Thursday, January 31, 2008

Three Strikes

I tried to spend some money today, but nobody would let me.

Today was my monthly visit from Fernando and His Ladies, so I needed to get out of Dodge. Fernando has been cleaning my condo since I moved here, and I've learned not to be around when he shows up with his five middle-aged Latin Ladies. My little one-bedroom place takes them all of 25 minutes to polish to a shine, and it's best that I get out of their way. Those Latinas are liable to flatten me like a tortilla.

So, I usually take the day for running errands or seeing a movie or both. I never know exactly when the crew will get to me, as I'm surely the smallest gig they have, and they work me in whenever. So, they've appeared at my door as early as 9 AM and as late as 3:45. So, I usually clear out for the day.

Today, I decided to use my coupon from For Eyes and finally purchase some new glasses. Anybody who has seen me at home has been ridiculing me for years, as I'm still wearing the same huge Julia Sugarbaker glasses I've had since, well, since Julia Sugarbaker wore them. This coupon was for two pairs of glasses for 99 bucks. I planned to buy the specs, then wander over to the cineplex and catch a movie.

I took the train (subway) to the downtown location of For Eyes. The store was empty of customers. I took one look at the huge wall of glasses on display and knew I needed some help. There were so many choices, I couldn't see any of them. I tried to look helpless, but even so, it took the salesgirl about five minutes to saunter over to me. I showed her my coupon.

Miss Manners: This only works for glasses priced 69 dollars.
Me: Ok, where are my choices?
Miss Manners: All over the place.

With a dismissive wave of her hand, she left me alone. Now, all the price tags were pasted onto the inside of each frame, so to check a price, one has to take the glasses off the wall and turn them over. And the salesgirl was correct: the 69 dollar glasses were all mixed up with the 49 dollar glasses and the 89 dollar glasses and the 149 dollar glasses.

I was getting nowhere, and a little pissed. Surely this girl was on commission, why wasn't she standing next to me, pointing out some of my choices? Didn't she care to help me? The answer, of course, is no. Nobody in any service job in the District cares about giving any kind of service; I've dealt with that since moving here. Even the cashier at the drug store, or the grocery store, or anywhere, will never acknowledge that you are standing in front of her with something to buy, she'll just thrust out her hand to take your money or your credit card without a word. I should be used to this behavior by now, but I'm not. I spent too many years in retail (15!) and too many years in food service (13!); if I had treated anyone the way we are now routinely treated by service people, I would have lost those jobs within a week.

OK, so another five minutes have passed, as I wander helplessly back and forth in front of this huge display wall, pulling glasses down, putting them back up, and wondering why I should be giving my money to this company. The answer, of course, is that I shouldn't be. So I didn't. Ten minutes after going into the store, ready to spend a hundred dollars, I was back on the street ripping up the coupon.

Strike One.

Maybe I'll find a Lenscrafters out in the suburbs with better service...

So, I now have over an hour and a half to kill before the movie starts. I take a leisurely stroll down the city street (it's brisk, but not too bad, I like the cold). I ultimately reach the movie theatre. This is one of those multi-plexes (aren't they all?), brand new, with a large lobby which it shares with two restaurants, a sushi bar, a Haagen Dazs ice cream parlor, and a Bed, Bath and Beyond. In other words, it's a large lobby with lots of traffic. Sadly, though, no place to sit. No benches, no chairs, nothing. The box office of the theatre, which should be open because the first show of the day starts in 10 minutes, is not. So, I sit down in the corner, my back against the wall, out of everyone's way, and pull out my Newsweek (it's four weeks old, and they are predicting Obama will soon be dropping out of the race).

Well, there is no box office person in sight, but the security guard pops up quick enough.

Gomer: Sir, they don't like you to sit in here.
Me: I'm just waiting for the box office to open. Shouldn't they be open by now?
Gomer: Sir, they don't like you to sit in here.

It's another frustrating thing I've noticed about the service industry. Once an employee is taught one thing, that is the only thing he knows. He can only respond to a situation one way. There was no thought of perhaps trying to solve the problem of no box office employee, the only problem here was somebody breaking a rule he was supposed to enforce.

So, I shrugged, got up, and left the building.

Strike Two.

I wasn't heartbroken to have missed the movie, as it probably saved me 18 bucks, since I am physically incapable of attending a movie without popcorn in my lap and a Diet Something at my side. So, I wandered out onto busy 7th St, and found myself standing in front of Clyde's, one of the many new restaurants which have popped up in that area. Overpriced, as most places are in the District, but I talked myself into going inside for a light lunch. The restaurant was a little busy, as it was now the lunch hour, but certainly not full.

Me: One for lunch, please.
Leona: Would you like to sit at the bar?
Me:, no.
Leona: Go upstairs and they will seat you.

Fine, up I go, behind a gaggle of business-suited gents. I finally reach the desk, and am seated where a Party of One is almost always seated: at a yucky, very public table. Can't really expect to have a cozy booth all to my lonesome, so I don't blink when I am put at a long banquette with individual tables spread about. No one but me has consented to sit there.

Four or five minutes pass, no one has approached. Suddenly, the hostess darts out of nowhere and begins to madly shove all the other, empty tables at the banquette together. I know what's coming: an unexpected party of 10. Right next to me, sitting alone.

nuh-uh. I calmly get up, put on my coat, pick up my backpack, and leave the restaurant.

Strike Three.

It's too early to head back home, so I wander down the street to Chinatown.

Well, it used to be Chinatown, but it has now shrunk to Chinablock. When I first arrived in DC, Chinatown was a half-mile strip of shops and restaurants, but most of those establishments are now gone. New office buildings, apartment buildings, theaters, and the new sports arena all pushed rents sky high, so most of them folded.
I found one little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, accessible down a flight of stairs and thus located below the street.
For some reason the name caught my eye: Big Wong's.
It was a small room with several little Asian ladies zipping about with tea and menus and plates of rice; perhaps Big Wong was in the kitchen. This was surely one of the very few family owned restaurants left in the area, and I was glad to give them my money. And they took it, too, but not much. Lunch special was only $4.95 for a huge plate of food plus tea plus soup plus rice.

I did some math as I waited for my fortune cookie. I set out in the morning prepared to spend 100 bucks for glasses and 18 bucks for a movie. Instead I spent 6 bucks for so much food that half of it is now in the fridge for breakfast tomorrow, and to top it all off, I received some wonderful words of wisdom from Confucius...

My fortune cookie read: Have a Nice Day.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Album Droppings: "Everything's Coming Up Shows"

One of the many patterns I'm detecting in my album collection reveals an interest in the Backstage Musical. Anytime I ran across any cast album, or soundtrack, which seemed to deal with people putting on a show, I grabbed. Often, they were not worth the effort. Five After Eight was such a show. This is a terrible little musical which hangs its limited plot on a young group of performers, and their various personal problems and relationships. The piece only tangentially deals with Putting On A Show (the title refers to the fact that all personal problems cease when the show starts at five after eight. I hate late curtains.)

Here's another show with identical themes, but set in a wildly different circumstance. A group of young performers emerge from a bomb shelter to discover they are the only humans left on earth. (I can't really say they survived a nuclear holocaust, since there is no evidence of radiation in the atmosphere nor any, you know, mutants running rampant.) Instead, this group is joined by a shlub named Avery, who claims to be God's emissary. This guy tells the gang that they must audition to be chosen to repopulate the world. I'm not making this up. So, the show deals with this group rehearsing and then performing their Big Audition for God. This bomb could only be called one thing:

Here's one that's not quite so stinky. Stages concerns yet another group of young performers (why are all these things populated only by young people?) attending college, all in the theatre department. The requisite personal problems and relationships arise, etc etc etc, until these kids finally graduate. This show was obviously a vanity production, as the book was written by the same guy who wrote the music who also wrote the lyrics who also directed the thing. The man in question (Bruce Kimmel) had a minor cult success a little earlier with The First Nudie Musical, and instead of inflicting us with the second nudie musical, concocted this show. Stages had its first (and possibly only) production in Los Angeles, and in the cast was Sammy Williams, who had already won the Tony as Paul in A Chorus Line, and should have known better.

Another piece which concerned a group of young performers learning their craft was a film, and much more successful. I fell in love with the movie Fame as soon as I saw it. It took place at the New York High School of the Performing Arts (at the time I didn't even know such a place existed), and the film is full of such exuberance that one couldn't help but be roped in. A motley group of geeks and misfits all come alive here at this performing arts school. The soundtrack is dominated by several disco flavored songs sung by cast member Irene Cara, who subsequently became a Disco Diva for about a week, but the score is augmented by one melancholy ballad sung, and written, by a young Paul McCrane, decades before he lost his hair and checked into ER. The film boasted a rare dramatic performance by comic Anne Meara, and a brief appearance by Debbie Allen, who later starred in the TV series based on the film.

None of these "backstage musicals"made it anywhere near Broadway, though a stage version of Fame has been knocking around for years.

But I have a couple of vinyls of backstage shows which did make it to Broadway.

So Long, 174th Street is the musical version of the Carl Reiner comedy, Enter Laughing. I have no idea what the music sounds like, as this is another album I have owned for 25 years without opening. The cast included Robert Morse, still trying to recreate his How to Succeed... triumph, and Kaye Ballard as his mother. The show was not a success.

The New Faces of 1952 cast album caught my eye in the record store due to the presence in its cast of several performers who were to become stars. Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostly, Eartha Kitt, Robert Clary (later of Hogan's Heroes), and Carol Lawrence were all in this musical revue. A film version was later released as New Faces of 1956.

When I was in London as a teen ager, I had the opportunity to see a truly spectacular stage performance. Nobody believed that anyone other than Ethel Merman could ever play Mama Rose, so it took almost two decades for Gypsy to make its London debut. Angela Lansbury radically reinterpreted this stage mother from hell, and created a sensation. She later took the show to Broadway and won the Tony. This recording of her performance reflects the humor and humanity which she displayed in the theatre. Go HERE to see a grainy but still spectacular clip. Her rendition of "Rose's Turn" is so shattering, you want to jump out the window.

This album is definitely worth having on CD, but as I already have the Merman Gypsy, the Midler Gypsy, and the Bernadette Gypsy (I passed on the Tyne Daly Gypsy), I'll make do with my homemade copy. That is, until LuPone records her Gypsy later this spring. Have an eggroll!

Monday, January 28, 2008

More Missing Genes

I've already discussed my lack of the Halloween Gene, so prevalent among others in my tribe. I'm missing several other such genes too, like the decorating gene (I can't look at a corner of the room and decide what would be perfect there) and the fashion gene (I have certainly not bought fashionable clothes in at least two decades).
Another gene I'm missing is one so prevalent among others, that my membership card may be revoked.

I lack the Garland Gene.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I recognize our Judy as a terrific performer, and even have several of her recordings. The double album release of her Capitol Recordings has accompanied me on many long car trips. She knows her way around a song, that's for sure. I appreciate her theatricality, and her heart.
But as for her movies...uh, oh. I'm in trouble.

I don't count The Wizard of Oz, which stands alone. Yes, I know it was Garland's big breakout role, but I just don't consider it a Garland Film. Oz stands on its own as an iconic film which happens to have a stellar cast.
So, putting Oz aside for the moment, I must make the following confession:

I have never seen a Judy Garland movie from beginning to end.

Of course, I've seen all the clips. I've seen young Judy flip her long red hair over her shoulder while she Clang Clang Clangs on the Trolley in Meet Me In St. Louis.
I've seen her mature self in black tights and tux jacket, encouraging us to "Get Happy" in Summer Stock.
I've seen her singing and hoofing with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade.

I've seen all the iconic clips.

But I've never seen one of those movies in its entirety. I've never seen one of the "Let's Put On A Show" movies with Mickey Rooney, I've never seen A Star is Born, I've never seen any of them.

Before you call the police, let me correct myself. I actually have seen one Judy Garland movie from start to finish:

Judgement at Nuremberg.

That counts, doesn't it?

Looking for Some Tail

I was at Costco last week, and I splurged on a nice lobster tail, which I tossed into the freezer. I just knew I was going to want something special with which to celebrate on Monday.

Today is Monday.

The tail is still in the freezer.

'nuff said.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Album Droppings: The Royals

One of the many geeky aspects of my personality is my fascination with European royalty. Or at least, the history of it. I don't have much interest in the current royals, as they don't wield much power and are usually sad, lame descendants of much more exciting ancestors.

So, whenever I ran across any kind of soundtrack recording of anything having to do with royalty, I snapped it up.

I was enamored of the BBC costume dramas covering the lives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, which were shown to much acclaim on PBS back in the day. One of the series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, was such a success, here and abroad, that a quickie movie was produced, with the same actor, Keith Michell, playing the king. The DVD of that movie has not been released in this country, but for some reason, I own the soundtrack on vinyl. I suppose it's a reasonable recreation of actual Renaissance music, full of lutes and flutes and tambourines and things. There is no earthly reason for my owning this album except one: it exists.

Soon after the Elizabeth I miniseries hit the American airwaves, big screen producer Hal Wallis tossed us a sumptuous telling of the story of Bess's cousin and rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. Wallis had had some success earlier with the Ann Boleyn- Henry VIII story (Anne of the Thousand Days), so he knew a little something about showy historical biopics. He enlisted Glenda Jackson to recreate her signature role as Elizabeth, and cast Vanessa Redgrave as Mary. I have always been interested in the actual story of Mary, who became queen of Scotland at 6 days old, and Queen of France as an early teen. Three marriages, a couple of gruesome murders, an exploding palace, two daring escapes, and Mary's eventual execution, what's not to like? But the film is pretty draggy, and I never thought I would say this, but Redgrave, one of the phenomenal film actresses of all time, is downright dull in this movie.

That doesn't stop me from owning the DVD of this snore-fest, recently released, nor does it prevent me from owning the original soundtrack. Composer John Barry is known for his lush, full-bodied scores, and he does not disappoint here. The album contains a little gem, too: Vanessa Redgrave, as Mary, singing a wispy ballad in French.

British royalty has been represented on the Broadway musical stage, too. Of course, everybody knows Camelot, but as I own that one on CD already, my vinyl recording does not need my transfer treatment. But Henry VIII, a most unlikely musical hero, appeared onstage in a musical in the mid-70s. The show is called Rex, and judging from the original cast recording, it's Rex, the dog. The liner notes are very complete, which is good, because the show was reportedly very hard to follow in the theatre. Americans are not well-versed in British history, so this tale of the king who divorced two wives and beheaded two others was a whirlwind. (And everybody looks the same in those clothes).

The only things interesting about this album are the names attached to it. Above the title: Richard Rodgers. Yep, that Richard Rodgers, during his loooooooong decline from greatness, was here hooked up with Sheldon Harnick from Fiddler fame. They were unable to come up with anything memorable for their cast to sing, and the show holds the distinction of having the shortest run of Rodgers' long career. But what a cast. Nicol Williamson was playing the king, and apparently acting up alot (he had a reputation for bad behavior, including slapping actors onstage and worse. His co-star in I Hate Hamlet quit the show due to Williamson's disorderly handling of fight choreography).

Penny Fuller was the female lead in the piece, playing both Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Princess Elizabeth (yes, they tried to cover Henry's entire reign in one evening. They couldn't cram it all in, and dispatched two wives during intermission). Fuller is one of those terrific stage actresses who, had they been working in an earlier period, would have been a full-fledged star. She had a real triumph in Applause, holding her own opposite Lauren Becall (go here for a Dance Party clip from the show). But because the era of Broadway stars becoming nationally known was now over, few people outside the theatre community have ever heard of her these days. The biggest star attached to Rex was a then-unknown talent, making her Broadway debut as Henry's eldest daughter Mary, Glenn Close.

Rodgers had only one more musical make it to Broadway before kicking the bucket. It was a musical version of I Remember Mama, and with brooding Scandinavian film star Liv Ullmann in the leading role, it was as big a flop as Rex. But I never purchased that cast album, if they ever made one, so at least I won't have to put myself through that.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Theatre Droppings: New Plays

In a full house the other night, I caught Charter Theatre's latest offering: F.U. It's an over-the-top farce about a poor schnook whose wife is sleeping around and whose career is on the skids. It's a funny, fast-paced play, brand new (as all Charter productions are). Unfortunately for actor Michael Skinner, his role is wholly reactive, and he's not given much range by the playwright. Our attention soon drifts to the trio surrounding Our Hero, and what a talented group of nutcases they are. Allyson Currin's buxom turn as the cheating wife is a hoot, and Sarah Melinda offers a bunch of performances which are off the charts (that Chinese CEO is truly wicked).

As always, my buddy Ray Ficca takes his roles and infuses them with creative physicality, and comes up a winner.

Glory Days, the new musical being given a very generous World Premiere at Signature, has now entered local theatrical lore. If the experience of the two creators of this piece, both in their early 20s, is any indication, all young composers and lyricists should beat down the door of artistic director Eric Schaeffer to get a listen. Schaeffer reportedly fell in love with a few of the songs, then workshopped the show, and has now produced a full-scale production. I caught the show last week, and I have to confess I don't see the big attraction. I am not a great judge of music, goodness knows, but many of this show's numbers sound quite interchangeable to me. And the story, which concerns four high school friends who reunite less than a year after graduation, just did not resonate with this old bird. 19 year-old boys astonished at how substantially their lives have changed in one year?

The show is getting some very positive buzz around town, including a love letter from The Post. I tend to agree more with the Citypaper's review, which was more impressed with the fact that these guys somehow landed on the Signature main stage than with anything in the musical itself.

I had a primary problem with the lack of, you know, a plot. The central action of the show (the guys plan a prank on the football team which rejected them) was replaced mid-stream by the coming out of one of the boys. None of this had much resonance for me.

Schaeffer is getting all sorts of kudos for producing this brand new musical by these very young firebrands, and he deserves a lot of credit for doing so. But the cynic within me is thinking about how cheap this show was to produce (brand new writers, only four actors, only a handful of musicians, one set [bleachers], etc), and I wonder how much those considerations factored into Signature's decision to produce this show. They are heading into what must be a hugely expensive spring, with their Kander and Ebb festival to include three full scale musicals, starring Broadway luminaries and Tony winners. Schaeffer is surely wise to precede his festival with this bare bones production whose premiere will nonetheless attract lots of attention.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ah, Liaisons...

So, I spent the last two days helping to run the 7th Annual Washington/Baltimore/Northern Virginia Actors Equity Liaison Committee Auditions.

These auditions were invented 7 years ago by the local Equity Liaison Committee as a vehicle to allow the local membership access to a large group of casters from the local theatre community. The auditions, now nicknamed "the Liaisons," have grown like gangbusters, and now attract theatres from other regions, as well as actors from New York, Chicago, and points beyond.

My usual function at these auditions is the all-important Sorting Of The Resumes. The actors arrive with 50 headshots, which must be gathered together with others in their group (7-9 actors audition in every half hour period) to be distributed to the auditors. It is a job for which I have volunteered for the past 6 years. I love checking out the various resumes and headshots (lots of color shots these days), and when I run across someone I know, I pop out to chat.

This year, however, I assumed the responsibility of "running the day," the phrase we have been using to classify the person in charge of the actors. It's a high stress job, funneling a couple of hundred nervous actors through the process. But I had a fun time, particularly on Tuesday, when the pressure was off me the actor. My own audition was on Monday.

Actors are not nearly as whacked out as you might think, at least stage actors aren't. We had very few weirdos to deal with, though I am still perplexed by one actor. "Eric" (not his real name. OK, it is his real name) took the time and effort to sign up for an audition slot, showed up for his audition, signed in, turned in his 50 pictures and resumes, then disappeared. He probably got the jitters, and was too embarrassed to tell any of the proctors that he was leaving. Instead, he simply bolted.

I can relate. These kinds of auditions can be nerve wracking (in fact, I find ALL auditions nerve wracking). I myself am not a very good auditioner, which, as you might suspect, has adversely affected my career. These days, I tend to get work in places I have worked before, rather than through a cold audition.

Auditions like the Liaisons require the actor to perform monologues of their own choosing. I find this a terrible burden for the actor. In a single time slot, one must choose pieces which contrast in tone and style, and be able to fully inhabit two (or more!) characters, in three minutes or less. I'm sure I have over a dozen monologues ready to go at any one time, as one needs a Classical Serious, Classical Comic, Contemporary Serious, Contemporary Comic, etc etc etc.

This year, I took a bit of a chance on my pieces. One, from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, was taken from my performance of the play last fall. It's always always always good to do a piece which one has already played in performance. It was a quick speech of about a minute's length, but I hope it showed me off in a different light (I am not usually seen as an earthy ranch hand).

My second selection was more dangerous. I spent many weeks prior to the audition in a state of flux, choosing one monologue, then another, then a third, but never being completely thrilled with any of them. Then, my great acting coach and friend Bobbi passed away, causing her to be in my mind a lot. It suddenly occurred to me to resurrect one of the pieces upon which I had worked with her all those years ago. Of course, all those pieces are meant to be played by an actor in his 20s or 30s, so that presented a bit of a problem. I am neither in my 20s nor 30s.

But I remembered a quiet little monologue we had worked on for a long while, from The Glass Menagerie. I usually would not pick such a well-known play for an audition such as this one, and the role is very much too young for me to play these days. (Sam Waterston played the role in the famous TV version starring Katherine Hepburn.) But the piece is described by its playwright as a "memory play," and one speech in particular, the final moment of the play, is clearly spoken a long time after the play's main action has concluded. I thought I could get away with it, with the spirit of Bobbi sitting on my shoulder.

We'll see if I did (get away with it). I had several compliments on the audition at the time, including a friend who confessed that, when I first announced The Glass Menagerie, he rolled his eyes, but I won him over. And I've received a call from one of the major theatres here in town, a theatre which has ignored me for a decade or so, for an audition there next week.

As for the Liaison Auditions themselves, I wish actors never had to go through such a death-defying experience. Pulling a few minutes out of a full length play and attempting to create something worthwhile, in front of 40 or so producers, directors, and casters, is a real mountain to climb.

I don't know why we do it.

Yes, I do. We have to.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Album Droppings: Diva Edition

I continue to slog away at my vast record collection, translating hundreds of albums to digital format. I've moved into the 'Ps"!

I have to admit that many many MANY of these albums are real losers. I don't know why I bought them in the first place.

Well, yes I do. I know why I bought each and every one of them. In some cases, in fact in a whole lot of them, I bought the album merely for the presence of a single female performer.

Such was the case with Pins and Needles. This was a studio recording celebrating the 25th Anniversary of a Harold Rome revue which in its original form ran about four years back in the 30s. This recording was released in 1962. Rome was at the time represented on Broadway as the composer of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, and for this studio recording of Pins and Needles, he enlisted one of the minor players in Wholesale. It is Streisand's appearance on this album (she doesn't need a first name on this blog) which encouraged me to purchase it. It's amazing how clear and clean her sound was back then (she was in her late teens at the time), with only a hint of the nasality which she adopted soon afterward.

While on the topic of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, it's a very under appreciated story of the meteoric rise and sudden downfall of an unscrupulous young businessman. The tone is considerably darker than another show with identical themes which appeared around this time (early 60s), How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. While Wholesale sings of "men and ulcers on parade," How to Succeed admonishes that a "secretary is not a toy." Audiences chose lightness over dark; How to Succeed won all the Tonys and the Pulitzer, and Wholesale is remembered solely as Streisand's Broadway debut.

I was never a Mary Martin fan. Give me Merman or Channing, please, but not the sugary sweet characters Martin tended to play. I own the original Sound of Music because one must, and the original I Do! I Do! because the terrific Robert Preston is worth it. The only other recording I have, either on vinyl or CD, which features Martin is One Touch of Venus. This is one of those studio albums which pretends to be an original cast album, and as such things go, this one is pretty darn good. Kurt Weill broke with his usual atonal habit and contributed a fairly traditional score, but as I am a fan of neither Weill nor Martin, you might wonder why I own this thing. Well, I purchased it on vinyl only a few years ago, when I appeared in a staged reading of the musical at American Century Theatre. We did a weekend's worth of performances, and I actually liked the piece. I had a ball playing sidekick Stanley.

I have lots of other recordings featuring various divas, but this one is probably the weirdest. Sid and Marty Krofft had booming careers as producers of children's television back in the 60s and 70s, but their shows all had a psychedelic twist. Lidsville took place in a world of talking (and singing and dancing) hats, and starred the hilarious Charles Nelson Reilly, a gig for which he was MUCH too good. The Bugaloos were all flying insects who were also a rock band, or something, tortured by a villainous Martha Raye who lived in a giant juke box. Or maybe the singing insects lived in the giant juke box. I can't remember those specifics. I can only remember being embarrassed for Raye, who was one of the great film clowns of the golden age, being reduced to this thing (our Maggie Raye has starred in the Friday Dance Party in these pages). Sigmund and the Sea-Monsters starred a post-Family Affair Johnny Whittaker, before things went so terribly wrong for him.

But the weirdest, wildest, most disturbing show from the Krofft Brothers was also their most famous, H.R. Pufnstuf. These guys surely ingested something illegal when they concocted this story of an island where all inanimate objects talked, and many of them walked. All of them annoyed. Poor Jack Wild, fresh from an Oscar nomination for Oliver, did the best he could as the kid lost in this acid-induced world, where the title character was a talking Dragon. Or maybe he was a dinosaur, who knew? Somehow, this piece attracted my attention way back when. I'm sure it was due to the presence in the cast of character actress Billie Hayes, whom I had loved as Mammy Yokum in Li'l Abner, and was here chewing the scenery as an incompetent witch.

This TV series was popular enough to spawn a film, and I own the soundtrack to that film. It has not been released on CD in this country, and somebody has listed the vinyl recording on EBay at 20 bucks. I imagine it used to be worth even more than that, as the soundtrack boasts a solo by "special star Mama Cass" (I bet she loved that billing) which has not been available anywhere else for over 30 years. That song, "Different," has now been released on a CD of Elliot's solo recordings, so I guess the value of Pufnstuf 's soundtrack has dropped (that number can be viewed here). The film was extremely low budget, shot on the TV series' sets, and when watching it now (full disclosure of my geekiness: I not only own the soundtrack, I actually own the movie on VHS-it's never been released on DVD), one feels rather sad. Three divas playing witches deserved better. Martha Raye was ending her long stage and screen career; to her credit, she is as subtle as anyone could be playing a character called "Boss Witch." Billie Hayes, who spent a lot of time in Krofft Bros. series, deserved better than to be remembered only for this hammy role of "Witchiepoo." She snagged the role of Mammy Yokum in the film version of Li'l Abner after playing the role on the first national tour (she stole it from original Broadway Mammy, Charlotte Rae. I love that.) And Elliot was just stepping out on her own, which is probably how she was talked into playing this role in which her first appearance is made sitting in a vat of fruit, munching on a banana.

It helps, I suppose, to be hopped up on mushrooms to enjoy this thing. But be careful. The mushrooms in Pufnstuf talk.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Snow Daze

I can't help it. I'm a sucker for the snow.

I get so excited, I just have to head up to my rooftop deck:

Here's the view once I get up there:

I missed the first snow of the season by being in Los Angeles, which, I understand, is enjoying temps in the 70s today. So, today's light sprinkling is especially appreciated. My first winter here in DC, back in '96, coincided with one of the major snow storms of the decade. At the time, I was living in a basement apartment, better know as "The Pit," and I was buried. Which would have been fine if I had any window action going on, but, just like Laverne and Shirley, my windows were all at sidewalk level, so I couldn't even see out them.

I don't live in "The Pit" anymore. Instead, I live in a Tree House. On such a day as today, I pull up all the wood blinds on all my windows, and just look.

Snow. It's addictive. It's Nature's coke!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Toilet Humour

I spent the better part of Sunday with my head in the toilet.

Literally, I spent about two hours trying to fix my leaky john. The toilet had been slowly dripping for many many months (only inside the tank; there was never any leakage onto the floor). Against my better judgement, I decided to finally try to fix the thing myself, and therein started a really monstrous afternoon. Why I even attempted it is beyond me; history has proven time and time again that I am not a DIY Guy.

I ventured out to Home Depot, a place which always gives me the creeps: the place is just too big. It makes me feel like a midget. And an INCOMPETENT midget at that. I look at all those acres and acres of aisles filled with Do-It-Yourself Stuff, and I feel completely overwhelmed, as well as highly unqualified to own my own home. I mean, I can't install my own ceiling fan, I can't re-tile my floor, I can't replace my garbage disposal, I can't even Plant A Tree For The Homeless. But obviously, everybody else can.

However, I needed to buy a new toilet flush valve apparatus, encouraged by a commercial I recently saw which illustrated how easy it was to replace the thing.

Never trust commercials.

My home toolbox is limited, as is my patience for such endeavors, and after several hours contorting myself in order to reach various toilet valves and fixtures, I had succeeded in creating a leak where one had not existed before. I now had a steady dribble onto the bathroom floor.

I gave up, and headed for the yellow pages to call a plumber who would surely have gouged me for an emergency call on a Sunday. And I was kicking myself for ever starting the damn project. As I waited on hold, I thought I'd make one more effort (I inherited that little bit of stubbornness from my father), so I removed the brand new flusher and re-installed the ancient relic I started with.

The new leak stopped.

And so did the old one I was trying to fix in the first place.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Stritch to stretch

I've been thinking of Elaine Stritch lately. Why not?

On a recent drive to and from Manhattan, I listened to the recording of her one-woman show, "At Liberty," so she's surfaced in my consciousness this week. I love her to death, who doesn't? Yet I can't help thinking that only those people who have seen her in person can really explain her appeal. Her career has included just about everything, but she is by far best known for her roles in various musicals. From "Sail Away," which Noel Coward constructed with her in mind, to her most famous role in "Company," to the Hal Prince revival of "Show Boat," to countless others, she is remembered primarily for her musical work. But in listening to her recordings, one can't help but notice that she is more likely to wobble off the note than hit it cleanly, so her appeal must be in the theatre itself.

I have not seen her in a musical, but I consider myself lucky to have seen her searing performance in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" on Broadway. She received one of her numerous Tony nominations for that role, and would have easily won it too, if Zoe Caldwell hadn't attracted so much attention as Maria Callas in "Master Class" that season.

Stritch is currently reviving her "At Liberty" show at the classy Cafe Carlyle, so I was excited and amazed to read that she will next be appearing in a starry revival of Beckett's "Endgame." For anyone who did not study Beckett in college (nobody likes Beckett, we only study Beckett), "Endgame" takes place in a vaguely post-apocalyptic world (Beckett's favorite setting for his plays), in a basement room with one window, a guy in a wheelchair, a silent servant, and two trash cans. Hamm, the guy in the wheelchair, will be played in this production by John Turturro. Elaine Stritch will be playing his mother, Nell. She lives in one of the trash cans. Her husband, Nagg, lives in the other trash can. See why nobody likes Beckett?

But I bet our Elaine will wipe the stage with her costars, even though trapped in the garbage bin.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Perp Walk

I've entered a period of life (reentered, I should say) which I have often had to endure. It is the period of time which actors optimistically call "Between Engagements." It's the common industry euphemism for Out Of Work. And in my case, it's optimistic because "between" usually means something has ended, and soon something else will begin. I can only claim the former part of that equation: I have no idea when my next job will be, or even if there ever will be one.

These are the thoughts which fog the brain of all but the most foolish of actors.

So, the new year has begun with these surrounding clouds. I suppose I should feel lucky that, even this early in 2008, I have already had the chance to be rejected by two theatres! I'm on a roll...

A week or so ago, I returned to the scene of my most recent crime to audition for their Christmas 2008 musical, "Peter Pan." Olney holds group auditions for their musical productions. A dozen or so actors are called for an hour. One by one, the Actron Unit is ushered into the Jury Room to sing a song and perhaps read a side for the character in question. Once all that is done, the entire group is taught a dance combination and then required to strut their stuff.

I don't like group auditions, but I see the necessity of them for large scale musicals. But here's the hard part. After everyone has sung, danced, acted, and schmoozed, everyone is led back out into the lobby to await their Final Judgement. In a few minutes, the casting director steps out and announces who is called back for further auditions the next day.

See the problem? This is pretty embarrassing for those people not called back, to have that fact announced to the world. I have not noticed this problem before, because I have always been called back for Olney musicals. Until now.

It's tough enough if you are surrounded by strangers; you can try to slink away with your tail between your legs relatively unnoticed. But if you are surrounded by people you know, people you have been laughing with and carrying on with for an hour, it is pretty humiliating to have the theatre announce that you are not talented enough to warrant further attention.

As I slunk away with my Brave Face on, I started to feel like a perp being led in handcuffs through a mob of press after being arrested. I know that Olney handles these auditions this way in order to reduce the manpower necessary to call or email people individually, but they could take some lessons in Actor Handling from tiny Bay Theatre's routine. I suppose they think, "Hey, you (the actor) will get up onstage and do the weirdest, wildest, most outrageous things, so why would you care what other people think of you?"

So, I won't be visiting Never-Neverland next Christmas.

This week, I was summoned to New York to audition for "The Elephant Man" for a Vermont theatre. At least they did not require a perp walk. In fact, my reading went quite well, and the director responded with, "that was a good choice." This is AuditionSpeak for "You appear to be a good actor, but I have no interest in you." At least they did not communicate their disinterest to everyone in the lobby.

Well, the week has not been a total failure. I was invited to perform in the first of a series of staged readings for the Washington Stage Guild. I am playing the all-important role of the butler. It's a pivotal role. I get to announce people. And every once in a while, I get to arch my eyebrow.

It's actually fun to be back with the Guild Gang, if only for a few days. It's a fun bunch, and we eat well. We'll be reading the play, "The Return of the Prodigal," Friday night and Saturday matinee, before what we hope will be appreciative and forgiving audiences.

So, after a banner year in 2007, the new year has seen a return to the regular ups and downs of my Actor's Life. So far, one kind invitation, one harmless rejection, and one outright humiliation.

Hi-Ho, the glamorous life...

Thursday, January 3, 2008

"Take Your Toys"

That was the admonition given by my dear friend and longtime acting coach, Bobbi Holtzman. I heard her say it countless times to actors, including myself. In a nutshell, it means going after what you want. Need something from another character ? (all characters do). Get in there and get it. Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself; if you need something, go for it. This direction, one of many I received from my 12 or so years studying with Bobbi, always led to the kind of raw, emotionally available work for which she was known. I think of her every single time I am faced with an emotionally challenging scene to play.

I've been thinking about Bobbi a lot this week, wondering what my life would have been like had I never met her. After a long decline, she passed away at midnight on New Year's Eve.

I first met Bobbi during my undergrad days at Cal State, Northridge. She was on the adjunct faculty there, meaning that she occasionally taught a class or two. I had heard her name bandied about the department for a year or so before I landed in her Acting II class. I knew immediately that she was something special. She spent no time at all on how you moved or what you sounded like; her emphasis was on what you (and your character) were feeling, and how to express it honestly and completely.

I was mesmerized by this woman, so different from anyone else teaching on that campus, so when the semester was over, I summoned my courage and asked if I could study with her privately. She ran a professional actors' workshop at the time, and I was thrilled to be able to join it. Thus began a creative, artistic, and personal relationship which lasted to this day. Bobbi's workshops were tough; you would sometimes work a scene in class for a solid hour and a half. During those sessions, when she was both a commandant and a cheerleader, Bobbi taught me the art of acting.
And what a class. We met at a pre-school in the Valley, so this very adult work was being conducted among tiny chairs and tables and fingerpaints. Nobody cared about the surroundings, though. Bobbi usually assigned me roles which I would never play out there in the Real World, but from them, I learned my craft. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Caligula, Mourning Becomes Electra, A Delicate Balance, Romeo and Juliet, the list goes on and on. I still occasionally use a speech from I Never Sang for my Father, which we worked on extensively. In addition, Bobbi was always eager to explore work we may have been doing outside class. She helped me tremendously when I was appearing as "Harry the Hoofer" in The Time of Your Life in Hollywood (I had to conquer one of the actor's danger zones, the Telephone Call). She coached me on the pieces with which I auditioned for graduate school, pieces which ultimately changed my life.

Bobbi was a well-respected stage director during that period, too, and I appeared in her production of Brendan Behan's The Hostage. She gave me the confidence to play the flamboyant Rio Rita, the Irish transvestite. She appeared onstage herself a good bit, too, and in productions such as Awake and Sing, Toys in the Attic, In a Northern Landscape, and Working, she put her teaching techniques to the test. She took her toys.

There are less than a handful of people whom I would consider made a real, lasting impact on my creative life. Joan Peterson was one, as was (and is) my best buddy Judy, but I can say for certain that Bobbi Holtzman's influence will be felt in my work forever. She taught me to be brave and honest, assertive and vulnerable, all at the same time.

I still recall the last scene I worked on with Bobbi, in a workshop only a week before I left for grad school. Every once in a while, she would give you a role you were born to play, but one which had passed you by. Such was "Tom" in The Glass Menagerie. While I was playing this uptight southern boy who is forced to leave the family he loves, I'm sure I did not recognize the similarity to my own life. But perhaps Bobbi did. Perhaps she knew that, by going to grad school, I was taking the only positive step I could take to improve my life, all the while feeling tortured over what I was leaving behind.
Blow out your candles, Bobbi. And so, goodbye.