Tag Archives: Jim Varney

Lloyd Rowe – Another Varney Yarn

“Lloyd Rowe…”

Jim squinted like he could glimpse the man in question on the far horizon.

“…I haven’t thought about him in ages…haven’t wanted to.”

I was impressed with the solemnity of the moment until I reminded myself that the “far horizon” was the Green Room wall beneath the Guignol Theatre at the University of Kentucky about eight feet in front of Jim, and just how many “ages” can a 20-year-old have actually seen?

My friend and fellow student, Bob Perkins had suggested to me that I might want to ask Jim Varney about Lloyd Rowe if I had sufficient time for a good story. This seemed like just the moment to pose the question.

It was September, 1970, and like clockwork, here was Jim, not a UK student – hell, he hadn’t even graduated from high school according to local legend, lurking in the Green Room at UK. This was a September tradition…like mums at the Saturday football games. Jim would drop in and loiter in this theatre department lair in hopes of broadening his life experience by meeting and “mentoring” the hopeful freshman actresses newly arrived on campus…or, as Jim referred to them; “sweet young things.”

This “mentoring”, to outward appearances, seemed to last a couple or three weeks until the young lady would reappear, a generally gladder but wiser girl devoted to catching up on classes missed.

Hey.

It was a freer time.

We spoke freely. We dressed freely. We undressed freely.

AYDS was still just a dietary supplement candy advertised on Paul Harvey’s radio show.

On this particular afternoon in the Green Room, the requisite young lady was present filling out some requisite semester-starting forms, I was present killing time until some rehearsal started – any rehearsal, and Jim loped in. He sized up the prospect (singular), and turned to me with a normal greeting; “Well, Goddy-dam, it’s Leasor. Howya doin’ Podge?”

I could have just let things follow their inevitable course…but no-o-o-o-o-o-o. I thought if I got Jim started on a saga it might disrupt the day in an entertaining way.

“Tell me about Lloyd Rowe.” I ventured.

That’s all it took. We’ll let Jim tell it from here.

Lloyd Rowe…

“…I haven’t thought about him in ages…haven’t wanted to.

Lloyd Rowe was mean.

He was a mean, mean man.

He was the meanest man in the world…and he knew it…he was proud of it. He got up every morning expecting to receive an award for mean-ness.

He didn’t bother to spit nails, he just digested ‘em. The only salad he would eat was poison ivy.

He took little petite little small-ass Donnie’s cake away from him and ate it. (Whatever that means.)

The laws of physics and medicine bowed to his hateful will. One day he was shot by a bullet in the chest. He whistled sharp and growled “Git back here.” That bullet backed up, healed instantly out of pure spite, and gave Lloyd a written apology.

Mean.

He was driving to Louisville one day and ‘long about Waddy/Peytona he had four simultaneous flat tires and he ran out of gas. He said; “This’ll not do.” He removed the gas cap, pissed in the tank, and crooned; “Go-o-o-o.” That car reached the White Castle in Downtown Louisville in two minutes flat and was a molten heap when it arrived. Lucky it was still under warranty.

He once lived on spite and nothing else for five months just to hurt himself.

He started campfires with small animals as kindling.

MEAN.

He decided one day to visit the mountains in Eastern Kentucky. His aims were two;

  • He wanted to broaden his life experiences by paying court to the Low-Life Sisters. There were three Low-life Sisters; Bunny Jeanette, Juanita Dean, and the little baby Nylon. Miz Low-Life had given birth to Nylon in a drugstore and named her after the first product she saw. Other naming possibilities spr-r-r-r-ing-g-g-g to mind. It would make an intriguing parlor game.
  • And two. He wanted to spend a serious moment with Greenbury Deathridge.

Greenbury Deathridge was the meanest man on Earth…and he knew it.

You perceive the problem, n’est-pas?

Lloyd wanted to settle the issue and establish harmony on the planet.

Well, he wanted to settle the issue.

He climbed mountains for thirty days through heat, humidity, snow, cyclones, tsunamis, baseball strikes, plagues, earthquakes, and “Gunsmoke” reruns. When he got to Greenbury’s cabin, he learned that the man he was seeking had died seven days before. Lloyd took that personally. He knelt at Greenbury’s grave…for three days…in abject disappointment and holy resentment. Finally, he dug up the corpse and carved it into a bar of soap. That seemed to bring closure.

He sought solace in the arms of Bunny Jeanette Low-Life, but at a crucial moment in their relationship, she cried “Oh, sweet Jesus!” Lloyd froze, appalled. He extricated himself, dressed freely, and marched back to Lexington on foot (his car being a molten heap at the time).

At this point in Jim’s narrative I cried enough.

Jim was jarred out of his fake memory rapture.

The requisite young lady? Oh, she was in love.

 

Oh, sweet Jesus.

Julie et Jim

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’ve enjoyed reading articles about it, and my 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.

There were cockroaches…lots of ‘em…big ones…and bold. One of ‘em sat on the end of Jim’s bed and bummed cigarettes off him. Another one sat on the back of the commode and charged a quarter for access. 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 PA 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 PM 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. 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.

I was good with that. I had a killer one minute segment from Tom Stoppard’s “Rosenkrantz 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.

50 seconds.

A five hour drive and my twenty bucks for 50 seconds.

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 forced 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.

Theatre sucks.

Pre-Ernest Musings

I had the great good luck to be about the same age as Jim Varney which means I’m old and any reminiscences I might relate about Jim would have to be a ragout of truth, legend, wishful thinking, the haze of decades, and a heavy dose of; “this is how it shoulda been”. To quote singer/songwriter Mitch Barrett; “I ain’t lyin’, I’m just tellin’ you a story.”

I met Jim when we were both in high school. I was participating in the State High School Drama Festival. It was held that year in a cavernous theater on the Eastern Kentucky University campus. I had performed the day before and was sitting in the house watching that day’s performers when Jim came loping up the aisle. At that time he was legendary as a high school actor and was already developing riffs and routines that would evolve later into his standup comedy routines and, of course, Ernest. He stopped where I was sitting, squinted, stuck out his jaw and drawled;

“I’m Jim Varney.”

I snappily replied; “Yes, you are.”

“You’re Roger Leasor.”

“Yes, I am.” (striving to maintain the high level of repartee).

He then took us to a higher place and purpose; “I can spell ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ – on my hands!”

I hurled the gauntlet; “Then do it.”

He proceeded to flop his hands about like a cross between a birthday party magician, a seal asking for a fish, and Ted Cruz giving a speech.

When he completed his charade, I took a wild shot and pointed out; “You left out ‘dises’.”

He squinted harder and said; “Well, goddy-dam, that’s closer’n I usually get.”

He sat down next to me and for the next two hours I wept with laughter and shame as he eviscerated each performance he didn’t like and grunted at each performance he admired.

Jim was good company, but he “was not a tame lion” (thank you C. S. Lewis).