October 13, 2015 § Leave a comment
I spend two summers as a utility player with the East Carolina Summer Musical Theatre in Greenville. Both are memorable in many very different ways.
Season One: 1964
Until this year, most upperclass Carolina Drama majors have summered in Manteo, on the Outer Banks, as colonists and savages in Paul Green’s The Lost Colony. My junior year just happens to coincide with Ed Loessin’s debut season, and I’m into musicals, so I miss out on that Playmaker tradition.
Good friend Fred Lubs and I (and someone else, who?) share a bungalow just two blocks from the theatre, the domicile of a Doctor Engle, whom I never meet (sabbatical), but whose freshman daughter, Melody, is as absolutely drop-dead gorgeous as her name, with long fine corn-silk hair, blue eyes—a fellow member of the company! And I’m sleeping in her bed! (Alone, alas, except in dreams.)
Most of the company are East Carolina students, supplemented by others (like myself) from other colleges, with seasoned (if not famous) Broadway professionals playing the leads. It’s a good mix.
We do six musicals in eight weeks, starting with West Side Story—with which they’ve closed the college season, so the set’s built, and the leads, both students at the College, know their roles. I’m Inspector Shrank.
An embarrassing moment
Day One: Mavis Ray, the choreographer (who danced the Fall-Down Girl for Agnes De Mille in the original Oklahoma!) calls the company on stage for time-steps, then excuses me and one other actor, flabby Graham Pollock, from the corps de ballet.
Me, who’d taken dancing lessons at the age of six or eight, and ballroom; who’d won twist contests at WC!
Other shows that summer: The Boy Friend (Policeman), My Fair Lady (Busker), Anything Goes (the Captain), The Merry Widow (St. Brioche), Li’l Abner (Earthquake McGoon). We work all day every day, rehearsing 10 AM till supper, then a show, party after at “our” house, long heated conversations long forgotten…
I remember some few names and faces, even fewer seen or heard of since. Graham Pollock, from Chapel Hill, as Percy; Kelly Alexander (the estranged gay father of my son’s friend Ben Bjiorli)—who else from Chapel Hill? Fred. Anne West? (I have some groggy recollection her passed out in a bedroom somewhere drunk, feeling her all up and over as she moans, “Tony! Tony!” Who the hell is he?)
That may also have been the season John Sneden mixes fifteen fifths of Canadian Club with fifteen 6-oz cans of frozen grapefruit juice in a huge punch bowl, and I get so wasted (I am later told) I come on to a twelve-year-old. (I’ve not drunk blended whiskey since.)
Actually, I don’t remember much at all about that summer until closing night, at the company party (also at John’s), when serendipity bestowed upon me two astounding coincidental happenings, indelibly engraved.
Four local (ECU student) actors have mapped out a two-week end-of-summer road trip to Acapulco, only that night (just my luck) one backs out (who? why? I don’t recall), and I am asked to take his place. (How many others asked first and declined, no matter). Why not?
How will I get my stuff home? They’re leaving at five AM. Oh, well…
Meanwhile I’m coming on to a girl nobody knows, a stagestruck freshman, tall, voluptuous, blond hair in a twist, full lips, sophisticated air, who’s ushered every show but never before partied with the cast.
How it happens? I’m many sheets in the wind. Somehow she volunteers (or I convinced her as she guzzles vodka) to take my trunk to the bus station, so we leave the party for “our” house and by two of the clock we’re in Melody Engle’s bed having what (looking back) may be the best sex I’ll ever have (measured in scars on my back from her nails)! And at five on the dot the guys honk and I leave her asleep, twenty bucks for shipping and handling.
I don’t even remember her name.
A madcap adventure that should be a road-trio movie, from the four of us driving almost non-stop all the way and almost back in a beat-up ’57 Chevy that breaks down thirty miles after they drop me off at home, to all the crazy things we do along the way: the swarms of mosquitoes on Lake Pontchartrain; the wrong road out of Monterrey that leads over, not around the Eastern Sierra Madres, stopping in the foothills at a tiny saloon with swinging barroom doors for a label-less bottle of tequila and strolling through the tiny village to the market for tiny limes, oblivious to the natives gawking; driving up and around and up and up until we’re looking up at a blueblack night with a moon that shines down on snow-capped peaks poking up through the clouds below; the car sputtering for want of fuel (the gauge is dodgy), running out (I swear on a stack) just as we crest, and we coast down, down, around and down, two miles non stop, and at the bottom: Gasolina!
The insane drive through Mexico City during rush hour; the sudden transformation from mountains to hours and hours of tropical jungle; up again into the Western range until, in the dead of night our third night, we round a curve and gaze down at the shimmering moon on the ocean and the flickering lights of the City.
We pitch our tent on the beach in the dark and wake up smack in fron of the Acapulco Hilton.
Season Two: 1965
No posh professor’s home this time: a paneled dorm room in a quad, with no air conditioning, and a lot on my mind. Specifically, What Next? I have no plans.
It starts with a rainy weekend at Nags Head, on the Outer Banks, with Sandra, visiting friends in rehearsal for The Lost Colony before I start in Greenville. Some unpleasantness with Amanda Meiggs, who thought I might do better (but not her), lying with us on the beach all night when we would be alone. All day in a misty drizzle watching friends rehearse and (when the drizzle turns to rain) chit-chat. A night drinking, then sleeping in an open dorm, leaving early the next morning to get her back to Greensboro and me back to Greenville for my Monday morning call.
Oklahoma (Cowboy); Carnival (Roustabout); Camelot (Dinadan); The Student Prince (Detlef); Kiss Me, Kate (Baptista); Brigadoon (Sandy)
The Giant Step
At some point I must realize for the first time (of so many) that I don’t know what comes next. School’s out, unless I go for an advanced degree, which I don’t need; I’m going to work in theatre. The question is where to start. One thing college hasn’t taught me: how to get a job. Consensus goes to personal connections (knowing someone who knows someone else); otherwise, you send out resumes, attend auditions. It’s a crap shoot.
I have no connections. Always (still) on the outside looking in, I haven’t reached out and nobody’s reached for me. I go over my list of close acquaintances: Bill and Barbara in Chapel Hill, Richard Philp (in New York?), Joel somewhere in the southwest, Wes and Dude in Durham; who else? I should stay in touch with Anne, Fred, Tommy, Arnold, Dr Graves…
On the other hand, maybe it’s time for a break. Go home, do some research, make some money, schedule auditions for the spring. Marry Sandra? But don’t get trapped there, comfy, complaisant, taking Dad’s place at the LTG.
One thing that (very oddly) never crosses my mind: the “police action” in Viet Nam.
I’m still pondering as the season draws to a close, resigned to going home for a while because there’s nowhere else, when I recall the thrill of my previous Acapulco summer and decide to chuck it all, take a road trip to LA. Maybe I won’t come back.