From the Big Top to the Big Apple
Some dates just stick in the mind. It’s rare for me, but I do remember a few. September 5, 1969 is one. The day I moved to New York. Only five years before I'd left the foot hills of Appalachia for college and an imagined life in academia. That's not how it turned out. It would be disingenuous to claim to be some kind of hillbilly or southern bumpkin. I never was. What I was, was so smart and sophisticated that I knocked up the first girl I ever slept with, flunked out of college, got married and started working whatever jobs I could bullshit my way into in show business at nineteen. From a little distance now at twenty-two, I might have been able to see that reading too much science fiction and Playboy in adolescence inclines one to have an inflated sense of one’s own intelligence and capabilities, in spite of ever-growing experiential evidence to the contrary. I was nowhere near that yet. There was far more that I could recklessly, fecklessly, impulsively fuck up ahead.
I had just spent the winter in Buffalo, NY (who does that?) stage managing a children's theater company. I was mostly driving through blinding snow in a VW bus with a bunch of actors in furry animal costumes going to parochial schools. On our spring break, a few of the company had gone to New York to find summer work. I snagged a job stage managing a summer stock tour of “Mame” staring Elaine Stritch in three theaters on the coast of Massachusetts.. We would rotate every 2 weeks between Hyannis, Cohasset and Beverly, Mass. At twenty-two, I had no idea how ill-equipped I was to do this, but then neither did the fine folks who hired me. Ignorance was my sword, over-confidence my shield.
My first brief marriage crumbled to bits over that bleak Buffalo winter as it was destined to do. My Wife, Judy, decided to try her luck in New York and I had this tour. I drove our 3 year old daughter down to my mother in North Carolina for the summer, which they both enjoyed immensely, thank God. Then I turned around and headed up to the Cape for rehearsals in Hyannis. I was truly “on the road” and totally free for the first time in my life. Summer stock is just about the most potentially hedonistic experience that could ever happen to anyone, straight or gay, other that Rock and Roll, especially in the ‘60s. The gay male population was at least equal to the straight and the high school and college co-ed apprentice girls and boys were adventurous, courageous, and glistening with beauty and youth. It was 1969! Men would walk on the moon, there would be Woodstock. There would be sex, drugs and rock and roll! It was glorious. It was what I love most about show business. There, the truth is out. Show business is so gay that even a skinny, red-haired imposter's chances are much improved with the ladies. Just a fact. Of course it's all better for gay people too, so, it's a pretty happy place to be in the romance department, sans fidelity, of course.
Stage Manager is a legit, hard job with real responsibilities. I fell into it completely by accident at the behest of a producer I was working for as a lighting designer. He needed one quickly to meet Equity rules and I was already there on salary. To say that I was not quite there yet in the maturity and experience department, would be, well, a huge understatement, but I had the basics down. I knew how to write stage blocking and had a few shows under my belt including the cute animals in Buffalo. In Hyannis, I quickly learned that if our star was chugging whiskey from a twelve-ounce water glass in the quick-change booths between scenes it was “none of my fucking business!” OK, got it. Welcome to the big time. Elaine was famous and became even more famous for being just about the toughest broad in show business. Actually, in my opinion, she was the toughest broad in the history of the human race. She ground me to dust, but I was having too much fun to care. I watched from a bar in Hyannis as Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon two days after Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge a few miles away from were I was sitting. I learned to sail in Gloucester, I hob-nobbed with famous stars and was in beautiful Yankee resorts and I had at least one girlfriend in each theater. I was moving to New York in the fall and show business was my business. Anything was possible. I may even have improved a bit as a stage manager.
The Cape Code Melody Tent in Hyannis and the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset are real circus tents. Chipmunks live under the seats and seagulls fly in and out unexpectedly. The North Shore Music Theater is a hardtop; looks like a tent but it ain’t. There was a big-bellied Paul Bunyan kinda guy, named Chappy who took care of the two tents and he kinda looked like one himself. They were really cool and he was the guru of big tents. I learned about the big tops from Chappy. I loved the way they worked, the poles, ropes, canvas. The canvas was attached to a big iron ring around each of the two tent poles and was raised and tied off like a sail, then chained into place for the season. The pizza slice canvas sections were zipped together with giant zippers.
When my tour ended, the producer in Cohasset asked me to stay on and stage manage and design lights for the last few productions there. On the last day of the season, for the sheer thrill of it, I was the nimble young fool who climbed up on top of the huge tent, unclipped the safety chains on the tent rings and rode it down to the ground like a giant balloon. I was a roustabout, a pirate, and life was good. My summer in the circus was over.
I left for New York City the next day in my crummy Opal Kadet, with my adorable Cohasset apprentice girlfriend. She wanted to visit her brother in the city for a few days before she went back to college so she was down for the road trip. I really thought we’d keep in touch and I’d see her again, but I lost my little black address book as I shifted from couch to couch in New York and I never did. Now we’re friends on Facebook. Go figure.
Right at the end of the summer, I had helped my friend, Ed get a job at St. John's University in Queens as Technical Director, because, me being a drop-out, I couldn't take it when the Producer in Cohasset, (who was theater professor at St. Johns) offered it to me. Ed had been my roommate in a cinderblock duplex in Chapel Hill my last year at UNC. He was older and had a master's degree and a few teaching jobs behind him. He'd just spent the summer at the prestigious summer theater in Williamstown, MA and was just the devil they needed. He and his wife, Nancy, the folk singer, drove to Cohasset, spent the night on a cot in my big closet and we all left for New York the next morning. They quickly found an apartment in Jamaica, Queens, home to St. Johns.
Meanwhile, over the summer, Judy, my dancer/costumer wife, had moved to the city, found a sublet, and a waitressing job and was being responsible. I spent the first night (after some begging) with her in the sublet. I remember straightening a picture on the wall. Cockroaches ran out from behind it in every direction. It was time for her to move anyway. I had arrived. Judy's sublet ran out and we both crashed with Ed and Nancy in their new apartment. The first night we all slept sideways on a mattress on the floor. No one enjoyed that.
Clearly this was not going to work for long. Judy moved to a hotel overlooking Washington Square, same one in the Joan Baez song, if you know it. I stayed with her there a bit, but my welcome was wearing thin real quick, me being the bad guy and all. I had to find something else quick.