Category Archives: Lexington-70’s

What’s French for Pep?

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I was in a French farce once…
…on stage.

I’ve participated in and initiated many a farce in my life but they weren’t French and they weren’t onstage.
This one was.

On opening night, the director (a guest director imported from New York City, no less) assembled the cast in the Green Room for a pre-show chat (aka pep talk). This perplexed me. At the stupidly young age of 19 when I, of course, knew everything, one of the things I knew was if your farce required an injection of pep to achieve “farcicality” you might want to consider doing Ibsen instead. Shouldn’t a prominent bed and sturdy doors that slammed loudly be farcical enough?

Be that as it may, we assembled in full regalia (wigs, tails, boas, bustles, and spats) and our director spoke.

“When I was a young man, I apprenticed at a summer one-week-stock theater in the Catskills. Each night as we traveled from the green room to the stage, we passed under a large sign that read;
‘IT’S A COMEDY HOUSE. PLAY IT LOUD AND FAST.’
I came to hate that sign that summer. I knew theater was far more than important than that. I knew acting involved far more than that. I swore when I was a director I would not sell my art out like that.
And we haven’t.
We will take the stage tonight knowing who we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and why we’re making this journey. We’ve listened to each other, and laughed with each other, and cried, and kissed, and slapped…we’ve loved and betrayed…we’ve explored every path of this theatrical journey and we’re ready to take our audience with us.
Just…
…just…
…remember this;
IT’S A COMEDY HOUSE. PLAY IT LOUD AND FAST!”

<< sigh >>

Well…
…the bed was prominent, the doors worked, the walls were mostly pink, and the accents were vaguely French.

It was a farce.

The Hazards of a Wine Education

“Yer name Leasor?”

The words came out softly from a warm Bluegrass night accompanied by a blinding police car spotlight in the summer of 1973.

I was pretty sure I was not on the road to Damascus.
I could, regrettably, rule out an epiphany.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind wouldn’t be released for another four years, so it wasn’t a targeted alien abduction. Probing, thank God, was unlikely.

I was in my car parked at the back door of a liquor store at about 2am Sunday morning.
How could anything good come of this?

Wait, wait, wait…
Let’s roll this clock back a bit.

++++++++++++++++++++++++

I have been asked a number of times how I learned about wine.
I read magazines and books of course. In the early 70’s I read a quote from the owner of a California winemaker; “The only way to learn about wine is to open bottles.” That rang true and desirable to me in 1973, and has continued to ring true and desirable through the decades. But in 1973, I couldn’t afford to open that many bottles. Oh sure, it was a time when the most expensive California Cabernet Sauvignon (Paul Masson) was $3.59, Pouilly-Fuissé was $3.79, and Dom Perignon was $15.99. But I was making $1.85 an hour as an assistant manager and riding a bicycle to work whenever weatherly possible.

There were no student loans for opening bottles.

Then a customer ordered two cases of Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett (about $2.99 per bottle). It arrived and the customer did not. We were stuck with $70+ of wine that nobody else in Kentucky had even heard of, nor could they pronounce it if they had. What to do?

It behooved us to sell the cases. To do so, it behooved us to research the wine.

On Saturday nights, the store manager and I would work the store with a cashier. At midnight, we would let the cashier leave and the two of us would finish working until the legally mandated closing time of 1am. It was usually a slo-o-o-w final hour.
One slo-o-o-w final Saturday night hour, the manager chilled down a bottle of the problematical Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett. I slipped next door to the grocery store (Randall’s, if you’re geezer enough to remember) and purchased a couple of gourmet cheeses (Colby and Havarti, leftover from their deli sandwiches as I recall – goin’ first class all the way). We pulled out the Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wine, and pulled out the corks, and employed a couple of styrophene cups.

That night I learned a good bit of geography (the importance of those hilly bends in the rivers Rhine and Saar, and their orientation to the sun). I learned of the winemaking prowess of the Prum family. I learned a good bit about my first grape varietal; Riesling. I learned about the agricultural challenge of coaxing maximum ripeness while avoiding potentially crop-destroying early winter. Most importantly, I experienced for the first time sunshine in a bottle. There’s no going back from there.

From humble sips, a sometimes blurry enthusiasm ensued (plus, we sold the two cases).

We continued our Lincoln-esque educational path. Wine sales and reputation grew steadily. In the long run, the manager eventually became the best and most influential wine-buyer in the state and I did OK conducting a ton of wine-tastings over the next 40 years.

But in the short run…

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

This particular Saturday night, we had tried and studied a couple of real nice wines from the Cote de Nuits and I was definitely feeling the effects of the nuit.

We closed the store and the manager drove me around the shopping center to my parked car, dropped me off, and departed.

I sat in my car for a moment with windows down, my ride in 1973 being sans air-conditioning, GPS, Sirius, FM radio, cruise control, and cup-holders. I blissfully contemplated my next move. I was leaning towards a greasy breakfast at the Euclid Avenue Toddle House with the closing time rejects from the Fireplace Lounge and the Chevy Chase Inn. I was pretty sure that crowd would ignore my shoulder-blade-long locks and spare me the usual jukebox tribute of “I’m Proud to Be an Okie From Muskogee.”
Hash browns…
…hash browns…
…might just be the answer, whatever the question might be.

BAM!

That’s when the police car spotlight hit me.
The car glided alongside and a voice that invited no nonsense inquired; “What are you doing here?”

I explained, eloquently, perkily, and with perfect American diction, my status as an employee of the liquor store, just getting off work and heading for home for a good night’s sleep before I arose to attend church, teach Sunday school, and sing in the choir……and get a haircut.
I don’t think he bought it.

Then he asked; “Yer name Leasor?”

I confessed……abjectly.
Every fault known to man, every yellow light compromised, every RSVP un-responded to, every face turned away from the ugly hour mirror, every oil change postponed, every missed cut-off man…I confessed to it all in the name of Leasor.
“Yes…it is.”

“I saw you in a play. My girlfriend…she loves the theater. She took me to a play and you were in it. I didn’t like the play much, but you were pretty good.”

I was stunned and flattered into silence for a moment. Now remember, it didn’t take much to stun me at that moment…………I’m not proud of that admission.

We chatted for about 15-20 minutes about theater and girlfriends. He asked; “You still doing that?”
By then, my faculties were returning to razor-sharp (well…at least hacksaw-sharp) and I determined he was asking about theater and not girlfriends.
“Oh, yeah. I’m rehearsing a show now. You wanna see it? I’ve got comps.”
“I might. That’d be nice. My girl would be impressed.”
We arranged the logistics and he asked gently;
“Where’ya going now?”

Well, frankly, my belief in the restorative power of slimy hash browns being strong, I was still ciphering on the possible wisdom of a visit to the Toddle House, but his question gave me pause.
“I’m going straight home.”
“Where’s that?”
I responded with my address.
“Why don’t I follow you there, just to be safe?”
I agreed.
He did.

He and his lady attended my show and came backstage afterwards.
I think he scored a lot of points with her.

I merely lived to tell the tale.
I won……

Yes……I won……

But, it might have been because of the kindness and care of a problem-solving police officer. Attitudes about alcohol and driving were different; lenient and far more dangerous in 1973 than they are today. That incident changed my path. I stayed in the wine business, but my educational curriculum steered to a safer course. The slo-o-o-w Saturday night classes were terminated tout suite. C’est bien, n’est-ce pas?

The Three Kevins

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Haggard Leaning, Moi Reclining

I have worked on stage with The Three Kevins.

Wanna touch me?

The Guignol Theater at the University of Kentucky has a history that extends to the middle of the last century. A history of that length has room for several “Golden Ages.” I like to think I was lucky to have been a student in one of those halcyon eras. In the early 70’s the theater department was flush with young actors who had participated in the two-year experiment of one-week summer stock theater experience in the Guignol called Centennial Theater. New York actors mingled with UK student actors rehearsing one play in the afternoons and performing another in the evenings. I arrived on the campus in 1969 to a collection of veteran players and immediately understood I had to catch up quick or sprout roots in the UK library. My academics atrophied but rehearsals were soaring.

I foolishly accepted the trade then and I wisely accept the trade now.

Another “Golden Age of the Guignol” happened about ten years later. Dr. Jim Rodgers attracted a talented faculty and talented student actors followed.
Tim McClure, Martha Bernier, Sheila Omer, Lisa Jones, Sue Grizzell, Walter Tunis, Patti Heying, Bill Felty, Julie Klier, Billy Breed, Nancy Shane. What an assemblage of talent!

But I think of it as the time of The Three Kevins; the “Kevins” being Haggard, Hardesty, and Kennedy.

Kevin Kennedy was bright and quick. I worked with him in Terra Nova. The Antarctic was not nearly as cool as his wit. I think he makes violins in Colorado now.

Kevin Hardesty has a voice that makes you listen eagerly even if he’s merely reading the phone book. I worked with him Glengarry Glen Ross. Kevin is currently the rage as Daniel Boone in the Chautauqua Program of the Kentucky Humanities Council.

Kevin Haggard is a professional actor. He moves with reason and purpose. He speaks from the heart when his character must, from his head when his character must, reluctantly when his character must, and impetuously when his character must. I worked with Kevin in The Curse of the Starving Class. I’m a fan.

This reminiscence was triggered by viewing a Fox program I’d never heard of; The Resident. Kevin Haggard appears briefly as a hospital board member participating in decisions that would not qualify one as a “better angel.” Kevin had three or four lines and maybe a total of 40 seconds of screen time. A small part, but played with integrity and attention. Just what I’d expect from Kev.

Kevin moved to Nashville from Lexington and seems to be always working as an actor and seems to have become respected in his profession and seems to be happily married. Talented and nice guys don’t finish last.

I have worked on stage with The Three Kevins…and all these Guignol Golden Agers.
I was made better by all of them.
Lexington was made better by all of them.
That’s what the arts do.

Cherish them, please.

Dickens and the Deity

Charles Dickens was a good friend of mine.

No, not that Charles Dickens.

This Charles Dickens was a teacher/director in the University of Kentucky Theatre Department in the 60’s and 70’s and yes, that was his real name. He was tiny and skinny with a voice that was neither tiny nor skinny. He shuffled though the halls of the Fine Arts Building during play rehearsals followed by Bridey, his Scottish terrier and smoking (it was long ago and a freer age then – dinosaurs still roamed the savannahs, probably smoking).

Charles was an important teacher for me, though I never had a class with him.

How does that work?

Charles was my director in four different shows and he was a fellow actor in three. I learned much about theatre in those experiences.

But my first experience with Charles (unbeknownst to him) was before I even reached UK.

The year was 1969.

The place was the Guignol Theatre.

The reason was the Kentucky High School Play Competition.

I had competed earlier in the year at the regionals. We did well, but did not advance to the state finals. It was at these regionals however, where I met and befriended Jim Varney (see “Pre-Ernest Musings in the archives of this blog). Thus, I was simply a spectator, enjoying the efforts of other schools.

Charles was one of the judges.

I knew of Mr. Dickens. I had seen one of the plays he directed and heard exotic tales. Don’t get too excited. “Exotic” to this Southern Baptist-raised high schooler probably consisted of hearing of Mr. Dickens;

– Wore turtle necks.

– Drank…something…other than Coca-Cola.

– Quoted old movies like Gospel.

– Smoked…(sotto voce)…a lot!

Exotic.

But here he was, in the house of the Guignol, about ten rows in front of me.

We were watching and evaluating the same plays.

I felt wiser instantly and was reveling in my newfound sagacity.

Then Henry Clay High School took the stage.

For some unfathomable reason, they had chosen to do a miracle play; “Noah’s Ark.”

There it was, a gigantic backdrop of the title boat. In front of the ark, strutted sheet-bedecked high-school actors announcing and pronouncing archaic and utterly boring lines that didn’t even have the good manners to be iambic pentameter. At least you could have danced to that. It would be another nine years until Animal House came out. Otherwise, I would have erroneously assumed I had stumbled into a toga party.

The play crawled along through pomposity and vague righteousness until it reached a tense moment. The tense moment was tipped off by a tiny rumble of thunder offstage right. The ark backdrop wavered and from out of the top of the ark, holding on for dear life, popped a head in the midst of a medical cotton nimbus and beard.

It was God.

God stabilized his precarious perch, looked down, and sternly said; “No-O-ah-H!”

Now you fellows reading this, at this point I need you to keep in mind the age of this young boy-becoming-a-man and recall that first tough moment when your voice changed. Now, please turn and describe that moment to the females in our audience so they can also comprehend what just happened to our young actor…

…as he was playing God…

…In the Kentucky State High School Play Competition.

OMG.

As if that weren’t enough…

…at that moment, a great rolling guffaw filled the theatre,

It was the hooting of Zeus,

It was the howl of Odin,

All emanating from this tiny man judging the competition.

It was Charles Dickens, laughing at God.

My inchoate sagacity evaporated.

I wanted to hide under my seat and await the inevitable lightning strike.

It was exotic.

I learned a lot about theatre from that blasphemous chuckler.

Ridin’ the Bus

Before we get to the bus…

I think my favorite “Peanuts” cartoon featured Linus asking Charlie Brown; “Didn’t you ever get into any fights at school?”
Charlie replied after cogitating for a panel or two; “No, I formed discussion groups.”

Now, to the bus.

I rode a lot of busses in junior high and high school.
I rode school busses. I had to be at the corner of our street on time, rain or shine, or left behind. If I missed the bus, I had to race two blocks to the next nearest stop and try to catch it. If I missed it there, the Taliban (not yet invented) was summoned to slice my head off in front of 23,403 people in Rupp Arena (not yet invented) and my remaining limbs would be shrink-wrapped (not yet invented) and shipped to Hogwarts (not yet…) for wand-blasting experiments. There was no parental ride to school.

I never missed the bus.

If I had, in my parents’ eyes I would be to blame; a worse alternative than anything in the last paragraph. Not the driver, not the weather, not the roads……me.

I never missed the bus.

There were students on the bus who were bigger than me. I devised strategies to deal with them. In my parents’ eyes, if there was a problem, it was mine.

There were students who were smaller than me. Ditto.

There were girls. Ditto.

There were students whose skin was a different hue than mine. Ditto.

No one got shot. No one got pregnant. The driver drove and looked straight ahead.

We all got along until we could arrive at our destination…every day…for years……what other choice did we have?

There were no fatalities.
But there was learning of a sort.

Today, we live in gated communities, drive our children to school, pick them up after, and schedule play dates.

We decry the current tribalism tearing our country apart; “Why can’t we get along with each other? Why are we so divided?”

Perhaps we have not learned to get along with each other. Perhaps some of our rolling classrooms devoted to getting along with each other have vanished.

“…I formed discussion groups.”

Yes, I most certainly did.

I had to.
And it has served me just fine.

MAGA Hats and Tweeds

It was in the halcyon days of the mid-70’s. I was working in the wine department of a Shoppers Village Liquors (later to become Liquor Barn). I was wearing blue jeans, an army surplus shirt, Dingo boots, and my hair hung down to between my shoulder blades. I was a certifiable hippie-type who knew his wines. There were plenty of certifiable hippie-types in Lexington in those days, but most of them knew more about Pabst Blue Ribbon than Mumm’s Cordon Rouge.

One afternoon, I approached a middle-aged gentleman in the French aisle with my best; “May I help you?” He continued to gaze at the Beaujolais Villages selection for a moment (lost in the Fleury and the Brouilly) and murmured; “Are these all Beaujolais? What’s the diff-f-f-f…?”

Along about “diff-f-f-f…” he had glanced up at me, assessed the likelihood of any credible assistance from such a creature, and reached the conclusion of zero, zip, goose egg, and bupkiss. I caught a fleeting glimpse of despair in his eyes.
“No…I’m just looking.”

I’d seen this play before.

<< Let’s take a little reference side trip shall we? >>

In acting, an actor should quickly learn the difference between what they do and what others see, or they’ll never progress and they’ll never know why.

  • I go on stage and do my piece, tell my story.
  • When I finish, I step off the stage and the watchers tell me what they saw.
  • If there are differences between what I did and they saw…I change.
  • My story is paramount.

If my hearers/watchers/audience don’t get my story, it doesn’t matter what I thought I was doing. If I want to succeed, I change and change and change until my story gets through the way I want it to be heard and understood.

I’m an actor and a storyteller. I’m foolish a goodly bit of the time, but I’m not often stupid.
And I wasn’t in the mid-70’s.

<< End of little reference side trip. >>

I pondered hard after my exchange with the fellow struggling with Moulin-au-Vent, and realized I was tilting with a few windmills of my own.

I really liked selling wine. I wanted to do more of it. But the signals I was sending were inhibiting me. I knew my hair and my fashion choices spoke nothing my quality, but others were making instant negative evaluations. Their prejudices were obstructing me. I was paying a price I no longer wished to pay.

I scheduled a haircut.
I called my professor from UK and asked him to teach me about tweed coats.
I had learned to tie a double Windsor a few years before from my friend Chuck Pogue.
I had an eye exam (previously scheduled) and when the doctor suggested contacts, I opted for glasses.

Voila!
“Perfesser Lesser” was born.

I was amazed and delighted and a little bit disgusted by the change in fortune.

People respond to the signals we send. We may ridicule them for their response, but we choose the signals. We are in control of the signals we send and thus are in control of the response we elicit.

I was not my hair.
I was not my boots.
I was not my army shirt.

Nor was I my tweed jacket and my glasses.

These were simply signals I chose at different times of my life.

Similarly, the young man from Covington Catholic standing in front of the Native American drummer was not his hat.

But the hat was his signal.
The signal was his choice.
He was in control of the response.

It took me until my mid-20’s to decide I no longer wanted to pay that particular price.

I had the Côte d’Or to explore.

And yes, the choice has been golden.

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.