My Show Business Kids

In one of my earlier posts I told the story about the time our middle son, Neal, was in first grade at St. Norbert and Sister Rose Mary came to me very worried because Neal had said he wanted to have a rum-bull on the school playground.  The poor little Irish nun had never seen West Side Story, so she didn’t know what Neal was talking about.  I assured her that everything would be okay and I would make sure Neal did not start a gang fight with the other first graders.  This is what happens when your kids see too many of the shows that you are producing.

Around that same time we were walking through Nordstrom with Neal and in the distance we heard to store piano player.  Neal froze and said “they’re playing Shapoopi!”  And they really were!  Why, I don’t know but also why our five year old knew the music to the big dance number from The Music Man is a whole other story.  So of course we had to find the piano player and Neal asked him to play it again.

By then the piano player had moved on to another song and he didn’t want to dig out his sheet music for Shapoopi, so he asked Neal if there was another song he wanted him to play.  Maybe something from Sesame Street?

Neal thought for a minute then said “yeah, do you know anything from Gypsy?” 

We literally fell over laughing.  For those who are not familiar with the show, Gypsy is the ultimate show biz musical about the loud stage mother pushing her daughter to eventually become Gypsy Rose Lee. Leave it to our five year old Neal to come back with that line.

And no, Neal did not go into show business, thank goodness.  But to this day we will catch him singing a little bit of a show tune or knowing all the Broadway musical answers on Jeopardy.

Theater Ghost Stories

In honor of Halloween, I thought I would recount my interactions with theater ghosts throughout my career.  First off, I am a believer that some forms of ghosts do exist.  All you have to do is sit in a church or a theater and feel the energy from the crowd to know that emotional energy is very tangible.  And since they say energy cannot be destroyed, I don’t think it is farfetched to believe that some form of that energy remains in a place and can sometimes be experienced physically.

When I was young and working at the Sacramento Music Circus tent theater, we were doing a production of Camelot.  Since it was summer stock with “star” casting, John Gray was King Arthur, Anne Jeffreys was Guinevere and Harve Presnell was Lancelot.  Even though this was a long time ago, it was still probably the oldest cast to ever play those roles!

There is a scene in the show when Lancelot supposedly brings a fallen knight back to life.  Now Harve Presnell was known best for playing light-hearted roles, but one evening when I was standing at the rear of the audience’s seats and Harve played that scene I swear I could feel the waves of emotion pouring from the audience.  It was as real and physical as if I was in the ocean feeling the waves roll over me.  It was really something.

Another time when I was stage managing Juliet Prowse’s show, we were on tour in Australia.  One evening we were loading into a beautiful, hundred year old opera house in either Adelaide or Melbourne.  I wanted to check out the acoustics of the house so I worked my way from backstage through the dressing rooms up to the top balcony.  It was pretty cool how well I could hear the crew’s voices all the way up in the rear of that balcony.

As I worked my way from the balcony, I went down the front stair cases through the theater lobbies.  Most of the lights were out but I was able to feel my way along with the help of the hand rails.  Off to the side of one lobby I saw the lights on in a room and the shadows of a crew cleaning up in a kitchen.  Along with that I heard the typical sounds of a kitchen clean up – the clanging of trays, voices and the sound of glasses being put away.

I called out a “hello” and suddenly the sounds ceased and the shadows disappeared.  All of the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I hustled the rest of the way back to the stage.  When I got to the stage, I mentioned to some of the crew that I saw the catering kitchen off the lobby.  They all looked strangely at me and said what was I talking about?  There was no kitchen up there.  Yeesh!  They must have thought “just another crazy Yank.”

I also worked for thirteen years at the Wells Theatre, a beautiful one hundred and five year old theater in Norfolk, VA.  Over the years I heard many credible stories of the five different ghosts who haunt that theater.  While I never personally experienced any of them specifically, there were many times when I was in there alone and I could definitely feel their presence.

Boo!

Broadway Joe

Having spent most of my life in Show Business, I have gotten to do a lot of fun things.  One of them was when I was a young, twenty-two year old stage manager at the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera which back then about an hour and a half drive east of Los Angeles.  The production was of the not-so-well-known musical Li’l Abner, of the comic strip fame.  However, the production starred the VERY well-known Joe Namath in the title role.

I believe he was about thirty-eight years old at the time and he had done a couple of other musicals in the Midwest prior to our production.  While he may not have been called “Broadway Joe” for his musical theater talents, he was decent in the role and he sure packed in the audience.

He was also one of the nicest guys you would ever want to work with.  He respected the business and everyone else in the show, even the actress who had to carry around a little pig at every performance.  Show Business – go figure!

Every time I would go into his dressing room after the show, he had his feet up and ice packs on his knees.  But we would talk through the show in detail because he was always striving to improve his performance.

And I will never forget seeing the line of women outside the stage door after every performance, just wanting to see Joe and get his autograph.  Broadway Joe comes to San Bernardino.

Welcome To Tech Theater

Show Business and theater has a rich collection of traditions, which is not surprising considering how long theater has been around.  I am sure that among the first groups of cave men, there were a few individuals who were the storytellers.  I wonder if those special individuals were revered or made fun of as it seems to be today?

Books have been written about some of these traditions, like how it is bad luck to whistle backstage in a theater (someone might take it as their cue to lower a sandbag on a rope onto your head) or how it is bad luck to wish someone “good luck” before a show.  Instead you are supposed to say “merde” or “break a leg.”  Why? I have no idea.  And don’t get me started on where “break a leg” came from.  I have heard a bunch of different explanations for the source of that one.  And how it is bad luck to say the name of a certain Shakespearean play, so instead you say “the play whose name we cannot say.”

Then there is the tradition of teasing the newest and youngest person on the technical staff.  When I was getting started in theater as a young Production Assistant a loooong time ago, the sheets of colored material that you put in front of a stage light to get certain colored light were called “gels.”  I believe this was because they were made of some form of gelatin.  So the trick was to tell the new technician their job was to wash some of the gels.  What they didn’t know but soon found out was that when you put water on the gels they would melt into a messy goo.  Naturally the older technicians would take this very seriously while the young technician would freak out.  Ha ha ha!

But then the industry ruined this prank by making the gels out of plastic so they no longer melted.  But being the creative types they are, the technicians moved onto a new prank to pull on the young staff.  To be heard onstage, actors all wear small body microphones.  In order to keep the microphone pack (about the size of a box of cigarettes) from short circuiting from an actor’s sweat, the packs were put into rubber condoms.  Problem solved!  So at the beginning of each new show or season of shows, the tradition was to make the youngest, newest technician – man or woman – be given he job to locate and go out and purchase a whole case of condoms. Again, ha ha ha!

But now with the internet, a person can go online, place an order and have the case delivered to the theater – which still raises several eyebrows from the FedEx delivery person.  Those trashy show folk!  Now that I have been away from show business for a while, I have lost track of what is the most current form of torture that is inflicted on the new technicians but I sure they have come up with a few good ones.

Do Not Read Before Driving

I think it is hilarious how many warnings drug manufactures feel they need to state in their TV commercials for their products.

For a drug to fight depression: “may cause extreme anxiety or depression.  If this occurs call your doctor immediately.” Honestly! That’s what they said!

“Do not take before operating heavy machinery.”  OK, so my asphalt roller/flattener is out.  How about driving my fork lift or my corn combine?

“May cause an erection lasting four or more hours; if so, call your doctor.”  Are you kidding? If that happened I think the woman would be calling the doctor to save HER.  In the meantime the men are saying “great, sign me up!”

“This medicine is not meant for weight loss, but many people experience some loss of weight.”  Again, are you kidding? Sign me up!  It will take care of my problem AND help me lose weight.  But if they said “this medicine might make you smarter” nobody would care or be motivated to buy that drug.

“Do not combine this drug with large amounts of alcohol.”  Help me out here – define “large amounts.” No one should be drinking large amounts of alcohol anyway, drug or no drug!

For a smoking cessation drug – “may cause the urge to consume large amounts of alcohol.” See above.

“Do not take this drug during the day until you know how it will affect you.”  Check!  But if you take it at night, you will be asleep and not know how it is affecting you.

Or the ones with lists of side effects that goes on and on – at least half the time of the commercial.  But my brother in law heard the best one – buried in the list was “may cause anal leakage.” Ouch!

Ode to Rip

I have had the pleasure of working several shows with Rip Taylor who is still out there making people laugh, but the first time was a loooong time ago when he performed his act at the Sacramento Music Circus under the tent.  I still remember a great bit he did where he sang small parts of many songs, jumping from song to song without a stop.  If my old man’s brain remembers correctly, some of it went like this – and it works best if you sing them without a break between them:

(sung to the tune from Oklahoma)  I’m just a girl who can’t say n-n-n-n-n-n-n-

(sung to the tune “What’s it All About, Alfie?” – younger readers may have to google that one!) What’s that in the pool, algae?

(sung from the tune from The Fantasticks) Try to remember …umm….

(sung) We stand up for Jesus, we stand up for Jesus, we stand up for Jesus (spoken) Well sit down for Christ’s sake!

Applause, applause, applause, take a bow Rip, then exit aisle 7!

There were more that I just can’t remember, but I still think of Rip doing this bit whenever I hear any of these songs and it makes me smile!

Balloons – Cool – Duh!!!

When I was younger I was the Associate Producer for several years under Marty Wiviott at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera.  There we would produce five large-scale musicals a year and perform them for three week runs at the huge 3,000 seat theater in Long Beach, CA.  And we really had a blast doing them!

One year we were producing The Merry Widow.  It was a light operetta starring Ann Blythe, Ed Evanko and a huge cast.  Actually, it had a cast of about 40 actors, an orchestra of 30 musicians and a stage crew of at least 25 stage hands.  So it literally was a production with over a hundred artists.

As I said, it was a piece of fluff show and during one of the last run thrus the Director turned to Marty and me and said “you know what this show needs? A balloon drop during the final number.”  We agreed wholeheartedly and I went to work with Gerry Griffin, our amazing Technical Director to make that happen for the next night’s dress rehearsal.

Gerry worked his usual magic and rigged up a huge fabric sleeve in the fly loft above the stage and filled it to the brim with red balloons.  When it came time in the final number, the balloon drop worked flawlessly and a huge shower of red balloons fell onto the stage.  The problem was that the hall’s air conditioning system pulled all of the balloons downstage and they fell directly into the orchestra pit.  At the time we didn’t think much of that detail and congratulated ourselves for such a great end to the performance.

Well the happiness came to a screeching halt when the show ended and Steven Smith, our terrific Musical Director and Conductor came onto the stage and started screaming “who was responsible for the balloons?”  Being the good soldier that I am, I stepped up to Steven and said it was me.

Steven was blowing a gasket.  We stood onstage a few inches apart while he screamed, and I do mean screamed, at me how irresponsible it was for us to do that without warning the orchestra.  He went on and on.  His point was the musicians were all concentrating on reading their music and playing their instruments when all of a sudden a shower of objects started to fall on their heads.  They were all scared to death.

While I did not appreciate Steven screaming at me, I stayed calm and conceded that he had a good point and I apologized deeply for what happened.  Eventually Steven calmed down but it was one of those scenes out of a movie where we were standing onstage with Steve screaming at me and everyone on the crew kind of slinking back into the shadows.

But the crew got the last laugh because the next day when everyone showed up for the performance and Steven went to his dressing room, when he opened the door it was filled floor to ceiling with red balloons.  Being a good sport Steven laughed it off.  Good job, Gerry Griffin!

Potty-mouth

A little over a year and a half ago I had to go into the hospital for the month of December to start my treatments for Leukemia.  It was not a fun month.  At the time I was told I had a 50/50 chance of surviving the next six months of treatments.  While I didn’t dwell on it at the time, it has recently occurred to me that it was basically a coin flip whether or not I would make it.

Obviously I did make it, and that first month of treatments was made light years better by my little sister Santina coming out and spending about a week with me and Nancy.  I say “little” when I should probably say “younger,” but no matter how old we both get she will always be my little sister.

My hospital room in the oncology ward was several stories up and I had a window looking out on the construction site of the new wing they were adding to the hospital.  Right away Nancy and Santina noticed there was a row of rainbow colored port-a-potties at the side of the construction site.

Every day we all had endless laughs over the stories Nancy and Santina made up for the workers using the port-a-potties.  Sometimes a worker would go down the row opening each door to inspect the situation before he entered.  Other workers would carry a newspaper in with them.  And yet others seemed intent on selecting a particular colored john.  It went on and on.  I never knew how creative Santina and Nancy could be with their story telling, but they kept us in stitches – bad pun for a hospital stay!

To this day I can’t drive past a construction site with port-a-potties without cracking up.

The TONY Awards

Twenty-nine years ago Tom McCoy and I were the co-lead Producers for the 1989 stage revival of Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby.  This production was originally intended to be a six month tour, which opened in Boston during the Christmas season that year.  But it was such a great production and Cathy was so amazing as Peter that it turned into a two year tour!  In fact the show was such a hit that it played a nearly sold-out six week run at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre on Broadway during the 1990-91 Christmas season.

Because of this Broadway run, Cathy was nominated for a TONY Award that year for Best Actress in a Musical and Tom and I, along with our investor/producers, were nominated for a TONY Award for Best Revival of a Play or Musical.  How cool is that?

After all my years of working in summer stock and regional Civic Light Operas, to not only have a show play on Broadway but to also be nominated for a TONY was about the most awesome thing that ever happened to me professionally.  This also meant that Nancy and I were invited to attend the TONY Award ceremony that year.  Talk about exciting. 

Of course it was a black tie event so before we left Orange County for New York, Nancy went shopping to find just the right dress.  And it was a pretty great dress.  Imagine our surprise when we arrived at the ceremony and were mingling in the theater lobby and across the room Nancy saw another lady wearing the exact same dress.  Oops!  But what could we do but laugh, so we walked up behind the lady and Nancy said “I got mine in LA.  Where did you get yours?”  When she turned around she started laughing too.

Even with the dress it really was an exciting night.  It turned out Fiddler on the Roof won the Best Revival award, so I didn’t get the chance to make a speech that went on for too long.  Just as well!  And Lea Salonga from Miss Saigon won Best Actress.  But we all had a GREAT time nonetheless.  And Cathy and Tom eventually went on to remount Peter Pan for several other tours and even another Broadway run.

I have been fortunate to have produced many awesome productions before and since then, but I never got back on Broadway or to the TONY Awards again.  In fact since a little before my Leukemia diagnosis, I stopped working in Show Business and focused on professional fundraising.  When I think about this, Jackson Browne’s song The Pretender always comes to mind.  Specifically the lyric “While the ships bearing their dreams sail out of sight.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ROK1-VvOQ0

I know that sounds a little sad, but that is reality.  Sometimes dreams change and that is okay, too.  My new dream is to be here for a long time for my family and community.  And I am now living that dream!!

Fun Under the Tent

Between 1976 and 1984 I spent seven summers working at the Sacramento Music Circus.  For those of you who don’t know, it is a professional, summer stock in-the-round theater.  While it is now a hard top, back then it was covered by a huge tent.  I worked there as a tent boy – a glorified janitor but I also got to set up, maintain and take down  the large tent – to a Production Assistant to many summers as the Stage Manager/Lighting Designer.  It was like theater summer camp, except we produced top rate musicals every week. 

The Company would rehearse a musical like Oklahoma during the day for a week, while performing Camelot on Monday through Sunday nights that week.  Then on the next Monday we would start rehearsing South Pacific during the day while we performed Camelot at night.  We would do this for eleven to thirteen weeks straight each summer.  Add to it the weather in Sacramento, which can be brutally hot and humid – especially under a tent!  As you can tell by the schedule, we worked our butts off but we still managed to have A LOT of fun.  I still count many of the people I worked with there as some of my best friends.

Onstage with Tab Hunter

In 1976 we were rehearsing our production of Hair.  I was watching the final dress rehearsal when they got to the nude scene.  As the show called for, during the peak of the song (under dim lighting) the cast dropped their robes and sang the end of the song naked.  Then the lights dimmed down to a blackout.  During the blackout I heard Richard call out over the microphone “Okay, I am going to bring the lights back up” to which the cast yelled in panicked voices “No wait, we haven’t got our robes back on yet!”  But you just finished a nude scene? Oh well! I wouldn’t have the nerve to do what they did!

Then during the summer of 1984, it was the same time as the Olympics in LA.  So one night after a show we held our own Music Circus Olympics.  It consisted of a big table on stage with a bunch of solo cups filled with beer.  We divided everyone up into four-person teams, and put one person from each team at the top of each of the four aisles that went from outside, down through the seating area and up onto the round stage.  After playing the Olympic march music, at the starter’s pistol one person from each team ran down to the stage, chugged a beer and then ran up any of the other aisles to tag their teammate who did the same thing.  As you can imagine, chaos quickly ensued, including some staff sitting in the seats that were holding up large cards with scores written on them.  I don’t remember if any team ever completed the task because we were all falling over laughing so much.  I still crack up every time I remember that.