Monday, December 1, 2014

My Life in Show Business - Part 4

Little did I suspect that my "Living History"
experience would be dead.
Before I talk about how my actors and I were escorted out of Six Flags theme park by a security guard and told not to come back, I have to correct what may be a false impression I've been making.

My career has not merely been low brow.  I love the sort of vaudeville that has made me money, but my real love for theater has been incarnational - taking words on the printed page and fleshing them out in performance.  I have a great passion for true dramatic art, and even in my days as an atheist I knew that there was something about the whole experience that connected us with the gods - even if the gods somehow weren't there.  I talk about this more elsewhere, but my devotion to my calling has always been "religious".

And yet I knew that my love for Shakespeare and Shaw, and the legitimate theater I had done (including Shakespeare) wouldn't pay the bills.

So I graduated from Webster University in St. Louis after 18 months, earning half of my credits by testing out of various subjects.  Webster is a good school in many ways, but they have a Theater Arts Conservatory that I stayed as far away from as possible.  I remember seeing one conservatory Acting class in the gym as I was walking by.  It was the "Hey, wait!" exercise.  A group of students would stand at one end of the gym, and one student would run at them from the other end yelling, "Hey wait!"  If this student did a really good job yelling "Hey, wait!" the rest of the class would applaud him.  This exercise went on for hours, every single day.

I was willing to waste my money on a B.A., but not a B.A. in that!

So I found myself, at the age of 32, in the spring of 1993, with a wife and a one-year old son, in the possession of a B.A. in "Literature and Language" from Webster University and nothing to do with it.

But the very week that I graduated from college - the very week - there was an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that said, "Seeking Improv Troupe to perform at Six Flags.  Good pay.  Contact Living History Productions."

I called them.  It was a Dallas area code.  They told me, "We need improv troupes across the country to perform outdoors at various theme parks.  We're working out a deal with Six Flags.  We'll have a kiosk set up in each of their parks, selling video tapes of cartoons about history.  We need troupes of actors to perform sketches about George Washington and Ben Franklin in front of the kiosks to gather crowds and help sell the tapes.  We're seeking existing improv troupes only.  Do you have a troupe in St. Louis?"

"Of course I do!" I replied.  "People love our troupe!"

"What's the name of your troupe?"

"The Fallen Arches!" I shot back - which itself was a fancy bit of improv on my part, as the whole thing was a lie.  I didn't have an improv troupe.  I had never even done any improv as part of an improv troupe.

"Great!  We'll fly our representative up from Texas next week to audition you."

I hung up the phone.  I had a week.

I called a bunch of friends and actors and we put together a troupe of about eight of us and worked up a sketch on Washington crossing the Delaware and a sketch on Ben Franklin flying a kite.  I told the actors, "Now, when this guy auditions us, when we're not performing, don't say to one another things like, What's your name again?  We're supposed to know one another really well.  We're supposed to have worked together a lot across the St. Louis area.  We can make sure we know one another's names later, if we get the job."

Well, the guy loved us.  "I've been auditioning troupes on the East Coast and the West Coast, and I certainly didn't think that the best troupe I'd find would be in St. Louis!  The Fallen Arches, huh?  You guys are great!"

So we got the gig.  We were to perform eight shows a day outdoors by the kiosk.  We were required to go to Six Flags over Mid-America and attend their Employee Training Session, even though we weren't employees of Six Flags, but contractors for Living History Productions.  We were given badges and access codes to the theme park.  Costumes were shipped to us from Texas.  I scheduled the entire summer, rotating my eight actor pool so that a cast of three of us would be on site every single day to perform.  We rehearsed and made our skits better, and finally the big day arrived.

It was still sometime in spring, but it was hot and humid.  There was no kiosk set up, but our manager in Dallas told us not to worry about that.  We'd be performing these skits for a week or so before the kiosk would be up and running.  As to the heat - the problem was solved.  Six Flags had provided an air conditioned trailer for us to stay in between performances.

We did the first show and the audience loved it.  We went back to our trailer and relaxed for an hour or so, then went back and did the second show and the audience loved it even more.  We went back to our trailer and it was locked.  There was a note on the door to call security.

I called security from one of the outdoor emergency phones.  "Stay right where you are," we were told.  A security guard showed up and told us that we had no permission to be on property and that we had to leave immediately.  "But we're working for Living History Productions," I told him.  "We're performing outdoors by their kiosk."

"What kiosk?"

"Well, it's not set up yet.  We're helping them sell video tapes."

"What video tapes?"

"The ones in the kiosk - which isn't set up yet.  But they got us a trailer.  They're paying us to be here.  We have badges and access codes.  We attended your employee training session.  See?" I said, showing him my badge.

"You will leave the park immediately," he answered.  "I will escort you out."

He allowed us into the trailer to change clothes, so that George Washington and Ben Franklin would not be seen by little children being led out of Six Flags ignominiously, our heads bowed in shame.

I got home and called Texas.  "What's going on?!"

"Um ... well, we thought we had a contract with Six Flags.  But the deal was never finalized, and it's fallen through.  Please return all costumes.  We'll pay for shipping.  But you guys were great!"

I told this to my wife Karen.  This, remember, comes on the heels of scraping together a living doing singing telegrams, stand up comedy, magic on a riverboat, teaching children's theater classes, and getting kicked in the groin by my actress en route to East Asia.

My wife is a very patient woman.  But she does have a temper.  And she does have her limits.

She put her foot down and said, "I've had it.  You've got to get out of show business.  You have a family now.  You've got to find some way to make a living where we don't get our hopes up and get them crushed like this.  You've done all this work for nothing!  You've got to get a real job.  You can't be in show business any longer!"

She turned and marched out of the room, our son Colin in her arms.

I felt like saying, "Hey, wait!" - but too many memories came back of those stupid Acting Classes at Webster.  "Hey, wait!" indeed.

"Well," I said to myself.  "I guess it's over."

But within a year I was to be making more money than I ever had - in show business.  More on that later.

1 comment:

Tom Leith said...

Well, one good lie deserves another, I suppose...