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

LARRY & The Duke (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then…STAY SAFE

 

PREJUDICE & ME & THE ARMY

“It’s going to take a long time, and it’s going to take white people admitting what we did was pretty damned bad.” – Greg Iles – 2017 National Writers Series interview

There wasn’t many blacks in my ‘class’ at basic training in Fort Collins, Colorado. The two officers in charge were white. The rest of the cadre were black. Nice guys. Even the group of Texans who enrolled together dropped their initial snide remarks about blacks and accepted them as their instructors.

It was my next Army stop, Signal School, Fort Gordon, Georgia where I was introduced to the world of prejudice.

There weren’t many blacks in my ‘class’ in Signal School either and all the instructors were white. We had quite a bit of freedom and could go off base on the weekends. Two of my new friends, Chicago 1 and Chicago 2 managed to buy a car and the three of us along with three others took off on a Friday night to spend a wild weekend in Augusta. Never made it.

On the famous Tobacco Road right before we almost got past the endless shacks and lean-to’s of the share-croppers, and were not too far from the famous and very exclusive Augusta Golf Course where the Masters is played yearly, we got t-boned. Too much moonshine and the driver speeding along a gravel road that intersected the highway didn’t stop. Good thing we were packed inside a well built DeSoto. None of us got hurt but the boys from Chicago told us all to complain about factitious aches and pains. They thought they struck it rich. Whiplash! Whiplash!

We had to report to the Augusta Court House on Monday to give our accounts of what happened. When we walked in far down the lobby was a wall with a fancy words about truth and justice. When we walked to the elevator I noticed a drinking fountain marked Whites, and one across the lobby marked Coloreds. Welcome to Jim Crow country you naive young Yankee.

The two Chicagos had a rude surprise also. Not from the separation of races, in fact one of them commented how he wished Chicago had the same thing, but from the laugh of the cop when they asked if they could get the name of the driver’s insurance company. Insurance! That ole redneck didn’t even have license plates… let alone insurance.

The term colored isn’t used anymore. It is a reminder of the South of Jim Crow. But in those days it was the term whites used a lot. We would never think of called a person a Black; even though we used the term Negro, which is Latin for black. The ‘n’ word derived from Negro was used a lot by whites and blacks.

There was big time prejudice in and around Fort Bragg, North Carolina, my next and last stop in the Army. Racial hatred was as much a way of life in that neck of the woods as displaying the Confederate Flag. Bragg was named after a Confederate War general and slave owner. Yankees ranked second on the South’s hate list. Even though a large percentage of paratroopers were good old boys, troopers were hated because it was paratroopers that Eisenhower used to force integration in the Little Rock schools.

Cities and towns were divided into the White section and the Colored section and getting caught in the wrong section was not something anyone wanted to do.

Ft. Bragg and the adjoining Pope Air Base, is the largest military base in the NATO countries. It is an open installation so anyone can drive on or off it without going through MP secured gates. In addition to the 82nd Airborne Division, it was the home of Green Berets, and numerous ‘Leg’ outfits. A leg is a slang word used by paratroopers to signify anyone not a paratrooper.

And if a trooper did anything that attracted the Law’s attention, he better hope it was 82nd MP’s, brothers-in-arms, that he had to deal with. Leg MP’s had a real burr in their saddle when it came to ‘bad- ass paratroopers’. And then their was the civilian police!!! Best bet for a white yankee like me was to talk with a southern accent, yes sir, no sir, sorry sir, and pray. For a black trooper, leg, or civilian, keep quite and pray and pray hard.

One payday night a few of us from HQ’s Company were about to walk in to a pizza place incop Fayetteville when we heard a shot from across the street. Someone was on the ground and a uniformed town cop was running into a phone booth, chased by an ever growing crowd. It didn’t take long for police, MP’s and an ambulance to cart away the victim and the shooter. It took a general from the post to calm down the protesters.

The first newspaper release was that a Fayetteville cop shot an armed and dangerous soldier and a mob tried to harm the cop. The solder’s gun wasn’t found because someone in the mob took if from the scene.

Another story came out stating that there was nothing to the rumor that the victim, a Latino sergeant, had angered the cop by moving in with the cop’s ex-wife. And that the witnesses who said there was the perp didn’t have a gun were just trouble makers trying to stir up another protest. And that was the official police report, accepted and case closed. Protests!

An order was issued by the Army that any more protests would result in Fayetteville being declared off limits to all military personnel. That settled tempers down.

The sergeant recovered in six weeks and was given a medical discharge. The cop was given a two week suspension, with pay, and was transferred up the hill to a big buck part of the city. Don’t know what happened with the ex-wife.

And then there was the black unemployed ex-con who robbed a small on-post bank. He was caught he next day when he tried to buy a new convertible…with cash. His first night in the county jail, he thought he died and went to heaven when he discovered the cell door wasn’t locked. He did die when he stepped outside and was shot dead by the two jailers. One of the jailers said that as he brought back the black to the cell, after making him dump his honey pot, the phone rang and in his haste to answer it, he must not have locked the cell door. Nuf said. Case closed.

If I had read the newspaper much in those years, I probably would have heard of many more those kind of happenings; but if the Army wanted GI’s to read newspapers they would have made them handy.

It was a little over ten years since President Truman had forced the integration of the US Military. Whites and Blacks were still in the process of working and living together. There was stories of racial problems on the main post in Bragg, but not in the 82nd.

In the 82nd, any prejudice remained under the surface. We were an esprit de corp outfit and we were brothers-in-arms.

It made no difference what color the man was who packed the chute you jumped with…Only that it was packed right. When you were hooked up waiting to jump, you checked everything that you could see. The man behind you checked the rest as you did to the man in front of you. Again colors no difference. Our lives depending on our brothers-in-arms in war and peace.

When I was transferred to Headquarters Company, I no longer lived in a barracks room. I lived in a two- man room. Headquarters Company had it’s privileges.. My first room mate was a Black, Lil Roy. We got along good. Friends. The only thing that bothered me was his bad sounding phonograph and his endless supply of Little Richard 45’s. On and on and on. For a joke I bought him a 45 of Pat Boone singing Tutti Fruitti. We played it once and then left it in the Day Room soanyone who wanted it could take it.

Roy and I would catch the bus into Fayetteville, sit together in the bus, and at the stop we would part ways. I went into the main downtown and he went down the hill to the black downtown. After he got discharged I realized not only did I miss him, I missed hearing Little Richard, which I cured by a trip to the record shop. Music knows no prejudice…but it does have boundaries.

Duke Ellington came to town. He was one of my favorites. He played the NCO club in Bragg. I wasn’t allowed because I was only a corporal. He played the Officers’ club in Bragg. Again, I wasn’t allowed, no brass on my shoulders. His next gig, and last around Fayetteville, was a black college. No whites allowed. Damn prejudice. Once again I found some relief in the record store in town. It sold a lot of music by Ellington and other black musicians, even if blacks weren’t allowed in the store.

When I went back into civilian life and worked various jobs, I was shocked to realize just how much prejudice there was against blacks and minorities existed in the North. Wake up to the real world, you naive young man from Mendota.

There were protest marches in the 60’s. But nothing compared to today’s world wide protests. There was Martin Luther King, activist, leader, and martyr, whose speeches are honored as keystones in the fight for Civil Rights. But nothing stirred the world like the three words, I can’t breath’.

That and the eight minutes, forty six seconds of watching a cold calculated murderer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. George Floyd might not have been a saint, but he is a martyr. It is said that the blood of martyrs was the seed of Christianity. We can only pray that the blood of Earl and the other martyrs sacrificed on the altar of hate are the seeds that brings an end to hatred. Maybe this time.

What thrills me most in today’s protests is the young, young around the world, that have either never been taught to hate or have seen the wrong in such teachings.

I could write volumes on the prejudice I have encountered in my 80 plus years, and maybe I will write some of the tidbits in another post; but for now, I would like to just thank all the people who never taught me how to hate. I wish everybody could have non-teachers like I had.

Oh, and as far as White Privilege is concerned, I am all for it. I’ve been beat up by police on three occasions in my life; and without White Privilege, I might have ended up dead in any one of them.

I just wish White Privilege was granted to everyone regardless of their skin color.

And I would like to wrap this up with the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein in South Pacific:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Stay Safe and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

ALMOST TO DUNKIRK

 

The old cliche, ‘he missed the boat’ certainly applied to Michael Langham, and the next five years changed the direction of his life.

dunkirk

The movie DUNKIRK is an unexpected blockbuster this summer. It depicts the heroic evacuation of British and some of their Allied troops that were trapped between the German Army and the Channel. In the eight day period, while the RAF kept the German Luftwaffe busy elsewhere, and other divisions like the a flotilla of both British naval ships and private vessels manage to get almost 350,000 fighting men to safety in Dover, England.

This evacuation was made possible in part because the German Luftwaffe was kept busy elsewhere by the RAF, and because of the rear action Battle of St. Valery further down the coast in Normandy. The 51st Highland Division, of which the Gordon Highlanders were a part of, were trapped and had to surrender to General Rommel before they could reach the beach at Dunkirk.

Michael Langham

MICHAEL LANGHAM

Michael Langham was a newly commissioned officer in the Gordon Highlanders. He was sent with the Highlanders to be a part of the British Expeditionary Force fighting in France. The BEF’s objective was to link with the French Forces and drive the German invaders out of France. This effort was as futile as the Maginot Line was in stopping Rommel and his tanks. The BEF’s first attempt to defeat Hitler ended at Saint-Valery-en-Caux and Dunkirk. And Michael Langham, two months short of his 21st birthday, and with only a few months of WWII under his belt spent the next five year as a Prisoner of War.

Like the majority of combat vets, Langham avoided talking about the actual fighting. He did say that he had been trained to fight like they did in the WWI, trench warfare etc., instead of combating the likes of German tanks, bombers, and the weapons of WWII. He also avoided telling what occurred after the actual capture. Some of the prisoners underwent forced marches and horrible conditions in various stalags. He was transferred to several stalags in those five years.

Michael said he was in the stalag where the Great Escape took place. That would be Stalag Luft III in Poland. He said the stalag was so big he not only didn’t know the Escape was being planned, he never knew it happened until the escapees were recaptured. He said, with that twinkle in his eye, he had to wait for the movie to finally find out what happened. Likewise also the earlier escape in that stalag that was detailed in the book and movie, The Wooden Horse.

He spent the first two years working on escaping, making civilian clothes, forging civilian papers, and of course, digging tunnels. None of his work ever resulted in anyone escaping. The last three he spent pursuing a hobby he had enjoyed during his school days, theater.

Stalag Luft III stressed that the prisoners take up and work at hobbies. The idea was if they kept busy at their hobbies, they would be less likely to try to escape and it would cut down on the suicide attempts. This stalag was under the jurisdiction of the Luftwaffe and was less severe than stalags under the control of the German Infantry or the S.S.. But it still was a stalag and had a sense of cruelty under the surface, as exemplified by the executions of most of the recaptured escapees in the Great Escape.

The theater department of this stalag was the best of all the stalags. The prisoners built an actual theater, a large scenic shop, a large costume shop. The productions could compete with many in the free world. They were very popular among the prisoners and the German cadre. They provided a common link between the two groups, perhaps even softening the attitude of the guards towards the inmates.

Of course, Michael explained, you had to get around the fact that the ‘women’ in the cast often had five-o’clock shadows, giggly falsetto deliveries, and exaggerated ways of trying to walk like women. And be broadminded enough not to make a face or groan when Romeo and Juliet kissed.

The actors took themselves very serious, Michael said. They would lie on their bunks the day of the shows and file their nails. They wanted to be stars.

Michael acted in some, but his true talent was in directing. His choice of plays ranged in time from Shakespeare to Clifford Odets. He said he wanted the plays to portray a world of hope to his fellow POW’s, and to himself.

Michael took great pride, and rightly so, that two POW’s told him that watching a performance of his plays gave them hope and prevented them from committing suicide.

Michael’s father had died when Michael was a baby. Growing up, his role model was the historical Duke of Wellington. He read every book he could find on the Duke. He wanted to be like the Wellington, a career soldier. That dream quickly vanished in France.

Liberation came, the war ended, and Michael was back in England. He had the law degree that his family had forced him to obtain before the war. It wasn’t the life that he wanted. He thought a great deal about his hobbies before the war. He knew he couldn’t play cricket good enough to play pro, and his other great hobby, theater, had been frowned upon by his family. And while he was thinking over his future a letter arrived.

A famous stage actress wanted to talk to him. She had heard of his stalag productions from POWs who saw them. She was about to start a theater troupe in the Midlands and wanted to know if he was interested in joining her. Michael reasoned that even if the meeting didn’t work out, at least he would get to meet her.

‘I was star struck,’ he laughingly confessed.

It worked out. His acting and directing in Coventry and Birmingham made him realize that the talent he showed in the stalag transferred to the free world of professional theater. Not only was his new career acceptable to his family, it was noticed in the major theaters of England. He acted and directed at Stratford-On-The Avon, and the Old Vic. He found himself in great demand. He was also noticed by Tyrone Guthrie.

Guthrie was one of the foremost stage directors of the time. He was also the key mover in replacing the proscenium stage with the thrust stage. He took Langham under his wing. Guthrie replaced the long ago Duke of Wellington as Michael’s model. And this association brought Langham into the top tier of England’s theatrical directors.

While Michael directed in England and far off places like Australia, main land Europe, and Broadway, Guthrie went to Canada. There, in 1953, he founded the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Even though it was housed in a concrete amphitheater covered by a tent, it was a success, not only a major attraction in Canada but brought visitors from Europe and the United States.

Two years after starting the Festival, Guthrie invited Langham to direct JULIUS CAESAR, and to groom him to take over as Artistic Director.

The first season under Langham, 1956, was the last for the tent. The Festival moved into a newly construction theater. The Festival was there to stay.

The thrust stage of the tent was fine-tuned in the new theater by Michael and the great designer, Tanya Moisewitch, who worked with Guthrie on the original. It was at Stratford where Langham became known as ‘the master of the thrust stage’.

Guthrie had been beseeched for several years with pleas to establish a like theater in the United States. He felt now that his Stratford Festival was established and in good hands he would answer that request. Feelers were sent out and seven cities replied, presenting their credentials in the competition.. Minneapolis was the winner.

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THE GUTHRIE THEATER

In 1963 the Guthrie Theater opened with George Gizzard playing the lead in the Tyrone Guthrie directed HAMLET. The audience was on its feet before the curtain-call lights came up. They were not content to stop until Sir Tyrone himself came on stage. The very tall, thin, genius finally came up the steps to center stage. He had on a tuxedo and his customary tennis shoes. The audience loved it.

The Guthrie Theater was established and continued in fine shape during the years when Dr. G., as he was fondly called at the Theater, was the Artistic Director. In 1966, he left the theater in the capable hands, so he thought, of another protege, actor/director Douglas Campbell.

Almost immediately the theater started to go in a downward spiral, due to the infighting of the artistic side versus the management side. In 1969, there was no one left of the original artistic and management at the theater. The original Managing Director had taken a sabbatical to Hawaii, a power-play, figuring he would be begged to return by offering more money and control.

The board appointed Don Schoenbaum, who only a few years before came to the Guthrie under a Ford Foundation Grant to learn the business of theater, as a stop-gap Management/Artistic Director.

Tyrone Guthrie asked Michael to rescue the theater and take over the Artistic Directorship. Michael said he was content at Stratford. But, argued Sir Tyrone, that theater has my name on it. Michael reconsidered.

The end of the Guthrie’s season in 1970 was A PLAY by the great Russian novelist, who that very year won the Noble Prize for Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A great coup for the Guthrie and an attraction for Micheal Langham. The gulags of Solzhenitsyn were political unlike the POW stalags familiar to Michael; but they were still prison camps and Langham was a logical man to direct the play. And it was an excellent chance for Michael and the Guthrie to size each other up. Until the Board met and talked with Langham, they were going to forgo the 1971 season in the hope that something could be worked out to save the theater.

A PLAY was my first encounter with Michael Langham. The next year he came back as Artistic Director, and wow, talk about a turn around. He took a theater torn apart and reassembled it as a ‘Family’ overnight, petty squabbling stopped, people were smiling, and enthusiatic. Michael recognized the talent, artistic, managerial, and technical, that he inherited and augmented them with people who knew Langham and wanted to work under him.

When the original Managing Director announced he was coming back, he was told the only way he could come back to the theater was if he bought a ticket. Michael rewarded Don Schoenbaum for his excellent work to help keep the theater going by keeping him on as Managing Director. Don kept this position until he retired in 1986.

It was hard picturing the soft- spoken Michael Langham as a combat officer; but witnessing his leadership ability, his ability to recognize the value of everyone involved in the Theater and making them feel that they were an integral part of the end product, removed all doubt that he would have been a fine officer. The Military’s loss was the Theater’s gain.

In his first season, 1971, he hit the ground running. He took on a Herculean task of directing two gigantic plays, CYRANO de BERGERAC, adapted by the British novelist Anthony Burgess, and THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, to start the season and his term as Artistic Director.

Opening two plays at once, with future of the Theater riding on them, was hell on us that were involved in both productions. I have no idea how Michael could have endured the task, and more so, how he could have turned out these two production masterpieces. Reviewers came from all over. All praised both works. There wasn’t an empty seat for any of the performances of these two plays that season and the other plays in the season fared almost as well. The Guthrie Theater was saved.

No one had a better bird’s-eye view of Michael Langham the Director, than I did. Seated in the lighting booth behind the balcony, I was privileged to watch every rehearsal on main stage, as well as every performance of every play Michael directed at the Guthrie, before and during his tenure as Artistic Director.

Watching Michael direct a play was akin to looking over the shoulder of Renoir as he painted. Delicate brush strokes creating a work of art. Michael’s blocking on the thrust stage, his respect for the words of the playwright, the inspiration he gave the actors, his knowledge of the technical, his attention of details, his talent, all combined to make a Michael Langham directed play something special.

His praise has been sung by so many actors. from acting-award winners the likes of Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, Len Cariou, all credit Michael with giving them their big chance, to young interns who experienced their first professional theater acting jobs under his tutelage. And his praise has been sung by so many others in all aspects of the world of theater, from world class critics to the stage electrician who worked his shows at the Guthrie.

He always referred to himself as a classical director but he was much more. For instance consider his direction of the ‘least’ of Shakespeare plays, TIMON OF ATHENS, a play very few over the centurys have ever tried to direct. He set it in the Jazz Age and had the great Duke Ellington compose a score for it. Hardly something a hard-core classical director would dare to do.

Those of us who were present in his Guthrie years often refer to his production of another minor Shakespeare plays, LOVE’S LABOUR LOST, as the one that shows off the genius of Michael Langham the best all. So simple. So poetic. So memorable. The ‘classical director’, the ‘master of the thrust stage’ at his finest.

And to have been able to sit down, as a friend and coworker, and talk to this humble man of such great talent and knowledge is something I will always cherish in my memory.

He left the Guthrie at the end of the 1977 and continued his shaping classical theater in so many places, like the Julliard School of Drama and the National Actors’ Theater founded by Tony Randall, where he was nominated for a Tony for his direction of TIMON OF ATHENS on Broadway.

I stayed at the Guthrie another season after Michael left, but it wasn’t the same. I helped mount and designed the lights for the Guthrie production of Leonard Nimoy’s one-man play, VINCENT, and took it out on tour. I walked into the theater on what was my first work day of the second season after Michael left, I started to hang lights; but at coffee break, I went and talked to the Technical Director and then called the Union to replace me. The Guthrie just wasn’t the same to me as it was during the Langham years. I spent the rest of my stagehand years working off the Union Hiring Hall.

Over the years I worked with a great many fine directors, but it would not be fair to compare any of them to Michael; he was, in my eyes, special. Michael Langham worked almost up to 11th of January 2011 the day of his death, happy in the career he carved out because he never made it to a possible rescue on the beach at Dunkirk.