STARRY, STARRY NIGHT

My last post, The Shadow Circuit, convinced me that interest in Don McLean was very high right now. His walk out of the NRA Convention. It is the 50th anniversary of his American Pie. His mental breakdown. His Starry, Starry Night/Vincent has surpassed American Pie in popularity today.

The Vincent Van Gogh Immersive Experience has taken major cities in the US and Europe by storm. Every time one of his paintings is auctioned off, it breaks fiscal records. To think the man died a pauper and only sold one of his works while he and his brother were living. His sister-in-law took control of his work and got him placed in the hierarchy of the Impressionists.

I thought this would be good time to re-post my blog Starry, Starry Night, from 2013. And last, but not least, it brings back fond memories of back-in-the-day, when I was a lot younger.

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House lights go down for the second act of VINCENT, but the stage lights remain dark. Then Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night fades on the two picture sheets that are upstage of the set. Music fades in, Don McLean’s recording of his song, Vincent, aka Starry, Starry Night. The song continues as a montage of Vincent’s paintings appear on the screens.

In the ambient light from slides you can make out the silhouette of Leonard Nimoy. He stands off to one side, his back to the audience, looking at and enjoying the art along with the audience.

The music fades out. Starry Night reappears for a moment and then fades out also. Backlights fill the stage and Nimoy turns as the front lights fade in and he resumes as Theo Van Gogh telling us about his brother, Vincent.

Selecting the Van Gogh paintings was hard because of the volume of great works and the little time allotted to show them. Selecting the music for the interlude was harder.

Leonard wanted Don McLean singing Vincent from the very start; however he had a friend he relied on for advice who thought the song was Pop, unfit to be part of ‘serious’ art. The friend, an artistic director of a regional theater, was pretentious to say the least. He never said Shakespeare, but always said ‘The Bard’. Theater was always spelled theatre and ‘Arts’ should never be coupled with ‘Crafts’. He backed off somewhat when it was pointed out that the very same recording was played hourly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and a copy of the sheet music was buried in the museum’s time capsule.

young mclean

Don McLean, singer/songwriter, troubadour/poet, is an American treasure, but not exactly a household name. He is mostly identified with his American Pie aka The Day The Music Died, known for it’s mysterious lyrics and it’s extraordinary length. ‘Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee was dry.’ His second most famous work is Vincent, his ode to Van Gogh. ‘And now I understand what you tried to say to me”.

American Pie represented a sad time in McLean’s life, the death of an idol, Buddy Holly. Vincent reflected the sadness of his early life especially after the death of his father when Don was only 15. It was written on a brown paper bag during a period of marital problems. McLean had always identified with Van Gogh, who was never appreciated during his lifetime, and is reflected the lyrics ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will’.

            Outside of an excellent rendition by Madonna, American Pie is left by other recording artists for McLean. His recording of it was voted #5 of the 365 Songs of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Vincent, on the other hand, is covered by many other artists, like Julie Andrews, Julio Ingesias, Chet Atkins, and my favorite cover, Jane Olivor.

His song, And I Love You So has been covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, Howard Keel, a cover by Perry Como reached #1in the Easy Listening genre. His song, Wonderful Baby, was dedicated to and recorded by Fred Astaire.

In his recordings and his concerts, his repertoire includes his own compositions as well as songs identified with singers like Sinatra, Buddy Holly, his mentor, Pete Seeger, Gordon Lightfoot, and Marty Robbins.

When Ray Orbison released his song Crying, it was received just so-so. McLean cut a cover of it that hit #1 in the international market. Orbison made a rerecording of it, using some of the innovations of McLean, and it is now a classic. Orbison said McLean had the best cover of any of Orbison’s songs and said McLean had ‘the voice of the century’.

Don McLean was also responsible, indirectly, for another classic,  Killing Me Softly With His Song. Lori Lieberman, singer/songwriter, said that she was so touched by Don McLean in concert, singing his song, Empty Chairs, inspired by McLean looking at Van Gogh’s painting of The Chair,  that she wrote a poem as soon as she got home. The poem was set to music and Roberta Flack’s version was 1973’s Record Of The Year.

Dennis Babcock, Guthrie’s Special Events Producer, and the man who put the production and tour of VINCENT together, booked in Don McLean in concert during our VINCENT rehearsal period. Great concert! First time I ever worked McLean. First time Nimoy ever saw him in person and met him. McLean saved Vincent/Starry, Starry Night for the encore and dedicated it to Leonard and the upcoming tour of VINCENT.

As usual, I was house electrician for the concert. When I asked McLean about his lighting preferences, he just smiled and told me to do as I wanted. I did. Used various gels for mood, slow color transitions, sometimes just back light to silhouette him.

When we were knocking down the concert equipment, Eric, Nimoy’s dresser and the self appointed major domo for the tour, came on stage.

‘Don,’ he said, in his dramatic basso voice, ‘I know that your lighting of VINCENT is in the tradition of the stage; but frankly, it is vanilla pudding. Now your lighting of the concert tonight reflected Van Gogh and his paintings. You should incorporate that into VINCENT. Be bold! Spice it up!’

‘Well,’ I confessed, ‘I have often thought about doing just that, but I don’t know if Leonard go for it.’

‘Who do you think brought up the idea? And I agree with him. Leonard had to go out to dinner with Mr. McLean and he asked me to mention it to you. So you could perhaps have some of it in tomorrow’s rehearsal.’

I didn’t need much time at all. I had it pretty much finalized by the time rehearsals started the next day. The key was my use of colored backlights. In his last years, his most ambitious period, in and around Arles in southern France, he used a preponderance of cobalt blue and amber yellow In one of his letters to his brother, Theo, Vincent defended his use of new colors and bolder brush strokes talking of

“vast fields of wheat under troubled skies”.

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

The play’s set had two picture sheets a backdrop. The backlights hung downstage of them, in such a way as to avoid spilling any light on the sheets. There were three distinct parts of the set.

Stage Right was Theo’s office, a desk and chair. The backlight for this section was the cold heavy blue of Vincent’s midnight sky on cloudless nights.

“Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue”

Eyes of China Blue

Stage Left was Vincent’s studio. A rough built table with a paint smeared smock on it. A palette and brushes. A stool. An easel. This backlight was the yellow amber of Vincent’s home and sparse furnishing at Arles. His sunflowers.

“Morning fields of amber grain”

Van_Gogh_-_Weizenfeld_bei_Sonnenuntergang

Center stage was the neutral zone where the two colors combined. I controlled the intensity of the two backlight colors, in all three sections depending upon where  Leonard was and the mood at the time,

“Colors changing hue”

Starry Night

Leonard liked the new lighting. Erik liked the new lighting. Sandy, Leonard’s wife at the time, liked it.

I knew I had aced it when, on opening night, Alvin Epstein, the Guthrie’s Artistic Director, told me that my lighting was like bringing a Van Gogh painting to life.

But naturally there was a voice of dissent. The Pretentious Pal felt my lighting was vulgar, unfit to be part of serious art. He suggested that Leonard get a ‘real’ Lighting Designer. And naturally he knew the names of several of who he had used in his theater. Leonard said thanks but no thanks. When Leonard was approached by Babcock about a Guthrie production of the skeleton version Leonard first brought to town, Leonard agree and wanted me to be involved and to light it.

At the risk of bragging, theatrical reviewers seldom mention the lighting, and yet in almost all the reviews we got around the country my lights were not only mentioned but also praised. When we played a benefit for The Pretentious Pal’s theater, he really cut loose on me. After all I was a stagehand and lighting was art and the two should be kept separate. And I was not only a stagehand, I was a union stagehand!

I didn’t bother to tell him that this was not the first time this union stagehand designed lights at the Guthrie. And this union stagehand had crossed into his sacred world of ‘Art’ in another way. A few years before I won a prize in a national One-Act playwriting contest, and my play had been published and produced.

In respect of Leonard and Mrs. Nimoy, I listened his criticism and then silently walked away. After I left though. the Nimoys had quite a few words to say to him about his rudeness.

(Hey, Mr. Pretentious Pal, VARIETY  ‘The Bible of Show Business’ said in their review of VINCENT, “Donald Ostertag’s lighting was Excellent”. And they also liked the use Don McLean’s recording of Vincent, in the play.)

The entire of tour of VINCENT consisted of three separate legs. The first was produced by the Guthrie. The second was a month in Boston, Leonard’s home town, and was under Leonard’s production. Once again, The Pretentious Pal came and offered suggestions during the rehearsal. And once again, tried to get Leonard to drop Don McLean’s song and Don Ostertag’s lighting. Again, the answer was thanks but no thanks. The next year the third leg went back on the road to other cities. The third leg was produced by Leonard and another producer.

Neither Dennis Babcock nor myself took the show out on the third leg. Since it was no longer affiliated with the Guthrie, Dennis felt he should concentrate on his ‘day job’ at the theater. He found a Tour Manager to replace him.

My life had changed drastically. I had left the Guthrie and had been elected as Business Agent/Call Steward for the local as well as working off the Union Call List. My three oldest sons were working as stagehands and also going to college. In a few years, they would be joined by the two younger sons. I had missed so much of their growing up; but once I went on the Extra Board, I got something that few fathers get, a chance to work shoulder to shoulder with my sons. And over the years, I also worked with four nephews, a young cousin, and a future daughter-in-law. My days on the road were over as well as my days as a lighting designer foe the Guthrie.

When Leonard found out that I was not going out with him, he said he wanted two stagehands to replace me. I sent two out with him. Dennis and I were involved with the rehearsals, which took place in Minneapolis followed by a week of shows at the Guthrie. Then it was off to Atlanta with Dennis and I going along to help with the first real stop.

Oh, of course, The Pretentious Pal had come to Minneapolis town for the rehearsals, and again with the his suggestions to change both the lighting and the music. Again, Leonard stood firm on my lighting, but he did cave on the music. Don McLean was replaced by a classical piece of largely unknown music by an unknown composer.

The music had two things going for it. The composer had lived in Arles at the same time as Van Gogh, although they probably never met nor even knew of one other. The second thing in the music’s favor was the album cover was a Van Gogh painting of ‘A Bridge Near Arles’.

a bridge near arles

That leg of the tour ended with a filming of the production for VCR distribution and also to be shown some 50 times on the A&E network. That was also the end of Leonard Nimoy in the stage production of VINCENT.

I stayed away from the filming and left it to the two hands. I did however sit in with Leonard and a few others for the showing of the finished product.

I had been forewarned by the hands that although the credit read that the lighting was based on a concept of Donald Ostertag. Don’t believe it. It was basically, all the white lights available are turned on, then off.

As soon as the film started, Leonard wanted to know why my lighting wasn’t used. Julie, Leonard’s daughter, who was around during the filming and had worked with the camera crew on locations of  IN SEARCH OF, explained that the director said the colors and cues wouldn’t work in the film. Leonard didn’t like it that my lights were left out and said so. I just sat there, not wanting to present my view that my lights would have transferred to the film.

The excuse was bogus. Basically, this was a case of the LA boys going to fly-over-country, filming a VCR as quick as possible, and then back to L.A.. Surf’s up!

Leonard’s second comment was at the top of the second act. ‘Never should have replaced Don McLean with this music,’ he muttered. I guess you could say that The Pretentious Pal finally got his way, even if Leonard did not like it.

Thirty plus years later:

The VCR was upgraded to DVD with some added commentary and stories by Leonard for which he received a small fee. Now, he could have used it to buy photography equipment for his new profession or other things; but true to his nature, he divided up the money and sent checks to those of us who had worked on the VINCENT tour.

What a compliment to know your work was still appreciated some thirty years later.

And just recently, Don McLean’s past work was appreciated in a very big way. The notebook that he used to work out the lyrics of American Pie recently was bought at auction for $1,200,000, the third highest money ever paid for an American literary manuscript. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more talented artist. Just too bad he didn’t save that paper bag he used to write out the lyrics of his Vincent.

don mclean

And that’s a wrap – for today.

THE SHADOW CIRCUIT

There is an area of show business that I call the Shadow Circuit. What it is people in the public eye, be it politics, arts, entertainment fields, who come to a city to appear before a closed audience at conventions, business meetings, private functions, employee thank you parties, etc. In and out and the public has no idea they were ever in town. Sometime the public is aware of the appearance, but unless they belong to the sponsoring organization, or are big donors, they can’t attend.

To work the Shadow Circuit, the person’s name must appear on a list bookers have which is available for potential clients.

I don’t recall ever seeing Bob Hope appearing before the general public in the Twin Cities in my lifetime, but he was in St. Paul on the Shadow Circuit in 1984. He cracked jokes at the dinner honoring the 80th birthday of Herb Carlson, founder of Radisson Hotel chain, among other ventures.

He talked with the stagehands for a long time, after he asked ‘Just who is this old fart I am suppose to be best friends with’? He ate the dinner, gave a funny spiel about his ‘old friend’, and left.

Before he got into the limo that replaced the Winnebago dressing room he stopped to say goodbye to the stagehands and praise us for doing an honest days work, not like what he had just done. Lying about knowing a total stranger, just for a couple bucks and something to do.

And sometimes it more than a couple bucks. Margaret Thatcher, after she retired as British Prime Minister, let it be known, through an agent, that she would be touring the US on a speaking tour. The Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce was only too glad to be included on her stops. I worked the Iron Lady’s talk.

When I handed in the stagehand bill, the Finance Officer laughed at the small amount compared to what was paid for Thatcher to appear, 70.000 plus expenses for a 45 minute talk.

While I worked Shadow Circuit gigs with the likes of Maya Angelo, Eisner the CEO of Disney, countless politicians, and advocates pro and con on the issues of the day, entertainers were the largest group on the Circuit. Many of these entertainers I had also worked in public concerts.

Recently the National Rifle Association, NRA, the largest gun lobby in the U.S. held their annual Convention. This homage to guns was a few days and a few miles from the latest massacre of school children by a shooter armed with legally purchased guns. Both the convention and the killings took place in Texas, a state where the politicians have made the purchase and carrying of guns of all ilks, almost mandatory.

The entertainment as always was booked via the Shadow Circuit.

But when the news of the killing broke, the entertainers began to cancel out of the gig in respect of the poor children. The first to exit was singer/songwriter Don McLean, followed by the others. Lee Greenwood was the last to walk.

Rudy Giuliani offered to sing ‘God Bless The USA’; but the NRA told him just to send ‘thoughts and prayers’ like all good GOP politicians do, and canceled Entertainment Night.

Now for entertainment they only had the stand-up comic, Donald Trump, who did his usual shtick but adding a litany of the names of the murdered children, followed by a dance, before breaking into his Big Lies routine.

I worked McLean once in concert and one on the Shadow Circuit. Greenwood I worked numerous times on the Circuit.

I worked McLean at a Guthrie concert just prior to the start of the Leonard Nimoy’s Vincent tour. McLean’s recording of his song Vincent was used as background during a segment of Van Gogh’ paintings projected on the screen. The recording was also played hourly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

I worked McLean also on the Shadow Circuit for the Dayton Department Store at their annual fashion show to raise funds for the Children’s Hospital. At that function, he sang his biggest hit, American Pie. When I suggested to Eric, the Event’s manager that McLean should also sing Vincent, Eric said he never heard it. I told him that another title for the song was Starry, Starry Night. Eric wasn’t familiar with that either. But a few years later, McLean’s recording of it was used in a segment of the fashion show.

That show also featured Brooks Shield, emceeing off the Circuit. I am happy to report, she is as beautiful in person as in the media. And her personality and warmth are genuine.

In praising the exit of McLean from the convention, one comment was why did he ever agree to sing there in the first place. Well, an appearance at a Shadow event in no way endorses the event’s purpose. Like stagehands, (I worked events at the NRA Convention when it was held in Mpls., and had to hold back my feelings throughout the event.), people working the Shadow Circuit do so to make a living and project their job.

Don McLean had recently suffered a mental break-down that resulted in domestic violence. I image the Shadow Circuit was his only source of work.

The Shadow Circuit was the main source of work for the last entertainer to pull out of the NRA Convention, Lee Greenwood, for a good many years. I worked his show numerous times. He is a favorite Shadow Circuit singer for conservative groups who pride themselves for their love of God and Country.

His show is about 45 minutes of C&W and then a black-out just long enough to trip the kabuki drop and the lights come back up to a backdrop of his gigantic US flag.

Lee busts loose with his biggest hit, ‘God Bless The USA. The crowd goes wild. At show’s end the audience is happy and Lee pockets easy bucks on the Shadow Circuit.

By walking out, Greenwood has the most to lose. An ultra right winger who is a main-stay at Trump rallies. An avid gun lover who said in his press conference on Fox News, ‘That weapon killed children’.

Pro gun advocates never forget that kind of talk. He’s going to have to do a lot of singing at Trump rallies to get back in their good graces.

Shadow Circuit bookers find entertainers people like to hear and see, singers who once were big and now…The one that I always enjoyed the most was Chubby Checkers. The audiences loved his singing and dancing and his getting everybody to join in on the Twist. Heck, he almost had me dancing several times.

Another favorite booking was Frankie Valli singing the Four Season’s hits. This was prior to the musical, ‘Jersey Boys’ opening on Broadway in 2005. The musical features the songs and lives of the Four Seasons. After the musical made it big, Frankie and his three cohorts were back on the concert circuit, too big for the Shadow Circuit.

PS: Frankie does not speak with a falsetto voice. His voice is gravely and has the gruff of New Jerseyites. He is also easy to work with.

Some entertainers use the Circuit to show off talents that are not evident to the public. Jim Belushi, actor and younger brother of the great comic actor, John Belushi, fronts his R&B, The Sacred Hearts. (I have no idea as to why he choose that title.) For years, it was a frequent booking on the Shadow Circuit.

Jim Belushi’s musical talent, like his acting talent, is in the so-so range. His biggest asset is his the fact he is John Belushi’s brother.

But show biz is in his rear view mirror thanks to his new vocation that pays better and not much hard work. He is a California State Sanctioned cannabis grower. John would be proud of his kid brother.

Not all Shadow Circuit acts are appreciated though. I worked Doug Krenshaw, the Cajun Fiddler at a closed event. He was big in Louisiana and some of his work was getting national air time. He got a big applause for his playing, but then he decided on a little comedy relief and told, what he thought were a few funny jokes. They might have been funny in the Mississippi Delta, but in the head waters of the river, they were way too raw for the audience. They booed him off the stage.

Backstage I could hear the booker shouting at Krenshaw for using that language. And all the while the booker was screaming in worse language than what Krenshaw had had used. I never worked him again and if he still managed to work the Shadow Circuit, it would have been events in Bayou country, where he just got honored in the Louisiana Hall Of Fame.

Another example of riling up the audience was Joan Rivers in a Shadow Circuit booking for Jewish Women’s Charity Drive. When she asked, ‘Can we talk’, she talked in some very unladylike language. She went so far as to think since both she and the audience were Jewish, she was free to revert to old Jewish stereotypes. She even tried to get humor out of the Holocaust. Raunchy, racist, and tasteless, she ignored the boos and kept on digging her hole deeper.

One of the committee members ran backstage and tried to turn off my lighting consul, thinking it it controlled the mic. When she walked off stage she gave the audience a middle finger salute.

Rivers got a lot of boos and I bet a lot of bucks for that Shadow Circuit event. And a big red warning flag to any bookers via the Shadow Circuit.

I worked her show in a theater venue…once. Her public concert made her Shadow concert seem tame; but since the audience bought tickets, they should have known what kind of show they were in for.

Big companies use the Circuit for various reasons. Target Stores had a yearly event where they brought in managers of their stores from all over. The event was rich with name singers, who were releasing new CD’s. Some of the biggest names like Tony Bennett or Celine Dion would release a CD, say with tens songs and also a CD sold only at Target stores with four additional songs on. Always a lot of talent appearing before a closed audience.

Best Buy, in the years of their orginal founder, used entertainers off the Circuit for parties. For non management employees Best Buy corporate campus was turned into a festival. Free food, soft drinks, bands for dancing, and several big names like Lennie Kravitz. The management had their party in the Convention Center with food and drinks and rows of arcade game and big time entertainment. One year, Elton John headlined. Elton John… and the public never knew he was in town.

In 2007, Tom Collins, of Champions on Ice fame, rented the Target Center for a birthday party for his wife, Jane. The biggest array of greatest figure skaters in the world came and performed before the closed audience of family and friends of Janie. Everyone present knew that it would be Janie’s last birthday. She died a few months after. After the death of his wife of 41 years, Tom Collins sold Champions On Ice.

I never thought I would ever write anything in my blog praising Cosby but I have to give the devil his due. Nobody worked the Shadow Circuit like he did. He mastered it.

When he was offered a Shadow Circuit event, he contacted Mystic Lake Casino, and arranged for a day or two of two performances per day. Next, a call to Minneapolis booker to get several days of two a day performances in a Minneapolis concert venue

He was an easy sell, did not need much advance publicity, sure sell out every performance, not many stagehands.

For stagehands it was apiece of cake to set up and take down. Even on spots it was a snap. Pick him up as he came on stage. Once he sat down, you could lock down the light because he never moved until the end. His show lasted about an hour and another started an hour later. Two performance pays in the time it usually takes for one regular show.

For Cosby, it was also a snap. Sit in an easy chair, smoke a big cigar and repeat some of the old stories he has told, recorded, written in books, for years.

A Shadow Event that generates another dozen or so performances! And for over a decade, he did this n in the Twin Cities three or four times a year; and he worked Shadow Events all over the country. Cosby ruled the Shadow Circuit…until!!!

The names and faces that were on the Circuit since I worked it may have changed, but it is alive and well yet today; and it remains a big source of income for entertainers, celebrities, and stagehands..

TONY BENNETT-AGE 95+

Tony Bennett – Age 95 +

On his 95 birthday, Tony Bennett with Lady Gaga performed at Rockefeller Center. They did another show the next day. The advanced billing proclaimed it was the last time Bennett would ever perform. His son/manager, Danny Bennett announced that because of age frailty his father official retired.He did not mention that his father was afflicted with Alzheimers.

A month later Tony cut an album, Love For Sale, with his costar Lady Gaga.

Singing was an important part of his life even as a youngster. At the age of 10, standing next to Mayor La Guardia, Anthony Dominick Benedetto sang at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in New York City. Even though he had to drop out of school to help support his family, he continued to try and advance his singing career by working as a singing waiter and going to amateur singing contests, landing a small gig at a club in Paramos, New Jersey, under the stage name Joe Beri.. And all the while trying to earn a decent wage in Hoover’s Depression, a impossible task that made him an outspoken Democrat from then on.

When he tuned 18 he was drafted. The War in Europe was nearing the end. The Battle of the Bulge had reduced the German Army to slow combative retreat. The Allies were pushing the Germans back to their Father Land but at a heavy cost on both sides.

In March of 45, Benedetto was sent to the front in the 255th Infantry Regiment which had suffered enormous casualties in the Bulge and continued as it led the assault to push back the Germans to their homeland and hopefully their surrender. As Tony described the fighting as a ‘front row seat in hell’. House to house, hedgerow to hedgerow. Wondering if the next dawn would be his last. Somehow he escaped death and physical damage. But the insanity caused Benedetto to be an outspoken pacifist from then on.

He took part in the liberation of a German concentration camp which held a number of American POW’s. This event only increased his hatred of War.

After VE Day he was assigned to Special Services as a singer. But that plum duty was short lived.

He was seen dining with a soldier, a friend from high school, a black soldier. Demoted for this US Military ‘crime’, he was transferred to a desk in Grave Registrations. Funny, while he couldn’t dine with a black soldier, he could work on registering the proper graves of the dead soldiers, irregardless of their color, religion, or any other difference. This punishment did nothing to change his acceptance of people.

Nor did he take a hiatus from his goal of being a professional singer. He found he could entertain in the military by using his old stage name, Joe Beri.

His discharge brought Tony a chance to advance his singing via the GI Bill. He enrolled in the American Theater Wing, a school more dedicated to the theater arts rather than the teaching of music, especially pop music. He was taught in the bel canto method, a 19th Century Italian Operatic school of preserving one’s natural voice and respecting both the melody and lyrics.

He adopted the style of certain musicians, like Stan Getz and Art Tatum. And he followed Frank Sinatra’s respect for the lyrics of the song, No crooning like Bing Crosby but crisp and precise pronunciation of each and every word.

There were several recordings done in a small studio under the Joe Beri name, but none took off. Pearl Bailey hired Tony to open her show in Greenwich Village where Bob Hope saw him and hired him to go on tour. Hope told Tony Benedetto to shorten his name to Tony Bennett. After sending a demo to Columbia he was signed by Mitch Miller to help fill the void of Sinatra who had just left Columbia.

The first Columbia recording for Bennett was a cover of The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, accompanied by the Marty Manning Orchestra and it had a modest success, which prompted Miller to have Bennett work with Percy Faith.

Faith, the originator of ‘easy listening’ put a lush arraignment to Bennett’s singing Because of You, a song from the movie I Was An American Spy. Ten weeks #1, way over a million record seller. Tony Bennett made the big time. With the song still on the charts, Tony did something he would be known for his whole career, he introduced himself to a brand new audience..

Hank Williams was the hottest C&W artist of the time, one of the best of all time. Williams had a big C&W hit of hisCold Cold Heart and recognizing the greatness of the song, Tony Bennett cut a recording of it. It helped both men because it introduced them both to a new audience, one of the first crossover hits. Williams telephoned Bennett and told him how much he loved Bennett’s version and he plays it on the juke box all the time.

Bennett’s next record, Blue Velvet was hit with the teenagers and he played a run of 7 concerts daily at the Paramount Theater in New York City. Rags to Riches followed and was another #1 hit. The producers of the upcoming musical Kismet got him to record A Stranger In Paradise, a song from the show in order to promote the opening. It worked and the recording hit #1 in Britain, and the young man from Queens became an international sensation.

In the late 50’s Ralph Sharon became Bennettt’s pianist, arranger, conductor, and confidant. Sharon persuaded him to get back to his jazz roots, to forget the sugary songs, and work with jazz instrumentalists like Herbie Mann and Art Blakely. Sharon worked with Bennett for over 50 years.

Sharon almost made a grave error when he put a copy of a song in a drawer and forgot about it; but years later, he remembered it and brought it out for a tour that included San Francisco. I Left My Heart In San Francisco far exceeding the boundaries of the Bay Area and became Bennett’s signature song.

(The first time I worked Tony Bennett was a two concert night at the Guthrie. When we were almost done with loading out the sound equipment, Tony came up to me, shook my hand, told me how much he enjoyed working with us, and asked if he and Ralph could work out something on the piano, which was still on stage. I told him fine and when the sound was loaded, I sat backstage and enjoyed a private Bennett/Sharon concert.

What I didn’t know at the time was Ralph Sharon had taken a few years off from working with Bennett to avoid the endless touring and this was their reunion concerts, and I was privileged to be present when they worked out details of what they thought should be improved on.

Although I worked Tony Bennett many times, one concert was at Orchestra Hall. In addition to Bennett, I worked Anthony Benedetto.)

The other talent Anthony enjoyed as a youngster was drawing, painting when he could afford oils and canvases. Once he became an established singer he turned to art as a relaxation. Oils, water colors, still life, landscapes, and portraits of the likes of Ellington, Fitzgerald, Gillespie, Mickey Rooney, and others.

His amateur status as an artist soon became professional. His works are in in galleries round the world. There are three hanging in the Smithsonian. All his art is singed Anthony Benedetto, which allows them to stand alone, not on the crutch of the famous ‘Tony Bennett’.

(The concert at Orchestra had a large screen and Anthony Benedetto’s art was projected on it as Tony Bennett sang downstage. I was on a spotlight in the balcony, a perfect place to see the painting projections and hear the Tony sing and Ralph on piano. What a treat!)

The 70’s s started out strong for Tony. He worked and recorded with jazz greats like Basie and Adderly. Then the Beatles turned the pop music into the dominating force. Bennett tried his hand at pop and failed. He tried acting and one picture convinced him to forget it.The one positive was he participated in the Civil Rights marches.

He moved to London and became a modest hit with his own talk show. Came back home and started a recording company which turned out two fine Bennett jazz records; but with no experience in distribution, the company failed.

At the end of the decade, Bennett had the IRS on his back along with a cocaine monkey. His music career was nothing except for gigs in Vegas. He almost died from a drug overdose. Enter his son, Danny, an aspiring musician whose career was going no where fast. He devoted his time to getting his father’s life and career back on track.

He convinced his father to stick to the American Standard tunes with jazz backing. Forget Vegas. Take gigs in small venues. He brought back Ralph Sharon just in time for me working the two of them at the Guthrie. Thank you, Danny.

While Tony’s fans stuck with him, he and his songs were unknown to the younger generations. To cure that Danny got him booked several times with Dave Letterman which led to MTV taking an interest and Tony Bennett Unplugged resulted in bringing not only young fans but also a contract again with Columbia, which led to Unplugged winning Album of the Year. Like Sinatra had done, he forewent recording singles and concentrated solely on albums.

Theme albums featuring the works of a great such as Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong followed along with his Duets album where he sings with a pantheon of great singers like Barbra Striesand. Elton John, Paul McCartney, among others. Albums with just him backed up by jazz artists.

He teamed with the talented K.D.Lang in both recording and live concerts. Later he would do the same with Lady Gaga, who would sing with him in Duets II, along with the voices of Willie Nelson and Amy Winehouse and others.

As the accolades and honors poured in, he continued to work for charitable and political causes. He wrote two books of his memories. There was a big to-do when he reached the age of 80, little did anyone suspect he would have another 15 years of work ahead. At age 88 he recorded another Grammy winner, Cheek to Cheek, which debuted at #1 on Billboard. And he went on an extended tour with Lady Gaga. There was another big to-do when he reached 90, followed by a singles recording of Fascinating Rhythm which he had recorded a few weeks short of 69 years before. At the age of 95, he cut his album. Love For Sale.

The last time I actually spoke to Tony Bennett was New Years Eve, 2015, in an elevator at the Paris Casino in Las Vegas. Bennett was appearing that evening at the Paris where my wife and I were staying. Tickets for his performance had been long sold out and much too expensive for us anyway.

(I was going to the lobby when the door opened up and Tony Bennett got in.I offered condolences on the death of his friend, Ralph Sharon. Tony smiled and said it was a great loss after all those years working with his friend.

Tony asked if I knew Ralph; but the elevator stopped at Bennett’s floor and ended our conversation. He wished me a Happy New Year.

And as the door closed he gave me a thumbs up.

ELTON IN THE USA

@The Guthrie

Elton John is on his ‘Farewell Tour of the US’. But wait, that could change. The multi talented French star, Maurice Chevalier, enjoyed his first farewell tour of the US so much he took two more farewell tours after.

I worked many Elton John concerts in arenas, theaters, and even a private show for the managers of Best Buy stores. The finest was at the U of MN’s Northrop Auditorium. The 1st half was John on piano and Ray Cooper, the fine percussionist from the UK, on a variety of things including a large gong. He was actually on the gong at one point, hanging on and beating time. The 2nd half was Elton going alone. The sound system was a new package of the Clair Brothers, the top audio company on the road. What a concert!

I worked Elton John’s 1st US tour when he came to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Sue Weill, promoter extraordinaire of the Walker Art Center booked him, and I handled the lighting. Gosh, thinking back I can’t get over how shy and polite this young man was then. Little did anyone realize he would be the UK’s biggest star after the Beatles.

Here’s a reblog from March 2013 of that experience from the Old Hand.

Elton John’s first USA tour was in 1970. One of his stops was the Guthrie. Like all these concerts at the theater in those days, the sound was provided by a local company and the lighting by the Guthrie. Sometimes the acts brought in a lighting designer; but most of the time, I was the designer as well as the electrician. Even if a lighting designer came with the act, I usually ended up designing the show because very few designers knew how to light on a thrust stage.

When Elton came for sound check, I asked him about his lighting needs. He just shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know and would leave it up to me. He said that he didn’t require anything fancy. Such a polite ‘chap’. He always called me ‘sir’.

As usual, we did two shows that evening. Both were sold out. Elton put on two great shows. In the last show, he loosened up and did things that he didn’t do in the first show. He really attacked the piano. Hands, feet, standing up, spinning around on the bench.

His manager sat next to the lighting board up in the booth. He clued me in on what the next song was going to be so I could think of what kind of ‘look’ would work. At the end of the last show he asked what I thought of Elton. ‘What do you think? Do you think he’ll make it big? I mean really big.’

‘Well’, I said, ‘He puts on a good show, that’s for sure. I really like his Jerry Lee Lewis  piano playing. Good voice. Should do good. Except –  those glasses. Get him contacts. Nobody is going to make it really big wearing glasses.’

We were tearing down the sound and Elton came on stage and thanked us. When he shook my hand, he mentioned his manager had told him that I liked the shows. Nothing was said about my not liking the glasses though.

I worked him many time since, but never again at the Guthrie. He outgrew small venues quickly and played the big arenas like TargetCenter. Like any arena show, big effects were added, often at the expense of music. Nothing like the pure concert he did at the Guthrie.

Although, well after he made it big, he did forego the arena shows and did an acoustic tour. He played at Northrop, at the U of MN. He reverted back to his ‘not requiring anything fancy’. It was minimal, great sound system, and basic lighting. The first half, Ray Cooper, the great percussionist, joined him. The second half it was just Elton. Certainly one of the best concerts I have ever worked. In spite of the fact he still was wearing glasses.

A while back, a very talented cartoonist, Joel Orff, had a weekly cartoon, Great Moments in Rock and Roll, in a local paper called The Pulse. A stagehand, Rich Labas, suggested to Joel that he get together with me and do some of my stories. I asked him to use the name Old Hand on our stories. That’s the Old Hand in the hat. He did several, Elton, Prince, James Brown. And then the paper folded. Joel does his magic for a paper out in California now. Here’s his cartoon of my story.
Joel’s work can be seen at much better at:
http://jorff.com/

http://jorff.com/rock/EltonJohn.html

EltonJohn

For his farewell to the Twin Cities he is playing the Xcel Center, an arena in St. Paul. While I worked his 1st Concert here, I won’t be working his ‘last’ one.

STRANGERS ON A STAGE

A reblog of a reblog

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

And a memory of Prince whose estate was finally settled by his family.

And a memory of the lovely lady with the lovely voice, Judy Collins, has just struck a blow for the fight against COVID by refusing to allow Spotify play her music because of their allowing  on COVID LIES to be broadcasted on their station.

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

 Old Guthrie II The Old Guthrie

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

big northrop Northrop Auditorium @ U of MN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orpheum Minneapolis Orpheum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please take the advice of Judy Collins

Listen to the Medical Scientists

Not the Anti Vaxxers

 

ARSENIC AND OLD PEOPLE

 

A Reblog 

I saw on FB that today is a very big birthday of Peter Michael Goetz, one of the shining actors in the Golden Years of the Guthrie Theater. Although Peter has acted on TV and movies, I think of him as a stage actor. From an acting intern at the Guthrie to Broadway, from small parts to playing leads, from comedy to intense drama. A wide range of roles and captivating in each of them.

This is one of my favorite memories of Peter on the Guthrie stage where he not only played the male lead, he also almost acted as the head usher…albeit it doesn’t portray his acting skills as much as it is an example of why working with him was always fun.

It was a Wednesday matinee of Arsenic and Old Lace, at the Guthrie. There was a large contingent of senior citizens.

(I don’t like that term. I guess I am a senior citizen, but I don’t remember every being called a junior or sophomore citizen. Why can’t we just be called old people? Some people don’t like the idea of growing old; but it certainly is better than not getting any older.)

Anyway, the play had reached the critical exposition scene. The two old aunties, played by Barbara Bryne and Virginia Payne*, are telling their nephew Mortimer, played by Peter Goetz, who the dead body in the window box is and why they put arsenic in his elderberry wine, and about the other dead bodies buried in the cellar.

Three senior citizens, a man and two women, came down the center aisle. The man was holding some tickets and looking down the rows. When they reached the moat, the section that separates the audience from the stage, they continued walking along the audience right of the moat. In the booth the stage manager was trying to get a hold of an usher, and the sound man and myself were laughing. On stage the three actors were trying to keep the play going while glancing slyly at the three patrons.

The three stopped walking the moat, and the old man carefully stepped up the steps to the stage. He held out the tickets and spoke directly to Peter. ‘Sorry we are late. Can you help us find our seats.’ An usher ran down the center aisle and offered assistance to the three.

Surprisingly, the audience didn’t react, perhaps they thought it was a part of the play. Up in the booth though, all three of us reacted. We were laughing so loudly the patrons in the balcony turned around to see where the noise was coming from. And the actors!!!

Peter and Barbara lost it. They both headed upstage and faced the scenery. They tried to keep their laughter from being heard but their bodies shaking gave them away. Thank goodness for Virginia Payne.

Virginia had played the other aunt a year before in the Alley Playhouse in Alley Theatre in Houston, so she was familiar with Barbara’s lines as well as hers. She turned what should have been a dialogue between three people into a monologue. It was a work of art. It moved the play along and gave the other two actors a chance to regain their composure.

Later, in the second act, poor Barbara lost it again. She swatted at a fly that was buzzing around her face. The sleeve of her dress got caught on her earring. Naturally, Peter lost it also. Luckily, it was the end of the scene and the blackout gave them a chance to get offstage.

Just as they did in the first act, both got on the horn backstage and apologized to the stage manager for losing it on stage. And in both incidents, the stage manager told them they weren’t alone. The three in the booth were holding their ribs to try and stop laughing.

There were other times during the run where the cast added additional comedy to the already hilarious production.

In the original script, Peter, whose character is a drama critic. When he first enters he says that he has just come from the Bellasco Theatre. The director, after the first preview decided the audiences weren’t literate enough to know about Bellasco, changed it to the Helen Hayes Theater. Sometimes Peter remembered and said the Helen Hayes Theater, and sometime forgot and called it the Bellasco Theater. Once he forgot both names, paused for a second, and finally blurted out the Cloris Leachman theater. That cracked the booth crew up.

The stage manager told Peter how the electrician and the sound man had a beer bet on if Peter would say Bellasco or Helen Hayes. The following matinee Peter came onstage and looked up at the booth and hollered out that he had just come from the Edmond BOOTH theater. Naturally that cracked the booth crew up.

Another time, thank goodness it was also a matinee, the actor, playing the next old man that the aunties picked out for their arsenic elderberry wine, was sick. His understudy had gotten the job, not because he could act, or even remember his lines; but because he was old.

The understudy stuttered. He stammered. He went up on his lines and he had to get whispered cues from the aunties, on what to say next. Suddenly, with still many lines to say, he bolted for the door. He tripped and fell on the two steps leading to the door. His cane cracked a vase glued on a stand next to the door. He tried to open the door in, forgetting it opened out. He pulled on the door so much the set shook and a stuffed bird, that was on a sill above the door, fell and nearly hit him in the head. When he finally got the door opened, he was holding his cane horizontal, which hit the door and the side of the jam, preventing him to exit. Finally he dropped the cane and went out the door. We cracked up again in the booth.

Ken Ruta, who played the evil brother Jonathon, like to see if he could get Barbara to crack up. He got her one time. The aunties admit while his voice is Jonathon’s, his face isn’t. He pulls out a photo to show them how he looked before his plastic surgery. He always had different picture, like Clark Gable or Marilyn Monroe. The time she cracked was a picture of a naked body builder with the face of Barbara’s husband, Denny Spence, superimposed on it.

*Virginia Payne was the one and only Ma Perkins. Ma Perkins was the most successful daytime soap opera on the radio. It was sponsored by Oxydol Soap, and hence the name of soap opera was born. It was so popular that it ran on NBC and CBS at the same time.

 It was the story of an old lady who was loved by all and gave out down home advice. Virginia got the part from the first even though at age 27, she certainly was not an old lady. In the 27 year run, five days a week, Virginia never missed one episode. When the show finally ended, Virginia was the highest paid actor in daytime radio. 

She was Ma Perkins. In the season she was at the Guthrie she was loved and respected by everyone at the theater. She only spent that one season because the next year she was too sick to work. She died shortly afterwards. What a sweet person!

(The old Guthrie Theater building is long gone, replaced by a beautiful complex overlooking the Mississippi. The old system of having plays in repertoire by a season long acting company is also long gone. Some of the actors, Peter being one of them return periodically to act in a play; but like the years at the old Guthrie, most of them are just memories of us Senior Citizens.)

The Guthrie has just reopened with a new production of

A Christmas Carol

A tradition started back in the day of the Old Guthrie

Please Stay Safe these upcoming holidays

Vaccinations-masks-avoid big gatherings

I KNOW NOTHING

HOGAN’S HEROES was a weekly prime sitcom consisting of 168 episodes running from 1965 until 1971. Set in a German POW camp, it’s humor revolved around an inventive group of Allied POW’s outwitting the inept group of German overseers. It scripts and cast continue to amuse us even today on cable.

This reblog is from 2014. While it doesn’t deal with the TV show directly, it hits on my experience of the show’s acceptance on 2 former POWs and also a time Leonard Nimoy asked a question..,and was sorry he did..

One reason for the reblog is the excellent work being done by John Holton in his blog The Sound of One Hand Clapping. After a post on the Allied characters/actors, and another on the German characters/actors, John is writing a complete synopsis of each of the 168 episodes. Fine, entertaining writing, whether or not you are familiar with the show or not.

https://thesoundofonehandtyping.com/hogans-heroes-episode-index/

-Schultz-hogans-heroes-I Know Nooothing

On Memorial day weekend (2014) I read an angry letter posted on the web. The writer, a young (?) Politically Correct activist was railing out against the fact the old TV comedy, HOGAN’S HEROES, was still being shown on cable TV. She felt it was a great disservice to all those who were POW’s of the Germans in WWII. She wanted the series to be hidden away like the old AMOS & ANDY SHOW. In a way I could see her point; but… (It was the first TV show where Black actors had main roles along with the White actors.)

Two of my favorite coworkers at the Guthrie Theatre spent a large part of WWII as prisoners of war in German camps. Chuck Wallen, an American, was a stagehand and set carpenter at the Guthrie. Michael Langham, an Englishman, was the Artistic Director of the theatre. They were in different camps but they both had similar experiences during their years as prisoners.

Chuck, an Air Corps navigator, was on his first bombing run when the plane was shot down. He parachuted out, landed in a cow pasture and broke his back. A village doctor set Chuck’s back as best he could, but the setting would have left Chuck unable to ever stand straight again. A German doctor, seeing the problem, fought red tape and got Chuck to a hospital where the doctor rebroke the back and set it correctly. Chuck spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Germany, but at least he could stand straight.

Growing up, Michael Langham’s hero was the Duke of Wellington. Because of this, Michael  went to Officers’ Training School where he received an officer’s commission just in time to take part in the final days of the Battle of Dunkirk, namely the retreat to the beach. When the Miracle of Dunkirk was accomplished, Michael was not one of the lucky ones that were transported back to England. He was in the group that missed the boats and were captured by the Germans and placed in a POW camp, where he spent the duration of the war that he really never got to know first hand.

It was the camp where the Great Escape took place, although the tunnel was in a different barracks and Michael was not involved or even aware of what was going on. To kill time in the camp, Michael joined the theatrical group. Sometimes Michael acted, sometimes Michael directed. By the time the camp was liberated, Michael no longer thought of himself as the next Duke of Wellington. Instead, he pursued a career in the theatre, substituting Tyrone Guthrie for the Duke of Wellington as a role model.

It was the years of HOGAN’S HEROES in prime time. The day after each new episode aired, Michael would make his way down to the shop where he and Chuck would spend about a half hour or so going over the episode, laughing and comparing characters on both sides of camp to people in their camps. Since I was working the show the nights the series aired I never got to see it until years later in reruns. Sometimes though when I was working during a day when Chuck and Michael got together, I was privileged to listen to those two reminisce.

So, now when I find myself laughing at the antics of Hogan and the gang, I don’t feel any guilt. After all, two members of the Greatest Generation, who had first hand experience in POW camps laughed at the same antics many years ago.

On the other hand, another favorite acquaintance, Jim Daly, who survived the Bataan Death March and the ensuing years in a POW camp in the Philippines, would not have found anything funny during his hell on earth.

  

We doing a week of VINCENT in Scottsdale, Arizona about nine months after Bob Crane, Hogan of HOGAN’S HEROES, was murdered in this posh city of many rich retirees. Mr. ‘Just Call Me Bob’ Herberger, founder of the Herberger’s department store chain put on a big fete for us at his house. He had enjoyed the play and especially liked the fact that it came from the Guthrie in his home state of Minnesota. I think he spent more time talking with another Minnesota native, namely me, as he did hobnobbing with Leonard Nimoy, the star of VINCENT. It was a fun time with only one slight bump in the road.

Almost all of Mr. Herberger’s invitees were, like him, enjoying their retirement in the land of the sun. There wasn’t a Ford or a Chevy mixed in with the Rolls and Caddies, and although the it was Arizona casual dress, it wasn’t the casual dress wear that came off the rack at a Herberger’s Department Store.

There was one group of men that seemed to hang together. They looked like they could have been extras in THE GODFATHER. Maybe one of them brought the cannoli to the party. A couple of them were more interested in talking to Leonard about Dr. (sic) Spock than about Van Gogh, something that always irritated Leonard; but he remained a gentleman and answered their questions about Spock and STAR TREK as the old timers wanted.

Then Leonard asked them a question. ‘You know, Bob Crane and I use to be friends back in the days we were auditioning for jobs, and then when we both were in hit shows. Hadn’t seen him years though. Now,’ Leonard said in a quiet voice, ‘What’s the real skinny on Crane’s murder?’

You don’t yell fire in a theater, and you don’t ask these old men about murder. Their silence was deafening. They didn’t have to talk. They just gave Nimoy  – the look. Finally one of them spoke up in a raspy whisper. ‘Don’t ask about that guy again around here. You don’t want to know! Understand?’ Leonard nodded and the subject was dropped. He smiled at the group of men and left to get a refill on his Beefeater’s martini.

In the words of Sergeant Schultz, ‘I know nothing.

JOAN OF ARTS @ THE G

mondale family

On 4/19/2021 we lost a much admired man, Walter Mondale. He spent many of his 93 years working in public service. He epitomized what a politician should be, honest, hard working, dedicated not only to his views, but mindful of the views of others. He held many public offices including U.S. Senator and Vice President.

The son of a preacher man, he was religious in the true sense. Rather than preaching his religion to others, he practiced his religion in deeds. He cared. He was a role model for many and admired even by those who did not share his political agenda. He was a devoted family man

He stuck by his views both in talk and deeds. For instance, he was a strong advocate for the ERA rights Amendment, equal rights fort women. He was the first U.S. presidential candidate to select a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate.

I never had the pleasure of working Walter Monday, but I did have a delightful time with his wife, Joan, and two of his children, Eleanor and William. This is the blog post I wrote shortly after Joan Mondale died on 2/3/2014.

Because Walter Mondale had been out of the national limelight for a while, the death of his wife, Joan, received only a slight notice in the press outside of Minnesota. Mostly tied in with the fact she was the wife of Walter, ‘Fritz’, Mondale.   She deserved more than that just on the basis of her own life.

She was an artist, author, and patron and defender the Arts. She was dubbed Joan of Art, by the national press. Many of the her projects, such as establishing a gallery of American Artists, in the Vice Presidential Mansion are still monuments to her work in the Arts.

My encounter with Joan Mondale took place when her husband was campaigning for the Vice Presidency under Jimmy Carter, and I was working at the Guthrie Theater.

 She was attending a gala at the Walker Art Center, which was attached to the Guthrie. Her two youngest children, Eleanor and William, teenagers at the time, wanted to see the play at the Guthrie instead going to the hoopla.

Jon, the Guthrie Production Stage Manager, brought them up to the booth and told us the two kids would be watching the play from the booth. He showed some chairs to the left of the stage manager. Eleanor, noticing the chair to the right of my lighting board, announced she was going to sit there. Jon managed to crack a smile and as he went to leave, he commented that if they had any questions, ‘Just ask Don. He’s our resident babysitter.’ He was referring to the fact that I often brought children to watch the shows from the chair Eleanor had taken, something he really didn’t approve of.

‘What’s he? The resident clown?,’ Eleanor asked me, loud enough for Jon to hear as he walked to the door.

At intermission, William had many questions. When I explained how the lighting board worked and he said he thought I had a ‘cool’ job. Eleanor said she was going to be an actress; and after she made it big in the movies, she would come back and act at the Guthrie. William rolled his eyes. I certainly couldn’t disagree with her. She seemed to be a young lady who would work hard for what she wanted.

When the play finished I had some work to do in the attic, to prepare for a different play the next evening. William asked if he could go along and I said come on

He and Eleanor followed me up the ladder to the catwalks where I changed some gel colors and replugged some lighting instruments. I brought them down into some lighting coves and showed how the lights were pointed to a specific area on the stage. We could see Joey B. and the shifting crew working below, changing one set for the other. William thought that was ‘cool’ also.

Jon walked on stage with Mrs. Mondale. He hollered at me, telling me Mrs. Mondale was here for the children and wanted to know where they were. At the mention of ‘the children’, Eleanor muttered, ‘The clown in residence!’ I hollered down that they were with me in the attic and we’d be down in a few minutes.

At the mention of the two being up top with me, Jon began to bellow. How could I be so crazy as to place the children of the next Vice President of the United States in danger? The two kids both shouted to tell their mother that it wasn’t dangerous. Jon kept it up. I bellowed back that if it was so dangerous, maybe I should be drawing hazardous duty pay along with my wages. I could hear Joey B. and the shifting crew laugh.

When the three of us made it down to the stage, Jon kept up his harangue. How could I make Mrs. Mondale wait? She’s got important things to do. She was too important to have to wait on me. I should apologize to her for making her wait and for placing her children in danger. And if he had known that I was going to screw up so bad, he would have babysat the children himself. Both Eleanor and William came to my defense, and Mrs. Mondale said she didn’t mind waiting.

   Jon didn’t seem to hear them. He was having too much fun showing off. He knew I wouldn’t give him an argument in front of the Mondales. Joey B. and the shifters weren’t too sure though, and they stopped working and waited for me to order Jon off the stage. He was crossing too many lines, including the fact he was acting like he was my boss, which he wasn’t.

He was also upsetting Eleanor; and she began to walk toward him, when her mother stopped her. Then, Mrs. Mondale shook my hand and thanked me for giving her children an experience in theater that they would never forget. And she added, ‘If I didn’t have high-heels on, I would ask you to take me up and show me the catwalks.’

Then she turned to Jon, the silent one, and she commented, ‘Do you have any teenagers, Jon?’

‘Ah, no. I don’t have any children.’

I thought as much,’ she said, and went off stage, followed by the children, into the center aisle that led to the lobby. She turned and waved goodbye to Joey B. and the shifting crew. So did Eleanor and William, who both hollered out thanks to me. Jon followed.

‘Hey, Jon,’ I shouted, ‘When you can, come on back. You and me have to talk.’ Joey B. and the  shifters laughed; but Jon didn’t acknowledge my request. In fact, he stayed out of my way for several days.

Joan Mondale was a ‘dutiful’ political wife. She did everything right as her husband, Walter, rose from Minnesota Attorney General, to U.S. Senator, U.S Vice President, Democratic nominee for President, Ambassador to Japan.

Well, she did have one glitch. In an interview, she requested that she not be asked, like most politicians’ wives, what her favorite recipe was. To atone for this supposed slam at American homemakers, she quickly released a book containing ‘all her favorite recipes’, her PR people thought would go well with the Mrs. Cleavers of America.

And she suffered when Walter was trounced by Ronald Reagan in election of 1984. And years later when he was nosed out by Norm Coleman in the race for the U.S Senate vacated by the death of Paul Wellstone, just eleven days prior to the election.

Joan Mondale, the mother, saw her three children become successful. Both Ted and William went into the political and private sectors. Eleanor, as she promised, tried Hollywood, and then into talk radio in Chicago and later Minneapolis. She was a tabloid celeb, dubbed the ‘wild child’. Then at the age of 40, Eleanor was diagnosed with brain cancer. She fought it for 11 years and died at the age of 51. Every time I think of Eleanor, I remember her comment, ‘Who is he? The resident clown?’

And now reading about the death of Joan Mondale, I remember a kind and intelligent woman, a politician in her own right, and a good mother. And often wished she had changed her shoes and came back to the Guthrie so I could have given her a tour of the Guthrie catwalks.

ARSENIC AND OLD PEOPLE

Reblog 2013

 

It was a Wednesday matinee of Arsenic and Old Lace, at the Guthrie. There was a large contingent of senior citizens.

(I don’t like that term. I guess I am a senior citizen, but I don’t remember every being called a junior or sophomore citizen. Why can’t we just be called old people? Some people don’t like the idea of growing old; but it certainly is better than not getting any older.)

Anyway, the play had reached the critical exposition scene. The two old aunties, played by Barbara Bryne and Virginia Payne*, are telling their nephew Mortimer, played by Peter Goetz, who the dead body in the window box is and why they put arsenic in his elderberry wine, and about the other dead bodies buried in the cellar.

Three senior citizens, a man and two women, came down the center aisle. The man was holding some tickets and looking down the rows. When they reached the moat, the section that separates the audience from the stage, they continued walking along the audience right of the moat. In the booth the stage manager was trying to get a hold of an usher, and the sound man and myself were laughing. On stage the three actors were trying to keep the play going while glancing slyly at the three patrons.

The three stopped walking the moat, and the old man carefully stepped up the steps to the stage. He held out the tickets and spoke directly to Peter. ‘Sorry we are late. Can you help us find our seats.’ An usher ran down the center aisle and offered assistance to the three.

Surprisingly, the audience didn’t react, perhaps they thought it was a part of the play. Up in the booth though, all three of us reacted. We were laughing so loudly the patrons in the balcony turned around to see where the noise was coming from. And the actors!!!

Peter and Barbara lost it. They both headed upstage and faced the scenery. They tried to keep their laughter from being heard but their bodies shaking gave them away. Thank goodness for Virginia Payne.

Virginia had played the other aunt a year before in the Alley Playhouse in Alley Theatre in Houston, so she was familiar with Barbara’s lines as well as hers. She turned what should have been a dialogue between three people into a monologue. It was a work of art. It moved the play along and gave the other two actors a chance to regain their composure.

Later, in the second act, poor Barbara lost it again. She swatted at a fly that was buzzing around her face. The sleeve of her dress got caught on her earring. Naturally, Peter lost it also. Luckily, it was the end of the scene and the blackout gave them a chance to get offstage.

Just as they did in the first act, both got on the horn backstage and apologized to the stage manager for losing it on stage. And in both incidents, the stage manager told them they weren’t alone. The three in the booth were holding their ribs to try and stop laughing.

There were other times during the run where the cast added additional comedy to the already hilarious production.

In the original script, Peter, whose character is a drama critic. When he first enters he says that he has just come from the Bellasco Theatre. The director, after the first preview decided the audiences weren’t literate enough to know about Bellasco, changed it to the Helen Hayes Theater. Sometimes Peter remembered and said the Helen Hayes Theater, and sometime forgot and called it the Bellasco Theater. Once he forgot both names, paused for a second, and finally blurted out the Cloris Leachman theater. That cracked the booth crew up.

The stage manager told Peter how the electrician and the sound man had a beer bet on if Peter would say Bellasco or Helen Hayes. The following matinee Peter came onstage and looked up at the booth and hollered out that he had just come from the Edmond BOOTH theater. Naturally that cracked the booth crew up.

Another time, thank goodness it was also a matinee, the actor, playing the next old man that the aunties picked out for their arsenic elderberry wine, was sick. His understudy had gotten the job, not because he could act, or even remember his lines; but because he was old.

The understudy stuttered. He stammered. He went up on his lines and he had to get whispered cues from the aunties, on what to say next. Suddenly, with still many lines to say, he bolted for the door. He tripped and fell on the two steps leading to the door. His cane cracked a vase glued on a stand next to the door. He tried to open the door in, forgetting it opened out. He pulled on the door so much the set shook and a stuffed bird, that was on a sill above the door, fell and nearly hit him in the head. When he finally got the door opened, he was holding his cane horizontal, which hit the door and the side of the jam, preventing him to exit. Finally he dropped the cane and went out the door. We cracked up again in the booth.

Ken Ruta, who played the evil brother Jonathon, like to see if he could get Barbara to crack up. He got her one time. The aunties admit while his voice is Jonathon’s, his face isn’t. He pulls out a photo to show them how he looked before his plastic surgery. He always had different picture, like Clark Gable or Marilyn Monroe. The time she cracked was a picture of a naked body builder with the face of Barbara’s husband, Denny Spence, superimposed on it.

*Virginia Payne was the one and only Ma Perkins. Ma Perkins was the most successful daytime soap opera on the radio. It was sponsored by Oxydol Soap, and hence the name of soap opera was born. It was so popular that it ran on NBC and CBS at the same time.

 It was the story of an old lady who was loved by all and gave out down home advice. Virginia got the part from the first even though at age 27, she certainly was not an old lady. In the 27 year run, five days a week, Virginia never missed one episode. When the show finally ended, Virginia was the highest paid actor in daytime radio. 

She was Ma Perkins. In the season she was at the Guthrie she was loved and respected by everyone at the theater. She only spent that one season because the next year she was too sick to work. She died shortly afterwards. What a sweet person!

If you want to know more about her and the soap opera, Ma Perkins, go to the Old Time Radio at http://www.otrcat.com.

The old Guthrie Theater has been replaced by a new Theater

that overlooks the river

And like theaters everywhere it is dark

But it will open again

And until then, STAY SAFE.

PRINCESS MARGARET

PRINCESS MARGARET

Over the centuries, stagehands have managed to get themselves in all kinds of trouble; but I might be the only one ever accused of trying to assassinate Princess Margaret of Great Britain.

I was working long hours doing the stage electric prep work for the start of another Guthrie season. It involved me hanging, focusing, regelling, and relamping the instruments that would be used in all the upcoming productions, as well as the specials that would be needed for the first play on the boards, KING LEAR, directed by Michael Langham. Len Cariou, fresh from starring in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC on Broadway, for which he received a Tony nomination, was playing Lear.

Seldom does an actor as young as Cariou was at the time, play Lear. Langham explained that this Lear would be very active physically. A good actor, like Len, could handle playing age; but an older actor could not handle the physical demands that this Lear would need.

It was anticipated, not only locally, but in the English -language theater world. So much so Princess Margaret, on a tour for some benefit, was stopping off at the Guthrie to watch a rehearsal. The rehearsals were still confined to the rehearsal room and would not move to main stage for a few more days. All the hoopla should not affect me at all. And it wouldn’t have if I had not bothered to return a tool from the shop that I had borrowed.

I drove around to the loading dock. In the park across the street there was a convention of police, Minneapolis police, Hennepin County police, plain clothes police, and about a dozen of Royal Canadian Mounties looking like drum majors in their bright red uniforms. Police cars parked everywhere, leaving the drive open to where I wanted to go. I drove down, went in the side door to the shop and replaced the tool.

But when I went to drive out, there was a car blocking my way to the street. The cars ended about a hundred feet up so I drove on the sidewalk, crossed over the grass and got on the street. A Minneapolis cop watched my maneuver and ran across the street, hollering at me to pull over to the curb. He ordered me out and yelled at me for driving on the sidewalk. His commotion drew a small crowd of bored policemen.

I explained why I was driving on the sidewalk and pointed out the car blocking the driveway.

‘That’s an unmarked police car,’ he blared in a raspy smoker’s voice.

‘Well, then,’ I shot back at him, ‘He can’t plead ignorance of the law about blocking off a driveway.’

I heard a few laughs from his audience. He whipped me around and made me place my hands on the car and frisked me. Then some cop said I looked like the leader of the protesters that were hounding the princess all day. Soon others began to agree and more cops came over from the park.

I told them that I didn’t know what they were talking about. I had been working all day and asked why anybody would be protesting her.

A Mountie stepped forward and said, ‘Irish Republican Army. Down here the cocknobbers call themselves the Free Ireland Organization. Just a bunch of hosers with a fancy name.’

‘Free Ireland! Do I look Irish? Hell, I don’t even watch the St. Paddy’s Day Parade on TV. Free Ireland!’ I wanted to say more but that little voice inside my head, my personal Jimmy Cricket, spoke up, Cool it, Don. Yes sir. No sir. Let’s get out of here. They’re just showing off.

Raspy whipped me around to face him and then pushed me against my pickup..Cool it, Don. ...Little Voice made sense. But the cops began a Greek Chorus accusations and arguments pro and con.

That’s him. Same size, hippy beard’

The loud mouth was wearing expensive clothes’…

‘Changed ‘em so he could sneak up on the lady’…

Back and forth. I tried to ignore it all just like the little voice was urging me to do. I was building up to tell them all what they could go do, in spite of it being anatomically impossible. Don’t Don. Please don’t. I concentrated on staring at Raspy’s shoes. Yes sir. No sir. Nothing else, Don.

A few were shouting just to forget it. One suggested kicking me in the arse eh, and sending me on my way. Some reminded the group that they were paid to do a job and damn it they should do it. Arrest him!

I looked into Raspy’s eyes. ‘On what @#@#ing charge?’ I said. Cool it, Don.

That’s when Raspy announced, ‘For attempted assassination of Princess Margaret of the Great Britain in England..’ That got everybody’s attention, especially mine.

‘Attempted assassination! With what?’

‘With this,’ he shouted and held the Swiss Army knife he had taken out of my pocket, high so all the cops could see.

I used it as a handy tool at times. It had two actual knife blades. One very small. One would have been normal pocket knife size except half of it had broken off years before.

My little voice went unheeded. I put my face as close to Raspy’s as possible and said, loud enough so most of the cops close by could hear, ‘You are some sick son-of-a-bitch!’

You damn fool, Don, you did it now!

I managed to duck his first punch at me, and had enough self-control to realize it would be insane to retaliate. Rope-a-dope! Rope-a-Dope! This time I listened. I did my best Mohammad Ali impression, leaned back against my truck and used my fists and forearms to my face.

A lot of commotion. Lot of shouting. A lot of grunts from me.

‘Hit him.’

‘Give me shot.’

‘Not in the face’

‘Kick him in the arse, eh.’

‘Punish him. Punish him.’

Even a God Save The Queen.

There’s no business like show business.

I’m glad I was providing comic relief for what had been a boring day for most of them. I just wished it could have been something that didn’t hurt so much, like maybe telling them a joke or two.

Show business… If you would have been content to stay in one of your real jobs, Don, you had before show biz, you wouldn’t be getting your arse kicked now. The little voice had a good point. My arms were getting tired of holding them up.

‘#$!@ you, Whiskey Breath!,’ I screamed at Raspy.

He took the bait. ‘Skinny,’ he hollered, ‘Get the car. This yoyo’s going downtown.’ He cuffed me, and shoved me in the back seat and got shotgun seat. The better to swing his arm at me. Skinny had a little difficulty driving. His beer belly rubbed against the steering wheel.

Don’t even think about laughing.

‘So, rummy, who will sweep up and empty the garbage when you are sitting in a cell?’

When I told him I wasn’t a janitor and he asked what I did there, dance in the chorus? When I told him I was the Master Electrician, he asked how a rummy like me got to be a Master Electrician.

(Now this was back in the days of releasing of the Nixon Tapes in censored transcripts.)

‘Well,’ I told him,’It was either being a Master Electrician or an Expletive Deleted” cop.’

DUCK!

I pulled back far enough so he fist didn’t reach my face. Skinny spoke up and warned him to wait until he had me alone before he continued with the rough stuff. When we got to the main jail, Skinny left us off and Raspy pushed me into a small room, Oh. Oh. He didn’t bother to close so that was a good sign. And an even better sign was he took off the cuffs. You can’t rope-a-dope with your hands behind your back.

He tried to get me to blow into a breathalizer, but my ribs were hurting so bad…

‘Damn rummy,’ he said, ‘Can’t even blow up a balloon.’

I pushed it back at him. Oh, no, Don. Let is pass. ‘Here show me how. You’re so full of gas…’

Finally I accomplished the test but he made me do it two more times. He did not like the results. ‘Upstairs,’ he said and pushed me toward the elevator.

Watch it, Don. That thing can stop between floors and your ribs can’t take much more.

This time I took the advice of the Little Voice. I headed up the stairs, hollering over my should as to why I wasn’t going in any elevator with him. ‘So shoot me in the back if you want to, gas bag.’

I pressed the door buzzer and told the jailer I had to come in because I was arrested. He was looking at me in a doubting way until he noticed Raspy huffing up the stairs. Raspy told him to throw me in a cell and he would get the paperwork soon. The jailer buzzed me in.

He motioned for me to sit at the desk and asked me questions like my name and address and when he finished I asked him if I could call my wife. I remembered to address him as sir. He smiled and pushed the desk phone over to me, not even compelling me to use the pay phone on the wall.

When I told my wife where I was, she wasn’t happy. When I told her why, it didn’t make her any happier. I asked her to call Tom, a lawyer I went to high school with, tell him what was going on, and then call me back. I gave her the number on the phone and thanked the jailer, again using the term sir. He handed me the newspaper and let me sit there waiting for my wife to call back.

There was an interview in the paper with the leader of the demonstrations. His picture did resemble  me a little. We both had beards. He was a children’s doctor.

My wife didn’t sound very happy when she told me what Tom had told her. Tom had called the Guthrie thinking maybe an explanation from them would straighten things out. He said he talked to somebody named Cranny, who told him he never heard of anybody named Don @#$# Ostertag, and then slammed the phone down. Tom said he couldn’t make it to court in the morning so I should just plead not guilty. He thought I would probably be released without bail and he would be with me when I had to go back. My wife wished me a good night and hoped she would see me the next day. She wasn’t happy.

The next morning, as soon as the judge took her seat, the prosecutor, who wasn’t happy, asked the judge for a side bar. The prosecutor showed the judge the paper with the charges against me, pointing out that demonstrating against anything was protected by the first amendment and the DUI charge was a joke, the result of the breathalyzer test showed nothing. The judge read the paperwork. She asked if the charging officer was in court. Naturally he wasn’t. She ordered that the charging officer either write up legitimate charges and appear with my next appearance, or send a letter apologizing for wasting the court’s time.

‘I plead Not Guilty, your honor,’ I blurted out, catching myself before I used sir.

She held up her hand and said this had to be straightened out first and I would receive a letter either with a new court date or an absolution. She told the bailiff to see to it I got back my personal belongs. He did, even my Swiss Army Knife, and I thanked the kind sir.

I took a bus and got to the Guthrie about ten. Duane, the assistant lighting director wasn’t concerned because I was late. He said we just had a little touchup and we’d be ready when Gill the lighting designer came in town later.

Duane had gone into the rehearsal room after we finished work the day before. He told how the Princess came in surrounded by men in suits. Michael Langham had never met any of the royal family and he was looking forward to meeting Princess Margaret. But just as the Princess was holding out her hand, a red alert came over a walkie- talkie that an employee of the Guthrie might be a threat to the Princess.

The suits pulled out their guns. One had his pointed at Michael’s head. The Princess acted as if nothing was taking place and continued to shake Michael’s hand. They were making small talk as the notification that the red alert was over and the situation was taken care of.

A few people expressed sympathy to me for the incident. Some of the veteran employees kidded me. Len Cariou told me he was certainly glad I didn’t get jail time because he wanted to get back some of the poker money I had taken from him in past seasons.

Michael Langham muttered something about Keystone Kops and shook his head. Cranny avoided me for several weeks. The letter from the court absolved me of the whole thing. My wife was happy. I had sure missed her smile.

My friend, Tom, never sent me a bill. Len Cariou’s poker playing never improved. KING LEAR was the success everyone thought it would be. My ribs healed up in a few weeks.

I thanked my Little Voice and promised to listen to him in the future.Yeah, sure you will.

Wrong time. Wrong Place. Big Mouth.

But the next time I had anything do with Royalty, it was a much more rewarding visit.

Princess Grace of Monaco

And that’s another story… coming soon.

THE GHOST OF THE GUTHRIE

 

 

Old Guthrie Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the ghost light

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

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

SUGGEST LOOK TO THE TECH ROOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well, did he?’ Milt asked.

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

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

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

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

‘I will not! That would be rude!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

That are dreamt in your philosophy.

 

And that’s a wrap.

 

DAY(S) THE MUSIC DIED

The Day the Music Died

This is a Blog Posting from 2014

Gee, it’s been 56 years since Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper finished a concert at The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Their next gig was in Moorhead, Minnesota. They never made it. Their plane crashed shortly after take-off. February 3, 1959 – ‘The day the music died’, as Don McLean proclaimed in his song/poem ‘AMERICAN PIE’.

Their deaths really didn’t affect me as much as it affected others my age. I was in the Army at the time. Although I kept up with popular music before I went into the Army, I pretty much lost track of the Top 40 hits during my Army stint.

At the time I was in Headquarters Company, 82 Airborne, Signal Battalion At Fort Bragg. Unlike the men in the two line companies, who lived in squad rooms, we in Headquarters Company had two-man rooms. My roommate, Patricio Menes, and I were into ‘cool’ jazz, Brubeck, Kenton, etc.. I had a small hi-fi phonograph and the two us had a number of LPs. Neither of us had a radio or a car with one . And I didn’t have one on my motorcycle. We heard some of the music of the day when we were shooting pool in the day room and American Bandstand was on TV. And we heard a lot of the music on juke boxes when we went to Fayetteville.

The first I heard of the plane crash was the next night when Patricio came in  the room and told me, ‘Richie was killed in a plane crash.’ I thought he was talking about some friend of his, but Pat put me straight. ‘Richie Valens! ‘ LA BAMBA!’

I knew the song because Pat played it often on juke boxes. Valens came from L.A. just like Patricio. Pat and the other Latinos from the L.A. barrio thought Valens was one of their own, and liked to sing the Mexican folk song, LA BAMBA, which Valens, not only made a hit out of it, but sang it in Spanish. I often wondered how Pat and his friends felt when they found out that Valens didn’t come from the barrio, but from a suburb of L.A., and his Spanish was limited to ordering from a menu and reading the lyrics of his hit from a cue card.

And it was several days after I heard Valens was killed in a crash that I learned Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper were also killed in that crash.

Over the years I learned the back stories like Waylon Jennings, a member of The Crickets, gave up his seat in the plane to the Big Bopper, who was sick, and went by bus with the other Crickets as well as Dion and the Belmonts. Waylon took off on his own shortly afterwards and went ‘outlaw’.

Then there the story of how the concert promoter in Moorhead filled out the bill as best he could and brought in a local boy, Bobby Vee, as one of the acts. Vee followed up that appearance with several hit singles, and when the time came for Vee to record his first album, he hired a young Bobby Dylan to play guitar on the album.

And over the years, I began to appreciate the talent  of Buddy Holly.

Since that crash took place before I became a stage hand, I never had the pleasure of working those three. I saw the movies based on the lives of Holly and Valens. And I worked BUDDY THE MUSICAL several times. But it’s not the same as seeing them in person.

As far as the others in the back story, I had the pleasure of working them all many times. The name of Bobby Vee may not be familiar to most people but he was very talented and fun to work, especially in the later years when he and his sons put on their shows. Sadly, I read the other day that Bobby Vee has Alzheimer’s.

A few years later, Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins were killed in a small plane crash. And the list of musicians killed in light plane crashes goes on and on. The two that hit me the hardest was Ricky Nelson and Jim Croce.

Although he is largely ignored today, Ricky Nelson was big, big, big in the early days of rock and roll. For several years, only Elvis outsold him. And then he let his addictions grand his career to a screaming halt.

I had just worked Nelson shortly before his death. He was so excited. His concerts were selling better than he had hoped; his all time hits album had just been remastered, and he felt maybe his career would take off again. He was also high. They figured out that fire from cocaine freebasing on the plane caused the ‘Travelin Man’ to have his ticket punched.

The two favorite front acts of Sue Wiel, promoter at the Guthrie, were James Taylor and later, Jim Croce. Taylor was so thankful for Sue’s faith in him when he was trying to bust the big time, that he promised to come back and play two shows at the G when he did make it. And what shows they were! He also brought along his wife at the time, Carly Simon, who sang some duets with James and a few solos. Two big acts for the price of one. At that time, he was so big he could have easily sold out an arena show, but he had made Sue a promise.

I got to know Jim Croce during his front act performances at the Guthrie. After he finished his act, he would come up to the lighting booth and sit next to me to watch the main act. He was interesting, a good story teller, and he made no bones about loving his wife and his newborn baby. A nice person and a great talent.

Like James Taylor before him, Jim also planned to do a couple thank you shows for Sue, when he made it big. And like James Taylor, he was good to his promise. He was booked to play the Guthrie, even though he was hot enough to play a much larger venue in the Twin Cities, on the tour that took his life. Killed in a small-plane crash. What a loss!

So many, many musicians had their careers cut short because of small-plane crashes. So many, many days that ‘music died’.

STRANGERS ON A STAGE

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

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

 Old Guthrie II The Old Guthrie

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

big northrop Northrop Auditorium @ U of MN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orpheum Minneapolis Orpheum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

LANCED!

Old G stage

In my years at the Guthrie, one question was always asked me, ‘Doesn’t it get boring watching the same play over and over’?

It probably would if it was the same play over and over; but, while the script and blocking may be the same, it is not the same play each performance. Every performance brings something different, something that only is noticed by watching it over and over. There is always the interaction between the audience and the actors, sometimes a laugh line brings snickers, sometimes roars. An audience member with a loud unforgettable laugh can influence the audience, the actors.

Some times a scene ends in just a blackout. Sometimes it endS with the audience in tears. Often the play ends with a polite applause, sometimes with a standing ovation. And there was the three times at the end of OEDIPUS, directed by Michael Langham from a translation by Anthony Burgess, author of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the play ended, the audience sat frozen. The stage lights brightened and the curtain call began, the audience sat frozen. Even when Oedipus, who blinded himself, walks back on the promontory, stares at the audience, bows his head and walks back off stage, the audience sat frozen. And not until the last actor had left the stage, and I had dimmed the stage lights and turned the house lights full did the audience finally break out of their trance, rise in unison and applaud like mad. Strong performance of a strong classic, and a chilling experience.

And performances are often influenced by outside events. The only time I remember the Guthrie not started a play on time was the night the audience sat in silence while the voice of Richard M. Nixon was broadcasted live over the house speakers. When he started he was President Nixon. When he finished, he was ex-President Nixon. And at the end you could hear a collective sigh from the audience. The national soap opera was over at last. I did my cues on autopilot that performance, and I am sure the cast and audience felt the same numbness.

And the unexpected. A flubbed line. A technical miscue. An elderly patron actually walking on stage during a performance and asking the actors to help him find his seat. Sometimes only the cast and crew realized what happened, the audience accepts it as part of the play. Just about anything can happen in a Shakespeare play and the audience accepts it.

For instance there was a very late entrance in WINTER’S TALE leaving an actor to adlib with such dialogue as: ‘The Duke is lateth.’ ‘I am certain the Duke will cometh.” Me thinks I hear the Duke – but he still ist far away.’ ‘Hey, I seeth the Duke.’ The Duke came on and the sweating actor ran off stage. It cracked up the three of us in the booth, but the audience just accepted it.

In a performance of KING LEAR the audience actually accepted the impossible. Edgar and Edmund have a duel that results in Edmund being mortally wounded; but he doesn’t die until he delivers a very important speech to let the audience know of events that happened off stage important to the story.

This time though prior to the fatal thrust Edgar lost the handle on his sword and it went flying into the audience. Edgar, thinking on his feet, grabbed Edmund by the neck; and since he couldn’t stab Edmund to cause his death, he throttled him. Edmund fell to the stage, death by strangulation.

But Edmund, thinking on his back, knowing he still had to deliver his important speech, rose up into a sitting position. He delivered his speech and fell back into his corpse position. Death by strangulation. The audience accepted it without a so much as a snicker; but the three of us in the booth were laughing so hard, we had a hard time doing our cues to get into the next scene.

The other day in a Facebook thread, Lance Davis mentioned that the actors often said it looked like the crew in the booth was having more fun than the cast on the stage, and often it was true. The sound tech, the stage manager, and yours truly, the lighting tech, worked behind glass in a very dimly lit booth beyond the back row of the balcony. The cast could see us but it was hard for the audience to see us. And the glass prevented the sound our cues being called, our talking back and forth, and our laughter.

Back in the day, Lance was a favorite of the Guthrie audiences and the Guthrie family. Eventually he left to spread his wings, tried New York, tried film and TV, and finally decided to go back to his love of acting on stage in classic theater. But times had changed, there was no more getting hired by the season, just being hired by the run of a play. Even the Guthrie dropped it’s repertoire concept of presenting plays and went along with doing a play for a run and then another play for a run. Such a shame.

So Lance and his wife, Mary, founded their own theater, The Parson’s Nose, in Pasadena. It’s motto: ‘Introducing Classic Theater’. Season after season, it receives rave reviews.

Lance was also responsible for one of the greatest adlibs I ever heard.

Lance LANCE BACK IN THE DAY

            It was during a performance of Peter Nichols play, THE NATIONAL HEALTH, directed by Michael Langham and with the playwright, Peter Nichols, coming from England to assist Michael. The play is credited with waking up the English government to the fact that if they wanted their new national health system to succeed, they couldn’t do it unless they were willing to spend the necessary money, and not do it on the cheap. They did and today their national health care system is one of the best.

It is a dark comedy about the crowded and inferior conditions in a national hospital. There is also a play within the play, a soap opera set in a hospital. It used a lot of old music hall schtick to get laughs.

Lance wore many hats, an evil orderly in the realistic scenes, a doctor/emcee in the soap opera scenes. As the emcee he carried on a battle with Keane, the cantankerous spot operator who kept the light moving off Lance when Lance tried to talk. An old routine that never failed to get laughs.

The play used music to introduce the scenes. Loud martial music would introduce the realistic scenes. Soft soapy music introduced the soap opera scenes.

Now during this time, Scott the sound tech was having women problems, which for Scott was nothing unusual. But this time it was serious. The current love of Scott’s life, Judith, had left him a note saying she was leaving him to join the hippie commune, the Hog Farm, out in California. It broke Scott up and caused him to screw up badly. Over several performances of NATIONAL HEALTH he played the wrong scene lead in music at times. Sometimes the soapy music would introduce a realistic scene. Sometimes vice versa.

This time, as Lance was going downstage to emcee a soap opera scene, the military music blasted out and Lance stopped and looked up to the booth. Scott realized what he had done and tried to rectify it by playing the soft music on top of the wrong music. A real mess.

When the noise was over, Lance pointed up to the booth and yelled, ‘Alice! You wouldn’t make a sound man for Theater of the Deaf.’

The audience laughed. They thought it was another bit like the wandering spot light. But the cast and the crew knew better.

Two of us in the booth howled. The third person, Scott, didn’t think it was funny at all.

The next morning he thought it even less funny when he got a phone call from Guthrie management. They informed him that in light of his many mistakes recently, they had decided that the next time Scott ever attended a play at the Guthrie, he would need a ticket to get in.

He was devastated. He went to Kaplan’s, bought himself a pair of work gloves and a straw hat. Then he contacted Judith to tell her he was on his way to join her at the Hog Farm. Judith asked him just what part of her leaving him didn’t he understand.

In answer to the question about being bored, no, I never got bored working live entertainment of any genre. Now working on a movie, that was real boredom – well, some of the time. But of all the various jobs I had in my life, being a stage hand those 45 years was the best I could ever have hoped for.

And that’s a wrap.

the ghost light

Well just a couple things:

If you want to know more about THE PARSON’S NOSE, the web page is www.parsonsnose.com. You can follow it on Facebook also. Lance makes certain that he not only informs, he entertains in both.  And if you get a chance to see a play there, be sure and do it. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed in Lance & Company, and the sound cues will be perfect.

Also if you want to know more about the elderly man asking the actors to help him find his seat, the story is in my blog post:ARSENIC AND OLD PEOPLE 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

POQUITO SOL

poquito sol

 

 

Lately the news, the local news, (Hate), the national news, (Hate), the international news, (Hate), has been so depressing. 

I needed something to cheer me up.

            Even the weather has been so depressing. Rain and more rain. It finally snowed last week and melted a few days later. Usually I look to nature for solace and even that is depressing.

The grass is still green; but the trees, which, not too long ago, were brilliant with the leaves of many colors, are naked.

I can see the pond easier now that the leaves aren’t blocking the view, but there is no ducks to be seen. Like so many of the old retirees in Minnesota, they have gone south. There’s still two Canadian geese that walk through the field, still getting fat on the grass. They look lonesome out there.

The fawn deer that were so cute a few months ago have lost their spots and now are  just smaller members of the herd. I watch them eating the green grass and feel sorry; because in spite of no real winter yet, that grass will be covered with snow and food will be hard for them to find. They are in for a sad surprise.

The other day I saw a young buck deer, a four pointer, laying back by the shed. He looked to be sleeping even though it was almost noon. Every once in a while he would lift his head and sniff the air. Finally he tried to get up. He had a hard time. He began to walk with great difficulty. He was favoring his left hind hip. I felt for him, knowing first hand how walking can be very painful. I surmised that he had been feeling his oats and decided to take a doe out of the herd; but the head buck objected and taught the youngster a lesson. He managed to disappear into the woods, an outcast from the herd; yet safer than if he had been further north, up in wolves country.

I needed something to cheer me up.

 

I looked at the entries in my blog the past year. So many concerned themselves with old friends and acquaintances who passed away. But when you are my age, you are bound to have many memories of people now deceased. I  just never intended that it should turn into an obituary blog. After all, I subtitled it ‘Laughter In The Wings’.

Oh, yes, I needed something to cheer me up.

 

So I dug in my Documents and found a few incidents that I found funny at the time and am happy to say I think they have stood the test of time. Maybe you will too.

They have a common string, Mexico, a beautiful land of beautiful people, in spite of what Trump and his Brown Shirted Haters would have you believe.

 

From: The Old Hand

My old friend, Joey B. liked photos, liked posing for them, liked taking them. Although he was better at the former than the later.

I remember how excited he was once when he returned from a trip to Mexico. He came on stage with a camera hanging around his neck. “Bought this just before we went on the trip,” he said. “I can’t wait to see the finished pictures. I dropped twelve rolls of film off at the drug store and they told me I could pick them up after work.

“Guys, I got some snapshots there that will knock your socks off!”

He handed off his new camera to show around. Tom, who knew something about photography, took off the lens cap.

What the hell is that?” Joe exclaimed!

Joe never bothered to go back to pick up the “developed” pictures. I guess he figured once you have seen the inside of a lens cap, you don’t need twelve rolls of film to remind you what it looked like.

Published St. Paul Dispatch

Joey B liked Mexico. He spent a lot of the Guthrie off season down in Ensenada fishing. After he retired, he lived down there almost all year long for several years, fishing and he was happy. His long suffering wife stayed in Minneapolis and continued to work as a dresser at the Guthrie, and she was happy. 

 

From: The Old Hand 

            My wife, Gina, and I were sitting in an outdoor café in Oaxaca, Mexico. Naturally, there were a number of cute little kids selling hand crafts like necklaces and scarves, and the local delicacy, roasted ants. One lad, though, had nothing to sell. He just wanted money.

Gina, a Mexican by birth, chided him for asking for money. She pointed out that the other children were industrious, selling things, and he should be ashamed for being just a beggar. He wasn’t.

Senora,” he said, “You give me money. I will go and buy something. And then I will come back and sell it to you. Si?”

Made sense to me, but my wife continued her lecture on how he should try and be more than just a beggar. She stressed that once a beggar, always a beggar. Work hard. Get ahead. “And,” she added, “Who knows? Someday you could become presidente of Mexico.”

Presidente of Mexico!” The lad shouted, “I’d rather be a beggar.”

Published St Paul Dispatch

 

If it wasn’t for the family, we’re lucky our boys and their families all live close by, my wife and would become snow birds. Only instead of wintering in Florida or Arizona like so many Minnesotans, we would head for Mexico. The two coasts are nice; but I would opt for the Colonial Cities, San Miguel and the others. So picturesque and leisurely, and not too far from Mexico City, another of my favorite cities.

 

 

From: The Old Hand

It was during the time when the TV news was filled with the war in Viet Nam. One Friday evening we took the five boys to a double feature drive-in movie. By the start of the second feature they were asleep, or so we thought. The second feature was a Clint Eastwood ‘comedy’ set in WWII, KELLY’S HEROES.

As I was setting the speaker back on its stand, preparing to drive out, Derrick, our third son, five or six at the time, leaned over the front seat and said, ‘Dad, when I get big,’ he said, ‘I am not going to go to Viet Nam. Remember those mountains by Mexico City? I am going to go to those mountains and live there. I don’t want people to shoot at me, and I don’t think anybody wants me to shoot at them.’

Not published. Just kept in my heart.

 

 

The Bible: YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’

 

The Koran:…FOR ALLAH LOVES THOSE WHO ARE KIND

 

Mein Kampf: Power lies in stirring up Hatred and telling the Big Lie.

 

The Millers: Let There Be Peace On Earth   And Let It Begin With Me

 

 

 

 

THE GHOST OF THE GUTHRIE

 

 

Old Guthrie Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the ghost light

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

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

SUGGEST LOOK TO THE TECH ROOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well, did he?’ Milt asked.

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

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

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

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

‘I will not! That would be rude!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

That are dreamt in your philosophy.

 

And that’s a wrap.

 

ROBIN REVISTED

Robin Williams

 

In January of 2014 I wrote a post about Robin Williams, working with him, and almost not working with him. On August 11, 2014 Robin’s demons caught up with him, and he took his own life. On the first anniversary of Robin’s death, I decided to repost that first post. 

In that post, Leonard Nimoy plays a large part. Leonard died of natural causes in February 2015.

In that short period of time I lost two men that I really enjoyed working with. One, an acquaintance 

 

 

Working with Robin Williams in person is a real trip. He is just like his character in his TV show, THE CRAZY ONES, unpretentious, and very unpredictable. He was an easy person for me to like; even if his inactivity caused a lot of problems for a friend of mine, Dennis Babcock, and could have caused Dennis to be  fired. But thanks to an action by Leonard Nimoy, the problem was solved.

Dennis Babcock was the wunderkind of the Guthrie. He left a good day job to pursue a career in theater. Starting out in a menial position, he jumped to manager of the Dram Shop, the Guthrie’s private bar and reversed its downward trend. Then he took over selling ads for the Guthrie show programs and made the programs an excellent source of revenue for the theater. He became the Special Events Producer, overseeing the Guthrie rentals, booking outside acts, and in some cases, conceiving shows produced under the sponsorship of the Guthrie. He took a hiatus to be Managing Director of the Pittsburgh Public Playhouse, came back as Assistant Managing Director of the Guthrie. Ventured out on his own and became a successful independent theatrical producer.

The problem with Robin Williams concerned his upcoming appearance at the Guthrie.

Dennis and I were on tour with Leonard Nimoy’s one-man show, VINCENT. Dennis had been responsible for the Guthrie sponsoring VINCENT and for fine tuning the production.

Nimoy had completed a long and arduous filming of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and he wanted to get back to his basics, live theater; but not necessarily in a long, eight shows a week, commitment. His good friend, Vincent Price, suggested that Leonard come up with a one-man show. Price had several for himself, and he just unwrapped one whenever he wanted to felt the need to get back to live theater. These type of shows offered great flexibility and satisfied the need for appearing before a live audience.

Leonard found one based on the letters between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. He collaborated with  the original playwright and came up with VINCENT.

He booked it for one day in three cities. The first theater had a problem getting all the technical requirements together and Leonard went on stage with what they could piece together. At the next theater, the Guthrie, we had all the tech work done in about four hours, time enough for Leonard to do a tech rehearsal and work on his blocking on a thrust stage. He had come to the Guthrie a few weeks before and told us what he wanted to achieve. He also had worries about achieving those results on a thrust stage. The main problem was solved easily. Instead of one picture sheet to show slides of Van Gogh’s work, we used two sheets in a modified vee so the entire audience could see the paintings. Things worked out fine for the two shows we did the day. At the third theater, the technical progress was worse then the first.

Babcock purposed the Guthrie sponsor the show. Both Nimoy and the Guthrie agreed. Dennis hired a set designer and had the set built in the Guthrie shop. He hired me as the lighting designer and persuaded me to take the show out as carpenter/electrician and lighting board operator. Dennis booked us in cities in the Midwest and West Coast. After the Guthrie season we rehearsed at the theater, did a week of shows and went on the road, setting out during one of the biggest snow storms in several years.

Dennis had more hats than a haberdasher. Before we left, he filled the Guthrie offseason with a variety of shows and supervised them via phone. On the road, he was the tour manager, in charge of hotels, flights, dealing with local bookers, finances, problems that came up, etc.. In addition he supervised the setting up of the sound and slide projectors while I was working on the lighting. He also served as a backup to run the sound and slides in places where we didn’t have time for a local stagehand to rehearse. Actually, since we never had time during the first lap of the tour, Dennis ran the sound and slides with the local stagehand sitting beside him, watching.

One of the first events he had booked at the Guthrie, while we were on tour, was Cheech and Chong, hot off the release of their movie, UP IN SMOKE. From Dennis’ point of view it was successful, two sold out shows without a hitch. But not from the point of view of the Guthrie’s Board and the Managing Director of the theater, Don  Schoenbaum. Don S. called Dennis and he was livid. Under no circumstances should the Guthrie be involved in promoting the pot culture. There hadn’t been that many villagers with pitch forks and torches circling the theater since the WalkerArtCenter had presented Frank Zappa at the Guthrie, and Zappa presented every audience member with a condom. Don S. said that he managed to stem the bleeding by promising such a thing would never happen again. ‘And it just better not! Or???’

[I guess the Walker Art Center presentation of the Alan Ginsberg at the Guthrie, a year or two before, must have passed under the Board’s radar. After Ginsberg read HOWL, he invited the small audience to come on the stage so they could discuss the poem and pass joints around, with nary a complaint from the more than willing audience.]

For several weeks, it was nothing but good news on the home front for Dennis. But when things broke, it broke big time, thanks to Robin Williams. A Board member had called Schoenbaum and read him the review of Williams comedy tour which had opened  in Chicago, and reminded Don S. that Williams was booked to do his show at the Guthrie. Don S. phoned Dennis and read, no, shouted the review to him.

It seems Robin Williams opened the show by walking downstage and proclaiming that he wanted to show the audience something he took great pride in, Mr. Happy! He then unzipped his fly and exposed Mr. Happy to the shocked audience, asking if anyone wanted to come and shake hands with Mr. Happy.

Don S. reminded Dennis that Dennis had Williams booked at the Guthrie shortly after our tour ended, and reminded Dennis what had transpired after the Cheech and Chong shows, and reminded Dennis what would happen if another fiasco took place on the Guthrie Stage. In short, if something like that happened, the only way Dennis could get back in the theater was with a paid ticket. The ultimatum: straighten this guy out or cancel the show, even at the risk of a lawsuit, which would also result in bad news for Dennis.

As soon as Schoenbaum hung up, Dennis put in calls to Robin, to Robin’s agent, to the theater where Robin was performing, asking to have Robin call back ASAP. But Robin never called back. Day after day, call after call, no response from Robin.

We had brought the show to Scottsdale to open their new CivicCenter. Like all new theaters there was technical glitches, not helped by the young, unprofessional house crew. Still no call back from Williams. I often wondered how Dennis managed to keep his cool during this period.

It was at the breakfast buffet at the Radisson Scottsdale in midweek when Nimoy asked Dennis what was bothering him. He said that Dennis had looked troubled for several days and wondered if there was something ahead in the tour that Leonard should know about. ‘No’, Dennis assured him, and then told Leonard about the problem with the Robin Williams booking.

The name, Robin Williams, meant nothing at first to Nimoy until his wife, Sandy, mentioned that Williams was a young comedian who was a big hit in a TV show, MORT & MINDY, playing Mort, an alien. Then Leonard remembered him. Robin was a big STAR TREK fan and liked to visit the set where they were filming the movie. His sitcom was filmed just down the street at Paramount. ‘Let me see what I can do’, he told Dennis, and signaled the waiter to bring a phone to the table. He called someone at Paramount and said he wanted Robin Williams to call him at once.

We hadn’t even finished breakfast when the call came. Leonard skipped the small talk and told Robin that Robin was causing Leonard’s friend, Dennis Babcock, a lot of problems, the least being, Robin’s failure to return Dennis’s phone calls. He told Williams to straighten out the problem, now! And handed the phone to Dennis.

Dennis told Robin about the ultimatum. Robin assured Dennis he would do anything, within reason, to remedy the situation. With his background in the Arts, Robin said that the appearing at the Guthrie was the highlight of his current tour. He promised that Mr. Happy would not make an appearance or would not even be mentioned at the Guthrie. However, he reminded Dennis that his current routine was adult orientated, and should not be sold as a reflection of his role as Mort. Dennis agree that all future ads would state the performance would be for adults, not children. And placards would be placed in the Guthrie lobby before the show proclaiming the show for adults only.

Dennis took a deep breath after the phone call, thanked Leonard, and called Don Schoenbaum to tell him the compromise reached. Schoenbaum agreed to the settlement; but his last words where, ‘We’ll have to see. Won’t we?’

Robin was one of the first acts presented after we came back from tour.  The first show sold out and a second show was booked for that day. The setup was a snap and Robin came to the theater early enough to be given a tour. We took him down to the prop room so he could select props to use in his show. What a hoot! He had us in stitches picking up props and adlibbing a routine about the prop. Both shows went off without a hitch and were well received. What was amazing was, while both shows had a similar routine, both were totally different. Robin worked off the response of the audience and tailored the show for that audience as he went along. I worked him live several time over the years, each time a real treat, both onstage and offstage, and each show was different from the previous one .

Since MORT & MINDY aired during my Guthrie days, and nights, I never saw as much as one episode; although I heard Robin earned all the praise given him. I saw his first movie, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, as soon as it came out. I had read the book and found it slow and plodding. I found the movie to be the same. Robin was okay, but John Lithgow stole the show. I saw most of Robin’s movies but never really got excited over many of them. In short, for the most part, they were too confining for Robin’s talent. The one exception was him as  the voice and inspiration as Genie in ALADDIN. My favorite of Robin’s roles was in THE BIRDCAGE, where he played a loving partner and loving father all the while being the straight man, no pun intended, to Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria, and even Gene Hackman.

I was pleased when came back to TV. THE CRAZY ONES affords him the freedom his talent requires. From what I understand, it also gives him a chance to come face to face with the mistakes he made in his life, a sort of therapy. I watched the pilot episode and really liked it. The second show, I found a little too gross for my taste. I have watched other episodes, but the show has never materialized into a must-watch for me. I guess it is better than the majority of the sitcoms on TV, but that is faint praise. Like I said, I have fond memories working Robin Williams live, and I wish him the best of luck in his return to TV. He is a unique talent that should not be wasted on rigid, uninteresting movies.

This was written in January of 2014. Eight months later, Robin Williams died. Thirteen months later, Leonard Nimoy died.

R.I.P. ROBIN

R.I.P. LEONARD

AND THAT’S A WRAP

 

STARRY, STARRY NIGHT

images (3)

House lights go down for the second act of VINCENT, but the stage lights remain dark. Then Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night fades on the two picture sheets that are upstage of the set. Music fades in, Don McLean’s recording of his song, Vincent, aka Starry, Starry Night. The song continues as a montage of Vincent’s paintings appear on the screens.

In the ambient light from slides you can make out the silhouette of Leonard Nimoy. He stands off to one side, his back to the audience, looking at and enjoying the art along with the audience.

The music fades out. Starry Night reappears for a moment and then fades out also. Backlights fill the stage and Nimoy turns as the front lights fade in and he resumes as Theo Van Gogh telling us about his brother, Vincent.

Selecting the Van Gogh paintings was hard because of the volume of great works and the little time allotted to show them. Selecting the music for the interlude was harder.

Leonard wanted Don McLean singing Vincent from the very start; however he had a friend he relied on for advice who thought the song was Pop, unfit to be part of ‘serious’ art. The friend, an artistic director of a regional theater, was pretentious to say the least. He never said Shakespeare, but always said ‘The Bard’. Theater was always spelled theatre and ‘Arts’ should never be coupled with ‘Crafts’. He backed off somewhat when it was pointed out that the very same recording was played hourly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and a copy of the sheet music was buried in the museum’s time capsule.

young mclean

Don McLean, singer/songwriter, troubadour/poet, is an American treasure, but not exactly a household name. He is mostly indentified with his American Pie aka The Day The Music Died, known for it’s mysterious lyrics and it’s extraordinary length. ‘Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee was dry.’ His second most famous work is Vincent, his ode to Van Gogh. ‘And now I understand what you tried to say to me”.

American Pie represented a sad time in McLean’s life, the death of an idol, Buddy Holly. Vincent reflected the sadness of his early life especially after the death of his father when Don was only 15. It was written on a brown paper bag during a period of marital problems. McLean had always identified with Van Gogh, who was never appreciated during his lifetime, and is reflected the lyrics ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still    Perhaps they never will’.

            Outside of an excellent rendition by Madonna, American Pie is left by other recording artists for McLean. His recording of it was voted #5 of the 365 Songs of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Vincent, on the other hand, is covered by many other artists, like Julie Andrews, Julio Ingesias, Chet Atkins, and my favorite cover, Jane Olivor.

His song, And I Love You So has been covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, Howard Keel, a cover by Perry Como reached #1in the Easy Listening genre. His song, Wonderful Baby, was dedicated to and recorded by Fred Astaire.

In his recordings and his concerts, his repertoire includes his own compositions as well as songs identified with singers like Sinatra, Buddy Holly, his mentor, Pete Seeger, Gordon Lightfoot, and Marty Robbins.

When Ray Orbison released his song Crying, it was received just so-so. McLean cut a cover of it that hit #1 in the international market. Orbison made a rerecording of it, using some of the innovations of McLean, and it is now a classic. Orbison said McLean had the best cover of any of Orbison’s songs and said McLean had ‘the voice of the century’.

Don McLean was also responsible, indirectly, for another classic,  Killing Me Softly With His Song. Lori Lieberman, singer/songwriter, said that she was so touched by Don McLean in concert, singing his song, Empty Chairs, inspired by McLean looking at Van Gogh’s painting of The Chair,  that she wrote a poem as soon as she got home. The poem was set to music and Roberta Flack’s version was 1973’s Record Of The Year.

Dennis Babcock, Guthrie’s Special Events Producer, and the man who put the production and tour of VINCENT together, booked in Don McLean in concert during our VINCENT rehearsal period. Great concert! First time I ever worked McLean. First time Nimoy ever saw him in person and met him. McLean saved Vincent/Starry, Starry Night for the encore and dedicated it to Leonard and the upcoming tour of VINCENT.

As usual, I was house electrician for the concert. When I asked McLean about his lighting preferences, he just smiled and told me to do as I wanted. I did. Used various gels for mood, slow color transitions, sometimes just back light to silhouette him.

When we were knocking down the concert equipment, Eric, Nimoy’s dresser and the self appointed major domo for the tour, came on stage.

‘Don,’ he said, in his dramatic basso voice, ‘I know that your lighting of VINCENT is in the tradition of the stage; but frankly, it is vanilla pudding. Now your lighting of the concert tonight reflected Van Gogh and his paintings. You should incorporate that into VINCENT. Be bold! Spice it up!’

‘Well,’ I confessed, ‘I have often thought about doing just that, but I don’t know if Leonard go for it.’

‘Who do you think brought up the idea? And I agree with him. Leonard had to go out to dinner with Mr. McLean and asked me to mention it to you so you could perhaps have some of it in tomorrow’s rehearsal.’

I didn’t need much time at all. I had it pretty much finalized by the time rehearsals started the next day. The key was my use of colored backlights. In his last years, his most ambitious period, in and around Arles in southern France, he used a preponderance of cobalt blue and amber yellow In one of his letters to his brother, Theo, Vincent defended his use of new colors and bolder brush strokes talking of

“vast fields of wheat under troubled skies”.

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

The play’s set had two picture sheets a backdrop. The backlights hung downstage of them, in such a way as to avoid spilling any light on the sheets. There were three distinct parts of the set.

Stage Right was Theo’s office, a desk and chair. The backlight for this section was the cold heavy blue of Vincent’s midnight sky on cloudless nights.

“Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue”

Eyes of China Blue

Stage Left was Vincent’s studio. A rough built table with a paint smeared smock on it. A palette and brushes. A stool. An easel. This backlight was the yellow amber of Vincent’s home and sparse furnishing at Arles. His sunflowers.

“Morning fields of amber grain”

Van_Gogh_-_Weizenfeld_bei_Sonnenuntergang

Center stage was the neutral zone where the two colors combined. I controlled the intensity of the two backlight colors, in all three sections depending upon where  Leonard was and the mood at the time,

“Colors changing hue”

Starry Night

Leonard liked the new lighting. Erik liked the new lighting. Sandy, Leonard’s wife at the time, liked it.

I knew I had aced it when, on opening night, Alvin Epstein, the Guthrie’s Artistic Director, told me that my lighting was like bringing a Van Gogh painting to life.

But naturally there was a voice of dissent. The Pretentious Pal felt my lighting was vulgar, unfit to be part of serious art. He suggested that Leonard get a ‘real’ Lighting Designer. And naturally he knew the names of several of who he had used in his theater. Leonard said thanks but no thanks. When Leonard was approached by Babcock about a Guthrie production of the skeleton version Leonard first brought to town, Leonard agree and wanted me to be involved and to light it.

At the risk of bragging, theatrical reviewers seldom mention the lighting, and yet in almost all the reviews we got around the country my lights were not only mentioned but also praised. When we played a benefit for The Pretentious Pal’s theater, he really cut loose on me. After all I was a stagehand and lighting was art and the two should be kept separate. And I was not only a stagehand, I was a union stagehand!

I didn’t bother to tell him that this was not the first time this union stagehand designed lights at the Guthrie, and had crossed into his sacred world of ‘Art’ in another way. A few years before I won a prize in a national One-Act playwriting contest, and my play had been published and produced.

In respect of Leonard and Mrs. Nimoy, I listened his criticism and then silently walked away. After I left though. the Nimoys had quite a few words to say to him about his rudeness.

(Hey, Mr. Pretentious Pal, VARIETY  ‘The Bible of Show Business’ said in their review of VINCENT, “Donald Ostertag’s lighting was Excellent”. And they also liked the use Don McLean’s recording of Vincent, in the play.)

The entire of tour of VINCENT consisted of three separate legs. The first was produced by the Guthrie. The second was a month in Boston, Leonard’s home town, and was under Leonard’s production. Once again, The Pretentious Pal came and offered suggestions during the rehearsal. And once again, tried to get Leonard to drop Don McLean’s song and Don Ostertag’s lighting. Again, the answer was thanks but no thanks. The next year the third leg went back on the road to other cities. The third leg was produced by Leonard and another producer.

Neither Dennis Babcock nor myself took the show out on the third leg. Since it was no longer affiliated with the Guthrie, Dennis felt he should concentrate on his ‘day job’ at the theater. He found a Tour Manager to replace him.

My life had changed drastically. I had left the Guthrie and had been elected as Business Agent/Call Steward for the local as well as working off the Union Call List. My three oldest sons were working as stagehands and also going to college. In a few years, they would be joined by the two younger sons. I had missed so much of their growing up; but once I went on the Extra Board, I got something that few fathers get, a chance to work shoulder to shoulder with my sons. And over the years, I also worked with four nephews, a young cousin, and a future daughter-in-law. My days on the road were over as well as my days as a lighting designer.

When Leonard found out that I was not going out with him, he said he wanted two stagehands to replace me. I sent two out with him. Dennis and I were involved with the rehearsals, which took place in Minneapolis followed by a week of shows at the Guthrie. Then it was off to Atlanta with Dennis and I going along to help with the first real stop.

Oh, of course, The Pretentious Pal had come to Minneapolis town for the rehearsals, and again with the his suggestions to change both the lighting and the music. Again, Leonard stood firm on my lighting, but he did cave on the music. Don McLean was replaced by a classical piece of largely unknown music by a largely unknown composer.

The music had two things going for it. The composer had lived in Arles at the same time as Van Gogh, although they probably never met nor even knew of one other. The second thing in the music’s favor was the album cover was a Van Gogh painting of ‘A Bridge Near Arles’.

a bridge near arles

That leg of the tour ended with a filming of the production for VCR distribution and also to be shown some 50 times on the A&E network. That was also the end of Leonard Nimoy in the stage production of VINCENT.

I stayed away from the filming and left it to the two hands. I did however sit in with Leonard and a few others for the showing of the finished product.

I had been forewarned by the hands that although the credit read that the lighting was based on a concept of Donald Ostertag, don’t believe it. It was basically, all the white lights available are turned on, then off.

As soon as the film started, Leonard wanted to know why my lighting wasn’t used. Julie, Leonard’s daughter, who was around during the filming and had worked with the camera crew on locations of  IN SEARCH OF, explained that the director said the colors and cues wouldn’t work in the film. Leonard didn’t like it that my lights were left out and said so.

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

Leonard’s second comment was at the top of the second act. ‘Never should have replaced Don McLean with this music,’ he muttered. I guess you could say that The Pretentious Pal finally got his way, even if Leonard did not like it.

 

Thirty plus years later:

The VCR was upgraded to DVD with some added commentary and stories by Leonard for which he received a small fee. Now he could have used it to buy photography equipment for his new profession or other things; but true to his nature, he divided up the money and sent checks to those of us who had worked on the VINCENT tour.

What a compliment to know your work was still appreciated some thirty years later.

And just recently, Don McLean’s past work was appreciated in a very big way. The notebook that he used to work out the lyrics of American Pie recently was bought at auction for $1,200,000, the third highest money ever paid for an American literary manuscript. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more talented artist. Just too bad he didn’t save that paper bag he used to write out the lyrics of his Vincent.

don mclean

 

And that’s a wrap – for today.

LUCILLE IS NOW AN ORPHAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrill is gone

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

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

DAY(S) THE MUSIC DIED

The Day the Music Died

This is a Blog Posting from 2014

Gee, it’s been 56 years since Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper finished a concert at The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Their next gig was in Moorhead, Minnesota. They never made it. Their plane crashed shortly after take-off. February 3, 1959 – ‘The day the music died’, as Don McLean proclaimed in his song/poem ‘AMERICAN PIE’.

Their deaths really didn’t affect me as much as it affected others my age. I was in the Army at the time. Although I kept up with popular music before I went into the Army, I pretty much lost track of the Top 40 hits during my Army stint.

At the time I was in Headquarters Company, 82 Airborne, Signal Battalion At Fort Bragg. Unlike the men in the two line companies, who lived in squad rooms, we in Headquarters Company had two-man rooms. My roommate, Patricio Menes, and I were into ‘cool’ jazz, Brubeck, Kenton, etc.. I had a small hi-fi phonograph and the two us had a number of LPs. Neither of us had a radio or a car with one . And I didn’t have one on my motorcycle. We heard some of the music of the day when we were shooting pool in the day room and American Bandstand was on TV. And we heard a lot of the music on juke boxes when we went to Fayetteville.

The first I heard of the plane crash was the next night when Patricio came in  the room and told me, ‘Richie was killed in a plane crash.’ I thought he was talking about some friend of his, but Pat put me straight. ‘Richie Valens! ‘ LA BAMBA!’

I knew the song because Pat played it often on juke boxes. Valens came from L.A. just like Patricio. Pat and the other Latinos from the L.A. barrio thought Valens was one of their own, and liked to sing the Mexican folk song, LA BAMBA, which Valens, not only made a hit out of it, but sang it in Spanish. I often wondered how Pat and his friends felt when they found out that Valens didn’t come from the barrio, but from a suburb of L.A., and his Spanish was limited to ordering from a menu and reading the lyrics of his hit from a cue card.

And it was several days after I heard Valens was killed in a crash that I learned Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper were also killed in that crash.

Over the years I learned the back stories like Waylon Jennings, a member of The Crickets, gave up his seat in the plane to the Big Bopper, who was sick, and went by bus with the other Crickets as well as Dion and the Belmonts. Waylon took off on his own shortly afterwards and went ‘outlaw’.

Then there the story of how the concert promoter in Moorhead filled out the bill as best he could and brought in a local boy, Bobby Vee, as one of the acts. Vee followed up that appearance with several hit singles, and when the time came for Vee to record his first album, he hired a young Bobby Dylan to play guitar on the album.

And over the years, I began to appreciate the talent  of Buddy Holly.

Since that crash took place before I became a stage hand, I never had the pleasure of working those three. I saw the movies based on the lives of Holly and Valens. And I worked BUDDY THE MUSICAL several times. But it’s not the same as seeing them in person.

As far as the others in the back story, I had the pleasure of working them all many times. The name of Bobby Vee may not be familiar to most people but he was very talented and fun to work, especially in the later years when he and his sons put on their shows. Sadly, I read the other day that Bobby Vee has Alzheimer’s.

A few years later, Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins were killed in a small plane crash. And the list of musicians killed in light plane crashes goes on and on. The two that hit me the hardest was Ricky Nelson and Jim Croce.

Although he is largely ignored today, Ricky Nelson was big, big, big in the early days of rock and roll. For several years, only Elvis outsold him. And then he let his addictions grand his career to a screaming halt.

I had just worked Nelson shortly before his death. He was so excited. His concerts were selling better than he had hoped; his all time hits album had just been remastered, and he felt maybe his career would take off again. He was also high. They figured out that fire from cocaine freebasing on the plane caused the ‘Travelin Man’ to have his ticket punched.

The two favorite front acts of Sue Wiel, promoter at the Guthrie, were James Taylor and later, Jim Croce. Taylor was so thankful for Sue’s faith in him when he was trying to bust the big time, that he promised to come back and play two shows at the G when he did make it. And what shows they were! He also brought along his wife at the time, Carly Simon, who sang some duets with James and a few solos. Two big acts for the price of one. At that time, he was so big he could have easily sold out an arena show, but he had made Sue a promise.

I got to know Jim Croce during his front act performances at the Guthrie. After he finished his act, he would come up to the lighting booth and sit next to me to watch the main act. He was interesting, a good story teller, and he made no bones about loving his wife and his newborn baby. A nice person and a great talent.

Like James Taylor before him, Jim also planned to do a couple thank you shows for Sue, when he made it big. And like James Taylor, he was good to his promise. He was booked to play the Guthrie, even though he was hot enough to play a much larger venue in the Twin Cities, on the tour that took his life. Killed in a small-plane crash. What a loss!

So many, many musicians had their careers cut short because of small-plane crashes. So many, many days that ‘music died’.