Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dinner and a Show 3: Something Appealing, Something Appalling

As the Granada Hills Woman's Club Annual Fundraiser was morphing into the Granada Dinner Theatre, I was completing my undergraduate studies at nearby Cal State Northridge. It was during this period that I met my dearest friend, who continues to be a part of my life today, Judy. A fellow student, Judy directed me in various student productions, as well as providing me with my first musical theatre leading role, Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie.

My final show at CSUN was also my favorite. Directed by Judy, I appeared as Feste the Clown in Twelfth Night. This was a wild and wacky production, environmentally staged, with the actors climbing walls and flying through the air on ropes while the audience was seated in and amongst the action. For some reason which escapes me now, my mother and father could not attend the show on the same night, so Mom invited her friend Jo, the artistic director of the new Granada Dinner Theatre, to accompany her. Jo was blown away by the artistry which Judy displayed in this student production, and asked her to direct a show for her new theatre.

It was thus that I appeared as Pseudolus in the Granada Theatre production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Not unlike Toby's Dinner Theatre, we performed the show in the round (the first and, as far as I know, only time Granada Theatre allowed such a thing. All other productions were performed on the proscenium stage). I have many, many memories of this show, which remains one of my favorite stage experiences of all time. Judy cast the show superbly, completely ignoring the untalented ladies who were running the theatre, and instead placing her college chums in the piece. In addition to working with my old high school friend Claudia, this was the summer during which I became close to another friend who has remained with me through the years, Scott. This was an instance when I was playing a part I would not have been given elsewhere, as the character was originally played by Zero Mostel, and the role is still to this day cast in his general type. I was decidedly NOT a Zero Mostel type, then or now, so I welcomed the opportunity to play this hilarious role. Here's a publicity shot from the show, with me on the right, and my buddy Scott on the left:

...Forum was the only musical in my career (so far) which had five choreographers. There was no money at Granada Dinner Theatre, and none of Judy's dancer friends could commit to the long hours necessary to choreograph a large-scale musical. Judy hit upon a winning solution: she offered four choreographer friends the chance to stage one song each. So, my friend Valerie ended up choreographing my favorite number, the vaudeville-tinged Everybody Ought to Have a Maid, while one of the belly-dancing courtesans in the show staged the Marcus Lycus number. Another dancer buddy staged the arrival of the Roman Army, Bring Me My Bride and my dear friend Jenny handled the huge opening song, Comedy Tonight. Judy herself choreographed the remaining numbers. You would expect the result to be a real mish-mash, but instead, we were a hit. Adding to the delight of performing such a perfect piece of musical theatre was the fact that I spent the summer cementing friendships which would remain with me the rest of my life.

My next experience at Granada Dinner Theatre was much more emotionally draining. Several years passed, during which time the theatre grew a bit in stature, though they retained the Woman's Clubhouse as their crummy playing space. Meanwhile, I worked in other theatres around LA and elsewhere. This period was marred by my mother's declining health; she was entering the final phase of a decade-long battle with breast cancer. In early 1983, we were told that the battle was lost, and she would not survive longer than a month or two. We brought her home from the hospital and set up the master bedroom with oxygen tanks and other medical paraphernalia which would allow her to die at home, which was her greatest wish. And we set about trying to say goodbye.

During this period, I received a call from my college buddy Barrie, who had played one of the courtesans in the above mentioned ...Forum and had become a friend. Coincidentally, she was directing the next show at Granada Dinner Theatre. She had held exhaustive auditions, but was still shy one actor, and could I please come to her rescue and play one of the supporting leads? The show was Arsenic and Old Lace, and the role was one I had no business playing, Dr. Einstein, a drunken plastic surgeon, a role which had been written specifically for film star Peter Lorre. I was decidedly NOT a Peter Lorre type, but Barrie trusted me as an actor and asked me to take the part. I could not commit myself to the show without letting Barrie know that she must expect me to be absent at some point, during rehearsal or even performance, because my mother was about to die. It was thus that Barrie, who was a good but not particularly close friend, became one of only two people in my life to know that my mother was terminally ill.

This ghoulish pronouncement did not deter Barrie in the least, she still wanted me for the part. I am so glad she did not rescind her offer. My mother died in late March, about two weeks before the show was to open, so the week of rehearsal I missed was not crucial. What was crucial was the fact that, during this period of personal devastation, I had something else to thing about.

As I mentioned, I had no business playing Dr. Einstein, a middle-aged psychotic with criminal tendencies and a drinking problem. Somehow, rehearsing and performing this part became a haven from the despair I was feeling, and I threw myself into creating this off-the-wall maniac (that's me on the left), complete with the Suzanne Pleshette hairdo, and the most outlandish German accent since Hogan's Heroes.

This show was a ball to do, but cannot be considered the artistic triumph which Forum had been. Barrie had been forced into using many of the theatre's usual players, so the leading performances were largely regrettable (except another buddy, Rob, in the role of Mortimer, who was a scream). Another regrettable aspect of the show is now cause for amusement, though I wasn't laughing then. Granada Theatre, like all theatrical organizations, was always out to raise a few bucks, and artistic director Jo hit upon a sure-fire money-maker. At each performance, she auctioned off the chance to actually appear in the show.

If you know Arsenic and Old Lace, you know it concerns two elderly sisters who poison lonely people to put them out of their misery. As the show progresses, bodies pile up, and hilarity ensues. At one point about half-way through, the character of Dr. Einstein (that would be me) sneaks into the living room to remove a dead body from the window seat and carry it down to the basement to be buried. It was this role, that of the dead body in the window seat, which was auctioned off every night. Yep, whoever paid the most bucks earned the right to lie in the window seat and be hauled across the stage by yours truly. It didn't matter how fat, or how smelly, or how old, or how ANYTHING this person was; if they bid the highest, they became the corpse that I had to lift out of the window seat and carry into the basement.

Without rehearsal.

Night after night, I would make my way over to the window seat, praying to find a Michael J. Fox or a Karen Carpenter stashed there, but usually finding a John Goodman or a Cass Elliot.

Arsenic and Old Lace did not come near the artistic success of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but I don't regret a single moment of appearing in the show. I did not know it then, but it saved my life.

Or at least, my sanity.