My last post, The Shadow Circuit, convinced me that interest in Don McLean was very high right now. His walk out of the NRA Convention. It is the 50th anniversary of his American Pie. His mental breakdown. His Starry, Starry Night/Vincent has surpassed American Pie in popularity today.
The Vincent Van Gogh Immersive Experience has taken major cities in the US and Europe by storm. Every time one of his paintings is auctioned off, it breaks fiscal records. To think the man died a pauper and only sold one of his works while he and his brother were living. His sister-in-law took control of his work and got him placed in the hierarchy of the Impressionists.
I thought this would be good time to re-post my blog Starry, Starry Night, from 2013. And last, but not least, it brings back fond memories of back-in-the-day, when I was a lot younger.
House lights go down for the second act of VINCENT, but the stage lights remain dark. Then Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night fades on the two picture sheets that are upstage of the set. Music fades in, Don McLean’s recording of his song, Vincent, aka Starry, Starry Night. The song continues as a montage of Vincent’s paintings appear on the screens.
In the ambient light from slides you can make out the silhouette of Leonard Nimoy. He stands off to one side, his back to the audience, looking at and enjoying the art along with the audience.
The music fades out. Starry Night reappears for a moment and then fades out also. Backlights fill the stage and Nimoy turns as the front lights fade in and he resumes as Theo Van Gogh telling us about his brother, Vincent.
Selecting the Van Gogh paintings was hard because of the volume of great works and the little time allotted to show them. Selecting the music for the interlude was harder.
Leonard wanted Don McLean singing Vincent from the very start; however he had a friend he relied on for advice who thought the song was Pop, unfit to be part of ‘serious’ art. The friend, an artistic director of a regional theater, was pretentious to say the least. He never said Shakespeare, but always said ‘The Bard’. Theater was always spelled theatre and ‘Arts’ should never be coupled with ‘Crafts’. He backed off somewhat when it was pointed out that the very same recording was played hourly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and a copy of the sheet music was buried in the museum’s time capsule.
Don McLean, singer/songwriter, troubadour/poet, is an American treasure, but not exactly a household name. He is mostly identified with his American Pie aka The Day The Music Died, known for it’s mysterious lyrics and it’s extraordinary length. ‘Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee was dry.’ His second most famous work is Vincent, his ode to Van Gogh. ‘And now I understand what you tried to say to me”.
American Pie represented a sad time in McLean’s life, the death of an idol, Buddy Holly. Vincent reflected the sadness of his early life especially after the death of his father when Don was only 15. It was written on a brown paper bag during a period of marital problems. McLean had always identified with Van Gogh, who was never appreciated during his lifetime, and is reflected the lyrics ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will’.
Outside of an excellent rendition by Madonna, American Pie is left by other recording artists for McLean. His recording of it was voted #5 of the 365 Songs of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Vincent, on the other hand, is covered by many other artists, like Julie Andrews, Julio Ingesias, Chet Atkins, and my favorite cover, Jane Olivor.
His song, And I Love You So has been covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, Howard Keel, a cover by Perry Como reached #1in the Easy Listening genre. His song, Wonderful Baby, was dedicated to and recorded by Fred Astaire.
In his recordings and his concerts, his repertoire includes his own compositions as well as songs identified with singers like Sinatra, Buddy Holly, his mentor, Pete Seeger, Gordon Lightfoot, and Marty Robbins.
When Ray Orbison released his song Crying, it was received just so-so. McLean cut a cover of it that hit #1 in the international market. Orbison made a rerecording of it, using some of the innovations of McLean, and it is now a classic. Orbison said McLean had the best cover of any of Orbison’s songs and said McLean had ‘the voice of the century’.
Don McLean was also responsible, indirectly, for another classic, Killing Me Softly With His Song. Lori Lieberman, singer/songwriter, said that she was so touched by Don McLean in concert, singing his song, Empty Chairs, inspired by McLean looking at Van Gogh’s painting of The Chair, that she wrote a poem as soon as she got home. The poem was set to music and Roberta Flack’s version was 1973’s Record Of The Year.
Dennis Babcock, Guthrie’s Special Events Producer, and the man who put the production and tour of VINCENT together, booked in Don McLean in concert during our VINCENT rehearsal period. Great concert! First time I ever worked McLean. First time Nimoy ever saw him in person and met him. McLean saved Vincent/Starry, Starry Night for the encore and dedicated it to Leonard and the upcoming tour of VINCENT.
As usual, I was house electrician for the concert. When I asked McLean about his lighting preferences, he just smiled and told me to do as I wanted. I did. Used various gels for mood, slow color transitions, sometimes just back light to silhouette him.
When we were knocking down the concert equipment, Eric, Nimoy’s dresser and the self appointed major domo for the tour, came on stage.
‘Don,’ he said, in his dramatic basso voice, ‘I know that your lighting of VINCENT is in the tradition of the stage; but frankly, it is vanilla pudding. Now your lighting of the concert tonight reflected Van Gogh and his paintings. You should incorporate that into VINCENT. Be bold! Spice it up!’
‘Well,’ I confessed, ‘I have often thought about doing just that, but I don’t know if Leonard go for it.’
‘Who do you think brought up the idea? And I agree with him. Leonard had to go out to dinner with Mr. McLean and he asked me to mention it to you. So you could perhaps have some of it in tomorrow’s rehearsal.’
I didn’t need much time at all. I had it pretty much finalized by the time rehearsals started the next day. The key was my use of colored backlights. In his last years, his most ambitious period, in and around Arles in southern France, he used a preponderance of cobalt blue and amber yellow In one of his letters to his brother, Theo, Vincent defended his use of new colors and bolder brush strokes talking of
“vast fields of wheat under troubled skies”.
The play’s set had two picture sheets a backdrop. The backlights hung downstage of them, in such a way as to avoid spilling any light on the sheets. There were three distinct parts of the set.
Stage Right was Theo’s office, a desk and chair. The backlight for this section was the cold heavy blue of Vincent’s midnight sky on cloudless nights.
“Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue”
Stage Left was Vincent’s studio. A rough built table with a paint smeared smock on it. A palette and brushes. A stool. An easel. This backlight was the yellow amber of Vincent’s home and sparse furnishing at Arles. His sunflowers.
“Morning fields of amber grain”
Center stage was the neutral zone where the two colors combined. I controlled the intensity of the two backlight colors, in all three sections depending upon where Leonard was and the mood at the time,
“Colors changing hue”
Leonard liked the new lighting. Erik liked the new lighting. Sandy, Leonard’s wife at the time, liked it.
I knew I had aced it when, on opening night, Alvin Epstein, the Guthrie’s Artistic Director, told me that my lighting was like bringing a Van Gogh painting to life.
But naturally there was a voice of dissent. The Pretentious Pal felt my lighting was vulgar, unfit to be part of serious art. He suggested that Leonard get a ‘real’ Lighting Designer. And naturally he knew the names of several of who he had used in his theater. Leonard said thanks but no thanks. When Leonard was approached by Babcock about a Guthrie production of the skeleton version Leonard first brought to town, Leonard agree and wanted me to be involved and to light it.
At the risk of bragging, theatrical reviewers seldom mention the lighting, and yet in almost all the reviews we got around the country my lights were not only mentioned but also praised. When we played a benefit for The Pretentious Pal’s theater, he really cut loose on me. After all I was a stagehand and lighting was art and the two should be kept separate. And I was not only a stagehand, I was a union stagehand!
I didn’t bother to tell him that this was not the first time this union stagehand designed lights at the Guthrie. And this union stagehand had crossed into his sacred world of ‘Art’ in another way. A few years before I won a prize in a national One-Act playwriting contest, and my play had been published and produced.
In respect of Leonard and Mrs. Nimoy, I listened his criticism and then silently walked away. After I left though. the Nimoys had quite a few words to say to him about his rudeness.
(Hey, Mr. Pretentious Pal, VARIETY ‘The Bible of Show Business’ said in their review of VINCENT, “Donald Ostertag’s lighting was Excellent”. And they also liked the use Don McLean’s recording of Vincent, in the play.)
The entire of tour of VINCENT consisted of three separate legs. The first was produced by the Guthrie. The second was a month in Boston, Leonard’s home town, and was under Leonard’s production. Once again, The Pretentious Pal came and offered suggestions during the rehearsal. And once again, tried to get Leonard to drop Don McLean’s song and Don Ostertag’s lighting. Again, the answer was thanks but no thanks. The next year the third leg went back on the road to other cities. The third leg was produced by Leonard and another producer.
Neither Dennis Babcock nor myself took the show out on the third leg. Since it was no longer affiliated with the Guthrie, Dennis felt he should concentrate on his ‘day job’ at the theater. He found a Tour Manager to replace him.
My life had changed drastically. I had left the Guthrie and had been elected as Business Agent/Call Steward for the local as well as working off the Union Call List. My three oldest sons were working as stagehands and also going to college. In a few years, they would be joined by the two younger sons. I had missed so much of their growing up; but once I went on the Extra Board, I got something that few fathers get, a chance to work shoulder to shoulder with my sons. And over the years, I also worked with four nephews, a young cousin, and a future daughter-in-law. My days on the road were over as well as my days as a lighting designer foe the Guthrie.
When Leonard found out that I was not going out with him, he said he wanted two stagehands to replace me. I sent two out with him. Dennis and I were involved with the rehearsals, which took place in Minneapolis followed by a week of shows at the Guthrie. Then it was off to Atlanta with Dennis and I going along to help with the first real stop.
Oh, of course, The Pretentious Pal had come to Minneapolis town for the rehearsals, and again with the his suggestions to change both the lighting and the music. Again, Leonard stood firm on my lighting, but he did cave on the music. Don McLean was replaced by a classical piece of largely unknown music by an unknown composer.
The music had two things going for it. The composer had lived in Arles at the same time as Van Gogh, although they probably never met nor even knew of one other. The second thing in the music’s favor was the album cover was a Van Gogh painting of ‘A Bridge Near Arles’.
That leg of the tour ended with a filming of the production for VCR distribution and also to be shown some 50 times on the A&E network. That was also the end of Leonard Nimoy in the stage production of VINCENT.
I stayed away from the filming and left it to the two hands. I did however sit in with Leonard and a few others for the showing of the finished product.
I had been forewarned by the hands that although the credit read that the lighting was based on a concept of Donald Ostertag. Don’t believe it. It was basically, all the white lights available are turned on, then off.
As soon as the film started, Leonard wanted to know why my lighting wasn’t used. Julie, Leonard’s daughter, who was around during the filming and had worked with the camera crew on locations of IN SEARCH OF, explained that the director said the colors and cues wouldn’t work in the film. Leonard didn’t like it that my lights were left out and said so. I just sat there, not wanting to present my view that my lights would have transferred to the film.
The excuse was bogus. Basically, this was a case of the LA boys going to fly-over-country, filming a VCR as quick as possible, and then back to L.A.. Surf’s up!
Leonard’s second comment was at the top of the second act. ‘Never should have replaced Don McLean with this music,’ he muttered. I guess you could say that The Pretentious Pal finally got his way, even if Leonard did not like it.
Thirty plus years later:
The VCR was upgraded to DVD with some added commentary and stories by Leonard for which he received a small fee. Now, he could have used it to buy photography equipment for his new profession or other things; but true to his nature, he divided up the money and sent checks to those of us who had worked on the VINCENT tour.
What a compliment to know your work was still appreciated some thirty years later.
And just recently, Don McLean’s past work was appreciated in a very big way. The notebook that he used to work out the lyrics of American Pie recently was bought at auction for $1,200,000, the third highest money ever paid for an American literary manuscript. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more talented artist. Just too bad he didn’t save that paper bag he used to write out the lyrics of his Vincent.
And that’s a wrap – for today.
I could hear that beautiful song all the while I read this! Great story, once again! 🙂
Thank you, Susanne. So happy you enjoyed it.
Wow! How fascinating to learn of all this background. What talent. Van Gogh, McLean y Ostertag.
And now you know some more of the story. Glad you liked it, Hugh.
I can’t express well enough how much I enjoy your posts. I feel like a well informed fly on the wall who sees and understands the truth behind the curtain. This was excellent, as usual. Thanks for sharing.
I am so pleased that you are enjoying my blog, Lauren, as a fly on the wall. Thank you for your kind words. And if you want you can just hit Stage Hand and there is an idex and links to more of these memories.
I so appreciate the time you take to open our eyes to all that goes on behind the scenes to bring the stage and production to life. These stories are simply fascinating.
Thank you, Gwen. It is a pleasure to trade you my stories for your stories of your life and your land-down-under.
I agree with everyone here! So fascinating to read about your life backstage!
Nice words. Especially coming from one whose pictures are worth many thousand words.
Thank you Fraggle.
You’re welcome Don!
This fascinating insight is invaluable. We only see or hear these people as an audience, but you bring their humanity to life with your recollections.
Thank you, Don.
Best wishes, Pete.
I am so happy that I can share them, Pete. And so very grateful to be able to present them in a way that you can enjoy them.
Thanks, Don…that’s a well-told story about one of most favorite songsters, Don McLean, and his “Starry, Starry Night” which tears me up and I don’t mean “tear”, as a “ripping”, although it does rip open our hearts to this poor genius painter unrecognized in his time. But that haunting song was like a painting too and we hear his sung stages of madness happen. Thank goodness and greatness, McLean told the story. And so have you! You are a fine writer…..thanks for sharing….Tom
That song tears me up also, Tom. People thought I kept a box of Kleenix next to the lighting consul because I had a cold. It was to wipe my eyes after that song was playing and Vincent’s works flashed on the screen.
Thank you, 56er.
A beautiful post for a great song!
Thank you, Luisa. It is a great song, isn’t it?
A lovely read. I’m glad your lighting was appreciated – I could see it in my head from how you described it! We used to listen to these songs on the radio so I did hear the old American Pie but I like Madonna’s rendition too 😀
I am so glad you could see my lighting by my writing. I have the same mind set when I read your fine writing of ballet. I hear the music. I see the dancers.
I’m glad to hear that too! It made my day, your comment ❤
What a wonderful story! I’m glad you got the recognition you deserved. The song played against the backdrop of the many pieces of art is a real treat. Thank you, Don.
What a great story! I love hearing about the stagehand stories, and I wish I could have seen this at the Guthrie. Two of my all-time favorite songs and a favorite song writer. You are a fine storyteller
Thank you. I am glad you like my stories ,because I like to tell them. Like you, McLean is a favorite of mine, as is his 2 songs.
I was surprised just now to realize that I had not commented on this beautiful post, and to learn so much interesting history. The good thing is that I can now read it again, and enjoy the photos . Yes, McLean’s music/sound will always be treasured – and for Vincent to be paired with those beautiful paintings and the message so beautiful — life and this planet have hope.
Thank you, Miss Z. Doing that tour of ‘Vincent’, the paintings, the music, Nimoy’s acting, and the reception of the audiences was such an exciting time for me. I know how you feel when you post your photos and prose on your blog. You are bringing something so important to people. I felt the same way doing ‘Vincent’.
If you get time you might enjoy this post of mine from a few years ago.
There’s many excellent interpretations of this wonderful song.
This one is a favorite of mine:
Hard to top McLean’s original though.
Excellent cover, JC. She has a beautiful voice and diction. I am going to have to watch that film, Loving Vincent, that she sang this in. Thanks, JC
I love your posts, with your rich anecdotes, but this one was very special for me, in the very early eighties took an interest on painting, and start reading everything about painting, and read dozens of books about it, plus many biographies of famous painters including my two favorites Gauguin, and Van Gogh, and naturally I tried my hand at painting, and begin to copy both, until I decided to paint my own ideas, with my on style, at the time I had a job very well paid, and with no effort, and little time invested, so I painted for four, or five years, maybe a painting a week, I try to sale them and as Van Gogh I could sell only one! 🙄 Ironically I had to move because of divorce, and could not take but about a dozen paintings, with me, that I gave as presents later, and leaved behind stored on a big garage, at her place the rest, I found through one of my children, my ex sold them all!
And not to a bad price, she did not make like if they were a Van Gogh, by any means, and through about a period of two years, or so, but my son told me she pocket between $100 to $300 a piece! I knew she could got possibly more, but such is life, and ex wives!🤷♂️
History repeats itself. I would hope you take up the brush and canvas again. This time maybe you will sell them yourself. If not, you can aalways get the ex for an agent.
Thanks for reading the posy.
Maybe I should, but to be honest it will be hard for me to get the canvasses needed, by shipping, not to say expensive.
And about my ex, forget it, she will pocket the money, as usual!🤣
Take care Don!
Another fabulous tale Don, I love that he enjoyed your lighting and stood by you. My best friend at Uni was a carpenter stage hand called Rob who could turn his hand to most things from sound, lighting etc. The hours he used to do before shows!
Thanks Charlotte. Stagehands like Rob and almost all of us are like farmers who have to know many of the trades like carpentry, electricity, painting etc..