Friday, July 25, 2008

John's Mass Appeal

Theatre professionals, family, friends, and fans gathered yesterday to honor John MacDonald with a funeral mass at the Church of St. Patrick in downtown DC.

I am the least religious person you ever met, but the ceremony was a moving celebration, and somehow, it helped.

I took the subway downtown, knowing that John would not want me to experience the hassle of parking in the area. He and Ann always took care of their actors. I departed the train at Metro Center, along with scores and scores of other passengers, as it was lunch hour on a weekday. While walking toward the exit gate, a well-dressed woman walking next to me suddenly turned and said, "Do you happen to know where St. Pat's is?"

I replied, "I'm on my way there. We can walk together." The coincidence of being approached, out of the blue, on a packed subway platform, by someone attending the same funeral as I, was pretty substantial, I thought. The woman introduced herself as "Catherine," and explained that she was meeting her husband and other friends at the church. They were clearly not theatre folk, and she revealed that they had all lived in the same apartment house with John and Ann, before the MacDonalds moved to their own home. I was not surprised to find that John was well remembered by non-theatrical "civilians," as well as his own tribe.

St. Patrick's is the oldest Catholic parish in the DC area, and was established in the late 1700s to minister to the Irish workers who were building the Capitol and White House. The parish, in fact, pre-dates DC as the nation's capital.

I'm sure the site was the only church considered for John's funeral. The Washington Stage Guild's first (and so far, only) permanent home was in Carroll Hall, adjacent to the sanctuary, and for a decade or so, Stage Guild shows were produced with the cheerful cooperation of their landlords, the archdiocese. The original members of WSG, most of whom are still members of the company, were clearly moved to find that John's funeral mass was being attended by Msgr. Farina, a retired cleric who was a staunch supporter of the Guild's early efforts.

I myself have never attended any kind of Catholic mass, though I can claim to have been blessed by the Pope. I was in the huge square of St. Peter's in Rome one Sunday morning in 1973 when Paul VI appeared on his balcony and did his thing. And I did attend an Eastern Orthodox wedding once. The event lasted forever, the priest droned on and on in Armenian, somebody spread smoking incense all over the place, and the groom fainted.

John's mass didn't have those kinds of histrionics, but was quietly meaningful to Catholics and heathens alike. I welcomed the structure of the service, which lent itself more to personal reflection than outbursts of raw emotion. Readings were given by WSG stalwarts Lynn Steinmetz, Vinny Clark, and Bill Largess, and the eulogy delivered by Bob Butler broke a bit with Catholic Protocol and invited chuckles from the congregation.

Speaking of the congregation, there was a large turnout, considering the mass took place in the middle of a work day. Of course, many many actors were present, as well as several artistic directors (Woolly Mammoth, Totem Pole Playhouse), and even a few theatre critics. John was clearly well-respected in his community.

The mass included a communion ceremony, and as the Catholic folk passed through the line to accept their wafer and wine, an oddity occurred. In the midst of the conservatively dressed attendees, a strapping fellow in shorts, work boots, and dirty bare legs, strode up to the alter. Even with all this solemnity, the guy was the source of only mild bemusement. There was none of the outraged shock which a more uptight crowd might have aroused. I chuckled to myself that this must be some construction worker in the area, on a break and eager to snag a bite of that tasty wafer symbolizing the body of Christ.

I later discovered that this gent had attended Catholic University with John, Ann, and the other Stage Guild founders, and had veered off into a career in plumbing. But he was determined not to miss the chance to honor John's life and career, and had, in his own words, "climbed out of a ditch" to get to the funeral.

John would have wholeheartedly approved.

As for me, I held it together pretty well, until the end. Msgr. Enzler, the very personable priest who officiated, gave the congregation permission to applaud, something which used to be verboten in churches of all faiths, but nowadays, is permitted in certain circumstances. Saying goodbye to such a fine director/actor/producer as John MacDonald absolutely required applause.

The scriptures which were read during the mass were beautiful to listen to, and were comforting in their way. But I am not spiritually moved by that kind of thing. Yet when the congregation's applause began, then swelled, filling that hall, bouncing off the high ceilings and curved walls, well, that was a sound I can relate to. I know what applause means, and its powerful effect overcame my well-learned poise.

I cried like a baby.

John would have wholeheartedly understood.

Randy Pausch


You cannot change the cards you are dealt. Just how you play the hand.

Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted.

The last lecturer.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Estelle Getty


The diminutive character actress who won the Emmy award playing the acerbic mother on The Golden Girls reached stardom very late in her career. In her early days, she attempted stand-up comedy on the borscht belt, and bombed. She spent the majority of her life as a wife and mother and office worker in Queens. The luckiest day of her life was probably the day Harvey Fierstein cast her to play his mother in his off-off-Broadway creation, Widows and Children First! The one act was later joined with two other of Fierstein's autobiographical works, and became Torch Song Trilogy. Getty traveled with the play as it moved to Broadway. Here she is in the show's earliest incarnation, opposite the playwright and a very young Matthew Broderick, about a year before his starring role in Max Dugan Returns took him to Hollywood:

Getty went with Torch Song when it opened in Los Angeles, which is where I first saw her. Onstage, she had an obvious comic timing, but I felt somehow unconvinced that she was actually playing a real person. Fierstein takes credit for "discovering" Getty, and he surely deserves it, for it was during this onstage run that she auditioned, repeatedly, for the role which would make her a star. She was substantially too young to play the 80-year old Sophia, as I have previously mentioned, but when she played her final callback in full makeup and wig, she landed the part. (Scuttlebutt at the time claimed she beat out a few heavy hitters for the role, including TV legend Imogene Coca.)

"Sophia" was an immediate smash with the viewing audience, with her quick wit and her withering sarcasm. I admired Getty's ability to wring laughs out of just about anything, but in my opinion, she was outshone by her far more talented co-stars. Her work lacked the depth which the other three vets brought to their roles (just check out the episode in which her son is buried to see what I mean), but I greatly admire the way she stepped up to the plate among three comic powerhouses, and she certainly held her own.

When Torch Song Trilogy was filmed, Getty lost the role which she had created and played onstage for years. As Harvey Fierstein, who was playing the leading role, was virtually unknown to the movie public, he had to be surrounded by a few bankable names. Matthew Broderick, by then a bona fide movie star, signed on (playing a different role than he had onstage in New York), and Anne Bancroft took Getty's role as the mother. (Both Broderick and Bancroft had billing over Fierstein, though his role was by far the largest and most important in the film.) Once the movie was released, I could see immediately why I thought something had been missing from Getty's stage performance, as Bancroft brought much needed depth and humanity to the part.

But I have to say I admire the fact that Estelle Getty kept plugging along in her career, despite not having much success until well into her 50s. While she was not the most versatile comic actress on the planet, she may have been the most indefatigable.

Off to Shady Pines.

Update as of 7/27/08: Despite constant protestations that the cast of the "Golden Girls" was a close-knit family, Getty's costars, all of whom survive her, were all absent from her funeral.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Is this the Transylvania Station?

With the conspicuous, and slightly disturbing, lack of Happy Dancing around here, I took off to visit the pater in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It should be easier to get from DC to Asheville, NC. It's barely a seven hour drive, at top speeds and stops only for urination, but usually, I fly. Of course, with all the hassles of airports and such, travel by air ends up to be a bigger time commitment.

One cannot fly directly to Asheville from DC. My flight stopped first in Detroit. And not by mistake. I've been in countless airports over the years, but two things made this particular hub special. It is the first domestic airport I've encountered in which the P.A. announcements were in Japanese. (Detroit is a hub for Northwest Airlines, so I suppose this is a holdover from the days when they were called Northwest Orient?) Secondly, the terminals of this airport are connected by a long underground tunnel which is provocatively lit with shifting pastel colors, and furnished with New Age style musical rumblings.

I guess it's supposed to trick passengers into forgetting that they are in an airport, and they are largely successful. The tunnel encourages travelers to stand and gawk, which annoys people like me who, you know, have a plane to catch.

The Asheville airport is "just up the road a piece" (as we say in the South) from the town of Brevard, in which my father lives. I always get a kick out of the sign which greets visitors as they pass from Asheville into Brevard.

It says "Welcome to Transylvania."

Brevard is located in Transylvania county, and couldn't be more unlike Dracula's hometown. Bram Stoker would be bored to death.

I quickly changed clothes at Dad's, and borrowed his Mercedes (puff, puff) to head back into Asheville.

I had secured an audition for a small theatre group there, an organization which has been making some noise on the Asheville arts scene for several years (yes, there is actually an Asheville arts scene). The North Carolina Stage Company, located in a black box under a strip of retail stores, serves up an interesting mix of plays which seem to fit into the bohemian atmosphere of downtown Asheville.

I believe the audition went well, though one never knows, do one? I read for a role in their season, and the managing director who was running the audition asked me to stay and read an additional scene, so that's usually a good sign. Unless they were just bored and were getting their kicks by putting actors on the spot. But we had a nice chat, so perhaps something down the road will happen for me there. Let's keep that glass half full!

The rest of the trip was spent relaxing at my father's digs, which include a highly landscaped backyard complete with bird feeders, statuary, and a running waterfall. I'm not usually impressed with landscape work; from me it elicits a shrug of "hm. That's nice." But this particular waterfall made the most relaxing noise as it splashed its way downhill, and was the perfect accompaniment to lounging, dining, and napping on the porch above. It almost drowned out the drone of the neighbor's air conditioner next door...this is the suburbs, after all.

I was able to catch a local Theatre Dropping Friday night, a production of I Hate Hamlet at the Asheville Community Theatre. This organization has been around for decades, and has oodles of money, enough to afford their own large theatre, seating many hundreds. I've noticed that community theatres seem to be better supported, funds-wise, than many a professional non-profit, or maybe it just looks that way because nobody gets paid, so there's all this extra money with which to build swanky spaces. Well, I shouldn't say nobody gets paid; this group has a full-time staff. I mean no actor gets paid, the talent onstage always being the last group in any organization to be compensated for their efforts.

The show, unfortunately, reinforced prevailing wisdom regarding community theatre. Lots of mugging by untrained actors who either shouted or mumbled at each other, and truly atrocious direction which allowed silly walks, half-baked accents, and all-around lousy pace. And really, that costumer did the large woman no favors by putting her in pink pants...

As for the show itself, it's a lightweight piece which I had coincidentally seen in its original Broadway production, about which I have already written. But in the right hands, the play could have a bit of depth, and the kid playing the young leading man was quite nice. Unfortunately, he was sabotaged at every turn by every actor surrounding him, and ultimately sank.

I felt for him. I know a little something about doing good work in a show, but it being completely unrecognized due to the failings of the actor playing opposite.

I returned home Saturday, enduring a day-long ordeal in various airplanes, airports, and baggage claim carousels. I stand behind my very rational disgust for the strangers with whom I am forced to travel. Without fail, they are loud, rude, fat, and smelly. And if they've got a baby, it's crying.

But I was very glad to get to spend a bit of time with my father. Each morning I joined him on what he calls his "march," which is his daily workout routine: a brisk walk through his neighborhood, including a couple of really hellish hills which get the cardio going, but also including picturesque views of tree-covered mountains, mossy trails, and the neighborhood community garden.

He's living a good life these days, and for that, I am thankful.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Cocker code cracked

I've posted several videos in the past month or so, but I assure you, this blog is not intended as a redistribution center for Youtube. However, our crowd could use a laugh right about now, and thanks to my grad school buddies Steve and Nan, here's one.

Perhaps it was the tension of the last week, but as I watched this, I giggled like a school girl.

If your week has been anything like ours, please enjoy...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

That Dog

I'm so glad my buddy Steve called yesterday to alert me that folks had been gathering all week at Ann Norton's house, remembering John. I drove out to their rustic house in a bohemian part of Maryland, where friends of John and Ann were consoling each other. As befits a theatrical group like this, the atmosphere was not as gloomy as you might think. Many a laugh was had, as stories about the career of John MacDonald were bandied about, and relished.

Steve manned the grill and served up scrummy burgers, dogs, and brats, and, as usual with any gathering involving theatrical folk, the drinks were plentiful. At the heart of the evening was Ann, who seemed to be reviving a bit after a week no one should have to endure; she's blessed with a group of friends who have surrounded her and John for a quarter of a century and more. I mentioned to a couple of people how remarkable it is, that the core group of the Washington Stage Guild has remained largely intact for so many years. They are truly each others' family.

It was heartening to hear of all the people who had sent condolences to Ann this week, including, if you can believe it, several of the local theatre critics. (Critics! Sending condolences! One of them even showed up at the house, but I heard that was a drag...)

[Sorry, cheap joke. I'm nothing if not cheap, especially in times of grief.]

Last night was a bittersweet evening of reminiscences, and even some tentative talk of the future, which always seems to help in moments like these. A few tears flowed, along with many more laughs, hugs, and slurps of Jameson's. Ann told the alternately hilarious and harrowing story of her attempt to get back to DC from Atlanta on that terrible day. From her story, I am sure there will be one or two Delta employees burning in hell soon. But a couple of others, who helped her as she scrambled to get home, will get angels' wings.

As the evening lengthened, I kept noticing the dog.

Her name is Sandy (at least, I think she's a she), and she is one of those faithful family pets who have been around for ages. As usual when a crowd was present, she was excited and enthusiastic, even as advanced age seems to have affected her eyesight and her range of movement. I would one day like to know Sandy's story, which I'm sure Ann would be glad to tell, of how she came into the MacDonald-Norton household and became a fixture in the Stage Guild community. But that's not the story Ann told last night.

Instead, she told of a single occurrence earlier in the week. It appears that Sandy has always been a homebody, and has never really attempted to escape the household's environs. But one morning this week, she disappeared for a while. Search parties were being formed when one of Ann's neighbors appeared with Sandy; he had found her snooping around the neighborhood.

Of course, Sandy wasn't snooping. She was looking for John.

In telling this story, Ann made passing reference to the fact that, when John took that terrible fall, Sandy was with him, alone in the house. I'm tortured a bit by the thought of that dog at that moment, wondering what was happening, wondering what to do, wondering how to help.

And now, all of us have to try to make sense of the inexplicable. My experience losing my mother in my 20s taught me at least one thing: our human brains will process the loss, and force us to accept John's absence. But how confused Sandy must be, to have her Alpha suddenly vanish. Where did he go? Why isn't he coming back?

I've shed more than a few tears this week for Ann. And for Bill and Laura and Vinny and Bob and Helen and Lynn, for Steve and Kathleen and Tricia and Michael and Keri, for Jeff and Jewell and Conrad and Morgan and Marianne and Ben and Louise, for Alan and Sunshine and Becky and for me too. I've cried for everybody who surrounded John during these years.

Tonight, though, I've surprised myself. Tonight, I'm crying for that dog.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


As this terrible week trudges on, I've found it difficult to concentrate on much of anything. I'm worried about the wonderful Stage Guilders who have welcomed me into their midst lately, all of whom are devastated by the sudden, inexplicable death of John MacDonald. I've heard that it has been determined that John died from a terrible fall down the stairs, a home-based accident which nobody really thinks can happen, but does.

John's passing comes at a critical time for the Washington Stage Guild, which is in the midst of a difficult Capital Campaign to raise funds necessary to finish their new theatre. The Executive Director of WSG, Ann Norton, who is John's partner in all things, has decided to continue the current Summer Season of staged readings happening at Flashpoint. I imagine John would have applauded that decision. So, I'll be appearing in Sunday's reading of Hobson's Choice, playing a man-about-town significantly younger than myself. But nobody cares about such things in a staged reading. (hey, in War with the Newts, I played a lizard with a speech impediment...).

And if we can bring a semblance of normality to the chaos this week has brought, it will be worth everything...

Monday, July 7, 2008

John MacDonald

My hands are shaking as I write these unbelievable words. My new friend John MacDonald, the artistic director of the Washington Stage Guild, passed away yesterday. The cause of death has not yet been determined.
I have to admit that this entry is really more about me than John. I'm afraid that if I begin to write only about John, his accomplishments, his accolades, and his legacy, I'll never get through the night.

Until about two years ago, our paths crossed only rarely. The Stage Guild, which John founded over 20 years ago, maintained a fairly secure resident company of actors, so the opportunities for an interloper like me to audition for the group were rare. Still, ever since I relocated to DC over a decade ago, I had a strong desire to work with the WSG, which specializes in the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. Literate, language-heavy plays are right up my alley.

It took a completely different venue for me to finally be introduced, in a genuine way, to the creative force known as John MacDonald. About two years ago (maybe three?), I was invited by the Stage Guild's leading actor, Bill Largess, to participate in a staged reading of a musical, of all things. The piece was 1776, and five performances of the show were being planned to celebrate the reopening of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, which had been closed for years undergoing renovations. This reading was not affiliated with the Stage Guild, but the cast included many WSG regulars, including its artistic director, John. Turns out John was a forceful actor, as well as director, and the two of us hit it off quite well.

At about the same time, my grad school buddy Steve Carpenter, who had directed me before, approached me about appearing in his planned production of "Opus," which was to be produced by the Stage Guild. Nine months later, I found myself being welcomed into the WSG fold as we started rehearsals.

John, as artistic director, resisted the temptation of many other artistic directors, and pretty much left us alone during our rehearsal period. He popped in for our designer runthrough, and after the rehearsal, he made a point of pulling me aside to compliment me on my work, particularly in my scene with our leading lady, Kathleen Coons. His warm words to me cemented my affection for this large, imposing man who never let his position as artistic director circumvent the vision of our show's director, Steve.

As I've mentioned in several previous posts, Opus was a great success. Since then, I have been included in many of the Guild's staged readings, and I have begun to feel that WSG may be an artistic home for me. John had everything to do with that feeling.

I know I will be writing more about him in the coming days, but until then, here's a lovely pic of John, relaxing at home during the Opus cast party. Appropriately, he is being partially blocked by a bottle of Jameson's, which is a part of the Stage Guild tradition.

You left too soon, John.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Frozen Grand Central

This video clip has been floating around Youtube for several years, though I came across it only a few months ago. For some reason, it renews my enthusiasm for performing LIVE...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Bozo the Clown


He was not the first Bozo, nor his creator, but Larry Harmon is credited with making the iconic clown a household name. He appeared as the character for decades, but his major contribution was in refining the clown's appearance, then licensing the image across the country. He trained hundreds of actors to play the role, playing it himself off and on for over 50 years. Harmon received an unfortunate pie in the face in 2004, when the International Clown Hall of Fame (yes, there is one) removed him from their exhibit when the original Bozo complained.

I am not particularly fond of traditional clowns; they remind me of mimes, which I REALLY hate. I prefer the talents of more modern clowns such as Bill Irwin. But Harmon deserves some credit for helping to create the iconic image so prevalent at children's parties, pizza joints, and in McDonald's commercials.

I hope that Bozo rests in peace, perhaps crammed into a tiny clown casket with Clarabell, Coco, Crusty, and Kelly (Emmett).

Maybe WJM's Chuckles the Clown will be welcoming him to that circus in the sky, with the very words with which Chuckles himself bit the dust:

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

July Second, the second

July 2nd remains the overlooked stepchild of the Independence Day Celebrations.

But it has some significance for me, as I mentioned last year.