Wednesday, March 9, 2016
I realize that it is his manic, higher voiced, crazed and almost cartoonish--yet with flesh and bone--characterization that has influenced so many of my own theatre and radio interpretations. Oh, my!
In 1971, my second theatrical involvement in Santa Barbara, following the anti-war City College production of BURY THE DEAD, was DRACULA, A MUSICAL COMEDY. Put together by the husband & wife team of Chuck Wilson and Marcelle Nadeau, under their Zodiac Associates Production company, AKA ZAP, the show was presented at the Cabaret Theatre in the Timbers Restaurant, located north of Santa Barbara off Highway 101. Directed by a lovely man, H. Gordon Chaves.
Somehow, I found myself with the role of Igor--really the character Renfield as portrayed by Dwight Frye in this pre-Mel Brooks YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN musical spoof.
It was a truly fun show. A great comic part for me to relish. The best comedy part I had done since leaving Southern California theatre groups and moving to Santa Barbara. In those days, I did George S. Kaufman type shows like YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (playing the Russian ballet instructor), THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC, SLICE IT THIN and the forerunner to LOVE RIDES THE RAILS, another melodrama HE AIN'T DONE RIGHT BY NELL. The wonderful Santa Barbara City College Theatre Drama Department Head, Director and Instructor Max Whittaker had helped the production in some way and he had previously cast me in the serious show, BURY THE DEAD. I'm convinced that after seeing DRACULA, A MUSICAL COMEDY, he gave me my second most favourite comedy role in the aforementioned LOVE RIDES THE RAILS.
(Mr. Whittaker also cast me in the serious production THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL prior to RAILS. I mention this only to point out my schizophrenic idea that I was both a SERIOUS and COMIC actor. I still vainly thought at times I was David Hemmings, David McCallum or Terence Stamp sometimes; Peter Cushing or a shorter Christopher Lee other times; or Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, Terry-Thomas or a British satiric character actor out of a Tom Stoppard play the rest of the time. If I didn't stop affecting English and U.K. actor and pop star theatrics in my daily appearance and attitude, I would on occasion, revert back to my Orange County childhood roots and become Ernie Kovacs, Stan Freberg, Steve Allen and every character from MAD MAGAZINE. Only in my *AHEM* 'mature' years would I attempt to master the Arcane Art of blending the Serious into the Comic. Often with musical accompaniment.) :)
Speaking of music, the show was called DRACULA, A MUSICAL COMEDY. Now, egotistical as many think I am, I have NEVER claimed to be a musician, Much Less...a SINGER! Yet, that was what was asked of me to do in this production. How is this possible? It has often been said, that Fear of Speaking In Public is GREATER (!) than Fear of Death. DEATH scares the fecal bits out of me, but I have never had Stage Fright. Never. Don't know why. However the concept of singing a straight song in public does. Can't do it. For the most part, I really hate musicals. I used to loudly criticize Santa Barbara Theatre Groups for endless productions of OKLAHOMA, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, CAMELOT, CAROUSEL, MY FAIR LADY and so forth. There was a thing called Youth Theatre that all the acting students did in the Summer. They knew it would maybe, probably lead to a professional career in film and television, as many alumni had. I was a snob. I wouldn't have any part of it. Where was the adventure? Where was the innovation? There was a world of exciting new theatre out there. Stoppard. Osborne. Pinter. Bennett. Miller, Jonathan from England, even Arthur from the U.S. If you are doing chestnuts, how about Shakespeare? Or Moliere? Or Marlowe? But Cover My Anus, Annie, not another F*#&^%G production of LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE!!!
But I digress... I'm in a musical. I hate singing. I will be the recipient of an award for Best Male Singer for this thing. How is this possible? Simply by being in a character. If I had to be Guy Guden thinking he was Tony Bennett or Johnny Mathis, or worst of all, thinking he/I was Guy Guden, well, new horizons in loss of bladder control. But singing, if you can even remotely call it that, as Renfield, fly eating lunatic of Count Dracula? A love song, no less. And to pretty young girls in the Cabaret Theatre audience? Yeah, that doable.
This leads me to another slightly egocentric aside regarding performance. I always hate it when actors say they NEVER watch their work. "Oh no," sez big film star. "I never watch my films." Well, then why in the Hell should we? If you think your work is crap, or flawed to the point of repulsion, why should I pay twenty bucks for it?
Here it comes: "I really like my work." In fact, I LOVE it. Now let me attempt a veil of mock humility here, by saying: I always do things to make me laugh first. I am the audience I want to please, the critic I want to impress. This is probably pompous and most possibly arrogant, but it is the absolute truth. It has to make me happy first. Then I can believe it is my best. And I always like to try new things. Take the levels higher. Explore more than the Double Entendre. The Triple Entendre. I'm currently embarked on the Octo Entendre. If it works for others, I'm terribly pleased; thankful. If not...I won't water it down. Polish it up, yes. Make it predictable? Never. This is most likely why I linger more on the shores, than being in the mainstream.
I do understand the discomfort actors have with watching themselves. It's not liking what you see as the real you, as opposed to the characters you play. I admit I enjoy listening to recordings of my show SPACE PIRATE RADIO. And I admit that my least favourite part of the program is the beginning. Being me, telling the listeners what's coming up on this morning's show. But once after the Dracula opening: "Listen to them! Children of the Night! What music they make!" (English or Spanish), and a dozen or so characters emerge in the musical mix...I am the show's number one fan.
Anyway, DRACULA, A MUSICAL COMEDY was great fun, with a great cast, crew and director. Tom Zeiher was the Count, and he was super. A handsome lead going silly. In many ways better than a Cary Grant and perhaps better than George Hamilton in his Dracula spoof, LOVE AT FIRST BITE. His wife Barbara Zeiher was also in the cast, a Carol Burnett type comedienne, also top notch. Two professionals I had the pleasure of working with a number of times in those Golden Santa Barbara Theatre years. They both were involved in my TV comedy CRACKERS AT EIGHT in 1979. And they were kind enough to offer me a directing job of NUNSENSE, which I had to turn down because the play wasn't the kind of comedy I felt I should do. I was saddened to hear of Barbara's passing in 2007 and Tom's last May, 2015.
Lovely people and wonderful theatre memories.
Doing stage plays can be such magic. The moment is such an event. But unlike film, that can capture an image, a moment frozen outside the event, it's ethereal. Gone. A memory, lasting hopefully. But gone nonetheless. How glorious it is to savor that moment.
"Look at his eyes. Why the man's gone crazy!"