Save the Bluebird

July 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

“Once on a Time, when I was ten,
the Bluebird took me wanderin’
across the open meadows of my mind . . .”

Harvard

Settled by farmers in 1658,  incorporated in 1732, named (perhaps) by a former student at Harvard College but otherwise unrelated, historically (paradoxically) home of the second American “Shaker” community, the utopian Transcendental Fruitlands, and (during my stay) the 10th Special Forces Group (Fort Devens), the quiet little hamlet we discover is affluent, educated, all-white, laid back, and exceedingly liberal (except for the troops). Louisa May Alcott grew up here, the setting for her Little Women trilogy.

None of this do I know, nor do I learn until I write these words. The only locals I encounter are a few (forgotten) disaffected soldiers and draft dodgers who visit the communal home of some (forgotten) hippies whose knee-high urn of home-grown weed is free for all.

We share a big old barn of a house with Peter, his friend Doug Popper, and (briefly) a girl named Ann who sells Famous Amos cookies wholesale, door to door (I seem to recall), who takes off for LA at the end of June leaving to us all her LPs and the rocking chair we carry from place to place for years. All unemployed, we brainstorm ideas for a project I’m to write, Peter direct, and Doug produce. Sandra plants and tends a garden, nurses baby Hallie.

Harvard House & Sandra's Garden

Not long after we arrive, Lynn comes to visit and we pick up where we left off, while Sandra spends a week with Mike. She and I have fun, but there’s no future, and I let her slip away; we never meet again. My loss.

For money, I teach English to oil-rich Argentines at a for-profit school in Boston. Just two hour-long classes (more to come if I work out), four days a week. Not enough to live on, so I’m searching. One day in late July, in Cambridge (Peter teaches a class at Harvard U), two items on a notice board catch my eye. The first announces a free lecture series on Ulysses that begins September 2, and I add my name to the roll. The other is a long shot: “Scriptwriter Wanted. Contact Alice Peterson.” No phone number; just a PO box in Marblehead. I remove that notice from the board and send her my CV.

State of the Union

We all agree the theme is Watergate, but what? Something simple. Something quick. Peter suggests a Living Newspaper, which evokes my memory of the Wits End in Atlanta and quickly evolves into a satirical cabaret. I plant myself at my Selectric to transform the daily news into sketch comedy with song and dance, while Peter holds auditions for an ensemble of six (3m/3w) and Doug picks out a venue.

The time may come when I transcribe the original script to digits. Here’s a nutshell.

The format is a freewheeling hodgepodge of politics and current events, opening (like my Mark Twain Traveling Sunshine Show), with rhyming patter that evolves into the extended opening number, “State of the Union,” interspersed with flashcard sketches and asides, then launches into “The Cocktail Party” which fuses a jumble of issues with inanities; then dovetails into Watergate with “The Queen of the United States” (her ugly-sister cohorts Halda and Erlicha); then leaps into future via “Brave New World Revisited Visited,” which leads to “Save the Bluebird,” “The Great American Family Picnic,” and “The National Convention of the POP (Party for Oppressed Peoples),” closing out the set with a reprise of the title song.

The second set begins with a Host, Ralph Martin, introducing the ensemble—Ralph Stalter, David Light, Phyllis Gitlin, Sandra, and Debbie Walsh, who’s also our accompanist—then sets up a brief, ridiculous, verbatim excerpt from the Watergate transcripts, followed by “Let’s Make a Deal” with Bob Haldeman, interrupted by a “CBS Special Report: Tricia Nixon Joins the SLA,” which inspires one viewer to sing a “Love Letter to Walter Cronkite,” then click through several channels (commercials) to “The Case Against Wilma Peterson,” a rambling courtroom drama that transform into to the Senate hearings, with Watergate witnesses and characters from previous sketches attesting to the sorry state of the union. Then Nixon himself is called and delivers his Christmas address, the chorus overlapping stychomythic antitheses, until he goes fast-forward into gibberish and the others wrap him in recording tape. A final chorus of the title song and we’re through.

Wilma Peterson is a running gag, popping up here and there throughout the show. An old lady enters a sweepstakes and receives a bill for merchandise she hasn’t ordered and has earthly use for. Letters addressed to “William Peterson” at her address hound her for payment; she ignores them for a while, then responds politely, then indignantly, until the scene repeated in the movie version, when the cops come to her door. “William Peterson?” “No, you must have the wrong Peterson.” Is this 101 Spring Streeet? “Yes, but…” “You’ll have to some along with us, Mister Peterson.”

 

About the Bluebird

The only moment in the show that isn’t ha-ha funny is the poignant, sentimental, strident “Save the Bluebird,” rendered soulfully by Sandra, who inspires it, gleefully spoting one on a limb, surprised, and educating me on the decline in bluebird population. She’s not only into nature (I’m ambivalent), but she sees things (I don’t).  CLICK for lyrics.

Bad Timing

State of the Union opens to a standing O at Kevin’s Wharf in South Boston four days before Nixon resigns, the very night a crew from WGBH is coming to review. Instead, we stop the show at 9:00, set up a TV set, and share his resignation speech with the few patrons who aren’t watching at home. Suddenly the joke’s passé. We spend the week refocusing on the new POTUS—and there’s plenty of fodder (“I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln; but I’m not an old jalopy!”)—only nobody wants to laugh. We fold, and the script goes on my shelf, to be revised again in ’76 (but not produced) as the Bicentennial Edition: “How Now, Patrick Henry?” in Grand Lake; yet again with teens and published on my For Hire blog as The Brink of Disaster; a Rock and Roll Burlesque for Future Generations (produced in ’92, music by Peter Gray). A fifth edition, all but abandoned, sees the world from Charlotte: “World Class, My Ass!”

I often wonder what comes next if the crook waits one more day. Especially when SNL shows up on NBC the following year. Lorne Michaels must have caught our act!

Alas, fantasy falls flat, and the real world settles in. The lease on the house runs out September 1, and we go separate ways: Peter moves in to Concord (closer to Boston) with his new girl friend and tennis partner, Sara; Doug takes off for New York, and the Grays are back out on a limb.

The national economy is in deep recession, and what few jobs there are are those for which I’m over-qualified. It’s funny, but it isn’t. I’m all but broke.

A Glimmer of Hope

The last week of August, out of the blue, I get a call from Alice Peterson. (Who? Oh. Yes.) “Can we meet for lunch?” I’ll be in Boston Monday for Ulysses. “How about the Ritz?” Okay. I feel a little guilty now for taking down her post. Am I her only applicant?

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