Monday, March 14, 2011
"He tampered in God's domain."
As I once said in a local news article, I came to Santa Barbara from Orange County and the Pomona-West Covina area, hoping to do some free-wheeling theatre and innovative art in what (I thought) was a pretty progressive area. As it turned out, for every interesting show done in town, there were always five or more safe and tired productions rolled out of the mothballs. Primarily, this was because Santa Barbara was, in reality, North by Northwest Hollywood. It was still a business town made up of industry types who didn't want to live in Studio City. So a number of the drama teachers--particularly in the high schools--groomed their drama students with an eye on the agent and the deal and the contract. This is why I cherished Max Whittaker at SBCC. He loved the craft and the form and the work. The Art and Meaning of it all, rather than just the product and the Hollywood glamour attributed to it. This is not to say he wasn't in it for the professional. On the contrary. I feel he instilled a better appreciation for the craft than the surface dazzlers maintained. What's the quote? "The important thing is sincerity. And once you've learned to fake that..."
So, it's 1973..."I've got a chip on my shoulder that's bigger than my feet." I'm in this community of contradiction. Bohemians and war criminals. Santa Barbara. Certainly more liberal than Orange County or the San Gabriel Valley. And yet, in those environs, we did Marat/Sade and Bertolt Brecht and Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum and Arthur Miller and Oscar Wilde. Saint Babs loved to do musicals, Oklahoma and all the fifties chestnuts. I was sincerely bored here. I wanted to do new theatre or Shakespeare. Super classic or cutting edge. Again, thanks to Max Whittaker, this was possible. The young industry types dismissed Mr. Whittaker as out of touch, a recovered alcoholic who was out of step, not show biz savvy. Au contraire, mon swine. Mad Max was hipper than the lot. A smart, sensitive man, who would sacrifice his critical acclaim, if it benefited the student. He was a rare type...and as I've said before, his encouragement was an oasis in a desert of naysayers.
Perhaps, he let me be his tool of revenge against a bureaucracy that had not acknowledged his efforts. That's a nice poetic image, either way...real or imagined, he let me get away with it. Not once, not twice, but at least a half dozen times. And this time...we are taking down the powers that be...with GIANT CRABS!
So my monster movie childhood background comes back in full fury. Adults who didn't listen to kids...well we identified with Rodan. Nothing like a flying prehistoric monster, blowing away a paper mache Tokyo to get Mom and Dad's attention. Nothing is Sacred was my first full-blown stage production as writer/director. I had previously done what I called the first X-Rated play at SBCC, the one act Void in Wisconsin, for my Director's Class production. Featuring nudity and sapphic self-love between the same person, yet represented by two lovely women on stage, all driven by a pulsating rock soundtrack featuring Paul McCartney and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention...well under normal circumstances, this should be my last invite to use the auditorium. Not so. The success of Love Rides the Rails made it easier to GET AWAY WITH IT.
Nothing is Sacred was not, in the jargon of today, politically correct. You are in the bubble of the moment...and the moment is 1973. We are trying to break down the walls of control and repressed thinking that still had control on us. It's a Nixon world. It's been only a decade since JFK was gunned down in the lone star state. A Nightmare on Elm Street, indeed! And only 5 years since the near worldwide revolution of 1968. King and another Kennedy. What kind of neo-fascist lunacy was this? So we still felt there was a chance to change the dystopia into utopia. Dream on Flower Power People. The Fat Cats who ran the show behind gated communities continued. With unlimited resources and armies, both public and private...how could the little person find justice, let alone be allowed into the country club?
Through art. And humour. The tyrant never had a sense of humour. Sense means sensitivity. The thug isn't sensitive. All he senses is danger and retaliation. And the man who hires him, only senses power. Which comes from greed. So it has always been art and humour as a most popular form of defense against the jack boot. So what does this mean, kids? Get out your Karl Marx Kolouring Books and grab Saffron Crayon 1917...let's do some illustrating!
So we are in the bubble of the moment. Tonight, I watched with the wife the 1966 pilot episode of Ironside with Raymond Burr. In Nothing is Sacred, one of the TV satires was Iron Lung, Cripple Detective. I'd never seen a single show, yet in the pilot was all the elements of parody we did. They even said iron lung. Spooky. Also not PC was our gay Dating Game satire, Let's Make a Swish. I had a gay photographer friend who saw the show and thought the bit was hilarious. Bubble of the moment again. Today, I am far less homophobic than I was in the '70s, so I would tone the irony down. A sign of the times though showed, that in most written reviews of the play, this bit was considered one of, if not thee funniest in the show. I have NEVER used the term zeitgeist and will not use it here (albeit in an ironic mode).
And speaking of irony, and racism...there was the badly dubbed spaghetti western Never Trust A Blond Mexican. My first attack on Clint Eastwood, actor R. Leo Schreiber portrayed The Man With No Name...But A Lot Of Balls. "Senor Ballso," he was referred to by the other actors, who were previously recorded and attempting to badly lip-sync while on stage. Great fun, folks!
But what about those GIANT CRABS?
Well, they ended up being the main news story on the 11pm local news show, the Phill Phuddy report. Blatantly making fun of local news anchor Bill Huddy at the time, who had the reputation (real or exaggerated?) of kicking a few strong ones back at Harry's Cafe before facing the teleprompter...night after night the REAL Phil Phuddy would have to be replaced by a dummy automaton, to PHILL in ("chortle!") for the inebriated host. Ken Brigance played the dummy Phil, brought on by stagehands. Getting all the cues wrong. Entering phase lock loop like something out of Westworld meets David Brinkley. It was a hoot! Owl B.C. Ying U!
True story! The local news reviewed the play. Just before the drama reviewer did his piece, a stage light blew and the two anchors went into complete dis-array on air, live. They had an on air confusion moment that bordered pathetic and seriously embarrassing. They regain they're composure and begin their critique of Nothing is Sacred by saying the show doesn't understand the professionalism of the local news and how it runs. Absolutely parfait! Truly surreal. The parodied reality had now become a self parody. Like holding a mirror up to a mirror. The giggle is endless, curving off into infinity. This is why I do it, folks!
OK. OK. the GIANT CRABS.
So, the day of local TV ends up with the late night entertainment show, in this case The After Death Show with (g)host Post Mortem. Probably most inspired by the best work of the Firesign Theatre, I wanted to do my direction on this media surrealism. All through the production, the sound was pre-recorded except for the live dialogue. The plan here was this...The After Death Show was the late night show from beyond the grave. All of the guests had passed on from the TV world that had preceded it. Al Jolsen was a guest in blackface singing MacArthur Park (played by R. Leo Schreiber, sung by actor Tom Zeiher, who had played Dracula opposite my Renfield/Igor in Dracula, A Musical Comedy). But the finale of the show was the live--not pre-recorded--performance of Janis Joplin as portrayed by Shelley Pine (I think the program typo-ed her name and dropped the second e), along with her LIVE band.
And this is where the GIANT CRABS came in. In ultra frommage style, beyond Roger Corman, while Pearl belted out her Kosmic Blues, the GIANT CRAB claws grabbed yours truly, as Post Mortem, sitting behind his talk show desk. The CRAB CLAW (we only had one, as benefited a low budget schlockfest) crashed me into the break-away desk, we blew up the set like any decent Who show, and dropped the fake string of lights (which magically hit the falling drum cymbals, freezing the moment in an almost Rodin-like sculpture of controlled chaos). The dead people bit was meant to be more live than the live stuff. X is stencil ism. As Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason never said to me, "you get the cymbal ism, don't you?"
We didn't hurt the disco ball.