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April 1999
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Now My Proud Beauty
I have you in my power

In my younger days (have you ever noticed how you can't recall what happened when you were older) I did a fair bit of acting. I doubt that I was a threat to Lawrence Olivier, or even Brad Pitt. Still, I emoted on stage with great enthusiasm and my dramatic career is a good source of anecdotage. I propose herein to lie about it with vigor.

In truth I have forgotten many of the gory details. Here, however, is a resume of plays that I have been in. It is incomplete; there are a few more that God in His Mercy has expunged from my memory.


Sundry roles and productions

Nesfa musicals:

  • Master of the Universe in Captain Future Meets Gilbert & Sullivan, or, Alas! Who Loves a Spaceman?
  • Darth Vader in Rivets Redux, or, Whatever Happened to Helmuth of Boskone?
  • Richard Deadwood in Back to Rivets

Summerstock Melodrama

  • Father of the Hero in Lily, The Felon's Daughter
  • Sir Francis Levison in East Lynne (villain)

College

  • A planter in Emperor Jones
  • A spear carrier in Medea
  • A minor character in The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Munro Murgatroyd in Dirty Works at the Crossroads (villain)
  • House Owner in George Washington Slept Here
  • Id of a female writer in ??? (mime)

Play Tour

  • One of the brother's Grimm in One must marry,a one act play done in German with subtitles
  • A one act mime melodrama done to the Rhapsody in Blue (villain)

High School

  • Hermit in Seven Keys to Baldpate (Sr play)
  • ???? (Jr. Play)


You Horrible Villain, You

As you may have noticed many of the plays that I was in were melodramas. Perhaps I should give a word of explanation about melodramas or mellerdrammers as they are sometimes called.

In the last century (in view of the eminent demise of the 20'th century perhaps I should make it clear that I refer to the 19'th century) there was no radio, no television, and no cinema. For entertainment people had to make do with that which they produced for themselves. This may account for the rapid population growth in those days.

There was, however, theater. Mere hamlets would have a theater. The town of Highmore in the county where I grew up had an "opera house". Touring companies went from town to town presenting popular plays. The taste of the time was robust; the popular productions were florid in their excesses. Plots were melodramatic and the acting was very broad.

It is easy in this day of electronic amplification, of spotlights and gels, of electric lights and power machinery, how primitive the stagecraft of yesteryear was. Stages were lit with footlights which were gas lanterns (and, in an even earlier time, candles). Actors not only had to project their voices - something that the stage actor must do even today - but they had to make very broad gestures in order to be seen at all. Makeup (real greasepaint) had to be wildly exaggerated so that features were perceptible to the audience. Of necessity, the acting style was broad.

The audiences were unsophisticated. They want rip-roaring good stories filled with action and sentiment, plays which had moments where they could weep, moments where they could cheer, and moments where they could boo and hiss. They wanted melodrama and they got it.

Some of the popular plays of the time were Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl and East Lynne. I have never seen Bertha but the title is suggestive. I have played in East Lynne and it is, I assure you, quite melodramatic.

The plots of these plays were formula ridden. There was a hero and a heroine. Their happiness was threatened by the villain who was truly villainous. Mention of a long-lost relative in the first act was a guarantee of his fortuitous appearance in the final scenes. It should be understood that melodrama was meant to be taken seriously and was taken seriously by its audiences.

Time passes. (Old age bids one no trump and youth overcalls wildly with two clubs.) Tastes change. (And well they should - the old outfits were getting rather aromatic.) The public taste improved and the old favorites were set aside to gather dust. In due course a new generation discovered the old favorites, whooped, and proceeded to play them for laughs. Thus the great mellerdrammer revival of the mid twentieth century. The new audiences wanted the most flagrant excesses so a playwriting industry sprang up, creating new plays in the old style which exaggerated the formulas.


Beginnings

My acting career began, I suppose, in high school. I appeared in both the Junior and Senior plays. I recall nothing at all about the Junior play which is probably just as well. The Senior play was Seven Keys to Baldpate, a mystery by Earl Derr Biggers (he of Charlie Chan fame). I played a hermit who lived at the Baldpate mansion. Thus began my typecasting; over the years I have regularly been typecast in one of two roles, either as a crazy old coot or as a dastardly villain. Thus does art imitate life.

I suspect that the productions had all of the quality that high school plays usually have and that my acting was as good as it might have been expected to be. The real signifigance of my initial forays onto the stage is that it established that I had one of the fundamental attributes of the actor - the desire to get on stage and perform before others.

This is no small thing. Many people, perhaps most, are chary of getting up in front of others and performing. There are many people who like being around the theater but who do not want to go on stage. This is fortunate; if everyone were on stage there would be no one to do the back stage work.

So I establised in my youth that I had one of the essential attributes of the actor - the willingness to go on stage in front of an audience. There are other attributes of the successful actor such as talent. Unfortunately willingness to act and talent do not always come in the same package.


Dirty Works At The Crossroads

Although I had the willingness I did not have the obsession to act under any and all circumstances. Thus it was that I did not seek out opportunities to act in the next few years. Indeed no such opportunities came my way until I chanced to return to college again, this time at South Dakota State College (now SD State University - there has been a product upgrade since my time there).

As it happened the engineering society (not the drama department) decided to sponsor a play for Rabbit Rarities (the Jack Rabbit is the totem animal of SDSU). The drama department was constrained to put on plays of consequence; the engineering society was under no such constraint. They chose a melodrama entitled Dirty Works At The Crossroads for their dramatic entry. Said play is one of the modern works, designed to be corny and played for laughs.

A casting call went out. I saw it and said to myself, self, that would be neat. I showed up. My inherent native talents were immediately recognized and I was cast as the villain, Munro Murgatroyd. The villain, you must understand, is THE STAR of a melodrama.

The villain wears the traditional outfit - the red-lined black cape and the long black twirled mustache. He twirls his cape (an artform in its own right), he skulks, he laughs villainously. He moves through the play performing acts of treachery and evil. The audience boos his every move. In the end he gets his come-uppance. In this particular play I was run over by a train, something that is not easy to arrange on stage.

My performance was immensely improved by acquiring laryngitis a couple of days before the production (it ran three nights.) I dosed myself liberally of course and protected my voice. This did little or no good. I got on stage, delivered one or two lines in my normal voice, lost my normal voice, and then reverted to a low throaty growl. It was very evil.


Plays, plays, and more plays

One production was enough to hook me. Thereafter I went out for every thing that the drama department put on. I always got parts, usually as the closest thing that the play had to a crazy old coot. I like to think that the reason was that I tall and skinny (6'1" and 160 lbs - I am not quite so lean these days) and that my typecasting was based on physical appearance rather than being a harbinger of things to come.

As noted we did serious things. George Washington Slept Here is a comedy but we did it as theater in the round which made up for the concession to popular taste. Medea covered classical drama. Emperor Jones covered serious modern drama and The Merry Wives of Windsor covered Shakespeare. The latter was an odd choice - it is one of the least distinguished of the bard's plays.

In addition to the regular productions of the drama department I also played in sundry coffee house productions. Of these I only remember one in which I played the id of a female writer. This was not a speaking role - it was strictly in mime. I was made up in white with blue triangle eyebrows. I must confess that I remember nothing else about the play except that it was written by a female writer, the wife of one of the professors in the English department.


On the dusty trail - the play tour

Each year the more active actors were rewarded with the chance to go on play tour. For the tour we had two one act plays and a mimed intermission, the entirety of it scheduled to be performed in about an hour or so. The tour consisted of hitting 2-3 high schools a day in western SD for a week.

This was a major exercise in logistics. All of our staging and props were in a van and were all carefully organized. When we arrived at a high school we had somewhat less than a hour to locate everything, master the lights, unload the sets and props, and set up the production.

We did three bits. One was a German one act play. We set up a slide projector in back to flash subtitles. Kind of neat, sort of weird. The play, One must marry, is a satire on the brother's Grimm. The plot revolves around the requirement that one of them must get married under the terms of the will; neither wishes to, both being old confirmed bachelors. I was the brother who had to get married.

For the intermission we did a mime melodrama choreographed to The rhapsody in blue. This consisted mostly of the villain (I was the villain, naturally) and the hero struggling back and forth.

The third was the one act version of Madame Butterfly, which I was not in. I do wonder what our high school audiences made of this odd collection of plays. In one case we found out.

When we hit Pine Ridge (the Sioux reservation) we ran into an unusual problem. The first line in the play is spoken by Madame Butterfly. She is calling her maid; the line goes "Suzuki, Suzuki. Where is my little Suzuki?" Nothing exceptional about that, you say? Ordinarily, no. In this production, however, it was greeted by titters across the auditorium. Thereafter each reference to Suzuki was met by a wave of sniggers. Afterwards we learned that "suzuki" is very close to the Sioux word for "penis".


Summerstock Melodrama

Another reward for my dramatic efforts was an offer of employment one summer at the Rockerville Mellerdrammer. Rockerville was a motley collection of tourist traps located in the black hills of South Dakota not far from Rapid City. It had been a real town during the gold rush days. The mellerdrammer was one of the attractions.

Summer stock was fun. We held our shows in a large tent. The profits for the place came from the sale of peanuts which the audience was encourage to throw at the actors (the cape was necessary for self defense.) At the end of the night the stage would be an inch thick in peanuts. We offered two sterling plays, Lily, the felon's daughter, and East Lynne.

Once we had our lines and performances down pat we would ad lib from time to time, sometimes breaking up the audience and sometimes breaking up the cast. Ad-libs were of two sorts. Some were generic asides used to squelch obstreperous members of the audience, e.g., "there's a train leaving in ten minutes; be under it." The others, however, were improvisations, spur of the moment rewritings of the script. These in turn fell into two classes - jokes and desperate ad-libbing to cover the fact that someone had forgotten his line (or worse, had delivered a line belonging to another scene.)

Lily, the felon's daughter

Lily was one of the " I was the felon. The hero was noble but weak and the villain had swindled him out of large sum of money which the hero embezzled. I took the rap for him. Our hero fled to Alaska where, it transpired in the final scenes, he hooked up with a long lost uncle fortuitously mentioned in the first act, became rich, and returned in the end to save everything.

In the first act in an early scene the hero was supposed to have bought Lily an engagement ring; the villain had swindled him out of the money for it, of course. I, as a loving father, did not want to see Lily disappointed (a sentiment I am sure you will agree with) so I bought a ring and gave it to the hero to give to Lily. I warned him to be careful with it and announced in ringing tones, "It cost ten-thousand dollars."

An ordinary ring could scarcely have been seen from the audience so we constructed one that could be seen. The "gem" was made out of tinfoil and was approximately the size of a chicken egg. One evening, out of nowhere, I announced proudly, "Be careful with it. It cost ten-thousand gold bond stamps!" This version of high finance was well received by the audience.

At one point in the season the chap who played the villain in that play had to be replaced. (I believe he was fired for ineptitude which was no small achievement.) His replacement had to come up to speed very quickly and in his first week he relied heavily on being cued (and holding a copy of the script concealed under his cape.) In one scene he had done something particularly dastardly and Lily (played by a woman by the name of Carol Ries) had a line that started "You horrible villain, why don't you ...". [I disremember the actual line] One evening, when he was still desperately coming up to speed, she ad-libbed, "You horrible villain, why don't you learn your lines!?" The audience cheered.

East Lynne

East Lynne is an old English play which can be played straight. In this one I was the villain, the dastardly Sir Francis Levison.

During East Lynne, Sir Francis is persuading the first wife of the hero to run off with him. To this end he has forged letters, love letters from the hero to another woman. The villain, cad that he is, has given the letters to said first wife; she is reading them and is sobbing.

As was usual the first row was occupied by small children who were taking everything very seriously. In the middle of the scene one young waif hollered out "He's lying! Don't listen to him!" Without a moment's thought I turned and growled at him, "Shut up kid! I've got a good thing going. Don't spoil it!" The audience broke up. The actress broke up and had to hide her face until she stopped giggling.

East Lynne also produced, one evening, the immortal line, "Don't worry Lady Barbara, his goose is cooked. The place is surrounded by goose cookers."

Intermission

For intermission we had some rather corny skits. One of them was a bit done in mime of a woman buying a dress. It seems the dress wouldn't quite fit so the sales clerk brings out a corset. After large amounts of squeezing and tugging the woman is shoe horned into the dress. We also sang (or did something passing for singing) several songs in harmony to the tune of "How much is that doggy in the window". I still recall one of them:

My mother and father were Irish
My mother and father were Irish
My mother and father were Irish
And I am Irish too.
The last line, of course, sounds like "I am Irish stew". This bit was quite popular with small children.

Life as a summer stock actor

We were supplied with room and board. Room consisted of two ramshackle shacks, one for the men and one for the women. Sanitary facilities consisted of two out houses, again one for the men and one for the women. The boy's club was graced by a resident bat who would fly around endlessly until we finally turned the lights out.

And then there was the incident with the gainesburgers. The couple that ran the place cooked for themselves and provided separate food for the cast. One evening, whilst said couple were out on the town, the cast was determined to dine better than they had, raided the couple's fridge, and dined handsomely on hamburgers or so they thought until the next morning when said couple groused loudly about what had happened to the gainesburgers that they had in the fridge for their dog.


Great moments in advertising

Once as part of an advertising promo for the mellerdrammer I was lowered by helicopter into a campground near the melodrama. I was dressed in my villain's costume and was making the rounds talking up the melodrama. I came a cropper when I ran into a family that promptly informed me that the theater was the devil's work.

My finest advertising moment came when I did some promo work for Dirty Work at the Crossroads. I was again dressed as a villain and was wandering from table to table talking up the production. At one table I paused, looked at what they were eating, and growled, "Bah, even a villain doesn't deserve this food." The entire cafeteria broke out in cheers; I later learned that the people who ran the cafeteria were very hurt and upset.


NESFA Musicals

After my college stint (one of several) I went East to Boston. I hooked up with some amateur groups and did a few plays, none of which I can recall. In due course my acting urge died a natural death - for a while.

I eventually became a founding member of NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association) which, among other activities, sponsored an annual SF convention called Boskone. One year the club conceived the amiable notion of putting on a musical for the convention, a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche entitled Captain Future Meets Gilbert & Sullivan, or, Alas! Who Loves a Spaceman?. This fine work had previously been presented in Los Angeles with Bruce Pelz playing the part of the Master of the Universe. Naturally I was tapped (read: insistently volunteered) for the role of Master of the Universe. To see me at my finest, click here. I don't recall all of the cast; some of the stars included Joe Ross, Freddy Isaacs, Larry Niven, Karen Blank, and Selina Lovett as Sweet Little Asteroid.

There was one little problem. This was a musical and I had quite a few of the lead patter songs. My voice is not exactly of operatic quality and my sense of musical timing is not noted for its precision. The pianist had to struggle a bit to make my musical cues noticeable to me. We managed in the end although the pianist shed large amounts of hair as he pulled it out.

Captain Future made a deep impression on the nesfans. For several years afterward Selina and I would burst into our duet upon encountering each other. I still recall most of the words to "She's called little Asteroid, sweet little Asteroid, though she has never known why" and the first verse of one of my patter songs.

Such a waste of brain cells.

Nesfa was bitten by acting bug. It was an annual tradition for a few years to do a musical for Boskone. Usually it was a G&S pastiche. One year, however, they did The Decomposers, a parody of The Producers which had as its finale a triumphal march to the strains of Springtime for Nesfa.

I appeared in two more of these productions. In Rivets Redux I played the real Darth Vader and was promptly wiped out by Helmuth of Boskone, played by Tony Lewis. It was, I suppose, a bit part although a bit part, properly speaking, is one of Dracula's victims in a vampire movie.

I also played Richard Deadwood in Back to Rivets. This was another villain role; for some reason I recall almost nothing about the play even though I was a major character. Richard Deadwood, BTW, was a takeoff on Roger Elwood, a major editor of SF anthologies in the 70's. At one point it seemed as though Elwood was going to be the Joe Fox of the SF world.

As time went by I wandered away from Nesfa and in turn Nesfa lost its dramatic thrust. Thus ended my days upon the stage.


Curtain call?

I have no idea if I will ever tread the boards again. I haven't had the urge. Perhaps I should. What, after all, does Sean Connery have that I don't have besides good looks, talent, and charisma?


This page was last updated April 5, 1999.

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April 1999
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