Making Moments

Over my many years of producing and managing shows onstage, I’ve come to believe that beyond creating an entire piece of work for the audience to enjoy, what they are really taking away with them are specific moments from a show.

This became very clear to me when I looked back on the first National Tour and Broadway production of Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby that we produced many years ago.  I have had the pleasure to work with many great Directors and Choreographers, but we were incredibly lucky to have secured Fran Soeder to be the Director of Peter Pan.  Fran made the point that we couldn’t do another straight revival of the show the way it had always been done – with silly pirates and a foppish Captain Hook.  Fran argued that kids today know about guns and nuclear war, so we had to do a show that was a little more realistic and with a sense of danger.

So to make the pirates look more menacing, they wore big heels on their boots and had large shoulder pads and tall hats.  And the Indians were made to look more real and scary.  While we didn’t change any of the existing dialogue in the show, we took out all of the silliness.  And the emotional high point in all prior productions of the show came late in the third act when Peter and Captain Hook had their big sword fight, the crocodile chased Hook overboard and everybody cheered. 

However, Fran contended that the real emotional high point of the show should be in the following scene, when Peter returns to the nursery only to find that Wendy has grown up and her own daughter, Jane, is sleeping in the bed.  Faced with this reality, Peter breaks down crying and Wendy leaves the room.  Then Fran’s genius showed when he went back to Barrie’s original book and took from it that Peter then pulls his dagger and moves toward the bed intending to kill the daughter asleep there.  But Peter realizes he can’t do it and breaks down crying.  This awakens Jane who starts talking with Peter and decides that she will now be Peter’s mother and fly off to Neverland with him.  Fran was right – this became the new emotional high point of the show.

It was proven to me early in the tour of the show when it was playing the huge Fox Theatre in Atlanta.  I was there to check up on the show and was standing at the back of a Sunday matinee performance, with over 3,000 people packed in (including about 1,500 kids) to see it.  At the last scene in the nursery when Peter pulls his dagger and moves toward the bed, a young boy’s voice rings out from the audience “Don’t do it, Peter!!!”  Well, I still get choked up to this day just thinking about it.  Fran was so right! We are in the business of “making moments.”

And Cathy was an amazing Peter Pan.  She stunned everyone with her acting and singing skills, much less her physical agility that she brought to her flying sequences.  And she was also one of the nicest people you would ever want to work with or for.  Here is a recording from a subsequent production of the show that Cathy did.

I was thinking that since the original two year tour, Cathy must have been on the road for at least ten years with one production or another of the show.  That’s ten years times eight shows a week to an average sized house of two thousand people means she performed the show to over eight million three hundred people.  And I think it is safe to say that half of the audiences were children, so Cathy was responsible for bringing over four million children into the theater, probably for the first time.  What an awesome legacy.  Broadway should be so grateful and thank Cathy for helping to build their future audiences.

And maybe in our lives we should always be trying to “make moments.”

There’s No Business Like Show Business

People are always asking me how I got started in show business.  First I stage managed the musicals at our high school for two years with my good friend Jeff Stehly (more about that in another post!).  Then at nineteen years old I stumbled into working in a costume shop owned by a classic theater character named Chuck Schulte.

One day shortly after I started working for Chuck, he asked me if I wanted to drive with him to Las Vegas to see the show he was running at the time.  The show was Juliet Prowse at the Desert Inn.  Coming from an all-boys Catholic high school in Anaheim, CA, I had never been to Las Vegas before, much less heard of Juliet Prowse.  So of course I said “sure!” and off we went to Las Vegas.

That evening we pulled up to the loading dock at the Desert Inn and went into the backstage of the theater.  We went straight to the backstage right wings where Chuck put on his headset to run the show and instructed me to stand off to the side and watch the show.

Like I said, I had never heard of Juliet Prowse before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  As the show started I could tell from the wings that she was a majorly talented dancer/singer complete with a full cast of dancers and big orchestra on stage.  And beautiful – she had legs that went on for days!

About ten minutes into the show Juliet runs off stage, comes right past me and says “oh, hello” and promptly goes into a full costume change right there next to me.  I later learned that she was claustrophobic and hated quick change dressing rooms.  She also figured that if you were backstage at a show, this was nothing you hadn’t seen before.  And when I say a full costume change, I mean everything!  There was nothing left to the imagination.  I just stood there like a statue trying to pretend like this was no big deal.  I think it was at that moment that I decided show business was for me.

Soon after that I became the stage manager for Juliet’s show for about the next six years.  We played Vegas, Reno, Atlantic City and we toured to Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia and we even played the Palladium in London!  That was all such a GREAT time!  She was the nicest person you would ever want to know, much less work for.  During that time I made several great friends who I am still close with today.

I still get such a laugh out of the times we were playing at the Desert Inn and the show would start with a big, loud orchestra intro which led into a drum roll and then nineteen year-old me on a backstage microphone sounding like Joe Vegas saying “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Crystal Room at the Desert Inn is proud to present, Miss… Juliet… Prowse!!”  I love show business!

Father of the Year

My career in show business ensured that we never had a dull moment in raising our family.  After I went through twelve years of Catholic schools, we wanted to similarly curse our children so we sent our three kids to St. Norbert Elementary School in Orange, CA.   It is a great school and we are so glad our kids went through it.  I think the best part about the school was that it still had three nuns there: Sister Francis (the Principal), Sister Rose Mary (the First Grade teacher) and Sister Carmel (who I later heard our kids say was teaching them “Spirish” – that was Spanish in her Irish accent).

These were three of the really good nuns.  None of them was taller than four foot six inches or weighed more than ninety pounds.  But they really were lovely ladies who were GREAT with the kids.  How Sister Rose Mary was able to teach thirty first graders with no assistant, and keep them engaged and learning without a ruler to the knuckles is still a mystery to me.

One day when Ryan was in fourth grade and Neal was in first grade, I was in my car in the pickup line for the kids after school.  Well, Sister Rose Mary came hustling over to my passenger side window and very concerned told me in her Irish brogue “Mr. Stava, I need to talk with you.” After asking her what I could do for her she told me “Today Neal picked up a popsicle stick on the playground, rubbed it on the asphalt into a point and said ‘we’re going to have a rum-bull!!’” “What’s a rum-bull, Mr. Stava?”

I had to explain to her that I was producing a production of West Side Story and the kids had come to see it over the weekend and what a rumble was.  I then assured her that Neal would NOT be starting a dance-off gang war with the other first graders on the playground at St. Norbert.  To which she grudgingly replied “Well, alright then Mr. Stava; if you say so.”  Sigh!!

A couple weeks later I am in the pickup line and Sister Rose Mary again came hustling over and said “Mr. Stava, I need to talk with you.” “Today Neal called someone a ‘mensch’.” “What’s a ‘mensch’ Mr. Stava?”  I told her that ‘mensch’ was a Yiddish expression for a standup guy, a good guy.  Then I had to explain to her what “Yiddish” meant.  “Oh, alright then, Mr. Stava – if you say so.”  I don’t think poor Sister Rose Mary quite knew what to do about the Stava kids.

But I loved those nuns!  I don’t think I have ever met a priest who would pass up on a meal, but those nuns would go a week without eating if it was to help the kids.

It All Started in a Corn Field in Iowa

Well, not quite, but almost.  Mom was from a farm in the small town of Missouri Valley, Iowa and Dad was from a tiny town named Lodge Pole, Nebraska.  They met at the University of Iowa.  I am the fourth of eight children (more about that in another post).

When it was time for me to be born, the family was living in Los Angeles where Dad worked at an aerospace factory.  Then Dad got a great job offer to play drums with a touring big band, which was his REAL profession.  So they scraped together all the money they had and sent Mom, Bruce, Randy and Gina on the train back to Iowa so Mom could be with her family when I was born.

Well, in true show business fashion at the last minute Dad’s touring job was cancelled – bah-dump-bah.  This stranded Mom in Iowa and Dad in LA, working to put together enough money to bring everyone back home.  As a result I was born at the hospital in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Eventually, Dad was able to bring us all back and be reunited in LA.

Several years later after all eight of us kids were born and we were going back to Iowa for my aunt’s wedding, Dad’s hilarious idea was for Mom to dress like a nun to garner sympathy on the train.  It didn’t work.

I still have such great memories of my grandparent’s farm in Iowa.  I’m sure it’s because I was just a kid, but the corn fields were incredibly tall and they seemed to stretch on forever.  Coming from Orange County we had never experienced something like that and we always had the best time when we visited.

Gobby

I have been very lucky to not only have a great, large family on my “side of the aisle” but also that Nancy had a great Mom named Ann, and Nancy’s brother and sister and their families.  Unfortunately, Nancy’s Dad left his family when the kids were teenagers and he pretty much drove a wedge between him and the rest of the family.

When Ann’s first grandchild was born, she decided she wanted to be called “Granny.”  That was until our first son was born and he was just starting to talk and he realized that Granny had a doggie.  So he called her “Gobby” (like Bobby).  Ann instantly fell in love with her new name and adopted it.  In fact, I think several of her friends started calling her that instead of Ann.

Gobby was the nicest, kindest person you have ever met.   When I asked for her permission to marry Nancy, between crying and laughing she gave me a huge bear hug.  I took that as a “yes.”

When Nancy was a young teenager, her family made the big move from central Orange County, CA to a sleepy little beach town in southern Orange County called San Clemente.  They bought a house with a back patio overlooking a fairway to a public golf course.  Later, every once in a while retired President Nixon would play a round on the golf course there.  He was always preceded by a couple of Secret Service sharp shooters and the people knew the routine was to stay inside while he played through.  That is, all except Gobby’s dachshund named Eloise.  Whenever Nixon was nearby, Eloise would tear down the hill barking her head off at him.  So of course Gobby would go out onto her patio yelling in her high voice “Eloise, Eloise! Get back up here! Eloise!”

I could just imagine the Secret Service radios: “This is Shooter #2. We have a bogey at 11 o’clock!” Then, “this is Shooter #1.  Stand down #2, it is only Gobby.”  And as she stood there yelling down at her dog, you would hear Nixon’s classic, sonorous voice saying “Eloise! Get back up there, Eloise!”  Eloise obviously had a good sense for people.  She probably wouldn’t have liked Checkers, either.  For any of you who are too young to understand that reference, GTS (Google that shit).

When she was fighting breast cancer she was sitting and talking with Nancy.  Nancy recounted how she had heard that if your telephone rang and nobody is there when you pick it up, it might be someone who has died just letting you know they are around.  So Nancy joked with her Mom that they should work out their signals now, so she would know when Gobby was around.  Without missing a beat, Gobby said “Oh, we can’t tell you about that stuff.”  After they cracked up, Gobby said “I’ll tell you what.  When you are all by yourself in a room and you smell a fart, you will know I am there with you.”

Later, after a large, soft tissue tumor required them to amputate Gobby’s left leg at her hip, she was forced to spend her time in a wheelchair.  But undaunted as she was by all of that, she drove Nancy and her buddy Anita crazy with her desire to go to Nordstrom to buy a cute pair of summer deck shoes.  Always the realist, Nancy said “Mom, you only have one leg! We’re not going to get you a new pair of shoes.”  To which Gobby replied, “Maybe we can find someone who had their right leg amputated and we can share with her?”  She was truly one of a kind.  Gobby has since past, but more of that in a later post.

Musical Theater Pantomime

Finding some joy in each day is a gift to be appreciated.

A few years ago, we had to make a driving road trip.  Emily, who was about 24 at the time was with us.  While Nancy was resting in the back seat, Em was up front with me while I was driving.  Now I’ve spent most of my life working in musical theater – stage managing, producing, managing and fundraising.  One of the many, many great things about this is that I have a pretty good knowledge of the songs from all of the musicals.  And Em has seen a ton of musicals, too (my curse to her!), so we tuned the radio to the Broadway channel on Sirius and were singing along.

When the title song from “Oklahoma!” came on, I started the old Rip Taylor bit of pantomiming the words during the song.  Come on, you have probably done it too – “where we watch (point to your wrist) a hawk (clear your throat – like hocking a lugie) making lazy (yawn) circles in the sky (make a circle and point up). ” You get the idea.  Well, this was totally cracking Em up, so of course I kept it up for several songs.  I don’t know what I enjoyed more, having fun doing it or making my 24 year old daughter laugh so much.  I think it was the latter.

After awhile she said we had to stop because her stomach hurt from laughing so much.  And then it popped into my head and I told her “Thank God they didn’t play South Pacific’s I’m Just a Cock-Eyed Optimist!”.  Well, we did have to pull over at that point because we practically fell out of the car laughing!!  You gotta love musical theater.

Don’t Mess With Texas – or Nancy!

I hope everyone who is fighting cancer is a lucky as I am, in that Nancy, my wife of 34 years (at least until she reads this post!) has been by my side as the best caregiver a person could ask for.  I truly, truly love her and for the life of me I can’t figure out why she has put up with me for all these years – but I am so grateful she has! Having someone next you through your treatments is critical.  Unfortunately I’ve seen several marriages break up over cancer diagnosis-es and treatments  because it was much harder than what they expected when they vowed “in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”

But Nancy also has a very tough side and she does not suffer fools lightly.  I still remember when she was pregnant with our third child, she took an AFP test that came back showing that our baby might have spinal biffida or Downs Syndrome.  And it was going to be two weeks before she could have an amnio centesus test to confirm if our baby was going to be alright or not.  Those were the two longest weeks of our lives!  All that time to think about the “what ifs.” It was really, really terrible.

When we finally got in for her amnio centesus appointment, the doctor sat us down in his office and tried to reassure Nancy that “this wasn’t going to hurt.”  Well, Nancy would have none of that.  She snapped back “oh yeah, have you ever had that long needle shoved into your stomach?  You’re just a stupid man, a stupid, stupid man!”  As the doctor’s jaw hit his desk, I shrank down to about two inches tall in the chair next to Nancy.  Fortunately, our daughter Emily was, and still is, healthy and perfect in every way.

To this day I still live by the mantra “Don’t be a stupid man!”  I don’t always succeed, but I try – I am a man after all! I love you, Nancy!