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

 

PRINCESS GRACE


PRINCESS GRACE

Once upon a time there was a little girl with three wishes:

1) She would grow in loveliness…She became renown for her physical beauty and beloved for her beauty within.

2) She would become an actress…She conquered the stage all the way to Broadway and became an integral part of the Gold Age of Television. She was acclaimed as one of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest with multi awards including an Oscar.

3) She wanted to be a princess…She married her charming prince and together they ruled in their tiny Principality by the sea.

For twenty two years Princess Grace of Monaco, nee Grace Kelly of Philadelphia, devoted herself to her husband, her three children, and her charity work; but she still had a hidden desire to return, if only for a brief time, to the life she left behind. She considered an invitation by Alfred Hitchcock to star in another movie, but decided against it. She did however find a niche in poetry readings, and combined them with raising money for charity.

She returned to her homeland in the production of BIRDS, BEASTS AND FLOWERS, with Richard Pasco, a lead actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company. The proceeds went for the World Wildlife Foundation. There was six stops on the tour, five in major cities in the East, and one at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, thanks to the magical promotion art of Dennis Babcock, creator of the Theater Live Series at the Guthrie.

I and the other two hands got at the theater at one P.M.. It was an easy set up, an ornate chair for the Princess and a less decorative chair for Richard Pasco, and a table within reach of both of them. The furniture, selected by Jack Donough, resident designer, was brought over from the warehouse in the morning. We placed it in the best location on the thrust stage. Bruce, the Guthrie coordinator for the show, gave me the lighting plot, a plot for a proscenium stage, which I would have to translate into the lighting for the thrust. Basically, I had everything already. I just had to put BA gel in the white lights and hang one special for a reading Pasco wanted to do on the SR top step. I was just about to go up-top when a booming basso profundo voice stopped me.

‘I am Harrison, the impresario of this production.’ It came from a very large distinguished looking gentleman coming down the center aisle. Although I had never know anyone who called himself an impresario, this man certainly looked the part, and his voice spoke with authority.

Bruce met him as he stepped up on the stage. ‘Mr. Harrison,’ Bruce said sticking out his hand,’ I am Bruce…’

‘Harrison, just Harrison,’ the man corrected Bruce. ‘And you will have to speak up. I hurt the hearing in my right ear in the War, and right now, the hearing in the left is suffering from the plane flight.’

Bruce explained that the lighting plot that was sent had to be revised for the thrust state, a concept that bothered Harrison, who wasn’t familiar with a ‘thrust’ stage; but he condensed to hold off criticism until we could prove that the lights would work.

I went up-top and began to gel the necessary lamps. I had to climb up and down in each of the coves as well as hang out over the center cove. It took time. I heard Harrison ask how soon it would be done. Bruce hollered up and I told him soon. I was almost finished with the gel when Bruce asked again, and again I said soon.

Richard Pasco was standing in his special place and I was in the process of hanging the instrument when Bruce hollered at me again. This time he wanted to see the special I had for Pasco, who was reciting a reading from Genesis, “And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light,”he said with his best Shakespearian delivery.

And again, Bruce hollered up to ask if I was done with the lights yet.

And I hollered down at Bruce, ‘Yeah, God said let there be light, but He gave the electrician enough time to hang the instrument.’

Pasco looked up and laughed. ‘Good catch, Don.’ and he gave me a thumbs up.

‘Hey! What’s going on?’ I saw that Harrison was moving the chair for the princess far upstage. ‘Bruce, Joe, somebody, stop him.’ Nobody did. I got to the stage as quick as I could and tried to explain to Harrison that he was screwing the set up.

Harrison just looked at me. ‘I apologize if I offended your union by moving the chair…’

‘Union, smunion,’ I yelled in his face, ‘You’re on a thrust stage and moving that chair upstage like that means about only about one fifth of the audience will be able to the princess in the chair.’ Harrison gave me a ‘humph’, and I realized that even if he could hear in both of his ears, he wouldn’t listen. He was saying how the people on the sides wouldn’t be able to see the face of the princess unless the chair was moved where he put it and that was where it would stay.

There were several shop-hands and Jack the designer sitting in the center front row and I had heard a few snickers and even a ‘Princess Margaret’ remark. I turned downstage and asked Jack to help me out. Maybe he’d listen to the designer. Jack shook his head and waved off my request. Then the shop-hands wise-cracking stopped. The stiff back of Harrison sagged and his chin was touching his chest.

For most of the argument, Princess Grace had been standing unseen in the darkness upstage right and now she stepped into the light. I heard a soft voice and started to turn upstage..

‘Let me talk to him, Don,’ said the Princess, and she placed her hand on my shoulder.‘Mister Harrison,’ she said, ‘I would like to the chair where it was. On a thrust stage that is where it belongs. Richard is a veteran of the thrust stage and he and I discussed our thrust blocking as soon as we got the diagram of the stage.’

‘Oh, yes, yes, your Highness,’ Harrison said, as he did a slight bow. ‘I agree.’

He reached for the chair but I beat him to it. ‘Thank you, Pretty Lady,’ I said. I lifted the chair and whispered to Harrison it was a union move. I put it where it belonged and told Bruce I was going in the booth and would show the lighting. Both actors shouted their approval on the lights, followed by Harrison echoing his approval.

First chance Bruce had he told me that Harrison said I must address the Princess as Your Highness, not Pretty Lady. ‘Well, she was a pretty lady way before she was a highness,’ I told him, ‘And besides she and I are on a first name basis. Didn’t you hear her call me “Don”?

The show was excellent. Pasco’s readings were of beasts, such as “Tyger, Tyger”, strongly voiced, as he strode around the thrust stage. And Princess Grace read of gentle animals like dogs and old horses. Her voice was not bombastic like Pasco’s, but spoken with a softness that still projected well in the fine acoustics of the theater. The two alternated, one reading, one sitting, except for the recitation of “The Owl and the Pussycat”. Pasco voiced the owl and the princess the pussycat. The smiles on their faces showed they enjoyed their duet.

In the review of the production the critic of the New York Times said it best when talking about the return of Grace Kelly to the stage: “She looks regal, a picture postcard princess. She clearly upstaged her own performance”

I would have liked someday to have seen Pasco acting in a Shakespeare play. And I would have liked someday to have seen Grace Kelly act in any play. But like everyone in the theater that evening, I felt fortunate to have seen that one performance. And some of the audience, those who contributed greatly to the Fund, got to attend a VIP Meet and Greet in the upstairs Green Room/Dram Shop.

I was up in the coves when Pasco stepped on stage and thanked us. I was on stage about to put out the ghost light when Princess Grace came on stage to thank us.

And she came over to me and gave me a special ‘thank you, Don’. And she kissed me on the cheek and walked off. ‘Come back soon, Pretty Lady.’ She waved.

It was with great sadness when I first washed that cheek where Her Highness, Princess Grace Ranier of Monaco, nee Grace Kelly, kissed me.

She briefly came back into my life a couple years later. We were about to do a performance of HAMLET and I was sitting at the reception desk reading the paper. One of the actors, we called him Ham to his face, The Ham behind his back, went up to the stage-door man and requested that he dial the Hotel Sofitel for him. Princess Grace was in town for a board meeting of MGM, and Ham wanted to say hello. We all were surprised when Ham actually connected with her. He was a movie actor, one step above an extra, most of his roles were only a few sentences; and somewhere they had worked together and became friends. Ham talked in a very loud voice so everyone around could hear he was actually talking to Princess Grace. His hamming it up did not stop when he was off stage.

He told her he was in the cast of HAMLET at the Guthrie and how it was too bad she didn’t have time to attend a performance. He told her how disappointed he was not to have been able of attending Caroline’s wedding, but saw clips of it on TV, and commented that she was so beautiful as mother of the bride. A lot of small talk and finally he had to say goodbye, but only after extracting a promise from her that she would be sure and see a play at the Guthrie next time she came in town. He held up the phone while the people around applauded.

‘Sure, your Highness,’ he said,’I will come to the theater early tomorrow to tell Don Schoenbaum that you send your love…Oh, not Don Schoenbaum! Don, the stage electrician?’ He hollered to me with a look of surprise, ‘Don, Princess Grace sends her love.’

‘Hey, tell Pretty Lady, thanks and right back at her.’

He did in my exact words and from then on, he treated me differently. He treated me as an equal and not merely another stagehand.

The Pretty Lady never made good her promised to come back to the Guthrie because shortly afterwards she was driving in her beautiful hills of the tiny principality by the sea when she suffered a stroke and…

Jimmy Steward gave a eulogy at her funeral and concluded with: “I really love Grace Kelly. Not because she was an actress, or a princess, or a friend; but because she was about the finest lady I ever met’

The little girl had three wishes and they all came true.

R.I.P. Pretty Lady

P.S.Did I mention she kissed me on the cheek?

 

VINCENT- PAINTINGS OR PLAY

While on tour with Leonard Nimoy in VINCENT I discovered there’s a lot to like in art museums. A logical event since I was immersed in Van Gogh’s life and works. Every stop where we had time to kill I found an art museum. I don’t remember watching any TV or going to any movies during the tour, but I remember the art. I am partial to the Impressionists, I found I could get lost in the works of any genre.

We had a week in the Cleveland Playhouse, one of the best regional theaters. The Cleveland Art Museum on only a few blocks away and I visited it several times. It did not look like an art museum. It was one- story sprawling building set in a wooded location.

You couldn’t miss it because it had a large replica of Rodin’s The Thinker outside the building. It was too tall to fit inside. There was one thing it had, or didn’t have, that would set it apart from any other replicas of statue. There was a frisbee-size hole in it’s right buttocks, where someone had taped an M80 firecracker, lit the fuse and ran like hell.

At that time it also had two Van Gogh’s on exhibition, an Olive Garden painted in the asylum at Saint Remy and a wheat field painted in Arles. They hung on a wall in a small room of the museum. My first visit was midday following the opening of VINCENT the night before. Perfect time. Except for one other visitor, the galley was empty. Solitude heightens the appreciation of the arts, for me at least.

The other visitor was sitting on the center of the uncomfortable backless benchs that museums buy by the gross. There were two other benches, one on each side of the center, angled slightly giving the viewer a different view of the art. As soon as I came in, the man rose and plumped down on a side bench, leaving the center one for me without breaking his gaze at the works. He wasn’t faking his interest.

I observed him out the corner of my eye. He sat stooped-shouldered, letting his arms dangle loosely on his thighs and his head frozen in place as he stared at the paintings. He made no attempt to correct his posture. It wasn’t that he was overweight, it was that he was soft, dumpling- weight. He wore a dark gray suit, some sort of man-made ‘–lon’, the kind that doesn’t need dry cleaning or ironing. A Sears special, one suit coat, two pair of pants. I’d bet his wardrobe consisted of two sets of the same special, several off-white shirts and a rack of broad multicolored ties, the ones that camouflage soup stains. The uniform of a not-to-successful salesman. He was casting director’s vision of Willy Loman in DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

Having my people-watching over with, I joined him in staring at the Van Gogh’s.

There are three types of museum art admirers. The first are like Willy and myself. Concentrators. The second are usually art students with a pen and art pad. They sit and copy the painting. The third are the I-own-the-world people, who stand close in front of the work blocking everybody else’s view and sometimes has the audacity lean across the velvet rope barrier and touch it.

Two 40-ish women came into the small gallery. Dressed to the nines, proudly walking on high stilettos, their hairdos fresh and expensive. In those days we referred to them as yuppies. The women were the third type of gallery goers. They communicated in loud voices, predating today’s cel phone users, compelling others to listen even if they didn’t want to.

‘…never thought he was that good an actor. I thought he was limited to Dr. Spock in STAR WARS.’

‘You mean Dr. Spock in STAR TREK. And much more handsome without the ears. I am so glad you invited us to go with you last night. All these years living in Cleveland and we never went to the Playhouse.’

‘We have season tickets for every opening night of their productions. And thank you for inviting me to the museum. Seeing actual paintings of Van Gogh really makes the play special. We’ve never been here. I wish our husbands were with us.’

‘If your’s is anything like mine, time off from work cries for golf. I’m on the board of the museum and my husband is on the board of his golf club. But maybe combining the play with seeing some of the actual paintings…’

‘Maybe…Say, I am up to seeing that wonderful cafeteria in the museum?’

‘And the special of today is quiche, spinach quiche. Let’s …’

They walked out, and I marveled at how fast they could move in those heels. I went back to admiring the Van Goghs. Willy had never moved so much as his head during their visit. I imagined staring at rude patrons’ backs was something a true museum aficionado gets use to.

One thing I never got use to was working on a show on an empty stomach. I left, foregoing the museum’s special for the day, and went to a small Italian diner a few blocks away where I knew there was a hot dago sandwich with my name on it.

After stage checks I gave my museum review to our troupe. They all said they would like to go and see the museum, especially the Van Goghs. Dennis, the tour manager and AV tech, had his wife with him that week, but maybe they would go.

The Nimoys, Leonard and Sandy, had friends to hook up with and of course interviews, ‘Now please when I accepted your request to interview me I said I would discuss the play, VINCENT, the man Vincent, and his work. I will not tell you anything about the unreleased movie, STAR TREK’, was his standard disclaimer necessary in almost all them. Amazing how he could say it in such a gracious way even though the question irritated him. VINCENT was his much needed break from the months of shooting the movie. But maybe they would find time to go to the museum.

And if Sandy decided to go without her husband, Eric, the wardrobe man, would go with her just as he always did when she wanted to go shopping. Otherwise Eric would use his free time to watch TV.

I went up to the lighting booth early. It was back of the balcony just like the Guthrie’s, and to get to it I had to walk through the lobby where the audience was milling around, talking, sipping on their drinks, waiting for the house doors to open, just like at the Guthrie.

‘I thought that was you. I recognized your hat,’ a smiling ‘Willy Loman’ said as he came toward me. ‘I need your help,’ he said, holding out his ticket. ‘I don’t know how to find my seat.’

‘Nothing to worry about,’ I told him. ‘When the ushers open the doors, just ask one of them to show you your seat. Did you enjoy the Van Goghs today?

‘Oh, I enjoy them every time I come to Cleveland, that’s once a month. I enjoy all the art in the museum. There’s so much to see. I go to other museums when I make my rounds but Cleveland’s the biggest. I don’t watch TV much and sometimes I go to the movies, but looking at paintings is my favorite pastime on my route.’

‘Your route? Are you a salesman?’

‘No,’ he said quickly. ‘I am a sales rep. Salesmen work for a company. I work for myself. I handle all kinds of things, from soup to nuts,’ he laughed at his interjection, ‘picking just what I like from all different companies. What I think my customers would like to sell in their stores. Small stores, hardware, some grocery, mostly small towns around Lake Erie. East to Erie, west to Monroe, south to Columbus. I do have some small store customers in some of the big cities…’

I asked one little question and got an encyclopedia definition of a sales rep and a travelogue of northern Ohio. He was really a talker once he started. I told him I had to get up to the booth; but when I went to leave him, he grabbed my sleeve.

‘I am so glad I found someone I knew. I’ve never gone to live theater except a school play. Those two ladies talking about this one gave me the idea, and then I read the paper about it…’

I wanted to be polite but I wanted to get upstairs. ‘Well,’ I told him, ‘I bet you will like it and it’ll be something else to do on your route. There’s probably a lot of theaters where you can see plays.’

He let go of my sleeve. ‘There you go now. Good idea. I’ll look for you here when I come back next month and tell you about the plays I went to.’

I walked away. I wasn’t about to get into that I would be long gone from Cleveland by then. Try to explain that I was with VINCENT, not the Playhouse.

After I gave the okay, from my point of view of the house, to open the doors, I stood and watched the audience filter in. I didn’t see ‘Willyl’. I figured he probably bought a cheap seat under the balcony. Worse place to watch a play but I thought he would still enjoy it, slumped forward in his intense position .

I felt better than usual because of the day’s events. VINCENT was accomplishing more than just entertaining for a short time. It introduced people like the two women and ‘Willy’ to forms of the arts other than just what they were into. How many in the theater would go to a museum after seeing this play? And how many were in the audience because of their interest in great artwork ?

And, of course, how many were in the audience because it was a chance to see the beloved Mr. Spock, aka Leonard Nimoy in person?

‘Gosh, I never knew he was such a powerful actor.’

AND THAT’S A WRAP

 

 

EASTER WEEKEND 1972

EASTER WEEK 1972 – Oh yeah. Cybill Shepard, panties and bra, bring in the body-double. Wrap filming for the week. 

    I was looking ahead to a no-work Saturday and a nice call Sunday afternoon.

Easter Weekend!

The phone rang about five on my, up until then, lazy Holy Saturday. I knew it was for me. It was. The Local’s Business Agent.

‘I know you’re off the movie job today Need you. There’s a show at the Guthrie tonight. Acme Dance. They need another hand for one of the numbers. Easy gig. You’ll just working the one bit and then you can leave.’

‘Acme Dance! I suppose I’ll have to dress up in a Wile E. Coyote costume and drop an anvil from the center cove.’

“Whatever,’ the BA growled. ‘See someone called Sally. She’s the show manager. She’ll tell you what to do. Wear tennis shoes. You got to do some running.

‘Oh, have a Happy Easter tomorrow.’

In those days you never turned a call down from the B.A. unless it was a real emergency. It was too easy for him to lose your phone number for the next job.

I broke the news to my wife, who wasn’t surprised. Then I looked in the paper to see exactly what I would be working. It was modern dance out of New York, The Acme Dance starring Jaimie Cunningham. Never heard of it.

When I got backstage I asked Old Martin, the union man working the deck on the show, to show me Sally. He pointed out a man wearing a plaid flannel shirt, loose jeans, work shoes, and a baseball cap on backwards. Sally, probably short for Salvatore.

I introduced myself and when Sally turned around, I had to think twice. From the front, he was a she. She took the fancy carved briar pipe from her mouth before she talked. She had a raspy voice with a thick New York accent. She looked more like an extra in ON THE WATERFRONT than the manager of a dance company.

We went down in the underworld under the stage. She gave me two flashlights and showed me how to hold them, one in each hand, one hand on top of the other. The top hand grasping the thumb of the bottom hand so both flashlights would move at the same time.

‘One of your lights is going to hit Jaimie’s sunglasses. The other one on his crouch. You’ll be laying on the top acting step. Jamie will be the center of the three dancers on stage. The other two will be picked up by a boy dancer laying on your right, a girl dancer on your left. The flashlights will be the only front light. Miniature follow spots. It’s the first number after intermission. you’ll enter from the audience right vomatorium. You’ll get your cue to go to the step from the dancers entering with you in the blackout.

‘Sounds a lot harder than it really is. I think the old stagehand could have done okay with the flashlights but he just couldn’t run on and off. Too slow.

‘You got a lot of time to practice working the flashlight bit. The other two spotters will be down when it is ready to get into place at the mouth of the vom.’

She re-lit her pipe and left. She was the company manager, stage manager, tech manager, sound person, lighting designer and cue caller. Probably drove the van and got to sleep in the warehouse studio back in New York. In the world of dance, especially modern dance, the participants have to love what they are doing because the work is hard and the pay is small. Bet she smoked a pipe because pipe tobacco, like a can of Prince Albert, cost less than tailor-made cigarettes and was less work than roll-your-own smokes.

I had the flashlight bit down before intermission was over. I went into the darkness of the vom and waited. The two dancers, wearing robes and red cowboy boots, came behind me and the gal repeated what I had to do. The houselights and stage preset blacked out. I heard two ‘Go’s’ and I took off running. Saw the glow tape center mark and flopped on the stage, got my flashlights in position. I heard the two dancers lay on the step, one on each side of me.

Music came over the speakers, it was Nancy Sinatra’s big hit, THESE BOOTS ARE WALKING. Back lights came on and there were three dancers. I hit the middle one, Jaime, with my two lights like I had been told, sunglasses and crotch. He was wearing a kid’s cowboy hat, a kid’s two holstered cap guns, and red boots. Oh, and the sunglasses, aviator style. And that’s all. No tights, not even a dance belt. The other two dancers, one male, one female, had the same costumes on – or off, depending how you looked at it.

The three on stage didn’t do much dance movement except stomping their boots on the stage, in rhythm to Nancy’s singing about ‘And one of these days these boots are going to walk all over you!’

I flicked my eyes to my two companions and saw a lot of skin. A lot of skin! I came to the conclusion that I was the only one in this bit that was wearing clothes.

The song ended. The stage went dark. I heard ‘Black Out’. I shut off my flashlights and took off running down the vom. I heard my fellow spot ops run on stage. I darn near tripped over the two dancers’ robes. The audience applauded and applauded. But there was no bow lights. Instead, after a long period of darkness, quick change I thought, music came over the speakers, an instrumental western swing tune and the stage lights popped on.

I knew I was in the dark of the tunnel and out of the audience’s line of vision so I turned around.

All five dancers were on stage. No mini-spots from the front this time, full- up front instruments. The original three dancers had discarded their sunglasses and toy gun sets. The two that had been with me had put on cowboy hats. Five dancers wearing nothing but kids’ hats and red boots! And doing a modern dance version of a western ho-down.

‘Swing your partners do- see- do.’

You can’t make things like that up and you can’t take naked dancers swinging their partners too long. I turned and went down the vom to the underworld.

Old Martin was backstage when I came up. He was smiling and shaking his head. ‘If the gals down at Augie’s On Hennepin undressed that deep, old Augie’d lose his license,’ the old-timer observed with a chuckle.’

‘Yup,’ I agreed.

We wished each other a Happy Easter, and I went home.

Easter was spent in our traditional way and I took a nap before I had to go to work. The Ice Follies were finishing their four weeks at the Met Arena. I was a packer on the Out. I got there when the show started. The road propman and other packer, a college student who worked occasionally for the Union, and myself got the two props standards, two huge box-crates where all the props were loaded on, down on the ice, upstage of the curtains. As the props came off, we broke them down and stored them according to the directions of the road man.

Easy work, but it took a bit of practice before my partner got the hang of walking on the ice. The knees of his jeans and the seat got wet in a hurry. His welcome to working the ice show.

When the end of the show was approaching the wardrobe personnel came down on the backstage ice pushing loaded costume racks. The chorus came off stage. Peggy Fleming went on for her final number.

The quick- change took place on the back ice. Men and women milling around, finding their dresser. No need to removed their skates. There was the ripping sound of separating velcro, that invention that had changed the world of wardrobe people.

Out of the one costume, down to boy’s dance belts and girl’s panties and bras, then into their Grand Finale costumes.

I continued with my prop work, making sure I didn’t get in the way of the skaters. My young partner, on the other hand, stood in one place fascinated by the precision of the change. Well, I guess the correct thing was that he was fascinated by all the panties and bras.

The music changed. The skaters went on ice. Peggy stood in the wing waiting for her entrance. But my young green partner remained where he had been all during the change. I had to holler at him to get back to work.

He had a silly grin on his face as he slip-slided over to me.

‘Is show business always like this? he asked me.

“No,’ I answered. ‘Sometimes it gets down right exciting. They tend to tone it down during the holy days.’

Yup! Four score plus Easters Seasons have passed through my life, but none like the one in 1972.

THANK GOODNESS!

MR. LEON REDBONE!

L redbone

 Leon Redbone died.

Who?

Leon Redbone! You know, the artist formally know as Dickran Gobalian.

What! He a wrestler or something?

Noooo. A singer.

Oh, he sings. Does he sing like, ah, Chance The Rapper or more like, ah, Garth Brooks, or …

No! More like Fats Waller or Jimmie Rodgers.

Who?

Ah, never mind. They’re all dead anyway.

No they’re not! Heck Garth was just in town doing some shows at the football stadium and Chance…

I know, I know. Subject change. Hey, how about the way those Twins are doing!

Baseball’s boring. Now football… Go Vikings!

 

Yes, we lost Leon Redbone and he passed without too much fanfare. Some of the major news sources never reported his death. He reached his peak in the mid- 70’s, just a few years after Bob Dylan discovered him in folk festival. He had his first album produced, did a few Saturday Night Lives, several Tonight Shows, Johnny Carson became a fan, both of Redbone’s music and his stage persona, not that this persona changed on stage or off stage. Redbone was Redbone, take him or leave him.

His customary look began with a Panama hat and dark sunglasses. His face was impossible to light when he was on stage, no way could you get any light beneath the hat and coupled with the dark glasses… Like I said Redbone was Redbone. His shirt was always buttoned completely, and he wore a bow tie some times, a string tie some times. His costume change between acts or between shows often consisted of replacing the one type of tie with the other.

I feel special because I actually worked a Redbone concert where he wore a different costume. He was a big fan of singer/songwriter Jimmie Rodgers, the ‘Singing Brakeman’, the first musical star of radio and recordings. Leon came on stage dressed in the traditional bib overalls and cap associated with railroad workers. He had on a white shirt and bow tie, associated with Rodgers and Redbone, and the dark sunglasses, solely associated with Leon. The concert was dominated by Jimmie Rodger songs and Redbone’s unique yodeling.

His instrument never changed, a straight forward acoustic guitar. He was a good guitarist playing mostly up tempo no matter what the song. He had a compliment of various instruments on most of his album tracks,, but they were studio musicians. He never had a band. He did travel at times with a clarinetist, Dan Levingson. Even in the days of split bills with the likes of John Prine, Loudin Wainwright III, Bonny Raittt, he disdained the use of a complete group of backup musicians if the other act were using any. Any amplification needed to reach his audience in the particular venue was to be kept to a minimum. He was acoustic in both his music and his life.

His voice was a fine instrument, oh, not in an operatic sense, but in a Redbone sense. The Washington Post said ‘he sang in a deep, guttural voice that seemed to have come from a traveling medicine show, vaudeville or the back alleys of old New Orleans.’

In an article in the Rolling Stone, his voice was described as being ‘so authentic, you could hear the surface noise of an old 78 rpm’.

NPR said his voice was ‘casually lovely and always wry’. That is wry, w-r-y, his sense of humor shows up in his song delivery, not a rye, r-y-e, quality, a rasping delivery like Tom Waits has; although it had been known that sometimes rye, the bottled rye, played a part in a Redbone show.

His songbook was almost all older than the Oldies, some from the 19 Century, most from the 1910’s, 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. He sang an eclectic mix of songs, everything from vaudeville, old country, Mississippi Delta Blues, ragtime, folk, jazz, Tin Pan Alley Songs to sing, not dance to. He said he was less interested in the music than he was in the history.

His stage setting was also minimal, a stool for himself, a stool for his clarinetist. A small table for any objects he might have brought on stage with him.. Objects he may or may not use. For instance at least once he had a tomato on the table, and he sang all his songs to the tomato. He always had flashlight which he loved to shine on the audience with quips like ‘See how if feels to have a follow spot in your eyes.’ He shined it in his face and said, ‘See lady, I am not Frank Zappa. You can tell us apart. I’m the handsome one.’ He loved to blow soap bubbles at the audience, or take pictures of them.

His wry humor extended to off stage. In fact he had that quality that Robin Williams and Jonathon Winters possessed, namely being in a different world of their own. Robin came down to earth though and would carry on an intelligent conversation with you. Winters and Redbone never did.

Bonny Raitt often split toured with him. In an interview with Rollling Stone she said, ‘“I spent an afternoon with him in a hotel room,” Raitt told Rolling Stone, “and I was wondering when he was going to become normal. He never did.”

His web site lists his age as 127. Over the years he has given many different places of birth: Shreveport, Cleveland, Toronto etc.. The truth was finally tracked down. His family was of Armenian origin. His parents lived in Jerusalem, but in 1948 moved to Nicosia, Cyprus, where Redbone was born. By 1961, the family had moved to London, United Kingdom, and by 1965 to Toronto where he had a’ childrens’ TV show. His favorite audiences were children and he played TV shows like Sesame Street every chance he could.

 

He was a kind man and appreciative of all of his fans. Here is an example that was sent by a fan to the talented Joel Orff who created a cartoon of the incident and included it in his series, Great Moments in Rock & Roll.

Redbone.jpg

His vocation was entertaining. Here’s what he said about entertainment: ‘ “I’m just an entertainer, and I use music as a medium for entertaining.” But I’m not really an entertainer either, because to be an entertainer it implies you have a great desire to want to entertain.” This probably explains that after his success in the 70’s his career slowed down. Some recordings, a small amount of concerts, voice-overs for commercial, some singing and composing for TV, etc..

His passion was pool. If he had to choose to live the life of Fats Waller or Minnesota Fats, he would choose the later. Playing pool was one of the reasons his career slacked off.

He was a private person. If someone asked him for his phone number, it would probably connect the caller to Dial-A-Joke. Another might be given the number of a pool hall with instructions to leave the message for Mr. Pugh. His manager told me about how he gets word to Redbone through Bob Dylan.

Here another work of Joel Orff drawn up especially for the Old Hand when he told him about the Dylan Express means of reaching Redbone.

Leon Redbone

And then there was the time at a Guthrie performance when Leon wasn’t the source of the joke, but the butt of it.

John was young shop intern who was given a chance to earn some extra money by being the liaison between the Guthrie and the promoter, Sue of the Walker Arts Center.

John was, is, a theatrical artist. Even in those early years he could works of art whether sets or props for Guthrie shows. He loved his work and in no way wanted to work in any other job in theater. He was shy and when he found out that Sue informed him at half-hour he would do the on stage introduction of Redbone, he panicked. He did not refuse, he just turned pale and began to practice.

He paced back and forth backstage, his eyes on the floor, his hand hitting his forehead, and kept repeating, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Leon Redbone!’. Over and over, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Leon Redbone!’ He was still practicing when I left backstage and went up to the booth.

At places’ call Joey B, the deck hand, called on the biscuit from backstage that Leon was ready to go on. Eliot, his manager, and I could hear John in the background still rehearsing, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Leon Redbone!’

We went into show mood. Eliot told Joe to send John out to do the introduction. John came slowly on stage. Even from the booth we could see he was a case of nerves. He reached the bright circle of light I had for him and stopped.

He stood there for what seemed like a long, long time and then finally he said in a very loud voice, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leon Hardbone!’ And then he walked off stage.

Eliot and I lost it. I managed to go black on the stage before I turned my face to the wall trying to stifled my laughing. Eliot had his hands over his mouth and his head on the desk. Some of the audience realized what John had said and they cracked up. For the majority though John’s actual intro went over their heads and they applauded, waiting for Redbone’s entrance.

But one person who realized what John had actually said came on the backstage biscuit almost at once.

Did he say what I thought he might have said?’ asked the wry familiar voice.

‘’Well,’ answered Eliot, ‘If you thought you heard what he said then yes, you heard what he said.’

‘Now how can I follow that act?’ There was a long pause. Finally Leon said, ‘Oh, well! Bank shot. Eight ball in the far pocket.’ And he walked out on stage.

When John got off stage he had just kept walking to his sanctuary, the scene shop. Joey B followed with the intent of cheering John up; but John didn’t need any cheering up, because John had been in such a state of stage fright, he never realized what he had said. He accused Joe of making it all up. To this day John would argue that he never screwed up the intro. Of course it was the last time anyone asked him to go on stage to introduce an act.

And anymore intros for Leon was handled over the audience PA by Eliot from the booth.

I will bet that is not the first or last time that Leon Redbone heard that play on his name. And unlike most people had a name that lent itself to ridicule, Leon could not blame anybody but himself for his name. When he first immigrated to Canada, he took advance of the law that allowed him to change his name. So Dickran Gobalian became Leon Redbone. Like I pointed out, Leon Redbone was one of a kind.

At the end of each performance, Leon always left the audience with these words: Oh behave yourselves. Thank you…. and good evening everybody.’

And a Good Evening to you, Mr. Redbone.

 R.I.P. Leon Redbone – a talented reluctant entertainer

I would like to thank Joel Orff for the use of two of his cartoons. He no longer does his ‘Great Moments In Rock & Roll’ and is devoting his talent to the art of Graphic Novels, his newest scheduled for publication shortly. I would suggest that you visit his web site at joff.com to see more of his work.

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.

More Memories of Michael

Old G stage

The Old Guthrie

Michael Langham had a way with words, often very profound, poetic. He knew exactly what he meant but sometimes others didn’t. For instance, he had a special phrase to motivate actors: ‘When you step on stage, bring the world with you.’ Now it worked with actors, so they must have understood what Michael was trying to get across them. But sometimes his Michaelisms puzzled us stagehands.

Here is a great Michael remembrance that perhaps explains his advice to actors. It was sent to me by Lance Davis, a mainstay in the Guthrie acting company during the Langham era. Lance is currently the Founder, Artistic Director, play adapter, actor, and the force behind THE PARSON’S NOSE Theater, Pasadena, California.

Here is the story in Lance’s own words: ‘One of many Micheal stories for me was during the rehearsals for LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST. I was confused at two lines Costard had that didn’t seem to go together. I asked Michael and he said, “Why, I think he sees a squirrel. He starts one thought and then sees a squirrel.” So I put it in. Cranny, the stage manager, was sitting next to Michael at the next rehearsal and the line came. Cranny leaned over to Michael who was chuckling. Cranny asked, “What in the hell is Lance doing?” and Michael said, “He sees a squirrel!’

So when you step on stage as an actor, bring the world with you, even the squirrels.

My all time favorite Michaelisms came during the tech for OEDIPUS THE KING, a Langham- directed adaptation by Anthony Burgess. It called for an earthquake at the end of Act I. When the play came back the next season, Michael changed it to a one-act, no intermission but still with the earthquake.

Bill, the sound man at the time, tried sound-effects after sound-effects of earthquakes. Each time he played one for Michael, Michael always thanked him, but… Bill tried every sound library he could think of, the Guthrie’s, the public library of both Minneapolis and St. Paul, the one at the TV studio that Bill had worked for. Always the same, ‘Thank you, Bill. But…’ This went on for almost a week.

Finally Bill got on the horn in the booth and asked, ‘Michael, just what exactly are you looking for?’

Michael, standing on stage, looked up to the booth. He extended his arms and thought for a bit. Finally he answered, ‘I want it to sound like..like the earth in anguish.’

Bill, never one to be without a retort, said over the mic, ‘Oh, gee, Michael. I wish you would have told me sooner. I wouldn’t have bothered you with all those other effects.’ Bill toggled off the mic, turned to me and repeated, ‘The earth in anguish? That’ll take two-six packs of beer to figure what Michael means by ‘the earth in anguish.’

The next morning Bill mounted two huge bass speakers, cone up, a few inches from the underside of the stage floor. When he played a lengthy tape of an earthquake with those two bad boys cranked up to eleven, not only did he get a world-in-anguish eruption, he also caused the stage floor to shake a little.

That afternoon Michael walked on stage to get ready for a bit and pieces rehearsal. When he reached center stage, Bill turned the mic on. ‘Michael, just hang right there. I got something to play for you.’

First came the low rumble from under the stage, then Bill increased the volume slightly and sent it also through the surround speakers. Michael had a strange look on his face as the effect grew louder, and when the stage began to shake, he just stared at the floor. When it ended he looked up to the booth.

‘Perfect, Bill’ he said. ‘Just what I wanted. Thank you, Bill. Thank you.’

‘I thought you would like it, Michael,’ said Bill.

‘But, Bill,’ Michael asked, ‘Will it be safe?’

“Oh, sure, Michael,’ Bill answered, as he shut off the mic. Then he turned to me and said, ‘Anyway, I hope it will be.’

And so we found out what was meant when Michael meant by asking to hear the earth in anguish.

Since theatrical sound was still in it’s infancy at that time, Michael didn’t have a handle on it yet; but not so with theatrical lighting. After opening night of any of the plays he directed,, he would wait for several performances and then watch and do some fine-tuning. A change in blocking. Perhaps in the delivery of a line. Maybe a cue to be called a tad later, or perhaps a change in lighting. Even though the lighting designer was no longer around, Michael trusted me to make his changes. Perhaps a big change that would enhance the particular mood he wanted. Or maybe he would ask a small change like having me  dim down the upstage in a crowd scene. ‘The extras up there are trying to act,’ he would tell me.

The spear-carriers might bring their world, complete with squirrels, on stage with them, but Michael wanted them to save their acting it out for a production where they were more than window-dressing.

It seemed that no matter what the changes, large or small, that Michael made, always made the play better.

Michael made a point to know everyone in the Guthrie family and went out of his way to talk to them. A special theatrical director, but also a special person.

Chuck, a carpenter in the scene shop, had been a navigator in a plane that was shot down over Germany. In his first and only parachute jump, Chuck broke his back and was captured. He lucked out and spent some time in a German civilian hospital under the care of good doctors; and then, when he was healed, he was transferred to a stalag where he spent the rest of the war as a POW.

Before the war Chuck and his wife Mary Margaret had hoped for a big family. Three years and nothing. They were about to take the doctor’s advise and adopt a child, but Pearl Harbor happened.

When Chuck made it back home they reasoned that Chuck, having through so much, needed some time before they adopted a child. Surprise! Chuck hadn’t been home six months when Mary Margaret announced she was pregnant. Their first child was a boy. Their next six were also boys. The last son was starting school, they figured their family had reached it limit. Surprise! Their little tag-along was a girl they named Margaret Mary.

During the Langham years at the Guthrie, the sitcom about POWs in WWII, HOGAN’S HEROES was a prime time favorite.

Michael liked to go to the shop on the day after a HOGAN showing and laugh over the episode with Chuck. Often one of the two would relate a funny incident from his stalag, and the two would laugh and laugh.

Two men, born an ocean apart, both figuratively and literately, British and American, upper class and middle class, united in the experience of having been a prisoner-of-war in WWII. Two men, management and labor, artistic and technical, both united in the fact that they were both war heroes, who endured.

And that’s a wrap.

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.

 

 

 

TV IN BLACK AND WHITE

Alex Johnson Hotel

     Alex Johnson Hotel 

            When we left the Guthrie after rehearsals and a week’s run, the next stop on the Leonard Nimoy’s VINCENT tour was Rapid City, South Dakota. Dennis Babcock, the production manager of the tour, had us booked in the historic Hotel Alex Johnson, a beautiful structure in downtown Rapid City.

Alfred Hitchcock had fallen in love with the hotel while filming NORTH BY NORTHWEST and used various locations in it whenever possible. He and some of the cast stars, including Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, also stayed there during the location filming in South Dakota.

Leonard Nimoy’s  VINCENT was the opener for the theater section of the new city entertainment complex. A rodeo had officially opened the arena section the previous week, and had left a lingering odor throughout the complex. Cowboys were a dime a dozen in Rapid City but a real Hollywood star like Leonard was something special. Both the city officials and the hotel management rolled out the red carpet for us. It was perfect, except…

Erik, Leonard’s personal dresser, did not like the idea of having to watch black and white TV, the only kind they had in the hotel. He demanded to talk to the hotel manager. When Dennis and I got back from the setup at the theater, and Leonard and Mrs. Nimoy returned from a media conference, we all had supper in the hotel dining room. Erik informed us that we all had brand new colored TV’s in our rooms.

He told how he explained to the manager that our eyes were accustomed to color TV and watching black and white TV could cause us to have migraines. He went with the manager to two different stores to get just the perfect color TV’s and saw to it that a tech from one of the stores installed and fined tuned the TV’s. Erik was very proud of what he accomplished with his snow job, and when he brought it up again at the airport, none of the other four of us mentioned that we never turned on the TV’s in our rooms.

 

Perry Mason

The Old Hand:

I enjoy watching the black and white reruns of PERRY MASON starring Raymond Burr, now as much as I enjoyed them when they weren’t reruns. And they have closed captioning, something I didn’t need back in the day but sure do now. In some of the episodes though, the cc tech is somewhat of a censor, a very prudish censor, using the x key whenever the tech deemed it is necessary.

            A good example was an episode the other night where the murdered victim’s name was Dick and there was a lot of cocktail drinking. Every time the name ‘Dick’ had to appear on the screen, the censor changed it to xxxx. Every time the word ‘cocktail’ had to appear it was changed to xxxxtail. Pussycat was xxxxycat. Once you realize what is happening, you find yourself watching for other censorship changes instead of trying to figure out who the guilty party is. The tech would have a nervous breakdown if he or she was hired to work on today’s TV shows.

            On of the best things about the series is the relationship between Perry and his secretary, Della Street. It didn’t start out that way in the novels. In the first, The Case of the Velvet Claws, the only one I ever read, Mason is a real sexist pig. He treats Della like she was something he scrapes off his shoes before entering a house.

            SPOILER ALERT: Never hire Perry as a legal consultant because you will end up as the prime suspect in the murder that is sure to follow. The same rule applies to inviting J.B. Fletcher over for dinner, or allowing Dr. Sloan to give you medical attention. And, in watching any of these series, it is best if the viewer has been a member of AARP – for a number of years.

Published St. Paul Pioneer Press, Bulletin Board, 5/13/16

 

Sheen's angel' work

One show I never appreciated at the time, mainly because Mom insisted we watch it, was Life is Worth Living, starring Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and his invisible ‘guardian angel’. Basically it was a half hour sermon in prime time.

Bishop Sheen loved to disguise the sermon with humor, and he was good at it. He had a shtick where he would outline a point he was talking about on a large chalk board. Point made, he would  walk downstage so the chalk board was out of camera. When he would come back to the board, it would be clean. He would always thank his angel for the erasure job, and would kid about how his guardian angel not only protects him, it also cleans up after him.

The show was stuck in a graveyard slot, Tuesday night, opposite the “king of television”, Milton Berle, Uncle Milty, who was so popular his network had signed for a 30 year contract. The Mutual Network thought it would be a cheap, (the Bishop worked for nothing), throwaway against the ratings giant. No way would it have the legs to compete against Berle. Wrong!

It rose steadily in the ratings and took a large audience away from Berle. Berle often laughed off the Bishop’s rise by saying they both had the same sponsor, Sky Chief, (Berle was sponsored by Texaco Sky Chief gasoline), and they both used old jokes. Sheen responded that people were calling him, Uncle Fulty. Berle didn’t laugh though when Texaco dropped him and Buick picked him, at a reduced price.

He never regained his title of king of TV and the network was stuck with a long contract. And, sad to say, Bishop Sheen introduced a genre to America, televangelism. The huge difference though is Sheen worked for free, and today’s televangelists work for as much as they can get their followers to send in.

As I started out by saying, I didn’t really appreciate the show until it was off the air and I was working in show business. Then I looked upon it fondly because  Bishop Sheen was the only person I ever heard refer to a stagehand as an angel.

black and white tv

 

 

 

KING RICHARD II Plus

 

I had no more than posted my KING RICHARD II than I ran across this story as told by Richard Harris himself. It fit in so well with the incident of mouthy extra who got the sword thrown at him by Harris, that I had to post it, in spite of the fact it quotes from ‘THE SCOTTISH PLAY’.

Richard Harris’s Story

young richard

In an interview on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962), Harris told a story about when he was a young actor playing Seyton in a theatrical production of “Macbeth.” The lead actor was a real jerk to him, making constant demeaning references to Harris’s Irish heritage. On opening night, Harris couldn’t take it anymore. In Act V, Macbeth turns to him and says, “Wherefore was that cry?” Harris was supposed to reply, “The queen, my lord, is dead,” after which Macbeth goes into his famous soliloquy about “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” However, Harris decided instead to say, “Oh, don’t worry. She’s fine. She’ll be up and about in ten minutes.” He ruined the performance and was promptly fired.

And to think Harris got mad just because an extra was mimicking Harris during a soliloquy.

 

Then in the COMMENTS to KING RICHARD II, I received one from my old friend, Ivar Brogger, who was in the Guthrie acting company back in the day. I just had to add it to this post.

Ivar Brogger’s Story

Actors Richard Harris (L) and Peter O'Toole (who starred in the movie), at a reception at The Washington Hotel in Mayfair, London, prior to the world premiere screening of a newly-restored print of the 1968 film 'The Lion in Winter'.

‘Don – I love that story! Here’s a little one of my own. Peter O’Toole was playing Henry Higgins in PYGMALION on Broadway and I was his understudy and playing a small part in the show. Peter was out a lot so I went in for him a lot. As a result, we kind of got to know each other. Closing day there was a party after the show and Richard Harris was there as Peter’s guest. Peter called me over to meet him. At this point in his life Peter was completely clean and sober. So, after meeting Richard, Harris turned from me, (as we really had nothing to say to each other) and said to O’Toole, “I hear you’re off the spirits”. Peter admitted he was. I remember the look of shock on Harris’s face. He roared incredulously, “COMPLETELY?”

 

During the time I worked Harris, he was COMPLETELY off the booze. He had had a scare a few months before he took over from Burton on the CAMELOT tour. He almost died of alcoholism and was even given the Last Rites. It was a hard fight to overcome booze the because he had grown up in a time and place where drinking was a way of life. He was a charter member of the hard drinking actors society that consisted of the likes of Harris, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and others. British Isle post war actors who had a lot in common, namely great talent, great wit, and a great propensity for the sauce, and who excelled on both the stage and in film on two continents.

Like a great many alcoholics, Harris fell off the wagon by thinking a few beers won’t hurt, what the heck it’s only beer. He continued to drink beer for the last 12 years of his life; but with one stipulation, the beer had to be Guinness. Through thick and thin, he was Irish all his life.

And his wit excelled even on his dying day. As he was wheeled on a gurney out of Clarages, the posh London hotel, he quipped to the reporters, ‘It was the food’.    

 

 

 

KING RICHARD II

RichardHarrisCamelot

KING RICHARD II

 

Richard Harris lost his Irish temper and came very close to seeing me lose my French/German temper.

 

Richard Burton had extended his tour of CAMELOT when his health broke down. Rather than cancelling, the promoter sent Burton a get-well card and replaced him. Burton had made the Broadway role of King Arthur his; but Richard Harris starred in the movie, probably because Burton’s drinking was getting out of hand. Harris was the logical choice to succeed Burton on the Camelot tour, especially since Harris was winning the fight to control his drinking problem and taming down his wild life.

This hiring became Harris’s security blanket. He took the show on tour many times. He even bought the touring set and costumes, works of beauty by the great designer, Desmond Healy. If things slowed down for Harris, there was always CAMELOT. Yul Brynner had been doing this for years with his KING AND I, as had Joel Grey with CABARET. Producer, promoter, director, hire the cast and the crew, and rent out the set and costumes. An actor’s dream. The last word on the production and the first count on the profits.

Minneapolis was one of the first stops after Harris replaced Burton. On the Orpheum playbills, it is Burton’s picture, not Harris. Ticket purchasers had a chance to get their money back before the tour hit town, but no one took up the offer.

Over the years, Harris brought the show back several times to the Orpheum, and I was lucky to have worked every one. At no time did Harris ever ‘phone in’ his performance. At every show Harris gave his all.

He was fun to work with. He liked kidding around with the crew. He kept many of the same road crew from tour to tour. He took pride in his working man’s roots.

During this times he was off the booze, something that had caused him trouble in the past. He also managed during this time to keep his famed temper in control. Except for once. And that time he came close to witnessing my temper.

It was during Arthur’s soliloquy to his sword, Excalibur, at the end of Act I, in which he hopes the attraction between his wife and his best friend goes away. Several of us hands were waiting by the fly rail waiting to go on stage and change over for Act II. I was in direct line of the second wing so I could watch Harris perform the soliloquy.

A spear carrier, stage lingo for an extra, a body in the crowd, a voice in the chorus, no lines of his own, no song of his own, entered the wing and went as far on stage as he could without being seen by the audience.

Harris started and then looked to the dark wing. What he usually spoke almost as a prayer, now was spoken with anger. He kept looking into the wing. The extra was actually speaking aloud the words as Harris spoke them. The audience could not hear him, and we standing off stage couldn’t hear him; but Harris could.

As the lights dimmed and the curtain closed, Harris turned, roared, and threw the sword at the actor, who saw it coming and ran out of the wing off the stage. The sword landed a couple of feet from hitting me.

The stage manager, a real pro, stopped Harris before he could get in his dressing room. Regardless of the fact she was talking to the star who was also her employer, she confronted him.

‘A sword, Richard! You threw a sword, Richard! You could have injured someone, Richard!’

‘Damn right,’ Harris argued, ‘I threw the bloody thing and I’m sorry I missed the bloody fool! He was mimicking my speech. I am sorry I couldn’t catch the bloody bastard and shove the bloody sword up his bloody arse.’ He stomped into his dressing room and the stage manager followed him, continuing to bawl him out.

At the Five Minute page, Richard came out of his dressing room and the extra was standing there. The young extra try to offer an apology. He was not only pleading for forgiveness, he was pleading to save his job, his career in theater. At first Harris started to walk away from him, but he looked at the stage manager and stood still and  listened.

He said that he always marveled at the way Harris handled the soliloquy. He got so involved in listening and trying to learn how to act like Richard that he never realized he was actually speaking out loud. He begged forgiveness and promised it would never happen again.

Harris took a deep breath and looked upward. The extra looked at his feet. Finally Harris spoke. ‘Well, boyo,’ he said after taking his dramatic pause, ‘It takes a big man to apologize and admit his mistake. I’ll let it pass – this time. But if you ever…’

And as Richard walked past the fly rail where several of us were standing, he stopped and like a ‘big man’ offered his apology. ‘Gents,’ he said, ‘I am sorry for being so unprofessional and I am just glad none of you got hurt because of me losing my bloody Irish temper.’

We smiled and nodded. And if that sword had hit me, I thought to myself, Harris would have seen my French/German temper.

Luckily, even though a commandment of the stage, Thou shalt not screw around with another’s line, was broken, there was no damage done except to Excaliber. The sword required a gaff tape procedure to see it through the second act. The next morning it was sent up the hill to the Guthrie prop shop where the Guthrie prop artists performed their magic, and even found an acceptable understudy sword – just in case.

Fade Out, Act I

A few months ago, JCALBERTA, in his blog MY FAVORITE WESTERNS, (https://myfavoritewesterns.com/), a great blog filled with interesting facts and some fine art of Western movie posters, had a series of posts on Richard Harris westerns. I told him I worked Richard quite a few times and JC said that while he was a location set painter on UNFORGIVEN, he never got to meet any of the actors. I said I would post a few stories of working with Harris. Here’s the first.

TIME IN A BOTTLE

time in a bottle

            It’s been a little over 42 years, September 20th 1973, since Jim Croce lost his life in a plane crash while on tour. He was just a little over thirty years of age.

I still have vivid memories of Jim sitting on a stool center stage at the Guthrie, just him and his guitar, making music, singing songs that he would continue to polish and eventually record; but in those days Jim Croce was just an opening act waiting, hoping for the break through.

I know that prior to his solos at the Guthrie, he and his wife, Ingrid, were a singing duo, songwriting team, and recorded an album together; but she never came with Jim to the Guthrie because she was a stay-at-home mother. It was during this time period that Croce began to work with Maury Muehleisen, an excellent guitarist with a classical music background, and the person credited with guiding Jim’s recording and musical career. Muehleisen also accompanied Croce on the successful recordings and on tour. But he never appeared with Croce at the Guthrie. It was just Jim, center stage, and his guitar.

When he finished his opening set, he would come up in the lighting booth and sit next to me. He wanted to see the main act, but after listening to a song or two, he would talk to me. He was lonesome for his wife and son. I saw quite a few pictures of his wife, and he always had a coat pocket full of pictures of his son and a mountain of questions about raising a son. Knowing my wife and I had five sons, he figured that I would have all the answers. Boy was he wrong!

In spite of the fact he was upper middle class city with a strong musical background, and I was working class country and could only play a phonograph, we did have a lot in common. I was only a few years older than he was. There was a period when he wasn’t making it as a musician he worked driving truck and construction, both of which I had done before I became a stagehand. Jim liked writing and telling stories as did I.

And we were both in the Army, albeit I had gotten my discharge six years before Jim had even enlisted. I had volunteered draft, two years active, two in the reserves, and two inactive to complete my six year obligation.

Jim went National Guard. Nam was going strong and as soon as he got married he enlisted. He spent six months active, five and one half years doing monthly weekend duties and yearly two weeks summer camps. Jim said he never could get use to all the bossing around and even had to do Basic Training over again.

He didn’t think if fair for giving medals for shooting a rifle and not a medal for mopping floors. He figured he would have  gotten an Expert medal. He bragged that the latrine floors he mopped were the best looking in the whole camp.

‘You know Jim,’ I said, ‘Your service time reminds me of a guy in basic. He was from west Louisiana, but went by the nickname Tex. He could sing like Hank Williams and play guitar like Chet Atkins; but what he really wanted was to play jazz guitar like Johnny Smith, always played Moonlight In Vermont just after Lights Out. And he wasn’t much on Army life either.

‘Got caught sleeping on guard duty. The Old Man called him out at Morning Formation. Ordered him to recite the 11 General Orders for sentries.

‘Well, sir,’ Tex said, ‘I don’t rightly know if I can recite them. But if you let me get my gitbox, I think I can pick out a tune and sing ‘em for you.’

‘What did they do to him?, Jim asked. ‘Latrine duty?’

‘Nope, not Tex. He was already pulling extra duty for goofing up and sentenced to playing every Saturday night at the Officers’ Club, so they sentenced him to playing a gig every Friday night at the NCO Club. Pushed him through basic and put him in Special Services.’

‘Lucky dog,’ Jim said. ‘Playing a guitar sure beats swinging a mop. Of course if they had put me in Special Services I never would have met LeRoy Brown.’

Like I said, we liked to swap stories, so he told me the backstory of a song he recorded and was getting some airplay. He had high hopes for it.

Both Jim and I had gone to Signal School after we finished Basic. He went to Fort Jackson and I went to Fort Gordon. In Signal School the ones that drew the short straws ended up as telephone/telegraph linesmen. Rough job. Strap side-gaffs on your boots, wrap your shinny belt around the pole or tree and climb up hoping all the time you don’t slip up with a gaff or your belt and end up sliding down, a painful mistake that usually involves taking slivers out of your chest and belly.

LeRoy Brown had drawn a short straw. He got a set of side-gaffs and the largest shinny belt they had. LeRoy was big, very big. LeRoy was also mean, very mean. He said he wasn’t scared to climb a pole; but on the second day of training, he saw a man screw up and slid down a pole. Before the ambulance arrived, Brown was gone. He quit the Army. Headed back home to the south side of Chicago. He was listed as AWOL.

But when he got back home he decided that the Army still owed him some pay, and so he came back on payday to collect. He was arrested, took about a half a squad of MP’s to do it, and told he would have to stand court martial for being AWOL. LeRoy argued that he wasn’t AWOL. He had quit the Army. He got sentenced to thirty days in the stockade, at the end of which he would be sent home with an Unfit For Service discharge.

Sounded good to LeRoy; but by the second day he was fed up with the Army’s way of treating a prisoner, and he began to terrorize the guards and prisoners alike. He got released after about ten days. The official word was he got time off for ‘good behavior’. Big, bad ass LeRoy Brown.

Jim was right about his song. It hit #1 on the charts and started him on his road to success. To this day, everytime I hear Bad, Bad, LeRoy Brown, I can’t help but think of Jim’s story.

Then there was the time Croce introduced a song he had been working on since the last time he played the Guthrie. He explained he got the idea when he and  Don, the lighting man, and he pointed to me in the booth, were talking about our Army days. Jim said he was always fascinated by the long line of soldiers lined up every Saturday waiting to use the barrack’s pay phone to call home or their girlfriends. And admitted that he was always in that line.

And he sang his  Operator, (That’s Not The Way It Feels), for the first time to an audience. When he came up to the booth I told him he had another hit on his hands.

Jim felt that the Guthrie audiences and Sue Weill, the promoter who kept giving him gigs, even if they were just opening act, were responsible for his new found confidence and the push to keep working at his music. He made Sue a promise that if he ever made it big he would come back and do shows at the Guthrie no matter what. James Taylor, another one of Sue’s favorite opening act had made the same promise and lived up to it.

But Jim didn’t get a chance to live up to his promise. On his first big tour, selling out wherever he and Maury Muehleisen played, and just ten days from his promised appearance back at the Guthrie, the plane crashed. A small plane used to hop from gig to gig. Leaving Louisiana, bound for Texas, the pilot had a heart attack just as the plane was leaving the runway. It hit the tops of the trees. All on board were killed outright.

We lost a major singer/songwriter just as he hitting it big. A wife and son lost a man who loved them both above everything, even his career. In a letter that reached his wife just after his death, Jim Croce expressed his dislike for the music career that was taking him from being with his wife and son. He said he was seriously considering just staying at home, writing stories and scripts, so he could be with the two people he loved the most.

Croce and family

            This song he wrote upon finding out his wife, Ingrid, was pregnant. Released as a single after his death, it was his second song to hit #1 on the charts. While a lot of his songs were written with tongue-in-cheek, this one was written from the heart:

 

Time In A Bottle

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day
‘Til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

 

 

Forty two years ago, another day when the music died.

R.I.P. Jim. It was a pleasure knowing you.

Jim Croce

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.