Category Archives: Lexington-70’s

Foxy’s and the Flaming Embers

I’ve written about how I got into the alcohol business (see “My Last Job Interview” in the blog archives), but I haven’t described that gem of a first retail job.

It was a tiny liquor store on North New Circle Road across the road from the Flaming Embers Inn and next to Foxy’s Diner. It was a choice location…for something…but not for a liquor store. The store had been purchased by the owners of the new chain Shoppers Village Liquors for the liquor license. They were building a large and fancy new wine shop on Reynolds Road and needed a license. At that time this was the accepted procedure for obtaining a liquor license; buying an existing business. Obviously, if an existing business was willing to sell, it probably was not doing much existing business…at least not enough to continue existing.

But there’s the rub. In 1972, you couldn’t just buy the store, close the store, and idle the license until your new location was ready to go. The license had to be in use. Thus, a tiny shop with lousy access to busy highway offered an employment opportunity to a theater hippie who needed a summer job/40+ year career.

My first day on the job consisted of learning how to operate the cash register and the price gun (22 minutes), how to break down a cardboard box (30 seconds), how to lock up and set the alarm (5 minutes), and how to pronounce “Spañada” (a heinous, cheap, and versatile jug wine concoction from Gallo – you could boil it like a toddy, freeze it into ice cubes, spike it with fruit and/or grain alcohol, and pick up thirteen TV channels, three in color). After my grueling 30 minutes of apprenticeship, I was left on my own for that 4pm-12m shift and every other weekday night shift for the next seven months until the store closed in November.

The first night I finished my duties by 5:30 and the customer flow dwindled to practically none after 6:30. I was left with nothing to do until midnight except watch the small TV (three channels, none in color). I didn’t own a TV myself at that time so it was a novelty…for about an hour. At midnight I closed the store and vowed to not spend another night watching TV. It was another two years before I owned a TV of my own.

Instead, I brought books.

Until college, I read two or three books a week for curiosity and entertainment. In college, my reading was hijacked by the required reading. I reverted instantly to my pre-university habits. That summer, I averaged reading a book a night, and still sold my share of Spañada. If I finished my book early, I was left to contemplate the neon sign across the street and meditate on what kind of business plan would lead one to name their hotel “The Flaming Embers Inn.” It smacked of prophesying an insurance claim.

My typical day that summer consisted of an evening of voracious if indiscriminate reading, closing the shop at midnight, slipping next door to Foxy’s for an exquisite Foxy burger, and then home to work on the musical extravaganza Chuck and I were writing until about 3am. It was an immersive routine of consuming and producing art, consuming dubious but affordable food, and paying the rent.

Thanks to that summer, I don’t believe there’s anyone but me that understands and admires the opening scene of “La Boheme” as I do.

But even as I write that, my head tells me only about a million current and past theater hippies have had the same experience. That fact represents the hope of the world.

My heart interrupts my head to shout; “You lie!”

My head and my heart; those two have never gotten along for any length of time, and with any luck they never will. To brutally paraphrase Nikos Kazantzakis; they are both made stronger by the tussle.

I’m thinkin’ neither was made stronger by Foxy’s burgers.

Welcome to the 60’s

I have a friend who recently turned 60, or as he ruefully admitted to me; “I’m entering the 60’s.”

My reply to him was that he’s a little late. I entered the 60’s almost 60 years ago and enjoyed the hell out ‘em.

Oh, certainly there were unfortunate things in the 1960’s; things like assassinations, Viet Nam, George Wallace, Nehru jackets, Manos Hand of Fate, Tiny Tim, the Association’s Cherish, Richard Harris’ MacArthur Park……and tie dye.

But these travesties we more than offset by Woodstock, the Kennedy’s, bell-bottoms, the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, and the whole British Invasion, Bob Dylan, Sean Connery’s James Bond, Psycho, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, La Dolce Vita, Cool Hand Luke, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie and Clyde, Joni Mitchell, going to the moon……and tie dye.

And as I think about my impossibly young friend, he was born to enjoy the 60’s. He’s smart, well-read, and sometimes wears a beret. He questions all authority, thinks the moon is pretty cool, and knows all it is worth to know about popular music.

And he even likes Manos Hand of Fate.

He’d have loved the 60’s and I’m sure he’ll enjoy the hell out of his 60’s.

But, enough about him – what about me? Would I like to go back to the 1960’s?

Nah.

As Mr. Dylan said; “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

Besides, if I went back, at some point I’d probably have to hear the Ohio Express informing me; “Yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy.”

Talk about TMI.

Cowboy Bob and Peyton Place

My grandfather, Papaw, moved in with us when I was in junior high. Later, when my dad was transferred to Omaha during my high school years, Papaw went along with the rest of the family. I stayed behind to finish high school.

Papaw was a taciturn man of occasional wit and wisdom…and slightly more than occasional whimsy. One day in Omaha, he returned from his afternoon walk (he could cover miles) with a four-foot high marijuana plant he had recognized growing on a railroad easement. He added it carefully to dad’s tomato patch. He’d heard the controversy about the plant and was curious. When my dad got home that evening, he felt that curiosity was gonna get the whole family tossed in the hoosegow and destroyed the evidence tout suite.

Papaw accumulated 78rpm records whenever he ran across them and would play them on his turntable for hours. His hearing was no longer sharp. Thus, he cranked the turntable to life and cranked the volume up to eleven and leaned in. It was a sight to see. I couldn’t help but think of RCA Victor’s logo and caption; “Listening for his master’s voice.” I can’t truly say that Frankie Carle and his Orchestra writ scratchy and large made me a better man, but my Papaw seemed to find great value in the ensemble.

One day we were at a flea market and he noticed my interest in a cardboard box of about 20 “Tom Swift” books. When we returned to the car, the books were in the back seat, courtesy of Papaw. I can’t say TOM SWIFT AND HIS MOTOR-BIKE made me a better man, but I cherished the books then and still have them…he said bookishly (that’s a joke that only Tom Swift cognoscenti will get…and wince at…sorry).

Papaw believed what he saw on TV.

He believed it was real.

He was an uneducated, unsophisticated man, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew movies were stories and not real.
But TV…

Here was a window through which you could see things that were really happening somewhere and not get arrested. You could look in on other people’s doin’s.

Don’t laugh too quickly. The plausibility of Hitchcock’s wonderful Rear Window depends on just that premise.

Remember, this was decades before “reality television.” But Huntley and Brinkley were real, weren’t they? Ed Sullivan was live. Lawrence Welk was live (I’m not quite sure about Myron Florenz, but Bobby and Cissy were certainly a lively and charming young couple). All those game shows were live – maybe crooked, but live. The baseball game of the week was live.

The possibility of confusion was real and live on TV.

Papaw seriously proffered that Dorothy Malone and other members of the cast of Peyton Place had better mend their ways before disaster came a’knockin’ at the door. He would not miss an episode and wondered if Brother Bob from our church should go see those folks.

He believed professional wrestling was real.

Fervently.

I spent the summer of 1968, between school years, in Omaha. The professional wrestling scene in Omaha was thriving. Every Saturday night at the arena, there were hours of “championship” matches, blood matches, barbed wire challenges, and tag team mayhem, all accessorized with glitter, capes, masks, top hats, canes, and keffiyehs. Three or four thousand fans would pile in to scream and throw things.

It was a real good time.

During the week, to promote the Saturday events, portable rings were set at the local malls and the lesser stars of Omaha’s wrestling world would go a few rounds to whet the appetite for Saturday night.

On Wednesday evenings, one of the local TV stations would set up the portable ring in their studio and surround it with 70-80 rickety chairs on rickety-er platforms. For an hour, the stars of Omaha’s grappling firmament would prance, sneer, yell, leap, kick, bite, slug, strut, threaten, and make imaginative use of folding chairs.

The invited audience would scream insults and jeers at the villains (no expletives had to be deleted – the crowd understood it was live TV, and it was a different time) and then line up to get autographs after the bouts.

Wednesday evenings would find my Papaw in the chair closest to the TV. This is not because he was being pushy. The rest of us wanted sit behind him and watch him watching wrestling. It was quite a show. He flinched with every punch. He rose from his chair with every leap from the turnbuckles. He kicked with every drop kick.

We laughed and had a whee of a time pointing out sheer fakery of the presentation. He was oblivious to our questions;

– How can a fighter smack another fighter on the head with a metal folding chair and a) not send him to the hospital, and b) not send the chair swinger to jail?

– How come every bout ended exactly in time for the commercial break?

– How can a fighter hide a mysterious debilitating substance in those skin-tight outfits?

– Why can the masks never be completely removed no matter how comatose the masked scoundrel is?

– Since this is in a TV studio and all the wrestlers are using the same dressing room, wouldn’t they just destroy themselves there?

– Isn’t it convenient that Cowboy Bob, wrestling good guy and horse owner/trainer, would return to Omaha every summer when the local race track opened, defeat Iron Mike for the regional championship, fight and race all summer, and then lose the championship back to Iron Mike a week after the track closed for the year?

Papaw was undeterred in his faith.

One Wednesday night, he got so caught up in the TV action, he flung himself backward, overturned his chair, and dumped himself on the floor.

We didn’t laugh at that.

Dad decided this had gone beyond amusing and into the realm of; “Oh yeah, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt or a perfectly good chair gets busted.” He obtained three tickets to the next Wednesday’s wrestling broadcast.

There we were: three generations; Will Senior, William Junior, and June’s Boy, watching the participants laughing and joking with each other as they assembled the ring and warmed up. And there we were a half an hour later when the bouts began. It was all I had ever imagined; shouts and grunts and growls and screams – 250-pound men in tights leaping from the top ropes of the ring – dead men, face down on the mat – same dead men miraculously resurrected for a jaw-dropping thirty seconds of inexplicable victory – chairs flung, tables smashed, mysterious substances deployed – loud vows of vengeance to be inflicted; “Just wait till Saturday night at the arena! You won’t want miss it!!”

I was pretty sure I wanted to miss it.

We skipped the autograph session and headed home.

Papaw was pretty sure we had witnessed some clear illegalities that evening and that perhaps we should notify the police. His faith in the veracity of wrestling remained unshaken.

My grandfather lived to be 99 years old.

I love him and still miss him. He was a good guy and a real good time.
But I suspect…
…he would fallen hard for reality shows…
…he would have voted for Trump.

Kill the Lights – Eat the Cannoli!

In the prehistoric days of Lexington theater, spring of 1970, to be precise, a new theater entity was born; The Third Floor Theatre.

The Home of the Golden Arches currently on South Limestone was then the site of a Jerry’s Restaurant and in the back corner of the Jerry’s parking lot was a three-story brick building that housed Pasquale’s Italian Restaurant. Pizza had just been invented. Pizza delivery had not. Thus, “Italian Restaurant” meant lots of spaghetti and meatballs and cannoli and lousy brownish Chianti in straw-covered bottles.

<< Side note from the wine guy in the house >>
Those straw-covered bottles actually have a name. They are “fiaschi.” One bottle is a “fiasco.” Cool, huh? Don’t be fooled. The wine inside is far from cool, but the bottle looks great with candle stuck in it.
<< End of side note >>

Pasquale’s used the first two floors for the restaurant, leaving the third floor an empty space.

Empty space!

Nature has nothing on theater practitioners when it comes to abhorring a vacuum.
According to the visionary British stage director Peter Brook, an empty space is a major ingredient for theater. He’ll get no argument from me. I’ve performed on sidewalks, a frigid restaurant basement, two libraries, in front of a movie screen, two big stairways, under a large tree, a church sanctuary, several school cafeterias and gyms, two chapels, a crumbling abandoned night club, and in a park with trains.

Thus, it was no surprise that a couple of UK theater alumni approached the owner of Pasquale’s about using the vacant third floor as a theater. I can imagine the sales pitch.
“Think of the theater crowds…the lasagna you’ll sell!”

The room was tiny. It probably sat 20 folks at most. The stage was a 6-inch-high 4X8 platform. The lighting system consisted of four coffee cans, light bulbs and an on/off switch. It was briefly considered to light the arena (insert <<snort!>> here) with candle-festooned fiaschi, but it was decided that the fire marshal gods had been challenged enough by our mere existence.

Obviously, the roster of possible plays that could be mounted in that empty space was also tiny. “Oklahoma” and “Ben Hur” were scrapped from consideration fairly early. The Third Floor Theatre was pretty well capped at 2-3 performers, no orchestra, and certainly no horses.

It was decided to do a play by Strindberg. The title has faded from my jaded memory through the years, but I recall it was a laugh-a-minute romp (not) featuring two female performers who didn’t like each other (neither the characters nor the performers themselves), of which only one actor actually spoke. What could be more enthralling…a haircut perhaps?

I ran the lights for the show. I bray this fact to refute the calumny I’ve endured for decades about my legendary lack of skill or will on the technical side of theater. Though it’s true that all the tools in our home belong to Janie and the only hammer I own is engraved “This side down,” I’m trainable and perfectly willing to perform simple tasks.

<< Another side note >>
There are indeed dissenters to that last statement. For extra credit, you might read “I Killed Peter Pan” in the archives of this blog site.
<< End of another side note >>

Where were we?
…willing to perform simple tasks.
Yes.

And running the lights for this Strindberg faux pas de deux was as simple as it gets. When the actors took their places at the beginning of the show, I flipped the light switch “UP.” When the last line was spoken to end the ordeal, I flipped the light switch “DOWN.”

UP.

DOWN.

Hold my beer.

Well, the show ran pretty well the first weekend. Of course, there was Saturday night when Pasquale’s was rockin’, and the owner (our landlord, remember) made the executive decision to seat his overflow in our chairs in our theater. But since our chairs were his cast-offs and our theater was his real estate and our rent was zero, we acquiesced and waited until the last chicken marsala left with the last patron. It delayed our curtain for an hour and left a distinct garlic “je ne sais quoi” hovering over our Swedish play.

But it was OK.
I was on top of my game.

UP.

DOWN.

Hålla min söl och titta på detta.

The second weekend, however, didn’t fare so well.

I suspect word had leaked that Strindberg was not the Swedish Neil Simon and we were offering no laughs, orchestras, or horses. Our audiences dwindled. By curtain time one night, our audience consisted of one gentleman in coat and tie.

We assembled an impromptu discussion group of the evening’s principals; the actors, the audience, and the lighting guy. We identified two options;

1. We could not perform, refund the gentleman’s money, and invite him to return another evening for free, or
2. We could do the show for an audience of one.

The gentleman explained he was from out of town and only in Lexington for this one night and he’d really like to see the show.

I surmised the gentleman from out of town was more than a little smitten by one of our actors and was hoping to see bit more of her. I longed to explain to him this was Scandinavian drawing room material from the 19th century. The ladies would be wearing dresses that, if they had a headpiece, would be considered a burqa today, and they would retain every stitch until long after the final lighting cue and the gentleman had left the building.

I remained silent.
We did the show.

UP.

DOWN.

It occurred to me later, we had twice as many light cues as audience members that evening.

The Third Floor Theatre soldiered on for few more months until they lost the space. Pasquale’s got optimistic after that overflow evening and envisioned vertical expansion leading to riches. Alas, I believe they went out of business within a year. I’ve always blamed their failure on losing the theater crowd.

The Third Floor Theatre moved to St. Augustine’s Chapel on Rose Street, directly across the street from the Guignol Theatre. The name was changed to The Canterbury Pilgrim Players and new legends were launched……sans garlic.

Pitchin’ Steel

The last traces of a flaming rose sunset flee from another Bluegrass summer day. The birds go silent. The bats dart and dip. Yellow squares on dark blocks mark the welcoming windows of home and the neighbors; open windows seeking relief from the viscous warmth of the evening. Windows open also to the sounds of the evening; anger and laughter from the flesh and blood within or on television (The Honeymooners perhaps).

Also open to the sounds from without; the passing cars, porch conversations, sirens, and…

Two and a half pounds of steel gliding forty feet through the night air.

Two and a half pounds of steel slowly flipping once and once only like a gymnast in slow-motion.

Two and half pounds of steel crashing into dust and sand, sliding to a violent rendezvous with a one inch steel stake firmly anchored in a cubic foot of concrete sunk far below the surface of the planet. Its cry of defiance of the dying of the day pierces the night.

THUD!

CLAN-G-G-G-g-g-g-g-g!

This is repeated three more times.

Some neighbors’ windows close. Some expletives are un-deleted.

The twelve-year-old mind behind this performance trudges the forty feet to pick up his horseshoes and prepare to continue his metallic meditation in the other direction.

And make no mistake: a meditation it is.

Each shoe is banged against another to remove the dust gathered from the previous throw. Every bang rings like a mighty bell. This backyard, this horseshoe pit, is 500 miles from the nearest ocean, but ships at sea spring to emergency stations upon hearing these mad night bells from Central Kentucky.

Each ring of each shoe is a soul-centering om-m-m-m-m to this nocturnal pitcher of steel.

Probably not so much for the neighbors.

Each earthward swing of the arm, each precise release of the shoe, each slow arc of the flight, each moment of mayhem when steel meets steel, is a mantra of serenity deliciously smashed by gravity.

I loved to pitch horseshoes.

My dad built the pit. He dug the hole and poured the concrete and angled the stake. He built the frame and filled the whole schmegegge with sand. Pretty soon the sand was mostly beaten away and dirt remained, but everything else endured my constant pitching.

I pitched for hours. The ring, the swing, the fling, the flight, the landing, the clang, the trudge, repeat ad infinitum.

I thought no great thoughts. I solved no personal problems.
I simply became one with the dust and the clang and the air and the motion and the gravity and the steel and the night and the summer…

…and then my mom framed in the yellow square of our back door;

“Roger Lee! It’s time to come in. You’ve bothered the neighbors enough tonight.”

Can I get an amen?

An Opera House…in Kentucky?

You Can't Take It 10It would have been about 1:00 in the afternoon on a weekday in 1970…
…in an opera house…
…in Lexington, Kentucky.

Why was I there?

Was it to see a production of Carmen, or Madama Butterfly, or Rigoletto?

Nah!

I was there for the weekday bargain matinée at the Opera House Movie House on a fairly sketchy block of North Broadway. For a $1.50 I was settling in for a cinema mini-festival of the Barbra Streisand/Jack Nicholson classic; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (she sang, he didn’t…thank God) followed by Waterloo featuring Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer in the mud (neither sang as I recall…thank God).

The theme of this film pairing is strikingly apparent; tedious films employing and contrasting singing and cannon fire as mediums for selling a ticket or two…and maybe a tub of Buttercup Popcorn.

Frankly, I don’t recall much of the afternoon that was indelible in an uplifting way. I recall a long afternoon of affordable and forgettable flicks. I recall dimness, not just in the screening room, but in the lobby (skimping on lighting – a double savings; lower electric bills and less spent on actual housekeeping). I recall passing on the Buttercup offerings; the dim lighting couldn’t obscure the sharp, refinery whiff emanating from the butter(?)-dispensing mechanism. I recall the occasional skittering noises of the legendary rodent cleaning crew in the dark rows of the screening room celebrating the discarded remains of the Buttercup offerings.

Hey!
Buck fifty.
Two films.
You get what you pay for.
Plus Yves Montand and Ivo Garrano…and Mickey and Jerry (without Tom).

Well…that was then.
Eight years later, at age 27, I’m playing the 70+ year old Grandpa in Studio Players’ production of You Can’t Take It With You on the Opera House stage – same building. The seats are new. The balconies and boxes are gilded and populated with Lexington theater-goers. The lights are bright. The lobby, halls, staircases, carpets, and aisles are proudly pristine. No Buttercup products are in sight (or in smell).

What happened?

In the 70’s, the Opera House was attacked by ice storms, gravity, and old age. The wrecking ball loomed.
The city of Lexington and a group called The Opera House Fund said “No.”
A serious architect, and a serious Lexington, and a serious Opera House Fund (thank you Linda Carey and W. T. Young) redesigned and restored the structure – not to a museum roadside attraction, but to a thriving driver of Central Kentucky’s performing arts community.

A year after the success of You Can’t Take It With You, I played a deliciously young and foolish Cornelius in Studio Player’s production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker in a Saturday afternoon performance to 54 (count ‘em!) attendees in a house that seats about a thousand. Another fairly grim afternoon in the Opera House, but at least the grimness was in striving for something good, not in hygiene or affordability.

I should mention here that in both of these shows I got to work with my friend Paul Thomas. Paul has retired a myriad of times from the teaching profession and is now the House Manager of the Opera House. I believe the Opera House muckety-mucks value his participation, but are unaware that his best and highest use is ON-stage, not off. Such is fickle fame.

In 1981, I urged everyone to “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” in Lexington Musical Theatre’s production of Guys and Dolls. This was a notable production for Paul’s vocal exploration of musical scales of which Schoenberg never dreamed.

In 1982, Paul and I played in Brigadoon, also for Lexington Musical Theatre. Paul demonstrated a technique for holding a gun that the NRA is still trying to explain and justify.

Both of these edifying experiences were on the Opera House stage.

In 1987, I had the totaling fulfilling experience of playing Dr. Watson to my friend Eric Johnson’s Sherlock Holmes in the world premiere of my friend Chuck Pogue’s luscious script; The Ebony Ape, on the Opera House stage in an Actor’s Guild production. A two-story set, perfect and beautiful costumes, Fred Foster, Julieanne Pogue, Martha Campbell, Rick Scircle, Matt Regan…a glorious time for Mrs. Leasor’s little boy.

This was also on the Opera House stage…thank you very much.

A year later, in The King and I (a Lexington Musical Theatre production directed by my friend, Ralph Pate), Janie and I appeared in our one and only show together. She was lithe and lovely. I was…not so much, but I got to sing some beautiful songs for which I was not particularly suited (not, alas, an uncommon occurrence).

This was also on the Opera House stage. Sorry…but look at Janie! Isn’t she fine?

Carousel 01Now…
…skip ahead with me to 2006.

I’m asked to play the Star Keeper in the University of Kentucky Opera Theater’s production of Carousel at (you guessed it) the Opera House.

Well, I guess I could.

I walk out on the Opera House stage, count the stars – the stars!– , revive the protagonist and inspire him to return to life and assure his daughter that she’ll “Never Walk Alone.”

Whoa.

This is a far cry from 1970 and Waterloo and…

“On a clear day, rise and look around you and you’ll see who you are.
On a clear day, how it will astound you that the glow of your being outshines every star.
You’ll be part of every mountain, sea, and shore.
You can hear from far and near the words you’ve never heard before.”



Well…
…maybe…
…not so far.

The Polls Are Closed – Let’s Drink!

Elections used to be funny in the alcohol business.
Funny as in “ha-ha?”
Funny as in “odd?”
Yes…both.

Until about seven or eight years ago, liquor stores in Kentucky could not open on Election Day until the polls closed at 6pm. That prohibition led to intriguing moments on the Monday nights preceding Election Days and odder moments commencing at 6pm after a precious few of us had voted.

One Monday night, I was the 22-year-old, long-haired-hippie assistant manager of a Shoppers Village Liquors on the north side of Lexington. A cowboy came in. Well, he wasn’t really a cowboy, though he had a hat and boots. His boots were better than mine, but my Triple-X Beaver Stetson with an RCA crease and a front-exploding feather band put his chapeau to abject shame.
No, he wasn’t a for real cowboy. He was some kind of a law-enforcement entity (sheriff, constable, double-ought agent, witch-finder…whatever) up for re-election in his home county of Estiharlamorgistan. He needed half-pints for the campaign. He asked for six cases of half-pints of Old Forester and started peeling bills. Now six cases of half-pints is almost 300 bottles. At that stage of my inchoate career in alcohol, I had not even seen 300 half-pints of one brand, much less have it on hand for purchase. I explained that to the ersatz town marshal, sold him the seven half-pints I had on hand, gave him directions to my nearest competitor, wished him good luck on his campaign, and meditated on the validity of my faith in democracy and the value of my puny personal vote.

The usual routine for opening the store on Election Night was often eerie.
I would hover near the front door with my key, and watch the clock and the parking lot. If the weather was good, the folks who had been waiting would congregate outside the door and there would be banter and jocularity. Banter and jocularity…on Election Night…sigh…I miss it so.
If it was a cold night however, people would cower in their dark cars until they saw me actually unlock the doors. Their dark cars would look like tombstones in the dusk. The customers would emerge as a group and shuffle in. If the first arrival had ever growled; “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” I would not have been at all surprised. I would not have corrected them as to my name or gender. I would simply and quickly started hammering boards over the windows.

Most of the time though, it was a real good time.

The best time was when my friend, radio personality Dave Krusenklaus, decided it would be fun to make an evening of celebration out of Election Night. Celebration…on Election Night…sigh…I miss it so.
He rented a limo and a tux and planned to meander through a selection of candidate campaign celebrations. Well, a procession like that could only start at the Liquor Barn at 6pm!
Kruser’s limo pulled up. He was broadcasting live and he led a large and raucous crowd in a countdown to the polls closing and the store opening. My employees loved it.

The worst Election Night was my own damn fault.

I had been working in my office all day. From my desk, I had a straight on view of the front door and had watched as hundreds of customers had walked up to the front door, read the CLOSED TILL 6PM sign, and left. No retailer could remain unaffected by such a travesty. My frustration roiled until I left my office to wander into other parts of the store and recover from the total unfairness of life.
When I reached our receiving area, I noticed that a tiny delivery of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons was being processed.
Sensing an opportunity to reclaim some of the day’s lost sales, I raced back to my office and triumphantly tweeted the delivery.
By 5:30, the line stretched around the building. The store manager, realizing who was responsible for drawing this horde which exceeded his supply of Pappy by a factor of 20, ungraciously turned over the crowd control responsibilities to me. I spent the rest of the evening explaining and apologizing to little good effect.

THAT was not a real good time.

Those prohibitions are now gone and that’s probably for the best. But…it was a quaint reminder that Election Days are special days…not just another day.

Special day…Election Day…sigh…I miss it so.

Whoop!

Linden House

We had a houseful last night thanks to Janie.

Janie lives for Halloween. She likes me pretty well, and she adores Chloe, her pup, but she lives for Halloween.

The house is filthy with skeletons; human, rats, cats, and avian. Most of the bones twinkle, glow, and/or make noise. Any drawer, door, or toilet seat screams or plays Wagner. The shower is defended by knife-wielding shadows. Books on shelves shuffle…by themselves. Doormats screech – witch’s hats flutter (be careful, they’ll putcher eye out).

It’s a feast of shrimp and sausage and potatoes and onions and eye of toad and hair of newt (whatever a newt is)…and a cornbread to die for (and you may – but hey, it’s Halloween)…and yes, a gluten-free-but-what’s-use-in-living version of cornbread which everyone tells me is wonderful and I believe them…from a distance.

And then there’s the passing of Janie’s Treat Cat Box. You must reach into the razor-toothed mouth of the cat to get your treat – an unforgivable cruelty to inflict upon a guest assembly that has lived through Jaws and Banksy’s “Girl With a Balloon”. But it’s a foolish and brave group who’ve swilled more than a bit ‘o bourbon, and chardonnay, and prosecco, and cabernet; all of which are notorious courage-boosters.

And so the giant punch-balloons, and eyeball-rings, and head-syringes, and bloody saws, are deployed and depleted and, since thankfully no one requires a ride to the Emergency Room, we retire to the living room, de-activate the noise-makers and the stories begin.

Let me be frank about it.
It’s not a group spring chickens.

They’ve done a lot, been through a lot, seen a lot, and thought a lot about what they’ve done, seen, and been through. They’re verbal. They have vocabulary. They’ve had wine. The stories are unhurried and ever-changing.
It’s a great time to live.

Chloe, the pup is in heaven. She thinks everyone came to see her and every story is about her wonderfulness. She drifts from lap to lap.
It’s a great time to live.

I could relate some of the tales…and get sued…or arrested.
Rather, I am struck by how much theater has been collected this evening within these walls.
These non-theater walls.

When and how often I have been enveloped by a concentration of theater experience in a non-theater space. How desperately magical some of those congregations have been.
Then it occurs to me I’ve actually lived in such a place.

I had a college-ghetto room in a house on Linden Walk about 1971. It was an old house divided into rooms for rent – six or seven rooms that couldn’t even spell AC, sharing two bathrooms (tub-no shower, hook-and-eye on the door for imagined privacy – hey, it was hippie days, let the fantasies fly).

I recall my rent being about $1.25 per day. For real.

It was a little over a block away from the Fine Arts Building on the UK campus, around which, in defiance of Copernicus, the universe revolved. Thus, it was unsurprising that, with one exception, every tenant of the house was connected to the Guignol Theater. As far as I was concerned, this was Ground Zero for the future of American theater…whatever Ground Zero meant in 1971.

Besides me, there were two fellow actors living together downstairs. One was gay and later became a monk (for real), one was Pan incarnate (at least to hear him tell it – O the glorious filter of memory!). It was a reality show in the making before we’d ever even heard of reality shows. The assistant costumer for the Theater Department lived down the hall. Two actresses lived across the hall – their credits; Viola in Twelfth Night, Antigone in Anouilh’s Antigone, Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals.
It was a theater-infested house.

Except for one room.

She was demure.
Lower-case letters can’t really serve adequately here.

Work with me…
…she was demure………

She might’ve been attractive. Who could tell?

She would emerge from her room on Monday mornings, head down behind her books, and proceed with mission out of the house until late in the day. There was no “How d’ya do”.

Until Saturday night…

On Saturday nights someone would visit her in her room. I never saw him, or her, or…
But I, along with the rest of the house heard…

It began as a plaintive sigh…

…and proceeded quickly to a; “whoop…whoop…Whoop…Whoop…WHOOP…WHOOP!…WHOOOP!!…WHOOOOPP!!!…WWWHHHOOOOOPPPP!!!!!”

It was stunning.
It was athletic.
It was humbling.

It was far more dramatic than anyone else in the house could produce.

I still don’t know who she was, but when I was 20, she was a God to me.
She still is.

Earnest Words

Importance 06
1980’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the Guignol with Eric Johnson on the right and some duffer in spats on the left.

Janie and I had a lovely night at the theater Saturday night. We watched a crisp and energetic cast perform Oscar Wilde’s brilliant “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Athens West Theatre. If you can make it for their last weekend, it will be one of your happiest nights for the year.

I admired the efforts of Shayne Brakefield as a sometimes befuddled, often pompous local reverend (think Robert Morley in African Queen with a pencil-thin mustache), Janet Scott in full sail as Lady Bracknell, and Paul Thomas as the butler(s); mysterious, disheveled, inscrutable, vaguely obedient, barely competent, and clearly the mind behind every scene……not.

I have worked with all these actors before.
I know their gifts…and cherish them.
I know their habits and peccadilloes…and cherish them as well.

Last night I participated in a reading of Robert Penn Warren’s ALL THE KING’S MEN on the Carrick Theater stage at Transylvania with Joe Gatton, Sherman Fracher, Ellie Clark, Tom Phillips, Mark Mozingo, and Geoffrey Cobb Nelson.

I have worked with Joe, Sherman, Ellie, and Tom before.

Joe, Sherman, Ellie, Tom, Shayne, Janet, and Paul…
Together we’ve been to Dracula’s Transylvania, New Jersey, New York, a Midwest Mega-Church, Agincourt, Aquitaine, Deep South Mississippi, the magical forests of Shakespeare, Deep South Alabama, Upper-Peninsula Michigan, Russia, London, Pennsyvania, Scotland. We’ve been husbands and wives and daughters and sons and kings and vassals and brothers and sisters to each other.

We have history.

We have vocabulary.

When we step on stage with each other we have a big head-start to share with an audience; a dialogue that, in some cases, has been going on for decades.

These two recent stage experiences prompted me into a memory (what doesn’t these days?) of an early 80’s Guignol production of “The Importance of Being Earnest”. This was, in retrospect, a wonderful cast for me; Eric Johnson, Martha Campbell, Walter Tunis, Lisa Thomas, Georgia Ferrell, Tim McClure, Ann Dalzell, and Paul Thomas (once more playing the butler – murderous, scheming, ever-expanding……not).

This production was directed by Dr. James Rodgers, and he created an atmosphere playful, quick, and creative, but fierce in language…a happy culture in which Wilde’s mots, bon et rapide, could fly.

And fly they did. At the first table read, our Lady Bracknell encountered the word “indecorous” in the script. She paused and inquired; “Is that pronounced; ‘IN-DUH-COH-RUS’?” To which another cast member replied; “No, and if you say it that way, that’s where you’ll be.”

I suspect Oscar would’ve been proud.

Vocabulary matters.

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 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.
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?