Sunday, November 23, 2014

Show Business and Faith: Scraping, Scrapping and Scrambling

On Dec. 17, 2014 I will celebrate 25 years of performing my own murder mystery dinner theater shows.  So for the next 25 days, I'll mark the 25 years with 25 stories of my life in show business - and (believe it or not), how it all relates to the Faith.  I'll try to keep it clean.


The mystery of vocation was always present to me, in a penetrating and painful way, even before I considered myself a Christian.

You see, I was called to a life in show business - which is a way of saying that I had a deep desire to take words on the printed page and flesh them out in dramatic performance - to incarnate or incorporate the word (which is why our theater troupe is called Theater of the Word Incorporated).  I knew this was a vocation because I wasn't happy doing anything else.  In fact, I was certain it was a vocation because I couldn't hold down a day job.  I was quite literally constitutionally unable to actually work for a living.

This led to a great deal of hardship in my life.  But I had to be true to what God had made me for, even in those dark days when I didn't believe in God.  It's funny how that worked, but even when I wasn't sure there was a God or who God was, I knew that I was dealing with a kind of God-thing in my life: something bigger than I was, and something I couldn't alter or say no to without finding myself utterly miserable.  And that thing was my desire to perform.

And so I would scrap and scramble and scrape together a living - either acting or playwriting or directing or producing or singing or telling jokes, or a combination of all of the above.  For 34 years I've been supporting myself in show business - all of my adult life - which probably only 1% of all actors are lucky enough to say they have done.  If I hadn't loved it all and been compelled to do it - theater, comedy, acting, show biz - I would have given up long ago, as it can be a very demanding and sometimes thankless profession.  And yet - what a blessing it all has been!

The jacket monogram says, "Singing Telegrams" - that's me, 1981.

Beginning in 1981, when I was only 20 and still living with my mom and dad, I got hired to do singing telegrams.  Over the next five years, while the singing telegram fad was hot, I performed over 3,000 singing telegrams across the St. Louis area - dressed in a gorilla costume, or as a super-hero, or as the "birthday fairy", or in a simple red tuxedo.  These singing telegrams were like guerrilla theater (or gorilla theater, if I had the monkey suit on).  I'd barge into a restaurant or a bowling alley or an office, blow a slide whistle, and get everyone to listen to me and laugh for five or ten minutes as I told jokes and embarrassed the telegram recipient, doing a short stand up comedy routine that ended with a song.  I learned how to improvise, how to judge a crowd, how to cut or pad on the fly, and how to put up with the unexpected rigors of getting the check and not getting killed (the two things that make for a good show).  I did quite well with singing telegrams, loved every minute of it, and managed to move out on my own and make what was a lot of money for a young guy in those days.

I would come into a public place dressed in a business suit, like Clark Kent.  I would call out for the birthday girl, stand her up and then rip off my suit (which was held together by Velcro) to reveal a super hero costume underneath.  Here's the grand finale of a super hero singing telegram delivered to a lady celebrating her birthday in a restaurant.

After the fad died out, I tried my best to get work doing other non-show biz "real job" stuff, but I simply couldn't.  It got to a point where I had depleted all my savings and was spending a jar of pennies that my grandma had given me, and using that to buy food.

But, right on the verge of starvation, I got a gig doing stand up comedy at a local night club.  I was the house comic, and I was making enough to support myself.  This was the hardest thing I ever did in show business (nothing is harder than standing on stage alone with a mic and trying to make people laugh), but it paid the bills until one night when the night the club owner got drunk and got mad and threw all of his customers out onto the street, cursing at them and telling them never to come back.  He was boarded up and locked the next day.  Nobody knows what set him off - other than how drunk he was.

Me, the River, the Boat.

So I went back to starving, and the pennies soon ran out, and I was getting desperate, when all of a sudden I got a good paying gig to work as an MC on a riverboat that went on daily dinner cruises up and down the Missouri River in St. Charles.  I got hired to tell a few jokes and sing some songs with the band and greet people as they walked on and walked off before each cruise.  So I got some material together and rehearsed and was all geared up to go - but three days before the first cruise, my agent called me and said (in an off-handed way), "The boat owner wants a magician to go table to table during dinner and perform close up magic.  So I told him you'd do it."

"But I'm not a magician!  And there's no way I can do close-up stuff!" I protested.

"Go out and buy some tricks and practice.  You've got three days," my agent replied.

So I did and spent the next year as a comic-singing-MC who went table to table and did close up magic - with no clue as to what I was doing, but I bought tricks that were impressive and easy to do, so it worked.

Me as Professor Palladium, entertaining with feats of close up magic.  Smoke and mirrors, indeed.

Then that gig ended and the next thing I knew I was starving again.  But right when the wolf was at the door (I could hear him panting and I refused to let him in), I manged to find a local theater that wanted somebody to run a children's acting program for them, and I spent the next three years teaching and directing children's theater with actors ranging in age from 5 to 16 years old.  I ran the entire program myself, and did everything from marketing to set building to lighting to sound to teaching and directing to playing piano for the musical numbers.  But most especially, I wrote the plays.

I found that there were very few good children's theater plays out there, and that most of my students (especially the teens) would be bored and unmotivated by the kind of awful things we'd buy from Samuel French or Dramatist's Play Service and try to produce.  However, I discovered something.  All I had to do was ask each class for suggestions on the story they wanted to tell and the characters they wanted to play, and then I'd go home and write scripts based on their suggestions.  The kids loved this.  It motivated them and brought the whole process to life.  Suddenly they were rehearsing and performing shows that they liked, that they had helped to create, and that they took pride in.  It was a great teaching tool for them.

And for me, as it taught me how to write for the stage.  There is nothing better than writing something that you see performed before your eyes.  You suddenly learn what works and what doesn't.  You learn how to write for specific casts and levels of talent.  You learn how to cut and rewrite the material that's not working.  And - since this was simply children acting - I learned that it was safe to take risks, because it was safe to be bad.  No matter how bad my scripts were, the parents would love the shows, since it was their sweet darlings up there on stage!

When I started the program, the theater had a total of 6 students enrolled in their children's theater classes.  By the time I left, three years later, I had built the program to a total of 72 students in four different classes, each producing a different script that I wrote, based on suggestions the actors had made.

And it was one of those scripts - based on student suggestions - that led to my first murder mystery.

But more on that next time, in which I will also tell the story of when I toured with four young ladies, doing a show I wrote that we performed at military bases overseas (I refer to this as the Kick in the Groin Tour - and there's a reason for that).  I will also talk about the day my wife said to me, "You have to get out of show business.  I can't live like this.  This has to end."  That was 21 years ago, and I'm still hanging on and hoping she hasn't noticed that I ignored her completely.

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