Category Archives: Lexington-70’s

Pinball and the Jolly Green Giant

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 condition. 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.”
Cheers?
Jeers?
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 erzatz 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.
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.”
“Hot dogs…”
<< (testosterone gathering pause) >>
“I can eat more mutton than any of you.”
“I can bury you eating burgers.”
“Fried chicken.”
“Hot dogs…..”
<< (a moment of existential group angst – what did any of this mean and to where 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?

Drinking With Stanislavsky

“Is that what you call drunk?”

It was a gentle question from the director, delivered quietly, but the sneer behind it was clear.

I was appalled. I was nineteen and had never had an alcoholic drink in my life. What was wrong with me? How did the director know? What did I do wrong?

Wait a minute.

The question wasn’t for me.

The director, a 22-year-old student himself, was relentless; “You understand this guy’s a drunk…and he’s a hired killer…and he’s in no hurry? You understand that?”

Relentless, as only a student peer can be; “You played that like a cartoon.”

Relentless; “Have you never been drunk in your life?”

Eddie, the actor being skewered; “Well…as a matter of fact……no.”

Amidst the snickers, I tried to become invisible in my shock; (“Holy moly, there’s two of us on the planet!”)

The director, juggling his months-old worldly sophistication with two decades of Southern Kentucky parental expectations, struggled to find a path that would advance his play without making his mama ashamed.

“Well…we’ll need to fix that.”

A date was set. Eddie volunteered his apartment, which was great ‘cause he had the only TV set in our cast. The plan was to rehearse and then take the whole cast over to Eddie’s place and get him drunk. The director would question Eddie during the liquid applications, we might do some of the scenes from the show, and Eddie would absorb a useful sensory memory from which he could draw upon to portray his villain on stage.

Ol’ Constantine Stanislavsky would be so proud.

Cherry vodka was the agreed-upon ingredient: one pint was the agreed-upon dosage. I’m reminded here of the gospel according to Woody Guthrie; “There’s a lotta truth in a pint of whiskey…but not too much in a quart.”

What could go wrong?

Eddie’s character in the play was Irish, sullen, murderous.

Eddie was a big fan of Fred Astaire and Cole Porter and had always wanted to sing.

It was loud. It was full of glee. It was occasionally in tune.

It was useless for the purposes of the show, but it validated my belief in the basic, boisterous, goodness of the human race and the genius of the American songbook.

Unfortunately, it made me miss the late night movie I was hopin’ to see on Eddie’s TV. I think it was Flying Down to Rio, Fred and Ginger’s first film together.

Sigh…

High art demands sacrifice.

Atticus vs the Sound Effects

Mockingbird 01Summer outdoor theatre is a miraculous thing.

The miracle happens about six months after the summer theatre season, in the depths of winter. There is a moment when snow is on the ground and the wind’s a’howlin’. There is a moment on the ninth straight day of no sun at all, a moment when the clothing layers reach seven, when soup sounds real good once too often. At that less-than-golden moment, the summer night you spent on stage the previous year becomes pure gold.

That memory is purged of the heat. The roasted rehearsal on that concrete slab on that Saharan Saturday morning in full costume evaporates from your recall.

The bugs (many of which unsuccessfully screen-tested for the classic film Them and still harbored virulent stage revenge dreams) that you ducked, swatted, and often swallowed during performances were forgotten.

The memory of the “dead characters’ cocktail lounge” that grew in unholy influence during the run of the show until the curtain calls became wobbly bows from which returning to a fully upright position was far from certain, became quaint instead of alarming.

Rain? Lightning? Make-up that melted faster than it could be applied? Hecklers?

All vanished…erased…never happened.

It’s a miracle.

All that’s left is;

– Riding a bike to rehearsal.
– Humidity and iambic pentameter – a remarkably compatible combo.
– Bright, pretty, scantily-clad actresses.
– Loud voices.
– Large, well-lubricated audiences.
– Stars and moons (one per night) and pool of artificial light in which to speak beautiful words.

That’s all that remains.

It’s a miracle.

However, some of the non-miraculous is worth remembering as well.

In the summer of 1999, I was lucky enough to play Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird for the Lexington Shakespeare Festival. My luck expanded to include the fact that I was working with many of my favorite people in the world; Jeff Sherr, Eric Johnson, Anitra Brumagen, Sidney Shaw, Walter May, Glenn Thompson, Michael Thompson… It was a real good time.

Most of the time.

The first act of the show ends with Atticus’ closing statement to the jury. It’s about a ten-minute summation – inspirational and dramatic as hell – an actor’s dream.

On one night’s performance I arose to give the speech to a crowd of 1,000+ people (yes, most likely well-lubricated). As I walked downstage I heard the medivac helicopter approaching and I knew from previous festival experience that the flight path would be directly over our stage and loud. I took a dramatic pause before commencing the speech that exactly matched the flight path of the copter. Mrs. Leasor didn’t raise any fools.

I plunged into the speech and was achieving some momentum when, about five minutes in, I heard the sirens of the ambulance go ripping through the night.

At minute eight, the low-flying private plane rattled over and as I was winding up for the socko finish, you could hear the freight train moanin’ lonesome through the night.

Mercifully, the speech and the act ended, the lights went dark, and the cast trooped offstage. As I walked off the stage, Eric Johnson was exiting directly behind me and I heard him mumble; “Well, that was certainly a tribute to the combustible engine.”

I wept.

Pranks for the Memories

Dial 01

Pranks in the theatre are traditional…unfortunately.

Pranks in the theatre are just good clean fun…uh…no.

Pranks in the theatre are mostly legendary…mostly.

Pranks in the theatre make the bestest stories after a few drinks…thank God.
My favorite on-stage prank story tells of Tallulah Bankhead. Ms. Bankhead was, I gather, a high-maintenance performer who, though admired for her ability to fill seats in the house and provide steady paychecks for her fellow company members, garnered little affection from said company members along the way.
One evening, in a dramatic duet scene, as Ms. Bankhead passed near the phone on the set, the sound booth thought it would cute to ring the phone unexpectedly. Ms. Bankhead paused, looked at the phone and waited. Sure enough, it rang again. She picked it up, listened for a moment, turned to the other actor on stage, and said; “It’s for you.” She handed him the receiver and exited stage right.

Touché and more than a bit touchy.
I despise theatre pranks, but I love the stories. I could bore you with a few dozen more, but despair not. I’ll simply refer you to a lovely coming-of-age-summer-stock-theatre flick; Those Lips, Those Eyes. Frank Langella plays a summer stock leading man and prime target of some very funny moments.
I will share one and only one from my own experience.

I was in a play that featured a second act moment in which I had to enter a darkened room to find a dead body sprawled. I was to turn the body over, examine it, and then leave it to rearrange the scene of the crime to suit my nefarious purposes, all before my wife entered to share a 20 minute or so scene to finish the act.

This was in a small theatre in which the audience was a mere 5-10 feet away from the action on stage, a small theatre in which the lights (the very warm stage lights) were a mere 5-10 feet away from the action on stage.

I entered, perceived the corpse, and knelt to turn it over and study it. The actor playing dead (extremely well, I might add) had used his eyebrow pencil to cleverly and legibly write a message to me on his eyelids, one word for each eye. This exercise thus required the message to be concise, no 144 characters here. I vividly recall the message to be; “F@#K YOU”. I may not have that spelling exactly right.

There I was, facing a cozy packed house, watching my every response, torn between the bred-in-me demand that “the play must go on,” and atavistic urge to defile a corpse, real or feigning.

I did both.

I rearranged the crime scene as required by the script, I also took a moment to fetch the heavy woolen blanket from its perch on the back of the sofa and respectfully and gently cover the foul corpse from head to toe…under those relentless lights…for the rest of the act.

By the intermission, when I next saw the corpse’s face, the message had melted away.
Occasionally, there’s justice in the world, even in a world of make-believe.

 

As I’ve stated, I despise theatre pranks, but I love the stories and I’d be happy to hear yours.

Lloyd Rowe – Another Varney Yarn

“Lloyd Rowe…”

Jim squinted like he could glimpse the man in question on the far horizon.

“…I haven’t thought about him in ages…haven’t wanted to.”

I was impressed with the solemnity of the moment until I reminded myself that the “far horizon” was the Green Room wall beneath the Guignol Theatre at the University of Kentucky about eight feet in front of Jim, and just how many “ages” can a 20-year-old have actually seen?

My friend and fellow student, Bob Perkins had suggested to me that I might want to ask Jim Varney about Lloyd Rowe if I had sufficient time for a good story. This seemed like just the moment to pose the question.

It was September, 1970, and like clockwork, here was Jim, not a UK student – hell, he hadn’t even graduated from high school according to local legend, lurking in the Green Room at UK. This was a September tradition…like mums at the Saturday football games. Jim would drop in and loiter in this theatre department lair in hopes of broadening his life experience by meeting and “mentoring” the hopeful freshman actresses newly arrived on campus…or, as Jim referred to them; “sweet young things.”

This “mentoring”, to outward appearances, seemed to last a couple or three weeks until the young lady would reappear, a generally gladder but wiser girl devoted to catching up on classes missed.

Hey.

It was a freer time.

We spoke freely. We dressed freely. We undressed freely.

AYDS was still just a dietary supplement candy advertised on Paul Harvey’s radio show.

On this particular afternoon in the Green Room, the requisite young lady was present filling out some requisite semester-starting forms, I was present killing time until some rehearsal started – any rehearsal, and Jim loped in. He sized up the prospect (singular), and turned to me with a normal greeting; “Well, Goddy-dam, it’s Leasor. Howya doin’ Podge?”

I could have just let things follow their inevitable course…but no-o-o-o-o-o-o. I thought if I got Jim started on a saga it might disrupt the day in an entertaining way.

“Tell me about Lloyd Rowe.” I ventured.

That’s all it took. We’ll let Jim tell it from here.

Lloyd Rowe…

“…I haven’t thought about him in ages…haven’t wanted to.

Lloyd Rowe was mean.

He was a mean, mean man.

He was the meanest man in the world…and he knew it…he was proud of it. He got up every morning expecting to receive an award for mean-ness.

He didn’t bother to spit nails, he just digested ‘em. The only salad he would eat was poison ivy.

He took little petite little small-ass Donnie’s cake away from him and ate it. (Whatever that means.)

The laws of physics and medicine bowed to his hateful will. One day he was shot by a bullet in the chest. He whistled sharp and growled “Git back here.” That bullet backed up, healed instantly out of pure spite, and gave Lloyd a written apology.

Mean.

He was driving to Louisville one day and ‘long about Waddy/Peytona he had four simultaneous flat tires and he ran out of gas. He said; “This’ll not do.” He removed the gas cap, pissed in the tank, and crooned; “Go-o-o-o.” That car reached the White Castle in Downtown Louisville in two minutes flat and was a molten heap when it arrived. Lucky it was still under warranty.

He once lived on spite and nothing else for five months just to hurt himself.

He started campfires with small animals as kindling.

MEAN.

He decided one day to visit the mountains in Eastern Kentucky. His aims were two;

  • He wanted to broaden his life experiences by paying court to the Low-Life Sisters. There were three Low-life Sisters; Bunny Jeanette, Juanita Dean, and the little baby Nylon. Miz Low-Life had given birth to Nylon in a drugstore and named her after the first product she saw. Other naming possibilities spr-r-r-r-ing-g-g-g to mind. It would make an intriguing parlor game.
  • And two. He wanted to spend a serious moment with Greenbury Deathridge.

Greenbury Deathridge was the meanest man on Earth…and he knew it.

You perceive the problem, n’est-pas?

Lloyd wanted to settle the issue and establish harmony on the planet.

Well, he wanted to settle the issue.

He climbed mountains for thirty days through heat, humidity, snow, cyclones, tsunamis, baseball strikes, plagues, earthquakes, and “Gunsmoke” reruns. When he got to Greenbury’s cabin, he learned that the man he was seeking had died seven days before. Lloyd took that personally. He knelt at Greenbury’s grave…for three days…in abject disappointment and holy resentment. Finally, he dug up the corpse and carved it into a bar of soap. That seemed to bring closure.

He sought solace in the arms of Bunny Jeanette Low-Life, but at a crucial moment in their relationship, she cried “Oh, sweet Jesus!” Lloyd froze, appalled. He extricated himself, dressed freely, and marched back to Lexington on foot (his car being a molten heap at the time).

At this point in Jim’s narrative I cried enough.

Jim was jarred out of his fake memory rapture.

The requisite young lady? Oh, she was in love.

 

Oh, sweet Jesus.

Jim Sherburne & West Coast Jazz

Jim Sherburne doubled my jazz world all by himself.

I love jazz; old jazz, new jazz, Dixie-land, Chicago, Bop, Free…but being of a certain age, I am particularly enthralled by jazz from the mid-20th century (doesn’t that make it and me sound accurately ancient?).

Until I met Jim, I was comfortable in the belief that all the best jazz originated on the East Coast. Then one afternoon while waiting for Nancy Sherburne’s lasagna to finish simmering, Jim and I traded rants in the living room. Translate that to; he ranted while I listened and nodded and thumbed through his tattered record albums.

(Shelly Manne, Jimmy Giuffre, Howard Rumsey…who were these guys?)

Jim had graduated from UK and then lived and worked in the advertising world in Chicago during the 60’s. He developed ad campaigns that featured a singing Kool-Aid pitcher and the encouraging “Double your pleasure, double your fun, with Double-Mint, Double-Mint, Double-Mint Gum!”

The man could write.

(Bud Shank, Conte Candoli, the Lighthouse All-Stars…who WERE these guys?)

Jim began to research and write historical novels…good ones. They were published to good notices by Houghton-Mifflin; HACEY MILLER, followed by THE WAY TO FORT PILLOW, then my personal favorite; STAND LIKE MEN, about the coal union wars in Kentucky.

The Sherburne family moved back to Kentucky.

(Shorty Rogers, Chico Hamilton, Gerry Mulligan…WHO WERE THESE GUYS??)

I loved going to Jim and Nancy’s house. I would park behind their car with the informative bumper sticker; “Republican in Trunk”. I’d dutifully follow the instructions on the 1950’s era poster in the bathroom; “Don’t be a Commie! Wash your hands!” The lasagna was killer. The laughter was eye-watering. The volume was cranked up to “eleven”.

(Wince at the scratches. These records have been played to death!)

Afterwards we would play the “Song Game”. The rules were simple; we went around the room and when it was your turn, you sang a song, any song. If I had brought a date, at this point in the evening, she would generally be terrified and I knew I would have some splainin’ to do in the car home.

When it was Jim’s turn, he’d sing old union anthems I’d never heard of.

I’d be so happy for him. His world was filled with passion, anger, joy, outrage, and fierce hope. He was delighted to share it all with you.

His book, RIVERS RUN TOGETHER, depicts those chaotic days of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The hippies had taken over the park and one of their slogans was “Don’t trust anyone over 40”. Jim was over 40. His and his protagonist’s hearts were in the park with the kids, but the math excluded them both.

On the day his book; POOR BOY AND A LONG WAY FROM HOME (which features a young D. W. Griffith and a young silent film industry) was released, I drove to a bookstore in Danville to purchase the book. I knew Jim would be there to sign books. I was first in line. I like to think my graciously inscribed copy is the first of the first printing. Book nerds are just that way.

But what about the music?

When I finally got a word in between the rants and before the lasagna, I asked Jim where this music came from. He explained that while he was in Chicago, he had access to all these recordings of California musicians. Many of them worked for the movie studios and played jazz with each other on the week-ends. He thought they were pretty good.

I should say.

The West Coast jazz spoke of short sleeves, loafers, and the long, long lines of horizons. The East Coast responded with rolled-up sleeves, jackets & ties, edges & corners.

The West Coast sang of sunsets & fogs, beaches, cars & personal distances. The East Coast argues night, streets, cabs & crowds.

The West whispers innuendo. The East yells back in-your-face—OH!

The West is cool, the East hot.

Stars vs. neon.

Highways vs. subways.

Wake-up!

Don’t sleep!

It doubled my jazz world.

Thanks to Jim.

Thanks…

To Jim.

Saratoga Day-Dreaming

In the early 70’s I was working a lot of nights. Four to midnight was a regular shift for me. Thus, my days were a bit skewed. Lunch was important. Many days, it began my day. It got the juices flowing. It got the little gray cells humming.

I was living just off Euclid Avenue. Geography and lunch funneled me to the Saratoga Restaurant. If it hadn’t, fate probably would have.

The “Toga” sagged on the precise piece of High Street where that urban label became the more rural Tates Creek. The front sagged. The neon sign sagged. The interior ceiling sagged. I snuggled in.

Chipped plastic-topped tables, free-standing and booth…harsh and flickering fluorescent lights…woogety chairs… two steps up to the bar with stools and more woogety chairs and tables…12-inch TV perched in the corner (black/white, non HD, squinting helps)…seriously heavy drink pours…

I know. It sounds too exotic to possibly be true, but as God is my witness…

Two or three times a week you could find me there for the $1.79 lunch special.

  • Might be the Iceberg Wedge; one-fourth of a head of lettuce buried in an impenetrable lava flow of blue cheese.
  • A Chicken-Fried Steak; to this day I don’t know what that even means and am in no hurry to enlighten myself.
  • A Salisbury Steak; to date, none of the Salisbury’s on the planet have stepped up to claim this war crime.
  • Pot Roast; picture a lake of brown gravy (23,412 calories per ounce) over an Alps of mashed potatoes.

It was a different dietary time.

The service was impeccable and personified by Mona.

Mona was the mistress of efficiency. She could approach your table and release your plate two feet away from your table. It would glide with a spill-less thud precisely in front of your cringing napkin. I remember one Friday during Lent. One of the specials was fish, of course. It was served with the head still attached. The patron who ordered it objected to that arrangement. Mona picked up the plate and the customer’s butter knife, performed radical surgery, and returned plate and knife to their original deployment. There were no more objections.

Most days, I was left alone to my lunch special and my book (I think I was reading a lot of Stephen King, Kazantzakis, Blatty, and Joseph Campbell at the time – whatta literary salad!). Other days would find me sharing a table with Charles Dickens (yes, that was his real name), professor of theatre, University of Kentucky. I learned a lot of theatre at lunch. Good for me. Unfortunately, it may have been at the expense of other theatre students at UK. I knew when Mona asked if Charles wanted another Manhattan before ordering lunch (there were two depleted glasses in front of him at the time), that his 1pm Directing Class was about to be discarded in favor of a mentoring/reminiscing session for yours truly. I’m not saying it was right, but…I learned a lot about the theatre, and heard some killer stories.

Yes, lunch is what I primarily remember about the Saratoga, but there were some remarkable Monday nights as well.

Monday Night Football was a major weekly event in season.

  • Arriving about seven to partake of the thinnest t-bone steak possible.
  • Matriculating up the three steps to the bar to join the Runyan-esque elite of the liquor industry as they attempted to out-drink and out-lie each other.
  • Watching my boss try to impress me by pounding double-Drambuie’s and ending up pounding the floor.
  • Ordering a Coke and being accused loudly of being a “Coke-sucker”.
  • Placing my weekly $5 bet on that night’s game.
  • Watching the blurry TV image (black/white, non HD, squinting helps – remember?) of the kick-off and about half of the first quarter in a room-full of blurry wannbe Nathan Detroit’s.

The bar and the restaurant closed at ten, so we were all off to our homes or what dubious adventures could be found in Lexington on a Monday night in the 70’s. I’m told you could be surprised,

Alas, I would be surprised.

But the “Toga”…

Tawdry…perhaps.

White, misogynistic, homophobic…oh yeah.

Dietetically healthy… <<snort>>

Enjoyable…hell…I was white, young and indestructible, straight male, privileged……sure.

I snuggled in.

Would I like to return to those halcyon days?

No.

I’d like to think I could grow.

It felt OK at the time, but it was not for everyone, and that was the problem. I no longer wanna keep track of who it’s good for and who it’s not. That’s way too much scorekeeping for me.

If that Saratoga reopened tomorrow…I’d be busy that day…whatever day it was.

Not Knowing…

In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan book; TARZAN OF THE APES, there is a moment…

The novel’s not well-written. It may Burroughs’ best, but it’s not good. There are holes in the plot that could swallow houses. I, of course, love it. It’s imaginative. It’s exotic. Hangin’ out with apes…what’s not to love? It’s like eternally living in Animal House, or tailgating seven days a week and never having to actually go to the game.

So.

Very.

Sweet.

But there’s this moment…

Tarzan is beginning to fathom that he’s not an ape, but a man…whatever that is. He’s been raised by apes. He lives as an ape. He’s not sure of the difference but he’s aware there’s a difference. His closest companion, an ape, is killed by a man. Tarzan stalks the killer, is attacked, and slays the man.

He’s hungry. This slain man…is he available for consumption? Is he different from a slain boar? If Tarzan is a man…does man eat man?

“Alas, not knowing, he stays his hand and lowers the man to the ground.”

It’s 1968.

Summer spent as an intern at an outdoor theater, meant unpaid servitude. A day of preparing breakfast, attending classes, assisting rehearsals, singing to diners, setting up chairs, preventing attendees from falling into the fire pit, and listening to the terminally tedious curtain speech was behind me and there was still twenty minutes or so of sunlight for the other interns and me to sneak off to the nearby pool house.

I recall a young lady from another state, her eyes at half-mast, purring; “I could use a Coke. If you could get me a Coke, I could be real good.”

Was that an invitation?

Was that consent?

In 1968 what the hell did “consent” mean and why should I care?

All I knew was I was on fire with a mission. I pity anyone who got between me and a Coke at that moment. I acquired the Golden Fleece and presented that fizzy Holy Grail to the damsel in need.

Now what?

…not knowing, he stayed his hand…

The arts, even the cheap, poorly written arts, can be powerful reinforcements for our better angels.

North Lime and the Christians

I have just finished a totally lovely experience performing Lucas Hnath’s The Christians for AthensWest Theatre. The script was fine, the direction astute and focused, the cast alert and wicked smart, and the choir on fire.

I could (and may…just a warning) write a daily description of the happy discoveries of our rehearsal process, but for the general purposes of this blog, let me simply describe the windows of our rehearsal space.

We rehearsed in the cafeteria of Sayre School, a room named “The Buttery”. Every evening we would rearrange the munchkin-scaled tables and chairs to create a space in which we could imagine ourselves in the epicenter of a mega-church. I say “we” but the overwhelming bulk of this furniture-moving was done by our stage manager and assistant stage manager (Paige Adams and Ben Otten) – champions……CHAMPIONS!

For me, the arresting parts of this rehearsal space were the huge windows overlooking the 200 block of North Limestone.

I strived to stay immersed in the religious crucible of The Christians, but I kept being pulled into another Lexington.

  • I recalled that Limestone was originally named Mulberry Street. It was the major artery carrying travelers from Lexington to Maysville, a key transportation leg before the Falls of the Ohio were made manageable.
  • It was a major lane of vice during Prohibition. To paraphrase an account of the time; “Prohibition became so bad in Lexington that a thirsty man had to sometimes walk a block to get a drink on Mulberry Street.”
  • In the 60’s and 70’s, it was a mecca for used books and comics. Dennis’s Bookstore and Whittington’s Books were there……what’s so important ‘bout dat?
  • Dennis was reportedly diagnosed with a terminal illness in the late 40’s. He was still going strong in the 60’s. That’s the kind of terminal diagnosis I want.
  • When Mr. Dennis learned from my mom that I loved mysteries (keep in mind, I was not yet a teenager), he gave her about twenty Agatha Christie paperbacks that weren’t selling well. I proceeded to fall under the spell of Hercules Poirot.
  • One blessed afternoon, I picked up a pile of Marvel comics at Dennis’s, including Journey Into Mystery #83, the first appearance of Thor, the Mighty. You coulda just killed me then.
  • I recalled how many late night “Nighthawk Specials” were devoured at Columbia’s Steakhouse waiting for the delivery of the Lexington Herald to the newsstand just outside the restaurant with the opening night reviews of whatever local stage production we were involved with?
  • I recalled countless lunch breaks from my high school job at the library (now the Carnegie Center) truckin’ down for a $1.89 lunch special at Brandy’s Kitchen.
  • I recalled seeing a Lexington Repertory Theatre production of The Wager featuring an impossibly young Joe Gatton in a space that now is a fountain. Joe was good enough to remember – who could ask for anything more?

In my glass-enclosed time bubble at rehearsal, it was peacefully, blissfully, difficult to remain attentive to the job at hand.

Thank you, AthensWest, for that happy challenge.

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.