Monday, May 31, 2010

"The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair..."

" turn yourself inside out and see the whole world with fresh eyes."

Everyone should have a teacher that inspires them. Through most of my school years, I had instructors that I got along with more than others. They were usually English or Speech and Drama teachers. Those persons were the few who upon occasion you could share a bit of dialogue, some philosophy, history and information. And often share a joke or two with them.

It wasn't until I ended up at Santa Barbara City College that I met a very special person in Max Whittaker. He was head of the Drama Department and was quite a delightful person. I admit I was never a very disciplined student. Not good with the textbooks and slow with the responsibility of it all. I was more of a dreamer. I needed someone to connect the dream into a practical application. Initially, I took Mr. Whittaker's basic Drama courses and enjoyed the discussions on historical theatre from the Greeks on, etc. But I still felt detached. It was however working in his theatre production classes that I learned to appreciate the talents of the man.

Max Whittaker was a unique individual who truly loved theatre in all its variety. He had an enthusiasm about the art form which he shared among his students if they were willing to tune into his wavelength. He was there for the student, not for his own ego or sense of accomplishment. Santa Barbara, being a showbiz-y commune, was filled with Drama instructors whose eyes glittered with the twinkle of that town to the south, Hollywood. There were instructors in the high schools who were good at molding up-and-coming pretty thespians for a career on the silver screen. They were industry-types. Max was old school, in the sense that he wished to inspire the student with the love of the art of theatre rather than the product.

I guess I might as well mention here, since I called him Max in that sentence, that I actually never called him by his first name. He had all the other students call him Max, yet in a Steed/Peel Avengers-like way, because I respected the man so much, I could never call him anything but Mr. Whittaker. Yet I think as teacher-student, we were probably more in tune than any of the other first name callers.

Mr. Whittaker and his wife Lois loved theatre. Every summer they would travel to London and see a variety of the latest theatrical offerings. He had an appreciation of the classics but was always open to the most new and cutting edge of productions. It gave me real pleasure to talk about obscure works of theatre with him and see a genuine passion in his eyes for the continued possibilities of theatrical experimentation. When I had seen a recent production of "Abelard and Eloise" at the L.A. Music Center with Keith Michell and Diana Rigg, my suggestion for the work to be produced at the college was embraced by him.

The ultimate thing about Mr. Whittaker that I appreciated most was his encouragement. In a world where I have been surrounded by tin-plated authorities who loved to say the word "no," Max Whittaker, when offered a creative suggestion, would enthusiastically say "yes." I was fortunate to be directed by the man in five different productions: "Bury the Dead," "The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail," "Love Rides the Rails," "Abelard and Eloise" and "Arsenic and Old Lace." Each production better and more satisfying than the last. He also let me write and direct the first X-rated play on campus entitled "Void In Wisconsin" in 1972. Instead of censoring me, he allowed me to put on an even bigger and more outrageous play, "Nothing is Sacred" in 1973. And if that wasn't enough, he made it possible for me to return to Santa Barbara City College as an instructor and write and direct my own production of "Casanova's Lips."

"Love Rides the Rails" in 1973, an old time melodrama, liberally ingested with an anarchist's sense of psychedelia, was a comic masterpiece. It turned out to be the most successful play that had been done at SBCC's antique little theatre. Mr. Whittaker was truly delighted at the outcome of this show and everyone connected with the production had a marvelous time. He gave me complete freedom to be innovative with the sinister sidekick character, Dirk Sneath (pictured in the flyer with main villain, Simon Darkway, as portrayed by R. Leo Schreiber). I appreciated Mr. Whittaker's trust in me to be creative with the character. He had been disappointed in the past with theatre students who could not take direction. Up to this time, his greatest sorrow was directing David Crosby (yes, that David Crosby) in a Tennessee Williams play where Mr. Crosby ignored all rehearsed blocking and in true method style, reinvented the production, much to the horror of cast and crew. So I was very pleased that in "Love Rides the Rails" Mr. Whittaker let me tinker with the character in my own comic way. It was due to the success of this play that I was invited back in 1976 to direct another melodrama in honor of the bicentennial, "Casanova's Lips."

The old theatre above Santa Barbara City College's administrative department was intimate but antiquated. I liked it, but then I'm old, intimate and antiquated. The theatre critic for the Santa Barbara News-Press, Bob Barber, couldn't review a single play in the college without complaining about the seats. So it was always Mr. Whittaker 's dream that the school would get a new theatre. He lobbied for it and he lobbied for it. When it finally happened, that a new theatre complex would open on the other side of the hill, the credit would go to new theatre director, Dr. Pope Freeman, recently arrived from Tulane University.

So in 1979 the ultra-modern Garvin Theatre opens up for a summer repertoire debut. Guest Equity actors will interact with students in three plays. The beautiful new Garvin Theatre will host productions of "Romeo & Juliet" and "H.M.S. Pinafore" (both with Star Trek veteran Kay Kuter). Neither are directed by Max Whittaker. Max is assigned to do that old theatrical chestnut "Arsenic and Old Lace." This is to be in the new Studio Theatre, which, in some ways could be considered, in its basic state, an ultra-clean multipurpose room.

But thanks to the creative set designers, along with Mr. Whittaker's good karma, this production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" is simply delightful and charms the audiences away from the other two productions in that super-modern new theatre. I am pleased, very pleased, to be in that show as Dr. Einstein, the character made famous by Peter Lorre in the film version. This is my last time on the stage. It gives me joy that Max Whittaker's little play is a bigger success than the other two highly promoted shows in the new theatre. I feel it is meant to be. Mr. Whittaker will ultimately do work in the theatre that he dreamt about (like "Equus," which I will watch in the audience).

Anyway, my thanks to this dear man who regularly sacrificed his own reputation if it would be helpful to the learning experience of the student. A true patron of the arts and a man who never received the full appreciation he deserved.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"Don't Margo worry."

A couple of thoughts here. The oblique reference in the title refers to the art of making a mistake in performance. This one being radio, but also true of live theatre.

In 1970 I worked in a production of "Marat/Sade" at Cal State Fullerton. This play by Peter Weiss happens to be my favourite written play of the 20th century. The production I was in is likewise my favourite show, even though my part in it was minor. This production was brilliant, performed at a time of great student unrest. It was chaos and art molded together. The stage filled with actors who were supposed to be lunatics at the French asylum of Charenton, outbursts of violence and frenzy were often in performance. This would cause unexpected accidents in which some members of cast and crew were often quite injured. The director, Kirk Mee, when asked what to do when accidents happen replied with something that I have never forgotten. He said "Whatever happens on stage, use it." And I realised from that point on that if you did something wrong, turn it into something right. And on live radio, that was often. My favourite director, Max Whittaker of Santa Barbara City College, later expanded on a similar theme when he said "if you make a mistake on stage and point it out, you've made the mistake twice." This sealed my attitude towards improvisational theatre and spontaneity: if it doesn't go to plan, make the plan do something that works. Even if you crash and burn, with a smile and a song.

If you're unfortunate enough to hear some of the recordings that were done live on Space Pirate Radio, you can hear some of those moments that went left of center. On my record album during a satire of Clint Eastwood's "Play Misty For Me," while making fun of Clint's laid-back character acting like an announcer who's suddenly gone narcoleptic, I lean back away from the microphone to create a sound effect that actually causes the chair I'm in to crack and break its spring, which is quite audibly heard. In character I say, "oh, I broke the chair," or words to that effect. It all happened in a flash, officer.

At Santa Barbara City College in the early '70s before Space Pirate Radio began, I enrolled in a class called Radio Drama. It was taught by Jim Williams, an old school radio announcer who worked for the college as director of publicity and public affairs. He was a nice enough gentleman who worked with me on publicity and media on most of the theatrical productions I was associated with. The other instructor for the Radio Drama class was Bill McAdams who was set designer for theatre productions in the early '70s.

Since I was fooling around with new ideas for radio, I felt I should probably check out the class. Despite good intentions on the instructors' part, the class tended to focus on techniques and styles of the Golden Age of Radio. Now, believe me kiddies, nobody loves the Golden Age of Radio more than me. Radio drama, yesiree. The Shadow, Harry Lime, Inner Sanctum, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Nightbeat, I Love A Mystery, Lights Out, Black Museum, etc., etc., etc. Nothing cooler than radio drama from the '30s until the '50s. Dig it. But, cats and kittens, this is the early '70s and I want to experiment with what the Goon Show in the '50s, the Beatles in the '60s, and the Firesign Theatre up to the present were doing with sound experimentation. So alas, alack...this Radio Drama class somehow did not work for me. So I dropped out. Even missing the exciting class appearance of famed voice expert Don Messick, Mr. Hanna-Barbera. A Santa Barbara resident and friend of Jim Williams, he would drop in on the class to give tips on voice work. I'm sorry I missed that. In retrospect, I would have loved to have spoken to him (my wife is a big Jonny Quest fan and I would love to sit casually in present time and say, "oh yes, my afternoon with Benton Quest"). But I digress.

So I dropped out of the class. There were two separate Radio Drama classes and in the other one, another student dropped out. His name was Mark Ward. Ultimately, he would go to work at KTYD as well.

Garrison Keillor speaking on the late Robert Altman said that Altman's one major problem was that he was a bit of a smart ass. I have Altman's disease. Fast forward to 1974. Santa Barbara City College Drama Department is throwing its annual awards ceremony. I am now working for KTYD radio. Actors, artists and technicians are being honored for their work in 1973, which as it happens was a very active year for yours truly. They kindly give me some recognition for my performance in "Abelard And Eloise." So in true Altman form, I accept the award and say "I want to thank Jim Williams and Bill McAdams for this award. If I hadn't dropped out of their Radio Drama class, I wouldn't be working in professional radio today." Oh, how everybody laughed. Now under normal circumstances, I would never be invited back. But thanks to dear old Max Whittaker, there were even more fun filled theatrical frontiers to cross. So now I understand why Mel Gibson is still working. Ah, showbiz!

Monday, May 3, 2010

"I like thighs. Do you like thighs?"

The Muses #01

Okay, I admit it. One of the main pleasures of doing theatre was being surrounded by a lot of interesting women. I love women. It's a weakness. I married one--a woman, that is. But I waited a long time until I thought it was right. You can have a lot of lovers but only one wife. At least in my book. Sounds like Pagan meets Catholic doctrine, doesn't it? But I digress. So in my years of theatre, I met many ladies, each gifted in their own area of professional expertise. Actresses, costume designers, set designers--I've had the pleasure to work with a variety of talented people.

It's 1978 and I am putting together my record album for Space Pirate Radio. The album is a collection of comedy sketches from my show between 1974 and 1978. The artwork for the LP is coming together nicely with the help of my friends. I want it to be mostly funny, satirical, ironic, arcane and maybe a little sexy. My girlfriend at the time, Robin, introduces me to her friend from the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Department. Her name is Bernadette Emrik and she is an up-and-coming artist. We all become friends. One day Bernadette says to me "I have an ambition to pose nude on an album cover." My instant reaction: "I will make that dream come true!"

Oh, how wild and crazy we were! I thought it would be have a formal and informal photo of yours truly on the back of the cover. I wanted the informal photo to look like one of those blackmail snaps you would find in a vintage issue of Confidential or Hush-Hush magazine. Me caught in a bad moment with a leggy, unknown companion. My photographer friend, Gary Alessi, flew down from San Francisco. We booked a motel on upper State St. in Santa Barbara for the appropriate background. Shot the photographs on a weekend. Gary flew back up to San Francisco. I did my radio shows on the weekend and then Space Pirate Radio on Sunday night/Monday morning, then immediately after the show, flew up to the City to choose the photos for the album. It was Halloween and our deadline was that week to get all cover materials ready for the album. These were to be taken down to Burbank. My god--looking back, I don't know how I had all the energy.

I was happy with Gary's photos. Bernadette looked good. I didn't care how I looked in the informal shots. I just wanted the best photos of her. So there we are.

And I think it worked. I sent the album to Lawrence Christon of the Los Angeles Times, who did a comedy column every Sunday. He very kindly reviewed my album and I'm pretty convinced he wouldn't have listened to it if it hadn't had Bernadette's long legs on the back of the cover. He certainly mentions that in the review and he had favourable words regarding my model when we spoke on the phone. So, my thanks to Bernadette, who I am pleased to say is a talented and successful collage artist in San Francisco. You can see her work on the internet.

So, please pardon my obsessions. I will always worship at the altar of the goddess. Women rule the world. The sooner men understand that, the better off they will be and the better time they will have.