TRUCKING – LOL

Tex was a Clark driver for the first several years of trucking the Met Opera Spring Tour. Large and loud. He always entered the stagehand’s room with ‘Relax yo’all, old Tex is in the theater!’ He dressed the part…Stetson, boots, giant belt buckle. Some of the hands bought his shtick.

I thought it overdone. His wardrobe was too much and his accent too thick. He reminded me of a owner/’actor’ on those TV ads for used car lots.

This particular time he got in the room before the opera started. We were going to throw out the scenery of the first act at first intermission and Tex would take it to storage in New York. He grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down, carrying on with his usual palaver. But when one of the truck loaders came in and motioned to Steve, the Met’s Head Carpenter, to come outside, Tex stopped talking and started fidgeting.

Steve came back in the room and you could see he was mad. ‘What is that goddamn stink in your trailer?’ he asked, standing over Tex. ‘It smells like s**t!’

Tex made an effort to stand but Steve pushed him back. ‘You were sandbagging with the truck, weren’t you?’

‘Well, Steve.’I had three free days and an empty truck…’

‘So what did you do, rent it out for a Portable Potty?

‘Ah, Steve,’ Tex argued, ‘I’d never do such a thing. I just helped out an old boy who needed help getting a few pigs to the stockyards.’

‘Pigs! Pigs!,’ Steve screamed. They heard him backstage but the orchestra was playing the Overture and nobody on stage or in the house heard the yelling.

‘Come on, Steve, old son,’ Tex said in a low voice. ‘There wasn’t but a couple dozen or so and they weren’t no big old fat-backs. They were prime bacon. Hardly more than piglets.’

Steve slapped the Stetson off the head of Tex. ‘Just little piggies! You should have put diapers on them then. If I could I’d call for a different rig, but it’s too late now. When I get back to the Met Warehouse I’m going to smell that set and if it smells the least bit like pig s**t, Clark is going to get a bill for a new set.’

‘Ah, old son,’ Tex argued, ‘It’ll be aired out by the time the load is in. I pressured washed the inside of the trailer twice. What you smell…

‘What I smell, old son…of a,’ Steve stopped and told Tex to go in the truck.

We loaded it and only two of the loaders had to come out for air. The other two lived in So. St. Paul where most of the city carried the smell from the stockyards where Tex had delivered those little piggies.

The next spring tour nobody dared ask Steve if the set still stunk when he checked it out in the warehouse. And we never saw Tex driving for Clark again. Although some years later one of hands said he was positive that was Tex driving the roadie bus for ZZ Top.

*

Back in the day, before cell phones, truckers had to rely on land lines and CB radio within their range. We were at coffee in the stagehands’ room at the Orpheum when a trucker came in and asked to use the phone. ‘Long distance to my office. I’ll reverse the charges,’ he explained.

Got the call to go to Milwaukee and get this truck to Minneapolis Orpheum. The regular driver took sick and by the time I got there, the other trucks were loaded and long gone. Headed out on my own. Now I’m told by crew upstairs, this truck doesn’t belong here. Probably some other theater in town.’

I told him that I was the union BA and I knew this was the only show in town that day…but maybe in St. Paul.

We got his side of the conversation as he explained to the office…and then he shouted, ‘Indianapolis!!! I thought they said, Minneapolis!!!’

He slammed the phone down, drank the coffee we offered him, and stomped off to his truck.

*

Overheard two truckers talking while we were loading their trucks.

‘How long is it going to take to get to Winnipeg?’

“Well the book says 474 miles. Good highways… so depending on how long we get held up in customs, should be there in 7 or 8 hours. We’ll make the call on time and won’t even have to cheat with the second log book.”

‘There you go now; but you forget once you hit Canada, they don’t have miles anymore. They got kilometers. And kilometers are bigger than miles. So it’s going to take us longer.’ He gave the other driver a smug smile.

The second driver just shook his head….

*

Skippy was innocent in creating this fiasco but Skippy was the one who got the brunt of the hurt.

Skippy was Head Carpenter of one of three Sesame Street Live companies touring .He also drove one of the trucks. Earlier he had wrapped up the tour and had put the set to sleep in the warehouse. After several months without a day off, he had ten days of doing nothing before he would have to start working the production of his next tour.

Before going home, he detoured and picked up a couple movies at Block Busters. (Two of my favorite Judy Garland and Mickey Rooneys) He had one loaded to go and the popcorn was just starting to pop, when the phone rang. Rather than burn the popcorn, he gave a middle finger salute to the annoyance and let the message go to Voice Mail.

‘Skippy! Skippy!’ It was Vince Egan, the owner of Sesame Street Live shows. ‘

When Vince speaks, people listen. (I grabbed the phone and listened to Vince’s orders. Oh, I could smell the popcorn burning.)

‘The actor that plays Oscar the Grouch on the #3 show tour dislocated his shoulder. He also drives the second truck. It’s his left should so he could still sit in the trash can and work Oscar, (Darn! I always wanted to play Oscar. I know I would be a good one.); but you have to fly out and get the truck to the next stop, Atlanta. The office has your plane ticket waiting for you. Get to the airport fast .Hey keep a record of what you spend and remember, it’s my dime you’re riding. ’

Skippy called for a cab, threw the burnt popcorn out the windows for the birds, grabbed his to-go bag, and went outside to wait for the cab.

(I had no idea where I was flying to. I hoped it wasn’t too far from Atlanta. And when I looked at the ticket and saw I was on my way to Charleston, West Virginia, I hoped the town was still open when I got there.)

When the red eye landed at 2 A.M., there was one cab at the airport. Skippy woke up the cabbie and told him to go to the arena or theater where Sesame Street Live was playing.

(He argued, said there was no TV show in town. I tried to explain to him it was a live show and he said he knew all about it. His kids watched it when they were little; but there still ain’t no TV show in town.)

Skippy had the cabbie drive all around to where a show like Sesame Street could have played…if it had been in town.

(Nothing. I hated to admit it to cabbie, but he was right. I asked if there was a McDonalds open but he said they closed hours ago. I asked about a motel, but he said the only ones he knew would be open this time of night, rented by the hour. We settled on going back to the airport and hoped there was some vending machines still open. I gave the driver a big tip…after all it was Vince’s dime.)

Vince did not like to be woken that time of night. When he finished his tirade and calmed down enough to listen, he hit the roof again when Skippy told him he could not find the truck anyplace in Charleston, West Virginia.

‘West Virginia! West Virginia! What the hell are you doing there? You should be in Charleston, South Carolina.! And he continued to rant.

(Oh, I hated that. Like it was my fault. I finallty got a word in edgewise and reminded him I only flew to the wrong Charleston because that’s where the ticket was for. And he lowered his voice when I explained that I was watching the expenses on his dime by not going to a motel but sleeping at the airport instead. Didn’t bother to mention, I heard the motel didn’t change sheets very often.)

The cabbie in the next Charleston knew exactly where the truck would be. The head carpenter had made the merchandise peddler drive the second set truck to make sure the show got up in time, and the truck Skippy picked up was the merch truck which didn’t have to be in Atlanta until the next day.

(First thing before I got in the truck, I got the cabbie to take me to the best steakhouse in the city. After all I wqs riding on Vince’s dime.),

SHARI LEWIS &

If I grouped by audiences the thousands of live shows I worked over the years, my favorites would be the ones filled with children, hands down. Be it a grand production like the Guthrie’s CHRISTMAS CAROL or SESAME STREET LIVE or a bare-stage act like Raffi, or the early days of The Wiggles, the infectious honesty and outright joy of the little ones, their honest laughter, their voluntary sing-alongs, their spontaneous dancing in front of their seats always bright a special happiness to my labor, indeed labor of love.

And Shari Lewis at the Orpheum ranks at the top for an additional type of audience participation.

Shari, her quick-witted sock puppet, Lamb Chop, her slow talking puppet, Charley Horse, and her other ‘friends’, had a popular kids’ show on PBS TV. Shari was at the peak of her career.

Born into a show biz family, her father was proclaimed the official magician of NYC, Sheri was doing magic tricks and studying piano at the age of two. She went to NY’s School for the Arts, studied ballet at ABT, acting with Stanford Miesner, music theory, violin, piano and at the age of 13, her father arraigned for her to study with John Cooper. In her adult years she often conducted symphony orchestras and co-authored, with her husband, Jeremy Tarcher, an episode of the original STAR TREK. And of course, TV, live shows, albums, books, and she even managed to raise a daughter, Mallory.

And once she shared the stage with Poppa Donald.

I knew that Lamp Chop’s Play-Along was a favorite show of my oldest grandchild, Erik, and I managed to score four tickets, down center, when Shari Lewis &Co played the Orpheum…Erik, his friend, Ethan, and their mothers.

Prior to the show, Shari gave me a cue sheet telling me what to take off the prop table and bring to her at her setup on stage.

‘Be sure and wear your hat,’ Lamb Chop told me.

I had just brought my first prop to Shari when I heard a small voice shout out, ‘There’s Poppa Donald.’ I recognized the voice, it was my grandson Eric. And right after another shout, ‘There’s Poppa Donald.’ That I recognized as Ethan’s. Shari looked at me but didn’t say anything and I hurried off stage.

I had no more than stepped past the leg in doing my second cue when the chant began, ‘Poppa Donald. There’s Poppa Donald.’ Only this time it was not confined to Erik and Ethan. Several other small voices had joined in.

I set the prop down and Lamb Chop observed, ‘You must be Poppa Donald.’ I pleaded guilty.

‘Do you have a local TV show?’ Charlie Horse, who had joined Shari and Lamb Chop, asked.

“No,’ I answered, ‘Just a grandson in the audience. ‘I’m sorry,’ I added.

‘Don’t be,’ said Shari. ‘You should be proud.’ I didn’t say anything, but I was proud.

And each time I stepped on stage the shouts grew more and more. Even youngsters in the balcony were joining in.

When the show ended, I heard later, Shari had wanted to call me on stage to take a bow; but I had gone out in the stage alley as quick as possible, to see Erik and Ethan and the moms, before they left. They came out the side door and the boys ran up to me and gave me a thank you hug. They announced that their next stop was going to be the ice cream parlor. Thet invited me to go along. I wished that I could have.

And I was bending over to my two little fans, I was recognized by all the kids that exited that door. ‘Poppa Donald! Poppa Donald!’ And they ran up me smiling and stood and looked at me. A few of the mothers handed me programs and pens and asked me to sign my autograph.

‘Got to go, kids,’ I explained. ‘Got work inside to do.’

Shari was just about to put the two puppets away when I got back.

‘Ask him. Ask him, Shari,’ Charlie Horse said. ‘Oh, I will then,’ he said slowly. ‘Why don’t you join our neighborhood and you could be our own Mr. Greenjeans?’

I laughed and said, ‘But you’d have to hire my grandson Erik too…To shill for me. And I don’t think his folks would let him go.’

‘See,’ Lamb Chop piped in, ‘Told you so. Besides we’re doing fine without a Mr. Greenjeans – even with a cowboy hat.’

‘Lamb Chop,’ Shari said to the sock  puppet on her hand, ‘Don’t be rude.

When Shari left, not only did she say thanks to us but so did Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse even though they were packed away in the travel case. ‘And we all look forward to seeing you again soon,’ she said as she walked out the stage door.

But they never made it back. Shari Lewis passed away a few years after.

And her TV show that had humans interacting with puppets was replaced with yet another cartoon, just as was the shows of Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers.

But she left behind a legacy of musical albums and children’s books and a lot of fond memories to a generation of children.

R.I.P. Miss Shari, from Poppa Donald and all your fans.

And in this time of our darkness remember the words of Lamb Chop

It’s bad to be sad and cool to be happy

KING RICHARD II

RichardHarrisCamelot

KING RICHARD II

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fade Out, Act I

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