Tuesday, November 06, 2007


My career treading the boards ended, more or less, in high school. I somehow stumbled into the theater department -- mostly because the drama teacher was young and drop-dead gorgeous, and they never could get enough boys to try out for the plays, especially the musicals. In our school, football was king, followed by basketball, baseball, and track, and past that, well, boys not involved in those stood out front in the bullpen and smoked cigarettes. They were the bad boy two per-centers.

Or rather, we were the bad boys. I ran track one season, the 880 and the mile, but was kicked off the team for telling the coach to go to hell. Somebody swiped my shoes and he wanted me to run barefoot. This was in the days when tracks were covered with cinders. I didn't much like cigarettes, but the company of non-jocks was more interesting back then.

Years later, when Coach was busted for passing bad checks, I felt no small amount of glee. Mess with Captain Karma, what goes around, comes around ...

Um. Anyway, I somehow got dragged to an audition for a play, "I Remember Mama," and got a speaking part. It was a comedy, and I got laughs -- and thus addicted ...

The senior musical was "Oklahoma," while I was a better actor than Hal, who got the male lead, he was taller and had curly hair, and for a character named "Curly," that got him the role.
He thought he sang better, too, but upon this, we disagreed.

I was Will Parker, second male lead, and I had a couple of song solos and a fair number of lines, as well as a couple of dance numbers. I borrowed some cowboy boots, loaded my personal six gun with blanks, and learned how to do Russian kicks and the two-step for my dances. The choreographer, Judy, was later to become my sister-in-law.

First night, it could not have gone better. Everybody nailed everything. We killed.

Second night, almost anything that could go wrong did -- props vanished, guns misfired, then went off after they were holstered, things fell over backstage. We were ad-libbing whole scenes. Hal's nose started bleeding between acts, and he got it stopped, but I was put on notice that if it started up again, he'd point at me and say "Take it, Will!" and I was supposed to finish the big solo he had at the end as he hurried off, stage left ...

"Ohhhhkkklahoma, where the blood comes flowing out the nose ..."

That, fortunately, didn't happen.

One of the best times of my life, that play. The boys would go out and get plastered after rehearsals. Sometimes during. Once, in Mike's VW, with him driving, he had an urgent need to pee. "Take the wheel!" he yelled. I reached over, left hand on the steering wheel, left foot on the gas pedal as he stood up, leaned out the window, and took a major whiz at sixty-five miles per hour in a forty zone on Hooper Road. No better argument against malt liquor in forty ounce bottles downed during a half hour lunch break.

God must surely look out for fools and children, and foolish children must get special priority.

Just before dress-rehearsal, we got pulled over by the po-lice on our way to buy blanks for our guns -- we were all geared up like cowboys and every one of us strapped with real hardware, nt toys. We explained what the guns were for, and ... they just let us go.

Gentler times. More trusting cops. These days, we'd probably be shot by Homeland Security and the survivors, if any, waterboarded ...

I asked my wife out on our first date while the show was being readied -- she played one of the dance hall girls, and during one scene, while she and the other girls sashayed around Will and Ado Annie, I am here to tell you that Will could have done temporary duty as a three-legged stool right there in front of God and everybody. People in the front three rows later remarked upon it to me.

Say, were you hiding a section of broom handle in your pants for some reason?

When we went collect the pianist, who was a college kid with a name you wouldn't believe -- call him Rippy Ripperson, we found out he was gay. This happened when we went around a corner and Hal, in the backseat with this guy, suddenly started babbling a mile a minute. Turned out that the piano-player had slid over and given Hal a playful little squeeze on the family jewels, and Hal was in no way ready to deal with that. Every time I looked away, he cranked up the word spew. I thought he had lost his mind.

Later, when we got to the school Hal whispered, "Listen, don't don't tell anybody, but Rippy is queer ..."

Normally, the proper response would have been to beat Rippy to a pulp, it being the redneck south; however, as theater-geeks, we were more liberal about such things. Live and let live, and Rippy could really play that piano ...

We kept it from Ann, because we didn't want to shock her. (She knew, and it came out later, but we never told her about the grope in the VW. We were seventeen, men of the world, and she was all of twenty-two; married, but the flower of southern womanhood, and it was, of course, our job to protect her from such things. At one point, the girls in the cast deputized me to tell her she was sitting with her knees apart and her skirt riding a bit high, and the boys onstage were, as we used to say, shooting her squirrel. I didn't know exactly how to say this, so I just said, "Excuse me, but you better watch yourself." Her husband, Lance, sitting next to Ann, took umbrage at this, followed me backstage with blood in his eye, wanting to know just what the hell I meant by that. When I told him, he laughed. Why didn't you just say that? What, tell my teacher to keep her knees together? That would embarrassing.)

And, of course, Paul McCartney's "Hey, Jude," -- the name -- was supposed to come from the book -- based on the character "Jud Fry ..."

I bring all this up because Turner Network is running the Frank Capra version of "Arsenic and Old Lace" tonight, Cary Grant and Raymond Massey, and that was one of the plays we had considered doing. As it happened, one of my best drinking buddies from a crosstown high school was into acting, and that was the play they did senior year. He had the role of the Teddy Roosevelt character. "Charge!"

Great play. Great movie, too.

Had we done "The King and I," I would have had the Yul Brynner part locked. At least that's what the music and drama teachers told me.

I think those plays are one of the reasons I'm comfortable on a stage in front of an audience. First time I ever sang in public, and it was for a full house.

Ah, those early soul-shaping experiences. Nothing like 'em ...

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