The title is a total stretch but there’s a “Julie” and a “Jim” in the tale. I couldn’t pass it up. Sorry.
The Southeastern Theater Conference (SETC) was held recently in Lexington and I enjoyed reading articles about it, and my hearing friends’ reports of their activities during the event. I was particularly interested and inordinately proud of my friends Julieanne and Chuck Pogue’s efforts. Chuck conducted two sessions; “Auteurs-NO! Raconteurs-YES!!” and “Tips for Adapting Plays from Sanskrit and/or Cave Paintings”. Julieanne packed the house with her session; “Concatenations from the Clash of Jung and the Restless in Tennessee Williams’ Mother Plays”. I may not have those titles exactly right, but I was mightily impressed – so impressed, that it triggered a remembrance of my first visit to SETC.
It was spring of 1970 and SETC was being held in Memphis. I had never been to Memphis, I had a ride with other UK theatre folks, I had twenty bucks, and my friend Jim Varney agreed to split the cost of a hotel room with me. Hey, as Christine Kane says; “When courage comes, you never see it comin’.”
The conference was being held in the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. I believe today it’s called the Sheraton Peabody. Jim and I couldn’t afford the Peabody. We went across the street to something called; The Hotel Tennessee. It was five dollars a night, which we split.
Decades later, when I first saw Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant film; MYSTERY TRAIN, I felt very much at home in the accommodations depicted.
There were cockroaches…lots of ‘em…big ones…and bold. One of ‘em sat on the end of Jim’s bed and bummed cigarettes from him. Another one sat on the back of the commode and charged a quarter for access and a moment of privacy. I went downstairs to the desk to complain and noticed the clerk had six arms and I quailed. I was dubious, but it was cheap and had the asset of proximity.
The proximity paid off the next morning. I awoke to Jim practicing his smile in the mirror. He had just discovered Pearl Drops Tooth Polish and was pretty sure that his new “all-teeth” smile was gonna launch his professional acting ship tout suite. He urged speed with ablutions and let’s get our “petite little small-ass bods” over to the Peabody. We might miss something!
He was right.
The Peabody had a fountain in the middle of its lobby and people gathered around it at nine o’clock AM and five PM for the ducks. That’s right, ducks. At nine AM, the public address system wheezed to life to blare; “Welcome to the Peabody Hotel and the Peabody Marching Ducks!” The elevator doors would then open and a red carpet would roll out to the foot of the fountain. A Sousa march would play on the PA and three white ducks and one brown duck would regally march down the carpet, hop up on the lip of the fountain, and splash into the water to swim the rest of the day until five o’clock when they would, with similar pomp, reverse the process and return to their evening penthouse quarters. The crowd loved it and would applaud. The applause would prompt the brown duck to turn to the crowd from the lip of the fountain, spread his wings, and……well……quack.
Yes, the crowd loved it, but Jim was enthralled. In the brown duck, Jim had found a spiritual brother. He never missed a duck event that weekend. He got there early and would sit akimbo next to the carpet and croon in “duck language” to the bird. The duck would pause, turn to Jim, and conduct a quick inventory of available exits in case this madman turned ugly.
It was a great conference and just got better from there.
At that time and perhaps still today, one element of SETC was a mass audition of actors looking for summer work. That year, 43 casting agents representing 43 southern theatres were observing those auditions. There were 568 hopeful auditionees. I was number 438 and Jim was 437. We stood leaning against the hotel hall wall for hours awaiting our chance for the Golden Ticket/Everlasting Gobstopper/Maltese Falcon/Holy Grail/Door #3.
While we waited, we rehearsed and fretted. (I’m convinced that if the proper studies were conducted, scientists would discover the leading cause for cancer is fretting.)
We were promised one minute for our audition – one minute.
Three days, 500 driving miles, $5 per night rent, and cockroaches for one minute.
Today, when see a young starry-eyed actor commencing their theatrical career, I don’t wish them luck. I wish them resilience and a full can of bug spray.
But in 1970, I was good with the proposition. I had a killer one minute segment from Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” that was gonna land me on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” within the week.
Jim agonized. He had two pieces and he couldn’t choose. Should he do Hamlet’s first act monologue (“Tis not alone my inky cloak…”), or Tom Wingfield’s diatribe from “The Glass Menagerie” (“I’m goin’ to opium dens…”)? Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams? Argh-h-h-h. Plus, at the rate this is going, we’re gonna miss the ducks!
Fretting…I’m tellin’ ya, it’s deadly.
Then the SETC officials came out in the hall and announced the audition time would have to be cut to 50 seconds or they couldn’t get everybody in.
Fretting went through the roof. What was I gonna do? Pragmatism was all I had to offer at that point…I was simply gonna have to speak faster.
Jim however, became serene. His quandary was solved. Somehow, 50 seconds made things clear; he would do BOTH monologues.
They took us into the audition room in groups of ten. Thus, Jim and I were in the same group and I got to witness the deed. 43 auditioner heads hovering 2-4 inches over their tables and notes in utter fatigue and defeat. Hope had left the building with Elvis.
Jim’s turn came, right before mine. He loped to the center of the room, announced his number, and began;
“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems.”
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forcéd breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
The tones were round and pure, the diction crisp, the anger immediate and like a knife to his betraying mother.
And then, without pause or breath, as if from the same son centuries later;
Well you’re right, Mother. I’m going to opium dens. Yes, mother. Opium dens. Dens of vice and criminals’ hangouts, mother, I am a hired assassin, I joined the Hogan gang, I carry a tommy gun in a violin case, and I run a stream of cat houses in the valley, they call me Killer, Killer Wingfield, see I’m leading a double life, really, a simple honest warehouse worker by day, but by night a dynamic czar of the underworld, mother, I just go to gambling casinos, spin away fortunes on the roulette tables, mother, I wear a patch over one eye, and a false moustache and sometimes I put on green whiskers, on those occasions, they call me “El Diablo,” I can tell you many things to make you sleepless, mother, my enemies plan to dynamite this place, they’re gonna blow us sky high! And I will be glad? I will be very happy, and so will you be. You will go up, up, up, over Blue Mountain, on a broomstick with seventeen gentleman callers! You ugly, babbling old witch!
43 sagging heads snapped to attention. In today’s litigious times, there might have been a rash of whiplash claims the next day. Jim finished and one voice intoned; “Thank you, Mr. Varney.” Forget about his number. He was Mr. Varney now.
I followed that…………
When the callbacks were posted, Jim had 34. I had 15.
Maybe it was the Pearl Drops.