I tell you?”

I was painfully choking back the giggles at a play by goddam Chekhov.

Anna-Mae waved gaily.

I lied.

I said that was my favorite DIAL M experience. Actually it was number two.

In the audience on the closing night of DIAL M FOR MURDER there was a cute little redhead. I was allowed to miss strike so I could take the cute little redhead out for a drink after the show. It was our first date.

Last week, we celebrated our 29th wedding anniversary.

Ray was right. Doing this show?

It did me good!

Funeralville

Funeralville

Kentucky is unendingly interesting to me. I’m perfectly happy to spend all my time here. It is composed of many things that are unsurprising, predictable …pedestrian even. Still, it combines its un-exotic components and its people in small ways that don’t change the world, but delight me, or disappoint me, or both. Whatever, I have never not been interested.

A friend of mine died.

I can’t say I knew her well, even though she was one of my ex-wives – I have many ex-wives from the stage.

We did one show together. For about seven weeks we explored Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT. She was bright, quick, supportive, intuitive, and enthusiastic. As far I knew that was all she was. I can assume she had bad days and moments, and possessed the same weaknesses and peccadilloes endemic to the species, but I didn’t spend enough time with her to know. I only saw the pleasant and the productive. AND I witnessed over the ensuing years the beneficent effect she seemed to have on my other friends and their children.

I knew enough to know she made the world better. S’enough.

Her funeral was being held in a small town about an hour south of my home.

It was a fine summer day. Sunny, warm and humid (but not stifling). Ample rain for the season meant everything green was in full celebration. It was a day for ignoring the interstate highway and instead, meandering to my destination on smaller state roads. Kentucky does state roads pretty well, asphalt being the life blood of politics in the state. Along the way there were discoveries, perhaps not on the scale of the first sights of Daniel Boone on his wanderings but happier (and safer) discoveries for me.

  • The box turtle precariously plowing his way across the highway with the same confused alacrity of newly hatched sea turtles on the beach on Sullivan’s Island. I made a mental note to once more drag out my old Pogo books and ponder the adventures of Churchy LaFemme when I returned home.
  • I felt I had been properly admonished to; “Be prepared! The Lord is coming!!” The spray-painted 4X8 sign was effective, though it occurred to me that another line might have been added; “And she’s pissed!!!”
  • There appeared a yellow traffic sign like those signs that warn of “Deer Crossing” and “Falling Rock”. This one showed an icon of a horse and buggy. I was just registering the import of the sign when I popped over a rise and there in front of me was the sign made manifest; a real-life horse and carriage toting two bonnet-ed heads. It took me a moment to radically reduce my speed to 10 mph to prevent the acquiring of some intriguing, if gruesome, hood ornaments. Though I passed them carefully, the bonnets were still startled. My hybrid runs silently.
  • Trumpet vine was rampant along the fence rows. It has become in these days of warmer temperatures and milder winters a slower, more substantial kudzu, but with the advantages of blooms attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies. I love this plant, but spend too much of my summer days physically denying its ceaseless attempts to gerrymander my backyard.

It was a happy, thoughtful journey also aided by the jazz stylings of Conte Candoli on the car’s sound system.  <<boo-waaaah, boo-waaaah…>>

Journeys eventually arrive…dammit.

This one arrived at the funeral home.

Funerals in Kentucky vary – but not that much. This one was solidly within the range of what passes for normality ‘round here.

  1. Ya gotta sign the book.

For a goodly number of people, that’s the nuts.

Mission accomplished.

My work here is done.

I use this as a lesson in participation all the time. If you say you want to participate in what we’re trying to do, that doesn’t mean just “signing the book”. Ya gotta participate.

I do this part of funerals OK.

I stand in line.

I sign.

  1. Visitation is always intense. It may be two hours long. It may be 16 hours long (over two days). I’ve experienced both. There’s usually a dead person lying openly nearby, which invariably troubles me. There are people in various stages of grief and anxiety all around. These stages are not always compatible. There are old grudges, new feelings of shame, and cultural resentments adrift in the room. It’s easy to lose track for whom this event is happening.

Visitation worries me.

I wanna sneak off to a private room with my friends and eat and drink and tell stories.

I think “for whom this event is happening” might be me. My deceased friend doesn’t care. It’s me who’s lost something. It’s me who has to face tomorrow without my friend. I could use a little time away alone or with other friends in a similar frame of mind to come to grips with this now altered universe.

  1. And then there’s the actual service. <<cue the music from JAWS>>

Today’s service is being conducted by a local minister who admittedly didn’t know my friend very well. This is not unusual. I’ve attended several funerals where the minister spent 15-30 minutes describing someone I never knew. It‘s OK. I believe rite and ritual, even devoid of content and context can still facilitate the grieving process and offer comfort to those of us going on with life.

The minister invited participation in the form of stories and thoughts about my friend from the assembled mourners. I suspected he did so to fill the time and to garner some research for his message. I also suspect he failed to accurately judge the ramifications of offering an “open mike” to the two dozen plus theatre folks in attendance. The minister and the 50-60 local attendees were treated to stories about the love and tolerance the deceased showed to everyone – all types of people; republican, democrat, white, black, gay, straight, left-handed, right-handed, Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Hari Krishnan, Kentucky fans, Louisville fans…

I watched and wondered if perhaps the world and spirit being described might have exceeded the expectations and comfort level of the local attendees who were most likely just as passionate about the deceased, but less verbal about it.

Still, love and hurt was in the air for everyone and that’s we’re gathering to assuage…yes?

Well, it was time for the preacher’s message.

I perceived he was in a bit of a spot.

To whom should he direct this message?

  1. To the 25% of the crowd who were the theatre folks who’d be hittin’ the interstate back Lexington the minute the service was over?
  2. To the rest of the room who would be looking to him for counsel and comfort for the rest of their lives?
  3. To everyone? Was there possibly a message that would knit the room into a single-minded community of caring?

He tried “c”.

I admire him for trying.

He reached back in his schoolin’ and dredged one line from AS YOU LIKE IT; “All the world’s a stage…” He got immediately hung up on ”entrances” and “exits”, got the two reversed a couple of times, and never quite sorted it out. It was far from iambic…hell, it was barely coherent. I didn’t mind it so much. I did the show myself and occasionally found it barely coherent.

He didn’t give up.

He reached back in his schoolin’ once more and suggested we could look to “Old Walt” for inspiration.

Now, I’ll fess up here. I was jarred by this suggestion…in a good way. I didn’t know what wisdom Walt Disney could impart to this solemn occasion, but I knew my departed friend. She was a gleeful gal and a quote from Mickey Mouse or a chorus or two from “It’s a Small World After All” would no doubt make her smile.

But no, “Old Walt” turned out to be Walt Whitman. <<cue the JAWS music again>>

I feared the minister was navigating dangerous waters. The Walt Whitman I knew had backwaters foreign to most established religions. My misgivings were wasted (may they always be). The minister again only had one line at instant recall. He said it. We all blinked in unified incomprehension. It was the closest he got to truly unify the room.

At that point, he dropped option “c” like last week’s newspaper.

He began quoting various verses from the Bible like a rapper. The air was filled with chapters and verses……and numbers were chanted……I expected the ball to be hiked at any moment.

It became clear that he was gonna “save” the out-of-town theatre co-conspirators (his word) in front of his neighbors.

Too bad.

I didn’t mind so much either. I was raised Southern Baptist. I was familiar with the physical need to block the doors and pass the plate and “invite” professions of faith. I still recall several verses of “Just as I Am”. It was the guy’s job.

Yes, I felt hi-jacked and held hostage. I felt bad for my friend. She would not have wanted to be a bad host.

Meh.

I drifted away to a kind of “dream time”, filled with box turtles wearing bonnets driving horse-drawn carriages through jungles of blooming trumpet vine and butterflies (my friend liked butterflies).

Then I hit that interstate back home.

Vada Pinson

Baseball is great because of its timelessness.

It is un-anchored in time.

This is true in large. 150+ years of statistics and players and stories provide a context for every happening in every day’s game.

This is true in small. Every pitch provides the potential for game-winning action, or as a savory consolation, an opportunity to analyze and/or reminisce and/or solve the problems of the world in a beautiful, geometrically-correct setting with a nutritionally-incorrect hot dog (maybe two if there’s a pitching change).

Tonight’s between-the-pitches discussion is triggered by George Grande’s suggestion that the Reds’ Vada Pinson (late 50’s-early 60’s) belongs in the Hall of Fame. Chris Welsh’s retort was that every fan of every team had two or three players from their team’s history that they felt should be in the Hall of Fame.

Well…sure, Chris. That’s probably true.

But those fans would be wrong.

We’re talkin’ Vada Pinson here.

In my pre-teen years, I determined that Vada Pinson was the greatest player not named Frank Robinson in the game. I based this on data…serious data;

  • I went to two games in Crosley Stadium and saw him play.
  • I saw maybe three or four TV games (there was only one televised baseball game per week then – Saturday afternoon – the Reds rarely were featured, not being the Yankees).
  • I listened to several hundred games on the radio (including dozens of late-night games from the West Coast, secretly monitored on my transistor radio under my pillow – don’t tell my Mom.
  • I had a baseball card.

Pit yer analytics against that, Mr. Welsh!

Oh, look.

It’s time for the next pitch.

The Nearness of Sin

“He uttered a triumphant cry: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED!

And it was though he had said: Everything has begun.”

With those words, Nikos Kazantzakis closes his novel; THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. And with those words, I closed his book and ended my first reading experience with Mr. Kazantzakis. I was 20 years old in 1971. It was a delicious, hot, muggy summer in Lexington, and I was more than a little befuddled by what I had just read.

I liked the book. Kazantzakis’ descriptions of biblical geography were interesting. The characters were many and varied, and moved through that geography with pace and purpose that pulled me through the story. I did find myself wishing I had paid a bit more attention in my Southern Baptist Sunday School class as a child. The place names might have been easier to follow if I had.

What bewildered me were the hallucinatory passages in the novel, especially the extended passage at the end of the novel in which Jesus experiences and rejects the Devil’s final blandishment. My 20-year-old reaction was something on the order of; “Whoa! Where the hell (or heaven) did that come from? And why?”

Meh… Whatever.

I had read it and now I had to return the book to the upperclassman who had lent it to me with the usual unambiguous instruction that almost always accompanies a book lent unasked for; “You’ll enjoy this.” That phrase always sounds so amiable, but when it comes from an older friend whose apparent intellect and experience you aspire to, the phrase carries the weight of stone tablets from the Mount.

Returning the book meant a trip to the Geek House, usually a mind broadening if not mind improving occasion. The Geek House was a small cottage on a two-way street near the University of Kentucky. Like many of these small cottages it was infested (infested… yes, I think that is le mot juste) by students. Years later when I saw the film ANIMAL HOUSE it occurred to me how lucky Lexington was that the Geek House was a small cottage and not a large house. The population of Geek House was capped at four… or five…… or six………or… (it was a liquid situation) because of the limited space available. The rotating roster of the house included two or three theater majors, two brothers from Pike County (one was in pre-law and the other was a convicted felon who was a hell of a mechanic – it sounds like the making of a great team – I wonder where they are now?), and a graduate student from the Philippines. The graduate student had an amazing name that no one could pronounce. He shortened it for our convenience to Pu Pe. Of course that turned out to be an unwise choice of truncation. “Poopy” he became and remained for as long as I knew him. I learned a valuable lesson in diplomacy from Poopy. I knew he was a graduate student and a bright and well-spoken guy. Yet his English seem to desert him when it came to being properly offended by his nickname. He got along just fine with everybody.

One of the more charming traditions of the house was the weekend poker game. It would begin on Friday evening and continue with a variety of participants coming and going until it petered out on late Sunday afternoon as the last bleary participants wandered away.

This was a serious poker game. There were snorts and grunts that indicated calls and raises. Cards were held close to the chest, or dropped to the floor as the weekend wore on and small motor skills decayed. Challenges to manhood were common and personal financial statuses were altered. Sometimes you would even see a dollar bill in the center of the table on top of the quarters, dimes, and nickels.

It too, as you can imagine, was a liquid situation – mostly beer. I think that’s why they tolerated my spectator-only presence at the game. I was ground control. If any authority figure knocked at the door, I was sent to answer. Usually after a brief reassuring conversation the authority figure would go away confident in the knowledge that a sober 20-year-old adult had this situation well in hand. It was an innocent time.

One memorable Sunday afternoon, the game was continuing but grinding down. There was a knock on the door. I answered. It was the parents of one of the theater majors residing in the house. They had driven in from Madisonville to visit relatives and thought it would be nice to drop in on their son, Carson. Well, Carson had been participating in the poker game off and on for most of the weekend and he looked like it. He leapt to his feet, swiftly visited the bathroom, his razor, and his closet (where he found his “cleanest dirty shirt” as Kris Kristopherson so poignantly describes it), while I chattered away with his parents discussing all the people in Madisonville I didn’t know (not having ever set foot in the town) and while the other poker participants discreetly (again, the perfect word) transferred the beer bottles from the tabletop to the floor. Carson’s parents pretended to be oblivious. Carson presented himself as shiny as a newly minted penny (in his dreams). They left. The house was silent for a minute or two. Then Poopy turned to the pre-law brother and said; “Well, I certainly am glad you kept your filthy fucking mouth shut.” There was general agreement with that sentiment and the game ended about 10 minutes later with a prayer for Carson.

Often on Friday evenings before the game degenerated to Neanderthal-ness, the discussions around the table could be coherent and instructive. It was during one of these intellectual oases that my friend, Ray Skewes was expounding on the genius of Nikos Kazantzakis. He had finished reading THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST that week and was dying to discuss it with someone. No one was interested, but since I was the youngest in the room I was chosen to be the other member of his instantly created book club. Ray went to his bedroom and fetched his battered paperback copy of the book, placed it reverently into my hands, and instructed; “You’ll enjoy this”.

Well…I had duly followed my instructions and now needed to return the book to Ray.

That August the house was practically deserted. The denizens had all dispersed to their various summertime activities. A couple of the actors had summer theater jobs, Carson had been ordered home to Madisonville for a period of debriefing and reorientation to the wisdom of making better use of his time, and the brothers had returned to the mountains to do something murky, into which it would be best not to inquire too deeply. Thus, everyone was gone except for Ray.

I drove to the house and bounced up on the porch and knocked on the door. There was no immediate answer until, after subsequent knockings, the blinds on the window next to the door twitched ever so slightly. Then the doorknob turned and the door opened about 6 inches and Ray peered at me. He was looking pretty rough. His hair was long and stringy and did not suggest that it had seen water for a while. His shirt and jeans were wrinkled and sagging and did not suggest that they had seen water for a while. He had about a three day growth of beard and it did not suggest… Now this look was not rare for Ray. Today we might even say that this was Ray’s “brand”. But that afternoon there was a haggard quality that suffused his usual fashion statement.

I explained my reason for being at his doorstep and held out the book. He looked at it for a moment, processing the information. Then his eyes lit up and he threw open the door and invited me in. He closed the door behind me, put on the chain, and adjusted the blinds for perfect opaqueness. That’s when the smell hit me. It was a sharp, dry, and dusty smell, and it was intense. Ray returned to his position on the couch to continue the project he was working on when I banged on the door. There was a garbage bag (filled with marijuana plants) on the floor in front of his feet and there was a grocery bag (almost filled with marijuana leaves) next to it. Next to that a soup kettle (for the stems he explained). Ray described his project.

“I was hiking in the Red River Gorge a while back and we came across this little field filled with marijuana. I made note of our location and went back last week and harvested all I could carry and brought it back here. Carson’s bedroom is filled with bags. I’ve got to get this stuff processed and outta here before the guys come back to school. Plus, I think it’s starting to stink (starting?). And now there’s fleas! I’ll never get all this done. Hey. How’d’ja like the book?”

I’d like to say I was cool.

Cool was what I would’ve liked to have been.

I was not cool. I was stunned.

I was scared to death.

I was appalled by the filth and the smell and the fleas.

Then…

The car stopped.

Cars were coming and going to and from the University all the time on the street, but they normally didn’t stop in front of the house.

Then…

The car door slammed.

Ray froze with his hands in the middle of the dismemberment of a plant, his eyes wide, and a sick, gray crept into his face.

Then…

A team of big men in dark suits and dark glasses and badges burst through the door. They put handcuffs on me and Ray, and proceeded to haul all those bags and us out to their vehicle and un-gently crammed us all in. They took us downtown in a blur and in an even faster blur we were in a jail cell. The trial was quick and decisive. Sentences and fines were meted out. They were paid and served. I emerged from incarceration to a world that did not wish to hire me for anything ever. No female would come near me. I never married. I meandered into a penniless, barren old-age.

Then…

The car door slammed again as the pedestrian being picked up got on board, and the car drove away.

Ray sagged in relief and resumed his activity. He gave a nervous shake to his head, grinned at me, and said “So, how’d’ja like the book?”

I believe my exact response was; “It was great but I can’t stay and talk about it now I gotta go I got something to do I got rehearsal I’m in a show but I can’t stay and talk about it now I’ll get with you later thanks for the book.”

As I recall, that response was delivered in a manner that was eerily reminiscent of a patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan. I then moved with great pace and purpose to the door and out of the house. I bounced off the porch and to my car and drove directly home, directly to my bathroom to take three consecutive showers – showers every bit as spiritually cleansing as Janet Leigh’s shower in PSYCHO. No, I was not attacked by the knife wielding mother of Norman Bates, but I felt like I deserved to be.

I never returned to Geek House. I only rarely ever saw Ray again and we never had a chance to discuss his book. I never inquired as to the final disposition of his summer project.

It was a long time before I felt clean again.

I had heard the phrase; “the nearness of sin”, but I don’t think it ever really registered with me until that day.

I understood it fully after that day.

I also had a better understanding and a deeper appreciation of Nikos Kazantzakis. That understanding and appreciation leaves me very comfortable with the possibility that none of this story actually happened and yet all of it is true.

Dracula & the Five Dollars I Owe You

Dracula 01Friday, Janie and I were with a couple of Louisville friends for dinner and the theatre. It was a lovely night. The companionship was first rate, Janie got to boogie in the aisles with a packed house to the lively strains of ABBA (I’m just grateful there wasn’t a vacant pole nearby), and dinner at the Bristol was, for us, nostalgic. We had subscribed to Actors Theatre Louisville for many years (see the blog entry; “Droning Tonto and the Atomic Bic”), and part of our ATL ritual usually included dinner at the Bristol before curtain. I’m happy to report the Bristol’s green chili won-tons and filet mandarin still excel as theatre comfort food.

We explained to our hosts our past experience with the restaurant and ATL and discovered they too had been ATL regulars. The husband recalled that the first play he saw at Actors was DRACULA.

(Cue the weird music…perhaps an organ sting…perhaps the theme from JAWS…or that nee-nee-nee-nee music from TWILIGHT ZONE.)

All actors think they can play anything…anything. They can’t.

All actors know, if given the chance, they can play anything. They’re wrong.

The viewing public is protected from such hubris by the filter of directors who usually know better than to miscast actors in roles for which they are not suited. For example, though I know I could change people’s lives with my portrayals of Stanley Kowalski or Joan of Arc or Lassie’s “Timmy” (or Lassie for that matter), I also know my chances of being cast in those roles are minuscule. I think we all can agree the theatre-going world is made better by this protective filter (though, I’m tellin’ ya, I can scream “Stella” like a banshee).

However, sometimes the filter fails.

(Cue – a great disturbance in the Force.)

I had always wanted to play Dracula. In 1982 I got my chance.

The theatre company doing DRACULA, which will remain nameless, had been up and running for several years and had mounted impressive shows in impressive quantities. The core members of the group had just run off a string of productions and I suspect they were weary. The DRACULA project was turned over to an affable and bright young guy with little directing experience. None of the regular performers of the company participated as actors and were rarely seen during the rehearsal process. I think they were “taking a show off”. Mind you, these were the hardest working theatre folks in Lexington at that time, and theatre didn’t pay the rent or put food on the table. Taking time to find an income was a responsible business plan. Today, we call that “adulting”.

But it didn’t auger well artistically.

What did I care? I got to say those deathless (literally) lines.

(Cue the line – “Wolves. Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”)

<< Snickers from the audience >>

The show got a full-page spread in the newspaper with pictures of Dracula in repose on a crypt in the bowels of Morrison Hall at Transylvania University (Transylvania…sweet).

I wore my cape and my plastic fangs in the pictures…in the newspaper (sweeter and sweeter).

Just kill me now. Oh, wait. That won’t work. I’m a vampire.

(Cue the line – “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”)

<< Guffaws from the audience >>

Far worse things than death? I should say so. There’s opening night.

I made my entrance. I swept into the room with my cape, my pizza-pan sized medallion, and my floppy hair.

(Cue the review – “Leasor looked like the Dave Clark Five about to be knighted by the Queen.”

The actor playing Dr. Seward was, I believe, experiencing his first opening night. His pivotal moment was at hand. He must effect the introduction of Dracula and his nemesis; Professor Van Helsing. Without this introduction, we have no play. As I said, I swe-e-e-pt into the room, confronted Dr. Seward, and waited for his line. The actor playing Seward had a look on his face that to my dismay read; “Wow! Look at that cape. I can’t believe I have such a great seat for this show.”

It was an impasse.

I glanced over to Professor Van Helsing being played by Paul Thomas; a very experienced actor and good friend. Paul had worked a pipe into his character early in the rehearsal process and now I could see why. Paul sat, staring resolutely straight ahead, puffing his pipe and enveloping himself in an obscuring cloud of smoke. Occasionally, stray puffs of smoke would rise straight up. Being fluent in smoke signals, I got the message; “You’re on your own, Buster.” I made a mental note to review our friendship.

Mental note…that was it!

I lifted my arm slowly and placed my index finger over my eyebrow. I squinted my eyes in my best Johnny Carson/Karnak manner (it’s as good as my Stanley Kowalski). I stretched my index finger toward the cumulus-nimbus formerly known as Paul and intoned; “Ah-h-h-h, Professor Van Helsing, even in Transylvania we have heard of you.”

The theatre went silent. The moment was ridiculous. But it was early in the evening and the audience had to decide quickly;

  1. Accept the foolishness for the sake of having a night in the theatre…such as it was, or
  2. Flee the building for the nearest bar.

Downtown cocktail opportunities in 1982 were not as lively as they are today. I think that may have saved us.

(Cue the line – “I never drink…wine.”)

<< Angry murmurs from the audience >>

The script was poor.

The cast and director were mostly inexperienced.

I was dreadful……and not in the right way.

(Cue the review – “Children might enjoy Leasor’s performance as he looks like he’s going to break into a song-and-dance at any moment.”)

It was a healthy lesson for me.

Unfortunately, a lot of people paid for my education.

They should have been better protected.

(Cue the line – “The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly… The blood is the life.)

<< Pitchforks in the audience are unsheathed and the box office is stormed for refunds >>

By the end of each night’s performance, the audience was probably feeling like the unwary fly and they were certainly out for blood.

(Cue the sigh.)

Sigh.

If you saw this show, I owe you five dollars. The check is in the mail.

A Geezer Breakfast

I came across this note from the spring of 2016. Not much has changed.

 

“It was a geezer breakfast!

  1. Average age; 70-plus – check.
  2. Aches and pains chronicled in excruciating detail – check.
  3. Mutual acquaintances in the medical profession established and marveled over – check.
  4. Flirting with the married, mother-of-two waitress – check.
  5. Head shaking over the attention span (or alleged lack thereof) of anyone younger than 50 – check.
  6. Joe Gatton and Walter Tunis stories exchanged and enlarged upon – check.
  7. Re-validation of the miracle of baseball – check.
  8. Conundrums of the 2016 presidential race and various other problems of the world solved – check.

So what made this geezer breakfast a bit different?

The three geezers breakfasting have probably been involved in over 250 theatrical productions in the Lexington area and yet have only worked in the same show once. How, oh how is this possible and (more important to my selfish interests) how can it be remedied?

By the way, for the record;

I’m younger than some of the trio, my back’s OK (knock on wood), I only knew one of the doctors discussed, the waitress was patient and bored, I know at least two whippersnappers who actually read books, I’m saving my Gatton and Tunis tales for my tell-all book (unless useful payments are sent to a PO box number I will provide), I will watch the Reds this year even if they suck, and as for the problems of the world……..my omelet was spot on!

I’m good.”

 

Follow up note –

Since this exercise, I’ve met about fifty (truly…fifty!) millennials who I’m convinced can make America great again, or at least make America sing again which is almost as good.

Fitty-Lebmm

Fitty-lebmm.

I’m not sure that’s the correct spelling. Hell, I’m not even sure it’s even a word!

Fitty-lebmm.

I’ve never played it in Scrabble, and I’m pretty sure I’d be challenged if I did. Too bad; with an “f”, “y”, “b”, and two “m’s” the score would be sweet.

Fitty-lebmm.

This is word my mom uses. She may have invented it.

“I’ve told you fitty-lebmm times not to fan that screen door!”

“I can give you fitty-lebmm reasons why that’s not a good idea.”

“There were fitty-lebmm people in line at the grocery store. I didn’t think I’d ever get home.”

You get the idea…and I get the idea every time…and the idea is usually accurate and wise, if a bit sketchy math-wise. It’s also a case of rampant exaggeration. The rampant exaggeration gene has happily passed on to her son. What’s the harm? It’s not like we’re runnin’ for president.

I remember when I was mastering the intricacies of math, I could never decide if fitty-lebmm equaled 5,011 or 550 (50 times 11). I do know that in new math it either equals “the artist formerly known as Prince” or “Thursday”. Again, what’s the harm? I don’t need any new math – I just got used to the old math.

In Richard Adams’ lovely book WATERSHIP DOWN, the rabbit protagonists, having only four digits, considered any quantity larger than four to be “five”. Ten years was five years. Fifty miles was five miles and five feet equaled a mile. Cute, but my mom’s word is better, if harder to spell; “fitty-lebmm”.

So…what dredged all this foolishness up?

I was late for a meeting today because I ran into a repaving project in Lexington. I’m here to tell you there are currently fitty-lebmm repaving projects happening in Lexington. I know. I’ve driven through every one of them.

I’m not really complaining. I like having smooth, safe roads to drive on……I do. But, do they all have to be in my path? What kind of schedule are they following?

Wait!

I think I know the answer to that one.

The schedule is being determined by me. There are spies monitoring my movements and instructing the re-pavers where to be and when.

So…

As a service to all my friends; if you want your street repaved, let me know the name of your street and when you want the work done. I will drive on your street that day and by the time you come home from work you will have bright, shining new asphalt awaiting your arrival.

FEEL the power!

You can thank me later – fitty-lebmm times.

Dang-a-Dang-Dang — Revised

I used to drive around Kentucky quite a bit in my job. Most of the time, it was a great blessing. I love living in Kentucky; the people and the places are precious to me.

One blissful evening I drove to Bowling Green to attend their bi-monthly city commissioners’ meeting which turned out to be a sterling lesson in civility and good government that completely refuted the “government doesn’t work” message that dominates our television news channels. Those smart, well-prepared, gracious public officials efficiently moved through their agenda, addressing issues of waste management, zoning adjustments, car-towing policies, golf course maintenance, personnel changes, and alcohol sales. Every voice was heard. No voices were raised. Decisions were made and accepted. Some of those decisions went the way I preferred. Some did not. Life goes on. I could not have admired the experience more.

Seriously!

What can I say? I’m a wonk.

Sha-nah-nah-diddy-diddy-bomp…

Then I drove home, fairly late at night – certainly too late to be talking to folks on the phone as I drove (which of course I would never do).

That means I had entered and was truly immersed in “Windshield Time”.

Nem-nem-nem-nem-nem-wurp-wurp-wurp-wurp…

Windshield time is akin to dreaming, especially on I-65 on a midsummer night.

  • The tiny rhythm of the eight million bugs repainting your car with their lives.
  • The mighty rhythm of the eight million trucks buffeting your car while chortling at your rate of speed.
  • Giant dinosaurs looming at one roadside attraction.
  • Adult bookstores larger than Fayette Mall looming at another…

Your mind disengages and works on unresolved issues of the day or, if you’re lucky and open to the night and the rhythms, it embarks on far more interesting paths not bound by the day’s sound bites and tweets and grunts.

Thus it was this evening.

Doh-doh-doh-doh-ooooo…

I listen to a lot of music in the car. Queued up this particular night was a mini-festival by the pride of Pittsburgh doo-wop group, the Marcels.

In order to truly appreciate the Marcels you have to get past some curious facts. But, as a Trump-supporting friend of mine regularly and gleefully chants; “Facts lie!” Well, these are fairly benign facts. I think we can accept them without destroying the planet.

  1. The Marcels were named after a haircut. The “Marcel Wave” was very popular that year and one member of the group had a family member who was a hairdresser and she suggested the name. Compare this to the opposite dynamic with the Beatles and their hair choice. It became a “Beatle Haircut” after their success as a band. Trust me; I know this…all too well from my years as a rock and roll singer who occasionally glanced at mirrors…though I think I’ve destroyed all the negatives and daguerreotypes (remember them?).
  2. The Marcels’ vocabulary was amazing, but had little to do with English as we know it. I’m sure they must have been the inspiration for a Mad Magazine piece I recall that quoted a fictional rock singer’s biography entitled; “Famous Syllables I Have Sung”. Everyone has heard the story of how Dr. Seuss was challenged to write a children’s story with only xx number of words and how the result was THE CAT IN THE HAT. I would suggest that the Marcels managed to build a career on fewer words than Dr. Seuss if you deduct the un-definable syllables sung between the legitimate words.

Mum-mummum-mum-bah-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip…

Undeterred by these facts; in my 70mph dreamy opinion there has never been a better version of “Blue Moon” than that of the Marcels…

Bomp-bababomp-bom…

…and their “Get a Job” is an American anthem worthy of being sung before athletic events. Imagine 20-40,000 people with a few beers in ‘em wailing;

Dit-dadit-dit-dadit-doo-doo-didit…

I’m smilin’ at the concept and wonderin’ how this ol’ white-haired hippie might look in a Marcel Wave. An-n-n-n-d woooosh! There goes the Willisburg exit! Only 44 miles to go.

Lilla-lilla-lilla-lilla-wah-wah-wah…

God bless the Marcels!

Curse of the Starving Class

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Yet another new/old Lexington theatre yarn.

Just to let ya know, if you’re doing a Sam Shepard play and want me to come see it, I’m busy that evening…all the evenings.

If you’d like me to do a Sam Shepard play, I’m more than likely available.

I feel the same way about Pinter, Ibsen, and Albee. I love performing them, but I’m not beatin’ down the doors to watch. It’s a mental defect I guess, but there it is. Godot is simply not worth waiting for.

So, it’s 1987 and Joe Ferrell is directing Sam Shepard’s THE CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS for Actors Guild Lexington (usually referred to as “AGL”). This is when AGL was performing in a rickety building in downtown Lexington called the LMNOP building (usually referred to as “LMNOP” – go figger). The LMNOP moniker stemmed from its life as “Club LMNOP”, a legendary night club in its day. By 1987 this building had been rode hard and put up wet to dry. Creaked? No, it shrieked. It wobbled. It was seasonal, which is an apt euphemism for little discernible heat and air. But the rent was right and in the theatre, that usually rules (remind me to bore you with my “theatre verismo” experience one January doing TERRA NOVA in the basement of a downtown Lexington restaurant – yes, I have pictures).

Well, I was hot for this project. I had worked with Joe on Shepard’s BURIED CHILD a couple of years earlier and it had been a very satisfying time. I played a raging psychotic single-amputee who was tormented in the second act by his own brother (played by Vic Chaney) who used own his prosthetic leg as a club against him. It was a laugh-a-minute riot. I was proud of the portrayal even though it took my knee a year to fully recover. I was hungry for another bit of fluff like that.

My previous role for Joe was as a gay, double-AK-amputee Vietnam War vet. It was intriguing to me to do a show with Joe in which I could use all my limbs.

Oh sure, the script of CURSE called for a scene with complete male nudity, but it wasn’t my character and surely Joe would find a work-around to avoid going that far in my beloved 1987 Lexington, where I was dealing with the public every day in my retail career……surely…………surely.

Well, it was a remarkable cast and crew. It included Joe Gatton, Martha Campbell, Glenn Thompson, and Carol Spence, all of whom I have worked with numerous happy times.

It also included Kevin Haggard. Kevin and I had never worked together before and we’ve not worked together since. Dammit. In CURSE Kevin played my son in a strikingly (emphasis on “strike”) abusive father/son relationship. I tend to work quickly in the rehearsal process – Kevin works more thoughtfully. I didn’t know that then. The first two weeks of rehearsal I kicked his ass all over the stage. I feared I might kill him if he didn’t start reacting with a bit more alacrity and how was I gonna explain that to his mother.

Not to worry; from the third week of rehearsal through closing night, Kevin’s character grew every night. I was impressed and bit scared for my own well-being. By opening night I discovered in one scene Kevin had ascended the heights of our kitchen and assumed a manic 45 degree angle against the fridge. I was supine on the kitchen table at the time and chaos was eminent.

It was a fine moment.

curse05
It was a fine moment

It was Kevin’s character that had to deal with the nude scene.

As the rehearsals proceeded, it was sometime in week three that it dawned on me that Joe was dealing with the nude scene by simply doing it as written.

Whatta concept!

What made the scene more special was that Kevin had to carry a sheep during it. This was after a first act scene in which he took his sister’s 4-H “How to Butcher a Cow” chart, tossed it on the floor, and pee’d on it. He was an endearing character.

I was envisioning letters to the editor at least, or pitchforks and torches at worst. Didn’t happen. Instead, we played to great reviews and sold-out houses. Go figger.

About six months later, two gentlemen came to see me at work to discuss Liquor Barn’s participation in the United Way. One of the gentlemen noticed a picture on my office wall of one of my shows. He remarked; “My wife and I go to the theatre often. Last year we saw a play where a character actually pissed on the stage!” I gave him my biggest grin, shook his hand, and said; “I played that boy’s father!!”

That was the last I heard from the United Way that year.

But all in all, CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS was a good experience.

  • Big audiences.
  • The building didn’t collapse.
  • I got to work with Cambo the Clown and his “Ya-Ya Juice” (another story for another time).
  • I didn’t have to deal with the sheep.

Baa-a-a-a.

A Checklist for Geezers

Sometimes I question my qualifications as a geezer.

Oh sure.

The hair is white,

Coat & tie is still standard for most days,

Joe Ferrell, Walter Tunis, Joe Gatton, Eric Johnson, Jim Rodgers, Paul Thomas, and Chuck Pogue are all friends of mine.

I haven’t recognized a “Star-Spangled Banner” singer for a decade.

And I can yell “Get offa my lawn” like a banshee.

But sometimes I worry that I’m missing something somewhere.

Then my music mix shuffles to the next selection and by the end of it I realize I’m grinning in complete happiness at Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters’ rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In”.

Punch my ticket. I’m totally validated.