Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ave Atque Vale, Garbage Theatre

Before I finally end this, the thing I want to emphasize here is that, for all the screwing around we did onstage (and it was significant), we were having fun, and that’s what made the production work; the palpable sense of something fun going on. It must be something like what audience who saw The Marx Brothers in the 20s experienced. (There’s the famous story of George S Kaufman, who wrote the book of “Animal Crackers,” coming to see a performance, and hushing the person he was talking to: “Quiet! I think I heard one of the original lines!”) I’m not saying we were that good by any means, but I think it was the sense of barely-controlled chaos that made thing enjoyable.

I will say, though, that if a cast tried this kind of crap on me today, I’d probably make Ralph Eastman look like Gandhi. There was an actor who did something much milder in a show I directed a while back, and it infuriated me to the point where I’ll never cast that actor again.

But back to “Paint Your Wagon.”

At the beginning of Act Two, the show finally gets some women on stage when the dancing girls arrive at the saloon. They did a number that involved a series of jumprope challenges. I tried to revive the “Bottle Dancer” pool from “Fiddler,” betting on which of them might trip on the rope, but I don’t recall a lot of interest in it. (According to one of them on Facebook today, she doesn’t think they were ever flawless; I think they were once or twice, at least.)

The high point of the run, though, was the challenge to make me break. Now, one of the things I pride myself on is that, no matter what happens while I’m on stage, I won’t break character or laugh. I may ad lib or otherwise react, but it’s always in the moment and in character and prompted by an actual need to get things back on track. In a production of “Anything Goes,” we were in the middle of a scene set on the ship in the mid-Atlantic, when a dog suddenly appeared on the stage. I turned to the guy I was doing the scene with and said, “Must be one of them sea dogs.” We got rid of the dog, “asked” the audience where we were, went a couple of lines back, and finished the scene.

In my experience, audiences love it when something goes wrong – or at least something unplanned happens; it’s a reiteration of the magic of live theatre. I love it, too, but am not a big fan of planned “unplanned events.” Sometime in the late 70s, I saw Debbie Reynolds in a production of “Annie Get Your Gun.” Gower Champion directed it (which is why I was surprised it never went to Broadway) and was being interviewed on the “Luncheon at the Music Center” program*. He mentioned that Debbie had had some kind of prop malfunction the night before, but, being the pro she was, she had covered the slip-up with aplomb and a well-timed ad lid. He further mentioned that he was sure that it would never happen again. Sure enough, when I saw the show some time later, damned if Debbie didn’t have the exact same prop malfunction that was “spontaneously” covered with the same well-timed “ad lib.”

Anyway, when I mentioned this non-breaking trait of mine, it became the goal of everyone to get me to crack up during the final Saturday performance.

I think I had only one scene (in the aforementioned saloon), but it started with Mark Meyers (him again!) greeting me with an inflated condom on his nose. I just looked at him with a “Really?” look. The main part of the scene involved my negotiating a deal to buy one of the Mormon wives, I was given a contract to sign. Instead of the usual contract, though, Dave Jones (The Actor Claude File’s best friend) who was playing Ben Rumson, gave me the single grossest and most disgusting beaver shot I’ve ever seen (to this day). I just looked at him. He then handed me a pen with which to sign the contract. I took off the cap and the explosive device inside turned out to be a dud. I gave Dave another look and shook my head.

After that, I believe there was another musical number – it might have been the jumprope thing – but, regardless, my stuff wasn’t the focus of the scene. Claude came up to me while I was standing in the middle of the stage, though, and got me in a wrestling hold and headlock. He was doing all he could to get me to turn my head upstage. He literally mashed his hand against the right side of my face and was pushing it to my left. I took this as an attempt to get me to not look downstage, because that’s where I figured they were preparing something, so I fought back equally hard to not turn my head.

I found out when we came off stage that what he was trying to do was to get me to look behind the bar. One of the stagehands was lying behind the bar – probably visible to the folks in the balcony. He was wearing a gorilla mask and long underwear with the crotch cut out. When the moment was right, he smashed a cream pie against his groin. I never saw it – I was probably the only person in the theatre who didn’t – but always wished I had. Not only would I have gotten a kick out of it, but I’d like to know if I actually would have broken. I’ll never know …

Anyway, that’s how Garbage Theatre was born and how it hit its early peaks. I’ve never been involved with a show since that approached that level. I’ve seen some – and some performances – that have been miracles of garbage, but never one that was nothing but garbage from beginning to end. It’s sort of my holy grail.

What sparked this string of memories, though, was what happened a few days ago when the ventriloquist went into “The Speakeasy” for the first time. As much as I love garbage, I’m almost as big of a fan of material that’s intended to be garbage and just doesn’t quite come off. It’s the lame attempt that’s ill-conceived or the performer who just can’t pull it off that I enjoy almost as much as the successful ones – in fact, they probably make me crack up more.

So, when the poor ventriloquist was working Thursday night and his material was just dying, I was laughing, maybe out of pity, but certainly harder than if it had actually been funny and worked. That’s just how I am.

I’ve alerted other SCCT vets who are on Facebook about these posts, and I hope they’ll contribute to the memory bank. I’m sure there are egregiously horrid things I left out that I’d love to be reminded of.

They were crazy days, but we were young, stupid, and fearless. A few years ago (it was actually the day I taped my Jeopardy win), I went down to Cal State Fullerton to see what was then the brand-new theatre complex. I spent more time in my youth than I should have in the CSUF greenroom, and I wanted to get a look at it. In the years since I left, that greenroom’s been converted back into a classroom, and a new, much smaller greenroom was established down the hall. I looked in and saw a group of undergrads excitedly talking about something that meant nothing to me but was of great import to them. I was suddenly struck by how young they were, and did the mental math that they weren’t much older than the men and women who were the real old-timers and vets when I was there as a student. “We were really ever that young?” I mean, before all the idealism and hope had been beaten out of us, to be replaced by realism and cynicism.

And I had to admit that, yeah, we were.

(“*Luncheon at the Music Center” was a daily radio program on one of the classical music stations in Los Angeles. Every day, the program was allegedly broadcast from one of the restaurants in LA’s Music Center (which was – and is – comprised of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Ahmanson Theatre.). The host would interview someone from the symphony or the opera or one of the plays that was being performed at the Center. The most notable thing about the show was the constant background soundtrack of silverware hitting plates and dishes being tapped against each other. I’m sure I wasn’t the only listener who was convinced that the interview was actually taking place in a studio somewhere and that some intern was stuck tapping plates with knives or clinking glassware together.)


  1. I was not in that season of PYW, but I do believe DIAmond Studs had its fair share of garbage...

  2. I do a lot of shows with an actor who likes to break me if I'm ever on stage. While we were doing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, there was a moment when he entered from behind the band and stood right behind me (I sat on the edge of the stage, guitar in hand). He'd stroke my back or rub his crotch past my head to try to break me. One week, I decided to have a picture displayed on my cell phone on my music stand. The first night was a kitty in a gift box, second night was a bathing suit model, third night was a graphic sex act...it kept getting worse. He didn't break until the final night, after some pretty raunchy pictures appeared on my phone, when he entered upstage to see me looking at his own headshot on my phone.

    It's the backstage stuff like you've talked about that I love about theater!