Category Archives: Lexington Theatre

Jim Sherburne & West Coast Jazz

Jim Sherburne doubled my jazz world all by himself.

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

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

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

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

The man could write.

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

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

The Sherburne family moved back to Kentucky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about the music?

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

I should say.

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

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

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

The West is cool, the East hot.

Stars vs. neon.

Highways vs. subways.

Wake-up!

Don’t sleep!

It doubled my jazz world.

Thanks to Jim.

Thanks…

To Jim.

A Marvelous Party

“I have been to a marvelous party.”

Thus wrote/sang/chanted Noel Coward in 1938 and I lived it last Saturday night.

The “marvelous party” was “Encore”, ostensibly a fund-raiser for OperaLex to raise money to support the Opera Program at the University of Kentucky.

What it was, in practice, was a resounding celebration of much that is special about living in the Bluegrass.

To begin with, it was Keeneland, in May; intoxicatingly green, lush, and bursting with life…or at least the assurance of life after Derby.

Then there was the 1938 Rolls Royce convertible just inside the entrance. Is that what it takes to get a good parking space?

Then there was the wine-tasting (thank you Liquor Barn) and the mingling of Lexington’s arts supporters with the singers/students/nascent citizens of the UK Opera program. Seeing Houston Tyrrell (you’ll see him next in GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING) discussing the merits of a box of stunning South American red wines with Ben Kaufmann (you saw him in last year’s GRAND NIGHT) was jarring. I’m not completely convinced of who was advising whom, but the entertainment value…priceless.

And then the dining room; it was a palace of glassware, auguring well for the meal to come.

From the stage, Jenna Day came back from her home in Los Angeles to guide us through the evening and share her passion for this program and these students. She introduced Dr. Everett McCorvey and Dr. Tedrin Lindsey.

The spirit in the room got higher and higher;

  • Tedrin’s program for the evening included selections from the past season; LA TRAVIATA, SHOWBOAT, and BOUNCE the basketball opera.
  • Cameron Mills’ and Rex Chapman’s delight for being in the room was obvious and incandescent.
  • The passion and the talent of the singers could not be resisted.
  • Tshegofatso Clement Baloyi broke everyone’s heart with his “Ole Man River”
  • Michael Preacely and Taylor Comstock delivered world-class performances and inspiring personal stories.
  • Jessica Bayne defined class for us all.
  • Emilia Bustle charmingly explained to us that “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” isn’t what a girl supposes.

These young people come to the University of Kentucky to sing and learn to sing and learn to teach others to sing. Tell me again how Lexington, and Kentucky, and the planet is not made better by that. They are with us for two, three, four, five years. They and Lexington are made better by their time here. It is a kind of gardening of talent, and scholarship, and citizenship. Saturday’s Encore event was a kind of harvesting and renewing of that gardening.

Next year, I propose we measure the height of every participant as they enter the event, and again as they leave. I’m convinced that everyone is two inches taller for having been there.

Get It Right

There was an OperaLex Board meeting tonight.

We meet in the Schmidt Vocal Arts Center at the University of Kentucky, which is also where this year’s cast of It’s a Grand Night for Singing rehearses. After my meeting, I slipped in to watch and listen to a bit of their rehearsal.

These are early rehearsals, devoted to learning the music before the choreographer comes in next week.

Dr. Everett McCorvey was conducting the rehearsal. Two evenings ago, Dr. McCorvey was awarded UK’s highest academic award by the president of the university. Tonight he’s guiding about 30 young singers through the intricacies of the Great American Popular Songbook. The passion and the pride is the same for each night – his and the young singers. It’s the same passion and pride he’s brought to this production and these singers every year since 1993. I’ve witnessed it myself every year.

Dr. McCorvey took a moment to explain to the cast that the geezer that just sneaked in was harmless. One lady in the alto section mentioned that in the second year of Grand Night, I had sung “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” to her daughter, and that her daughter was now 29. There’s a special place in Purgatory for people like her.

They were working on “Rhythm of Life” from Sweet Charity.

Everett stopped the rehearsal to point out that in measure 89 (of several hundred measures), the staccato was on the first beat only. The rest of the measure was rhythmically smooth. He then ran the passage three times to emphasize the rhythm and get it right.

Get it right.

One measure out of hundreds – get it right.

Not just on a solo when everyone is watching you, but in a chorus, perhaps in the background – get it right.

Not just when it matters – it always matters – if you know what “right” is, get it right.

Not just in loud places, not just in quiet places, not just in public, not just in private, not just in the Schmidt Center, not just in Lexington, not just in Washington, not just today…

…everyday…

…it always matters.

If you know what “right” is, get it right.

That’s what the arts can teach us…and I fear we are in sore need of that teaching these days.

A Damn Grand Night

It’s May in Lexington.GN 02

It’s always a miracle. I wouldn’t miss it for the world…and never have.

It’s stupidly green. My lawn needs mowing every fifteen minutes. My trumpet vine hedge shouts “GREEN” to the sky and defies any attempt to pacify it. Every tree simultaneously erupts in a kind of chemical warfare, turning noses red, squeezing eyes shut, and sparking a drumroll of non-contagious, but orbit-achieving sneezes in most of the population.

We have this horse race nearby. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s cool – 143 years cool.

I’ve thrown my Frisbee in the infield. I’ve gotten muddy. I’ve spent eight hours at the racetrack one day and never glimpsed a horse. I sang a sad song and mysteriously cried, oblivious to the song’s original intent. It was real good time.

But after mowing the lawn and whacking on the trumpet and sneezing and avoiding mint juleps and weeping no more and the two minute frenetic bewilderment of a herd of beautiful animals I’ve never heard of stampeding to a measure of glory likely to be forgotten in a couple of weeks…what then?

Well, oddly enough, in Lexington we turn our attention to singing.

For the last quarter-century an unlikely event happens in Lexington; It’s a Grand Night for Singing. For six nights 80+ singers, dancers, and musicians perform fierce, powerful renditions of songs from Broadway and Hollywood, old and current. Thousands of people fill the seats to be moved by the singers of the nationally-recognized University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.

In the interest of full-disclosure, personal pride, and to keep this account going, I must fess up to having participated in this event a number of times, though frankly, the quality of the event left this hippie geezer in the dust years ago.

But there have been many moments to treasure.

The first time I did the show was in 1993. I was asked to sing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady. I marched in front of the orchestra to the center of the stage and began by declaiming; “Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!” At which point, a five-year-old girl in the audience chirped; “Damn!” The audience went quiet……yes, as a tomb. I turned to the general direction of the child, paused, and offered; “Everyone’s a critic.” It was probably the biggest ovation I’ve ever received.

When the show ended, the parents of the offending (?) child sought me out to apologize. I felt like I owed them money.

May in Lexington…Grand Night for Singing…miracles…I wouldn’t miss them for the world.

Not Knowing…

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

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

So.

Very.

Sweet.

But there’s this moment…

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

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

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

It’s 1968.

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

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

Was that an invitation?

Was that consent?

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

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

Now what?

…not knowing, he stayed his hand…

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

North Lime and the Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, AthensWest, for that happy challenge.

A Runner Stumbles to 1977

I had a time-warp moment last Sunday.

After our matinée performance of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians at AthensWest Theatre, there was a talk-back session with members of the audience. Talk-back sessions are not a thrill for me. They’re usually sparsely attended and fairly short, with a few timid questions and typically one unpredictable pompous answer that serves to evaporate any remaining questions, comments, or conversation.

But this show is atypical.

The innate civility of the script seems to invite participation. Several dozen audience members have been lingering each night. People are moved and want to share…emphasis on “share”. They have been challenged to listen and think and explore without judgement or solution. They have not been challenged to either change or be considered deficient. There are no instant triggers to defend feelings or questions or beliefs. Curiosity and civility seem to be in ascendance. Pomposity has left the building.

After Sunday’s talk-back concluded, a lady approached me and said; “You probably don’t remember me…”

She was wrong.

Seeing her took me back 31 years.

I play a pastor in The Christians. The last time I played a religious leader was in 1977 at Studio Players. I played an erring priest in The Runner Stumbles. My Sunday questioner was my director. How cool is that?

Runner Stumbles 06
The Runner Stumbles (1977)

However, rolling my mind back to 1977 and that show reminded me that I first met two great friends and actors in that production; Gene Arkle and Paul Thomas.

At the first company meeting of The Runner Stumbles, we were polled by our director to give our first impressions of the script. The gentleman to my right replied that the script reminded him of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. He went on to elaborate, but he had lost me at Mahler. To me at that time, “Mahler” was just a clever rhyme in the song “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch” from Sondheim’s Company. I recall my impatience by the irrelevance of his remarks and being more than a little intimidated. The gentleman was Gene Arkle. My impatience was quickly unveiled as the young know-it-all’s folly it was. Gene and I went on to do a bunch of plays together (some of them were pretty good), and because of Gene, I delved into the symphonies of Mr. Mahler (ALL of them were pretty good – go figure).

During the first blocking rehearsal of Runner, I was sitting in a scene awaiting my church superior, played by an actor I had never met; Paul Thomas. He entered and intoned; “Father Rivard, it has come to our attention…” That’s as far as he got. My guffaw brought him to a halt.

I said he “intoned.”

Actually it was more of a cross between Gabby Hayes and a soupçon of Ethel Merman, with maybe a smidgen of dentist’s drill thrown in.

I truly thought it was a rehearsal gag. I was ashamed when I was discovered my error and have spent the ensuing 31 years trying to make it up to my gifted friend. Paul and I have performed together about two dozen times and I was his best man when he and Lisa wed.

All of this flooded my mind when my Sunday lady prompted; “You probably don’t remember me…”

How wrong can a person be?

Moments of origin can’t be forgotten…certainly not by actors. We remember the people, the time, the place, the temperature, the wind direction, the smell, the sound. We dredge those moments from the past and use them to create today and hope always to launch new moments of origin…that won’t be forgotten.

It’s a powerful reason to get up in the morning…

Marilyn Moosnick…Firecracker!

One of the blessings of having been around the arts of a small city for a long, long time is the surplus of memories that every moment evokes.

One of the curses of having been around the arts of a small city for a long, long time is the surplus of memories…

The other night before the start of AthensWest’s production The Christians, during a period of “quality green room time” (thank you, Paul Thomas for that concept) in the men’s dressing room, a few old Lexington theatre stories were spinning. Marilyn Moosnick was mentioned.

I’ve written before of Marilyn and the affectionate place she fills in my mind and heart (see “I Killed Peter Pan” in this blog).

Summertree 11
One o’ them Moosnicks (Greg) on the right

In college at UK, I acted with her sons in two plays; Summertree and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. She and her husband Franklin would pick the boys up after rehearsals and we would occasionally chat a bit. I perceived the pride she felt in her boys and the high standards to which they were held. They were standards for creativity…way more than standards for behavior. She expected her boys to respond with imagination, respect their elders, and respond with imagination…in that order. Oh…and learn their lines.

Marilyn had the gift of total attention.

When she turned to listen to you, the world was depopulated except for you. What you had to say might possibly change the world…or her opinion on the matter at hand, which was pretty much the same thing to me. It was daunting. It made you think…and think again before you blurted. Talking to Marilyn was playing with live ammunition.

That said, Marilyn was fey.

The stories of impetuousness are telling.

Her son Greg tells of a night at Studio Players. Marilyn and Franklin had been dating, but there as yet were no commitments. Marilyn was in the show and Franklin attended…with a date. As Franklin and his escort were exiting the performance, an errant jar of cold cream sailed from the second floor window of the theatre and shattered on the walkway, rendering the walkway hazardous and Franklin’s interest in his friend even more so.

Decades later, Marilyn and I served on a committee to raise funds to refurbish the Guignol Theatre. Marilyn volunteered to solicit Harry Dean Stanton – they had dated (once) when both were Theatre Department undergraduates in the fifties. She later related to the committee her phone conversation with Stanton. Harry reportedly said; “Marilyn, honey, you sound like a real firecracker, and I’m sure we had a real good time…but I’m broke.”

She encouraged me. She scolded me. She encouraged me. She listened to me. She encouraged me.

She did the same for Lexington…in that order.

She was a firecracker.

I miss her.

Livin’ on the Edge With Joe

My stage director/mentor/friend Joe Ferrell had a birthday this week.

Who cares?

I gather he’s getting old.

Who cares?

Well…

I kinda do.

I’ve read a bunch of tributes this week from various actors and students and friends. I am humbled by their reminiscences and the life-changing echoes of those reminiscences.

I have some of my own, of course…some might get us arrested…

May I share a silly one?

The year was 1984.

For some inexplicable reason (at least to me) Lily Tomlin came to the Guignol Theatre at the University of Kentucky one evening and practiced a reading of the beginnings of a new one-person play. She was the “one-person”…go figure. It was free and the house was packed…go figure. I was on the front row. Thus, Lily Tomlin spit on me. I didn’t shower for two weeks. My social life dove from pitiful to non-existent…go figure.

The next day, Ms. Tomlin held a q&a in the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs) for the Theatre Department students. I took the day off from work and lurked in the back of the house (sans shower remember). Joe Ferrell was the moderator of the session.

Commenting on the barrenness of the stage – nuthin’ – no chairs, no stools, — nuthin’, Joe introduced Ms. Tomlin and suggested that they simply sit on the edge of the stage. Ms. Tomlin’s eyes twinkled a challenge echoed by her voice; “I’ll sit on the edge if you will.”

I knew Joe and I knew the answer to that challenge from anyone, anywhere, anytime, in any theatre.

They sat on the edge.

That’s my Joe, and I’m standin’ by it……on the edge.

Broken Things

I’m old enough now to have been several things. Over the last six decades, I’ve been a library clerk, a husband, a retail store manager, a stepfather, a student, an advertising manager, a wine consultant, a friend, a singer in musical theatre, a husband again, a Frisbee artiste, a party planner, a government relations director, a voracious reader, the president of a chain of liquor stores, a book collector, a singer in a rock-n-roll band (the whitest soul-singer you’ve ever seen), and……an actor/storyteller.

I’ve been pretty good at some of these things. Others? Well…I still throw a decent Frisbee.

During the “ugly hour” (thank you, David Bromberg for that troubling concept) of looking in the morning mirror, the person I most often see is that last listed; actor/storyteller. It feels like I have consumed a huge chunk of my life by instantly pondering in every situation; “How am I gonna tell other people about this?”

Storytelling and acting…it’s my comfortable place.

So…

It is my comfortable pleasure to mention that I am rehearsing a play.

christians

Athens West Theatre’s production of The Christians by Lucas Hnath will open on Friday the Thirteenth (QUEL HORREURS!) in April at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center. I invite you to come.

I am currently spending my evenings rehearsing a gripping and relevant script with a literate and incisive director and a cast whose passion humbles me.

It’s a real good time.

What enhances the rehearsal process are the spaces in which we are rehearsing.

We rehearse in various rooms at a private school in Lexington. One night we may be in the school’s cafeteria, the next in the school’s music room, the next in the school’s theatre office. The spaces are warm and clean and neat. Everything works. Everything points to civility and creativity. Their hygienic competency inspires us to leave the spaces as pristine as we find them. That’s their message to us; “Work. Create. Dream. Respect those that follow.”

I have worked in rehearsal spaces (and theatres themselves) where we tried to create an Antarctic setting in the basement of a downtown building that was thermostat-challenged in January (I assure you imagining the cold was no problem at all), where we rehearsed Sam Shepard and Sherlock Holmes in a building that shook with every passing car and the dust hovered in the air looking for a parking spot in our lungs, where water fountains spewed burnt-siena-tinged fluids, where traffic saluted our presence with their horns, where rain and heat and barking dogs (sometimes simultaneously) ruled.

I’m here to tell you our storytelling efforts were not improved in these environments.

It reminds me of a Christmas I witnessed where a six-year-old boy received a bonanza of presents. Every complicated gizmo advertised on TV that holiday season was unwrapped Christmas morning. He was thrilled and overwhelmed…for a day. By the next day, every toy and gizmo’s charms had faded. The six-year-old with six-year-old motor skills had compromised every item in some way. He sat in his play space pitifully surrounded by things that did not work. They were all broken…in some way……by him.

Surrounded by broken things.

What good can possibly come from that?

I’m thrilled and made envious by the bubble created by the private school. I wanted to play with all the guitars and drums. I wanted to share their meals and thrill to their daily discoveries. The message to these students is clear; “We don’t expect you to merely survive. We expect you to thrive. We expect you to make things better.”

But outside the bubble…?

What about the broken things elsewhere?

Bridges, water slides, county water systems, sinking cities, neighbors sinking into substance abuse…

We are surrounded by broken things.

We are not improved by the messages those broken things impart.

We must fix the broken things for everyone.

It’s not dramatic…or sexy…or rapid. I’m old and may not see the harvest of such a sowing, but I know it’s the better path and I’ll sleep better and tell a better story if we’re heading in a better direction.

Work.

Create.

Dream.

Respect those that follow.

These are not hard questions.