Saturday, February 12, 2011

Murder Mysteries and Getting Murdered

Only three times in twenty years of performing dinner theater shows with my company Upstage Productions have I ever feared for my safety because of audience members. Tonight was one of them.

The first time was fifteen years ago or so, at the Lemp Mansion.

Now, my murder mystery dinner theater shows are not only funny, but they deliver to the audience a kind of hilarity and joy that I myself used to get only from Marx Brothers movies. The shows are a blast to do, and the audiences love them. That’s why we’ve been doing them full time (200 performances a year) for about twenty years, and that’s how I’ve supported a wife, two kids and two mortgages over that time. Not to mention my secret family in the hills of Idaho that my wife Karen knows nothing about, and they’re expensive.

Oh, sorry. Everything from this point on is serious and I’m not making any of it up.

We’ve learned over the years that beer drunks get belligerent and wine drunks get happy. Beer drunks want to fight, and wine drunks want to laugh. We perform these days almost exclusively at mom and pop wineries across the county, to audiences that are usually only tipsy and not drunk, and when some of them do get drunk, it’s a happy drunk, as they’re drinking wine. We perform without a stage, in and out amongst the tables, using the winery room as our performance space, amid the audience, among them, seated at tables, in our interactive shows.

Dine and Dash

But at the Lemp Mansion (not a winery), where we performed from 1994 to 1997, we’d get a lot of beer drunks. One night a table of four, including a gigantic 6’2, 250 pound North St. Louis Irishman, were sitting at a corner table, drunk and loud and annoying. In the midst of Act One, I made an exit, and during my quick change, asked the bus boy to try to quiet them down. As soon as he said something to them, they got even madder. When I entered again, they went out of their way to be as loud as possible (just to show us), making it impossible for the actors to continue. I stopped the show and announced that we would take a break (mid-act) and be back when the situation improved. This made the big Irishman mad, and he stood up and came at me. I dashed into the kitchen and weaved my way between the cook and the stove and made it out the back door safely. He was big and pretty drunk, and I was a lot quicker than he was.

Paul Pointer, the owner, calmed the guy down, and said, “I’ll give you your money back, and I need you and your party to leave.” He gave him in cash the price of four dinner theater tickets, which at that time was $35 per person, and the big guy and his friends, all four of them, left. Paul’s mother then looked at Paul and said, “What did you just do?”

“I gave them their money back and told them to leave.”

“Paul!” she cried. “They haven’t paid yet!”

He dashed out to the parking lot, but they were long gone, $140 richer.

The Civil Wars of Nashville

I did our first and only show for a winery in Nashville, Illinois about six years ago with Linda Spall, one of my most fun actresses. The winery sold tickets for two back-to-back performances in the same night. The first started at 6:00 and included dinner. The second started at 9:00 with snacks only.

The first crowd was great. The second crowd had been drinking elsewhere in Nashville all night long before they showed up at the winery. Drinking beer. They all knew each other. It seemed the whole town was present. And it seemed some people in Nashville didn’t like other people in Nashville.

I cut the show very short because the crowd was so drunk and unruly and they were getting angry at one another. Linda and I were changing clothes behind two partitions in the corner of the winery, no doors or windows near us, which is where our changing area had been all night. But when the show had ended, as we were gathering our stuff behind the partition, and beginning to get back in our civvies, we realized that things were getting really ugly on the other side. A riot was brewing. Guys were standing up and yelling, “F you!” to other guys across the room. “Sit down, you MF and shut your F’ing face!” came the reply.

Linda looked at me. “This is going to turn into a bar fight,” she said. “And I’ve been in bar fights. And we’re cornered. There’s no way out. Those people are between us and the exit. Let’s gather our stuff and run.” So we didn’t use our check lists to mark off our costumes and props, we didn’t even take off the costumes we still had on, we just threw everything into suitcases and garment bags, I grabbed my keys and we made a B-line for the door, the crowd still shouting at one another.

But as we passed hurriedly by them, the all gave us a hand! The drunks applauded us on the way out, and then went back to swearing at one another. We don’t know if the police were called. We made it out before it got any worse.

When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go.

(me as Gilligan in Gilligan's Island of Death)

Tonight we were at one of our very favorite wineries. I won’t mention the name, as we’ve been there ten years and I don’t want people to think this kind of thing happens there regularly. It never happens. The crowds are great and we love performing there. It’s in Kansas, and we have a strong following of regulars who have been coming to every show, six times a year for about ten years.

But tonight when Maria and I showed up, we noticed a table was already seated, half an hour before the house is officially open. They were quite drunk, even then. Our dressing room is a bathroom hidden in a corner, which is closed to the public whenever we perform. The drunk table was right next to this changing room / bathroom. There was no way to get into or out of our changing room, without going past them - which is to say there is no way to make exits and entrances during the performance without them being right in our way (there are many quick changes for me in each act, as I play five characters in this show and I’m constantly darting in and out of the changing room), and so it’s not a good thing to have a drunk table right by where you have to go throughout the evening. And the guys at this table were being rude to us and saying stupid drunk stuff even when we arrived in our civvies before any one else was seated for the show. I knew we would have trouble. It turns out they had shown up drunk at the winery, after a brewery tour. Beer drunks.

Act One began and they started mouthing off early. Three minutes into Act One, one of the really drunk guys stood up and said WOOOOOO! at the top of his lungs. Out of nowhere. For no reason. People were disturbed (people had been disturbed by this table even before the show started, I discovered, while I was mingling and handing out character parts to the audience before the show began). So after this WOOOO, I said, in character, “Hang on, now. We have a hundred people in this room and we don’t want to ruin the show for everybody else because of a table of eight drunken a**holes!” This sort of thing usually does the trick. As a comedian, I can say whatever I want to people, if I say it right, and they will laugh. And they did laugh, and the whole room laughed, the situation was defused and a point was made, and had they been somewhat less drunk, they would have gotten the point and kept quiet, realizing you can’t resist 92 other people who are in league against you, as well as the two actors who are performing, one of whom is more than willing to ridicule you publicly. But it was a lesson they did not learn.

Three minutes later, this same guy stood up and said WOOOOO! again, right in the middle of a scene.

I stopped the show, and said (out of character), “I’m serious. You need to keep quiet.” I then went over and pulled the owner of the winery into the room, pointed the table out to her, and she said, in a very nice, tactful and sweet way, “Everyone needs to be quiet, or the actors can’t be heard.”

Well, that was a dash of cold water for the whole room, and it was tough getting laughs for a while. But after my first exit and costume change, the show was going fine. Our drunks were intimidated into behaving for fifteen minutes or so, but were mouthing off toward the end of the act, though not very loudly.

Dinner break came. Maria and I retreated to our bathroom / changing room, the one beside the drunk table, with no doors or windows, just two stalls and all our costumes and props. The caterer brought us our food. As I was eating, I could hear the drunks outside the bathroom door getting loud and saying nasty things about me. You see, I knew what was happening. You can’t embarrass belligerent beer drunks, you can’t publicly scold them, you can’t bring Mommy over to talk to them, in front of everybody, without them wanting to kill you.

The things they were saying were getting nastier. I reached up and locked the door. “Maria,” I said, “If I have to leave the room for some reason during the dinner break, lock the door behind me and do not open it without finding out who wants to get in. But I don’t plan on leaving.” She looked alarmed. “They probably won’t try to get in,” I told her.

Five minutes later, someone was vigorously shaking the locked door knob. Then, BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! Loud bangs on the door. “Who is it?”we both said. BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! came the reply. The sign on the door clearly indicates it’s the actor’s dressing room, and we knew who was banging. “Maria,” I said, “We’re going to go into Emergency Lock Down Plan B Mode. We are trapped in here, and it’s not safe.” Oh, and I was physically assaulted at one of our venues years ago, and my nose was broken, not by an audience member, but that’s another story. At any rate, I take safety seriously.

I continued. “We’re going to move all of our costumes outside to my car. I will make all the exits and entrances for Act Two in and out the side door of the winery, and not from here. That way I will be nowhere near their table. It’s dark outside, and muddy from the melting show, and if they come out there to find me, they’ll never see me, they’ll never be able to walk, and if worse comes to worse I’ll keep my keys handy and I’ll drive off. When the show is over, you hang out in the winery by all the sober people, pick up the check from the owner, and meet me in the car.”

“OK,” Maria replied, a bit nervously.

So we made our tactical retreat. We dashed out of the bathroom, past the drunks, and made straight for the side door. The owner followed us. “Are you leaving? Aren’t you going to finish the show?” she asked, seeing us carrying out all of our costumes and props.

I told her we would finish the show, and I would change in the safety of my car. “Oh, they’re not that bad,” she said.

“They want to kill me,” I said. “One of the guys was banging on the dressing room door. I’ve been in this situation before” – (I felt like Linda Spall, “I’ve been in bar fights!”) – “and I don’t want to be anywhere near them. They’re not mad at you, but they’re mad at me for embarrassing them. These guys are supremely drunk and ticked off and I need to stay away from them.”

The owner returned to the winery. A guest came up, complaining about the drunk table. It seems that the drunkest guy had wet himself. The owner then asked them all to leave. Luckily one of the eight of them was a designated driver, but I watched closely from my car as they stumbled to their vehicle and the driver drove them away.

My friend Lois Richard, a physician, has told me before that incontinence in a drunk is a sign of alcohol poisoning, so I hope they made it to a hospital, or at least home safely.

Oh, and one more thing.

As the drunks got up and as they were walking out, the audience cheered.

It was the highlight of the show.

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