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.

LARRY & THE DUKE (III)

The Ghost Light is lit

waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

when the virus hit.

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

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

AMERICANS

on the verge of losing everything.

VOTE!!!

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

Larry & THE DUKE (II}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAY SAFE

LARRY & The Duke (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then…STAY SAFE

 

PRINCESS 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.

More Memories of Michael

Old G stage

The Old Guthrie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s a wrap.

ALMOST TO DUNKIRK

 

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

dunkirk

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

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

Michael Langham

MICHAEL LANGHAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I was star struck,’ he laughingly confessed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

85a251-20060503-guthrienewfacade

THE GUTHRIE THEATER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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