Category Archives: Lexington-70’s

Audition Valor

I love to audition.

That sounds insane but it’s true, and it’s always been true. If it involves speaking and/or singing I’m in heaven. If it involves dancing…well…I might be busy that day.little-night-music-01 My point is; it takes no special bravery, or any bravery at all, for me to show up for an audition. I think it’s a pretty jolly time.

I know this is not true for everyone and I admire those performers who persist in auditioning in the face of dread. That’s bravery. The bravest audition I ever witnessed was one evening in 1987 in the Guignol Theatre at the University of Kentucky.

Eric is a great friend of mine. He is a fine illustrator/water-colorist and a fine actor. He can also carry a tune, but in his mind at the time, as a singer…he was a fine illustrator/water-colorist and a fine actor.

One afternoon we were chatting and I mentioned that I would be auditioning that night for Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. I urged him to join me. He dismissed the suggestion summarily; “I’m no singer!” He looked a little pale at the suggestion. Always sympathetic (not), I made a mental note that if I ever had to express utter dread on the stage his reaction to the thought of a singing audition would be a good reference memory (an actor prepares, right?).

That evening, about an hour into the auditions, I was sitting in the last row of the theatre watching the efforts of others. I had already sung and read a few scenes and was foolishly longing to be asked to read another 20-30 scenes – did I mention I love to audition?

BANG!

The door to the theatre flew open and Grimness and Ferocity entered, personified by my friend Eric. He commandeered (commandeered – yes – le mot juste) an audition form from the stage manager, and slouched into a seat as far from humanity as the Guignol allows. All evidence suggested to me that it would be prudent to leave him the hell alone.

He was called upon to read a couple of scenes.

Then he was called upon to sing.

He marched on the stage and waved the provided accompanist away with; “I won’t be needing you.” He then announced; “This is my favorite Christmas Carol.” He proceeded to sing/declaim an acapella rendition of “Good King Wenceslas” that was loud, in tune, and capable of being marched to by any competent armed forces unit.

It was stunning and strange and perfect for Carl-Magnus in the show.

I understood what it had cost him and I was proud to know him…and maybe a little relieved to know he was not a concealed-carry type of guy.

His reward for his valor?

He was cast.

He and I shared a duet in the second act. It was singled out by the reviewer as one of the highlights of that year’s theatre season in Lexington.

My reward for his valor?

I now have a new favorite Christmas carol.

Cue the Fog………Ack!!

If you hang out with theatre people for any length of time (say 15-20 minutes), you will hear many stories and quickly perceive that many of their stories fall into genres. Most theatre folks have tales about;

  • Working with children.
  • Working with animals.
  • Costume or prop malfunctions.
  • Outdoor theatre misadventures (there’s a sub-genre about bugs).
  • And……fog.

Yes, fog.

And yes, I’ve got a few fog tales if you’ve got a minute (or say 15-20 minutes).

My fog adventures, unfortunately, are not John Carpenter’s; pirates emerging to terrorize my home town while Adrienne Barbeau croons seductively on the local radio station from her lighthouse studio.

Sigh.

I attribute that lack to the fact that Lexington is land-locked. Our nearest body of water is the Town Branch of Elkhorn Creek (and we covered that trickle with concrete a long time ago), our closest Pirates are the baseball team in Pittsburgh, and our closest lighthouse might be 400 miles away on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston.

No, my on stage fog experiences are more pedestrian, but here they are anyway.

Fog in the theatre usually comes from machines though there are exceptions.

I was in a production of THE WORLD OF CARL SANDBURG in the spring of 1972. My friend and fellow cast member, Vicki James, gave a rendition of Mr. Sandburg’s poem “Fog” so evocative I remember it vividly 45 years later.

Ten years later, in a more-than-dubious production of DRACULA, my friend and fellow cast member, Paul Thomas, managed to effect a personal fog bank by furiously puffing (heaving!) on his pipe in a sad attempt to obscure his presence in one particular way-more-than-dubious scene. I still harbor hope that I can forgive him for his attempted escape one day.

But those are exceptions. Most stage fog emanates from machines wittily referred to as “fog machines.”

My first experience with fog machines was in a 1981 production of BRIGADOON. Oddly enough, it also included Paul Thomas. The show was in the Opera House in Lexington. The opening scene featured Paul and I as American hunters in the wilds of Scotland who have lost our way in the fog. We discuss our predicament and spot a village in the distance – all behind a scrim as the orchestra in the pit plays gorgeous Lerner and Loewe music.

The dress rehearsal went fine, but the director wasn’t satisfied with the quality and quantity of the fog in the first scene. It wasn’t convincing as a fog that would baffle vibrant Americans. He ordered a second fog machine for opening night.

On opening night, the music began and the fog machines (plural) began. By the moment our opening lines were required, the fog, restrained by the scrim, had achieved a height of 7.3 feet. Paul and I could not see the audience, and the audience could not see us. When we spoke we waved our guns in the clear air above the fog to let the audience (and each other) know where we were.

Then the scrim arose and a slow tsunami of fog rolled out over the edge of the stage, into the orchestra pit, and into the first few rows of the audience. It was a sight to see the violinists slashing at the fog with their bows. I think they feared pirates were eminent. I think the audience in the front row feared they had been lured into a bizarre Gallagher-esque experience (albeit with prettier music).

We all tend to resist taking steps backwards, especially in the arts, but the second night’s performance of BRIGADOON employed but one fog machine.

In 1989 I was cast in an outdoor production of KING LEAR as Lear’s Fool. I have played a couple of Shakespeare’s fools. I have a wealth of personal, real-life experience to bring to such roles.

Early in the rehearsal process, I made a creative decision that was accepted as valid by the director, Joe Ferrell. I felt the Fool would grovel and slither throughout the story as he insinuated his opinions on Lear’s actions and decisions, never reaching past the height of Lear’s waist. I wore out a set of kneepads during the show’s run.

Mr. Ferrell had also made quite a few creative decisions himself (as directors are wont to do), one of which was to employ fog machines during Lear’s nighttime wanderings through the stormy countryside, bereft of shelter and family, and increasingly bereft of his very senses.

Reasonable enough.

From my Fool-ish point of view however (about three feet high, remember), the fog machine was at eye level and only an arm’s length away. In one long scene, as Lear (my friend and fellow cast member, Fred Foster) raged against his daughters, his fate, and the weather for what seemed like four hours, I crouched in the mouth of the belching fog. My makeup washed off. My costume dripped in streams. I gurgled my lines.

When I came out for my curtain call, I didn’t bow.

Instead I shook myself like a dog to share my wealth of moisture with those nearby.

It’s good to share.

My favorite and grandest stage fog episode was on closing night of a 1992 production of SWEENEY TODD.

The house was sold-out. The cast was in place behind the curtain prepared for their grand reveal. I was storming around backstage, working myself into a damn decent homicidal frenzy.

The fog machines commenced.

However, a sold-out house was not enough for the kind-hearted and slightly greedy director, Dr. James Rodgers. He was scurrying about to find room to seat some last-minute, ticketless arrivals. He had folding chairs located and brought to place one-by-one in the corners of the house.

The fog machines dutifully blew.

A pre-show announcement was deemed necessary.

The fog machines gleefully blew and blew.

The orchestra finally began the overture.

The curtain was raised.

The cast began to “tell the tale of Sweeney Todd.”

I strode to the doors I expected to open and allow me to attempt to scare the bejeezus out 400+ people.

Instead, the fire alarm, triggered by the fog, had summoned first responders.

The fire department arrived with the Lexington and UK police – all with bells and whistles and lights a-blazin’. We were evacuated; the audience to the front lawn of the Fine Arts building and the cast and crew to the street behind the building’s loading dock. Both groups could see other in the emergency-light-decorated twilight of a lovely Kentucky summer evening – a far cry from the dingy, industrial Fleet Street.

Eventually, the authorities were persuaded that conflagration was unlikely. They were thanked for their efforts and invited to stay for the show. They chose to go about their duties instead, which was a good thing as I don’t know where Jim would’ve seated them! The audience, the orchestra, the crew, and the cast reassembled and an evening of theatre juiced by the pre-show capers turned out to be real nice clambake.

The fog machines were so proud.

Baseball on Gay Place

A memory of an older Lexington.

Great.

Now I’m gonna want a Dodger Dog all night.

I know I’ve mentioned once or twice…or perhaps a hundred times before how much I love baseball. I come by this infatuation honestly and early.

I grew up in North Lexington, on a street named Gay Place. Go ahead, snicker if you wish, but all it meant to us then was that it made it easy to fill out any forms requiring a home address. I didn’t need to write out street names like “Henry Clay Boulevard” and “Avenue of Champions” until much later in my intellectual development. To be perfectly accurate, the street was South Gay Place and yes, there was and still is a North Gay Place. Today I suppose we would call this configuration a cul-de-sac, but in the late 50’s/early 60’s the only French we knew was French’s Yellow Mustard (See? Completely obsessing on those Dodger Dogs).

On Gay Place, in the summer, we played baseball all the time, everywhere, and with all kinds of equipment.

We mowed the vacant field behind our street and played on the stubble. The field was severely canted on a hill. What did we care? Yes, the run uphill to first base was arduous and rarely successful, but if you made it, you could attain Olympic speed from first to third. Flat is seriously over-rated.

We played intense wiffle ball. We would locate the densest shrub in the neighborhood and put home plate in front of it. That eliminated the need for a catcher. I recall one memorable game when my participation was cut short after I reached into the catcher/bush to retrieve the ball and retrieved a wasp nest instead.

We played in driveways using a fishing cork for the ball and a broomstick for the bat. Our eyes were better then.

My favorite games were played in our backyard. The ground rules were remarkable and vital to know to determine a winning strategy.

  • A ball hit over the right field fence was a home run UNLESS;
    • It crossed over my dad’s vegetable garden. Then it was a foul ball. If it landed in the garden, it was an out – no, it was the ultimate out. We weren’t allowed to play anymore that day. OR…
    • …if the unsympathetic neighbors (probably hockey fans) who lived in the house over the right field fence were home. Then the ball hit over the right field fence was considered un-retrievable until they left home and the game was over or suspended until such time.
  • A ball hit over the left field fence was considered to be “in the outfield”. It could be caught on the fly for an out or fielded to hold the runner to a single or a double. UNLESS…
  • …it was a ball hit over the left field fence AND traveled beyond the tree in the middle of the neighbor’s back yard. That was considered to be a home run and would invariably initiate an argument over the distance measurement of such vitriol it would dwarf today’s chats between Clinton and Sanders supporters.
  • Games would continue until twilight, at which time we would switch to horseshoes, just to irritate ALL the neighbors.

No matter which incarnation of “baseball” we happened to be playing each day, the score for each game was meticulously kept and just as meticulously forgotten the next day. Players switched teams with complete fluidity. Feelings were hurt…and healed. People were offended…and survived. Heroes were made…and humbled. The sun set…and then rose again. We could spell “Gay Place”, but we couldn’t spell “Republican”, or “Democrat”. We had heard of the Reds and the Yankees, but we had never heard of conservatives or liberals. If, in the middle of the game, we felt the call of nature, we ran home or to a neighbor’s house or behind the catcher/bush and no one checked any birth certificates about it.

We had all the time in the world, but there was no time to waste on foolishness like that. We had a game to play.

Oh yeah, I love baseball. I earned the right to that love. Those wasps…!

“Cathedral Bells Kept Time”

“Cathedral Bells Kept Time”

Nanci Griffith made that observation in her song/reminiscence; “Three Flights Up”.

I lived it…

…for a while.

I’m an unrepentant, nay, make that a gleeful old hippie. If you don’t know the term…look it up…please!

In my college years and early twenties my friends and I generally lacked;

  • Money
  • Computers, laptops, cell phones, fitbits, I-pads or pods, thumb drives…
  • More than three TV channels
  • Multi-tasking urges
  • Regular haircuts
  • Pizza delivery (don’t laugh, gasp – it’s basic human right in my book)

It was a nightmarish time; a time to survive and be made stronger by surviving.

<<  snort!  >>

We didn’t have reality shows. We had reality.

We didn’t have social media. We had each other.

To quote Ms. Griffith’s song again;

“There were blinking pictures

Of how we’d sit and chat.

Some of them are scattered

Some are shattered in my mind.”

I remember many all-night random congregations over kitchen tables in shabby apartments. Discussions that originated at that evening’s rehearsal or that evening’s session at the Paddock Club continued after hours, sometimes till dawn.

Bob Dylan nailed it in his “Dream”.

“I dreamed a dream that made me sad,

Concerning myself and the first few friends I had.

With half-damp eyes I stared into the room

Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon,

Where we together weathered many a storm,

Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of morn.”

Earnest discussions, at times lubricated by beer and wine and carry-out burgers from Tolly-Ho.

We solved everything and solved nothing.

We knew everything and knew…the same.

“As easy as it was to tell black from white,

It was all that easy to tell wrong from right.”

We basked in the surety of our opinions about, Vietnam, the draft, Artaud, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Prine, Richard Nixon, Malcolm X, Ginger or Mary Ann; every burning issue of the day.

We were most sure of each other.

We listened to each other. We didn’t check our phones or email. We didn’t channel-surf. We didn’t update our Facebook page. We didn’t fact-check each other’s lies/stories. We listened and were entertained and, I think, mostly enlightened by each other’s presence.

“Cathedral bells kept time.”

Yes. Usually, we were in no hurry to part.

Last night a small group of people representing almost 400 years of friendship gathered with Janie and me at the house, ostensibly to celebrate Halloween, but really to celebrate each other. Dinner was great, Janie’s Halloween decorations were over the top, and the conversations were finally suspended (not ended, mind you…suspended) by the chime of Christ the King Church ringing 2:30am (I drift happily and deliberately from verisimilitude here, but you get the idea).

We solved everything and we solved nothing.

We still know everything and we know…less.

Checking in once more with Mr. Dylan…

“I wish, I wish, I wish in vain

That we could sit simply in that room again

Ten-thousand dollars at the drop of a hat

I’d give it up gladly if our lives could be like that.”

Last night…

…it was.

As nice as it was…I’m glad I didn’t have to fork over the $10,000 though.

Bad Checks, Baseball, & Bicycling

Bad Checks, Baseball, & Bicycling

 

Yesterday I went to a softball tournament in Frankfort. It was an all-day affair featuring 8-year-old young ladies missing pop flies, running from base-to-base with joyous abandon regardless of their safe/out status, bearing bats bigger than themselves, and chirping sassy, abusive cheers at the opposing team (which I suspect had cleansed a bit by their parent/coaches).

Janie and I loved it.

Cynics may suggest our delight may have been heartily induced by the un-biased fact that one our favorite nieces was the best player on our, alas, winless team.

Meh…haters will hate.

It was a beautiful day; sunny, temperature perfect. I’m at a ball game, listening to the opposing fans parent-splaining shrilly about keeping your hands up, keeping your eye on the ball, and wait’ll we get home. There were hot dogs…not good hot dogs, mind you…but there are no bad hot dogs at a ball game. That’s what yellow mustard is for.

Man.

How good can life be?

Between games, I mused about the last time I was at these particular playing fields.

I would’ve been 23 or 24 at the time. I was managing two Shoppers Village Liquor stores and living in Frankfort. I liked living in Kentucky’s capitol city. I lived a couple of blocks away from the Capitol Building and the Governor’s Mansion. It was a lovely neighborhood. I was cycling a good bit then and thoroughly enjoyed the impeccable pavement in my neighborhood……it’s good to live near the state capitol.

But not all was hunky-dory.

One of the bete-noirs of retail is bad checks. This is a problem that is rapidly fading as we sail into a cashless world, but in the early 70’s this was a serious impediment to a successful retail endeavor. As such, it fell to the store manager to collect these abominations.

I hated this duty and felt unsuited for it.

But as an actor living by desire in Central Kentucky, a locale that paid zip/zero/goose-egg to its actors, the sponsorship of my employment was paramount. If collecting bad checks was the rent for living in the Eden of my choice…so be it.

This duty led to some interesting adventures and interesting neighborhoods.

One of them had its denouement at the very softball fields of my past weekend.

It was a $20+ promise on a now worthless check. But in the early 70’s, $20 was a week’s rent, or a month of gasoline for the car, or a couple of days’ meals. This was not something to be abandoned without a fight.

I fought.

I first called the offender; no cell phones, only land lines…no answer.

I then drove to offender’s home (not as many guns back then). I parked in front of the address and rang the doorbell. No answer……BUT there was a twitch of the window curtain. Young and invulnerable and Sherlockian that I was, I decided further investigation was called for.

I drove around the block to the alley (alley…not as many guns back then) and waited. Sure enough, the offender emerged from his house in a bathrobe, smoking a cigarette. He spotted me and darted back into the house. I darted around to his front door. He was waiting for me. I received a promise of payment within the week.

Another promise unfulfilled.

Research ensued.

I discovered my offender played in a softball league on Tuesdays (aren’t smaller towns great?).

The next Tuesday, I was on the aluminum bleachers at the fields (Yes! The same ones my butt occupied yesterday!). There was my offender, warming up with his team. I sauntered over (“sauntered”…le mot juste…).

“Crestfallen” has always been a favorite word of mine and I believe I witnessed its living definition at that moment.

“I’ll get that money to you this week, I promise.” Was volunteered.

“Fine”, I replied.

I continued; “I love ballgames, ya know. I especially like ‘em when I know some of the players. And tonight I see a bunch of my customers here.

“If we’re not settled up by next Tuesday, I’ll be back and it won’t be to see the game, as thrilling as the contest might be. It’ll be to let everyone know……”

By Wednesday afternoon, I had received full payment for the check, plus the interest contributed of a choice selection of loud, vulgar abuse……rest easy, there was no vocabulary I had not heard before.

That’s OK.

I wasn’t feeling that good about myself anyway.

Conclusion?

We should pay our actors if we want’em to stick around.

“Good Drooler” — Resumé Fodder?

Birthday Party 01

The Birthday Party” (1971)

 

In my second year at the University of Kentucky I was cast in the student production of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party”.

It was a great experience for me. I was working with friends I admired and this was my first and only (so far) exploration of a Pinter script.

There were precious moments in the process.

One actor who was required to play a vital scene while more than a little tipsy, had never to my knowledge drunk alcohol in his life. The director was coming from a philosophical place that required “bridging the gap” between reality and theatre to the point where the “bridge” was no longer required. He aspired to leave storytelling behind in favor of “story-living”.

I find this approach more often to be better therapy than good theatre…but that’s for another time.

It was decided that it would be useful and wise to finish one evening’s rehearsal at the actor-in-question’s apartment, where, as a cast, we would get our actor blotto in a safe environment while the rest of us raided his fridge and rummaged through his LP collection (show music – OLD show music – good grief!). It was a reasonable strategy…except… The character in the show was a quiet, steady, murderous drunk…an ominous cloud on any horizon. Our actor was…not so much. As the cherry vodka took hold, he began to sing…loudly…every Fred Astaire ditty in the entire Fred Astaire ditty-book. Ominous cloud? More like the munchkins in THE WIZARD OF OZ celebrating the demise of the Wicked Witch. The disappointment in the room, both from the failure of the experiment and the dearth of danceable tunes in the records, was palpable. Our cast dissipated into the night when our befuddled cast-mate began wailing Harry Lauder songs in a blurry brogue.

I played the lucky (?) victim of the birthday party in the title of the show. He appears in the third act after having been ravaged overnight in a torture/interrogation session. He’s a wreck…a shell of a living thing. He sits, non-responding, slack-jawed, drooling, throughout the scene. Again, the director begged for realism.

Drooling.

A skill sadly neglected in most acting classes.

Not much call for drooling in musicals…or comedies…or…life, for that matter.

But if you need a drooler…I’m yer guy.

It was the closest I ever got to being in a reality show.

I didn’t care for it. I’m an actor/storyteller and a civil human being — one is pretend and one is real. I rarely confuse the two and when I do, it’s not good.

Do you suppose there are times and places when reality shows are appropriate and harmless entertainment, and times and places when they’re not?

These days I find myself watching the news and thinking about that far too much.

Bungalow Jukebox Ju-Ju

Bungalow Jukebox Ju-Ju

D’ya know what joss sticks are?

The tame definition in Wikipedia is that they are slow-burning sticks of incense, burned before idols in religious ceremonies. Well sure, you could use them that way…just as you could use your new $1,000 I-Phone to make a phone call or prop your book open while you read.

Or, your joss sticks could be notched and imprinted in such a way that when you tossed them like pick-up-sticks (remember them?) and pondered the resulting pattern, you could deduce future strategies for living. Or, as posited in Guy Boothby’s peripatetic “Dr. Nikola” novels, you could rule the world and direct its populations to nefarious, but profitable ends.

Wow!

How about tarot cards; similar purposes minus the world domination option (and don’t they look pretty on the table?)

Or tea leaves, or crystal balls, or palms, or horoscopes, or odd number coincidences, or Madame Cleo …or the Daily Racing Form for that matter.

Guidance; that’s all we’re seeking. Oh sure, we’ll take world domination, but that’s not our primary goal. We just want a subtle or crude finger-post suggesting; “Ya, might wanna try this.”

I admit I’ve tried all of the paths mentioned with pretty consistent results; zip, nada, uh-uh.

But…

…there is one oracle that’s been spot on.

Once upon a time there was a restaurant/bar in Lexington called The Bungalow. They had fine mimosas, sinfully delicious desserts (thank you, John Barker Gray), killer “Eggs Nova Scotia”, a later night crowd of vague genders and chimerically specific wardrobes,

…and a legendary jukebox.

There was a central master jukebox with satellites at the perimeter tables. The satellites had those wonderful manual tabs that could be flipped from A-3 (“I Believe in Love”-Barbra Streisand) to D-4 (“Johnny Angel”-Shelly Fabares) in a 1980’s second.

I loved that jukebox.

I adulated that jukebox.

I trusted that jukebox.

These were pre-Liquor Barn, Shoppers Village Liquors days for me. I would go to my office on Saturday mornings, check in with every store, check in with Rob (the owner), pick up Janie, have brunch at The Bungalow, and work in the stores in the afternoon. This was a “happy place” for me.

I could pretty well determine what kind of day it would be by the selections heard on the jukebox at brunch. Would be a “Stop! In the Name of Love”-Diana Ross and the Supremes kind of day, or a “Cry Baby”-Janis Joplin disaster of a day?

It rarely steered me wrong.

I think everyone rued the eventual demise of The Bungalow, but few were aware of the collateral damage of losing that jukebox. Guilty as charged.

About the year 2000, I had the great good luck to a do show with Michael Thompson. As to be expected, he was excellent in his role and excellent company to boot. Michael had served a good bit of time as bartender at The Bungalow. One night at rehearsal he handed me a jewel case with two cd’s. It was a compilation of all the selections from the jukebox at The Bungalow. He had also taken the matchbook cover from the restaurant and rendered it into a cover for the cd. What a treasure!

If you can wear a cd out, I have just about worn this one out.

And yes, if I pop it into my playlist and hit “random” and “String of Pearls”-Glenn Miller chirps free, I go about my day with a bit more irrational confidence. Or if “Beyond the Sea”-Bobby Darin starts crooning, I go find Janie and we talk vacation possibilities.

You can keep yer joss sticks.

Audition Valor and Good King Wenceslas

I’d like to revisit a favorite memory if I may…

Audition Valor and Good King Wenceslas

I love to audition.

That sounds insane but it’s true, and it’s always been true. If it involves speaking and/or singing I’m in heaven. If it involves dancing…well…I might be busy that day. My point is; it takes no special bravery, or any bravery at all, for me to show up for an audition. I think it’s a pretty jolly time.

I know this is not true for everyone and I admire those performers who persist in auditioning in the face of dread. That’s bravery. The bravest audition I ever witnessed was one evening in the Guignol Theatre at the University of Kentucky.

Eric is a great friend of mine. He is a fine illustrator/water-colorist and a fine actor. He can also carry a tune. But in his mind at the time, as a singer…he was a fine illustrator/water-colorist and a fine actor.

One afternoon we chatted and I mentioned that I would be auditioning that night for Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. I urged him to join me. He dismissed the suggestion summarily; “I’m no singer!” He looked a little pale at the suggestion. Always sympathetic (not), I made a mental note that if I ever had to express utter dread on the stage his reaction to the thought of a singing audition would be a good reference memory (an actor prepares, right?).

That evening, about an hour into the auditions, I was sitting in the last row of the theatre watching the efforts of others. I had already sung and read a few scenes and was foolishly longing to be asked to read another 20-30 scenes – I love this!

BANG!

The door to the theatre flew open and Grimness and Ferocity entered, personified by my friend Eric. He commandeered (commandeered – yes – le mot juste) an audition form from the stage manager, and slouched into a seat as far from humanity as the Guignol allows. All evidence suggested to me that it would be prudent to leave him the hell alone.

He was called upon to read a couple of scenes.

Then he was called upon to sing.

He marched on the stage and waved the provided accompanist away with; “I won’t be needing you.” He then announced; “This is my favorite Christmas Carol.” He proceeded to sing/declaim an acapella rendition of “Good King Wenceslas” that was loud, in tune, and capable of being marched to by any competent armed forces unit.

It was stunning and strange and perfect for Carl-Magnus in the show.

I understood what it had cost him and I was proud to know him…and maybe a little relieved to know he was not a concealed-carry type of guy.

His reward for his valor? He was cast. He and I shared a duet in the second act. It was singled out by the reviewer as one of the highlights of that year’s theatre season in Lexington.

Damn straight!

I Killed Peter Pan

summertree-11
The resurrected Mr. Pan on the right

I think the statute of limitations has run out. I can confess.

It’s not something I’m proud of and I don’t include it on my resume.

But I did it…or at least I thought so at the time.

For historical context; in 1970 Lexington Children’s Theatre performed their plays on the Guignol Stage at the University of Kentucky. That fall they were staging PETER PAN.

In 1970, I was a sophomore in the Theatre Department. That exalted status required me to take Stagecraft 101, a class that introduced theatre majors to the rigors of technical theatre. Participation in the class led to building flats and platforms, spackling sets, and being on the running crews for Guignol productions.

Peter Pan had to fly. That was my job.

It’s called a Foy System. It involves two ropes and pulleys attached to Peter onstage and an operator offstage. One rope moves Peter from stage right to stage left and the other moves him from downstage to upstage. Pulling the ropes lift Peter higher. Relaxing the ropes lowers him. Simple, n’est-ce pas?

Well, maybe for competent, coordinated people but we’re talkin’ ‘bout a long-haired hippie actor whose mindset and physical skills only coincided when flinging Frisbees (and then only occasionally).

The part of Peter Pan was being played by Geoff Moosnick; a sweet kid. Geoff’s mom, Marilyn, was a god to me. Marilyn was a Guignol veteran from the 50’s. She raised money and served on arts boards her whole adult life. She raised beautiful, bright children and mentored young artists throughout Kentucky. AND she told great stories…AND she made you feel that everything you said or did was an amazing and delightful discovery for her that day. These are the people we cherish.

It was final dress. I don’t remember what the distraction was. It might have been something as inconsequential as an invective haiku from Barry Baughman (UK’s Technical Director at the time) or something life-redirecting as contemplating my next meal (21-shrimp platter for $1.49 at the Kampus Korner or a grease-swimming double order of hash browns from Tolly-Ho). Whatever, the die was cast;

  • Peter spun and leapt for the hearth.
  • I pushed with my left when I should have pulled with my right.
  • I sailed Peter smoothly and head-first, straight into the corner of the hearth at an unsafe rate of speed.
  • Crunch.
  • Peter…Geoff…oldest son of one of my most-admired friends…hung in the air…head down…motionless, except for a slow, slow spin……clockwise I suppose since we are north of the equator………dead.

My first thought was; “You can clap your hands all you want but that sucker ain’t comin’ back to life.”

My second thought was; “Marilyn’s gonna be pissed.”

I lowered him to the floor. He lay there.

And finally groaned.

He breathed and then I breathed.

We lived on to do two shows together (SUMMERTREE, Guignol, 1971, and THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL, 1972).

Moral of the incident?

Two things you should never do;

  • Travel with Tom Hanks, and
  • Have Roger do anything backstage.

Dial M for Ray

As the curtain rises.

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

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

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

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

Historical (or hysterical) notes

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

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

But it seemed odd.

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

Again…odd.

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

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

Mama never said there’d be days like this.

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

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

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

I liked Ray…a lot.

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

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

DIAL M FOR MURDER

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

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

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

Michael’s fate was sealed.

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

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

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

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

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

Michael took the plunge;

Tap twice…say the line.

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

Michael winged it.

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

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

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

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

“No, No, No!!!”

……

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

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

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

The SEAGULL

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

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

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

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

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

I had a front row seat.

Sweet.

But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna-Mae waved gaily.

I lied.

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

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

Last week, we celebrated our 29th wedding anniversary.

Ray was right. Doing this show?

It did me good!