One of the reasons I liked Hamilton was because it reminded me of the play Jim and I did, 1968. Both were done to a beat. were heavy on the couplets, and had some wacky, against the grain casting: blacks as whites, men as women, one dude obviously playing three different people. The two plays did not accurately reenact events. Rather, they relayed historical details in an entertaining way.
Acting went through a severe identity crisis in the 20th century. For millennia, stage actors had ruled the roost with exaggerated gestures and loud voices projected to the back of the theater. All this while supposedly whispering sweet nothings in their lover’s ears. It was just accepted by players and audiences that it was the way it was done.
With the advent of film, however, you could physically whisper without all the gimmickry. Relatively speaking. It was still coming across at decibel levels way above normal. But compared to the other sounds in the movie they were just right.
The biggest dilemma in the early days of film making was that all actors had been trained for the stage, a style too broad for cinema. It took decades to breed the ham out of the Barrymores.
When auteurs finally got what they wanted and realized what they had, the pressure in the 50’s and 60’s was to be as natural as possible. And no one did that better than Warhol in Sleep and Empire. So natural, soooo boring.
Once film found its Terms of Endearment niche, there was no way theater could physically compete. It resorted to schmaltzy musicals and endless examinations of self worth. With a smattering of social justice avenging thrown in now and then.
What Jim and Hamilton did was to stop spoon-feeding the audience and use a format that forces them to think.
Art is not a controlled environment where a + b = c. If the artist does their job creating a + b then c will have a million different values depending on the perceptions of the viewers.
There are no right or wrong answers in art. There are no answers at all. There’s only the experience.
I once had a fan tell me I reminded him of Mabel Mercer. At first I was offended. I remembered her as being kind of dog meat-ish, a little porky.
As I processed it, however, I thought of the many show business insiders who adored her. Frank Sinatra said she was the master of phrasing and timing. She taught him everything he knew.
If that’s what the fan meant, I’ll take it any day of the week.
August marks the 5th anniversary of ls2lsblog.com. I started in 2014 by circulating drafts to friends for their opinions. In particular, I wondered what Carl and Ellen thought.
Carl’s advice was to keep the pieces at 500 words. You can see how well I’ve done with that.
Ellen, on the other hand, had tried for two decades to engage me in a writing project. The things I showed her never passed muster. She was not mean about it but neither was she satisfied. Her responses were gentle but lethal. “Let me know if you want to continue this.”
When I read the first two words of her reply to the drafts I started to cry: “Well, well…..” It only took 20 years but I was finally on the right track. I’m still riding the fumes.
In late 2017 I promised readers a revamp and new feel for the blog. True to my word and a mere 22 months later that process begins today.
The emphasis is on archiving things of mine and things of the era. Up first is Act One of 1968.
I haven’t formulated an archive plan yet but my style has always been to force the issue then make sense of it later. The Mabel inside me says I can do this.
For my birthday my roommate gave me a ticket to see Hamilton. He did so reluctantly knowing my aversion to musical theater. To me they’re always the same: downtrodden minorities overcoming impossible obstacles to rise and get revenge.
That plot can be a relief to life’s woes when administered in the tiniest of doses. On Broadway the syringe is filled with one the size of the Pacific.
All I knew about the Hamilton musical was that it was done in rap or hip-hop or house–I’m not conversant in all of the nuance. I agree with Keith Richard’s take on the genre(s). He was inclined to like them but found the 4/4 beat monotonous. “Vary the meter for Christ’s sake.”
In my lifetime earth-shattering musical productions have come along about once every decade. When I was a teen it was the flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, Hair. The 1970’s saw A Chorus Line with What I Did for Love. Wah-wah-wah.
In the 80’s there was the queer triumph La Cage aux Folles (see title above.) It was followed by Rent ten years later. Sadly I know no tunes or lines from that one. Suffice it to say it’s only a rehash of La Boheme.
So the recent buzz of Hamilton being another phenomenon did little for me. Until I read it was based on the Chernow biography I read lo those many years ago. My interest was peaked. How in the hell did they get something juicy out of that piece of dry toast?
Somehow they did. From the opening admonishment by a queeny King George’s voice warning about cell phone usage, it sucked me in. The beat, the body movements, the constant barrage of couplets, a lazy susan stage transporting actors from one scene to the next and the diversity of the cast combined to make something I never thought I’d see in the legitimate theater. (In the illegitimate theater, yes.)
The color coding of the actors was a little baffling. Why were some white historical figures played by non-whites while others were not? Could it be, gasp, because that person was best qualified for the role? Realism in an art form founded on disbelief is vastly overrated.
As a kid I joined record clubs to take advantage of the 10 LPs for a dollar. I always included at least one musical soundtrack. I thought if it was important in Manhattan it had to be important to the world.
I didn’t think Hamilton had any memorable tunes. Until I went to bed that night. That’s when I realized “The Room Where It Happens” had been on a constant loop in my head since I left the theater.
And I’m not good at remembering lines after performances. Although Alexander’s son Phillip made an impression. As a teen young Philip shows he’s a playa with the pick-up line, “I’m a trust fund baby, trust me”
After graduating from college Lil’ Phil has even more game. He tells a couple girls he likes their frocks. “When I get back we’ll strip to our socks.” He then does the honorable thing by getting himself killed in a duel. You gotta love that wacky 18th Century lifestyle.
The most astonishing moment occurred when there was a passing reference to General Lee “shitting the bed at the Battle of Monmouth.” Immediately I could think of only two other people in the world who would even know what that meant, Ron Chernow and my friend Peter in Paunat, France. Anyone who can link a reference as obscure as that to a street culture where the words “Battle of Monmouth” will probably never be heard, let alone understood, deserves all the Tony’s they can get.
The one minor disappointment was the death scene where the angels seemed to alight with Alex and rest him in the bosom of the holy father. I understand that when you’re selling $150 Broadway tickets to tourists from Iowa there needs to be at least one gratuitous, schmaltzy scene to validate the experience for them. The rest of the play is so innovative and modern, however, it would have been interesting to see how they could have handled this in a different way.
Brian was a co-owner of Hot Stuff on Polk Street, a vintage clothing store. He was also an aspiring women’s designer.
In the Fall of 1979 someone came into the store to post a flyer for the Outrageous Beauty Contest to be held at the Fab Mab. Brian loved money more than anything and immediately set his eyes on the prize. That’s when our mutual friend Kathy told him to call me.
For ten days straight we got together evenings to hash out our routines. The night before the competition we met with the producer/director to preview our outfits and skits.
The guy lived in a Berkeley, commune-like setting and looked like Stephen Hawking. He was in a wheel chair and communicated with a pointer attached to his forehead he used with a letter board on his tray. His acolytes were so attuned to what he wanted, they usually knew what he meant after just a few letters.
The women he lived with were absolutely devoted to him and there was a heavy sexual vibe to it all. Some worked in the strip clubs on Broadway next to the Fab Mab. Most of the other entrants in the beauty contest worked in those clubs too. Brian and I were the only men competing..
I don’t remember all the areas of competition but one involved Brian doing a Julia Child impression assembling ingredients and preparing a sauce. He finally called for his assistant and I appeared layered in spaghetti. I was supposed to be completely covered in the pasta but in our haste to assemble it backstage it wouldn’t all stick. The crowd loved it anyway, especially when Julia dumped the Putanesca all over me.
In another segment we appeared in Brian’s original designs made from Hefty trash bags. I played the Hallelujah Chorus on a little toy piano while wearing a Bishop’s mitre. He improvised singing God knows what.
For the finale we used nasty tripe from Safeway that had been doctored with food coloring to look like brain matter. We attached it to his forehead then he laid on a catafalque as JFK. I appeared as Jackie in the pink suit and recited poignant passages from the Inaugural Address. We won the contest and our triumph was documented in the Examiner.
We had so much fun working together I was a little surprised in the days immediately following when he became distant. He wasn’t rude about it, he just wasn’t sentimental. He was ready to move on to the next money-making opportunity, whatever that might be.
I wasn’t about to let him get away with that shit. I forced myself on him and within a couple of weeks we were inseparable. We remained close friends until he died in 1991.
Ready for the putanesca, Mr. DeMille
Our natural states: Brian in tightie whities, me sipping a ‘tail.
Brian handled the spin with the press afterwards. Which accounts for me being mentioned only as “partner.”
Pooch was a-sniffin’ where he oughtn’t to been a-sniffin’
Swimsuit competition: just a walkin’ the dog.
Original pontifical trash bag robes by Brian Fedorow
Mark sent me a link to a New York Magazine article about a tony bay front cabin in Provincetown. The pictures conveyed all the sterile lifelessness of a very talented decorator. But we remembered it when it funked.
In the summer of 1972 Mark and two other Bloomington friends decided to work in this quaint little artists’ (wink wink) colony. In July three of us joined them at Captain Jack’s Wharf, a beaten down place that slept two but held six that week.
My friends’ first jobs were at the fish processing pier a hundred yards down the street. They lasted only a week. The constant waft of putrefied sea life lasted all summer.
My favorite memory is of the nights at Piggies, a ramshackle little dive bar on the outskirts of town. You could dance there. The crowd was a mix of gay and straight, half-naked because there was no AC. Sweat flew to a constant onslaught of James Brown. It was a love shack if there ever was one.
Dancing in public was such a weird thing in the early 1970’s. My generation wanted to shake it but there was no place to go. In San Francisco you’d hear that you could dance at a certain bar on a certain night or that this one place had a jukebox if things didn’t get out of hand. But rumors abounded of police busts, mafia connections and liquor licenses being revoked. Discotheque was a 1960’s word, disco had yet to be invented.
Then in 1975 the first great gay dance bar opened, Buzzby’s on Polk Street. It was a small space we all crammed into. It was soon followed by Oil Can Harry’s at Ellis and Larkin.
Oil Can’s was huge and always crowded on the weekends. Attendance would fall off during the week, however, so they would often do promotions. One Wednesday they did a Nostalgia ’77 contest.
The trend of the day was for the 1950’s: Grease, Sha-Na-Na and Happy Days were on everyone’s minds. Not me, I wanted my Carnaby Street back. That night I wore a red vinyl mini-tunic, an asymmetrical bob wig, and go-go boots. In a sea of circle skirts, saddle shoes and pony tails, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I won.
In 1978 I met Brian. He talked to our mutual friend Kathy about entering The Outrageous Beauty Contest at the Fab Mab and she told him bluntly, “you’ll never win it without B.” So he called me and we started working on it.
With “outrageous” the theme, the elements of judging included: swimsuit–me in a mesh two piece with picture hat walking my poodle Brian; musical–I played the Hallelujah Chorus on a toy piano in a Bishop’s miter while he sang; and cooking–Brian did a Julia Child impression making a sauce then called for his assistant. I appeared in an outfit of tiered spaghetti and he dumped the putanseca over my head.
Our finale was Jack & Jackie. He laid on the catafalque with his exposed brain matter (doctored tripe) while I stood behind him in the pink suit reciting poignant passages from the Inaugural Address. We won.
In 1979 Ted Kennedy was planning to run for president. For Halloween I went as “Joan, the next Kennedy widow.” I wore a sleek black suit and a blonde fall which looked sexy even though no one got who I was. Brian and I went over to the Castro to hang out for a while then decided to head back to Polk.
There were no cabs so I took off my stilettos and walked the two miles in my stocking feet. At the ‘N Touch we saw some kind of competition on stage and heard a big crowd. Brian said, “put your shoes on, we’re going in.”
A drag queen was hosting a contest and pulling audience members up on the stage. She didn’t have much presence and came across as a control freak more interested in rules and regulations than in entertaining. She spotted me and called me up.
I’ve been on stage many times and live for that indefinable moment I am now going to try to define. It feels like a surge where individuals in the audience meld into an monolith of energy you fight. It’s not an a+b=c thing that can be programmed, it just happens sometimes. And when it does it’s better than any drug I’ve ever done (which I’ll save for another post.)
It happened that night at the ‘N Touch and all I had to do was slither and goad. The crowd loved it. After I did my turn I crossed the stage for the “interview portion” of the competition. The MC clearly resented my popularity and I only made things worse by being flip with my answers.
I found Brian afterwards who said “you’re going to win this.” We stayed and had a drink as the MC’s dreadful patter brought down the room. The electricity I’d felt on stage quickly dissipated into general mulling and indifference.
Finally she started naming the winners, corny best this and best that awards. Then the countdown began with fifth runner-up. When she got to third the crowd had had enough. They started chanting and stomping in unison “We want blond-ie! We want blond-ie!” It got so loud it drowned out the hapless hostess.
Brian dashed to the Ma and Pa store next door and returned just as I was pronounced the winner. He had a couple of bottles of cheap bubbly that he shook violently. As I took my victory lap on stage I popped them to spray the audience. Everyone went wild. Except the MC who shouted, “That does it! Get off the stage! You’re out of the competition!”
So what. Who needs titles when you have hearts and minds.
Jim moved to California in 1978. He’d liked the area down by Santa Cruz so he rented a place in Capitola. To get away from White Arms and up the ante a bit he started writing a play that would star me and be produced in San Francisco.
It was called 1968 and it was about the attempted assassination of Andy Warhol. I was to play Valerie Solanas, he would play Andy. He wanted it to be called an opera even though there was no music. It was written in verse and both Andy and Valerie were backed by a Greek chorus. The only real musical element was the drummer who pounded out a rhythm which we tried to keep up with and project over.
We heavily researched every assassination detail and stuck to the facts. To a point. The verse was broken when Valerie delivered her SCUM Manifesto to the adoring masses. And after her trial she was given electric shock treatments to set her straight. The play ended with me lip synching “Chain of Fools.”
As things started to come together and it looked like we were going to pull it off, Jim moved up to the City into a rooming house across the street from me. A few months later he moved in with me so we could save money and share expenses.
We lived 1968 night and day and constantly bickered. He wanted Valerie to be true to life, scruffy and plain. I knew if my followers were coming they would want to see glam. I fought for something more mod and, even though it ended up a modest mod, it was not the realism he wanted.
Jim took on the roles of producing, directing and acting. He had no experience in any of them. It didn’t help that he was also so indecisive. Sometimes we’d gather for rehearsals and he’d have no plans on what we were to work on, still mulling it over in his head. Most of the cast were friends of mine and I felt guilty we were wasting everyone’s time.
As the opening approached we fought over everything; graphics, staging, mailing lists. He would not delegate, I would not compromise.
His biggest accomplishment was securing the The Fab Mab. It was the hippest venue in town and the home of San Francisco’s punk scene. He talked the owner Dirk Dirksen into giving us early evenings on the weekends in June, 1980. At one rehearsal some English group was unloading their equipment and I heard one guy say, “ah, it’s just some fluff doing a play.”
Things finally came to a head over the program. I arrived home one night after he had been to the printers. He told me my cover design was technically not feasible. He seemed pleased about it because he hadn’t liked it in the first place. I said something catty like I’m sure he’d worked really hard to find a solution.
He snapped. He started yelling I always had to have my way, I was impossible to work with, I never supported him, etc., etc. For emphasis, he put his fist through the plaster with such force the fountain pen he held splattered all over the ceiling.
I’d seen his violent side before but it had never been directed towards me. I shut down and started to phase him out. During the month-long run of 1968 communication between us was terse and only when necessary.
Mercifully, the play ended but our relationship was destroyed. We could barely stand to be together.