Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

A Horizontal Lincoln at That

Seeing pictures of the week in Washington last week sparked a memory.

I played Abraham Lincoln on the Ford Theater stage in Washington, DC,

…at the age of 18,

…in an opera,

…with Mrs. Nixon, Mrs. Agnew, and Col. Sanders in the audience.

It gets better.

It was in the spring of 1970. I was in my freshman year at the University of Kentucky. My hair drifted down to between my shoulder blades. I wore moccasins, a poncho, army surplus shirts, and a poorly-stitched leather hat. I knew everything. “I was so much older then…”

Dr. Kenneth Wright of UK had written an opera about the insanity trial of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Ponder that for a moment while I digress.

You know, it’s my blog, and if you’ve spent any time at all here you know I don’t feel at all tethered to facts – actual or alternative. I agree with my friend Chuck Pogue; if you have to choose between the facts and tellin’ a story, you go with the story…every time. Hell, It’s not like I’m runnin’ fer president!

That said, everything I’ve written in this piece (thus far) is actually true. Dr. Wright wrote an opera about the insanity trial of Abraham Lincoln’s wife. It’s a wunnerful world.

There was a preservation group in Washington, DC working on restoring the house across the street from the Ford Theater to which a wounded Lincoln was carried. It is the house in which President Lincoln actually died. As a part of their efforts to raise interest and funds for this restoration, the group commissioned UK to produce Dr. Wright’s opera; “Wing of Expectation” and perform it in the Ford Theater.

Ray Smith directed.

I could write a book about that last sentence……and may one day……, but I’ll try not to splinter in this narrative.

Ray decided he wanted me to be his stage manager.

God knows why.

I was a freshman. I had yet to take a single technical theater class. I was an actor/storyteller. Still am for that matter.

The technical staff and faculty at UK objected. It was their first year at UK. They are to be forgiven for not knowing that objecting to Ray’s whims only transformed those whims into concrete ramparts. I certainly wasn’t gonna refuse the assignment – I knew everything, remember? Sing it with me; “I was so much older then…”

In addition to being the stage manager of the show, I also had to play the role of the “Drunken Farmer” in a second act number. It required me to stagger around the stage (poorly, as I recall), warble a couple of slurred lines, get picked up and tossed in the air (let’s sing again; “I was so much lighter then…”), and get carried off the stage.

Not to worry – hold my beer – I got this.

Those were my duties in the show…until we got to Washington.

When we got to Washington, the group that was picking up the tab for this fiasco finally had the epiphany that there was nothing in Dr. Wright’s opera that had anything to do with the house they were trying to save. They insisted on adding a silent scene, behind a scrim, depicting the carrying of Lincoln’s wounded body from the theater on a stretcher from the theater to the house in question.

Ok, no big deal.

Wait! Not so fast.

Three professional singers had been hired for the leads in the show. The gentleman hired to play Lincoln decided that being carried on a stretcher was not in his original contract and was not a desirable way to extend his evenings in the show. After all, he had counted on bein’ shot and bein’ through for the night and settling in for some quality Green Room time (AKA: the dead people’s happy hour). Now, perhaps this was ungenerous on his part, but given the timbre of the reviews of the show, perhaps truncation of participation was a wise career choice.

What to do?

Opportunity beckoned and the Stage Manager/Drunken Farmer answered. Yes, I was supine on a stretcher, but who could pass up the chance to play Abraham Lincoln on the Ford Theater stage?

Certainly not this fool.

A Geezer Remembers; Droning Tonto and the Atomic Bic

I subscribed to Actors Theatre of Louisville for about 24 years. I love this theatre and have enjoyed a number of transcendent evenings over the years. Susan Kingsley and Ken Jenkins in “Childe Byron” was magical. Likewise, “Tobacco Road”, “The Three Musketeers”, “The Sea Gull”, were wonderful, and their production of “The Tempest” was the best I’ve ever seen. Oh sure, there were some head-scratchers along the way (“King Lear” in burkas plumb evaded me), but overwhelmingly most of the shows were inspiring and entertaining.

So…why did we stop subscribing?

I was working almost every Saturday then. The only performance we could count on attending was the nine o’clock curtain on Saturday nights. I would get away from work about five, we would drive to Louisville, have dinner at the Bristol, make the curtain at nine, get out of the theatre about midnight, and drive home.

Ah, there’s the rub.

That late night drive home was becoming increasingly burdensome. Janie and I began to question how much pleasure we were getting out of our Louisville theatre habit. We debated it for a couple of years. Then there were two productions that last subscription season that finally convinced us to drop the commitment.

The first production was actually quite well done. It was a gospel concert nominally disguised as theatre. Now, I can enjoy gospel music (or bluegrass, or German lieder) for about fifteen minutes just as well as the next guy, but this was two hours and forty-five minutes more gospel music than the Geneva Conventions probably allow. That night’s drive home was glazed in bitterness and that’s the gospel truth.

The other show…

(…shudder, squint, tears begin to flow…)

The other show…

The other show was titled “Beyond Infinity”. It was part of the Humana New Play Festival.

The play consisted of three intertwined (sorta) stories set in the same desert at three different times in history.

One story was of an ill-fated wagon train. Bleak. I found myself expecting Ward Bond to come out wailing “Bring out your dead!” (100 trivia points for identifying the reference.)

The second story was told in a sporadic monologue in monotone by one of ATL’s regular actors whose name eludes me at the moment. He was a gaunt, Sam-Waterston-Abe-Lincoln-Harry-Dean-Stanton-looking fella. For this show he was dressed like Tonto. Whenever the show’s innate hilarity moaned towards out-of-control, the lights would come up on Tonto. He would gaze at a spot about ten feet over my head (looking for what?…inspiration?…his light?…his lines?) and drone. I caught occasional words (kemo sabe, walla wah walla walla walla wah, bibbity bobbity boo) but we were never EVER in the same time zone as a coherent thought.

The third story…

Ah YES-S-S, the third story…

The third story involved J. Robert Oppenheimer and his merry pranksters in the desert working on the atomic bomb. At one stretch in the second act (of twelve, I’m sure), Oppenheimer is standing in the desert night, holding a smallish volume of the Bhagavad Gita (you can’t make this up!). His assistant is standing next to him. For ten minutes he reads aloud, translating on the fly, from his book by the light of his assistant’s Bic lighter…YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP!!

At this moment Janie, who had shed her shoes and was curled up in her seat in the fetal position, tugged on my sleeve, leaned near and whispered “there are 87 lights up there.” Why not count the lights? What else was there to do?

It ended…as all things eventually must (except baseball games).

Now, one of the obligatory rituals involved with attending shows in Louisville is the pre-drive-home bathroom visit. Well, I’m there, at the urinal, “inflagrante delicto” as it were, when the bathroom door is banged open by a three-piece-suit type who angrily declared to the room; “Well I have been to the desert on a horse with no name!”

I just about missed the urinal.