Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My Theatre Gnome years

When I was in the 10th grade I started into a stretch of years when I was in a lot of plays. Drama class changed my life. I have never understood sports; football, basketball and such. Nothing against them really, I just never knew why anyone cared. None the less, it was the thing to do. So in the 9th grade I went out for the wrestling team. Only one other guy was over 210 pounds. For month and months, it seemed, I spent my time afterschool rolling around on gym mats with a mouth breathing kid named John Blea. Sad life for a fat kid with the name Blea. It was supposed to be pronounced Blay-yah, teammates of course him Bleah. The coach kept the wrestling room at 90 degrees all the time so Bleah’s personal hygiene didn’t really help my situation. This unpleasantness and not knowing the point to it all, I didn’t do that well. 

The next year I went out for football. By the time they got to me all that was left was an old leather helmet. Pads and jersey were from that era as well. I was on the JV squad. I remember running laps and crashing into those dummy sled things. Then came the day that coach took us way out (ironically) past left field. He told us about the little stickers we were expected to earn to put on our helmets. Little round stickers about the size of a quarter with a drawing of a little hatchet. We earned a hatchet and the right to affix it to our helmet for each bone we broke on that week’s opposing team. Coach pointed out a couple of the guys who already had stickers. 

It just so happened that the drama teacher, Ms. Archibald, was holding auditions for Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology. The next day I went to the auditions instead of football practice.  I knew from drama class that being goofy was acceptable behaviour, hazing and giving each other demeaning nicknames was not usual and there would also be girls in attendance. Being in a play had the added advantage of not requiring that I inflict pain and/or physical damage to other youths or risk that happening to me. These factors and finally having a peer group to call my own altered the course of world history. From my perspective at least.

The first play I ever saw was in 1965 at the Bakersfield Community Theater (BCT), 2400 South Chester Avenue. Just down the street from the A&W my family owned at 2525 South Chester Avenue. It was a production of the hit Broadway play by Teichmann and Kaufman “The Solid Gold Cadillac”. It featured the local favorite version of Rosalind Russell and Ethel Merman, Hazel Foxx and a guy in the last scene in a solid gold outfit even gold make-up.  A year or two later the same people did a big time production of “Gypsy” with fancy costumes and there may have been a live orchestra too.  They did it on the stage at Bakersfield College. At that time the stage on So. Chester had been condemned 4 or 5 times and revived. The BC stage was new and state of the art. It even has an orchestra pit. I spent my own money to see it a second time. Live theatre at this point had me hooked. "Let Me Entertain You" or should have been "There's No Business Like Show Business" ringing in my head. (they did “Annie Get Your Gun” on the outdoor stage later) 

Spoon river is not a standard play.  It doesn't have scenes as such, it is a collection of epitaphs performed as vignettes. This really didn’t matter to us. My high school was new and didn’t have a theatre until my senior year. We just had an open space of about 3000 sq ft a few portable platforms, lights on poles and some chairs.  Ms. Archibald was free to configure the space to suit her needs. We did Spoon River as a square theatre-in-th-round. In one show I was the grand Inquisitor prosecuting Joan of Arc in “The Lark”. That time the audience was in a “V” configuration making the stage a kind of triangular thrust stage.  When I was Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple” the stage was more of a regular thrust shape. Ms Susan Archibald signed her name SArch so overtime that is what we called her. Sarch must have really liked that style because we also did one called Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. It was similar to Spoon River in that it was a collection of vignettes. I can’t remember how the stage was configured that time. 

Besides the 2 or 3 times a year we did big plays that our families could come to see at night we also did shorter and one act plays. We performed these 4 or 5 times in a row all on the same day. Each period the English classes would be shuffled in to watch. Usually by the last time we did it we were really “In the Zone” (am I qualified to use sports metaphors?). The ones I remember were:
“The Long Christmas Dinner” by Thornton Wilder. - I came in as a youngster and as time passed I moved around the table until I was at the head carving the turkey. Most of my lines were “Another piece of dark meat dear?” 
The one I remember the most was called The Apollo of Bellac by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux translated into English by Maurice Valency. The way we did it was a little different than the way Wikipedia describes it. I really was Apollo the god of beauty (typecasting) posing as a statue of Apollo. Agnes the young woman was played by Gatha Bowen. Gatha was a beautiful girl that had an older boyfriend so she didn’t mingle with us children. As you might expect an onstage kiss got the other high schoolers hooting laughing and making noise. This was also the first time I ever kissed a girl. What is, I assume, normally just a nerve wracking right of passage was etched into my being as fantastical on multiple levels.  Then again for the 3rd period classes then 4th period etc. 

I also had a way with stage lighting and sound. The first show I was involved with at BCT was a musical called “The Boyfriend” I ran the lights from a primitive light booth located off stage left about 5 feet up on the wall. As it is today the box office was in an adjacent building. During the show one night the matriarch of the place Hazel Foxx called me on the intercom. Someone was robbing the box office and would I please tell someone so the police could be called. I guess at that time the only phone was not in the box office and the only place the intercom went was the booth. The one song still haunts me to this day “We scream to have, we dream to have that certain thing called a boyfriend.” Zuh Dunt, ... Dunt Da Da.

Just in time for my senior year the theater building at Highland High opened. It was designed to be multi purpose so they called it the Lecture Center. It was kind of cool. It had these giant moving walls that cost as much as my parent’s house. This way it could be made into 3 lecture halls on a moment’s notice. It didn’t have the electrics or any of the hardware for proper stage lighting or sound. A man named Mr. Patterson was the theater mechanicals guy for the whole high school district. He spent most of his time that year putting in a light bar out over the audience and running cables. Since I was also a whiz kid at the technical side of doing theatre too, I spent many days helping him install the lighting system. I wasn’t paid but learned allot. We used the same pair of portable Davis Dimmers we had used the years before, place just off stage right. The next year I am told is when the modern fancy kind of remote dimmer switches were installed in the light booth at the back of the audience.

It was necessary for Sarch to do up the first show in the new space right and use more standard fare. We did Detective Story by Sidney Kingsley as the first show in the new theatre. I was Detective Lou Brody the William Bendix character in the movie. What? 2nd banana? I must have been slipping.  The next show was really big as it was a musical and required cooperation with the choir and band. Brigadoon by Lerner and Loewe.  New stage and the first musical performed at Highland High (unfortunately not the Highland High from Beavis and Butt-head this one is in Bakersfield California). I was duly honored that Ms Archibald assigned me to not only run the lights but draw the design, hang and focus the lights as well as work out the ques. I was especially proud of the special effect I came up with for the scenes where they are supposed to be deep in the beautiful forest of Brigadoon under dappled sunlight. 

Next stop was Bakersfield College still big for a Jr college, in the 1970s it was the only place in the county for upper level Theatre Arts. This was back during the heyday before Prop 13 made budget cuts to Arts programs. Also before the Cal State Bakersfield had it’s own Theatre.  Even before it was a university. BC had quite a staff at the time Dr. Bob (Doc) Chapman was department chair. Can’t-remember-his-name was the other theater teacher he may have had a PHD also. I never took a class from him but he wrote his own version of Dracula (eye roll) that I worked as a tech on. Debbie was the full time costume mistress. All the guys were in love with Mary Ann she was very attractive and had a soft sexy voice. She was, I want to say, the artistic director. Not sure if that is the right title. She designed the sets and lights and costumes. Hank Webb was the tech director taking care of the sets and props and that kind of thing. David Hicks was in charge of the theatre as a whole in terms of the physical theatre plant. He also did most of the building of sets. Hank Webb was promoted to Drama instructor and was replaced by Mike Miller. Mike had lots of practical experience as a roadie for Eddie Money. 

I had major parts in The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie and the Commedia dell'arte farce The Three Cuckolds. Since I was no longer teacher’s pet like in high school, there was much more competition for parts and conventional wisdom (what is the opposite of wisdom?) says that fat = unattractive, the parts I was offered kept getting smaller and less interesting.  I was good at tech stuff but at BC at that time running the lights was as interesting as that was getting to be. I was involved with a number of great productions there. I have a trove of stories and friendships that have lasted through the years. The theatre itself was the best equipped and most complete I have ever worked in. By this time however I had enough experience and knowledge to know why I did not like the traditional proscenium stage. As easy as it is for staging and getting the technical stuff done it lacks the human connection that sets live theatre apart from film and TV. For me as a theatre goer I still see this dynamic in play at every show I see. 

After five years out of my young life as a theatre gnome it was time to live in the real world for a time. I was also spinning my wheels at school and had no goals there. I quit school at the end of the fall 76 term. I did make it back to theatre a couple of years later. This seems like a good place to stop part 1. Each decade changed my relationship to theatre and the people in it. Probably not right away, but when the spirit moves me, look for continuations of my time in theatre. 

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