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MODERN CONVENIENCE

Posted by Don Stitt on September 1, 2013 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)

DON STITT

MODERN CONVENIENCE


Those of us who can remember when the telephone was irrevocably plugged into the wall, and when the only people who had personal computers were George Jetson, Captain Kirk and Batman, have seen great strides in technological advancements in our lifetime, all in the name of modern convenience.


The telephone now tags along with us wherever we go. And that telephone, as often as not, can be used as a computer now, too, as a sort of annex to the desktop computer most of us have in our homes.


As much as we still look forward to opening the mailbox to see what the postman has brought us, much of our correspondence now travels instantaneously and virtually, through email. And that amazing piece of invention from 20 years ago, the fax machine, has become all but obsolete, as documents and photographs can be sent with infinitely more clarity as jpeg attachments to our email messages.


And I may be the only relic I know who still goes to a store to buy movies on DVD, or music on CDs. Even the advancements of the DVD and CD player have become quaint relics when so many people “share” files, or download them on iTunes, or watch movies on YouTube and Hulu.


The last time I tried to drop in on a friend from the old days, I was chastised. “Call first. No one just drops in on anyone anymore.” And of course he was right. Except for the fact that we don’t use the telephone to socialize anymore. Today, chatting on the phone has been replaced by Facebook, and if the social media doesn’t allow you enough “face-time,” you can always Skype.


That sure does constitute an awful lot of Modern Convenience. But at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I’d like to put forward the notion that such conveniences aren’t helping us, and that life was actually better before they invaded our collective reality.


The invasion of Pseudo-techno-convenience has become troublesome to say the least, and at times can be downright troubling. And I think technology has made us less communicative, less literate, and indeed, less happy.


Let me begin with the cellphone.


As recently as the mid-nineties, I was able to put a little distance between the phone and myself. I had (in fact, still have) an answering machine hooked up to my land-line, which was my only telephonic means of communication at the time, and it was understood that when a business associate called me and got the machine (whether I was actually home or not,) I would respond to their message within a reasonable window of time, (say an hour or two,) which might even buy me sufficient deliberation time to decide whether or not the business idea they wanted to engage me in was one that I thought was good.


But my associates started demanding more immediacy, and I started wearing a pager. At first, it was a normal pager, one which displayed the phone number of the caller. That was not as good because it didn’t tell me what they wanted, and upon calling them back I might discover I was expected to participate in a venture I was not supportive of.


But when I got an alpha-numeric pager system, whereby the message they left was transmitted to me in a crawling message transcribed verbatim by an operator, I was back in my comfort zone.


Unfortunately, that comfort zone was soon to go away. Forever.


True, I still can (and often do) let the calls that come in to my cellphone go to the voicemail. But because we all have these phones which connect us to the rest of the world at all times, 24/7, I am usually expected to call back a lot sooner than 2 hours ex post facto. In fact, in contemporary parlance, more than a 20 minute response time is viewed as downright rude. And that 20 minutes doesn’t always give me enough time to decide how to handle a business circumstance.


But the ubiquitous nature of the obnoxious little phone has been increased many-fold by newer developments with it. If you become impatient with the response time to the voicemail message you left, you can ramp up the connectivity by sending a text message on the phone, and I can’t help noticing that younger people seem to prefer text messages to actual conversation now.


In addition to being more invasive, there are two troubling aspects to the text-message trend. In the first place, texting has become sufficiently addictive that it is effecting literacy. “You” is abbreviated to “u” and “late” can now be spelled “L8” and a good many words are regularly replaced with “emoticons, “ such as the ever-present “smiley face,” and as a university writing instructor, I can assure you that these abbreviations carry over into the writings of these young people.


And I believe our declining literacy is negatively impacting the way in which we communicate with one another. But illiteracy, in and of itself, isn’t lethal. Which brings me to the next problem.


The texting addiction shared by most young people today carries over into their personal interactions; it is not uncommon to see a group of young people who had come together to socialize sitting around with their little phones, furiously texting the members of the social circle who couldn’t join them, thereby decreasing the connectivity of the people who are actually present.


But the most troubling aspect of the national texting phenomenon is that it has now crept into our driving habits. I have heard it said that texting while driving is now statistically more lethal than driving drunk. Of all the ways for a driver to become distracted, it seems that texting while driving distracts the driver most completely.


I can still remember the elation and excitement of being able to send and receive those first emails in the mid-90s. Unlike the letter you might compose with great care on your favorite stationery, in longhand with a nice fountain pen, your ideas could be transported to their recipient instantaneously (and virtually) through the Miracle of the Internet. And for a (somewhat brief) time, it was a great improvement in written communication.


Ah, but then the advertisers discovered it. And they found ways to reach us through our email addresses, and soon we had a deluge of unsolicited messages from people who were trying to sell us things we didn’t need. The flow of such messages was so great that they were likened to the endless supply of Spam in an old Monty Python sketch, and now, that is the term they are known by.


While I still remember the excitement of getting a political message from my Senator in the early days of email, by contrast, last week I began my day by deleting no less than 90 unwanted advertisements. The convenience of email has been diminished by the invasion of the advertisers. Would that that were the only problem with it.


It would seem that there are computer-code-writers, however, who have nefarious intentions, and who like to turn the expensive home computer that you have come to depend upon into a useless, heavy piece of junk. I’m sure there is a motive to it, but I can’t quite understand why people devise viruses to be sent in spam through the email. I presume those people have a lot of time on their hands, and are simply mean.


But even the computer virus, in and of itself, has now become a minor concern, because of a trend called “hacking.”


If a hacker gets ahold of your email address, and sends you an email message which you make the mistake of opening, the enclosed virus gives the hacker access to all of your email addresses, and, in fact, all of your computer’s information.


Said hacker can then use your email account to send similar messages to all of the people you care enough about to have an email address for, and you will look like the person who invaded their computer.


Once again, what had been a modern convenience has become a liability.


I had a bit of a giggle yesterday, watching a movie I worked on before Reagan was president which is so bad, I had never seen it before. Someone posted it on YouTube, under the heading, “The Greatest Christmas Movie Ever Made,” an ironic disclaimer, as it concerns a very low-budget movie about a Santa Claus slasher. I found myself quite easily, and was happy to do so.


Until it occurred to me that I was, effectively, taking money out of my own pocket.


When a person buys a CD or a DVD, a small portion of the sale goes to the artists who were responsible for participating in the creation of the film or CD. The information of the sale goes from the cashier’s cash register, to the Studio or Label that produced it, who then calculate the percentage of revenue that the artists are entitled to, and eventually the performers receive a (usually modest) check.


But although I was glad to finally see the very bad movie I had worked on so long ago, I won’t be generating any income by watching it on YouTube, because the stuff on YouTube is free. Just as all of the songs that were once downloaded through Napster were. And file-sharing no longer concerns just the final product; writers and composers are now losing a huge portion of the revenue due them in royalties when the manuscript or sheet music that once would have earned them some money is given away by people who don’t have the rights to the work in question.


I realize that most people who enjoy music and movies have no regard for the artists’ revenue; actors and musicians are portrayed in the media as overpaid, spoiled brats. But, in fact, this development has all but destroyed the once-thriving music industry that we grew up with in the age of Capitol and Motown, and the impact upon moviemaking has been such that the Major Motion Picture Studios are currently fighting for their lives; the model by which the studios used to budget a picture is now worthless, and they have to draw up their budgets based upon the expected revenue of DVD sales in the foreign markets where American stars still generate the sale of disks.


You may love a singer or songwriter with all your heart, but if you don’t actually buy their recordings, you relegate them to the necessity of touring, just to make a living. And the current trend of watching movies and TV shows on what are essentially “piracy” outlets like YouTube and Hulu could very well bring about the end of Hollywood as we know it in a matter of a few years. (No, I’m not exaggerating. The studio heads want to keep it quiet, but it has become an open secret.)


Our cable boxes and our personal computers and our cellphones had already made us vastly more insular than we were, but there’s a new wrinkle to that situation. What began as a private inter-dorm network at Harvard has morphed into a national obsession. Facebook has become our go-to method of feeling connected with our friends, family and associates, and in less than a decade, too. People who have nothing to say to one another when they meet on the street can become very conversational on the social media. Most Americans spend more than an hour daily on Facebook, posting pictures and memes and links to newspapers and magazines.


But while this social media has all of the hazards of email, (such as hacking,) and file-sharing, (like YouTube,) and insularity, (like cable TV,) it has another liability.


Because Facebook affords a person relative anonymity, in that the person only allows you to see of them what they want you to, it also has become a great source of what I call “Snark.”


Most of us are flattered when someone sends us a friend request, and most such requests are accepted most of the time. Meaning that few of us really know all of our so-called friends. And when one of those “friends” decides to make rude and insulting remarks, we are often hurt by them. (And then we “unfriend” them, of course, ignoring the fact that they might worm their way onto our page once again with an alias.)


But to take this sort of thing to the next level, such anonymity is ideal for people who wish to “bully” other people. It seems that every day, we hear about some poor kid who was bullied to the point of suicide by someone who wanted nothing more to hurt that person. The reason for this is clear; for all the supposed “connectivity” that Facebook offers, it still leaves a person vastly more vulnerable than they had been before.


And while Skype is probably a good way to have a business teleconference, it will never replace actually being with one’s family on Christmas morning, or saying farewell to a sweetheart who is embarking upon a life-changing journey in person.


All of these phenomena exemplify to me how, rather than improving the quality of life, our so-called modern conveniences usually have the opposite effect in the long run. The convenience of our technological advancements has a sneaky way of making us dependent upon them, and thereby dehumanizing us. Of making us less literate and more intellectually lazy, of decreasing our interactions with other members of our tribes, of limiting the breadth of our discussions and ideas. And, ultimately, making the experience of being alive less lively.


And I would probably tell you more about this, but I just got a text message from my sister, who tells me that she got an email from my niece, who wants to see my bad Christmas slasher movie on YouTube, so now I have to go post a link to my Facebook page.


Got 2 go. U R gr8. I heart you. :)

IRVING AND ME

Posted by Don Stitt on May 12, 2013 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (0)

DON STITT

IRVING AND ME

The worst hangover of my life actually had a happy result. Well, initially, anyway.

I had some friends over for an all-night poker game the night my first Equity show folded on November 14th, 1977. Les, Barry, Raymond and I played and drank until around 5 AM, and the boys pretty thoroughly cleaned out my liquor cabinet in the process. I awoke at 8AM with a murderous headache, and decided to get into an ice cold bath with something to read until it subsided.

The only reading material I could find in proximity to the bathroom was the weekly Variety. A fairly thick volume, I rarely read the stuff in it I was supposed to be reading, and just liked the idea of being a union actor who read the trades. But as I said, this was no minor hangover, and I read it pretty much cover to cover that morning, if only to take my mind of my pain.

About two thirds of the way through, I saw an interesting blurb. Irving Berlin's 90th birthday would be coming up about 6 months hence...and he was still alive!!! Today, of course, 90 year old people are a fairly common phenomenon, but it was not always thus. The article made mention of a handful of his hit songs, but I knew there were many more than the ones listed. And I started to get the seed of an idea.

I had seen Oh, Coward! a few years earlier, and thought that if a revue could be hoisted on the catalogue of Sir Noel, you could probably write 2 or 3 around the (voluminous) Irving Berlin Songbook. Before I knew it, I was starting to imagine medleys, anecdotes, and tap numbers.

The hangover subsided, and my mind was truly racing. One of the poker players from the night before had a popular revue of his own running in North Beach, in which he both appeared and played piano, and since he was one of the only "producers" that I was friendly with, I called him up and suggested he produce my revue. But I think he may have been experiencing a bit of post-binge discomfort himself.

"Nobody gives a shit about Irving Berlin!," he said, before slamming down the phone.

I do, I thought. And I continued to ruminate on the possibilities throughout the holiday season, when the songs of Irving Berlin are inescapable.

That Christmas, Santa brought me another booking with the show that had just closed, this time in Palm Springs for the month of January. And I quickly discovered that one of the few diversions in the desert paradise that a struggling actor could actually afford was the Palm Springs Library. I started reading books about Irving Berlin, and jotting down amusing stories. I also found a relatively complete list of his songs. While there are about 100 titles that most people of the 70s would still recognize, it turned out that the guy had written about 2,500 songs.

"If I can't make a hit out of this guy's material, maybe I should listen to my mother and study law," I thought, more than once.

My four weeks homework at the library yielded a pretty solid structure, at least in my head. When I got back to San Francisco, I called my producer friend again. And again, he said, "Nobody gives a shit about Irving Berlin!" But this time he didn't slam down the phone. He let me continue pitching the idea a little longer. And then he told me no and hung up.

I think any pragmatic, rational, reasonable, mature person would have just given up at this point. Sadly, your humble narrator never qualified in any of those categories. I was resolved to find a way to make it happen.

At some point I called Murray Hill 8-3342 in the New York exchange. I had decided that even though he was retired, Mr. Berlin probably had the same secretary for about 50 years, and she probably sounded like Roz Russell in His Girl Friday. I was not disappointed. Although she sounded a bit more like Eve Arden than I had expected. I told her about my little show, and asked her what advice Mr. Berlin would give me.

“Well, he’s right here. You wanna talk to him?”

Before 3 seconds had passed, during which I was virtually paralyzed with anxiety, I heard the unmistakable voice of Irving Berlin. He sounded somewhat weak, but not bad for a man of nearly 90.

“Hello?”

I told him of my show and asked what advice he would offer me.

“Don’t do anything dirty. I’m sick of A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody being used in strip teases.”

I assured Mr. Berlin we wouldn’t be doing anything dirty.

“And don’t change the words!”

At the moment he said that, I didn’t understand why he would suggest we would alter his work, since we were paying tribute to it. Some time later I discovered he had become enraged by a Mad magazine parody of one of his songs, and had sued. It went all the way to the supreme court, where the 1st amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, and thereby satirical parodies, was upheld.

“Not even an American institution such as Irving Berlin is above the First Amendment,” the decision read, and Mr. Berlin was still obviously bitter about it.

I was speechless for a beat or two, and Mr. Berlin reiterated, “Don’t do anything dirty and don’t change the words.” And he hung up.

I figured that if I had a show, I could find the backing somewhere, somehow. I started talking to my friends from Beach Blanket Babylon, a few in particular who could dance and be funny as well as sing. Before long, I had some people willing to do some backers' auditions. All I needed at this point was an introduction to some rich people who might want to invest in it.

And I didn't have a clue.

I was afraid the idea would die on the vine if I didn't act soon. I called my piano playing producer friend a third time. And a third time he said, "Nobody gives a shit about Irving Berlin." But this time he listened to some of the anecdotes I had amassed and some of my ideas for medleys. I can only surmise that I made a good presentation on some level, because by the end of our discussion, he was on board. We would write it together, and direct it together. He would handle the musical direction, I would do the choreography. And his previous disinterest became a focused interest.

A couple of days later, he showed up with an armful of sheet music. And it was all stuff I had never heard of! Most of it from the ragtime era, he had found a comedy song called Sadie Salome, Go Home, and another called Snooky Ookums. They were pretty far out there. And my collaborator also insisted we do an Annie Get Your Gun medley, something I had rejected on the first pass, because we had so much else. But he persuaded me, and rightfully, that it was, in many ways, Berlin's crowning achievement.

One of the actors who had volunteered to help decided she no longer wanted to be involved. But my partner was doing The Diary of Adam and Eve with a young woman named Peggy Nisbet, and he eventually sold me on her for “the girl.” And the remaining volunteer, a friend through the long-running Beach Blanket Babylon, Frank Fontana, stayed with us as well. And I would be the whacky tap dancer. Three energetic kids, a piano and drums. And about 50 great songs. That was what we hoped we could make a hit out of.

My partner was a legal secretary for a prominent Embarcadero District lawyer, E. Robert Wallach, and we typed up the final draft of the script on the IBM Selectric my partner used during the work-week. While we did occasionally bicker over jokes and anecdotes, the process was basically a smooth one, and I’m pleased to say that the assembled script was mostly taken from my Palm Springs notes, (although, in fairness, he did insist on that Annie Get Your Gun medley, and he found those old comedy songs, so his contributions were not insignificant.)

We did a series of backers’ auditions at what is now The Cable Car Theatre. I will always remember how the reflection of the stage on the booth window was the perfect rehearsal mirror.

When my partner had secured $10,000 from his boss, he put a down-payment on the lease at the Chi Chi Theatre, (which was where Lenny Bruce got his first bust for obscenity, when it was still Ann’s 440.)

Perhaps I might digress briefly to say a few words about the proprietess of the theatre, Miss Keiko. A prima Ballerina in Tokyo before WWII, she found herself stripping in North Beach after it, whereupon she met a “gentleman of influence,” Meyer Neft, who bought her, and bought the club for her as a plaything. She was a stunning older woman who was always, er, medicated.

After signing the lease and getting the key, we went to the club and poked around. My partner located a bucket of letters for the marquee. And a ladder. And a decision was achieved serendipitously; We were legally prohibited from using a song title as the title for our show, and we could not use Mr. Berlin’s name in the title, either.

But my partner had the notion that we could put his name OVER the title, and put quotations around the title, and make it APPEAR that his name was in the title. Under such circumstances, I had suggested the name Irving Berlin “In Revue,” a lame little pun that might actually sell tickets. My partner thought it should be Irving Berlin “In Review.” We had failed to come to an agreement until getting that bucket of letters. And it had a “U” but no “W.” We put the show’s title on the marquee of the Chi Chi Theatre Club. I can still recall the thrill of seeing Irving Berlin “In Revue” on the marquee that night. And although we had no way of knowing it at the time, that marquee would carry that title for over two years.

But there was a problem: I was a member of Actors’ Equity Association, so we had always talked about the show as a union production. But unbeknownst to me, my partner had other ideas. He was secretly snowballing me, and would put me in a do-or-die showdown with the union. This had to do with the appropriate contract: He had budgeted, he said, around a BAT contract; the Bay Area Theatre contract was $150 a week. But because liquor was available, Equity was insisting on a Cabaret contract, at $350 a week, and there wasn’t enough in the budget for that. My partner put me in a position where I had to decide whether I would perform in a non-union show that I had co-authored, or never see it produced. I eventually relented. I agreed to do the first week and face the consequences, as long as the company would foot the bill for whatever fine the union hit me with. In that week, I would find a replacement for myself.

My memory of the opening night performance is one shadowed in pervasive doom. I was exhausted and pessimistic. And this state of mind wasn’t improved upon by what I saw when I arrived at the theatre. The strip lights were still being hung. The stage floor had just been painted, and was tacky. The stage manager was pouring grout on it to make it dry quicker. The draperies were being hung, and the pants that I wore in the show hadn’t been hemmed, so they were altered with a stapler. In addition, the agreed-upon credit in the program, “co-directed by Don Stitt” was curiously absent from the program. I was told it was an oversight and would be corrected with the next printing. (It never was.)

I remember lying down in the dressing room and thinking, “Well, Stitt, you’ve done it this time. You will never live THIS flop down.” It was beginning to look like it was a good thing that I was getting out of town; I would probably never be able to work in North Beach again.

But sometimes miracles happen in the theatre, and this was one of them. All of the jokes played, all of the dances went off without a hitch, and of course, we had all those great Irving Berlin songs. The audience stood and cheered.

We did NOT do an encore, which my partner thought was a regrettable error, but I think we did the right thing. We left ‘em wanting more.

The reviews were sensational across the board. Irving Berlin in Revue was probably the biggest hit mounted in North Beach in the 70s for 10 grand. But I got the expected Cease-and-Desist notice from Equity on the 2nd night, and we set about to find my (non-union) replacement.

We had an understudy to both roles, a fellow named Scott Gallagher, but he was too valuable as an understudy to cover the two roles. There was an asian actor I thought was great, but my partner said, “I won’t have a chink in my show.” Too bad, too. The gentleman in question is now known as B.D. Wong.

But we saw another fellow named Ron Manasadjian, and we both liked him very much. He got the gig. And I told him his name would never fit on the marquee, and after that, he was known as Ron Mann.

I flew off to New York City on Labor Day, and only went back once to see the show. Theresa Baumi Butts had taken over the role that Peggy had played, and my college friend Larry Fisher wound up in the cast, as well. But owing to the distance, (and the fact that my partner wanted everyone to think that the ideas put forth in our show were his and his alone,)

I didn’t return. I had to face the music with Equity, but the company paid the fine, as agreed upon. But in the 2 years it ran, I never received so much as a dime for the script I had researched and authored so much of myself. My partner replaced himself as pianist and producer, and got himself and me jobs at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre, and it led to two more jobs for me there.

About this time, there was no one from our original production still involved, so Miss Keiko had taken over the production of the show during its final death-throes. I am told that the elegant, older lady added a graceful, ballet heavy strip-tease to A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody, thereby breaking one of my two promises to Mr. Berlin.

We called the theatre on the occasion of our closing night, in the late summer of 1980, and I said goodbye to my friends Ron and Larry after it had passed the two year mark. Again I thought that would be the end of that.

We still had the lease on the theatre, and my partner asked me if we wanted to do another revue. I said that if we did, we should do something vastly different. I floated the idea of a Tom Lehrer revue, which my partner liked. I got Mr. Lehrer’s number in Cambridge, only to discover that another entrepreneur with the same ambitions had beaten me to the punch by two weeks. We let the lease slip away.

Ten years later, I happened to be back in San Francisco with the pre-Broadway tour of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. I called my former partner to catch up, and he proposed a revival of our show. I told him that I thought we could do it if we had more money and better production values. He asked what I meant, and I told him we should expand the cast from 3 to 5, adding, perhaps, a dance team. I suggested getting Peggy and Ron back, and perhaps having Theresa also, as having an African American person in the cast gave it a more contemporary feel. I suggested a staircase, because there are so many staging possibilities. We talked for over an hour, and I put forward a lot of new staging ideas.

But at one point, I said something to him that he didn’t take very well. “We’re gonna put everything in writing this time, because let’s face it, you were sort of a weasel last time.”

Considering some of the colorful profanities he had thrown at me over the years, I did not expect the word “weasel” to carry as much emotional punch as it seems to have. He launched into one of his irrational screaming fits and slammed down the phone. And I thought, well, at least now he won’t be ripping me off.

But I had underestimated him.

Two years later I was having a conversation with an old friend who was then a theatrical manager. As we ended our conversation, he said, very offhandedly, “Break a leg tonight.”

“What are you talking about,” I asked.

“Isn’t tonight the opening night of the revival of Irving Berlin in Revue at the Lorraine Hansbury Theatre in San Francisco?”

“Would you excuse me, Ralph? I have to call an attorney.”


And I did. I gave him the whole story, and he assured me that proving that the show in question was a revival of the one I had co-authored would be a walk in the park. He composed a letter demanding an accounting of the books, and had it delivered by messenger to the current producer, (who, as it turns out, had fired my former collaborator during the last week of rehearsals because his musical staging was inept without my collaboration.) The new producer, (who had declined to invest in the original production, but who had taken over the producing duties when my partner and I went off to Burt Reynolds’,) received our letter and immediately realized that every word my former collaborator had told him about my disassociation was false. He also must have known that he would lose in court. He immediately closed the revival down. (Which is too bad, in a way, because it got good reviews, and gave a job to my future “stage-wife” Dioni Collins.)

It is perhaps worth noting, as a sidebar, that the attorney my collaborator had been the secretary for, who had given us the money to produce our show with, and upon whose typewriter we composed our script, Bob Wallach, was convicted in the Wedtech scandal, but his conviction was later overturned. But I have always wondered if we were financed by that tainted money.

You may have noticed that I have not used my collaborator’s name in this piece in such manner as to give him credit for his contributions. And, since he denied me the credit we had agreed upon as co-director in the initial production, and as my name appeared NOWHERE in the publicity for the revival, I think that is as it should be. This more recent betrayal by my former friend, which occurred in 1993, is still deeply hurtful to me. Few wounds sting more than the ones inflicted by our former friends.

When Bob Fosse was working on Big Deal, an adaptation of Fellini’s Big Deal on Madonna Street with Tin Pan Alley standards from the 20’s, he was asked why he didn’t work with, say, Kander & Ebb, to develop a brand new score. Mr. Fosse, who had endured more “creative disagreements” with his composers and lyricists in recent years than he cared to, replied, “The only good collaborator is a dead collaborator.”

Fosse was right.

Of Marna Deitch and Posterity

Posted by Don Stitt on March 27, 2013 at 10:35 AM Comments comments (0)

DON STITT

OF MARNA DEITCH AND POSTERITY


Most of you know that I'm an actor, but not everyone knows that I'm also a playwright. I had a revue that ran for two years in its initial run, and which had a critically acclaimed revival some years later. I also wrote a children's musical version of a Shakespeare comedy which was presented under a union contract in New York, and that one also received a revival. I don't have an accurate count, but I have been involved in the writing of at least a dozen shows.


Assessing success with a play or a musical is a bit trickier than most business assessments. Theatre was never exclusively about the money, and I will tell you that it is my opinion that anyone who comes to the theatre exclusively to make a profit is a fool. The vast majority of shows lose money, and of the ones that are successful financially, they rarely make their producers wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. If you're just about money, you'll fit in well down on Wall Street. To be a part of the Broadway fraternity, you might do well to take an oath of poverty first, and satisfy your artistic needs.


There is even a category among Broadway-philes that is hard for outsiders to even consider: A Successful Flop. This is a show that never saw a profit, but was deemed by people in the profession as particularly worthy of consideration nonetheless. The musicals Ragtime and The Scottsboro Boys fall neatly into this category.


In 1979, when a college friend joined me in my then-new home of New York, we talked of songs and sketches we had written for college productions which we thought deserved another shot. We then tried to imagine a way to weave those pieces into a new show, with new material, and a unifying theme. Since the 70's were coming to a close, and we were on the cusp of a new (and hopefully better) decade, we started to imagine a show that held all of the silliness of the 70's up to the light of day. Before long, we had come up with the idea of Potshots, and we would do it with three other actors besides myself. We had a very funny friend named Raymond, a very charismatic ingenue named Karen, and a powerhouse triple-threat named Cindy, who was so clearly headed for the Great White Way that she had already acquired the nickname Broadway Benson.


At 23, I prided myself in being able to create good material very quickly, and the new songs were tuneful and clever. Michael and I started writing new sketches; I was not, at this point in time, particularly political in my thoughts, but Michael was, so I tended to defer to his judgement with regard to what was funny in the world of politics.


I didn't see any need for a whole lot of choreography. Just a chance for me to do a tap dance. So "Tap Dance Around Salt Two" was created, and while it was not a musical masterpiece, it was serviceable in allowing me to show off my then-strong tap chops.


My collaborator agreed to produce the piece. The budget was $1,000.00. In retrospect, perhaps the biggest achievement was that we put up a show in New York for a thousand bucks. Michael paid for it out of his own pocket. (I never had any money to produce my own stuff, and like Blanche du Bois, have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.) Michael liked to refer to that grand as "my bar mitzvoh money."


February of 1980 broke a few cold-weather records, and since we were a midnight show, we had some slim turnouts. One night, when we had more people on the stage than in the house, (counting the band,) we took a vote. We decided to perform the show for them anyway, and when we were done, the eight of them gave us a heartfelt standing ovation. It is a moment I shan't forget.


Thinking we had caught a wave, we had a fellow videorecord the show. I wouldn't have a VCR for another 2.5 years, so we made an archival copy for my partner, and another copy for a producer friend in San Francisco who turned out to not be such a friend after all. I knew that one day I would have a VCR, and we could make a copy of that tape for my archives when that happened.


The show lost its entire investment, but in a good cause, I thought. We didn't have a bulletproof show; it took big comedic risks, and not all of them paid off. But I always remembered the audiences laughing and having a good time. And I loved how my songs sounded with a band.


Well, for whatever reason, my collaborator declined to make a copy of that tape for me. I suspect that his father, who only thought in terms of profit margins, made him feel that had failed, (something the father often did to maintain dominance over his son.) For whatever reason, I suspect the video record was taped over for something important like the Superbowl or World Series. (Hey, video's expensive.)


Through the miracle of Facebook, I found myself back in touch with most of the folks involved who were still living. (Sadly, Raymond was an AIDS casualty in 1990.) The topic of the show came up in a discussion, and all of the others expressed a desire to go back to the piece and revisit what they had contributed to it. Michael chimed in and offered to make everybody copies of the tape, although I was certain that this would never happen; I can tell that his feelings about the show are bitter, and even if he had the tape, I'm sure he would never allow it to be shared. But I kept my mouth shut, and let the others become hopeful and optimistic about revisiting their production, a third of a century ex post facto.


But something unexpected happened. After it became apparent to everyone that we would never see the video, my intrepid stage manager, Marna Deitch, told me that she had held onto some audio cassette tapes she had made during the run. She said that if she could find a way to convert them to a CD, she'd be happy to run off copies for everybody.


I had already had so many disappointments in this regard that I couldn't allow myself to believe it was possible. But yesterday's mail brought me a tidy CD full of MP3's, and hearing my friends, and my songs, and our sketches again was sort of breathtaking.


I won't tell you that the comedy was airtight; as I said earlier, we were taking very big comedic chances, and not all of the gambles paid off. (A big part of that was our choice of director, an old friend who was never sufficiently versed in sketch comedy nor experienced as a writer to be the objective overseer we needed, and in hindsight, I think I would have been better off directing it myself. And considering the way she took advantage of my partner in their personal lives...well, she was not the best idea I have had.)


But here's the biggest revelation from the experience: THE AUDIENCE WAS WITH US ALL THE WAY! Even 90 minutes into it, the audience was clearly still with us, and they were still enjoying themselves. And the response to the songs was enthusiastic, to say the least. (Broadway Benson is unmistakable as a future star, as would become in Broadway's Les Miz, Nunsense, Cats, and the First National of Billy Elliott.


And the one song I was afraid would make me cringe was, in fact, pretty darned hip. A good groove, solid melody, mostly clever lyrics (although I don't like the hook,) and I sang and played pretty well, with a band of musicians vastly superior to my 1980 talent level.


My stage manager Marna Deitch has given me a gift I can never repay. She recorded my creative work for posterity, and now I can add the recording to my archive at the Ruth Haas Library. Potshots has received a second life, and it is all because my stage manager was more interested in preserving our effort than the collaborator who paid the entire expense of the production.


I am hopeful that even he realizes what a good thing that is when he hears her recording. (If he listens to it, that is.) Nobody can sally forth into the future with confidence if they have no way of looking back on the road they have already travelled. 


And I can now say with confidence that this was a stop on the journey I am very happy to have made.

An Acquired Taste

Posted by Don Stitt on February 1, 2013 at 9:05 AM Comments comments (0)

DON STITT

An Acquired Taste


New York City is not for everyone. It holds immense possibility and great wealth, but the inconveniences that come with those attributes can make a move there rather daunting. The traffic is routinely horrendous, the noise can be unsettling (particularly in the middle of the night,) the competition for even the smallest gains can be overwhelming. And, of course, it is America's great melting pot; If you are uncomfortable with people of other colors, faiths, backgrounds or ethnicities than your own, you just might do well to skip the whole shebang all together.


A college professor of mine at San Francisco State gave me the best advice about New York City I ever got: Some things are best done when we are young. If you think that you'd like to tap into the New York Dream, I think you would do well to tackle it when you are still a young adult, as resillience is your greatest ally in the City That Never Sleeps.


And so it came to pass that in 1978, at the tender age of 22, I boarded a red-eye for JFK. All of my San Francisco friends thought me mad: The previous year had not been kind to America's first metropolis. "Ford to New York: Drop Dead!," was an infamous headline, regarding the city's financial collapse, and the refusal of the president to "bail the city out." And a serial killer named Son of Sam had roamed free long enough to cut down a dozen people in the flower of youth. Times Square, known world-wide as the home of the Broadway Theatre, had become a district of prostitutes, drug dealers and 3-card monte.


The Crossroads of the World was in a very bad place, except for one interesting development. A four term congressman had been elected to the city's Mayoralty, and despite all of the reasons others had not to be, this fellow was optimistic. With a capital O.


"How'm I doin'?," he regularly asked, and his constituents regularly gave him the answer he wanted: Great. And when they gave him a different answer, he would listen patiently to their gripes, complaints and suggestions, and when he could, he would implement new strategies and new ideas.


Unlike the current Mayor of New York, this fellow walked among his citizens, without bodyguards or limos, without pretense or condescension. A favorite story involves a long-ago girlfriend who had just come home from a Greenwich Village street fair. "Guess who just bought me a hot dog! The Mayor! He was ahead of me in line, and after he got his hot dog, he said to the guy, 'Give her one, too!' "


Like the city he represented, he was loud, pushy, forward-moving, and occasionally obnoxious. But because he was a veteran politician (instead of an entry level beginner,) he knew exactly what his city needed, and how to get the job done.


The city that the president had dismissed as not being worth trying to save began to bounce back under his Mayoralty. He appointed a number of very ambitious and determined politicians to further his aim to restore New York City to its former glory, and over the years of his first and second term, they did just that.


I won't deny that his third term was problematic; Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And while I still think the Mayor's intentions were always wrapped around the best interests of his city, some of his underlings, (including but not limited to Donald Manes and Bess Myerson,) became too comfortable with their positions and the power they wielded.


But by that time, New York City was no longer on the ropes; it had rebounded in a big way, and the Mayor was tireless in his promotion of the city he loved. And I do not use that term lightly. He loved the city and its people. He loved its eccentricities as well as its glories. And he made sure the world knew exactly how he felt.


Certainly, by 1989 a change was in order, and the former-Mayor turned over the reins of power to another, who was less successful. But he was still always visible, and always vocal.


He became a columnist, a reviewer, an author, and a television judge. He continued to stand up for the groups that needed his help, and to express ideas he thought needed to be expressed.


In the 24 years after his service to his city, he was never far from view. He continued to be an emblem of what the city is capable of: Heroic efforts that produce triumphant results.


And if it need be said, he was not popular with everyone. The sharpest political mind I count among my close friends has said repeatedly, "I hate Ed Koch." And while I think he really meant, "I find Ed Koch strident and annoying," he was not the only one to voice such a sentiment.


But among my fellow entertainers, he holds a special place. Because when a huge housing development went bankrupt, and became the property (read: liability) of the city, Ed said, "Let's give it to the actors!" And to this day, Manhattan Plaza is a haven for performing artists, who pay a percentage of their income for decent housing in the theatre district.


If only for this reason, I consider him a savior. Not only of my city, but of my people, too.


Ed Koch died at 2 AM today, and while it was not unexpected, and while he certainly lived a long and fruitful life, the news hit a nerve. There was a part of me that thought he would never die.


But every time I pass Manhattan Plaza, I shall take comfort in the fact that his legacy lives on.


You did just fine, Ed. Thanks. Really. Thanks for everything.


John Powers

Posted by Don Stitt on January 18, 2013 at 6:05 PM Comments comments (0)

DON STITT

JOHN POWERS


Chicago has given the world more than a few remarkable and unique phenomena. Siskel & Ebert, Kup, Mamet, Nichols and May, Second City, Grease and The Goodman come to mind. It may get cold there on the gold coast, (and take it from me, it does,) but when it comes to sharing creative ideas, it's always pretty hot.


Back in the day, there was a fellow who thought he'd write a funny little book.


He was a product of Chicago's Catholic school system, (back when the nuns and priests had no hesitation at all regarding knocking unruly kids around in the name of the Lord.) An avid baseball fan, he dreamed of playing in the majors. Well, until he saw a 100 MPH fastball up close, at which point he decided to look elsewhere for a future.


"I became a writer because they told me I wouldn't have to lift anything heavy."


After getting a graduate degree from Northwestern, he settled into a teaching position. But John Powers wanted a more creative occupation.


John's sister Margo seemed to have a chemical reaction with John as they would reminisce about their childhood. One would remind the other of a funny incident, and then that sibling would remember something else, and so on, and so on.


Now, I'll be honest with you. I know an awful lot of authors. And most of them are pretty good. But John Powers is the only one I can think of who composed his first novel from 3x5" cards with embarrassing grammar school stories on them.


When the book The Last Catholic in America came out, Chicago's parochial schools started buying the book by the caseload. It gave the nuns and priests a fond look back at their own past, and it gave the students of the 70's a reason to be grateful that they hadn't been a part of the school system twenty years ealier.


John Powers had a hit with his first book. A sequel, called Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, followed shortly therefter, and explored the characters from the first book as they made the transition to high school. Margo and John still had stories to tell.


A third book, with similar but unrelated characters, followed a Catholic college student's journey into manhood, and it was called The Unoriginal Sinner and the Ice Cream God. Because it dealt with religious skepticism and sexual initiation, the Catholic schools did not rush out to buy the book by the truckload, but it was still an enjoyable read.


Fellow educators Libby Mages and Jim Quinn encouraged John to reimagine his first two books as a play, and a presentation was given at Northwestern which Libby produced. It was decided that the play could be a musical, and Jim wrote some songs. Local Chicago legend Mike Nussbaum was brought in to direct the new musical, and he enlisted further musical contributions from Alaric "Rokko" Jans.



A modest musical presentation was given in Summit, Illinois, and the reaction from the crowds was unexpected. The show was nothing short of a smash, with Chicago-area Catholics howling at shared reminiscences of odd rituals and repressed desires.


A larger production was mounted in Birmingham, Michigan, with new choreography by Ronna Kaye, (the original choreographer of the original Grease,) and people began to imagine the musical, (which had taken the title of the second novel,)  as a Broadway show. Again, even in a thousand- seat former vaudeville-house, the show was an unexpected hit.


John Powers was persuaded to try to adapt the show for a Broadway audience, and Libby and her partner Dan Golman recruited another choreographer to work in tandem with Ronna, Tony winner Thommie Walsh, and a "Broadway expert," (from Pittsburgh,) named William Gardener.


Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I was a cast member of both the Birmingham and Broadway productions. I will tell you candidly that it is my considered opinion that the show had a better chance of success before the addition of our "Broadway expert." But, no matter.


The Broadway production tried out at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philly, and again, the quaint, silly, nostalgic musical was a sensation. But the Broadway expert knew what needed to be done. He set about to take out all of the character and charm, and to cull the running time by 50%.


I must say that the production that premiered on 52nd Street was not the best version of it, in my opinion. And the reviews seemed to reflect my disappointment.


But John Powers was not a guy who gave up easily. Ever.


Two years after the embarrassing and dismal Broadway production, John set out to restore the show to what it had been in Philadelphia, and to open the show there again. The new production would utilize all of the expansions, and few of the cuts. And again, to be perfectly honest, I didn't think it would work a second time. Not after THOSE reviews.


But John was right. The Philly audiences came out to support us as if the Broadway debacle had never happened. And the Philly production led to others in Boston, Cleveland, Baltimore, St. Louis, and wrapped up at the Civic Auditorium in Chicago's loop. (All on the Broadway "Production" contract, no less!)


During our years of working together, John and I bonded. Over baseball, and corny jokes, and political bickering. John and I were usually on different sides of the political fence, but since neither of us was ever likely to be able to sway the masses to our respective ways of thinking, we were always able to "agree to disagree."


John went on to write a number of other books, including Odditude and Killer Tennis, and he hosted a popular radio show in his later years, too...after leaving the windy city for Wisconsin, (and becoming a Protestant.)


He and his brother-in-law went into business together; John became a popular "motivational speaker." He was always in demand, and it seemed he never stopped working. And that was a good thing; by this time, he had a wife who had given him two beautiful, smart and funny girls.


In all the years I knew him, John and I never really stopped being friends. Oh, we had an argument. One. It lasted from December of '85 to January of '87. But that was the only one. The other thirty years were regularly punctuated with phone calls between us where we would tell each other corny jokes.


Because he didn't smoke or drink, and because he was religious about his stationary-bike workout, I fully expected John to outlive me, despite being a decade my senior. In fact, I would have bet money on it, (although I concede the point that it would have been hard to collect if I had been right.)


Yesterday, my friend John Powers died suddenly. I think of the grief that his wife JaNelle and his daughters Jacey and Joy are coping with. I think of the one-man-show he had just completed, and have to wonder if it will ever see an audience. I think of all of the bright ideas and clever one-liners and warm sentiment that will never be articulated now.


But I take consolation in one part of this story.


I am here to tell you that in his 67 years on this planet, John Powers got about a thousand years' worth of laughs. And he could get those laughs out of just about anybody. On just about any topic.


And the laughter he created will continue to make people happy.

Ending Gun Violence

Posted by Don Stitt on December 15, 2012 at 6:05 AM Comments comments (0)

It is now time to recognize the National Rifle Association for what it is: A terrorist organization.

Their sole purpose is to put as many guns into as many hands as possible, thereby increasing the profit margins for the manufacturers and the gun lobbyists and the politicians who accomodate them.

I heard a number of broadcasters who were covering yesterdays massacre in Newtown, Connecticut use the phrase, "Now is not the time to be debating gun rights."

I disagree. This is PRECISELY the time. When the horror of an insane man having access to automatic weapons is immediate. When there is no denying the devastation that our gun legislation has permitted. 

I challenge you to name one thing that the NRA has done to benefit Americans BESIDES giving them access to weapons of mass destruction. Wasn't that our basis for invading Iraq? 

When the Colorado movie theatre shooting occurred, I tried to bring this up, and a stranger gave me the old "slippery slope" cliche. I unleashed a torrent of verbal abuse on him, for which I later apologized.

But the time for cliches and truisms has passed.

In my estimation, these are the things we must do:

We must enforce the gun laws that are already on the books to greater effect than we are currently doing.

We must ban assault weapons from purchase by anyone not working for the military or the police.

We must insist on psychological examination of gun permitees.

And we must dismantle the National Rifle Association, and put politicians who take money to promote their cause in jail.

As I see it, people who promote American Gun Culture are traitors. They are enabling killers like the madman who wreaked havoc on Newtown yesterday. Treason is a capitol offense.

Of course, Capital Punishment isn't an effective deterent. But just imagine the effect of a few public hangings of NRA executives, gun lobbyists, and their senatorial and congressional enablers might have on the people who seem to think that the second amendment is more precious than the lives of our children.

(Actually, the guillotine is quicker, more painless and effective, and leaves a more vivid image...)

The problem of gun control is many faceted, and will require a lengthy, rational and reasonable discussion. But to my mind, the gun-enablers are making such a discussion impossible.

It is time for us to face down the promoters of American Gun Culture. It is time to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt the fact that America has the highest incidence of gun violence precisely because it has the greatest accessibility to automatic weaponry. It is time to rethink the second amendment in contemporary terms; the only gun at the time the Constitution was written was the musket, a gun which requires about a minute to load. There are no mass murders with muskets. Let's say everybody's entitled to a musket, and get rid of everything else.

But let us face reality. Nothing is likely to change, because ours is a capitalist country, and guns mean profit.

So until a madman takes an assault weapon down to the NRA or the Capitol, and wipes out a few score gun-enablers, nothing is likely to change.

And that is probably the greatest tragedy of all.

Why They Were Wrong (and I Was Right)

Posted by Don Stitt on November 7, 2012 at 4:15 AM Comments comments (2)

DON STITT

WHY THEY WERE WRONG AND I WAS RIGHT


While I don't claim to know such things myself, I happen to know a brilliant and thoughtful young statistician who has accurately predicted the outcome of the last 6 elections. 


I call him my "oracle."


Because of him, I was able to say that the president would win by NO LESS than 60 electoral votes...and do so 72 hours in advance.


And yet...ALL OF THE MAJOR NEWS OUTLETS WERE CALLING IT A CLOSE RACE UNTIL VERY LATE TUESDAY NIGHT.


How could my friend be so right when the people paid by the news outlets were so consistently and emphatically wrong?


Easy. It was in their best financial interest to lie to you.


(As it usually is.)


All of the media that you read, listen to or watch is owned by one of the following companies: Time Warner, Walt Disney, Viacom,  News Corp., CBS Corporation, and NBC Universal.


(A scant 75 years ago, such ownership was divided among roughly 50 rather divergent corporations, but now money and power has been concentrated into an exclusive group of mega-corporations.)


Who among these companies wanted you to know that the president would be reelected? Well, we'll run them down one by one.


Walt Disney may have a greater percentage of gay employees than any other major corporation, but their politics are still rooted in the McCarty Era. We'll give them a "no."


NBC called the 2000 election for George W. Bush before anyone had a chance to notice that the tallying was askew. We'll give them a "no," too. (Thanks a lot, Brokaw.)


Time Warner has always leaned to the left in what they published, but their conservatism is not a secret. We'll give them a "no," as well.


CBS and Viacom are now the same company, I think, and are in cahoots with ClearChannel. While CBS still tries to look more liberal than not, remember that 60 Minutes caved to Big Tobacco when the former had the audacity to tell the truth. And ClearChannel is the outfit that brings you people like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. I guess they're a big "no," also.


Which leaves News Corps. Which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and managed by Roger Ailes. Do I have to break this down for you more?


"But...how can they get away with such misrepresentation of the facts?," you plaintively ask.


Because they don't have any real competition. At least not from real news.


The networks realized long ago that TV news cost a lot more money than it generated. So they began producing news shows that the viewers wanted to see, regardless of their veracity. Originally, shows like Today became a little more entertaining. But then they had to compete with other shows like Good Morning America, and so the entertainment factor began to trump the information factor. And the trend continued with "FoxNews," which got its license as an "entertainment" network. (Look it up.)


So, as long as all of our information is coming from the same big corporations, you will hear exactly what is convenient for them to tell you.


"But what can we do about this?," you plead.


I think we, as Americans, have to take a public stand against the ludicrous Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, which affirmed that "corporations are people" and "money is speech."


The GOP wasn't able to buy the election this time. But they won't stop trying until we can have our legislators recognize that people are very different from corporations, because people have hearts.

A Very Exclusive Club

Posted by Don Stitt on August 26, 2012 at 2:10 PM Comments comments (0)

DON STITT

A VERY EXCLUSIVE CLUB


My wife has a fixation about the Freemasons. Seemingly such a secretive brotherhood, so connected to the annals of power.

We pulled off a wonderful 50th Birthday prank on the house manager of Symphony Space, when all of his friends showed up in masks as "The Literati" and spoke in Latin.

The Billionaires Boys' Club, The Yale Club, The Metropolitan Club.

The Mile High Club.

No one wants to feel excluded, but everyone is comfortable with being of the class that's doing the excluding.

None of the aforementioned clubs is one I covet membership in. (Although I suppose I qualify as a member of the latter category, but that's another story for another day.)

The one truly exclusive club I would wish to be a member of of has only had 12 members, and will not be adding any new ones any time soon.

Of those 12, 9 are still living.

Charles  Conrad, James Irwin, David Scott, John Young, Ed Mitchell, Charles Duke, Jack Schmidt comprise 7 of the remaining 9 members.

Do you know what the club is yet?

Of the three deceased guys, one was named James Irwin.

Okay. So, in trying to help you guess what this really exclusive club that has only had 12 members is, I have named 8 of the 12 members. There are four other names, one of which was in the news recently.

If you haven't gotten it by now, here are three of the four remaining names. Alan Bean is still alive. As is Gene Cernan.

Alan Shepard has died.

OKAY. HERE'S THE ANSWER.

Yesterday we lost Neil Armstrong, the other, and first member of the Exclusive Club to which I refer. These are the 12 men who did the impossible. They flew to the moon, and the strode upon its surface.

When the US Government can agree upon what they wish to undertake, even the sky is not the limit.

Let us find common ground once again, and soon.

An Error in Judgement

Posted by Don Stitt on August 13, 2012 at 8:40 AM Comments comments (0)

DON STITT

AN ERROR IN JUDGEMENT


You know, dear reader, I do not consider myself to be a person who makes a lot of mistakes. But I would have to say that when I do, sometimes it's a beaut.


10 years ago today I began an Oddyssey which seemed like a good idea at the time.


I was doing a dreadful showcase downtown called Rockwell: The Musical, with my friend Bob Fitch. Blessedly, I was an understudy, and never actually had to bear the humiliation of appearing onstage in this ill-conceived mess. But I was also eager to find a show that would make me feel good about my life again. And so it was that I happened to be in the Equity lounge looking at the audition board.


Although I had never seen Seussical: The Musical, I knew it by reputation. The show had the dubious distinction of being the biggest Broadway money-loser (at that time; it has since been exceeded by Dance of the Vampires and In My Life, to name two.) And it needed an actor to play The Mayor of Whoville, a land so small that they had nestled onto a speck of dust. The actor they wanted for the role would ideally be middle-aged...and not too tall.


But there was one thing I couldn't understand: Why would anyone send out a tour of a show that had already lost $10M?


And then it dawned upon me: If they could fix whatever had been wrong with it, the brand name alone could help the tour transform it from the biggest Broadway flop into the most-produced show in America. And I made up my mind that I wanted to be a part of that transformation.


I had my agent set up an appointment, and I gave a good audition and callback at the principals' call. (This point will become significant later.)


As fate would have it, I was at a commercial audition with my friend Stuart Zagnit when my pager went off, with the readout, "You got the part!" Stuart asked what part, and I told him I was going tobe playing the Mayor in the 1st National of Seussical. "That's MY part," he said with mock-haughtiness, as he had, indeed, played the role on Broadway. I asked him why he wasn't doing the tour, and he explained that he didn't want to be away from his kids for that long.


I happily trotted over to my agent's office. There was the first indication that it was going to be a bumpy ride. After a principal audition and a principal callback, they had issued me a chorus contract. It seems that Equity had told them they needed more chorus people in the show, and Mary Lou Westerfield had personally told the producer that if he gave the actor playing the Mayor a gratuitous chorus appearance in each act, he could do the role on a chorus contract.


And the weekly salary was about 2/3rds of what I had earned on my previous national tour. Seems Equity had buckled under pressure from the producers' league, and had agreed to try out a new "tiered" system, where actors' salaries and per diems were slashed.


My first impulse was to walk out and tell the agent that I hadn't auditioned to be in the chorus. (I have great respect for the people of the ensemble. But it isn't what I do, and with my unusual height and build, I don't blend well.) The agent shifted into salesman gear. "They'll never treat the Mayor of Whoville like a chorus person," and "the audience will never see the contract," were two of the things she said to convince me to sign it, which I reluctantly did.


The following week, I got a call from Gareth May at Equity, who offered a terse apology for Mary Lou's tactic in getting me onto a chorus contract. "But there's an upside," he explained. He told me that on this contract, if my agent had not managed to get me 10% above scale, I didn't need to pay her a commission. I pointed out that this would put me in an awkward position with my agent, and that she'd probably hit the roof if I told her that I wasn't paying her 10%.


But Gareth insisted that this was negotiated for "chorus people just like you," and that there was nothing she could really do about it, although he said he figured she'd probably appeal. "It's all there in black and white. They can't take that away from you."


The first rehearsal, at the studios above the (then) Ford Center for the Performing Arts, gave us an introduction to our star, Cathy Rigby, who was as perky and cheerful as you'd expect, and we got a very impressive demonstration of our technical design (by way of a scale model,) which would invole a computer-operated "iris" which would track our storyline by way of an enormous Dr. Seuss cartoon. Our composer and lyricist, Steve Flaherty and Lynn Aherns, told us exactly what they DIDN'T want;  they didn't want a "fuzzy costume" show, where the Whos were "cute." 


"They aren't cute! They're just like you and me, just very, very small."


As soon as the creative team had adjourned, our choreographer started staging the number "Here on Who," with the most atrociously "cute" choreography, complete with Charlie Chaplin walks, and "I-faw-down-an'-go-boom" falls. My stomach began to turn. And it was only the first day.


The following day, when the musical director insisted that we do the choreography for the songwriters, they hit the roof and reiterated their position that "cuteness" was not our friend. The number was restaged a 2nd time. Before the tour ended, the number would be staged and restaged a total of 14 times.


During the rehearsal period, I also began to really fgeel old for the first time. I was coming up on my 47th birthday, and that made me about a quarter of a century older than the median age. But more than that, there was a disconnect in the way we looked at the tour; most of these young people had been working happily in the non-union tours that had caused the shift in the touring contract, and most of them were without permanent homes, and accustomed to living on McDonalds' meals in cheap motels.


When we arrived in Niceville, Florida to tech the show, the temperature was 110 degrees with 90% relative humidity. I have rarely been so unremittingly uncomfortable in my life. It was there that I encountered my suit; tailor made by St. Germaine, it was constructed of wool fabric heavy enough for a kilt. And I wwas expected to wear glasses with real lenses, which immediately fogged up in the heat. I asked the costume designer if I mightn't take the lenses out so that I might avoid falling into the orchestra pit and dying. He emphatically declined to permit that.


I asked the wardrobe mistress if I mightn't have my costumes in my dressing room at half hour, so I could check everything over. "You'll have what you need when you need it," she snarled.


Opening night in Niceville would be without a completed dress rehearsal; the technics had consumed every iota of concentration. The computerized Iris had proven so utterly unusable that it had to be scrapped. Tempers flared, and there was an ugly exchange between the director and the stage manager. There was so much stuff going on, with so many things flying around, and we hadn't even gotten through the show.


"I'm a Christian, and I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm scared and I'm gonna pray, and if anybody wants to pray with me, you can," said one dancer. I was convinced someone was going to die, so I joined hands with the rest of the cast for the prayer. It would become a pre-show ritual.


We got through the tryout in Niceville and travelled along to our "Official Opening" in Indianapolis. We were still being rehearsed as many hours of the day as the unions would allow. For our opening, we all received Seussical baseball caps. In the band, one could find a tag reading "Coming to Broadway in 2000." Since it was now September of 2002, we knew that this was swag left over from the Broadway flop. I was wandering around downtown on the day after our opening, and found a vendor who made customized caps. I had him make one in almost exactly the same typestyle which read, "Rehearsical: The Rehearsal." I wore it to the rehearsal on the day after the opening as a silent protest of the relentless rehearsals which never seemed to make anything better.


After rehearsal, we were told that Cathy Rigby was incapacitated by a back spasm. (I think the stress of the opening and the unremitting rehearsals contributed to this, myself.) Her understudy would go on that night without a rehearsal. And the young woman was heroic; she not only got through it, but was funny and charming, as well, and would finish out the week in Indianapolis. I gave her the Rehearsical cap as a tribute.


But that night, I went to change into my costume; there was no shirt. I spent every last second calling for a wardrobe assistant to bring me my sirt, but to no avail. So I went on wearing a $2500 suit, a bow tie...and no shirt.


When the stage manager discovered that the wardrobe mistress had been responsible, it caused profound animosity between us, and she began slipping safety pins, thumb tacks and needles into my quick-change dance shoes as retributiuon.


When other performers started turning in their 2 weeks' notice, I gave serious though to quitting myself. But when Liz heard about this, she said, "Who will take care of the Whovillians." And so I pressed on.


On a day when I was travelling between Portland and Seattle, I had a teleconference with Equity and my agent, who was still appealing the decision to pay her 5% (volutarily,) when the contract specifically said I needn't pay her at all. The committee hearing the dispute included a woman named Mary Leigh Stahl, a fellow named Jean-Paul Richard, and Gareth May, the fellow who had initially called me to tell me of the clause that precluded the need for a commission. I made my case, and I hung up for a four hour drive. 


When I arrived in Portland, I learned that Gareth and the other Equity officers had decided to strike down the clause they had informed me of, and demanded that I pay my agent 7%.


It would be the last communication I would have with my agent, save for the weekly check I would write her.


When we were in Houston, we had done a 9 hour commercial-shoot for the show, and as we were being broken for dinner, were told that "contracts will be coming around for the commercial, and anyone who turns theirs in within the hour will get a hundred dollars, cash!"


Knowing that this was contrary to the laws governing such things, another actor and I began calling SAG and AFTRA, and then the producer, and we let it be known that they were not going to be swindling us in quite the manner that they had proposed.


PROFUSE apologies were soon issued, and a member of the producing team was dispatched to explain the "misunderstanding" to us at half-hour the following night, but he didn't make the meeting because he couldn't find a place to park. (But we got union scale for the commercial.)


Because Cathy Rigby was listed as one of the producers, I was surprised when these circumstances continued to happen. But our last stop was at her theatre in La Mirada, CA, and when we got there, everything was great. She told the hated wardrobe mistress that she was unwelcome, and she got rid of some of the most dysfunctional crew members. The last 3 weeks were great.


But I left that tour resentful; we had never made the show right, and we were never given the support or respect I believe we were deserving of. It bothered me.


Until two years later, when I had a chance to play the Mayor again at the historic Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, PA.


We had a new director, one who actually got that the show needs clear storytelling. And a new choreographer, one who staged a nice, simple number once, and everybody was happy with it.


And we had a lot of younger people who knew about theatrical tradition, and who aspired to be thought of as professionals.


The production I did in Lancaster in '04 was quite lovely, and it is the one I shall remember.


As for fixing what was wrong with the show, and making it the most-produced show in America, that was achieved by TheatreWorksUSA, the Weisslers' company. They scaled the whole thing down, cut out the intermission, eliminated the controverial "war" subplot, and "voila!" 


After THEIR tour with it, Seussical did indeed become The Most Produced Show in America.

An Error in Judgement

Posted by Don Stitt on August 13, 2012 at 8:40 AM Comments comments (0)

DON STITT

AN ERROR IN JUDGEMENT


You know, dear reader, I do not consider myself to be a person who makes a lot of mistakes. But I would have to say that when I do, sometimes it's a beaut.


10 years ago today I began an Oddyssey which seemed like a good idea at the time.


I was doing a dreadful showcase downtown called Rockwell: The Musical, with my friend Bob Fitch. Blessedly, I was an understudy, and never actually had to bear the humiliation of appearing onstage in this ill-conceived mess. But I was also eager to find a show that would make me feel good about my life again. And so it was that I happened to be in the Equity lounge looking at the audition board.


Although I had never seen Seussical: The Musical, I knew it by reputation. The show had the dubious distinction of being the biggest Broadway money-loser (at that time; it has since been exceeded by Dance of the Vampires and In My Life, to name two.) And it needed an actor to play The Mayor of Whoville, a land so small that they had nestled onto a speck of dust. The actor they wanted for the role would ideally be middle-aged...and not too tall.


But there was one thing I couldn't understand: Why would anyone send out a tour of a show that had already lost $10M?


And then it dawned upon me: If they could fix whatever had been wrong with it, the brand name alone could help the tour transform it from the biggest Broadway flop into the most-produced show in America. And I made up my mind that I wanted to be a part of that transformation.


I had my agent set up an appointment, and I gave a good audition and callback at the principals' call. (This point will become significant later.)


As fate would have it, I was at a commercial audition with my friend Stuart Zagnit when my pager went off, with the readout, "You got the part!" Stuart asked what part, and I told him I was going tobe playing the Mayor in the 1st National of Seussical. "That's MY part," he said with mock-haughtiness, as he had, indeed, played the role on Broadway. I asked him why he wasn't doing the tour, and he explained that he didn't want to be away from his kids for that long.


I happily trotted over to my agent's office. There was the first indication that it was going to be a bumpy ride. After a principal audition and a principal callback, they had issued me a chorus contract. It seems that Equity had told them they needed more chorus people in the show, and Mary Lou Westerfield had personally told the producer that if he gave the actor playing the Mayor a gratuitous chorus appearance in each act, he could do the role on a chorus contract.


And the weekly salary was about 2/3rds of what I had earned on my previous national tour. Seems Equity had buckled under pressure from the producers' league, and had agreed to try out a new "tiered" system, where actors' salaries and per diems were slashed.


My first impulse was to walk out and tell the agent that I hadn't auditioned to be in the chorus. (I have great respect for the people of the ensemble. But it isn't what I do, and with my unusual height and build, I don't blend well.) The agent shifted into salesman gear. "They'll never treat the Mayor of Whoville like a chorus person," and "the audience will never see the contract," were two of the things she said to convince me to sign it, which I reluctantly did.


The following week, I got a call from Gareth May at Equity, who offered a terse apology for Mary Lou's tactic in getting me onto a chorus contract. "But there's an upside," he explained. He told me that on this contract, if my agent had not managed to get me 10% above scale, I didn't need to pay her a commission. I pointed out that this would put me in an awkward position with my agent, and that she'd probably hit the roof if I told her that I wasn't paying her 10%.


But Gareth insisted that this was negotiated for "chorus people just like you," and that there was nothing she could really do about it, although he said he figured she'd probably appeal. "It's all there in black and white. They can't take that away from you."


The first rehearsal, at the studios above the (then) Ford Center for the Performing Arts, gave us an introduction to our star, Cathy Rigby, who was as perky and cheerful as you'd expect, and we got a very impressive demonstration of our technical design (by way of a scale model,) which would invole a computer-operated "iris" which would track our storyline by way of an enormous Dr. Seuss cartoon. Our composer and lyricist, Steve Flaherty and Lynn Aherns, told us exactly what they DIDN'T want;  they didn't want a "fuzzy costume" show, where the Whos were "cute." 


"They aren't cute! They're just like you and me, just very, very small."


As soon as the creative team had adjourned, our choreographer started staging the number "Here on Who," with the most atrociously "cute" choreography, complete with Charlie Chaplin walks, and "I-faw-down-an'-go-boom" falls. My stomach began to turn. And it was only the first day.


The following day, when the musical director insisted that we do the choreography for the songwriters, they hit the roof and reiterated their position that "cuteness" was not our friend. The number was restaged a 2nd time. Before the tour ended, the number would be staged and restaged a total of 14 times.


During the rehearsal period, I also began to really fgeel old for the first time. I was coming up on my 47th birthday, and that made me about a quarter of a century older than the median age. But more than that, there was a disconnect in the way we looked at the tour; most of these young people had been working happily in the non-union tours that had caused the shift in the touring contract, and most of them were without permanent homes, and accustomed to living on McDonalds' meals in cheap motels.


When we arrived in Niceville, Florida to tech the show, the temperature was 110 degrees with 90% relative humidity. I have rarely been so unremittingly uncomfortable in my life. It was there that I encountered my suit; tailor made by St. Germaine, it was constructed of wool fabric heavy enough for a kilt. And I wwas expected to wear glasses with real lenses, which immediately fogged up in the heat. I asked the costume designer if I mightn't take the lenses out so that I might avoid falling into the orchestra pit and dying. He emphatically declined to permit that.


I asked the wardrobe mistress if I mightn't have my costumes in my dressing room at half hour, so I could check everything over. "You'll have what you need when you need it," she snarled.


Opening night in Niceville would be without a completed dress rehearsal; the technics had consumed every iota of concentration. The computerized Iris had proven so utterly unusable that it had to be scrapped. Tempers flared, and there was an ugly exchange between the director and the stage manager. There was so much stuff going on, with so many things flying around, and we hadn't even gotten through the show.


"I'm a Christian, and I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm scared and I'm gonna pray, and if anybody wants to pray with me, you can," said one dancer. I was convinced someone was going to die, so I joined hands with the rest of the cast for the prayer. It would become a pre-show ritual.


We got through the tryout in Niceville and travelled along to our "Official Opening" in Indianapolis. We were still being rehearsed as many hours of the day as the unions would allow. For our opening, we all received Seussical baseball caps. In the band, one could find a tag reading "Coming to Broadway in 2000." Since it was now September of 2002, we knew that this was swag left over from the Broadway flop. I was wandering around downtown on the day after our opening, and found a vendor who made customized caps. I had him make one in almost exactly the same typestyle which read, "Rehearsical: The Rehearsal." I wore it to the rehearsal on the day after the opening as a silent protest of the relentless rehearsals which never seemed to make anything better.


After rehearsal, we were told that Cathy Rigby was incapacitated by a back spasm. (I think the stress of the opening and the unremitting rehearsals contributed to this, myself.) Her understudy would go on that night without a rehearsal. And the young woman was heroic; she not only got through it, but was funny and charming, as well, and would finish out the week in Indianapolis. I gave her the Rehearsical cap as a tribute.


But that night, I went to change into my costume; there was no shirt. I spent every last second calling for a wardrobe assistant to bring me my sirt, but to no avail. So I went on wearing a $2500 suit, a bow tie...and no shirt.


When the stage manager discovered that the wardrobe mistress had been responsible, it caused profound animosity between us, and she began slipping safety pins, thumb tacks and needles into my quick-change dance shoes as retributiuon.


When other performers started turning in their 2 weeks' notice, I gave serious though to quitting myself. But when Liz heard about this, she said, "Who will take care of the Whovillians." And so I pressed on.


On a day when I was travelling between Portland and Seattle, I had a teleconference with Equity and my agent, who was still appealing the decision to pay her 5% (volutarily,) when the contract specifically said I needn't pay her at all. The committee hearing the dispute included a woman named Mary Leigh Stahl, a fellow named Jean-Paul Richard, and Gareth May, the fellow who had initially called me to tell me of the clause that precluded the need for a commission. I made my case, and I hung up for a four hour drive. 


When I arrived in Portland, I learned that Gareth and the other Equity officers had decided to strike down the clause they had informed me of, and demanded that I pay my agent 7%.


It would be the last communication I would have with my agent, save for the weekly check I would write her.


When we were in Houston, we had done a 9 hour commercial-shoot for the show, and as we were being broken for dinner, were told that "contracts will be coming around for the commercial, and anyone who turns theirs in within the hour will get a hundred dollars, cash!"


Knowing that this was contrary to the laws governing such things, another actor and I began calling SAG and AFTRA, and then the producer, and we let it be known that they were not going to be swindling us in quite the manner that they had proposed.


PROFUSE apologies were soon issued, and a member of the producing team was dispatched to explain the "misunderstanding" to us at half-hour the following night, but he didn't make the meeting because he couldn't find a place to park. (But we got union scale for the commercial.)


Because Cathy Rigby was listed as one of the producers, I was surprised when these circumstances continued to happen. But our last stop was at her theatre in La Mirada, CA, and when we got there, everything was great. She told the hated wardrobe mistress that she was unwelcome, and she got rid of some of the most dysfunctional crew members. The last 3 weeks were great.


But I left that tour resentful; we had never made the show right, and we were never given the support or respect I believe we were deserving of. It bothered me.


Until two years later, when I had a chance to play the Mayor again at the historic Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, PA.


We had a new director, one who actually got that the show needs clear storytelling. And a new choreographer, one who staged a nice, simple number once, and everybody was happy with it.


And we had a lot of younger people who knew about theatrical tradition, and who aspired to be thought of as professionals.


The production I did in Lancaster in '04 was quite lovely, and it is the one I shall remember.


As for fixing what was wrong with the show, and making it the most-produced show in America, that was achieved by TheatreWorksUSA, the Weisslers' company. They scaled the whole thing down, cut out the intermission, eliminated the controverial "war" subplot, and "voila!" 


After THEIR tour with it, Seussical did indeed become The Most Produced Show in America.


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