LARRY & THE DUKE (III)

The Ghost Light is lit

waiting

Just as Duke Ellington’s life took a dramatic turn in the mid 50’s, Larry Howard’s life had a dramatic change in 1963, the Guthrie Theater opened in May with Larry as the stage-door man. The 60’s saw the Guthrie being recognized as a prominent regional theater, but in the late 60’s it began to push it’s limits and various power struggles in upper management caused both a lose of artistic personnel and audience. It came close to closing for good. In 1969 Don Schoenbaum, only a few years removed from coming to the theater as a Ford Foundation intern was placed in charge of both management and artistic decisions. He kept the theater going and with the help of Sir Tyrone Guthrie managed to lure Michael Langham away from Stratford Ontario and take over as Artistic Director in 1971. Larry Howard’s job was saved as were all the jobs of us working at the Guthrie when Michael took over.

And Larry was only a few years away from meeting the Duke.

Duke Ellington’s last tour began in October of 73 with the first month in Europe, before coming back to the U.S. where it ran almost nonstop until almost the end of March 74. This extreme tour was taken in spite of, or maybe because of, Duke’ health was failing. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He never announced anything about it being a farewell tour but he knew it was.

Mercer Ellington, the Duke’s only child knew also. Mercer was a composer, arranger, band musician, band leader both in conjunction with his father and on his own. In the late 60’s he left his personal career and joined his father’s organization as a trumpeter and road manager, and nurse. During a concert when the Duke became tired, Mercer took over on piano and conducting.

It was evident that the Duke was handing over the baton to his son. It was also evident that there was a strong bond of love between father and son. Over the years I had the pleasure of working the Duke Ellington Orchestra with Mercer in charge. Mercer was a gentleman just like his father. And when Mercer was phasing out, he slowly turned over the reins over to his son, Paul, who continues the tradition. I had the good fortune to have worked the three generations of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The two concerts at the Guthrie had been moved from January to March 15 and 17. The load-in/setup went smoothly. The concert was great. Sometime in the second half, Duke left the stage and Mercer took over. The Duke returned at bows and the Take The A Train encore piece.

When I went down to the stage to put out the ghost light and wrap up for the night, Joey B, the Guthrie deck hand told me about a conversation between two of the ‘old-timers’ when they were casing up their horns.

One leaned over and asked where the next gig was. When he was told that they had a day off and then came back to this same stage, he laughed and said, ‘Damn, you don’t say. Tonight wasn’t a one-nighter.’

“Nope we can go and jam tonight and sleep tomorrow during the day.’

‘Well,’ the first old-timer replied, ‘I’ll just go to the hotel and sleep tonight and sleep tomorrow too. My bones are tired, man, tired.’

Some of the band did go jamming that night, at the Padded Cell, a small jazz club in Minneapolis, frequented by both local and national musicians and known to lock it’s door at closing time and allow the jam sessions to go well past sunup. Sad to say, the Cell, like all the jazz clubs in the Twin Cities and across the river in Mendota, where I grew up, are long gone.

Michael Langham had the Duke autograph Larry’s book as he promised, but Ellington was very disappointed that Larry had not brought the book to the dressing room in person. From what Michael had told him about Larry, Ellington said he really wanted to meet him. The two worked out a way.

It wasn’t just the band members that enjoyed a day off. Mine was spent with a late sleep before I began my spring yard work. In show business you grab sleep when you can. Like the old timer said, the bones get tired.

When I drove into the Guthrie lot for the second concert, I saw Dawson’s limo parked so Larry could not get out. It was past the time Larry usually left for home. When I walked around the limo to get in the stage door, I could see Larry and the Duke sitting in the back seat, windows rolled down to catch the spring weather. Two elderly gentlemen engaged in conversation. Larry had met the Duke.

Lawson was in the green room when I went in to get some coffee. ‘I never saw Larry smile like that when I opened the door so he could get in with the Duke,’ Dawson told me. He looked at his watch and said in ten minutes he would have to bring Ellington around to the lower stage door, and Larry could go home.

The next time I saw Larry he told me how easy it was to talk to Duke Ellington. ‘It was like we were friends from way back.’ He showed me his copy of Music Is My Mistress that Michael had given him for Christmas and now it had the Duke’s autograph.

The second concert like the first was excellent. The playlist was a little different than the first to keep the musicians from getting bored This time though the Duke didn’t make it through to the intermission.

Joey B. was breaking down things when I got down to the stage. Mercer was looking out the door and one of the musicians was sitting on a chair next to the door.

Joey came over and told me in his stage whisper how the old guy took off his shoe and sock as soon as he came off stage. ‘His damn foot is all swelled up,’ Joey said, nodding to the band member, ‘And it’s green. Green! Looks like hell.’

I took a good look at the man. It was Paul Gonsalves, of the Newport Jazz Festival fame.

After seeing Gonsalves off to the Emergency Hospital, Mercer helped us with the breakdown and supervised us loading everything in the bins of the bus. He told us that he was going to get his father and the Duke always wanted to thank the stage crew. ‘But whatever you do,’ he said, ‘Don’t mention anything about having to send Gonsalves to the hospital. I’ll make up some excuse why Paul isn’t at the next gig, but I can’t tell him how bad he is. Dad just couldn’t handle that news… in his condition.’

Joey B. and I were only too glad to glad to wait and shake Duke Ellington’s hand. Joey commented on how much he liked ‘that good kind of music’, and I agreed and thanked him for his meeting with Larry.

The Duke gave me a smile and said it was his pleasure to meet Larry. ‘He’s quite a man. You here at the Guthrie are lucky to have him. He really had an interesting life. Did you his father was a Buffalo Soldier?’ And then he added, ‘Next time I play here, I’m going to make it a point to take him out to dinner.’

Mercer turned his head so his dad couldn’t see the expression on his face.

Mercer never told his father how sick ‘Strolling Violins’ Paul Gonsalves was. And he never told him when Paul died on 5/15/ 74, eight days before Duke Ellington died. Gonsalves was only 53, but years of drug and alcohol took their toll on him.

When the band left the Guthrie, they played six more gigs, canceling the two at the end of the tour. He died five days after the tour ended. He had his 75th birthday just a few weeks before.

Larry Howard continued to greet people from behind his stage door counter for several more years before he retired. I sadly lost track of him after he left the Guthrie.

I do know he was walking better in his later years. That promise that the young actor/director intern at the Guthrie, David Feldshuh, was fulfilled when David got his medical doctorate

David’s medical doctorate followed his doctorate in theater. Doctor/Doctor David continues his work in theater as a prize winning playwright, nominated in 1992 for a Pulitzer for Miss Ever’s Boys, teacher, and director at Cornell, as well as working in the Cayuga Medical Center with Emergency Medicine as his speciality.

.Currently he is one of the Front Line Heroes in the battle against COVID19.

There’s no people like Show People. They smile when they are low.’

Show people, many of my family member included, were the first to lose their livelihood

when the virus hit.

And they will be some of the last to go back to their profession

And the current ‘leadership’ in the White House and Senate are doing nothing to help the millions of

AMERICANS

on the verge of losing everything.

VOTE!!!

And this is a wrap for the three part Larry & The Duke.

Larry & THE DUKE (II}

Young Larry and his family had a hard-scramble life in the Dakotas. Young Edward lived in a fine house in a good neighborhood in Washington D.C.

The Duke’s father’s artist talent got him a good job making blueprints for the U.S. Navy, and before that served as a White House butler. Both young Ellington’s parents were well known pianists in D.C. and were hired to perform at both private and government functions. His mother specialized in parlor music. His father in operatic arias. Edward started his ‘playing’ the piano at the age of three. At the age of eleven he began to receive lessons from a prominent teacher.

His musical life of light classical began to change around the age of fourteen when he began to sneak into a pool hall to listen to the piano players beating out jazz, ragtime, blues, music that here- to -for he had only heard about.

It was around this time Edward got the nickname Duke. He was a dapper dresser and had casual air about him. His friends thought Edward just didn’t fit him and one of them titled him Duke. The name not only stuck, it replaced his given name.

The Duke composed his first of over a thousand compositions, Soda Fountain Rag. He was fifteen and could neither read or write music. He felt that his skill was not playing piano but composing. He worked hard to learn the mechanics of music. He also began to organize combos and to play at dances. Like his father, Duke was an exceptional artist, so much so he was offered an art scholarship to Pratt Institute; which he turned down because he believed strongly that his music would be his life.

Earning money by day as a sign painter, playing gigs at night. Soon his combo, The Duke’s Serenaders, was playing embassy parties and private functions in D.C. and nearby Virginia, playing for both Afro-Americans and white audiences. The Duke was on his way…

But like all over-night successes in Show Biz it was a lot of hard work and a lot of two steps forward, one step back; and often one forward, two back. The early 1920’s saw him and his ensemble hopping between New York and D.C. with an occasional stop in Atlantic City. His ensemble grew both in size and in quality. His compositions grew and various musicians in his band often took a different approach to a song. Ellington’s musical horizons expanded as did his popularity and respect as both a composer and as band leader.

In 1926, Irvin Mills, a prominent music publisher and jazz artist promoter, came to an Ellington club date to scout the Duke out as a possible client. He was so impressed he signed Ellington that very night. Mills only took 45% of Ellington Inc.. Sounds like a lot today, but it was an unheard of contract between a white agent and a black musician. It was usually that the musician got only 40% or less.

Mills relieved Ellington of the business end that robbed the Duke of time better spent with his music. Getting recording gigs, radio air play, films, and live performances at prominent venues.

On of these venues was the famous Cotton Club where the Ellington Orchestra was house band on several extended occasions, and later as guest artists. It was the Prohibition Era and also the Jim Crow Era. The performers were black and came in through the back door. The audience was white and paid big money while coming in the front door. Ellington was expected to compose and play ‘jungle music’. This segregation at the club ended thanks a lot in part by Ellington.

As the Depression took hold, the recording business suffered; but radio exposed the Duke to a growing audience and tours became the band’s mainstay. Ellington’s compositions during those years, like Mood Indigo and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, were big hits no matter who sang or played them. Then in 1938, a composer/arranger, Billy Strayhorn, applied to Ellington as a lyricist.

Strayhorn brought Lush Life, a song he composed as a teenager, to show the Duke a sample of his work. He also began to outline different arrangements of a few of Ellington’s work. Duke found his ‘left hand, his right hand’, the missing link in his musical journey.

Like his idol, the Duke, Strayhorn’s musical foundation was classical. His dream was to be a classical composer; but he knew that a black would never be accepted in the classical music world of the day, so jazz became his medium…until he discovered the jazz/classical compositions of Ellington.

The two worked as one, composing in the classical vein of suites. Strayhorn made new arrangements for Ellington’s standards as well as composing songs on his own. The first Ellington recording of a Strayhorn work was Take The A Train which became the signature introduction of the Ellington’s Orchestra. For the next 25+ years the two collaborated, one working on a theme and the other jumping in, until it became impossible to credit either one for the completed work.

The Swing Era/Big Band Era began in the mid-30’s and continued for a good ten years. While the white Big Bands, like Dorseys, Harry James, Glen Miller, took the lead in popularity and money, the black Big Bands, like Ellington, Basie, Cab Calloway, had good years also. Radio, juke boxes, recordings, even cameo in movies, combined to make it a golden age for big band jazz music, black and white. While most of the bands followed a common road, the Duke and his musical compositions took a more serious musical route, not relying only on the tried and true hits of the past.

This route took it’s toll on Ellington’s orchestra after WWII. Swing was replaced by Be Bop and promoters found that small groups, trios, quartets, brought in good audiences at much less cost. Great musicians, like Armstrong and Hampton, broke away from bands and fronted these combos.

It was the birth of Cool Jazz, aka West Coast Jazz. Dave Brubeck’s quartet with Paul Desmond. Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker. Modern Jazz Quartet. And of course, Miles Davis.

The early 50’s brought a severe revolution in music. Teenagers became prime movers and R&B, Rock & Roll on cheap 45 discs introduced new idols like Presley, Little Richard, Pat Boone, to replace the likes of Sinatra and the Andrew Sisters. Hits and misses in the main stream were often dictated by disc jockeys, often televised, and the Top 40 on the radio was influenced by bribes called payola. Black recording artists were ripped off big time by their white ‘agents’.

Ellington had long fought against the three- minute cut on LP records and there was no room for Ellington’s vision of his music on a 45 disc.. His music needed much more space. His music needed an orchestra not a small combo. His genius refused to lower the bar.

In 1950 he and his orchestra stayed afloat thanks to a Europe tour, set up by the Black- Listed Orson Welles. They did 74 gigs in 77 days. During which he managed to compose music for a Welles’ stage production as well as performing a Welles’ variety show in Paris. While he never played any new personal compositions on tour he managed to finish his extended composition Harlem in his ‘spare time’.

Returning home, times were tough. Dance gigs and concert tours were few and far between. His royalties from his standards brought him the needed money to compose his serious music and to managed to keep his key musicians alive. But by 1955 there wasn’t a record company that wanted him.

And then in the evening of July 7, 1956, a string of unlikely occurrences combined to make a perfect storm that resurrected the career of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The Ellington New Port Concert is as an important jazz event as the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert in 1938.

Ellington’s concert wasn’t at a famous venue like Carnegie Hall. It was on the last of a three day jazz festival, a relative new concept in music, at Newport, R.I.. Unlike Benny Goodman, who headlined the famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, Ellington was just one of many acts. Unlike the prominent sidemen in Goodman’s orchestra, artists like Harry James on trumpet, Jess Stacy on piano, and of course, Gene Krupa on drums, the Ellington group had lost many talented members, although several came back for the Newport Festival gig, like the great alto sax player, Johnny Hodges. Goodman brought down the house with exceptional solos on the popular Sing Sing Sing. At Newport the audience erupted on a 1938 Ellington composition, Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue, stuck in the playlist at the last minute, and the astounding solo of a journeyman tenor sax player, Paul Gonsalves. The dancing in the aisles at Carnegie was a spontaneous reaction by the audience. The dancing at Newport during the solo by Gonsalves was done an unknown platinum blonde in a black dress that jumped from her seat and danced her way to the stage.

Gonsalves was hired by Ellington six years before. He had played in many major orchestra but his many addictions cost him work.  Ellington liked having him around because Gonsalves was fond of going out in the audience to perform. The Duke nicknamed him Gypsy,also Strolling Violins.

And this night, Ellington specifically told Gonsalves to take the solo, even though the great alto sax, Johnny Hodges was with them that evening. Gonsalves’ solo lasted for an unbelievable 27 choruses. He was accompanied by Woods on bass and Woodyard on drums with an occasional prompts by Ellington on piano and Ellington’s ‘Dig in, Paul. Dig in.’The audience exploded and the finale featured a high trumpet solo by Cat Anderson. And Ellington and his band were reborn.

Time Magazine loudly proclaimed that fact and honored Duke Ellington with his picture on the cover. To date, Duke is only one of five jazz musicians to be so honored.

Columbia released the entire concert as quickly as possible. It not only became Ellington’s all time selling album, it became one of the jazz world’s best seller. Old time fans like Larry Howard bought one right away. Younger fans, like your truly, got one a few years later through the Columbia Record club.

The royalties from album and his new recording contract with Columbia afforded Ellington the luxury of composing as he always wanted to. He was free to break out of the three minute cuts of LP’s and 45”s. Free to devote time to suites etc. that are played by symphony orchestras world wide. And also the money kept his core orchestra members working, something the other black big bands couldn’t do.

The following year, 1957, was Ellington’s Shakespeare year. The Duke liked Shakespeare. Billy Strayhorn loved Shakespeare. After his success at Newport, he gave a series of concerts at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. He was asked back for another concert in 57 and Michael Langham, the artistic director of the Stratford Playhouse, contracted him to write the incidental music for Langham’s production of ‘Timon of Athens’.

While performing there Ellington was persuaded by the staff at the theater to write a composition inspired by Shakespeare. The end result was his, and Strayhorn’s, 12 piece suite based on works of Shakespeare, Such Sweet Thunder.

The next big step that year was when he and Strayhorn broke the Afro-American barrier in Hollywood sound track. Otto Preminger hired them to compose the sound track for the movie, Anatomy of A Murder. The album won the Grammy Award for best soundtrack. Other movie soundtracks followed.

Suite after suite compositions, some with Strayhorn, others just by Ellington, followed right up to his death. The later years he was working on his Sacred Music suites, deemed by Ellington as his greatest works,. In 1973 his Third Sacred Concert premiered at Westminster Abby in England.

These later years were the busiest and most profitable years of his life. There were the recordings of his new compositions and collaboration recordings with other jazz greats. His old friendly rival, Count Basie, others like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrain, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra. His early songs, now standards, were recorded by him and others, producing royalties as never before.

But he never neglected live performances, after all it was live performances that started his career, and comprised a major portion of his life of music. He and his orchestra toured around the world during that period.

His last tour started in July of 1973 and continued thru to March 22, 1974. He knew this would be his last. His health was failing. Lung cancer. Several times events were rescheduled due to illness. One such was the two concerts at the Guthrie, that was moved from January 74 to March74. It was at this second concert when Larry Howard got the meet the Duke.

This is the second in the three part series. The last will follow in a day or so. In the meantime,

STAY SAFE

OLD JAZZ VOICES

Louis Armstrong had a sold-out gig at Northrop Auditorium at the U of Mn.. The band drifted in from the bus for the sound check, but no Louis. The road manager told me that Mr. Armstrong didn’t take the bus and would be along shortly. I relayed this to Eddie Drake, the Comptroller of Concerts and Lectures. Eddie checked at the end of sound check and did not like it that Armstrong had not made it yet.

Come half-hour and still no Louis. Eddie Drake was getting nervous. The road manager told him no sweat, Louis would along.

The opening act went on and still no Louis. By now Eddie was beyond nervous. The last thing he wanted was to have to call off the show and return the money for the full house. The manager assured Eddie that Mr. Armstrong would show up soon.

The opening act was were playing their encore and Drake was standing in the wings signaling them to stretch it out when I got a call from the Head Usher.

She told me Mr. Armstrong was in the front lobby and asked if I could come up and bring him backstage. If he was still there when the audience broke for intermission they would mob him for autographs.

I told Eddie and he signaled the act to keep stretching.

Drake was waiting when I escorted Louis backstage. He was livid. Normally, after he has a glass of water and vodka, his nose takes on a red glow. The glow was redder than usual and even his cheeks were looked like they were on fire.

He glared at Armstrong and asked why he was so late. But he didn’t wait for an answer. He made a crack about professionals arrive on time.

The manager walked over and reminded Drake that he told him Louis would be coming. And nobody calls Mr. Armstrong unprofessional.

‘Well, Eddie said, looking up at the manager who stood a good half a foot taller than Eddie, ‘Maybe unprofessional is too strong. I should have said it was inconsiderate. He should have been here for sound check.’

Louis, who until then, answered laughingly, ‘Oh, I know how those boys sound. And those boys know how is sound. Sound does right for them, it’ll be right for me.’

‘Mr. Armstrong doesn’t need to be at sound check,’ the manager said,.‘Besides I told you he had things to do and would come when he was finished.’

Drake said that an act should be in the theater at half-hour.

Louis laughed again and said the first half-hour call was for the opening act. He showed up at the half-hour before he had to go on.

I tried not to laugh. Eddie was so angry, even his high forehead was red.

The manager took Louis by the elbow to walk him away; but Eddie wasn’t through. He continued his rant. Louis stopped and turned back to him.

It was evident that Louis Armstrong was having fun. He had that familiar smile on his face and a glint in his eyes.

Eddie threw out what he considered his biggest reason why Armstrong should have been in the Hall with the rest of his band. “What if your instrument didn’t arrive? When you come this late it would be impossible to get you another one in time for the show. Did you ever think of that? Huh? Huh?’

‘Well then I’d just blow one of the boys’ extra horn,’ Louis replied, reaching into his shirt pocket and pulling out his mouthpiece.

‘It’s not the horn, man.’ He held up his mouthpiece. ‘It’s the mouthpiece. Fits my lips good. Always carry with with me so I don’t lose it. Had it since I was jamming on the street for nickles. This is the instrument that counts. Put it in any horn and old Satchmo is ready to blow.’

‘Tell you what,’ Louis continued, ‘Get me an empty peach can. I’ll cut a hole in the bottom, stick my mouthpiece in the hole, and I’ll go deep, seriously deep.’

Eddie shrugged his shoulders, threw up his hands, and went back to his office. He needed another glass of his special water.

Louis turned to the road manager and laughingly asked, ‘Something I said, you think?

‘Yeah, I wonder if you’ll be laughing if he comes back with an empty peach can,’ the manager said. ‘I know I will be.’

PS: The audience got what they came for that night. What a concert! Mr. Louis Armstrong gave us what we wanted to hear… even if he was fashionably late to the theater.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If James Lombard, the founder and ‘Impresario’ of the Concerts and Lectures at the U of MN, had his way the season would be nothing but classical and operatic soloists, artists he looked up to; but the Regents decreed that there be one jazz concert each season. The season after Louis Armstrong, had, in my opinion, two main acts in one concert, Wes Montgomery, great jazz guitarist, opened the concert, followed by Cannonball Adderley on alto sax. Eddie Drake told me it was a package deal. Only nine musicians total in the two groups. He said they alternated as to who opened and who followed.

Wes Montgomery opened. He had broken into mainstream jazz a few years before. He was backed up for this concert by his two brothers, Buddy and Monk and an organist. They didn’t disappoint. Instead of the usual 30 to 45 minutes for the front act, they played a full set, with encores, almost an hour and a half. No jealousy from the ‘main’ act. Most of them were in the wings enjoying the Montgomery boys.

The sad thing was that a few weeks after this concert, Wes Montgomery died of a heart attack.

(Six years later I worked a Duke Ellington concert at the Guthrie, and the Duke died shortly after.)

Cannonball Adderley had also been adopted into mainstream jazz a few years before. He had his brother, Nat, on coronet. Nat was the one constant in any of Cannonball’s quintet. The other three positions fluctuated musicians over the years.

At intermission I was surprised when I saw James Lombard stride in backstage. He never came for concerts he considered beneath him. Later, Eddie Drake told me that Lombard showed up because he was curious to see any one who was named Cannonball.

Lombard always looked the part of an impresario, the man in charge. Tall, broad shouldered, distinguished gray hair. Suits that cried they were too expensive for most men.

He always walked as if all eyes were on him and with his height advantaged he looked down on most everyone he talked to. If you looked up the word pompous in the dictionary, you would probably see a picture of James Lombard.

I was waiting for Lombard to come up to me when Cannonball Adderley tapped me on the shoulder.

‘Hey, man,’ he said, ‘Who do I see about the bread? Never play a gig without the bread upfront.’

I brought him over to where Lombard had stopped. Then since it was a money talk, I walked away, but I didn’t get far before Lombard called me back.

‘Don,’ he said in his low bass voice, ‘Would you send one of your crew to Dinky Town and bring back a loaf of bread? Mr. Cannonball says he has to eat before he goes on.’

Cannonball looked at me and slapped his forehead.

I explained to Lombard that Adderley didn’t want bread bread. Bread was jazz talk for money. He meant he wanted the money upfront before they played.

Lombard stiffened up and said, briskly, ‘He should have said spoken in English. Bread! Bring him down to see Drake. I don’t have time for this nonsense.’ He gave a loud haroomph and walked off stage. He got what he came for. He met the man named Cannonball.

‘Hey, man, is that cat for real,’ Cannonball asked me, ‘Or is he jiving with me?’

I told Cannonball there wasn’t a jive bone in that man’s body. He was born with the stick up his…

‘Cat needs to loosen up,’ Cannonball said. ‘I got some gooooood stuff…bet that would mellow him out.’

PS: Another great concert even if Lombard didn’t hang around to listen.

In these days of darkness, I suppose the method of mellowing out prescribed by Cannonball is a favorite among many people. As for me, I found that my day goes better if I start it out by listening to Louis singing…

WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD

I see trees of green

red roses too

I see them bloom for me and you

and I say to myself

What a Wonderful World

And that is a wrap for today. Please, please, listen to the medical experts and Stay Safe.

Oh, if you want to read a tale of a famous musician that didn’t make it to the theater on time, here’s one you might get a kick out of:  https://donostertag.wordpress.com/2013/05/18/screamed-james-brown/

THE GAMBLER

The Gambler got dealt Aces and Eights, the Dead Man’s Hand, and he folded.

Kenny Rogers – 8/21/38 – 3/20/2020

Kenneth Ray Rogers was the fourth of eight children, born poor, in Houston, Texas. He was the first of his family to graduate from high school. He was the only one that leaned toward music as a hobby, let alone a career.

Rogers attributed Ray Charles as the biggest influence in his musical career. When Rogers was 12, his school sent him to a Ray Charles concert. The first time he never saw a live music performance and the first time he ever heard Ray Charles. He decided that whatever he did in life, music would be a part of it.

Most of us in those years discovered ‘our music’. It was a radical movement that did not sit well with parents and older generations. It was the biggest step to identifying teenagers as an influencing force and consumer bloc. And Texas Kenny Rogers took an independent fork in music from his elders just as Texas Buddy Holly did.

Rogers started a do-wop group in high school that had a mild hit and appeared on American Bandstand. He then became stand-up bass in a jazz trio. Joined a folk group, The New Christie Minstrels, as bass player and singer. Following the break up of the Minstrels, he joined with some of them to form The First Edition, which quickly became Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. Followed by just Kenny Rogers.

Although Rogers musical roots were Country, he didn’t think of Country music as a road to travel until after the success of Ruby Don’t Take Your Guns to Town. He opted for the middle of the road, mellow country. His choice was influenced by Don Williams; and in turn Rogers influenced Garth Brooks, both as a musician and as an entrepreneur. Rogers had a few hits and a few honors with his style; but he also had rough times.

His skill with both bass guitar and stand-up bass got him work as Nashville studio musician. At a low point in his career, he performed in a small casino in downtown Las Vegas. Little did he know that before long he would be headlining in the big casinos on the Strip; and he would be a main attraction in the Branson, Missouri music scene, and have some of the most popular tours ever.

In 1978 his world exploded. He heard a song, The Gambler, on a Bobby Bare album and even though it never took off for Bare and several others, including Johnny Cash, whose version came out after Rogers, Rogers not only covered it, he had it lead off in his sixth album, which also included his hit, She Believes In Me. The Gambler cemented Rogers as the first big country/pop crossover artist, and gained him fans not only in both genres, but also all over the globe. His fans were ‘legion’ and very devoted. His career hard times were over.

In an interview in Billboard, Rogers said, ‘I’ve always been too pop for country and too country for pop

What ever niche he made for himself, it worked. He was the first country singer to sell out big arenas. He lent his name to a fried chicken franchise, later to slot machines in casinos, he recorded an CD that was only sold in Cracker Barrels along with other of his CD’s. And he branched off to starring in and producing TV movies, starting with The Gambler. He wrote a memoir and a novel. He developed into an excellent photographer. He also tried different approaches in his singing career.

Kenny Rogers recorded duets with pure country singers, Dottie West, later, Dolly Parton and others. He seldom ventured from his middle of the country road, but he did in a few instances. He made a jazz/standards album. Just one. He broke the Country limits and collaborated with artists like Lionel Richie and Barry Gibbs. He was the prime mover behind 1985’s charity song, We Are The World, with 45 musicians of the entire music spectrum.

And he combined his biggest musical influence, Ray Charles,  for many memorable duets.

Since I only worked him in the old Met Hockey Arena, and not a smaller venue, I never had a chance to know him like I did with other performers; and I confess the strict way he controlled his tour shows left a bad taste in my mouth. I just felt he owned his audience more than he gave them.

Rogers performed in the center of the arena, a ‘show-in-the round’ and had audience on all four sides. His set was a square doughnut with the performer working on the four sides of the stage and the band and some hands down in the pit in the middle. Clever concept.

He had two opening acts rather than the customary one. The first act was a lesser known country singer or group. For instance, he used Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers on one tour. In Roger’s big hit The Coward of the County, the villains were named the Gatlin Brothers. Rogers just sang what somebody else wrote, but Rogers had deep pockets, and the Gatlins sued. They dropped their lawsuit against him shortly after he hired Larry as a front act. It gave Larry Gatlin’s career a boost when he used him as an opener. Heck, Gatlin made it all the way to be a commentator on Fox news.

The second act was always a change of pace. For instance, Susan Anton. This particular show I had Harley, an older shop stagehand, recently divorced, never really worked a lot of live performances, as Anton’s mic- cable pager. At the end of the intermission house lights went out, a roadie, leading the way with a flashlight, ran Anton the stage and made certain she was standing on her glo-tape mark. The spots then opened up on Susan Anton.

Harley had never heard of Susan Anton, actually I don’t think he ever heard of Kenny Rogers either; and when he saw her, standing on the stage above him, barely three feet away, he froze. Mouth-open froze. Then as she started to move along the stage, Harley did not move. He neither followed her with the mic-cable or released some from the coil in his hand. Just kept staring.

She reached the limit of her available cable and saw Harley just standing there. ‘Oh, I think I got a bite,’ she ad-libed. ‘Oooh,’ she squelled, imitating reeling in a catch, ‘And it is really a big fish.’

I quickly headed over to take over from Harley just as Susan bent down and whispered in his ear. Harley’s face turned four-alarm-fire red and he broke out of his trance and paged her cable like he suppose to.

Over the years I never brought up that frozen act to Harley, but I did ask him a few times what Susan Anton whispered in his ear. Each time, Harley got red-faced, but he never did tell me what she said to him.

As I said, the band was also in the pit. Nice people. Sharing. Both before the show and during intermission they passed around a coffee can. It was half filled with snow, coke, cocaine. I passed on it and so did the other local hands, I think, but it was a nice sharing gesture.

The opening acts came on stage in blackouts. Kenny Rogers appeared by magic. Since we didn’t have to sign a paper saying we would never reveal the secret of the trick, like David Copperfield demanded, I will tell you how it was done.

There was a large work box on casters that 2 roadies pushed into the pit during intermission and pushed out of the pit at house lights came up at show’s end. Only it wasn’t what it looked like. It was a Houdini box. It opened like a steamer trunk standing erect opens. Inside was a comfortable seat. Rogers got in it in his dressing room and later in the end of show black out. Nice effect and no chance of any fans on the main floor interfering.

Both front acts had a time limit as did the intermission. The part I disliked was the exact-to-the-second time limit on Roger’s set. At the end of each song the audience clapped loud and long, not realizing that they were cutting into the time Rogers actually sang.

He had 4 clocks in the pit so he could see the time no matter where he was on the stage. As the time came for the last song, he worked his way to the stairs leading to the pit. Once that minute hand reached the important twelve, Kenny Rogers stopped singing and the arena went black. Now I mean he stopped singing…He didn’t finish the song; hell, he didn’t finish the word of the song he was singing.

And that is the reason for my bias. Granted, the audience still got the average amount of time for the show, but they didn’t spend the big bucks for two opening acts; they paid to see Kenny, and not what amounted to a half a performance by him.

Black out! Silence! The fans break loose, waiting for an encore, clapping, a few with lit cigarette lighters. The house lights go up. The audience still waiting for an encore. Too busy to see the roadies push a ‘work box’ up the ramp to where a window tinted car sat before the garage door. When the car pulled out of the building, walk-out music came over the PA, and the hands began to work. No encore or closing words. Not even an Elvis-like message, Kenny Rogers has left the building.

No question his fans loved him though. His shows sold out. His CD sales are among the most of any single artist. They watched his TV movies, in spite of the reviews.

And Rogers was loved by those in the industry. He may not have been strictly Country but when he won his many awards in Country Music shows, and his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, his peers gave him his due respect and honest applause. This sentiment crossed-over to include friends in all musical genres.

His touring band, Blood Line, remained with him all the years. They enjoyed working with him. He must have treated them well. I don’t know if the can of snow was a tip from Kenny, or just a sign he was paying them enough to be able to pop for it.

Rogers was loved by five different women enough that they married him, even if four divorced him. The last marriage lasted 22 years and ended with his death.

Every one who knew him said he was a plain, sensible, down-to-earth likable man, who never forgot his roots, recognized it was not only hard work and talent that got him his success, it was also luck. And fame can be fleeting.

In an interview he said: ‘I equate this business to a mountain climber. Once you get up there, you can’t live on the top.’

The list of worthy charities he supported is quite impressive. He was helping the homeless before it was popular. Parkinson’s Disease, Disaster Relief, and the list goes on and on.

You know, the more I write about the man, the more I begin to lose my bias against him. If his fans didn’t hold his short shows against him, who am I to complain. Not only did I not have to pay to see the show, I got paid for working it. His shows made myself, my family, and a great many other stagehands nice paychecks over many years.

There’s a great many of his songs that I enjoy, although I don’t have any of his work in my music library. And I can’t remember watching any of his movies. Never ate any of chicken from his franchise, but by his own admission, neither did he. Still in all…

I  confess I changed my mind. I am convinced I would have liked him as a person. I really do.

Adios, Gambler. Adios.

‘Cause every hand’s a winner

 And Every hand’s a loser

And the best that you can hope for

is to die in your sleep’

STAY HEALTHY. The lives you save maybe the lives of those you love the most.

THE GHOST OF THE GUTHRIE

 

 

Old Guthrie Stage

            Every theater worth its salt has a ghost. We had one at the old Guthrie Theater. His name was Richard Miller.

            Bullied in school, ignored at home, Richard was a loner all 18 years of his life. He discovered skiing and it became his passion. Freedom. Excitement. There was people around him, some even envious of his skill; and he didn’t have to interact with them. He was gaining confidence, self-esteem. And then he took a bad fall. He worried that he might never be strong enough, physically or mentally, to ever ski again.

He did work up enough courage to enroll at he U of Minnesota and to get a job as an usher at the Guthrie Theater. Being a student was a disaster; but he loved being an usher, helping people without having to interact with them. His fellow ushers respected his distance and his desire to not mingle with them. He loved the plays and concerts. He was feeling good again.

But gradually the hell he was experiencing trying to stay in college began to outweigh the peace he was experiencing as an usher. Severe headaches! Severe depression! Until…

He borrowed money from his mother on the pretext of buying ski boots. Then he went to Sears and bought a gun instead. He parked his car in the far corner of the Sears lot. And he ended his life.

In the letter he wrote, he asked his parents for their forgiveness for what he was about to do. And he asked that he be buried in his Guthrie usher uniform. He said the hours spend at the Guthrie were the best times he ever had in his life. His parents complied with his request.

The parents offered to buy his uniform from the Guthrie; but it was not necessary because that style uniform was going to be replaced in a few weeks. The Guthrie was doing away with the old fashion uniform with epaulets and braids. The new uniforms would not be ornate and brown, but simple, and a dark blue color.

After Richard’s death there was occasional talk of a ghost haunting the theater, but such talk occurs in many theaters. And nobody connected the possible haunting with the death of Richard Miller. It wasn’t until a small group of ushers used a Ouija board to contact the Ghost of the Guthrie, that the legend became ‘fact’.

Many of the ushers lived commune style in an old house not far from the theater. They lived only for the day and their motto was: A little wine, a little weed. That’s all we need. Oh, also some munchies.

Kevin, the Guthrie House Manager lived there also; but unlike the others, Kevin was also a grad student a the U, and was working on a thesis concerning ghosts in the theaters of America. He got Scott H. and two other ushers to help him find out if there indeed was a ghost in the Guthrie. He promised them a little weed, a little wine, and they said fine. Oh, also some munchies.

After the show that evening they hid in a room until they were sure everyone was out of the theater. Then they set up a folding table and four chairs. Kevin took the Ouija board and planchette out of a cloth sack and began to explain how it would be used and expounded on his research and paper to date. The other four each had a glass of wine from the carton and passed around a joint.

the ghost light

            The atmosphere was perfect for their project. The only lights present were the various red exit signs and the ‘ghost light’, a low incandescent bulb on a mic stand to prevent anyone who had to go into the dark theater from getting hurt in the dark. It was the last task stagehands always do before quitting for the night. Kevin called his crew to order.

The first question asked if there was a ghost in the theater. To the surprise of the four, the planchette went to the YES. That got their attention. What is the ghost’s name? The board spelled out RICHARD. The wine glasses were drained and the joint  passed around before the next question. The four looked out in the house where  the ghost light was projecting a weak glow and creating weird shadows. Kevin asked softly, ‘Where is the ghost now?’

SUGGEST LOOK TO THE TECH ROOM

The term ‘tech room’ stumped them until Scott thought maybe it meant the lighting/sound booth. He said he looked to the back of the house, to the booth above the last row of seats in the balcony. He pointed and froze. The others looked to the booth.

The booth was dark except… There was a figure of a man standing in a hazy glow. Either he was in the booth proper or was floating high above the seats in front of the glass of the booth. He lifted his arm and waved.

The wave broke the ice. Kevin managed to grab the board and planchette but everything else was left as the four broke for the side door.

Mickey, a shop carpenter, came on stage in the morning to put the ghost light away. When he saw he went into the shop and got help removing the remains of the night. The only thing not mentioned when the story went around the theater of what they found on stage, was the dime bag of grass. Scott thought Mickey maybe pocketed that for himself.

The name Richard was connected to Richard Miller. Sightings became more frequent and believed without a doubt by the Guthrie employees. Some customers called to complain about the usher that stood in the Alpine Slope aisle, Richard’s favorite aisle to work, to watch the play, or  to walk up and down during the performance, to help if needed.

For Instance, one customer called to extend thanks to the usher who pointed out that his cars keys had fallen on the floor by his seat. And usually such callers thought the usher was perhaps the head usher because his uniform was a different color and fancier then the others.

At various times he was seen by actors, musicians, wardrobe people, and stagehands. Cliff, the head shop carpenter, was the last person you would think who would believe in ghosts; but after he got off the elevator to the supply room on Level 8 and saw a figure standing in  a hazy glow at the far end of the room, he quickly got what he came for, went back in the elevator, and became a staunch believer.

Joey B., the stage carpenter, had at least two encounters with Richard, both times in the little Green Room in the basement. The first came when he popped in for a cigarette. He saw a figure in an old usher uniform standing in the corner. Joe said he thought maybe he was having a problem with his eyes, the figure was kind of hazy.

‘Look’, he said to the ‘usher’, ‘This room is off limits to you guys. I won’t rat you out but…’ The young man said he was sorry, and according to Joe, just disappeared into thin air. When it was explained to Joey who he had chased from the little Green Room, Joe scratched his head and said, ‘Well, I’ll be damned!!

The second time was when an actor asked Joe to look in the little Green Room for a prop, a little money sack, that he would need later on in the show. He looked all around his dressing room and figured maybe he had dropped it when he was in the little Green Room. Joey looked around the room and didn’t see it. Just as he was about to give up, a voice said, ‘Joe, suggest you look on the floor beside the sofa.’ Sure enough there it was.

Joe looked to where the voice came from and saw the now familiar figure standing in his hazy glow. ‘Thanks, Richard,’ Joey said and brought the prop to the actor’s dressing room.

No one ever accused Richard of trying to scare anybody on purpose or of doing anything malicious. For the most part people were startled, not scared, by an encounter with the Guthrie ghost. Sometimes well after the fact.

An actress new to the company had lucked out and found a parking place right in front of the theater. It was raining hard when she ran to her car only to find that her car wouldn’t start. After several tries there was a knock on the window. A Guthrie usher  was trying to tell her what to do. She opened the door and told him to get out of the rain.

He did and suggested she wait a bit and then hold the gas pedal to the floor when she pushed the start button. It worked. She asked the usher if he had a ride and he said no. She asked where he was going and he said down by Sears. She said she would take him. When she stopped at the red light at the end of the block, she turned to talk to the young man; but there was no one in the car with her. She hadn’t heard the door open or shut and there was a wetness on the seat where the usher had sat.

She told the story in the dressing room the next day. The dresser asked her what kind of uniform the kid had on. When she described it, the every one in the room agreed that she had met the ghost of the Guthrie and filled her in on Richard. She screamed! But she confessed at the end of the season, each time she drove past the Guthrie’s main door, she looked to see if Richard was standing there. She never had a chance to thank him for his advice.

Some, like Oscar, a college student and the evening Stage Door man, were deathly afraid of meeting Richard. When Oscar checked at night to see that all the proper doors were locked in the theater he carried a machete with him. He said he wasn’t afraid of running into anybody who shouldn’t be in the theater, he carried the machete in case he met Richard the ghost.

We pointed out to him that a ghost has no substance, just vapor. He could swing at Richard all night and only cut air. I told him about the old saying that you should never bring a knife to a gun fight, and I added, or to an encounter with a ghost. Oscar realized what we said was the truth and he gave his two weeks notice the next day.

A few took a meeting with Richard as just a matter of fact. Eva, an older, very proper, extra got on the backstage horn during a performance and demanded to Milt, the stage manager in the booth, that he teach that young ghost, Richard, the proper etiquette of theater.

She told how she had to exit down the Stage Left tunnel, hurry to her dressing room, change costumes, and hurry upstairs for a backstage crowd entrance. She said she almost missed the entrance because that young ghost, Richard was standing right in her way in the tunnel. She had stop and ask him to please move.

‘Well, did he?’ Milt asked.

‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘But only after going on and on about how sorry he was. Then he just… Dissipated. Poof! You have to instruct him proper stage etiquette. He could have caused me to be late for my entrance.’

‘And how do I get in touch with him?’ Smoke signals?’

‘Of course not,’ Eva said sharply. ‘Just leave him a note on the Call Board.’

‘Okay, I will,’ said Milt, ‘But Eva he’s just a ghost. If he ever gets in your way again, just run right through him.’

‘I will not! That would be rude!’

Milt quickly turned off his talk button so she wouldn’t hear us laughing up  in the booth.

And then there others who joked about possibly encountering the ghost.

After each time I had to lay out on a catwalk thirty feet above the stage or stand on a full extended extension ladder to hang or focus or work on a lighting instrument, I swore that if I ever met Richard I would ask if he would want to work on the crew. He would have no problem floating up and doing that kind of hairy work. Joey B always agree with me that Richard would love to work on the crew.

I was up in the catwalks, just finished with the electric’s  change over into the next evenings show, and was heading to the elevator on Level 8. I stopped when I heard someone say, ‘Hi, Don.’

He was surrounded by a hazy glow in the center cove area. But he wasn’t standing on a catwalk. He was floating over the hole thirty feet above the stage floor.

I answered, or at least think I did, ‘Hi, Richard.’ Then I turned forgetting all about taking the elevator past where Richard was, and walked back and climbed down the ladder to the booth. I took the long way to go down to the stage that night. And later, while having a much needed beer in the Dram Shop, Joey B asked me if I had offered Richard a job on the crew.

‘Ah, darn it,’ I confessed, ‘It completely slipped my mind.’

Over the years there was always some ritual to help Richard cross over into the next world. There was a minister, then a priest, a rabbi, Wicca priestess, even a Druid. None of the rituals worked longer than a few weeks except for the Druid’s.

The Druid was an Irish-American actor from Chicago, who one night after a lot of refreshing drinks up in the Dram Shop loudly proclaimed that he was a Druid. He grabbed a broom handle for a staff and announced he was going on stage to exorcise the ghost of Richard Miller.

From what I heard it was a show to behold. A lot of shouting the same Gallic words over and over along with some altar boy Latin and a lot of banging the ‘staff’ on the stage floor. Ended with some Xrated Chicago language ordering Richard Miller to begone and never darken the door of the Guthrie Theater again.

The spectators loved it and bought drink after drink for the Druid. It didn’t go well with Richard though. The very next performance a few customers complained about an usher standing at the top of the Alpine Slope and actually booed when a certain actor made his first stage entrance.

Then a Native American shaman was enlisted. I had quit the theater so I wasn’t around when the shaman performed his ritual. It started at sunrise and went until sunset. Spectators walked in and out of the theater proper and watched the dance, listened to the drum and the singing, smelled the smoke from a small charcoal burner that was fed with different kinds of grasses. The spectators all agreed, it was a beautiful show. And it worked! Richard Miller was never seen again. The Guthrie had lost its ghost.

I have mixed feelings. I am happy for Richard that perhaps he has finally crossed over and is at rest at last. Yet I am sad at losing him. Richard was an important member of the old Guthrie’s family and history for over two decades. But I am also glad that Richard wasn’t around when they tore the old Guthrie building down. That would have really shocked his system. I know how it affected mine.

There’s a new Guthrie Theater now. It is an exquisite theatrical complex on a high bank overlooking the Mississippi River. I know Richard would never have gone to the new theater. It lacks some important things that the old theater had – memories. Memories for Richard, memories for those of us who were fortunate enough to have worked in the old Guthrie.

And to those of you who do not believe in ghosts, I offer these words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for you to ponder:

 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

That are dreamt in your philosophy.

 

And that’s a wrap.

 

BUSH & THE BEACH BOYS

Bush

During the Memorial events for President H.W. Bush, the TV picture always had a banner running across the screen proclaiming him to have been a President and a Patriot. Both titles are embedded in history below his name.

But the themes of the eulogies were memories of the man. His kindness, his warmth, his friendship. The following is a story of these attributes of this man told to me by a friend and union brother, Steve.

At this time, Steve was the head rigger for the Beach Boys. He was responsible to see that the sound and lights were hung safely in the best positions possible in the venues, and for setting up the portable stage for outdoor events.

In the early 80’s, the Beach Boys played the July 4th concerts on the National Mall in Washington D.C. A few days prior to one of those concerts, the band was invited to give a mini-concert for the Bushs and some friends at the Naval Observatory House where the Vice President lived in D.C..

Steve drove the rental truck with a small set up to the front of the house. He went to the front door knowing full well that it would be opened by a butler telling him to go around the back to unload. He was surprised when Vice President Bush, himself opened the door, introduced himself to Steve and the other hands, as if that was needed, and told Steve to bring the equipment through the front door. Closer to the ballroom, he explained.

When the crew went into the ballroom, Bush introduced them to the house electrician Steve had requested. Best the house electrician do the electrical hook-up. The last thing Steve wanted was to have an electrical outage in the V.P.’s residence.

Then Barbara came into the room and once again George made the introductions. Barbara told the men that there was a buffet with a chef standing by down the hall for whenever they wanted a meal or just a snack.

‘Catering, Honey,’ her husband teased. ‘Catering is show business talk for food. And there’s also a full bar and a bartender in that room too, guys.’

‘Thanks, Mrs Bush,’ Steve said, ‘But we have to setup first. The band will be wanting to do sound check in a couple hours.’

When they did go into the catering room for a meal, the first thing the chef asked was how do you want your steak? And the bartender looked a little disappointed when the hands that drank just wanted beer. Sure beat what the rock promoters considered catering.

Steve said it was less like working a gig and more like being invited to a friend’s house. Everybody was so friendly, especially the Vice President. Even the Secret Service men in their customary dark suits, had occasional smiles as they handed out the stickpins with the head painted the color of the day. These ID’s had to be pinned where they could be seen.

 

Vice President Bush was in the ballroom almost all the time. He watched the crew setting up everything and had a million questions. ‘If I learn how to be a roadie, will you hire me?’ he kidded. ‘You know, this being a Vice President really stinks. Worse job I ever had.’

‘You’re hired,’ Steve said. ‘How’s your golf game? We play a lot to golf on our days off.’

‘My kind of men,’ the Vice President said. And naturally the talk turned to golf.

Steve asked if Mr. Bush had ever played Willie Nelson’s golf course outside Austin. When the Vice President said no, Steve proceeded to tell him about it. ‘Only course where it is all rough. Strict rules: Like no more than 12 to a foursome. No bikinis or see through dresses – unless they’re worn by women. Drinking and smoking is not allowed – unless it is shared.

‘Next time I go to Austin, I will have to play that course,’ George said. ‘I’ll tell Willie that I am a friend of the Beach Boys crew. I miss my Texas. This job wouldn’t be half bad if I could do it down in Texas.’

When the Beach Boys arrived they were greeted by the Vice President and Barbara and where showed the room where they could tune their instruments. And also told about the catering and the bar.

“Now where’s Dennis? George asked. ‘They told me I could always tell who Dennis was because he always wore a Texas hat.’

‘Sick. Something he ate didn’t agree with him,’ was the excuse that was given. Dennis Wilson had a grave alcohol problem and the band didn’t want him to embarrass himself in front of the Vice President. Dennis died a few years later. He was was drunk and went scuba diving alone.

‘Oh! Oh! Guys, I got something to tell you. I got talking with your crew about golf. They said they got Monday off so I gave my country club a ring. All you have to do is tell them you’re the Beach Boys and crew and you can play a round on me. They said they would work in you in throughout the day. And the nineteenth hole is on me.’

It was evident that as the actual concert approached, Vice President Bush was feeling mellow. He met each guest, about 50 all toll, encouraging each on to ‘have a drink’. When the concert started he sat in the front row tapping his feet to the music and mouthing the words of the songs he knew or thought he knew.

After about six songs he stood up and went up to the band. ‘In honor of my wonderful wife, Barbara,’ he said pointing to her in the chair next to the one he just got out of, ‘Play my favorite of the Beach Boys. BARBARA ANN.’

Almost as if on cue, Mike Love, and Al Jardine quickly joined Carl Wilson at the front mic.

‘Bah, Bah, Bah, Bah Barbara Ann. Bah, Bah, Bah, Bah Barbara Ann.’

By now, Vice President George Bush had got to the mic and grabbed the mic off the stand.

‘Bah, Bah, Bah, Bah Barbara Ann,’ he sang, drowning out the startled entertainers. His voice left a lot to be desired but not his energy. The only words he knew where the chorus which he kept repeating over and over until one of the singers started a verse. Then George stopped. Only to jump right in with the chorus when the verse ended.

It was probably the longest rendition of the song ever. The audience and the band and the crew were all smiles. The only one in the room that wasn’t smiling was Barbara Bush, who sat still with her hands folded on her lap. At last George stopped singing to his lovely wife; not because he thought he reached the end of the song, but rather because he was out of breath and wanted a drink. As he sat down Barbara slapped his knee and shook her head.

The concert went on and when it ended they played BARBARA ANN as their encore. They signaled to have the Vice President join them and the audience applauded. George Bush got up, went to the mic, and sang his favorite line several times.

‘You know, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘That is the best song you ever wrote. On behalf of myself, Barbara, and all our guests, I want to thank you all for a great time.’

The Boys, the band, and the crew applauded their thanks. Nobody told him that they didn’t write BARBARA ANN. It was a do-wop song by the Regents.

The next Monday the band and crew played golf courtesy of Vice President George Bush.

In April of 83 the Beach Boys were forbidden to play July 4th on the National Mall. The least popular member of the Reagan Cabinet, James Watt, Interior Secretary, declared that rock and roll bands were not welcome anymore on the Mall because of the element they attracted. Drunken rowdies and smokers of illegal substances. He wanted somebody more patriotic like Wayne Newton, who was a big Republican donor.

Vice President George Bush led the outrage against Watt’s decree, declaring, ‘These men are my friends!’ First Lady Nancy Reagan declared herself to be a mega-fan of the Beach Boys. Mike Love argued on behalf of the band by saying they played a lot of patriotic songs…like SURFING U.S.A.. Watt lost.

There was an attempt made to get the Beach Boys back to play the Mall but it was too late. The publicity made the band the hottest item in the country and they were booked at Atlantic City on the 4th to the largest crowd in the history of the event. And the Beach Boys began to be called America’s Band.

As for James Watt, a few weeks later he made what he thought was funny, racist terms about a committee that opposed his Interior agenda. Watt lost his Cabinet position and went to teach in a university out west. Both he and the band give credit for starting the uproar to Vice President Bush declaration that ‘These men are my friends.

And whenever the Boys were in the D.C. area, George Bush made it a point to see they could play a round of golf at his country club.

Like the banners proclaimed ‘President and Patriot’, and as the eulogies said, ‘friend and a wonderful human being’.

R.I.P. George Bush

True and fearless Patriot

Sully the service dog of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush in his final months lays in front of Bush's casket at the funeral home in Houston

His Friend

11th Day of the 11th Month 1918

440px-In_Flanders_Fields_(1921)_page_1

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

            First part of the poem written one hundred years ago by Dr. John McCrea after he presided over the death of a friend killed at the Second Battle of Ypes, site of the first use of gas in the war history calls The First World War.

The seeds of this conflict, one of the deadliest ever, went back centuries; but gained speed in a series of events and alliances begun in 1882, with the trigger, killing of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria occurring in June of 1914. When it finally ended it had caused the deaths of nine million combatants and seven million civilians and restructured boundaries in both Europe and the Middle East and dragged warfare into modern times.

It started for the most with  centuries-old methods of war, such as using the horse for both transportation and warfare; but quickly changed into a war of man-made machines powered by the combustible engine on the land, the sea, and a new battleground, the air. And this new method of warfare introduced yet another reason for nations waging war, Oil.

One thing that didn’t change was the reliance on the foot soldier, the doughboy, the mud slogging, trench fighter. And this war was indeed a war of trenches, miles of trenches. For the most part, these men in all wars are unsung; but sometimes one becomes a hero, a household name like the man from the hills of Tennessee, Alvin York of the 82 Division. Largely because of York’s heroics, his division, the 82nd was chosen to be the first airborne division in the US Army.

This war also brought to light the need to bring medicine and medical techniques into modern times. More deaths occurred because of tetanus and infection than from actual battle wounds. The studies of Pasteur and Lister became the Bible for the new medical structure and monies that would never have been allotted for the civilian populations were made available for new medicines to combat the main causes of death in this war.

The war spawned a variety of poems, songs, paintings etc.. It is the source of two of the strongest anti-war works of art, Remarque’s novel ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and Lewis Milestone’s faithful movie of the novel.

The Christmas Truces especially in 1914 have been used in movies and stage plays. The one I am most familiar with is ALL IS CALM:THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914. We put it  on stage at the Minneapolis Pantages in 2008, and it has been done during every Christmas season since. On Christmas Eve 1914 the sounds of Christmas hymns are heard coming from both the German trenches and the British trenches. Soon the soldiers come out of the trenches and the combatants meet in No-Man’s Land where they exchange Christmas greetings, food and beverages, and join with each other in singing the songs of Christmas. These truces were wide spread that Christmas even on the Eastern Front between a group of German and Russian soldiers.

At first the war had a variety of names depending on what countries were fighting each other. As more countries entered into the battle these names were melded into The World War/ The Great War. After the Armistice The World War/The Great War was given a subtitle: The War To End All Wars.

The Armistice was signed at 5 AM, November 11, 1918. The cease fire took place six hours later, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The time had a good ring to it and was easy to remember. There was also a political/military motive behind the delay in the cease fire. The delay gave the Allies a chance to gain better ground in case the Cease Fire didn’t last. That last day of fighting resulted in over 2,500 additional deaths. For all practical purposes it was the end of the war, but peace wasn’t officially ratified until 1/10/1920.

The victors had no mercy for the losers and dictated harsh edicts that changed the world. Boundaries were changed. New countries were created with no respect for the differences in the peoples in these countries. Overlooked was the ethnic differences, the differences in language and especially religions. It was a hastily drawn up with the main purpose to cripple the countries that could pose problems to the Allies as respect to economic progress and to colonial expansion. These ‘written in the sand’ changes still, almost a century later, remain one of the biggest sources of wars, horrific and genocidal, both external and civil, in the world.

November 11th was called Armistice Day, a legal holiday, in most countries that were on the ‘winning’ side. Later the name was changed to Remembrance Day in many of those countries. In 1954 it became known as Veterans Day in the U.S.A.

 

VERDUN-OSSUAIRE_DE_DOUAUMONT5

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

 

It wasn’t long before the subtitle, The War To End All Wars became as ludicrous as the phrase uttered in almost all conflicts, ‘They’ll be home by Christmas’.

And events that started just twenty years later caused a name change. The Great War was dropped, and The World War had to be renamed The First World War because another war with the usual suspects, some like Japan and Italy changing sides, combined to fight The Second World War, which was not The War To End All Wars either in spite of the fact the war ended with destroying two large cities with the first use of atomic bombs. Such destruction, we were told, would end war forever. No country would ever start a war with the threat of the mushroom cloud hanging over their head. Another premise that proved false.

 

Early one morning Frank Glick was driving to work and saw this Bald Eagle sitting on a gravestone in the Fort Snelling National Veterans’ Cemetery. Luckily he managed to take this picture.

 

Eagle at Ft Snelling

 

The cemetery sits on a high bluff overlooking beautiful valley where the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi River. At funerals in the cemetery, sometimes there is an Honor Guard firing off a salute, sometimes planes fly in formation; but almost always there is a Bald Eagle flying  above the ceremony. The sight never fails to bring lumps in the throats of teary eyes mourners.

The cemetery and the nearby Veterans’ Hospital are both running out of room. And this sad situation is occurring in all our Veterans cemetery and hospitals across our land.

Our lawmakers always seems to find the monies for overrides on government contracts to develop a new weapons system, and monies to pay for the exorbitant salaries and profits for the private contractors, like Chaney’s Haliburton, that have slithered into our defense budgets ever since Viet Nam.

And yet when it comes to helping our veterans, these patriotic lawmakers vote down request after request stating no money is available. Our veterans hospital are for the most part outdated and understaffed. These patriots lawmakers, many of whom took deferments, some legit, some bought by a rich daddy, to avoid service, fought the idea that Agent Orange used by us in Nam was responsible for  veterans’  medicals problems like cancer, and they continue to avoid the epidemic of mental problems of our veterans who fought in our questionable conflicts ever since WWII. And the list goes on and on.

The best way to thank our vets for ‘THEIR SERVICE’ is to demand that we honor our commitments to them for sacrificing so much so much ‘to protect our freedoms’ and our ‘need’ to be the policemen for the world.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow  


In our present day treatment of our veterans, we have broken faith, not only with those that died but also with those that lived.

Flanders Field

To all my fellow vets, Vaya Con Dios.

KGB & THE CELLIST

cellist

The KGB caused fear in the people they ‘guarded’ on tour in foreign countries. Not so with the great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. He laughed at the agents that were sent with him on his tours. He defied his ‘jailers’ and the power of the Kremlin with a wicked sense of humor. I was so fortunate not only to hear him perform, but also to see that wicked sense of humor.

Born into a long time classical music family, he was taught piano by his mother at the age of four, began his study of the cello by his father at the age of ten. At sixteen, two years after he gave his first solo performance, he was admitted to the Moscow Conservatory and five years later became a professor of the cello at the Conservatory. He won first place in three International Music Awards before he was 23 and at the age of 23 was awarded the Stalin Prize, the highest civilian honor in Russia.

Not only a great favorite of audiences, Rostropovich was in great demand among composers. He premiered over 100 cello pieces written especially for him by such composers as Dimitri Shostakovich, who was one of his teachers at the Conservatory and a life long friend. Others included Sergei Prokofiev, Leonard Bernstein, and Benjamin Britten.

From his early years Rostropovich was an outspoken critic of the lack of freedom in the USSR. When Shostakovich was dismissed as a teacher at the Conservatory for writing a piece condemning the lack of breaking out of the strict classical tradition, Rostropovich, only 21 at the time, quit the Conservatory. He believed in the concept of artists without borders and championed the cause of civil rights for everyone.

In spite of his ideals, he was permitted to tour, first in Western Europe, and then America. He toured accompanied by two KGB ‘translators’. His wife, a prominent soprano in Moscow opera, and their two daughters had to stay behind in Russia and were also under the ‘protection’ of the KGB during these tours.

One of the orchestras that had him as a guest soloists was the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of the Polish born conductor and composer, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

The Orchestra’s home at that time was Northrop Auditorium at University of Minnesota. I did not work for the Orchestra directly; but I was the stage manager for Northrop, and as a result I was present for the week of rehearsals leading up to Rostropovich’s guesting with the Orchestra.

The first rehearsal started with Rostropovich coming on stage to the standing applause of the Orchestra members. He acknowledged their tribute with his ever present smile and a quip about not being able to follow his entrance. Then he and Skrowaczewski talking to each other in Polish. In addition to being a world class cellist, he was also a respected conductor, and there was no secret about who was really conducting when Rostropovich was involved in the pieces where he soloed. Rather than show up Skrowaczewski, he made his suggestions in Polish. Although there were times when he stopped the rehearsal to make a change himself.

Rostropovich sat down and just before the oboe sounded to have the concert master begin the tuning, he raised his cello bow and called a halt to the start of the rehearsal.

He explained that he was neglecting his manners and he wanted to introduce the two men, one standing stage right, the other stage left. ‘These are my two translators,’ he said. ‘You will see a lot of them this week. They never are too far from me in case I don’t know a word in English. That lump under their suit coats, is their translation books. I think.’

He motioned for the big man standing in the wing stage right to come on stage. ‘This is Bear,’ he said. ‘I forget his real name, but I call him Bear, the symbol of Mother Russia. Suits him, don’t you agree.’

He got no argument from anyone. The man was huge. He had dark black hair and a shadow of a black beard. He lumbered on stage and stood next to Rostropovich.

The problem with having the Bear for a translator is he only knows a few words in English. Show them Bear, your extent of the English language.’

It was evident the man didn’t have the slightest idea of what Rostropovich was saying in English. Rostropovich said something to him in Russian. And then waved a hand to the big man and ordered him to speak his favorite word in Russian.

‘Vodka!’ the man bellowed out.

Now in English.’

‘More vodka,’ Bear said. He had a big smile on his face.

Rostropovich smiled and told the man he was proud of him. Then he said something to him in Russian.

‘Nyet! Nyet!’ the Bear said shaking his head.

English! Speak in English!’

‘No? No?’

Rostropovich laughed. ‘Yes, it is no.’ Then he spoke to the orchestra. ‘The word for please is seldom used anymore. Now the key word is Siberia.’ He spoke softly to the Bear but he said the word Siberia loudly.

The ‘translator’ opened the left side of his suit coat and revealed a large shoulder holster with a very large gun in it.

Rostropovich said he must have been wrong about the bulge being a translation book. ‘In the Soviet Union, a translator is spelled KGB, I guess.’

He thanked the Bear and motioned him back to his position. Then he turned to the man standing in the wing on stage left.

‘Now this man, who looks like he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, I call him, Sir. Everyone calls him Sir. Even the Bear calls him Sir.

‘When I was assigned my two companions and my wife and daughers were given their group of protectors, I was shown a film of the Bear lifting weights. And a film of Sir doing his thing. He did a lot of grunting and weird noises. And he did a lot of chop motions with his hand and kicks with his feet. He destroyed numerous wood pieces and cement blocks. Bear was impressive but Sir was scary.

‘It was explained to me that these two were experts at finding the way back home to Russia. If I would get lost, say here in Minneapolis, these two would be able to find me and help me back to Russia.’

Having finished his introductions he suggested to the Maestro that the rehearsal should start. Even though it was just a rehearsal, both he and the Orchestra were in prime form. When he was doing a solo, he captivated the attention of the Orchestra. They sat taking in every note, instead of looking bored and even some leaving the stage when they were not in use.

After the break, Rostropovich once again spoke to the Orchestra. ‘I have had to promise to the Ministry of Arts that I would make sure you all knew about this cello that I am fortunate to play. Now you might look at it and listen to it’s sweet tones and think that it is the work of an old Italian Master like Stradivarius, perhaps a 1711 Duport Strad; but I can assure you, this is not the case. It was built by a Russian Master just a few years ago. It seems as though the Soviet Union has broken the secret of the old Italians and now make instruments that rival theirs.

‘And if you believe that, I break the secret that the Ministry of Agriculture will soon introduce their latest achievement, a flying pig.’ He waved to his two companions and assured them in Russian that he fulfilled his promise to the Ministry of Arts.’

Strad or Russian- made, there wasn’t anyone in the theater that didn’t believe Rostropovich could have rigged a broom handle and strings to a cigar box and still played beautiful music.

The rehearsals that week went by swiftly. My crew and I spent a lot of time in the wings watching and listening, both to the music and to the words of Rostropovich. The concerts, one in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul, were received with rave reviews both by the audiences and the critics, many of whom came from cities that was not on Rostropovich’s tour.

While on this tour, Rostropovich continued to fight for his ‘artists without borders’ and the inhumanity of the U.S.S.R.. One of his most vocal fights was to release Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from his imprisonment in gulags for committing the Soviet sin of criticizing the inhumanity of Stalin. Imprisoned in 1945, Solzhenitsyn was a teacher and historian, and the latest in the line of great Russian novelists. After his sentence ended in 1953, he was sent into exile in Kazakhstan. Basically still a political prisoner. It was during this imprisonment and exile that he began to write his works.

In 1960, he sent the manuscript of his novel, A DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, to a publisher. The book impressed the publisher; but also frightened him because it was so anti-Stalin. The publisher brought it to the government. Surprisingly, he was told to publish it. Premier Khrushchev thought it would be a good tool to erase the stain of Stalinism that was hindering Russia both at home and in the world. It became a best seller in Russia, although it was largely unknown in the West. It was even used as a schoolbook along with several Solzhenitsyn short stories.

But when Khrushchev was removed as premier, the stranglehold on the arts resumed, and Solzhenitsyn became a non-person in the Russia. In 1965, the KGB seized all of his writings and warned him to stop writing.. He managed to have his manuscript for what would be his most famous work, THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, smuggled into Estonia. However, by now, he had become recognized in the West as a great novelist.

He also developed a severe form of cancer, which he wrote about in his novel, THE CANCER WARD. His cancer went into remission and he lived to the age of 89 when he died of a heart attack.

Led by the very vocal Rostropovich, the cries of releasing Solzhenitsyn from exile were heard not only in Russia but around the world. It worked.

Solzhenitsyn was released from exile in 1970. Rostropovich had just come home from the tour which had included Minneapolis. Being the kind of person that backed up his demands, Rostropovich brought Solzhenitsyn into his own home. This fact was did not go unnoticed by the Soviet government and the KGB. Both artists were subject to close scrutiny and harassment by the KGB.

Both Rostropovich and his wife were forbidden to leave Russia and their musical engagements were cut back to almost nothing.

To make matters worse, in 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature, making him a household name around the world. He refused to go to Stockholm to receive the award however. He felt that if he left Russia, he would never be permitted to return. The idea of having a special ceremony in Moscow to present him the award was turned down the Swedish government who felt it might harm Soviet-Swedish relationships.

(In 1970, the Guthrie Theater, where I was now working, gained exclusive rights to the one play, (?) by Solzhenitsyn, ARTICLE 58/A PLAY. They premiered it at the end of the season and brought in a guest director, Michael Langham, who would come back the next season as the Artistic Director. The play ran in stock for almost a month to full houses. It was reviewed by critics from all over the world. It was long, sad, and had probably the largest cast ever for a Guthrie production. It was also a work of art. To my knowledge I don’t think it was ever done by any theater since then.)

In 1971, the KGB tried to assassinate Solzhenitsyn using a favorite weapon, ricin. The attempt failed. In 1974, he was exiled and sent to West Germany. From there he went to Switzerland and finally to the U.S., where he spent 17 years. In 1994 he returned to Russia.

Unlike the non-person, Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich was a considered a Russian treasure. They touted him as the greatest cellist of all time. To disgrace him as they did Solzhenitsyn was not feasible. And they could not get him to back off on his artists without borders talk and his criticism of the lack of freedom in the Soviet Republic.

Add to this, Rostropovich was more and more setting the cello aside for the baton of a conductor. He felt that with the new movement in classical music, the movement espoused by Shostakovich way back in his Moscow Conservatory days, he was one to interpret it to orchestras and audiences around the world. The government loved him as a great cellist; but as a conductor, he was just one of many.

Rostropovich was ‘allowed’ to leave Russia with his wife and children in 1974. He was not allowed to come back as a cellist or conductor anywhere in the Soviet Union. He came to America where he became Musical Director and chief conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, who never accepted living in the West with it’s ‘TV pop culture’, Rostropovich embraced life in the West.

He conducted orchestras all around the free world. His fame as a great musician increased and the smile that he was famous for never left his face; nor did his love of his fellow man.

In 1989 when the Berlin Wall was taken down, he went to Berlin and gave an impromptu cello concert along side the Wall. In 1990 he had his Russian citizenship restored. In 1991, when he saw footage of tanks outside of Moscow ready to move in during a political crisis, he got off a plane and talked himself into being allowed to join Boris Yeltsen in an effort to prevent the tanks from moving on the city. Two years later he conducted the Russian National Orchestra in Red Square during the constitutional crisis.

He lived a full life right up to his death in Moscow from intestinal cancer just prior to his 80th birthday. His death was mourned around the world. His list of achievements and awards go on and on. He will be remember as one of the greatest cellists, a great conductor, and a great humanitarian.

And for those of us who were fortunate to have met him, he will be remembered as a brave man with a wonderful sense of humor. A man who laughed in the face of the KGB.

SINATRA’S ART OF A DEAL

 

It seems that Trump’s art of dealing often included threats and/ or the reality of bankruptcy and stiffing the people he owned money to. I was present at the conclusion of a Frank Sinatra dealing. Like Sinatra himself, it was the Epitome of Cool.

Frank and the moron

There’s a new book out by a former manager of Frank Sinatra. In it, Eliot Weisman tells of having brokered a deal to have Sinatra open Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City; but before the contract was actually signed, Trump’s Casino Manager was killed in a helicopter crash.

Trump, fresh from hitting it big in his ghost-written book, THE ART OF THE DEAL, decided to renegotiate himself with Sinatra’s agent.

Weisman came back to Sinatra with Trump’s new deal demands. He would pay Frank less money. Sammy Davis Jr., who had just been diagnosed with cancer at the time, would not be on the bill; nor would Steve and Edyie, who Trump said he never heard of.

Sinatra gave his agent two choices. Tell Trump to go @#^@ himself, (an act which is anatomically impossible even for Trump), or just give Trump’s phone number to Frank so Frank could tell Trump himself.

Sinatra played The Sands in Vegas those dates and Trump opened his casino without Sinatra.

Eventually, Trump did something nobody thought was possible. He butchered the running of his casino to the point where he declared it bankrupt and closed it down. How can anybody with first count on the money ever go broke running a casino? Maybe the juice off the top demanded by his partners was too exorbitant, you think?


Like most performers, Sinatra didn’t have much time for promoters. The promoter that booked Sinatra in the Minneapolis Auditorium tried to do some late fast shuffling on Frank and almost lost the event.

The promoter’s rep, who didn’t like the promoter anymore than we did, told us the outcome of the promoter’s finagling. Sinatra told the promoter that not only would the deal stand as verbally agreed to, there would be one additional clause added to the rider. The promoter would have a new baby grand in the in the dressing room next to his, or Frank would go with another promoter for the Minneapolis gig.

‘No problem’, the promoter told Frank.

‘And’, added Sinatra, ‘At the end of the show, the piano belongs to me’.

The promoter sputtered and stammered, pointing out how much a baby grand piano costs.

Sinatra pointed out the original deal should have been honored, and if there was anymore arguing, it will be a concert grand instead of a baby grand.

It was a sell out performance. Even with the additional cost of the piano, the promoter still came out okay. Sinatra gave a full concert and encore after encore after encore.

We were breaking down the show when Sinatra came on stage, as he did in the smaller venues. He shook our hands, thanked and tipped us. And, unlike most entertainers, Frank never believed in having a roadie throw us a T shirt as a tip. He was a one of the last holdouts to the old school of giving cash for a for a tip.

Then he handed Mark, the house carpenter, a piece of paper. ‘The piano movers will be in first thing in the morning,’ Frank explained. ‘Here’s the address where the piano gets delivered to.’

‘Wow!’ said Mark said, reading the address out-loud. ‘The St. Joseph’s Children’s Orphanage in St. Paul. okay!’

‘And remind the movers not to tell the Orphanage where it came from,’ Sinatra said. ‘Just tell the good sisters they owe the donor a Rosary or two.’

He thanked us again and walked off the elevator to the garage.


Sinatra had a reputation of being one of the most generous celebrities around, even though he tried to keep his giving a secret.

Trump, on the other hand, brags about his charity giving;  but there are a lot of organizations that he said he gave to are still waiting for the first dollar.

And that’s a wrap.

Frank

AH TWO

lawrence-welk

AH ONE, AH TWO

I never saw Bubbles again, but I did get to work her father years later. He brought his show to the Twin Cities out at the Met Sports Center. He had neglected the area since he had made it big; but it was very important to him in his early years. He had gone to music school in Minneapolis, led a house band for a local radio station, over the years played regular gigs at the Marigold Ballroom, which he considered Big Time compared to his roots in the rural dance halls of the Dakotas, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The Met was a big arena, but every seat was filled in spite of the snow storm the night before. His old fans, who had loved his band in person, and his new fans, who discovered him from TV, came to enjoy the show, even if there wasn’t room to dance to his music.

The show was coming up from Des Moines and the snow had hit the south of us hard; so although us local hands were there on time, we weren’t surprised that none of the road crew was. We went up to the catering room, had some coffee and doughnuts and waited.

About a half hour later, the orchestra truck showed up. Dutch, the driver asked if Mac, the road manager, had showed up and was disappointed when we told him no. After Dutch had a couple cups of coffee, he decided to back the truck in and get it unloaded at least. Mac was the one who set up the orchestra. Dutch told us that Mac was the road stage manager, tour manager, trouble shooter, Welk’s right hand and whipping boy, and drummer. ‘Oh yeah,’ Dutch laughed, ‘He’s also the Old Man’s son-in-law.’

I thought about asking him if Mac’s wife went to Marquette and was called Bubbles. But I didn’t.

We off-loaded the truck in no time. Everything was marked. We sent the wardrobe to the dressing room hallway to wait for the road wardrobe mistress and the local wardrobe crew. Then we unlocked the boxes for the stage, and waited for Mac.

Dutch got nervous. He said he didn’t know how to set up the orchestra. Mac always did it. He said how the soundman and the lighting man needed it set up so they could do their thing. They were in a bobtail truck about an hour out. If they got backed up everything would get backed up, and the Old Man would take it out on Mac.

‘I’ve known Lawrence all my life,’ Dutch explained. ‘He and my dad grew up on neighboring homestead farms. Best friends. Both stubborn Germans. Lawrence is my godfather. The only employer I ever had. Keeps me busy all year long. As much as I respect him, I learned the best way to stay on his good side is to stay away from him. Mac is a good guy, but he takes a lot of guff from the Old Man. And no matter what excuse Mac might have for being late the Old Man will still jump all over him. I’d hate to have him for a father-in-law.’

I told Dutch if we had the orchestra plot and we’d set it up. I suggested looking in Mac’s road box. Sure enough, it was in a drawer. We set up the orchestra in no time and then took coffee while we waited for the lights and sound.

Mac finally showed up. He was about my age so I figured he probably married the younger of the two Welk daughters. He apologized for being late. The plane departure was delayed. Then when he got the Old Man to the hotel, there were a lot of messages that he had to answer. Some fires from upcoming gigs had to be put out. He was thrilled that the orchestra was set up. Dutch gave the credit to me and my crew. ‘Oh,’ Mac added, ‘I had to also call home. The wife said the car died and had to be towed to the garage. I told her we should just get a new one. I told her that a year ago. But no- go! She’s as tight with a buck as her father.’

I thought about asking Mac if his wife had gone to Marquette and was called Bubbles. But I didn’t.

‘You wear too many hats, Mac. Too many hats.’ Dutch waved his hand at Mac and went to get some sleep in his sleeper-cab.

The audience loved the show. Wonnerful! Wonnerful! You could tell that the show was exactly the same as it was when the tour started and would be the same at the end. The band would make the same movements, the performers the same presentations, Lawrence would say the same words, even the ‘ad libs’ would be the same. Tight show! I would bet each show timed about just minutes apart.

As soon as the audience left, Dutch backed the truck in while Mac supervised packing the cases. Then he left the loading of the truck to Dutch and he got Welk to come with him to the office and square away the money end.

They took a slight detour and came over to me. Mac introduced me to Lawrence as the steward responsible for getting the orchestra set up because he was late getting to the arena.

‘Tank you! Tank you!’ Lawrence said, and he shook my hand.

I thought about mentioning to Lawrence that I might have met his daughter way back when at Marquette. But I didn’t.

As the two disappeared down the hall, Dutch came over to me laughing. ‘Wow! He came to you! Two tank you’s and even a hand shake. You ought to feel honored. That’s the biggest tip I ever seen old Mr. Penny-Pincher give anyone. And you being a union stagehand on top of it. Never thought he would ever talk to a union stagehand again, let alone shake one’s hand.

‘Last year we were doing our usual gig at the Avalon Ballroom on Catalina Island and during the out, the Old Man decided to come on stage and order the hands around. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, the union steward asked him politely to get off the stage. He had narrowly missed getting hit by a road box already. If he got hurt, the insurance wouldn’t cover it.

‘So Lawrence puffs up and gets right in the steward’s face. “I’m Lawrence Welk! You can’t order off this stage.”

‘Wrong thing to say. No more Mr. Nice Guy Steward. “I don’t care if you’re Richard frigging Nixon,” says the steward, and he points his finger in Lawrence’s chest. “Now, I asked you nicely to get off the frigging stage, now I’m telling you, get your frigging ass off the ‘frigging stage, now!”

‘The old man took the hint and stormed off, muttering words in German that he would never say in English.

‘Ever since, he has gone out of his way to avoid any union stagehand. And he hasn’t come on a stage while the hands are working since, except for just now.It took a lot for him to shake your hand and give you two “Tank You’s”.’

Driving home that night I thought about how easy the day had been. Music, not exactly my style, but easier to listen to than usual heavy metal. A couple nice people to work with. Just one semi and one bobtail. In at 8 A.M. Out before 11 P.M. Sure beat the usual arena rocker with a dozen or more semis. In at 5 or 6 A.M. one day. Walk away at 3 or 4 P.M the next.

Granted I didn’t get the customary tee shirt, but I did get two Tank You’s and a handshake from a real icon of Americana.

Oh sure, he was known to be fiscally conservative. A true son of the Depression. And he had a stubborn streak and Old World values like religion, hard work, and family. A true son of an immigrant father.

His German parents immigrated from Odessa in the Ukraine. They settled on a homestead in North Dakota. First winter lived in an upturned sod-covered wagon. Raised 8 children, Lawrence was the 6th, on a hard-scramble farm. The kind of people that were the foundation of America.

Lawrence became a very rich man, not because somebody left him money, and not because he screwed over people; but because he got paid for his talent, his use of his Arts, music and dance, to entertain, to create memories, rays of sunshine on cloudy day.

And I would be willing to bet, that even if Lawrence never got paid to perform, he would have played his music for free.

Roll out the barrel, and we’ll have a barrel of fun

Roll out the barrel, we’ll have the Blues on the run

WUNNERFUL! WUNNERFUL!

AH TWO is a continuation of the previous post;

AH ONE

A GIRL CALLED BUBBLES

bubbles

The Old Hand of Oakdale:

It was our Freshman year in college and we had a semester break so Tom and Al and myself decided to get in my car and drive to Chicago to see the Blackhawks play. We stopped in Milwaukee first because there were two girls that Tom and Al had dated in high school attending Marquette University. We caught up with them and several of their classmates at the Student Union.

It was nice catching up and talking over old times with the two girls, as well as meeting their friends, but I had to excuse myself and go to the hotel. My football-knee was acting up after the long drive and I wanted to get back to the hotel and soak it in a tub of hot water.

When Tom and Al came in the room later they informed me the three of us were going to a movie that night. And Bubbles had claimed me as her date.

‘Whoa! Thanks but no thanks,’ I told them. ‘First, I don’t go on blind dates, especially with gals that have silly nicknames like Bubbles…’

‘She’s good looking,’ Al said, ‘And the girls say she is a lot of fun.’

‘I remember who she is. You can’t forget somebody called Bubbles, can you? But forget it. I see the Brubeck Trio are playing at a jazz club down by the lake. No way am I going to blow off chance to see them in person.’

Both Tom and Al argued, using every reason they could think of to make me change my mind. And the more they argued, the more stubborn I got.

Finally I just said, ‘Case closed! I am not going to a movie with a blind date especially one with a silly nickname! I’m going to see Brubeck.’

(A few years later, I broke those two rules and went out on a blind date with a girl nicknamed Georgie. In a couple months Georgie and I will be celebrating our 56th wedding anniversary.)

Driving to Chicago the next morning things was pretty quiet at first. Tom was dozing in the front seat and Al was laid across the back seat. Finally Al sat up and asked me how I enjoyed Brubeck. I told him it was great. Then I asked him about the movie.

‘We should have gone with you, a real tear jerker,’ Tom chimed in. ‘Two of the girls liked it.’

‘Bubbles sure wasn’t very bubbly,’ Al said. ‘I don’t think she’s every been stood up before.’

‘Hey!’ I argued, ‘I never asked her out to begin with, so how could I have stood her up?’

‘Yeah, you got a point’ Tom said. ‘We said you had another commitment that you couldn’t break. And, we sure never told her you didn’t go out with her because her friends called her Bubbles. Wouldn’t want her to think you’re a dink.’

Al leaned over the back seat. ‘Know why they call her Bubbles, dink? Oh, I mean Don.’

‘Bubbling personality?’

‘Well, not last night,’ Al said, and he slapped me on the shoulder. ‘You blew it, man! They call her Bubbles because she’s Lawrence Welk’s daughter.’ He laughed and started singing, ‘Roll out the barrel, and we’ll have a barrel of fun.’

Tom joined in and pretty soon all three of us were singing The Beer Barrel Polka, followed by In Heaven There Is No Beer.’

Published Bulletin Board – 2/22/17

WUNNERFUL! WUNNERFUL!

Stay tuned. The next post will be AH TWO. It will be about the time I worked Bubble’s father and the man who married her.

 

STRANGERS ON A STAGE

In honor of the Man, Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, being honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Singer/Songwriter be so recognized, I am bringing back this post. Oh, there’s also a memory of Prince there also.

To most people having an encounter with a ‘celebrity’ is an unusual event. But to stage hands, it is an every day occurrence. Except! Sometimes a ‘celebrity’ shows up by surprise.

 Old Guthrie II The Old Guthrie

 

It was a Leon Redbone concert at the Guthrie. Tom, the deck stage hand called me up in the booth to tell me about the guy who just wandered in backstage. Tom said he looked like some homeless guy, tee shirt, jeans with holes in them, sandals, a goofy looking hat, longish hair, a week’s growth of beard. I asked Tom if he had any trouble throwing him out.

‘Well’, Tom explained. ‘I told him he would have to leave. Grabbed his elbow and showed him the door. Then when the light came from the open door, I realized that I was about to kick Bob Dylan out. Apologized and he just laughed and he understood. I gave him a chair. Damn! Bob Dylan! And I almost kicked him out the door.’

 

We had just finished a matinee of The White Devil. Joey B, the deck stagehand called me up in the booth. ‘Don,’ he said, ‘You better come backstage. There’s a guy down here and I ain’t about to kick him out. You do it!’

‘Come on, Joe,’ I got a lot of gel changes to do. Just boot him out.’

‘I ain’t gonna,’ Joey argued. ‘He’s the meanest looking guy I ever saw.’

I went backstage. The man had his back turned to me, looking down the hallway to the dressing rooms. I explained to him that nobody was allowed backstage.

‘Sorry,’ he said in a very soft voice. ‘I was just waiting for my daughter.’ He turned and faced me.

I found myself looking into the face of one of my favorite actors, Jack Palance. His daughter Holly was playing the lead in The White Devil. I shook his hand and told him he was more than  welcome to stay.

When I told Joe who Jack Palance was, Joe just shook his head. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Holly must take after her mother. She sure don’t look like her dad. – Thank god!’

 

I was laying on the Guthrie stage, my shoulders and arms extended down a trap hole in the floor. Joey B was below the stage. We were trying to fine tune a schtick that didn’t work at tech rehearsal. Bill, the sound man, was behind me, as usual making wise cracks. I was losing my patience, and the bolt I was trying to take out was turning.

Without looking back, I extended my arm back and told Bill to give me your f—–g C-wrench.

A soft voice, which definitely wasn’t Bill, answered, ‘Sorry. I must have left my f—–g C-wrench in my other purse.’ And there was a lot of laughter behind me.

I rolled over and looked up. I didn’t recognize the face for a beat or two, and then it dawned on me, it was Judy Collins. Her talking voice had the same crystal quality as her singing voice.

Next to her stood Stacey Keach, the actor, and Jon, one of the Guthrie stage managers. Behind them was Bill. I was the only one on stage that wasn’t laughing.

‘Oh, he’s a smooth talker,’ Bill quipped. ‘And would you believe that’s only his second best pickup line.’

More laughing and from down below, Joey B, who had no idea what had happened, began to holler at me to quit screwing around and get back to helping him fix the god darn piece.

Jon told me that he and Stacy were classmates in college. Stacy and Judy were in town for something, and Jon was giving them a tour of the theater. I tried to apologize for my language, but Judy just laughed and said next time she would be sure and pack a C-wrench in her purse. But first I would have to explain to her what a C-wrench was.

One of my favorite piece of music is Judy Collins singing SEND IN THE CLOWNS, and every time I play it, I always think to myself, ‘but be sure and tell them to bring their C-wrenches’.

big northrop Northrop Auditorium @ U of MN

In ’82, the Metrodome’s opening was an extravaganza, Scandinavia Today, featuring the King and Queen of Sweden. The one special request the King asked for was that Swedish born Ann Margret bring her Las Vegas show to Minneapolis sometime during the week- long fest. The Minnesota Orchestra honored his request and booked it for two shows at Northrop Auditorium.

At the top of the first show, young Joey R and I were in the #2 wing, on warn for the mid-black to come in after for Ann Margret danced her way downstage. There was a quick reset once the curtain came in. We couldn’t see Ann Margret until she was even with us.

When she came into our view, young Joey bellowed out, ‘HOLY S–T!!!’

Now I don’t know if the King and Queen, sitting in the front row, heard his shout, but I do know Ann Margret did. She did a quick double take look into our wing and flashed us a quick smile.

The blackout curtain came in and the hands ran out to set the next portion, while Ann Margret was downstage, welcoming the King and Queen and singing a song in Swedish for them. As Joey and I went into the wings, I jumped on Joey for being so unprofessional. He stammered how sorry he was. It was just he had never seen her before, never even heard of her and….

‘She does have that effect on men,’ the man standing in the wing said, ‘Even me. And I have been married to her for fifteen years.’ It was her husband, Roger Smith. Outside of the fact he needed his two canes to stand steady, due to his having MG, he looked as dapper as he did when he use to walk out the door of 77 SUNSET STRIP.

Once in the stagehands’ room, the other hands teased young Joey. His comment had carried clear across the stage. I told him from now on he should find out a little something about the show he was going to work so as not to make a fool out of himself like he just did. And I advised him to go to a video store and rent BYE BYE BIRDIE and VIVA LAS VEGAS.

We’ve been lucky in the Twin Cities that she has come back here a number of times, including acting in the film, GRUMPY OLD MEN. Believe me, if you looked up the definition of a really sweet person, you would see a picture of Ann Margret.

Orpheum Minneapolis Orpheum

I was on my knees in a downstage wing paging a mic for Patti LaBelle. Her concerts were always very fine, except her set belonged in an arena, not a theater. Very crowded on stage. And since wireless mics were still unreliable, a stagehand was needed to page the cable to keep it from tangling in a set piece. You have to concentrate. For that reason I didn’t realize that there were people in the wing with me until they had me surrounded.

I saw a short pair of legs clad in tight purple pants. I didn’t have to even look up to know it was Prince.

The second pair of legs were much more interesting. Much longer. Disappearing in a pair of short shorts. Tight blouse. It was Sheila E.

The third pair were longer still. The shorts, shorter still. The blouse, tighter still. It was Kim Basinger.

Prince might be short in stature, but he more than makes up for it in self-confidence. Not many men would dare attend a concert with both an ex-girlfriend and a current girlfriend. Or maybe it was a current girlfriend and an about-to-be ex-girlfriend.

But this was Prince, The Artist Formally Known as Prince, The Love Symbol. The two ladies were probably both current girlfriends. And for all I knew, Madonna, Carmen Electra, Vanity, etc., etc., etc., might all have been at Paisley Park waiting for the three of them to return so they could all ‘party like it it’s 1999‘.

Yup! The stage is indeed a strange land, and often you meet a stranger there. And often the stranger is stranger than most.

 

FRANK’S 100TH

i-faced-it-all-and-i-stood-tall-and-did-it-my-way-quote-1

Watching the tribute to Sinatra on his 100th birthday brought lumps to my throat. I have so many of his albums, worked him many times. Heck, I even bought tickets to see him in Vegas. One of my FAVORITES.

But watching the tribute tonight reminded me of the last time I worked him in person. It was at the Met Arena as a part of the Super Bowl festivities in town. As I did before, I sat in a front chair for his sound check. As he had done before, he walked by and pointed at my hat. “Nice hat,” he said, as he did a time or two before.

I didn’t pay much attention to the fact he was using the teleprompter during the check; but I certainly did during the show, and so did the audience. Songs that he had sung for years were stumping him. He couldn’t remember the lyrics. He had to read darn near every song on the prompter. Sometimes he had to pause. He still had the Sinatra style, the crisp singing of the lyrics; but it was not only his voice that betrayed his age, his memory also.

Everybody there enjoyed his show, after all it was Sinatra; but we all knew it would be only a matter of time our enjoyment would be confined to his albums, his CD’s, or times like tonight watching old TV clips.

100 years

11th Day of the 11th Month

440px-In_Flanders_Fields_(1921)_page_1

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

            First part of the poem written one hundred years ago by Dr. John McCrea after he presided over the death of a friend killed at the Second Battle of Ypes, site of the first use of gas in the war history calls The First World War.

The seeds of this conflict, one of the deadliest ever, went back centuries; but gained speed in a series of events and alliances begun in 1882, with the trigger, killing of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria occurring in June of 1914. When it finally ended it had caused the deaths of nine million combatants and seven million civilians and restructured boundaries in both Europe and the Middle East and dragged warfare into modern times.

It started for the most with  centuries-old methods of war, such as using the horse for both transportation and warfare; but quickly changed into a war of man-made machines powered by the combustible engine on the land, the sea, and a new battleground, the air. And this new method of warfare introduced yet another reason for nations waging war, Oil.

One thing that didn’t change was the reliance on the foot soldier, the doughboy, the mud slogging, trench fighter. And this war was indeed a war of trenches, miles of trenches. For the most part, these men in all wars are unsung; but sometimes one becomes a hero, a household name like the man from the hills of Tennesse, Alvin York of the 82 Division. Largely because of York’s heroics, his division, the 82nd was chosen to be the first airborne division in the US Army.

This war also brought to light the need to bring medicine and medical techniques into modern times. More deaths occurred because of tetanus and infection than from actual battle wounds. The studies of Pasteur and Lister became the Bible for the new medical structure and monies that would never have been allotted for the civilian populations were made available for new medicines to combat the main causes of death in this war.

The war spawned a variety of poems, songs, paintings etc.. It is the source of two of the strongest anti-war works of art, Remarque’s novel ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and Lewis Milestone’s faithful movie of the novel.

The Christmas Truces especially in 1914 have been used in movies and stage plays. The one I am most familiar with is ALL IS CALM:THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914. We put it  on stage at the Minneapolis Pantages in 2008, and it has been done during every Christmas season since. On Christmas Eve 1914 the sounds of Christmas hymns are heard coming from both the German trenches and the British trenches. Soon the soldiers come out of the trenches and the combatants meet in No-Man’s Land where they exchange Christmas greetings, food and beverages, and join with each other in singing the songs of Christmas. These truces were wide spread that Christmas even on the Eastern Front between a group of German and Russian soldiers.

At first the war had a variety of names depending on what countries were fighting each other. As more countries entered into the battle these names were melded into The World War/ The Great War. After the Armistice The World War/The Great War was given a subtitle: The War To End All Wars.

The Armistice was signed at 5 AM, November 11, 1918. The cease fire took place six hours later, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The time had a good ring to it and was easy to remember. There was also a political/military motive behind the delay in the cease fire. The delay gave the Allies a chance to gain better ground in case the Cease Fire didn’t last. That last day of fighting resulted in over 2,500 additional deaths. For all practical purposes it was the end of the war, but peace wasn’t officially ratified until 1/10/1920.

The victors had no mercy for the losers and dictated harsh edicts that changed the world. Boundaries were changed. New countries were created with no respect for the differences in the peoples in these countries. Overlooked was the ethnic differences, the differences in language and especially religions. It was a hastily drawn up with the main purpose to cripple the countries that could pose problems to the Allies as respect to economic progress and to colonial expansion. These ‘written in the sand’ changes still, almost a century later, remain one of the biggest sources of wars, horrific and genocidal, both external and civil, in the world.

November 11th was called Armistice Day, a legal holiday, in most countries that were on the ‘winning’ side. Later the name was changed to Remembrance Day in many of those countries. In 1954 it became known as Veterans Day in the U.S.A.

VERDUN-OSSUAIRE_DE_DOUAUMONT5

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

 

It wasn’t long before the subtitle, The War To End All Wars became as ludicrous as the phrase uttered in almost all conflicts, ‘They’ll be home by Christmas’.

And events that started just twenty years later caused a name change. The Great War was dropped, and The World War had to be renamed The First World War because another war with the usual suspects, some like Japan and Italy changing sides, combined to fight The Second World War, which was not The War To End All Wars either in spite of the fact the war ended with destroying two large cities with the first use of atomic bombs. Such destruction, we were told, would end war forever. No country would ever start a war with the threat of the mushroom cloud hanging over their head. Another premise that proved false.

Early one morning Frank Glick was driving to work and saw this Bald Eagle sitting on a gravestone in the Fort Snelling National Veterans’ Cemetery. Luckily he managed to take this picture.

Eagle at Ft Snelling

The cemetery sits on a high bluff overlooking beautiful valley where the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi River. At funerals in the cemetery, sometimes there is an Honor Guard firing off a salute, sometimes planes fly in formation; but almost always there is a Bald Eagle flying  above the ceremony. The sight never fails to bring lumps in the throats of teary eyes mourners.

The cemetery and the nearby Veterans’ Hospital are both running out of room. And this sad situation is occurring in all our Veterans cemetery and hospitals across our land.

Our lawmakers always seems to find the monies for overrides on government contracts to develop a new weapons system, and monies to pay for the exorbitant salaries and profits for the private contractors, like Chaney’s Haliburton, that have slithered into our defense budgets ever since Viet Nam.

And yet when it comes to helping our veterans, these patriotic lawmakers vote down request after request stating no money is available. Our veterans hospital are for the most part outdated and understaffed. These patriots lawmakers, many of whom took deferments to avoid service, fought the idea that Agent Orange used by us in Nam was responsible for  veterans’  medicals problems like cancer, and they continue to avoid the epidemic of mental problems of our veterans who fought in our questionable conflicts ever since WWII. And the list goes on and on.

The best way to thank our vets for ‘THEIR SERVICE’ is to demand that we honor our commitments to them for sacrificing so much so much ‘to protect our freedoms’ and our ‘need’ to be the policemen for the world.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow  


In our present day treatment of our veterans, we have broken faith, not only with those that died but also with those that lived.

Flanders Field

To all my fellow vets, Vaya Con Dios.

This is a reblog from 2016

THE GHOST OF THE GUTHRIE

 

 

Old Guthrie Stage

            Every theater worth its salt has a ghost. We had one at the old Guthrie Theater. His name was Richard Miller.

            Bullied in school, ignored at home, Richard was a loner all 18 years of his life. He discovered skiing and it became his passion. Freedom. Excitement. There was people around him, some even envious of his skill; and he didn’t have to interact with them. He was gaining confidence, self-esteem. And then he took a bad fall. He worried that he might never be strong enough, physically or mentally, to ever ski again.

He did work up enough courage to enroll at he U of Minnesota and to get a job as an usher at the Guthrie Theater. Being a student was a disaster; but he loved being an usher, helping people without having to interact with them. His fellow ushers respected his distance and his desire to not mingle with them. He loved the plays and concerts. He was feeling good again.

But gradually the hell he was experiencing trying to stay in college began to outweigh the peace he was experiencing as an usher. Severe headaches! Severe depression! Until…

He borrowed money from his mother on the pretext of buying ski boots. Then he went to Sears and bought a gun instead. He parked his car in the far corner of the Sears lot. And he ended his life.

In the letter he wrote, he asked his parents for their forgiveness for what he was about to do. And he asked that he be buried in his Guthrie usher uniform. He said the hours spend at the Guthrie were the best times he ever had in his life. His parents complied with his request.

The parents offered to buy his uniform from the Guthrie; but it was not necessary because that style uniform was going to be replaced in a few weeks. The Guthrie was doing away with the old fashion uniform with epaulets and braids. The new uniforms would not be ornate and brown, but simple, and a dark blue color.

After Richard’s death there was occasional talk of a ghost haunting the theater, but such talk occurs in many theaters. And nobody connected the possible haunting with the death of Richard Miller. It wasn’t until a small group of ushers used a Ouija board to contact the Ghost of the Guthrie, that the legend became ‘fact’.

Many of the ushers lived commune style in an old house not far from the theater. They lived only for the day and their motto was: A little wine, a little weed. That’s all we need. Oh, also some munchies.

Kevin, the Guthrie House Manager lived there also; but unlike the others, Kevin was also a grad student a the U, and was working on a thesis concerning ghosts in the theaters of America. He got Scott H. and two other ushers to help him find out if there indeed was a ghost in the Guthrie. He promised them a little weed, a little wine, and they said fine. Oh, also some munchies.

After the show that evening they hid in a room until they were sure everyone was out of the theater. Then they set up a folding table and four chairs. Kevin took the Ouija board and planchette out of a cloth sack and began to explain how it would be used and expounded on his research and paper to date. The other four each had a glass of wine from the carton and passed around a joint.

the ghost light

            The atmosphere was perfect for their project. The only lights present were the various red exit signs and the ‘ghost light’, a low incandescent bulb on a mic stand to prevent anyone who had to go into the dark theater from getting hurt in the dark. It was the last task stagehands always do before quitting for the night. Kevin called his crew to order.

The first question asked if there was a ghost in the theater. To the surprise of the four, the planchette went to the YES. That got their attention. What is the ghost’s name? The board spelled out RICHARD. The wine glasses were drained and the joint  passed around before the next question. The four looked out in the house where  the ghost light was projecting a weak glow and creating weird shadows. Kevin asked softly, ‘Where is the ghost now?’

SUGGEST LOOK TO THE TECH ROOM

The term ‘tech room’ stumped them until Scott thought maybe it meant the lighting/sound booth. He said he looked to the back of the house, to the booth above the last row of seats in the balcony. He pointed and froze. The others looked to the booth.

The booth was dark except… There was a figure of a man standing in a hazy glow. Either he was in the booth proper or was floating high above the seats in front of the glass of the booth. He lifted his arm and waved.

The wave broke the ice. Kevin managed to grab the board and planchette but everything else was left as the four broke for the side door.

Mickey, a shop carpenter, came on stage in the morning to put the ghost light away. When he saw he went into the shop and got help removing the remains of the night. The only thing not mentioned when the story went around the theater of what they found on stage, was the dime bag of grass. Scott thought Mickey maybe pocketed that for himself.

The name Richard was connected to Richard Miller. Sightings became more frequent and believed without a doubt by the Guthrie employees. Some customers called to complain about the usher that stood in the Alpine Slope aisle, Richard’s favorite aisle to work, to watch the play, or  to walk up and down during the performance, to help if needed.

For Instance, one customer called to extend thanks to the usher who pointed out that his cars keys had fallen on the floor by his seat. And usually such callers thought the usher was perhaps the head usher because his uniform was a different color and fancier then the others.

At various times he was seen by actors, musicians, wardrobe people, and stagehands. Cliff, the head shop carpenter, was the last person you would think who would believe in ghosts; but after he got off the elevator to the supply room on Level 8 and saw a figure standing in  a hazy glow at the far end of the room, he quickly got what he came for, went back in the elevator, and became a staunch believer.

Joey B., the stage carpenter, had at least two encounters with Richard, both times in the little Green Room in the basement. The first came when he popped in for a cigarette. He saw a figure in an old usher uniform standing in the corner. Joe said he thought maybe he was having a problem with his eyes, the figure was kind of hazy.

‘Look’, he said to the ‘usher’, ‘This room is off limits to you guys. I won’t rat you out but…’ The young man said he was sorry, and according to Joe, just disappeared into thin air. When it was explained to Joey who he had chased from the little Green Room, Joe scratched his head and said, ‘Well, I’ll be damned!!

The second time was when an actor asked Joe to look in the little Green Room for a prop, a little money sack, that he would need later on in the show. He looked all around his dressing room and figured maybe he had dropped it when he was in the little Green Room. Joey looked around the room and didn’t see it. Just as he was about to give up, a voice said, ‘Joe, suggest you look on the floor beside the sofa.’ Sure enough there it was.

Joe looked to where the voice came from and saw the now familiar figure standing in his hazy glow. ‘Thanks, Richard,’ Joey said and brought the prop to the actor’s dressing room.

No one ever accused Richard of trying to scare anybody on purpose or of doing anything malicious. For the most part people were startled, not scared, by an encounter with the Guthrie ghost. Sometimes well after the fact.

An actress new to the company had lucked out and found a parking place right in front of the theater. It was raining hard when she ran to her car only to find that her car wouldn’t start. After several tries there was a knock on the window. A Guthrie usher  was trying to tell her what to do. She opened the door and told him to get out of the rain.

He did and suggested she wait a bit and then hold the gas pedal to the floor when she pushed the start button. It worked. She asked the usher if he had a ride and he said no. She asked where he was going and he said down by Sears. She said she would take him. When she stopped at the red light at the end of the block, she turned to talk to the young man; but there was no one in the car with her. She hadn’t heard the door open or shut and there was a wetness on the seat where the usher had sat.

She told the story in the dressing room the next day. The dresser asked her what kind of uniform the kid had on. When she described it, the every one in the room agreed that she had met the ghost of the Guthrie and filled her in on Richard. She screamed! But she confessed at the end of the season, each time she drove past the Guthrie’s main door, she looked to see if Richard was standing there. She never had a chance to thank him for his advice.

Some, like Oscar, a college student and the evening Stage Door man, were deathly afraid of meeting Richard. When Oscar checked at night to see that all the proper doors were locked in the theater he carried a machete with him. He said he wasn’t afraid of running into anybody who shouldn’t be in the theater, he carried the machete in case he met Richard the ghost.

We pointed out to him that a ghost has no substance, just vapor. He could swing at Richard all night and only cut air. I told him about the old saying that you should never bring a knife to a gun fight, and I added, or to an encounter with a ghost. Oscar realized what we said was the truth and he gave his two weeks notice the next day.

A few took a meeting with Richard as just a matter of fact. Eva, an older, very proper, extra got on the backstage horn during a performance and demanded to Milt, the stage manager in the booth, that he teach that young ghost, Richard, the proper etiquette of theater.

She told how she had to exit down the Stage Left tunnel, hurry to her dressing room, change costumes, and hurry upstairs for a backstage crowd entrance. She said she almost missed the entrance because that young ghost, Richard was standing right in her way in the tunnel. She had stop and ask him to please move.

‘Well, did he?’ Milt asked.

‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘But only after going on and on about how sorry he was. Then he just… Dissipated. Poof! You have to instruct him proper stage etiquette. He could have caused me to be late for my entrance.’

‘And how do I get in touch with him?’ Smoke signals?’

‘Of course not,’ Eva said sharply. ‘Just leave him a note on the Call Board.’

‘Okay, I will,’ said Milt, ‘But Eva he’s just a ghost. If he ever gets in your way again, just run right through him.’

‘I will not! That would be rude!’

Milt quickly turned off his talk button so she wouldn’t hear us laughing up  in the booth.

And then there others who joked about possibly encountering the ghost.

After each time I had to lay out on a catwalk thirty feet above the stage or stand on a full extended extension ladder to hang or focus or work on a lighting instrument, I swore that if I ever met Richard I would ask if he would want to work on the crew. He would have no problem floating up and doing that kind of hairy work. Joey B always agree with me that Richard would love to work on the crew.

I was up in the catwalks, just finished with the electric’s  change over into the next evenings show, and was heading to the elevator on Level 8. I stopped when I heard someone say, ‘Hi, Don.’

He was surrounded by a hazy glow in the center cove area. But he wasn’t standing on a catwalk. He was floating over the hole thirty feet above the stage floor.

I answered, or at least think I did, ‘Hi, Richard.’ Then I turned forgetting all about taking the elevator past where Richard was, and walked back and climbed down the ladder to the booth. I took the long way to go down to the stage that night. And later, while having a much needed beer in the Dram Shop, Joey B asked me if I had offered Richard a job on the crew.

‘Ah, darn it,’ I confessed, ‘It completely slipped my mind.’

Over the years there was always some ritual to help Richard cross over into the next world. There was a minister, then a priest, a rabbi, Wicca priestess, even a Druid. None of the rituals worked longer than a few weeks except for the Druid’s.

The Druid was an Irish-American actor from Chicago, who one night after a lot of refreshing drinks up in the Dram Shop loudly proclaimed that he was a Druid. He grabbed a broom handle for a staff and announced he was going on stage to exorcise the ghost of Richard Miller.

From what I heard it was a show to behold. A lot of shouting the same Gallic words over and over along with some altar boy Latin and a lot of banging the ‘staff’ on the stage floor. Ended with some Xrated Chicago language ordering Richard Miller to begone and never darken the door of the Guthrie Theater again.

The spectators loved it and bought drink after drink for the Druid. It didn’t go well with Richard though. The very next performance a few customers complained about an usher standing at the top of the Alpine Slope and actually booed when a certain actor made his first stage entrance.

Then a Native American shaman was enlisted. I had quit the theater so I wasn’t around when the shaman performed his ritual. It started at sunrise and went until sunset. Spectators walked in and out of the theater proper and watched the dance, listened to the drum and the singing, smelled the smoke from a small charcoal burner that was fed with different kinds of grasses. The spectators all agreed, it was a beautiful show. And it worked! Richard Miller was never seen again. The Guthrie had lost its ghost.

I have mixed feelings. I am happy for Richard that perhaps he has finally crossed over and is at rest at last. Yet I am sad at losing him. Richard was an important member of the old Guthrie’s family and history for over two decades. But I am also glad that Richard wasn’t around when they tore the old Guthrie building down. That would have really shocked his system. I know how it affected mine.

There’s a new Guthrie Theater now. It is an exquisite theatrical complex on a high bank overlooking the Mississippi River. I know Richard would never have gone to the new theater. It lacks some important things that the old theater had – memories. Memories for Richard, memories for those of us who were fortunate enough to have worked in the old Guthrie.

And to those of you who do not believe in ghosts, I offer these words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for you to ponder:

 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

That are dreamt in your philosophy.

 

And that’s a wrap.

 

STARRY, STARRY NIGHT

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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.

young mclean

Don McLean, singer/songwriter, troubadour/poet, is an American treasure, but not exactly a household name. He is mostly indentified 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 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”.

500px-Vincent_van_Gogh_(1853-1890)_-_Wheat_Field_with_Crows_(1890)

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”

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”

Van_Gogh_-_Weizenfeld_bei_Sonnenuntergang

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”

Starry Night

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 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.

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 a largely 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’.

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 didn’t argue although I knew the excuse was bogus. Basically this was a case of go to town, film it as quick as possible, and  go back to L.A.. Surf’s up! Besides, what was important was the play and especially Leonard’s acting. Nobody would ever buy a copy because of my lighting.

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.

don mclean

 

And that’s a wrap – for today.

LUCILLE IS NOW AN ORPHAN

b.b. king            The first time I worked B.B. King, I almost didn’t work B.B King. He couldn’t find the theater.

Sue Weill of the Walker Art Center had booked him for  two performances, 7 and 10 PM, at the Guthrie Theater. Naturally both shows were sell-outs.

King wasn’t there for sound check; but that was no big deal, his group had played together for a long time and they knew what B.B. wanted. But as it grew closer to show time, King’s absence became something to worry about. There was no front act booked, but the band worked it out to play the part of a front act without B.B. until he showed up.

Thanks to a policeman who liked blues guitar, King showed up after the band had just been on stage for about ten minutes. He walked on stage to thunderous applause and the audience had no idea there had been a problem. He  didn’t need any warmup to make Lucille sing.

The band had taken the bus from the last gig. B.B. flew. When he jumped into the cab at the airport, he told the driver to take him to the Walker Theater. He knew he was being paid by the Walker and just assumed that was the name of the theater.

The cabbie knew there was a Walker Building downtown Minneapolis and that the State Theater was part of that building, so he took him there. Built as a vaudeville house, the Stage was transformed into a movie theater, then a church, and eventually reverted back into a legit house. At this period in time, the State was closed as a movie house and it would be a few years before it became a church. The theater was dark.

King went to the door and hammered on the glass. After a few fruitless minutes, he began to kick at it.

A cop drove by and saw this man kicking the door. He thought it was an attempted break-in. He drew his gun and ordered the man to lay down that case he was carrying, Lucille was inside; but the cop thought it might contain a weapon. As he was frisking him, B.B. explained who he was and why he was kicking at the door of the theater.

Luckily, the policeman, who was a fan of B.B.’s music, remembered reading that King was in town to play at the Guthrie Theater, which was about a mile away. He told King he’d get him to the Guthrie.

King paid the cabbie, hopped in the back of the squad car and with the help of the siren and the lead-footed policeman, got to the gig just a few minutes late. No harm done except between shows, B.B. got a lot of razzing from his band members.

It reminds me a similar story about Louis Armstrong, told to me by Eddie D., who was stage managing the show at Northrop Auditorium. Louis didn’t show up for sound check and still wasn’t in the theater at show time. There was a front act so between the front act’s performance and the intermission, there was about an hour’s fudge-time before Louis was to go on for his gig.

About ten minutes after front act went on, Armstrong showed up in the front lobby asking how to get backstage. Eddie said he angerly told Armstrong that he was late, and he also missed sound check. Louis just laughed and pointed out he was blowing horns way before they had sound checks and mics and speaker systems.

Eddie then argued that Armstrong was lucky his trumpet got there okay. He asked Louis what would happen if the horn got lost or broken and he had to come up with another one in a hurry.

Again Louis laughed. ‘This is all I need,’ he said, pulling his horn mouthpiece out of his pocket. ‘I always got this with  me. Ol’ Satchmo could stick this in a tin can and blow the blues if he had to.’

I never had the privilege of working Ol’ Satchmo, but I did see him in concert once. On the other hand, I never sat in the audience for a B.B. King concert, but I had the privilege of working a number of his shows. Outside of that first time, all the other B.B. King’s concerts, I worked at various theaters around the Twin Cities, had B.B. headlining a bill with others, the likes of Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Bonny Raitt and other Blues guitarists. Whenever he was onstage, the wings were filled with musicians, both local and nationals like Bob Dylan, Prince,Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, etc.. For those of us working one of his shows, it was more than a concert, it was an event.

Thrill is gone

It was a bad few weeks for R&B aficionados. We not only lost B.B. King, we lost Percy Sledge, (When a man needs a woman) and Ben E. King, (Stand by me). Thank goodness for recordings; because they will always be there whenever we want to enjoy their music.

R.I.P. old timers. You fought big odds and you won.  

THE SOUND OF OSCAR – 2015

Gaga and Julie

I paid even less attention to the Oscars this year than I usually do. The show was on the TV, but my nose was in a book. The only movies I watched in 2014 were from my dvd collection and old time movies on TV. There wasn’t even an actor that I could say I wanted to win on the basis of past works.

Frankly, I think I agree with George C. Scott who said acting should be viewed as an art and not a contest. There’s always more complaining about the results than there is about a foul call in the NBA.

I stopped reading though when I heard an exceptional voice singing songs from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I had no idea who the woman was and I was floored when my wife told me it was Lady Gaga. I have not kept up with pop singers and music in years, and especially those that use gimmicks. I had no idea that Lady Gaga was so talented.

I kept watching. Next came clips from the movie, honored because it was 50 years since it’s release. Wow, 50 years!

I thought back to when my mother-in-law, my wife, our family at the time, just three of our sons, and I, saw it for the first time, even though it had been out for several years. We saw it in a ‘neighborhood’ movie theater in Mexico City. A ‘neighborhood’ movie theater that was as ornate and beautiful as any downtown, first-run movie theater in the Twin Cities. My mother-in-law said the theater was the norm, the people in Mexico City took their movies very seriously.

The movie was in English with Spanish subtitles. An unusual way for me to watch the movie, but a good way for me to brush up on my conversational Spanish.

It also brought back memories of taking a ‘field trip’ in grade school to see a performance of the Von Trapp family, Maria and the children, at the St. Paul Auditorium. They included St. Paul on their Christmas tour for several years.

When my mother asked me if I enjoyed it, I told her it was okay. They sang a lot of Christmas songs like you hear in church or on the radio. “But”, I added, “They didn’t even sing RUDOLPH.” That was the year Gene Autry’s RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER was released and was taking the country by storm. I often wondered if the Von Trapps added it to their repertoire.

The film clip ended and the audience rose to their feet as the great Julie Andrews, Dame Julie Andrews, walked onstage. I felt like rising with them. She ranks with the likes of Princess Grace and Ann Margaret as one of the finest women I have ever had the pleasure of working. So talented! So nice! So classy!

For instance, instead of giving the local crew a tee shirt as a thank you for our work at her concert, Miss Andrews gave us all an expensive white sweat shirt, with the words, ‘Julie Andrews in Concert’ embroidered in small letters on the right breast. Such class!

I had also worked Christopher Plummer for about six weeks when we were mounting the production of CYRANO, THE MUSICAL. It finally made it to Broadway for a short time on Broadway and Plummer won the Emmy for playing Cyrano. As far as Plummer is concerned, I defer to the old saying, ‘If you can’t say anything nice about a person…’

 

My favorite story about THE SOUND OF MUSIC comes from rehearsals of the first touring production of the show. The rehearsals were at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. It happened before I was in the business and was told to me by several old time stagehands and Big Betty, the daytime bartender at the Speak Easy, the bar across the alley from the Orpheum stage door.

The actress cast as Mother Superior had a drinking problem. Well, she had no problem drinking, the problem came from not drinking. She had drank herself off Broadway and was on probation as far as this production was concerned. She tried her best but finally the long hours and constant repetition took it’s toll. All she could think of was the back door of the Speak Easy just across the alley. She cracked.

During a break when the rest of the cast was having coffee and doughnuts, she walked into the bar. She was still in her nun’s costume.

The Easy was a neighborhood bar, but the neighborhood was not the kind where you wanted to be after dark. During the day, it was usually busy with the usual customers drinking whatever they could afford at the time. Some played pool. Some sat and told the same stories they told the day before. And some placed their head on the bar and took a nap.

But everything came to a halt when a nun walked in the door. She bellied up to the bar and surprised Big Betty when she ordered a shot of whiskey with a beer back, and then lit up a straight Camel cigarette. When she laid down money to pay for for the drink, Big Betty told her it was on the house. She belted the boilermaker down like the pro she was.

She must have impressed the bar clientele because there were a lot of sounds of approval. A customer at end of the bar hollered down her next drink was on him. The actress smiled and told Big Betty if that was the case make it a double. But before Betty could pour the drink, the back door burst open and a strange man stomped in, screaming and swearing.

He went right to the actress and began to call her names that were not appropriate to call a woman in a nun’s habit. Betty said she never would have believed some of those rummies could move as fast as they did. They surrounded the foul-mouthed stranger and threatened to teach him a lesson for disgracing a nun like that, especially a nun who could drink like she did.

Big Betty said she grabbed her Little League bat she kept behind the bar and began to slam it on the bar. The regulars knew from past experience it was best not to get Betty mad, and quickly went back to their original positions. One more loud slap and the man began to explain his actions.

He was the stage manager of the show across the alley. The nun wasn’t a nun. She was an actress in costume and she was nothing but trouble, a lush. When they went back to rehearsing, they couldn’t find her. He had an idea of where she might be and he was right.

He hollered at the actress and gave her shove toward the door. Told her that if he ever caught her drinking on the job, it would be the end of working the show, probably the end of her career.

Big Betty hollered, ‘Hey, Sister, you are officially 86ed out of this establishment – forever!’ Betty swears she saw the black habit sleeve sticking back in the door giving her the middle finger salute.

Usually there are complaints after the Oscars that it was too long, and this or that should have been cut. I never heard any complaints that the 50 year anniversary tribute to THE SOUND OF MUSIC should have been cut to shorten the show.

 

 

R.I.P. ROD MCKEUN

rod mckuen

R.I.P. ROD MCKEUN

A critic once told us you were the King of Kitsch; but as for me and a great many people, you were a talented poet, song writer, composer, and singer.

One of the best concerts I ever worked was your performance at the Minneapolis Auditorium. One of my favorite albums is your SOLD OUT AT CARNEGIE HALL.

Talk about a multi-talented man! In addition to your songs, you also received 2 Oscar nominations for your movie soundtracks, and a Pulitzer nomination for your ‘serious’ composition. You introduced us to, and translated for us, the works of Jacques Brel.

Sinatra was a critic. He thought so much of your work he devoted an entire album, Sinatra – A MAN ALONE: THE WORDS AND MUSIC OF MCKUEN, to your songs. He did a masterful job, and especially with your LOVE’S BEEN GOOD TO ME.

And another masterful version of that song was sung by Johnny Cash in his AMERICAN V CD. The CD which he titled A HUNDRED HIGHWAYS,  words taken from the lyrics of your song. The CD that Cash recorded when he knew that he didn’t have long to live. Knowing Cash’s backstory, I defy anyone to listen to that cut and not have a lump in his throat.

Terry Jacks sang your and Brel’s SEASONS IN THE SUN to number one in the pop charts in 1974. And your works have been recorded by a host of the best in so many genres of music.

Your own singing voice was raspy, but it was good enough to  have been the lead singer for Lionel Hampton’s band. You voiced-over assorted characters in THE LITTLE MERMAID movie with that voice. Your voice in your spoken word albums has made your poems familiar to so many.  And your voice was heard loud and clear in the fight against child molestation.

All this from a man who ran away from home and an abusive stepfather, at the age of 11. A man who made a living as a laborer, ranch hand, rodeo rider, stunt man, etc., and never failing to send money back home to his mother. A man with little formal education, but a great deal of talent and determination.

And now, it’s a wrap, Mr. McKuen. Thank you for your volumes of works and the hours of enjoyment that you left us. R.I.P.

 

FRANCIS, OZZIE, AND PETE

RS logo  Recent events, like the cover of ROLLING STONE, cold water, colder weather, doves flying, a Dove dying, brought back a lot of memories, some good, some bad, some funny, some sad.

 

Pope on Rolling Stone  PETER’S ROCK

Last December, the ex-nightclub bouncer from Argentina scored a knockout by being named TIME’s MAN OF THE YEAR. He followed up a month later with a cover on the ROLLING STONE proclaiming him a new rock star. And to think when the white smoke came out of the chimney, many people, like myself, thought, big deal, just another hard core, extreme right of Jesus, traditionalist. How wrong we were!

Sharon Osbourne made headlines about the same time. It seems like sweet Sharon, at a pre – Grammy dinner, decided she had enough listening to a would-be celeb loudmouth, and she threw a glass of water into his face.

osborne family on rolling stone  OZZIE’S ROCK

Now what, you might ask, does Pope Francis and Sharon Osbourne have in common? Pigeons! Or rather, white doves.

The same week, the Pope combined two of his favorite things peace and children in a symbolic act  After calling for peace in the Ukraine,  he had the children release two white doves, to the roar of the people standing below in the Vatican Square. The two symbols of peace were immediately attacked by a crow and a seagull. What a crow and a seagull symbolizes, I don’t know. Only that the thousands of pilgrims gasped at the sight of the attack. There is no record of the outcome, or a translation of what the Pope uttered.

I, did, however, witness the outcome of the doves released, as per the instructions of Sharon Osbourn, at one of her husband’s concert. I can only surmise what she uttered.

The only thing that I disliked more than listening to the music of the ‘godfather’ of Heavy Metal, Ozzie Osbourne, was working his shows, Black Sabbath or on his own. Big and heavy. Roadies were always tired, usually high, and hard to get along with. The music wasn’t just loud, it was instant-headache loud. The special effects were gross. A dummy pushed from a spotlight location, it’s fall snapped short by the rope and the noose around it’s neck. The midget throwing pig intestines into the audience. And the PYRO, the PYRO, the PYRO!!! My favorite part of the show was always when the doors on the last truck were closed and we saw the rear end of the truck heading to it’s next destination.

When Ozzie finally left, or was fired, from Black Sabbath, he signed with Don Arden. Arden commissioned his daughter, Sharon, to watch over Ozzie, in the hopes he would go back to Black Sabbath. Wrong move! It not only changed Ozzie, it put a wedge between father and daughter that exists to this day.

It turned out that Sharon was a management genius and even Ozzie recognized her ability. She further cemented her control over Ozzie by becoming his wife. She curbed his bad habits, which probably added many years to his life: made his solo career more important than his career with Black Sabbath: spurred it on by creating OZFEST, a gigantic money maker: and when his popularity waned, she brought him back to the public eye with the reality show, THE OSBOURNES. And through it all, became a household name in her own right. Like Pope Francis, Sharon Osbourne surprised a great many people and earned herself, albeit with Ozzie and the children, a cover on ROLLING STONE.

 

On January 20th, 1982, during his DAIRY OF A MADMAN tour, Ozzie bit the had off a bat. This incident occurred at the Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa. Even if it happened anyplace other than Iowa, it still would have made ‘entertainment’ headlines.

The next stop on the tour was the MetsSportsCenter in Bloomington, Minnesota. (Twenty some below zero) Ozzie was under a lot of pressure because of his actions. It came out that he had also bitten the head off a bat at a business meeting a few days prior to the concert in Iowa. There were threats of concert dates being cancelled, the recently formed PETA organized pickets, and threats of deportation were hanging over his head if he continued with his geek acts.

Even though it was still six months before their marriage, Sharon was beginning to exert a great influence over Ozzie, both artistically and personal. While Ozzie tried to laugh off the situation, Sharon knew something had to be done. She came up with an idea she hoped would defuse the situation.

During the concert at Met, shortly after the midget pelted the audience with pig guts, a cage was brought to the front of the stage. The cage door was opened and twenty white doves, birds of peace, were released. The audience roared. The birds soared. Trying to escape the lights and the screaming horde of people, they flew toward the darkness above. But in trying to reach the sanctuary of the ceiling catwalks, they had to pass in front of the gigantic speaker stacks. And, as the killing decibels of sound blasted the birds, one by one, they dropped – dead – into the audience, who thought it was all a part of the show, and screamed with glee and passed the bodies of the dead birds around like beach balls.

And as I stood off to the side of the stage and witnessed this disaster, I vowed I would never work an Ozzie Osbourne concert again.

Luckily for him, the death of the doves didn’t make the newspapers; probably because of the hard work of Sharon to kill the story.

seeger

AMERICA’S ROCK

And that brings me to the death of a Dove, Pete Seeger. Many people remember his anti-war activism during the Viet Nam conflict and older people remember his anti-fascism activism during the Spanish Civil War. But he was not a dove in all cases.

In his song, MR. PRESIDENT, written in the early days of WWII, he sang: ‘Now, Mr. President, / We haven’t always agreed in the past, I know, / But that ain’t at all important now. / What is important is what we got to do, / We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do, / Other things can wait.’

The other things that would wait were his fights for Civil Rights, the environment, the rights of the working folk, and carrying on the work of his comrade-in-arms, Woody Guthrie.

And, although America, was familiar with so many of his songs, it took his death to really bring the works, the activism, and the life of Pete Seeger into the main stream.

But even his death couldn’t get him the cover of the ROLLING STONE. He got print; but the cover went to actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, death by overdose.

But then, Pete was never one for flaunting himself. His music and crusades were what counted. In it’s piece on Pete’ death, ROLLING STONE referred to him as ‘America’s rebel’. In earlier articles it referred to him as a ‘guerrilla troubadour’ and  ‘America’s conscience’. He probably took greater pride in those descriptive titles than in having his picture on the cover.

He was a favorite of mine, both as a musician and as a person. Of all the times I was privileged to work one of his shows, I never saw him, on stage, or backstage, where he didn’t have the lilt of optimism in his voice and exuberance in his step. He was just a joy to be around.

Pete was a trickster. The concert audience bought tickets to be entertained; but some of their money went to benefit Pete’s crusade of the moment, whether they believe in his cause or not. I have seen many singers try to get the audience involved in one of their favorite songs, but nobody did it like Pete. ‘Come on now! Everybody!!!’ And the audience sang, and sometimes even a certain, usually stoic, stagehand  would get caught up in the exuberance.

It’s one thing to be entertained as he sang  ‘WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?’ But when you find yourself, at his instigation, singing the refrain, ‘When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?’, you changed from just being entertained to becoming an activist caught up in Pete’s zeal.

His death brought accolades from the many unions that he fought for over the years; but there is one union that often passes by unnoticed, one that Pete loved above all others. Namely, the union of marriage he entered into with Toshi-Aline Ota. That union lasted 71 years and was broken only by the death of Toshi, who died just six months before Pete. He believed in so many causes, and he believed in love and the vows of marriage.

Pete believed in America, [If you love your Uncle Sam, bring ‘em home, bring ‘em home.’ ] [‘We shall overcome.’] [‘I’d hammer out love between my brothers and sisters, all over this land.’]. And of course,  ‘This land is your land. This land is my land, from California to the New York island’. Woody Guthrie’s  anthem was always included in Pete’s concerts. Pete believed in America’s promise and in the American people’s ability to fulfill the promise. Pete was a dove, but he never stopped fighting his fight.

As the BBC said in his obituary: Seeger never toppled a government with the weight of his banjo.But he was satisfied if his little songs inspired a different way of looking at bigger troubles.