Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Life in Show Business - Part 3

Me as Rhett Butler on the Goldenrod Showboat
in the year 1999 or so, when we were performing
murder mysteries there.
Back in the 19th and early 20th century, before television, talkies and radio, the showboats used to ply the waters bringing popular culture to Americans who were desperate for entertainment.  Melodramas would be performed - which is to say soap operas for the stage - with simple stock characters representing good and evil.  The acting was larger than life, but the audiences were moved and grateful and in awe of what they thought was high dramatic art.  But that began to change.

The story is that a time came when even the rubes in the backwaters began to consider the whole thing a bit hoaky.  By the time talking pictures hit the scene and the cynicism and flash of the 1920's reshaped the U.S., the audiences began to board the showboats not to be moved and enthralled by the predictable melodramas, but to heckle and jeer at the actors.  They would boo the villain and cheer the hero, and make fun of the stupid plots and contrived dialogue, and also yell things at the cast during the show, thus enraging the players on stage who still had pride in what they were doing.

But actors, being actors, decided, "Forget integrity.  This is show biz.  Maybe there's money to be made here."  So the Comedy Melodrama came to be.  The actors themselves camped up their roles and encouraged the audience to heckle them, to boo the villain and the cheer the hero.  They went with it.  And a form of self-parody was born.

By the time I began attending the Goldenrod Showboat, in the 1970's, the Comedy Melodrama was in full swing.  Built in 1909 and billed as the last remaining showboat of the showboat era, the Goldenrod eventually stopped touring and became a fixture in St. Louis.  Permanently moored on the Mississippi River downtown for over 50 years, by the 70's, the Goldenrod was producing very funny parodies of 19th century melodramas, with lots of audience interaction, music, songs, vaudeville bits, and plenty of comic improv.

In the audience on board the Goldenrod Showboat with my girlfriend Missy,
during my disco phase, c. 1978.  It is a phase I am still struggling to come out of.

Now, as I said last time, I had stumbled upon the quirky thing that would feed my family and me for decades to come - murder mystery dinner theater, which I first performed in 1989.  But I didn't quite see the potential at first.

Indeed, when my agent approached me with the suggestion that I produce a comedy murder mystery for a D.O.D. (Department of Defense) tour to military bases overseas, I suggested that I produce a comedy melodrama instead.  I had no faith in murder mysteries as anything other than a cheesy device for entertaining middle aged dinner theater patrons.  Soldiers and sailors needed something lively with lots of girls.

Artwork for the first comedy melodrama I produced, Professor Palladium's Traveling Theatrical Wonderment Show,
which later became The Wild West Show, which I took on tour to East Asia.
So, to make a long story short, I put together The Wild West Show, a comedy melodrama, and the D.O.D. sent us (four young women and me) on a two month tour to Korea, Japan and Australia.  I saw some amazing things but I had a horrible time.

In those days, I really didn't know how to direct shows or how to deal with actors.  I had some trouble with the cast and I came down hard on them, in the hope that I would motivate them to give a crap about the quality of the performance (they were much more interested in their hair and costumes than in how well they performed the show).  They were also split into two factions, two girls against the other two, and they hated each other.

But after I cracked the whip, things changed.

They began to hate me.

Me as the Villain
In one scene, I played the villain, wearing a moustache and a long villain's cape.  At one point, with my back to the audience, one of the girls was supposed to make it look like she was kicking me in the groin and I would double up in pain and we'd get a big laugh.  But these girls hated me so much that in our final stateside performance, the gal kicked me as hard as she could in my upper thigh, just south of the family jewels.  She laid into me like she was kicking a field goal.  I had a bruise there for the entire two month tour.

And once on tour the girls would make fun of the Asians, and force the bus driver to stop every ten minutes so they could pee, and get jealous of one another because of the guys that would pay attention to the other girls and ... well, it was an awful tour.

So by the time I got back to St. Louis, I had had it.

Another agent called to offer me a murder mystery gig at a restaurant in Illinois, and I turned him down.  Flat.  After all, my wife was pregnant with Colin, our first child, and I was sick of getting kicked in the balls by show business.

And so, at the age of 30, I enrolled in college finally to get my bachelor's degree - and I earned 102 credits in 18 months (but that's another story) and got a B.A. in English.  I had put all that show biz foolishness behind me.

Or so I thought.

***

In the Next Installment: Hope returns.  A paying gig!  Several shows a day along with an air-conditioned trailer at Six Flags over Mid-America.  A great opening show.  And then my actors and I are escorted off property by security and told never to come back.  But more on that later.

Meanwhile ... pictures from our Far East Tour, 1991.

On the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea foreground, North Korea background.

South Korea was having riots in those days.  We were told to stay away from them.  I was on a college campus and saw this parade begin.  I started snapping pictures, assuming it was a riot in its first stages.  A student who spoke English said, "No, this is the parade that announces the beginning of Party Time."

We saw many beautiful Buddhist temples, but some of the girls were bored because there wasn't enough shopping.

My actresses and some Americans, who took us out to dinner in Japan.  I am at the far right.

Party Time continues.

One of my actresses on tour (not the one who kicked me), overlooking the East China Sea.

1 comment:

Tom Leith said...

I saw a show on the Goldenrod, probably about 1990. Something about Richmond. Two or three times, the actress would speak of something that happened "here, in Richmond" with her arm out the set window upstage, waving back and forth. Later on, she said something else had happened. "Where?!?!" I shouted at the stage. All the action stopped barely a beat. The actress looks straight at me, walks little Southern Belle steps upstage to the window, sticks her arm out, elbow bent 90 degrees waggling back and forth, and says "Here, in Richmond". It was hilarious. OK, I might've been a little drunk. But the audience participation picked-up markedly after that except with the stick-in-the-mud crowd I was with that hadn't quite gotten that all this was part of the show. I realized it a little late myself, but still...

Maybe that was one of your shows, I really don't know. The piano player was really good too. Professor somebody he was called.