"Since flesh can't stay, we keep the breath aloft. Since flesh can't stay, we pass the words along." --Erica Jong

Friday, January 05, 2007

ACT THREE: On the Road

I went "on the road" with the Bishop's Company, American Repertory Players, in the summer of 1960. A fellow I knew from the Playhouse, Mark Rawson, was one of their 22 actors. I was number 23. Mark was from Glen Falls, NY, and had done three seasons of summer stock there before coming to Pasadena. He was a member of the Oregon Shakespearian Festival. He Left the Company almost as soon as I arrived, to do summer theater in Cripple Creek, Colorado. My first show was in Denver. I'd had two days to prepare. The pay was ten dollars a week, and the Company provided our meals and a roof over our head.

My mother thought it was a big mistake. She thought it was a bad idea for me to go "bumming around the country" with a bunch of actors, and tried to talk me out of it. As it turned out, she was wrong.

I was excited. The Bishop's Company was a group of professional actors dedicated to performing plays they thought were socially significant, in churches, at universities, sometimes in prisons. It began as the dream of a young and ambitious woman named Phyllis Benbow Beardsley, who I never met, but her young son wrote a poem about her I've never forgotten: There is no other mother, either far or near, who needs so much her girdle, and uses so much her brassiere. She was a tall red-head who "took courage in both hands and made the dream a reality." I believe Christopher Fry's The Boy with a Cart was their first play, a gentle, lyric poem of a shepherd boy who packs his old, nagging mother into a cart he has made, making himself a harness of willow shoots to pull it. They set out across the hills of SOuthern England. The boy believes that when the shoots break it will be the place where he will realize God's purpose. They performed this around Los Angeles, along with another called Thor, with Angels, and Herman Melville's Billy Budd for a while before their cross-country tours began. Variety wrote: "The theatre has gone back to the church after a lapse of about 400 years. And it has gone back with all the embellishments that modern theatrical techniques and modern ways of playwriting can muster." And again, "The prodigal son has returned to the bosom of the family and may well turn out to be one of the fair-haired boys. In other words, the theatre, after wandering into some devious pathways during the past 400 years [has] returned. The return of the 'bad boy' of the arts to its cradle is not only a healthy sign, but an indication that the deliquent has grown up...." All that was said way back in 1947. In July of 1954, the Los Angeles TImes ran an article that said: "Bishop's Company Booked at Churches Coast to Coast.
Los Angeles' own drama-in-the-church troupe of professional actors, The Bishop's Company, has shoved off on its first nationwide tour...." Anyway, by the time I joined them, they had four units, two that remained in the Los Angeles area and two that criss-crossed the United States and Canada. THey had BIG plans. We will have a ship! The ports of the world will be its harbor! I don't know if they ever reached that goal, but after I left, they toured Hawaii.

Alan Paton gave his permission for the Company to adapt his novel Cry, the Beloved Country as a play. Also in the repertoire were C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrows, Steven Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster, and another of Christopher Fry's poetic plays, Sleep of Prisoners. And after all those years, we still did Boy With A Cart. The 'home' units did A.A Milne's Winnie-The-Pooh, as well as The Diary of Anne Frank.

I loved travelling. I loved the other actors. At first, as new people came into the group they were simply called "Newgirl," or Newboy." Whenever someone left, or went to join another unit, and new people came, we were given our name, and the newcomers became "Newgirl" or "Newboy."

I genuinely loved theater, and was grateful to be given this opportunity to work at something I had been preparing myself to do. While I was on the road, my best friend Janet was knocking on doors in Hollywood. I knew even then that my chances of working in Hollywood, or on Broadway in New York were remote at best--something akin to being abducted by space aliens. And with the Company, I did make it to New York, and I was a working actor!

In fact, one chilly Thanksgiving in New York City, when I was buying chestnuts from a street vendor (the wonderful perfume of roasting chestnuts is the BEST!), he went for coffee, asking me to "take over the cart," for a few minutes-- so, I also sold chestnuts on the sidewalk in New York City for a few minutes....

I wrote disgustingly long letters home, describing every cornfield and bird and Burma Shave sign we passed. Some others slept, some read, some studied lines. I remember Jim and Judy laughing hysterically over a book of Fractured Fairy Tales: Guilty Looks Enter Tree Beers, and Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, and Center Alley Enter Ladle Gloss Slobbers.

I wrote: "Hello from one of the Dirty Dozen in their Travelling Tenement! We're going to write Sleaze, Inc. on the side of the trailer. Our trash bags are overflowing with old show programs, candy wrappers, banana skins, etc. More mosquitos. It's raining again. We're thinking of calling ourselves The Jolly Consumptives. Cough, cough...."

"...We drove to Bowman, North Dakota last night. Up at seven and drive all day and most of the night. Then we'll be in Winnipeg tomorrow. Are you following me on the map? I love this!"

"...Spent last night in a hotel in Muskegon. The water wouldn't run out of the sink, and the plug in the bathtub didn't fit. I had to plug up the drain with my heel to keep the water in. Somebody's baby cried all night and a drunk talked to himself for hours outside our door. This place smells like Muskegon sounds. Yucch."

"Did you know I'm insured by Lloyds of London?"

"CHICAGO!--we have a necklace of dandelions hanging from the rear-view mirror. Yesterday I met a little girl who was overcome by standing next to a real actress! She said, "Gee, can I touch you?" SHe said she thought I was "the prettiest one" in the show! I could really get to like this. Lots of kids and old ladies ask us for autographs."

"...I feel--something I can't find words for. Like time is so short and things go by so quickly, and that frightens me...."

"Tonight we play a huge old barn of a building. I can hardly see the back wall from the stage. They've got eight baskets of flowers up there. If they don't move them, we'll all be hidden in the foliage! We went through Minneapolis and St. Paul early this morning. Can't remember much, but neither can I remember sleeping--just being tired and uncomfortable, and having my leg or my hand or arm go numb at close intervals...."

"THere was so much I wanted to tell you, but I'm too tired. About New York City, and the fly in my jello. About midnight rehearsals in hotel rooms. About all the company jokes (mostly dirty). About being so tired you think you're going to be verrry sick. And about all the beautiful people I've met."

I did, actually, meet and shake hands with Edward Teller, the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb. I didn't really know how famous (and infamous) he was, at the time. I only knew the people who introduced us told me, "Harry Truman called him before dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and said, Ed? What d'ya think?" Ed suffered a heart attack in 1979, which he blamed on Jane Fonda, for promoting her latest movie, The China Syndrome. Everybody said he was the "real" Dr. Strangelove. He seemed like an old man when I met him, but he lived until 2003!

I loved the people in my unit. Jeanne Needham was pretty, and funny when she didn't mean to be funny. Don Crail was a preacher who ran away with the circus. Dan Barrows had been in radio and TV in Cincinatti before joining the company. Chris Elm was easy to talk to, and Jim and Judy were good buddies. Jim's mother owned Brigham Young's "wine snifter," and Judy was a great horse-woman from Kentucky. She and I once rowed a little boat out on a big lake in a storm, with thunder and lightning crashing all around us. Gasping and sweating, we took turns rowing back to the dock, and when we finally got back, she said, "Thank you very much for the ride, Miss Earheart!" Frank Herold was Judy's "significant other." I once rolled Frank a cigarette made of weeds, when he ran out of his own brand. He said it was "very mild." Everybody sort of paired off--Frank and Judy, Jeanne and Clyde Phillips, and Jim and Marilyn. Freddy Goff and I were "an item" but he always smelled and tasted like cigarettes. He was good to me, wanted me to come to his home in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and promised to take me to New Orleans, to the Mardi Gras.
Ummm. Never happened. WHen I left the road to go back to school at the University of Utah, he married Carol Sunde, a sweet Lutheran girl from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Maybe they are still married, if she hasn't passed on from breathing too much secondhand cigarette smoke. They were all truly like family.Jim Wheaton, one of the original eight, writes in his book Masks Before the Altar, "For me, each person was still an island that needed to be free...There are means of escape." For all our closeness, emotional, physically packed into the car like sardines in a can, as a "unit," each time we stopped, in every city, we were islands entire unto ourselves. Always.

I wrote: "One of the guys gave me a bouquet of scaggy wildflowers and a real hawk feather to brighten up our otherwise drab hotel room. He found somebody's falsie as we were about to leave Chicago, and he was embarrassed to ask who it belonged to. "Nobody would admit it if it was theirs anyway," he said. It didn't belong to me!"

CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO, TREAT YOURSELF TO THE BEST. If Daisies Are...Your Favorite Flower...Keep Pushing Up...Those Miles Per Hour...Burma Shave. Kokomo. 14 miles. Eat. Budweiser, King of Beers. 4:24 P.M.

I wrote to Marvin: "Hope I don't have to be nice to anybody tonight. Hope they just leave me alone. I get so tired of being nice to people, saying the same things over and over. I'll be glad to get home. We'll have taquitos on Olvera Street."

Marv replied: "Looking forward to having 'Taquitos for Two,'(a new song I just wrote). Sorry this is such a short letter, but you must remember I am a short man. Although I am an intellectual giant."

I sent him one last letter from the road: "I miss you so much I could go out and eat worms. But you know how I hate to eat alone."

I had one standing ovation for a performance as Olivia in An Episode of Sparrows. And that one will have to last the rest of my life. I needed to stop. I was tired of waking up every morning wondering Where am I?, like an amnesiac from some old 1940's film. I needed a place to put things. I needed to go home. But sometimes at night I still have dreams about finding the company again, and I take off with them again, on another tour. Again. And it's almost like I've never left.



silverlight said...

Absolutely wonderful.
I wish----.

Norma said...

Great story. I loved it. I'll have to add you to my over 50 bloggers.

slickdpdx said...

Love the story and the letters!

pepektheassassin said...

silverlight, I wish----too!
Slick, glad you are keeping up.
and Norma: add me! I am well over 50! :)

slickdpdx said...

I am a short man. Although I am an intellectual giant.

pepektheassassin said...

Must be something in the genes! (Short people DO got a reason!)

About Me

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1. In dreams I am often young and thin with long blond hair. 2. In real life I am no longer young, or thin, or blonde. 3. My back hurts. 4. I hate to sleep alone. (Fortunately I don't have to!) 5. My great grandfather had 2 wives at once. 6. I wish I had more self-discipline. (I was once fired from a teaching position in a private school because they said I was "too unstructured and undisciplined." --Who, me??? Naaaahhh....) 7. I do not blame my parents for this. Once, at a parent-teacher conference, the teacher told me my little boy was "spacey." We ALL are, I told her. The whole fan damily is spacey. She thought I was kidding. I wasn't. 8. I used to travel with a theater reperatory company. My parents weren't happy about this. 9. My mother was afraid that I would run off and paint flowers on my cheeks and live in a commune, and grow vegetables. I once smoked pot. ONE TIME. 10. I don't drink or smoke. (Or swear, much. Well, I drink milk, and water, and orange juice, and stuff. Cocoa. I love Pepsi.) 11. Most of my friends are invisible. 12. I am a poet and a writer. All of my writing on these pages is copyrighted. Borrowing (without acknowledgment) is a sin.