Tag Archives: Groucho Marx

The Dylan Thomas & Groucho Marx Meeting You Never Heard About

The Dylan Thomas and Groucho Marx Meeting You Never Heard About

 

It would have been in the fall of 1968.

It was a big night for little Roger.

I was a senior in high school and I was going to see the college theatre guys at the University of Kentucky do a play.

It was a student production of Dylan Thomas’ sublime UNDER MILKWOOD in the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs Theatre). I love Dylan Thomas’ work and I especially love THIS Dylan Thomas piece. It’s told in small town voices that resonate in all the world and in all times. Over the years I have discovered for myself several pieces that do similar services for us; Sherwood Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO, Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN, and Davis Grubbs’ profound and relevant THE VOICES OF GLORY. People talking about themselves…there’s nothing truer…even when they’re lying.

I’m sitting in the middle of the house. The lights dim. And isn’t that the moment?

Isn’t it??

Anything can happen!

Chances are very good that by the closing curtain, you will not be the same person as you were before the lights dimmed.

You will have been moved.

Perhaps an inch…perhaps a mile…

You will have been changed.

Perhaps into……?

I always hope so.

This particular night, I’m facing a darkened middle stage, framed by two lit podiums. The podiums are inhabited by two young actors who intone the opening narration.

The stage right actor reaches a crucial moment…

Wait!

If we could take a moment for a seemingly extraneous thought…

In his exquisite Carnegie Hall concert, Groucho Marx relates how he first got into show business. Please understand, I’m paraphrasing from memory.

“I needed a job. I read an ad in the paper that offered employment. You had to apply at an address near my home. I ran five blocks to a building and climbed six flights of stairs and knocked on the door. A guy answered wearing lipstick and high heels. I thought; ‘How long has this been going on?’”

…end of the seemingly extraneous thought.

Back to UNDER MILKWOOD…

The stage right actor reaches a crucial moment and says;

“We look in on the sleepy town of Milkwood as the dawn inches up…”

It doesn’t.

The actor hurls some serious “side-eye” to the middle of the stage but stammers on. He rambles through various unconnected bits of Dylan Thomas prose, giving the light crew a chance to awake. Finally ready to try again, he suggests;

“We look in on the sleepy town of Milkwood as the dawn inches up…”

Nope.

No joy.

No light.

Only despair etched in our young thespian’s countenance.

To his credit, he drones on. I catch snatches of Shakespeare, Pinter, Lewis Carroll (“The Walrus and the Carpenter” no less), and maybe a filthy limerick or two. Eventually, he closes his eyes and prays. Then the eyes open wide and he shouts;

“WelookinonthesleepytownofMilkwoodasthedawninchesup…”

BAM!

Lights up full!!!

The young actor staggers back under the luminous assault and in a clear state of relief.

The show goes on.

Man!

How long has this been going on?

Fire Truck (Revised)

Now before I start ramblin’, all you fact-checkers, and score-keepers – just let it go.

Relax.

This little tale has been pressed through a 40-year-plus filter of memory. If it’s not perfectly factual and accurate…as the very fine Kentucky songwriter Mitch Barrett puts it; “I ain’t lyin’, I’m tellin’ you a story”.

Besides, it’s not like I have the codes to our country’s nuclear arsenal or anything.

This is simply how I remember it.

Groucho Marx tells a story of how he ended up in show business;

“I saw this advertisement in the newspaper for a job. I needed a job. I ran 15 blocks and up 5 flights of stairs and I knocked on the door. This fellow answered the door wearing lipstick and a dress. I thought; ‘How long has this been going on?’”

I suspect most theatre participants have had a similar moment of truth (or deception).

I know I did.

When I was in high school, I had a part time job in the children’s department of the public library in Lexington. At that time, the library’s main (and only) branch was in what is now known as the Carnegie Reading Center in Gratz Park. I would finish my school day at Bryan Station High School, walk over to the junior high building (neither middle school nor paper having been invented then), and catch the city bus for a 35-minute ride to my 70-cents-an-hour part-time gig at the library. Did I also mention that it snowed every day and the roads all ran uphill – coming and going?

I loved the job and I loved being in the Gratz Park neighborhood.

The bus would drop me at the Apothecary (not drug store, mind you – apothecary) on the corner of Market and Second, usually about 30-40 minutes before I was scheduled to start my shift. The Apothecary was next door to the original Morris Book Store. Occasionally, I would peruse the book store. Mr. Morris himself special-ordered for me my hardbound editions of THE LORD OF THE RINGS in 1968. But most of the time, I would slip downstairs to the Apothecary and get a bag of chips and a coke and slink through their back door and down the hall to a strange little subterranean chamber in which resided a parrot (or macaw or dodo…or whatever) on a guano-ringed floor stand. There were also stacks of story magazines in the room. No, not porn, just story magazines. I would feast on my chips and coke and reading material under the baleful eye of the parrot (or macaw or dodo…or whatever) until it was time to cross the street to the library. It all sounds so exotic today – not so much then.

I would take my lunch breaks and either throw my frisbee in the park until Mrs. Gratz (for real!) would come out and explain that her-husband-had-given-the-land-to-the-city-and-frisbee-throwing-was-not-what-he-had-in-mind-and-how-come-my-hair-was-so-long-if-I-was-a-boy, or I would walk down to Brandy’s Kitchen, step over the Smiley Pete memorial, and get a $1.35 daily special.

At nine o’clock, I would catch the bus home unless my mom came down to give me a ride home. Any excuse for mom to visit the library was legit.

My duties were sometimes tedious, but mostly heavenly. I would shelve the returned books (restricting myself to only reading every other one), assist the “kiddie-lit” students from Transy, and listen to the children recite their reading adventures so they could gain credit in their “Busy Bee Reading Club”.

I fear it was during this period that Dr. Seuss, Walter Farley, Carol Kendall, Hugh Lofting, and Enid Blyton became more important to me than Milton, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley (Mr. or Mrs.).

One afternoon, my assignment was to read and tell a book to several Head Start classes visiting the library. It was a rainy day. Thus, I think there were 80+ kids in that session. I read the story and then selected several kids to act it out. There weren’t nearly enough parts for all the kids. There were two six-year-old boys on the front row who were raucous in their desire to participate. (RAUCOUS PARTICIPATION IS ENCOURAGED – wouldn’t that be a great title for someone’s biography?) I pointed to one of the six-year-olds and asked him if he could play the fire truck mentioned in the story. He roared; “YES!” and began to wail his “siren” and wave his arm as a ladder. His partner and lifelong friend (six years old, remember) was crushed to left behind. I asked him what color the fire truck was. “Ray-udd!” he shouted, and with my extraordinary but certification-lacking linguistic dexterity I immediately interpreted that as “red”. I asked if he could be “red”. He leapt to his feet, stood next to his fire-truck-playing friend, made “jazz hands”, and danced frantically around his friend.

The room and I went graveyard silent in sheer awe and admiration.

That was my Groucho Marx moment.

“How long has this been going on?”

At that moment, I wanted to grow up to be that 6-year-old.

I still do.

(April, 2016 – Revised February 1, 2017)