Thursday, November 27, 2014

More of My Life in Show Business

This is Part Two of My Life is Show Business.  

My first actress, Shannon, who never got to perform the show before an audience, and me as Groucho (Dr. Hackenbush), one of the characters in Murder at Bunny & Clyde's, 1989.


***

In trying to piece together a living by working at what I loved and what God had called me to do, I had done singing telegrams, stand up comedy, and children's theater classes - but a regular and consistent annual income had eluded me.





Then I heard that a mansion in North St. Louis was offering comedy murder mystery dinner theater shows, shows that were performed by only two actors, with members of the audience playing bit parts.  The word on the street was that this team of two actors were making $75,000 a year between them doing this (which was impressive money in 1988, especially to a starving actor living hand to mouth like I was).

So I called this mansion and spoke with their manager, who told me that he was shopping around for a replacement for the current duo who were putting on these shows.  He comped me a pair of tickets to come see a performance, with the idea that perhaps I could take over.

The show was lame.  Not horrible, but lame.  Unfunny, stupid, confusing.  But the audience loved it and didn't seem to notice how much better it could have been.

"I could certainly do better than this," I told the manager.  So I went home and began to write what I called Foul Play at the World's Fair, a show that I eventually titled Murder at Bunny & Clyde's, our first murder mystery.

I based it on a script I had written for one of the children's theater shows I had directed a few months prior.  That script was a murder mystery parody that featured a bumbling detective who would hand people his business card every time he entered a room.  One of the scenes went like this ...

DETECTIVE:  You may formally announce me.  (hands a business card to the Butler)
BUTLER:  (reading card)  "Mr. Public Library".
DETECTIVE:  No, that's not it!  (reaches in his pocket for another card, hands it to the Butler)
BUTLER:  (reading card)  "This Garment Inspected by Number Six".
DETECTIVE:  No, no, that's not it!  (searches for another card in his pocket)

Anyway, that's the one bit that made it to Murder at Bunny & Clyde's, and it's a bit that we're still doing today, when we perform the show all these years later.

So I wrote this script in the spring of 1988 and sent a copy to the manager at this mansion / dinner theater.  He asked me to take out some of the more risque parts (which he thought his audience would find offensive), but he told me he liked the script a lot and he wanted me to find an actress and start producing shows for them.

I was thrilled, found an actress, started looking for costumes, began having rehearsals, and called the manager back two weeks later to nail down the details.  "Oh, he doesn't work here any more.  He was fired on Tuesday," I was told.

"But ... but he wanted me to take over for your current cast!" I exclaimed.

"I don't think the owner was aware of that, but I'll have the new manager get back to you when we hire one."

Of course I never heard back.

***

So that fizzled up.

Meanwhile, I got hired to play the Fool at the Royal Dumpe Dinner Theater, and made money every weekend doing that, while delivering flyers door to door during the week, putting ads for pizza and cleaning services on people's door knobs while avoiding passing out from the summer heat or getting bitten by dogs.  I didn't tell people I made most of my money delivering flyers.  I told them I was an "Advertising Distribution Specialist".

Meanwhile, I kept trying to sell dinner theater shows to restaurants around the metro area.  In the fall of 1989, a guy called me from a restaurant in St. Charles and told me that he had a business that wanted a dinner theater show for their private Christmas party, which was to be held at the restaurant.  Did I have anything that would work?

"Oh, sure!" I said, pulling the script I had written out of a drawer.  "I've got this murder mystery I wrote.  People love it!"  Of course, no "people" had seen it, other than on paper.

The actress I had cast a year and a half prior was no longer interested in working with me, so I had to find another one.  I did and her name was Delia and she made it clear to me from the get go that she was a legitimate actress, that she had done lots of legitimate theater, and that this kind of low brow dinner theater was way beneath her and her abilities.

Delia and I learned our lines, rehearsed (in those days I actually used to rehearse) and performed Murder at Bunny & Clyde's (which I told the restaurant manager was called The Yuletide Homicide, since we were doing it at a Christmas party) for the first time on December 17, 1989 (which happens to be the night The Simpsons premiered - and we're both still going strong).

In those days we had little songs in the shows - but only for that first performance.  The audience was a bunch of 20 - 30 year old guys who worked at a construction company, and when we sang our first song, they just looked at us like we were gay.  But one of the audience members who played a bit role in the show was one of the cute secretaries at the office, and that alone made everybody happy.

All in all, it was better than the mystery I had seen at the mansion, but not by much.  Not lame, but hobbling.

In the car on the way back, Delia kept telling me what a great actress she was, how many professional and legitimate shows she had been in, how this kind of stuff was really sort of beneath her, and how she was hoping to get a lot more work elsewhere doing legitimate theater, and so forth.

For the next five years, I did this show a handful of times every Christmas season for private parties, enough so that I was able to figure out how to do it well.  It began to dawn on me that if I made the characters bold and extreme and funny and if I ad libbed a lot, people really liked this show and really liked me.  The key seemed to be to play lots of different roles and only to say things that I myself thought were funny - and that if I did this, I would have a lot of fun and the audience would have a lot of fun right along with me.

***

I had discovered a show biz gimmick, a format, that somehow perfectly suited my odd combination of talents - writing, producing, comedy, improv, comedic acting.  More than that, I had discovered something that would provide for me and my family for the next 25 years and more.

But I had to go halfway around the world and get kicked in the groin to learn that lesson.

More on that in the next installment.




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