As an acting student at Santa Barbara City College, it was my good fortune to have as instructor, Mr. Max Whittaker. I've praised this man's talents here at the Melting Watchtowre in the past. But I feel enough can't be said how lucky it was to have such a gentle, sensitive and intelligent man as your director/teacher; whose enthusiasm for the purer side of the theatrical arts world could be such an inspiration. I felt I was very undisciplined in my attitude and approach to the educational system, a catalog of grudges held for suffering the "slings and arrows" of Inquisitional Instructors in the past. Especially in high school. I've mentioned the psychologically crippled human beings who brought their secret suburban problems to class, and got back at the spouse, parent or employer by giving the pain to the pupils, Pinochet style. In high school. I wanted to learn like the College kids. I've never mentioned it before, but in the world of aptitude measurement, at age 10 or 11, I was told I was on an 18 or 19 year old level. This didn't mean anything to me on an egotistical scale. I just loved to read books, talk about things the other kids weren't doing and was called upon by my teachers to always read before the class, while the others weren't. At that age, I hadn't developed a disproportionate showman's bravura yet. At least, I wasn't conscious of it. That would come later.
But how I would have appreciated having a teacher like Max Whittaker in my Sophomore, Junior or Senior year in a Hell-Hole Environment like John A Rowland High School, Rowland Heights, California (Home of those beef eating, steer branding Rowland Raiders. Preparing young minds and bodies for a new form of Native Peoples Genocide).
So, I'm lucky to be in Mr. Whittaker's production of "LOVE RIDES THE RAILS, or will the mail train run tonight?" What should be just a groan-inducing, chuckle producing chestnut of an old fashioned melodrama, turns into an hilarious, extremely hip, partially psychedelic comedy masterpiece. And it's because all the elements are perfect. Everyone--and I do mean EVERYONE--in the cast and crew are brilliant. This is a comic ensemble of professionals one will never quite experience again. And all under the master hand of its director, Mr. Max Whittaker.
The play is a success. It's a Big Success. I mean a REALLY BIG SUCCESS!. With unanimous reviews of its laugh quotient and packed audiences for the entire run in 1973, LOVE RIDES THE RAILS becomes THE most successful play in Santa Barbara City College's aged, but oh so comfy, Little Theatre.
For an actor, this was the Bliss one climbs the highest mountain for, hoping for speaks with the Guru. Better than the Best Sex. And everyone knows how much I love sex (although most of the stuff written on various walls of Santa Barbara bathrooms have thankfully been repainted over).
I am lucky to have had a part in the play's success. Jump ahead to 1975...
No longer pursuing the once practical goal of becoming an English Literature or Drama teacher, once held in a high school run by instructors who found themselves curiously excited and therefore condemning of my David McCallum/Illya Kuryakin haircut; crushing any chance of having me work moderately in their repressed, hypocritical, Father or Parent abused, ultra conservative, neo-fascist, pseudo civilized Urban Environment- my school days charade has ended and I am in the Real World or semi-illusory one of a vibrant career in Radio.
The Powers that Be at Santa Barbara City College's Drama Department have decided that to coincide with next year's Bi-Centennial Celebrations, it would possibly be advantageous to do another melodrama comedy in the spirit of LOVE RIDES THE RAILS. Max Whittaker's directing commitments have already been made, as had Doctor Pope Freeman's, the new head of SBCC's Drama Department. Since Pope directed the productions at the Lobero Theatre and Max those on the campus, an outside Director was needed. It is to the courageous wisdom or utter folly of these two respected gentlemen that I, due to my contribution to LOVE RIDES THE RAILS, be asked to direct this production. Mr. Whittaker had already let me direct the SBCC Theatre Guild Production (of which I was President at that Season) of my original experimental comedy NOTHING IS SACRED, which immediately followed and rode off the success of LOVE RIDES THE RAILS in Spring 1973. He had also allowed me to direct the X-Rated one act of mine, VOID IN WISCONSIN for my Director's Final in Directing Class. As I said, I loved this man for the Freedom he allowed me. Anyone else would have changed the locks and notified authorities.
Pope Freeman had directed me in Moliiere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, produced under the title THE WOULD-BE GENTLEMAN, as well as MAN OF LA MANCHA and the high profile production of KING LEAR, with great character actor Ford Rainey in the title role. He agreed to Mr. Whittaker's enthusiastic recommendation that I direct this comic melodrama, so the Wheels of Industry began to roll. I was flattered and excited.
Especially excited by the fact, that to produce this play, I would have to be an Instructor in the credit class of Theatre Production. This could be a problem, right? As I was not a diploma enhanced Theatre Major. No Doctorate. No Master's. Not even an A.A.!!! Just a Bachelor's. And when I mean Bachelor's, I mean it in the single man: Playboy, Esquire, Gent, Rogue, Cavalier variety. Oh, my! This is going to be an obstacle, yes?
Fortunately, no. This is at a time when you can become an accredited instructor based on professional experience. And lucky for old Guido, my radio career and work in theatre, film and television lets me delve into this world of admittance and a BRAZIL-like scenario of bureaucratic paperwork. My fingerprints are somewhere in a dark and forgotten space in California. I guess the DRAGNET-like environment is worth it.
This high school kid who was frequently suspended for the crime of having a bit of hair touching the ears and the same on the back of the neck,not in step like a Marine, was now going to run a college class. Oh, my, my! Not quite the Model-A Glenn Ford in THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE or Sidney Poitier on Mescaline in TO SIR, WITH LUNCH. *giggles*
So I am given the task in late 1975 to choose an appropriate old chestnut melodrama to cast and direct during the Spring 1976 session. And the selection is ghastly. The titles I go through are either so turgid, there is little room for invention, as we could do with LOVE RIDES THE RAILS. Or they were so deliberately campy, having no authentic flavour and coming off like failed sitcom pilots. I was not inspired by the choices given. But I had an idea.
After writing my earlier comedies, VOID IN WISCONSIN in 1972 and NOTHING IS SACRED in 1973 (my first written comedy was S'OUR TOWN in high school in 1966-1967, a parody of Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN), I had a number of story ideas. One of them was a GOON SHOW inspired idea, but with a FIRESIGN THEATRE concept of multiple subtext--political in this case--and a feel of stage created imagery like classic MAD MAGAZINE, vintage Ernie Kovacs, the audio of Stan Freberg and the form of George S. Kaufman meets Tom Stoppard. This was CASANOVA'S LIPS.
To this day, I don't know how I was able to sell the administrators of all things dramatic at SBCC, the audacious concept of NOT DOING an old fashioned melodrama to tie in with the 1776-1976 celebrations; but to let me write my own original comic play, set in Paris in 1876. A comic compromise of a hundred years. A (seemingly) middle of the road approach in theme and spirit. But actually a satiric subterfuge. A comedy with a covert concept. Multiple levels depending on the viewer's perception or wavelength. Something with, what I liked to call, the Triple Entendre.
The Madcap Adventure will continue...