LARRY & The Duke (1)

Larry Howard was one of the first hired at Guthrie Theater. He spent over two decades as the daytime stage-door man; but he was so much more. He represented the epitome of the saying ‘everybody loved him.’

When a stranger walked down the down the stage-door steps and heard Larry’s warm and honest question, ‘Can I help you?’, the visitor was quickly put at ease. And he was never a stranger again.

Larry had the uncanny knack of remembering faces and names. It was a valuable asset to a stage-door man, but few had it like Larry.

The first time I ever went to the Guthrie was with Bob Gubbins. Bob had worked in the Guthrie set shop the first season, which was located in the basement of the theater. There was an addition to the Guthrie, a decent shop, that had just opened and Bob wanted to see it.

We had just started down the stairs when Larry welcomed Bob by name. It had been five years since Larry had seen Bob.

I was introduced to Larry that day and two years later when I walked down the steps, my first day as a Guthrie employee, the first words I heard was, ‘Hi, Don. Welcome to the Guthrie. I heard you were hired for the running crew.’ His memory amazed me; but more important, it was the start of a treasured friendship.

I don’t think there was any one of the Guthrie family during Larry’s tenure that didn’t treasure his friendship. For most of us a quick greeting or a short conversation made us happier than we were before. For others, especially younger employees, Larry was a surrogate father. Larry was a listener, not a talker and certainly not a judge. He rarely talked about himself.

And if you were hurting with a few aches and pains, one look at Larry and you stopped feeling sorry for yourself. He moved with slightly hunched shoulders and a painful walk. His knees were shot. It was hard to watch him walk on the level. It was sad to watch him go up or down the stage-door stairs. But no one ever heard him complain.

The first parking spot by the stage-door was Larry’s. There was never any sign that said it was Larry’s. It was just understood that Larry did not need a long walk to and from his car.

David Feldshuh was an actor and associate director at the Guth,Arie. He was close to getting his doctorate in theater. His next project was to get a doctorate in medicine.

He often told Larry that when he got his medical degree, he would see to it that Larry’s problem knees would be taken care of. That promise always brought a smile to Larry’s face.

Those years the polite term for Larry was Afro-American; but Larry was at an age where almost all his life he had been referred to as a Negro or a colored. One of the few times that Larry talked to me about his personal life was an eye-opener to me.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Canadian Cree singer/composer had performed two concerts the night before at the Guthrie. Buffy had been the first indigenous performer to break into main stream music. Her protest songs against war, such as The Universal Soldier, and against the treatment of the indigenous people, such as Now That the Buffalo’s Gone, propelled her into the forefront of the protest movement.

Her works soon attracted the attention of President Johnson who led the blacklisting of her music on radio. Nixon followed suit when he became president. And of course, J. Edgar Hoover was investigating her before she became know to the public.

The American Indian Movement, A.I.M, had begun and was headquartered in Minneapolis, wanted her to basically turn the concerts into a rally for their movement. She refused. She felt the audience bought tickets to hear her in concert, not in a protest rally. Her songs would stand by themselves in protest. Plus she had misgivings about the violence associated with A.I.M.. Her refusal did not discourage A.I.M. however. Members demonstrated outside the Guthrie with chants and drums. Some members bought tickets to the concerts and broke into chants during her performance, stopping the concerts several times.

She told them off during her show, criticized them for ruining the show for others; but between shows and afterwards, she cried.

The next day when I said hello to Larry, he commented that he read that his people made fools out of themselves at her concerts. Thinking that he thought it was a Black protest, I quickly ‘corrected’ him. I told him it was A.I.M., that had caused the problem, not his people.

Then he corrected me. He said A.I.M. thought to be an Ojibway movement; also had quite a few Lakota Sioux, his tribe, involved with it.

When I said that I never realized he was part Sioux, he told me his mother was half Lakota Sioux and half French-Canadian. (Since my mother descended from French-Canadians, Larry and I might have been related.) He said his father was half Afro-American and half Scotch- Irish. So Larry was a quarter Native American, more than half Caucasian, and less than a quarter Afro-American.

His father had been a Buffalo Soldier, a Black cavalryman, stationed in Montana Territory where he met Larry’s mother. Upon discharge they moved to North Dakota where Larry was raised. Over the years, Larry told me bits and pieces of his life, but I never pressed so I really did not find out much about his past.

Larry loved sports. He followed the Twins and Vikings on the radio. He was the coach of the Guthrie softball team. He told me that he and his brother had held most of the high school athletic records in North Dakota. Records in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. They also played semi-pro baseball. His brother pitched. Larry was the catcher, a position that contributed early to his bad knees in later life.

Larry loved music, jazz music. When he wasn’t listening to sports he was listening to jazz on the radio.

He knew what stations and what time he could listen to his favorites like Basie, Armstrong, and especially the Duke, Duke Ellington.

Michael Langham, the artistic director at the Guthrie, was also an Ellington fan; and when Michael had been artistic director at Stratford Ontario, he had hired Ellington to compose the incidental music for Langham’s production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. The year was 1957, the year after Ellington’s rebirth. The year that saw Ellington’s rise from a ‘jazz composer’ to be recognized as one of America’s great serious composers.

For Christmas of 1973, Michael gave Larry the newly published book, Music Is My Mistress, by Duke Ellington. It was a coffee-table book, rich with pictures of the Duke, his orchestra, and some of the people that Duke had worked with and admired over his 50 years in the Jazz world. Ellington opened by saying the book was not a memoir, it was a performance. It was the kind of book that one could get lost in, over and over. And Larry did, often, and he told Michael so.

Michael had arranged with the Guthrie Events producer to book Ellington and his orchestra for a concert at the Guthrie. He promised Larry that they would sit together in the best seats in the house. He also promised Larry that he would go backstage and meet the Duke.

The prospect of actually talking to the Duke thrilled Larry to say the least, but Larry knew it was just wishful thinking. Larry’s knees and his overall health wouldn’t allow him to sit for the a concert, no matter how much he would like to.

He thanked Michael, and explained why it couldn’t happen; but asked if maybe Michael could get the Duke to autograph his book.

The distance between the ex Buffalo Soldier’s shanty on the Dakota prairie where young Larry Howard started out and the middle class home in Washington D.C. where young Edward Kennedy,(Duke), Ellington started his life, was far greater than just miles.

About the only thing these two boys had in common in their early years was their love of baseball. Both boys excelled in baseball and both had dreams of someday playing in the Negro League. Larry played before an audience of ranch hands and small town inhabitants. Ellington told of how sometimes President Teddy Roosevelt would stop on his horse back ride and watch him and his friends play baseball.

Ellington’s love for jazz began in his preteens. Larry’s began in his late teens.

This is the first of three parts of LARRY & THE DUKE. The second part will follow in a day or so.

Until then…STAY SAFE




rainbow and roses

Just a few days before my fall, we had celebrated our 57th Wedding Anniversary. I was a few months from turning 80. But, you know, I never really felt old.

I had subjected my body to a lot of things over the years: bucked off horses, bruised up in sports, battered around jumping out of airplanes. A lot of hard work before I found my life’s occupation, stagehanding, and then when I settled on it, it was 24/7. long hours, little sleep, working part of it outside in the heat and the freezing cold.

I was fortunate to work as a stagehand, work that had great diversity, getting paid to work things that people paid big bucks to attend. Working big time names, acts, events. And while I missed so much of my sons growing up, I made up for my loss when they got old enough to work next to me. Sons, nephews, daughter-in-law all worked beside me. What a thrill! Something most people never experience. As the years went by I became one of the old-timers in the business, but I never really thought of myself as old.

Because of all that ‘fun’when I was younger I ended up with knees that creak and hurt, among other aches and pains. Heck, if I raced a tortoise it would be the damn turtle that would have to fall asleep in order for me to win. But you know I really never thought of myself as old.

I saw my our sons grow into adulthood and raise families. I saw our grandkids graduate from high schools and colleges. So proud of the family that my wife and I were blessed with. And even at our family get togethers and found myself looking up to talk to many of the family, I still really never thought of myself as old.

I saw the gray strands of hair that my wife tried to hide with black touch-ups. I looked in the mirror and for several years the face that stared back at me from the looking glass was not mine; but rather the face of my father in his later years. But still I never really thought of myself as old.

And then one night I fell, and from that night on I felt old, realized my dancing days were behind me. I must be content to watch baseball on TV, rather than climb stadium steps to watch in person or heaven forbid, actually play softball at a family picnic. I’m old…but happy.

As the grandkids grew older they saw less of their grandma and their poppa. What really hurt was the fact I had no more children to sit on my lap, to read to, to tell my stories to. The prospect of great grandkids are far in the future. And then we were blessed again.

Our youngest son, Dirk, married late and now we have three little girls to watch grow into young ladies, which they are doing much too fast. Already they are too big for Poppa’s lap; but not too old to overlook their grandparents’s need to be a part of their lives.

Dirk brought the three darlings to the hospital to see me, to help me recuperate faster, to cheer me up in a way no cards or flowers ever could.

I sat up in bed anticipating hugs and kisses. But the three of them stayed back from the bed.

The youngest, Jaycee, age 8, explained that ‘Daddy said we can’t hug or kiss you, Poppa, or even get close to you because we might give you some germs and get you infected.’

‘But don’t mean we don’t love you, Grandpa’, interjected Jenna, age 10.

‘Right!’ said Jayda, age 11.

What a wonderful get-well gift. A gift an old man can enjoy long after flowers fade and cards are thrown in a drawer.

FAMILY…mi familia…the family that raised me…the family that raised my wife…the family my wife and I raised and now their families.

I beg your forgiveness in my writing this account of my medical experiences due to the fall. I know that old people converse a great deal about their aches and pains and medical experiences like I have been doing. It can grow boring fast. In this case, I wrote it more as a catharsis for myself than for the entertainment of the reader. It is a shock to admit that you too have grown old, and a joy to be given a chance to grow older.

In THE FALL I used music as a prop. Laying flat on my face, hearing in my mind, Sinatra’s THAT’S LIFE, that song clearly was the Present.

The Past was represented by a song, C’EST LA VIE, bringing to mind my growing up in the French/Dakotah town of Mendota and a saying the old- timers said with a shrug of their shoulders.

And the fear of the unknown after brain surgery, QUE SERA, SERA, the Future.

And while all three are some of my favorites, the one song I start out my day is Louis Armstrong singing:


The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people goin’ by
I see friends shakin’ hands, sayin’
“How do you do?”
They’re really sayin’,
“I love you.”

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know

And I think to myself


MLB All Star Game 2014

Minnesota Twins Field


the fall


Now you’ll probably feel something here,’ the doctor warned.

I did. If felt like a long paper-cut under my collar bone. I was glad I couldn’t see much of anything because of the blue veil over my face.

For the next couple hours, I didn’t feel any real pain, just a dullness as the doctor was making the pocket for the device, planting the device, hooking up the two electrodes to my heart via two veins. By the time he sewed me up, I was too bored to pay any attention to the sharp needle. I was also catching up some much needed sleep.

During the early part of the procedure I paid a little attention to the conversation between the doctor and the nurses. Just small talk. Nothing about what they were working on.

‘We got tickets for tonight’s Twins game,’ the doctor said.

I perked up.

‘I hope they call it off early so we don’t have to go and sit in the weather to make our rain checks good.’

‘Not rain checks tonight, snow checks,’ I interjected. ‘Predicting four to six inches.’

I can talk baseball anytime, anyplace.

Knowing that the doctor was a baseball fan gave me more confidence in him doing a good job on me.

‘I always consider winter is over when the Twins open the season,’ I heard the doctor say. ‘And when I go to the ballpark and see my first game of the year, I know it is officially spring. Not this year though. Bad weather and bad scheduling.’

A feminine voice spoke up. ‘It’s always such a shame when you look forward to something and it’s canceled.’

Somebody said,’C’est la vie’.

‘Sounds like the voice of experience, Mr. Ostertag,’ the doctor commented.

And then I realized who said it. ‘Many times,’ I answered. ‘Like you said, bad weather or bad timing.’ I could feel myself going into a deeper relaxation.

(C’est la vie! Brought back memories of growing up in Mendota, a small village across the rivers from St. Paul and Minneapolis. It was where the French-Canadian fur trappers sold their pelts they caught in Dakota territory. Many stayed and settled. My mother was a descendant of those early settlers. She was also in the first generation in the village that had English, not French, as the primary language.

The old-timers could talk English but they talked French among each other. And no matter what language they were using at the time, ‘C’est la vie’ was an important part of their conversations.

‘Pierre got a broken leg. His bay mare gave him a good kick.’

‘C’est la vie.’

‘Pierre and Marie going to have the first baby – already.’

‘C’est la vie.’

Mom could get by in French but my generation only knew a little: ‘comment sa va’,’J’ai faim’ ‘merci’. And some words that brought the age-old motherly threat, ‘Say that again and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap’.)

I settled deeper in La La Land and heard in my mind Chuck Berry singing his song, ‘C’est la vie say the old folks, but you never can tell,’ and watched him schuffle-dance across the stage and then the video segued into Travolta and Thurman dance to it in PULP FICTION.

My entertainment and sleep was abruptly stopped when the doctor pulled the veil from my face and announced the procedure was done and went well.

Back in the room I realized that the procedure could have been an In and Out the same day. It was a walk in the park. But by staying into the next day it changed from an Out Patient procedure to an In Patient and cut my out-of-pocket cost considerably. The doctor explained that to me this monetary advantage when I suggested I felt good enough to go home that day. He neglected to mention my age had something to do with me spending the night.

And if I had gone home the same day I would have missed out on the hospital supper, (My chart still said no coffee, and when I told the nurse I had coffee with the doctor’s permission right after the procedure; and she said she would get some out of the break room. After the first sip I knew why they didn’t want to give the patients coffee, they were ashamed of it.), the every four hours ‘checking my vitals’ and all the poking and prodding that accompanied such going-on’s. And I would have missed out on Nurse Mini-Ratched.

My wife and son, Danny, were sitting on the couch getting ready to go home when this little Asian dynamo came bursting into the room. I was just exiting the rest room. Without so much as a hello or how do you feel, or baise mon cul, she brushed past me and went into the rest room. I sat down in the reclining chair.

The writers in the 40’s like Hammitt and Chandler would have described her as a lovely porcelain China doll. But when she opened her mouth, she came right out of the 60’s, Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.

She came back to the door of the rest room and she screamed at me, several times. Her high frequency voice was such that my hearing aid would have trouble understanding even if she did calm down a bit. And to further complicate things she had a thick accent, Mhong, Japanese?.

I could swear she was telling me to go pee in a hat. I looked for help from my wife or son, but they both just shrugged their shoulders.

I made up my mind. She was telling me to go pee in a hat. I followed her into the rest room. I planned to tell her to go piss up a rope!

She went to shelf in the far corner and took what looked like a small plastic party- sombrero. She shook it at me. She turned it upside down and laid it on the toilet seat with the brim preventing it from falling in.

‘You pee in the hat,’ she demanded. ‘We need to measure what you drink and what you pee,’ she shouted, shaking her finger at me.

‘Hey, lady,’ I said angrily, ‘I’ll play your a games but I have to know the rules. I’ve been here for hours and nobody else told me about measuring my piss!’

‘You just pee in the hat, mister,’ she said ‘Just pee in the hat,’ and she stomped out of the room after almost getting tangled up in my oxygen hose that I had to drag with me.

All the medical staffers that worked on me in the two hospitals the last several days were kind and made me feel at ease. And then there was this little ball of fire. Nurse Mini-Ratchet!

I showed her though. I refused to get into the bed when she wanted me to and stayed in the big chair and used the darn plastic urinal. Actually, I don’t think it bothered her where I slept. I know she waited until I had just got back to sleep to come into the room to do her measuring and complaining that my intake was greater than my output. This went on about every half hour.

I thought about just pouring a little water in the plastic urinal with my urine to make my output more to her liking. Get her off my back, and let me get some sleep. But I remembered about what happened to McMurphy in CUCKOO’ S NEST when he crossed Nurse Ratched. And what happened in real life to Jerry, a part time stagehand.

(Jerry was in the VA hospital being treated for a flare up of something he had contracted back in Nam. He had spent several weeks already in the hospital and was bored. He came up with what he thought was a good joke. He took his breakfast apple juice and hid it under the clean towels in the rest room.

Later when the nurse handed him the daily specimen bottle he took it into the rest room and poured the apple juice in it. He went to hand it to the nurse but quickly pulled it back.

‘Awful pale,’ he said. ‘I’ll just pass it through again.’ And he drank the juice down in one swallow.

The nurse gagged. Jerry laughed.

He managed, through his laughing fit, to tell her what he had done. He thought it was funny. The nurse did not.

She got the last laugh. She arranged to have him spend two days in the Psych Ward to undergo a mental evaluation.)

Mini-Ratchet came in this one time, did her measurements and left the room. She came back about ten minutes later. She was pulling a monitor on wheels with one hand and had a wand which was connected to the contraption in her other hand . She announced she was going to check my bladder.

I contradicted her. I suggested she stick the wand between her legs and fly out of my room.

She let out a ‘humph’, and stomped out of the room. I hollered a C’est la vie and one of the forbidden French phrases to her and she left me alone. Dieu merci!

When the next nurse came on shift at midnight was like night and day. She asked me in a soft voice if I would like to move into the bed. I was more than willing. Believe it or not, I went to sleep and no one woke me, even to check my vitals, much less measure my pee.

The doctor came in after breakfast, checked out his work and my vitals, and then pronounced me fit to go home. My wife was still home waiting for one of the boys to take her to the hospital. The nurse asked me my wife’s name and said she would call her to tell her the good news and what she would have to do to get me released.

In the Army when someone asked you your name, you automatically spout out your name, rank, and serial number. In the hospital the question was answered with name and date of birth. When the nurse asked for Gina’s name, I gave her the name and automatically added Gina’s date of birth.

When the nurse finished explaining to my wife to go to the business office and get all the paper work for my release, I signaled for the phone.

I reminded Gina that when I came it was spring and now it’s winter again so be sure and bring warmer clothes – and a hat. She was way ahead of me on the clothes and reminded me that I had a cap in the hospital already. I repeated she better bring a hat just in case I needed to pee on the way home. I thought it was funny but Gina didn’t just let it slide by.

I imagined Mini-Ratched was pleased that I had left and wouldn’t be around for her shift. I know I was very pleased; even in the cold and blizzard conditions, and the fact the rest of the Twins first home stand had been rescheduled to be played in baseball weather.

My life changed. I revolved around doctor’s appointments. My regular doctor, the heart clinic, the brain clinic. The later was the most crucial to monitor my brain in case of a fluid buildup which often occurs after a blow to head. Each week I went to the hospital and had a Cscan. Then I went to the brain clinic where a tech looked at the scan. Each time it showed no fluid. Things were looking good.

Not good enough for me to fly to Tulsa for our oldest grandchild’s wedding though. That really hurt me. Almost everyone in the entire family flew out to the wedding of Erik and Erin.

Our first grandchild! Gina was Grandma Day Care and I was Erik’s Poppa Reader. First Dr. Suess and as Eric grew older, the Harry Potter books as soon as they were published. And I had to miss his wedding.

In addition to my medical problems, my wife had an operation coming up, scheduled before my fall, to help her breath. Something she should have had done years ago. She had doctor appointments and tests leading up to the surgery which would entail grafting a piece of bone in her nose.

Getting around to our doctor appointments and going to the stores presented no problem even though I shouldn’t drive, and my wife couldn’t drive. Between the sons, daughter-in-laws, and the older grandkids, we were never at loss for a driver. Family! Wonderful family!

On the 5th week after the fall, the brain technician said things were looking so good, I could maybe be ‘discharged’ the next week and do monthly checkups instead of weekly.

I was in good spirits the next week when I went through the Cscan and then over to the brain clinic. The tech took one look at the scan film that came via the internet to the office; she gasped and my good spirits changed to a deep depression.

She said I had a fluid lump about the size of a ‘clementine’ competing with my brain for space in my cranium. She would contact the surgeon and the hospital. And I would get in the car, my oldest son was driving, and get to the hospital on the double. ASAP! Do not pass GO and collect $200. Whatever! Just get a going!


End Act II. Curtain closes to the sound of Chuck Berry singing: