MUSIC/MEMORIES/MEDICINE

CBS TV showed parts of the Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga concert at Radio City in Special touted as the last time you will see Tony Bennett, who is 95 and has Alzheimer’s. What a cold way to sell a show!

I watched one song in it. Tony was standing in the crook of the piano singing ‘Love For Sale, while Gaga danced. I turned it off. I felt that it was a case of taking advantage of Bennett. See the old man try to remember the words. Kind of like going to an auto race hoping to see a crash. Going to a hockey game hoping to see a fight. Slowing down driving by an accident to see if it was more than just a fender bender.

But Danny Bennett praised both the concert and the special. Said it was good for his father. And Danny loved his father. He gave up a musical and producing career to save his father’s life and get him back to being the man that Tony Bennett was before he hit rock bottom.

In an interview on CBS’s Sixty Minutes, Lady Gaga also said that working with his music again helped Tony Bennett. She described how during rehearsals and the first of the concerts, Bennett sang his Standards without missing a beat; but she said he was oblivious to her and everything else. But then when she came on stage in the second concert to do her duets with him. Tony watched her as she approached him. He broke out in a big smile and said, ‘Lady Gaga’. He remembered her.

Her words were a breakthrough in my understanding how the music helped Tony Bennett, even if only for a short while. I thought back on the countless times I held a fussy baby in my arms and sang,Hush, little baby, now don’t you cry.’ Or cuddled a little one in my lap and sang,’You are my Special Angel, sent from up above’. While the song brought to the little one it also helped the singer’s disposition.

Familiar music brings back warm memories of bits and pieces of my life when I hear a certain song. There isn’t a day that I don’t tell Alexa to play songs from my library.

Jan and Dean were pioneers in Surfing Rock music. One of their biggest hits was Dead Man’s Curve. It dealt with a dangerous curve in a highway outside of L.A.. At the peak of their career, Jan Berry, driving his usual dangerous speed rammed into a parked truck a few miles from the curve. He was thought dead at the scene; but he manged to live, even if it took years before he could regain a semblance of his past life.

During these rehab years, Jan went on tour with Dean. One of the concerts was at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. I worked the lights from the stage right wing. Prior to half hour I went into the green room to get a cup of coffee. Both performers were sitting there. Dean was friendly and talked a good bit with me. Jan didn’t look at me. He stared out the window all the time. When they came into the wing waiting to go on stage. Dean smiled as he led Jan in. Jan had a hard time walking and just stared ahead.. My first thought was there was no way there would be a concert with Jan in that condition. I took the house lights out, the band began, stage lights up and watched as Dean holding onto Jan’s hand led his partner to the mic.

When the applause ended, the two began to sing. Jan gazed out into the darkness but he sang his parts without any problem. At the end, Dean led him off stage and Jan was back to his blank stare persona.

Eventually, Jan recovered and led a normal life in the music industry, albeit, with much physical pain. Then, 38 years after the accident, Jan suffered a stroke and died. But for that second lifetime, music was his medicine.

Back in 2016 I read where one of favorite lyric poets, singer/songwriter, Kris Kristofferson was in the early stages of Alzheimers. Kris was living on his ranch in Hawaii with a large portion of his 8 children, their children, and just about anyone who wanted to spend some time there. His wife took him to their place in California where the only extraneous noise would come from the music that Kris liked best. His memory improved in the solitude and in the fact a California doctor’s diagnosis was Lyme Disease, not Alzheimers, and changed the medicine. Kris announced his retirement in 2020, not because of health concerns but just old age. His wife says he is constantly filling up scraps of paper with new lyrics. So music helps but so does Second Opinions.

Brian Wilson was the musical genius behind The Beach Boys; the writer, producer, co-lead singer; but he thought the music was pedestrian, and aspired to compose in the manner of George Gershwin and others. His first nervous breakdown came on tour in Australia. He was replaced by a fine studio musician, Glen Campbell.

His bouts with mental illness led him to enlist a handler, Eugene Landry, a self professed expert, (aka con man), in helping the mentally disturbed. Landry soon became the biggest influence in Wilson’s life, taking over Wilson’s finances and in return ‘rehabilitated’ him with LSD, coke, opium, booze, junk food, etc., and cutting him off from his old friends and family.

In one of the rehab years, Wilson’s brothers Carl and Dennis, persuaded Brian to go on tour with the Beach Boys. One of the stops was Northrop Auditorium at the U of MN.

When it came time for Brian to take part in the concert, it was as if I was seeing Jan and Dean again. Brian’s two brothers led him to the mic. As he was led past me. I saw that blank stare Jan had had .But when it came time to join in, to co-lead sing, he did so just as if he was back in his old form. The same way Jan had done.

It took several years before he came back completely and when he did he broke off on his own. His two brothers were dead. Dennis drowned and Carl died of cancer. Their was bad feelings and lawsuits between Brian and the other members of the group.

Once again I witnessed the effect that music had on a person who was in grave need of it.

Age can also bring about a softness in the heart. I see where Brian Wilson is going to reunite with cousin Mike Love and Al Jardine, two other founders of The Beach Boys, and former unfriends, in a reunion tour of the group. You think maybe a new album will come out of the tour?

I worked many Frank Sinatra concerts over the years. Heck, I even paid to see him, once prior to being a stagehand and once while I was in the business. I worked the Rat Pack Tour in 1988 just after Dean Martin pleaded sickness and was replaced by Lisa Minnelli. The tour was just two years after Sinatra was hospitalized with a serious intestinal malady. It hadn’t slowed him down. His road manager told me that Martin left, not because of illness, but because of the antics of Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., like lighting firecrackers in the hotel corridors late at night.

But his age and past life caught up with him soon after. His heart, his lungs, his stomach began to slow him down. And he developed a form of dementia. One of his last concerts took place at the Met Ice Arena in Bloomington, MN., during the Super Bowl Week festivities in the Twin Cities in 1992. He had regressed greatly since I worked him in 88.

I got a hint of his problems during the stage set up. We put three very large video monitors across the front stage. In the test I saw the words to songs Sinatra had sung for years. The band was conducted, not by names like Nelson Riddle or Buddy Rich, but Frank Sinatra Jr., whose main concern was not so much the conducting as taking care of his father.

After sound check Jr. left to bring his father to the arena. I was there when he helped Frank out the limo in the corridor. Of all the times I worked Frank Sinatra he always pointed at me and said he remembered the hat. Always. He had always joked with the stagehands, but not this time. He looked only at his son.

I held a flashlight and walking backwards up the escape stairs to the stage shined it so Frank could see the steps, while Jr. followed, placing a reassuring hand on his father’s back.

He was breathing heavily as he struggled up the stairs. He paused midway up and spoke.

‘Hey, kid, where did you say we were?

‘Minneapolis, Pop.’

‘I’ve been here before, haven’t I?’

‘Couple years ago on the Rat Pack tour.’

‘They with me tonight?’

‘No, Pop. Just you. You’re the big act for the Super Bowl shindig.’

‘Super Bowl! Who won?’

‘It’s next Sunday, Pop. We’ll watch on TV at home’.

I tried to swallow the lump that was in my throat. We waited stage left as the band played the introduction. Stage lights to dim and Jr. brought his dad to the large glow tape X where the vocal mic stand stood. Frank took the mic, held it the right distance from his mouth and launched into his first song, Night And Day’.

His voice was raspy but he still pronounced the lyrics distinct as he always did. He gave a good performance, relying on help from the video monitors. A few times he went up searching for what was next in the song; but Jr. and the band covered until he was back on track.

His familiar music was working a transformation. With each song’s ending, he seemed to regain more and more of his personality. His old patter returned, the wise cracks, even his remembering that it was Super Bowl week. But his voice was sounding more and more tired. Near the hour mark of the concert, the band cut loose with ‘Come Fly With Me’. At the end of the song, the stage lights went down. The applause erupted. The lights came back full and Sinatra sang ‘My Life’. Each time I find myself flat on my face, I just pick myself up and get back in the race.’

The lights dimmed and the applause was louder than before. Sinatra’s encores always consisted of six or more song; but when the stage lights returned, Frank was at the top of the escape stairs with Frank Jr. and me and my flashlight.

‘Do I go back on, Kid?’

‘No, Pop. We’re going back to the hotel and then fly home tomorrow.’

‘Good. I am tired.’

Thank goodness the set had not included Frank singing ‘My Way’; but ease time I hear the song and the words ‘And now the end is near and I must face the final curtain’, I think back on the last Frank Sinatra concert I worked.

Frank Sinatra died two year later. But his music is still a favorite way of mine to relax me.

Glen Campbell suffered from Alzheimers for several years. His last tour is the subject of a documentary by James Keach of his last tour. The title of the film is ‘I’ll Be Me’. If you have a couple hours free and a couple boxes of Kleenix, I would recommend watching it.

In the first part Campbell is happy go lucky, singing his songs, carrying on with the three of his children who are in the band, doing Donald Duck impressions, teasing the young son of the bus driver, and fighting back against the loss of memory. But helpful as the first part of the tour was to Campbell, the second part broght out the horror of the disease. It showed Campbell in a foul mood most of the time, constantly complaining about the way the music was being played, the audiences, and wandering around the stage changing songs on the fly. Making up things to rant about. Forgetting importing things. At peace only when he was deep into singing or talking to his daughter.

His music had helped him but the length of the tour just was too much for anyone, much less a person with his mental problems.

The film premiered in 2015 and was updated in 2017 when Glen Campbell died.

The award winning song, ‘I’ m Not Going To Miss You,’ came about from a quote of Glen Campbell’s one day when he grew tired of trying to answer questions about his Alzheimers. ‘I don’t know why everybody’s worried about. It’s not like I am going to miss anyone anyway.’

And to Jan Berry, Kris Kristofferson, Brian Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell, and Tony Bennett, we understand about the times you didn’t miss anyone; but believe me I will always miss you and your music, memories, and medicine.

And I, for one, use your music as a balm to help overcome the anxiety of growing old.

And in the words of William Congreve

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast’

TONY BENNETT-AGE 95+

Tony Bennett – Age 95 +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON ICE – II

During the heyday of Ice Follies another big ice show, Ice Capades, toured the country. It’s birth was as unpredictable as was it entire life. Capades grew out of an idea of John Harris, manager of the Pittsburgh ice arena, who hired the Swedish ice skater and movie star, Sonja Henie, in 1936, to skate between periods of the hockey games, hoping to build ticket sales for the team. It worked and soon other team owners followed suit with other figure skaters.

Four years later he and other arena managers around the Eastern states joined together and started Ice Capades.

Although it never attracted many big name stars like the Follies did, it was very popular for several decades. It made no pretext to be a serious art form and relied on corny, crowd pleasing acts for the most part. And it did not bother to develop stars. It relied on getting established stars from other shows and ice skating medal winners.

In the late 80’s, when all the ice shows began to decline, it managed to get Scott Hamilton under contract for a short time before he started his Stars on Ice, a show that stuck to the routines of the skaters without any extra things like sets or chorus lines. In 1991 it went bankrupt.

Then Capades was purchased by Dorothy Hamill, America’s new skating darling, an Olympic Gold Medalist and several times World Champion. And whose hairdo, ‘the short and sassy look’ became a fad.

She tried presenting a version of Cinderella on ice. It lasted only two years, just long enough to borrow a great deal of money to keep it afloat. Hamill sold the company to the Televangelist Pat Robinson. An investment only. I don’t think he used it to convert more potential donors.

Capades bounced around for several more years in some form or the other, but finally gave up the ghost in 2009, stranding skaters and crew without pay and running out of it’s suppliers.

(One of my favorite Woody Allen lines comes from HANNA AND HER SISTERS. Woody is discussing the afterlife and someone reminds him that there is a belief that when you die you just relive your life all over again. ‘Oh, great,’ Woody whines,’That means I have to watch Ice Capades over again.’)

We had the pleasure of working with Dorothy Hamill for two Decembers when she did her Nutcracker On Ice at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. It was a ‘cute’ show but it could not really compete with the many Nutcrackers that are danced every year in the Twin Cities.

Dorothy was a real pro, treated her audience and her crew with respect, in spite of the fact she was very unhappy at the time. She suffered from depression all her life. Twice married and twice divorced to Dean Martin Jr., she was devastated by his death when his National Guard jet plane hit a mountain.

She was married to her second husband during her two seasons of Nutcracker on Ice. He was the complete opposite of his wife. He was abrasive, rude, and treated the time-honored traditions of show business with all the slickness of a used car salesman. He regarded her as his property instead of his wife.

One of his publicity stunts was to buy matching fur coats for himself and Dorothy. The coats were humongous and hideous to boot. Dorthy hated them but he insisted that the coats would be worn to and from the theater. Somehow on the very first day of them wearing them, protesters from PETA and like fur coat haters, were there in full force and each day the crowd grew bigger. Dorothy would run into the theater in tears while he stayed back and made fun of the protest. He loved it. He was also accused of leaking the wearing of the fur coats to PETA from the start.

She has another husband now. I hope her marital disasters with her first two husbands has taught her something and she found one who will be a good partner and appreciates her for herself and not just celebrity arm candy.

The third major ice show was Holiday On Ice. This show came about in 1942 when Emery Gilbert developed a portable method to make an ice rink anyplace. He brought the concept to a Morris, Morrie, Chalfen, a Minneapolis entrepreneur, who saw a way to compete with the two major ice shows, put traveling shows with smaller casts, 20 girls, 10 boys, where the major shows could not visit because there were no ice arenas. As Morrie loved to say, ‘Have rink. Will travel’.

At it’s peak, Holiday had companies in the U.S., Europe, Central and South America. It’s first tour out of the country was to Mexico in1947. For a few years, Sonja Henie headlined a company, first in Paris, finished off in South America.

More about Holiday On Ice and Morrie in the next On Ice Post.

ELTON IN THE USA

@The Guthrie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EltonJohn

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

STRANGERS ON A STAGE

A reblog of a reblog

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

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

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

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

 Old Guthrie II The Old Guthrie

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

big northrop Northrop Auditorium @ U of MN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orpheum Minneapolis Orpheum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please take the advice of Judy Collins

Listen to the Medical Scientists

Not the Anti Vaxxers

 

ARSENIC AND OLD PEOPLE

 

A Reblog 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guthrie has just reopened with a new production of

A Christmas Carol

A tradition started back in the day of the Old Guthrie

Please Stay Safe these upcoming holidays

Vaccinations-masks-avoid big gatherings

NO HOLIDAY FOR BLIZZARDS

November 11th 2021 – The 81st Anniversary of the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940.

October 31st 2021 – The 30th Anniversary of the Halloween Blizzard of 1991.

The Armistice Day Blizzard lives in infamy because of the lose of lives attributed to it. There was 49 deaths in Minnesota

13 in Wisconsin

4 in Michigan

Conditions over the 3 days also were responsible for

A freight train colliding with a passenger train killing 2.

The sinking of 3 freighters and two smaller boats on Lake Michigan killing 66.

The Halloween Blizzard dumped a record amount of snow in Minnesota

27 inches in the Twin Cities, 37 inches in Duluth

Twenty two deaths in out-state Minnesota.

None in the Twin Cities area. Thank goodness! Although our 4th son, Darren had a harrowing experience of almost an hour, trapped and having to dig himself out of his snow-buried car, in late afternoon in, of all places, downtown Minneapolis.

Eleven counties in Minnesota and fifty two in Iowa were declared Disaster Areas.

For days the low pressure conditions racked havoc all over the United States. Snow followed by ice, followed by record low temperatures for Autumn. Schools closed, highways closed. Power lines down for over a week. Nobody, including the Weather Bureau was prepared and countless lives were lost in the nation.

And the storm hit the Atlantic Coast with such a fury that it not only caused destruction on the Eastern Seaboard, it moved to the ocean and developed into a hurricane.

It is known as The Perfect Storm.

The death of six fishermen who lost their lives at sea during it, is depicted in the movie The Perfect Storm.

In addition to having started on a holiday, both blizzards were preceded by very unseasonable warm days. The beauty of rare Autumns. When the wind changed and the snow began people were sucker punched, not ready for cold weather, let alone snow and sleet, and ice.

Armistice Day in 1940 was during duck hunting season in Minnesota. Duck hunting in summer clothes. Temps of 65 F. The Mississippi River Bottoms was strung out with hunters from the Twin Cities. They left their cars at the end of the Gun Club road and walked along the river bank to a place where they could be some distance from other hunters. The hunting was good and when the wind changed, it was excellent.

‘There were thousands of duck flying over,’ one of the hunters related. ‘We were so excited we didn’t pay attention to the dropping temperature and the rain that turned to snow.’ By the time they did realize the danger, the snow covered the ground and stopped them from getting back to their vehicles…covered the fuel sources that could provide fires to warm them or cook the ducks that were buried in the drifts. Soon they were left with digging out shelters in the snow. Solo hunters had nobody to cuddle to for shared body heat and walking to others was an impossibility. One of the survivors credited his life to nestling with his two Lab Retrievers. Most of the 49 deaths in Minnesota were duck hunters.

There would have been more deaths if it were not for Max Conrad, a pioneer aviator and Bob Bean, a flight instructor, who flew dangerous missions up and down the river, looking for survivors and dropping life- saving food and supplies.

A great many Minnesotans had much to be thankful for that Thanksgiving, but a turkey dinner was not one of the blessings. The blizzard killed a million and a half turkeys in the state.

The tag line for the Armistice Day Blizzard was ‘if you were living at that time, you would never forget it’. I was only two at the time so that’s my excuse for knowing about it only from the words and writings of older folks.

Not so with the Halloween Blizzard of 91.

That one is etched in my mind.

What a week leading up to it! The Minnesota Twins beat the St. Louis Cards in what was the closest and most exciting World Series on record. Two days later the victory parade followed, and thousands watched in the warm weather. And two more days later the Blizzard hit.

The Minneapolis stagehands were in the process of reopening the State Theater of Minneapolis with the Minnesota Opera production of Carousel. The State was built in 1921 as a vaudeville house, later became a movie theater and then a church for the Jesus People. In 1989 the City of Minneapolis bought the, the Orpheum, the State, and the Pantages theaters and refurbished them into venues for live entertainment. We opened them up in a course of several years in that order.

We had already put in several 12 to 14 hour days mounting the production and we intended to put in another that Thursday. There was a lot of grousing by the hands for having to work indoors when it was so nice outside. After all the nice weather wouldn’t last much longer. But we had no idea of how quick that the weather would change.

There was word of heavy snow south in Iowa, but the Weather Bureau, stationed in Chicago, assured us our nice weather would continue. By mid afternoon the blizzard had made it into the Twin Cities. We called it day and left while we still could drive on the road.

Out son, Darren, had moved his car at lunch and parked it at a meter near the theater. When he got to it the snow from the storm and the sidewalk snowblowers had covered the passenger side right to the roof. He had to walk down the sidewalk and then up the street to get to the driver’s side. He managed to unlock and pull open the door when he saw the warning lights of a snowplow in the next block barreling toward him, blasting the snow on the same side of the one-way street as his car.

He dove inside his car and closed the door just in time. His car was buried. He had to roll down the window little by little and push the snow away. It was slowed by snow sliding down from the roof of the car and new snow from the blizzard. And the temperature tumbled lower. Finally he got the window open all the way and crawled out. There was a janitor in front of the theater clearing the sidewalk with a snowblower. He took his machine and freed the car.

I had parked in an underground garage and even though the going was slow I made it home without incident. Our street was plowed because a neighbor was a volunteer fireman and the city kept the street clear in case he was needed. I got out my snowblower and go the car in the garage.

One by one our boys called, checking in and asking if we were okay. Darren was the last. My wife and I said a silent prayer of thanks.

All the hands were back at work the next morning and this time Darren parked in the underground garage. The snow continued, albeit at a lesser rate, for two more days. Then the weather changed. The warm autumn returned. The snow melted and the grass was greener than before the store. We opened Carousel on time. It got rave reviews.

Thanksgiving would have been a joyous holiday with a plentiful supply of turkeys; except we got another blizzard, albeit, it was just an ordinary blizzard. Not too memorable. Even if it did fall on a holiday.

A word to the wise from one who lived through both of those blizzards: If the autumn is unseasonably nice and a holiday is coming, keep your snow shovel handy and snowblower full of gas; because you never can tell.

November 11the 1940 Blizzard is a seldom remember event in our history books.

November 11th of 1918

Armistice Day/ Remembrance Day/ Veterans Day/ The 11th Day of the 11th Month

Is a day that must live forever in our hearts.

And to all my fellow Vets

Vaya Con Dios

Stay Safe

Get those life saving shots

For your good and the good of your loved ones.

JOAN OF ARTS @ THE G

mondale family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ah, no. I don’t have any children.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COFFEE WITH ALI

This is a reblog of a post I did June/8/2014, right after Muhammad Ali died.

It recalls an isle of calm for me in the sea of fire. Civil Rights Protests. Anti-Vietnam Protests. Looting, destruction, and shouts of blame from both side of the political aisle.

When this incident took place, we had Hope. We knew that once things calmed down the Civil Rights would take hold in fact not just word. And we knew that we would never go to a War again unless it was really needed, and we would never allow the War to last very long.

But like the song says: ‘We were young and foolish.’

I need an isle of calm today so I brought it out and read it. So topical! Topical in that it follows my Dalton Trumbo posts regarding a man standing up for his beliefs, only to be persecuted by politicians whose only belief is pandering to the lowest common denominator. So topical! I wish today’s violent ‘protesters’ could hear the words of Muhammad Ali, a man known for his violent art, speak with the wisdom of Martin Luther King, a man known for his non-violent speech.

There was this old bulll standing in the middle of the railroad track and far away the train was comng fast. But that old bull just stood there and the people all admired the old brave bull. And the train blew a warning…anotherand another as it came full steam head on. And the people oohed and aahed because that old bull never flinched. Just stood his ground…And…

And all those people that oohed and aahed when the brave bull was standing tall in the center of the tracks, just looked around at what was left of him scattered in little pieces for a good miles, yup, all those people who called that bull brave a short time before changed their tune.

Boy, was that bull ever stupid,” they said, and walked away.’

Thus spoke Muhammad Ali talking about Violent Protesting.

Today I have Hope. I believe that when the stupidity of the politicians is removed from the equation, the genius of our medical scientists will find a cure and a vaccine for the Virus. As far as the Civil Rights issue is concerned…Hatred and genocide are embedded deep in the history of this country.

ali rip            The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro  Civil Rights, Anti  Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be  an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was  more important than his celebrity status.

Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.

When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.

He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.

In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.

But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.

When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.

I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.

He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.

We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.

He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.

We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.

The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.

My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

R.I.P. CHAMP

There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.

TRUMBO & DENNEHY

In a previous post, BRIAN DENNEHY, I mentioned working with Dennehy when he brought his touring show, TRUMBO, to the Pantages in Minneapolis. The production was based on an off-Broadway play conceived by Christopher Trumbo, son of Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter and one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.

The play had two characters, Dalton Trumbo and a narrator. The script is actual letters written by Trumbo and read by the lead actor. The narrator sets it up and offers insights on a few occasions. The lead is on stage throughout. The narrator very seldom. The set is an eight sided wooden table and a chair. The props are copies of actual letters written by Trumbo.

Originally Trumbo was played by Nathan Lane. When Lane left Trumbo was played by a rotating cast including, F. Murray Abraham,(Oscar winner in Amadeus and a favorite of mine from his season at the Guthrie), Brian Dennehy, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd and others.

There is a documentary, Trumbo, that is similar to the play. There is also a conventional movie, Trumbo, with an all star cast staring Bryan Cranston 4 time Emmy Winner for Breaking Bad, and Tony winner for LBJ. Cranston received an Oscar nomation for Trumbo.

Dalton Trumbo was a high paid Hollywood screenwriter and a respected novel writer. His quick wit and his warmth showed in his work…And his letters.

Like many in the Depression Years, he was a member of the US Communist Party. An anti-war pacifist he sided, in theory only, with the Communists against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War and in the party’s ideas concerning getting out of the Depression which basically were F.D.R.’s actions that helped to end the Depression.

Eventually he dropped out of the party because of their lack of really doing anything. He stated that the U.S. Communist Party was less of a danger than the Elks, and they had less guns also.

Leading up to WWII, he thought the Russian-Germany Peace Concord would stave off Germany’s aggression. He was an isolationist because he was pro peace, unlike other isolationists like Charles Lindberg who admired the German industrial advances and German efficiency under Hitler.

And then he ran into HUAC….

Dalton Trumbo was not brought before HUAC because of his past Communist affiliations. He was brought after he did a patriotic act.

In 1939,he wrote a novel, Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war story of a soldier who lost his four limbs in war. It was well received and won several awards. However, I in 1941,when Hitler broke the pact with Russia and invaded it, Trumbo and his publisher felt it was not a time for an anti-war novel and stopped publishing any more.

This caused hate mail to be sent to Trumbo. The writers denounced Jews and demanded that a peace pact be negotiated between the U.S. and Nazi Germany. Trumbo contacted the FBI. Two agents came to his house, but Trumbo soon regretted his actions; because as he wrote, ‘their interest lay not in the letters but in me.’

Then in 1946, he wrote a magazine article from the standpoint of a Russian citizen. He pointed out that the ordinary Russians should be worried about the West’s animosity towards the USSR, and the ‘mass of Western military power surrounding Russia. Something should be done to lessen the hostilities between the East and the West.

This set off a column by William Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. The title was ‘A Vote for Joe Stalin’ and it named Trumbo and several others as Red sympathizers. He continued to dig up more names and his list became known as Billy’s Blacklist. In 1947, HUAC used the list to summon Trumbo and nine others to appear before it.

The Hollywood Ten, as they were called by the media, refused to recant and name names like the others had done. They also refused to take the 5th Amendment, refusing to testify on the grounds it may incriminate them. This defense became a household phrased in 1950 because of the televised Senate Hearings on organized crime. Instead they depended on the right of free speech guaranteed by the 1st Amendment.

Their reasoning was they had done nothing criminal, which they hadn’t, and therefore to recant would suggest that they had committed a crime by belonging to a ‘Red organization’. As far as naming names like so many others had done, the Ten refused on the grounds that they knew of no one that had committed a crime that tied in with the belonging to a ‘Red Organization’ and questioned if HUAC had any right to suppena them.

Writer-producer, James McGuinness, a right-winger who was regarded as a friendly witness pointed out to the committee that among his many fine screenplays, Dalton Trumbo had written two magnificent patriotic scripts, A Guy Names Joe, and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. HUAC wasn’t interested. And they weren’t interested in what Trumbo was doing during WWII.

When the US went to war, Trumbo was one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood. He had nothing to fear about being drafted. A married man with children and of an age that was above the draft regulations. Actually, he was two years older than John Wayne. He could have stayed put and continued to write movie scripts. He could have enlisted and probably would have been assigned to writing propaganda or training films. But instead he used his talent and his name to become a war correspondent in the Pacific Theater. Quite a cut in pay and much different working conditions.

When the Allies invaded Okinawa, the longest and bloodiest battle of WWII, Dalton Trumbo, armed with a pencil and writing pad, stormed ashore with the troops. He was under fire constantly for the next 82 days. He sent back dispatches. He wrote letters to the parents of his fallen comrades.

Among the 12,000+ Americans killed in Okinawa, was fellow war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, the most of famous of the WWII correspondents.

But HUAC wasn’t interested in what he had done during the war anymore than they cared about what Sterling Hayden had done.

When Trumbo was sentenced to a year in prison for Contempt of Congress. He appealed but before it reached the Supreme Court, two liberal members of the Court died and two conservatives were appointed. The conservative majority of the new Court voted not to hear the appeal and thus the ruling of guilty by the lower court stood.

After his release, he moved his family to Mexico City where for a year he and other members of the Ten drank and wrestled and used up their savings.

The Trumbo family went back to California where Dalton did what he was best at, namely writing screen plays. He wrote at least thirty using the names of friends as a front. He was adept writing screen plays for all genres, drama, action, crime, noir, western. He wrote for major studies and studios that never got past B movies.

Despite the cloud of the Black List over Hollywood, 1953 was a good year for movies. The highest grossing movie was the Biblical epic, The Robe, the first venture in CinemaScope. Second highest was From Here To Eternity, which got the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director among it’s eight Oscar wins in 1954.

The sleeper of the year was Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy that saw Audrey Hepburn, a bit actress up until then, win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Lead Role and her great career took off. She also won the Tony that year.

Among the Academy nominations for the picture, Ian McClennan Hunter received two… One for Best Screenplay which he lost to Daniel Taradash for Eternity… The second was for Best Story and that was a winner.

The picture almost never got made because of the rumors that some of the Black Listers might be involved. The name most mentioned was Dalton Trumbo. Frank Capra pulled out of directing it for this reason.

Offered to William Wyler, he accepted with one stipulation, the film had to be shot completely in Rome. He wanted to stay away from HUAC, Joseph McCarthy, and the the witch hunting mentality that prevailed in the US. Thus, Roman Holiday, was the first ‘Hollywood’ film shot in toto outside the US.

The rumor was true. Hunter was a front for his good friend, Dalton Trumbo, a fact Hunter publicly declared when the the List was pretty much a thing of the past. In 1993, long after Trumbo had died, the Academy officially awarded the Oscar to Dalton Trumbo.

Then something happened at the 1957 Academy Awards that pointed to Trumbo once again. The Oscar went to Robert Rich for Best Story. The movie was a little known family picture, The Brave One. And for the only time in Oscar history, no one, either the recipient or a proxy, were present to accept the award. It turned out that Robert Rich was not in the movie business but rather a nephew of one of the producers. Trumbo had pulled off another Oscar while he was on the Black List. This time the Academy managed to give him the Oscar while he was still living. And this was the last year for the Category Best Story.

In 1960 Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger stood up and shouted, ‘Enough’. They both announced that Dalton Trumbo would write screenplays for each of them, Douglas’s Spartacus, Preminger’s Exodus, using his own name. The Hollywood Black List was over.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Brian Dennehey commented how many times he read the Trumbo letters he was still in awe over their wit and their warmth and Trumbo’s skill. And what the man went through to stand up for what he believed in.

And working with Dennehey I realized that he, like Trumbo, also went through a lot for his art and what he believed in. Dennehey was in pain. His back. His knees. While the blocking called for him to remain seated at the desk while he read the letters, he often stood to read one or two. He couldn’t stay seated for fear when he had to stand at the play’s end, he would have a hard time. ‘I might need you to pull me out of the chair, Don,’ he warned me.

He also had terrible night vision after spending so long under the stage lights. His bow consisted of him standing up at the blackout that followed the bow and exit of the narrator and nodding his head to the audience when the bow lights snapped back on. He could not see anything in the darkness that followed. For him to attempt to leave the stage in the black out was out of the question. He needed help.

I stood in the second wing during the bows. When the lights came up for his bow, I closed my eyes and waited until I heard Brian say, ‘Don’. My night vision was better because my eyes hadn’t experience the brightness for a while. Then I would turn on my penlight hoping it would help Brian get orientated, and walk out onto the dark stage, place his hand on my shoulder and we would exit.

I am amazed that Brian Dennehy could perform on stages in such pain. It was one thing to do Trumbo; but he was doing major theater works of O’Neill and Shakespeare also.

Brian Dennehy was not only an excellent actor and good human being, he was also a man, like Dalton Trumbo, who believed deeply in his ideals and his art, and stood up for his beliefs in them.

R.I.P.

DALTON TRUMBO

BRIAN DENNEHY

And that’s a wrap.

There was more I wanted to say but in light of the Virus and now the looting and destruction going on the last four nights just a few miles from my house, looting and rioting caused not by protesters but by out of state white anarchists, I am not feeling up to writing at this time. Stay Safe. Stay angry and vow to stop these killings of blacks by white cops. Peaceful protesting, not arson and looting.

ARSENIC AND OLD PEOPLE

Reblog 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old Guthrie Theater has been replaced by a new Theater

that overlooks the river

And like theaters everywhere it is dark

But it will open again

And until then, STAY SAFE.

THE GHOST OF THE GUTHRIE

 

 

Old Guthrie Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the ghost light

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

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

SUGGEST LOOK TO THE TECH ROOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well, did he?’ Milt asked.

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

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

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

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

‘I will not! That would be rude!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

That are dreamt in your philosophy.

 

And that’s a wrap.

 

STRANGERS ON A STAGE

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

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

 Old Guthrie II The Old Guthrie

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

big northrop Northrop Auditorium @ U of MN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orpheum Minneapolis Orpheum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BREAK A LEG

break-a-leg

BREAK A LEG

 

Vaudeville always seemed ancient history to me, although it died only a few years before I was born. When I started working in show business in my mid twenties it was kind of a surprise when I realized many of the old time stagehands I was working with actually got their start in vaudeville.

I learned a lot from those old timers. Learned tricks of the trade, like how to duck out of work so the young guys would have to do it. And I loved listening to their stories.

 

One of my favorite old timer was Eddie Ryan. He was one of the nicest guys I ever worked with, and he was also one of the most inept stagehands I ever worked with.

Eddie Ryan never worked as a stagehand in vaudeville, he was a performer. Eddie came from a multi-generational family of New York cops and because of that background he got a good beat, the theater section of the city. Bad choice for Eddie. He spent more time backstage in the theaters than he did working his beat.

His precinct captain, who was also his father, gave him a choice, stay out of the theaters or hand in his badge. It was an easy choice for Eddie.

He knew of a performer who needed a partner in his act. A few weeks of rehearsal and the two went on the tour. They did a little singing, a little hoofing, and a lot of fooling around, on stage and off. The first few years were good, then vaudeville began it’s decline. The act broke up in Minneapolis. Eddie stayed in town, his partner headed west.

Some of the local hands had an after-hours club and Eddie, big man, ex-cop, got hired as a bouncer. He was well liked by the hands and he began to pick up some work as a stagehand when things were busy in town.

When the after-hours club got raided and shut down, Eddie was given a card in the Local and worked as a full time stagehand.

His old partner, Jack Albertson, landed in Hollywood and got work in the movies where he got an Oscar, and in TV, where he got an Emmy. He became a household name when he landed the role of THE MAN in the hit TV series, CHICO AND THE MAN.

Eddie never bragged about being a partner of Albertson. In fact it was just by chance that the Local hands ever found out who was the other half of Eddie’s act. Albertson was a guest on Johnny Carson’s show. He talked about his vaudeville days and mentioned that his partner was Eddie Ryan, who, the last he heard, was a stagehand in Minneapolis.

I don’t think Eddie ever begrudged his old partner’s success; because Eddie just wasn’t built that way, and he liked his life in Minneapolis. He had a wife and two sons here and many, many friends.

 

Vaudeville at the Orpheum, 1949. Photo from Los Angeles Public Library.

                   

            Another old vaudevillian was Shorty, who became a stagehand through the back door. He started out in his early teens as a bill poster. Bills were an form of advertising. A coming event like a circus or carnival, upcoming Vaudeville acts, and of course VOTE FOR … bills. Shorty had a newspaper sack of bills, a brush, and a bucket of paste. Lampposts, walls, fences, but never ever a US postal box. He got paid by the bill. He had to be fast so he could post on the best locations and also had to watch out that some rival did not paste a bill over his.

            Since his boss worked out of a room in the basement of a theater, Shorty became friends with the stagehands. They gave him occasional work as a gofer. Go for ten pounds of double headed nails at the theatrical hardware story. Go for a bucket of beer at Duffy’s. Not steady work but it helped if bill posting was slack.

            As he got older, and a little bit bigger, they saw to it he got work helping to load-in and load-out big acts. That led to work as an actual stagehand, and eventually working shows.

            ‘Two bits a show,’ Shorty told me. ‘Thought I died and went to heaven.’

            Shorty was one of the stagehands involved in the after- hours club, and he was working there the night it was raided. Shorty says the club was raided because more and more cops wanted protection money until the cost got just too high to pay.

            When he was being brought out to the paddy wagon,a big cop holding each arm, a newspaper photographer took a picture. Made the front page.

            Shorty was so proud of that picture he carried the clipping it in his billfold until if finally fell apart. The caption of the picture proclaimed: LITTLE CAESAR GETS BUSTED IN RAID.

            ‘You’d swear it was Edward G. Robinson,’ he bragged. ‘Put a cigar in my mouth and I could have passed for his twin.’

            After vaudeville died off, Shorty took out a tour of OKLAHOMA. He went out as Head Carpenter, his wife, Marie, as Wardrobe Mistress, and very young Shorty Jr. as a mascot.

            ‘You know,’ he would say as he told the story, ‘Those two guys that wrote that show were the nicest guys! They’d come out and visit. A new big city or a new actor in a role. Nicest guys! Always brought me a jug of whiskey. Snuck it so Marie wouldn’t see. Of course, they always brought her a box of candy and a toy for Shorty Jr.

            ‘Big guy, first name was Oswald?.. Last name was? Jewish. Something stein. And the little guy, about my size, his name was Roger something or the other. Nice guys! Can’t remember their names now.’

            Shorty had a hard time remembering the names of  Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers, but he never forgot the name of Edward G. Robinson.

 

And that’s a wrap for now.

TV IN BLACK AND WHITE

Alex Johnson Hotel

     Alex Johnson Hotel 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Perry Mason

The Old Hand:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sheen's angel' work

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

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

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

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

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

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

black and white tv

 

 

 

COFFEE WITH ALI

ali rip            The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro  Civil Rights, Anti  Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be  an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was  more important than his celebrity status.

Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.

When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.

He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.

In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.

But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.

When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.

I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.

He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.

We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.

He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.

We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.

The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.

My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

R.I.P. CHAMP

There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.

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.

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 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FRANK’S 100TH

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Watching the tribute to Sinatra on his 100th birthday brought lumps to my throat. I have so many of his albums, worked him many times. Heck, I even bought tickets to see him in Vegas. One of my FAVORITES.

But watching the tribute tonight reminded me of the last time I worked him in person. It was at the Met Arena as a part of the Super Bowl festivities in town. As I did before, I sat in a front chair for his sound check. As he had done before, he walked by and pointed at my hat. “Nice hat,” he said, as he did a time or two before.

I didn’t pay much attention to the fact he was using the teleprompter during the check; but I certainly did during the show, and so did the audience. Songs that he had sung for years were stumping him. He couldn’t remember the lyrics. He had to read darn near every song on the prompter. Sometimes he had to pause. He still had the Sinatra style, the crisp singing of the lyrics; but it was not only his voice that betrayed his age, his memory also.

Everybody there enjoyed his show, after all it was Sinatra; but we all knew it would be only a matter of time our enjoyment would be confined to his albums, his CD’s, or times like tonight watching old TV clips.

100 years

THE GHOST OF THE GUTHRIE

 

 

Old Guthrie Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the ghost light

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

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

SUGGEST LOOK TO THE TECH ROOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well, did he?’ Milt asked.

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

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

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

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

‘I will not! That would be rude!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

That are dreamt in your philosophy.

 

And that’s a wrap.