Monday, June 23, 2014

My BRLT Adventures (1958 through the 60s)

I can’t believe I’ve devoted more than 4 years posting Facebook stories about some of my life experiences (film, family, research, scouting, etc), but none (as of this writing) relevant to my nearly 60 years of BATON ROUGE LITTLE THEATRE on-stage adventures.   I beg your pardon – THEATRE BATON ROUGE (as of 2012).

My first ever appearance on stage was in 1951 at the age of 16.  I was cast as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN in a classroom production in my sophomore year at Baton Rouge High School.  I suppose a classroom production could qualify as an “on-stage” performance. 

In 1954 while completing my studies at LSU’s Theatre department, Don Blakely, LSU’s director extraordinaire, launched Tennessee William’s classic “A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.”  I dared not tryout because I was intimidated by the small clique of staffers and teaching assistants that paraded throughout the Speech and Drama Department at that time.   Leading roles were awarded only to graduate students and faculty.  Undergrads won lesser roles.  Blakely’s production was masterfully executed and, even after nearly 60 years, held the distinction of being my greatest stage inspiration.

I was so moved by Blakely’s production I tried out for and won the role of Bonario in the Drama department’s production of Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE which was the forerunner of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL (which I would appear in some 13 years later at BRLT).   VOLPONE didn’t come close to wetting my theatre appetite, but it did contribute to my stage  experience.  Soon after VOLPONE closed I was approached by the fabulously popular and talented director Oran  “Doc” Teague who introduced himself to me and asked if I would play a major role in an original epic drama entitled ALWAYS ACADIA.   Wow! Thanks, Bonario.   Doc said that this play had been written by the Drama Department’s Dr. Clinton Bradford and commissioned by the Louisiana state legislature to commemorate  Louisiana’s forthcoming Acadian by-centennial celebration (reference my May 2012 Oran Teague blog post).     

At LSU I had gained considerable theatre education and general staging skills from Dr Claude Shaver (for whom the current recently renovated LSU Theatre building is named) and was privileged to have been able to work with Doc Teague, for whom I had much admiration   Sadly both of these gentlemen along with Don Blakely are no longer with us.

Though stage has always been my true love, when ALWAYS ACADIA closed I was again approached by a most talented director / producer, Bob Reed, who was the Production Manager of Baton Rouge’s newest TV station, WBRZ.   He explained that he was in the early stages of producing a weekly local live TV show entitled HIT OR MISS.   He described the format to me and said that the show’s cast each week would be paid.  Hey, Hey!    Even though stage production was my first love, the promise of enriching my bank account spawned a new interest, that of TV production.  For more information on HorM and WBRZ read my (January 2013 HIT OR MISS and my October 2012 WBRZ blog posts).

While my Bonario character in VOLPONE was not the most thrilling nor most challenging, I was grateful for the theatre doors it opened to me and I vowed that one day I would do STREETCAR’s Stanley Kowalsky.

And in 1958 that opportunity did indeed arrive.  BRLT announced tryouts for its upcoming production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.    The tryout venue at that time was Capital Bank on Main street across from Goudcheaux’s Department Store.  I had my entourage with me, consisting of Bill LaVallee, Rex Reed, Floydean Smith, Mel Berry and one or two other members of our HIT OR MISS ensemble  (see my January 2013 blog post).    After concluding my reading I was regaled with a round of applause from my friends which won me no admiration from Director Lee Edwards.  He immediately announced that such outbursts would not be tolerated during the readings.  I flushed with embarrassment and everyone behaved after that.  Streetcar was my first experience with director Lee Edwards, whose natural mastery of the Theatre arts along with his directorial skills and dedication to BRLT I came to value greatly over the next couple of decades until his untimely death in 1978.

Initial blocking rehearsals were conducted in the garage of  the ALLEN-PARKER Credit Services on Main street which was just accross the street next to Goudchaux’s.  The minimum wage that was posted on their staff bulletin board at that time was .75 per hour…. About 1/10th what it is today.   I have vivid memories of how very cold that garage was during our blocking rehearsals.  We were all thrilled when we were able to continue our rehearsals at our performance venue, the Harding field playhouse. 

The Theatre itself was an old frame-structured 300 seat former military movie house.  There was no back stage.  If an actor needed to make a Re-entrance from the other side (stage left or right), he/she would have to exit outside through the rear stage door and re-enter through the other stage wing.  Everyone who was blocked to make such re-entries were expected to bring their umbrellas … just in case.  Such an exit and re-entry was common to my character, Stanley.   On one stormy night I had to use the umbrella for my re-entry.   I wound up contracting a miserable cold which degenerated into bronchitis.  As painful as it was to perform with fever, headache, sore throat and a general feeling of “out-of-sorts”, I nevertheless refused to allow an understudy to perform “my” Stanley as long as I had voice.  I struggled through some 3 or 4 performances fever and all.

Our  show ran in early 1959 and was such a success, the Theatre’s board of governors decided to hold it over, adding several performances to launch a “fund-raiser” for the “new” Theatre which we all enjoy today.   Construction was begun and the new Theatre opened to a grateful audience in 1961, but NOT before I had an opportunity to work lights for Diary of Anne Frank and play the role of Bertram Cates in INHERIT THE WIND.

Aubrey Moore and Harvey Hyland were cast in the roles of Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond respectively, defending and prosecuting Cates while a cast of what seemed like thousands either booed or championed Cates’ belief system.  This would be the second of many co-starring roles I would enjoy with the immensely talented Aubrey Moore who sadly died in an accident in the late 70s.  I would again appear in INHERIT THE WIND in 2003 in the role of Henry Drummond.    More on this in a later post.

Then In late 1961 my country needed me and I was called into active service during the latter stage of the infamous Berlin Crisis.  I was in my 9th year of service in the Louisiana National Guard and because of seniority and rank I must admit I truly enjoyed that year of active duty.   Stationed at Fort Polk near Alexandria, I was able to be with my family – my wife Gloria and our 1 year old son, Jerry III.  Then I heard that the new BRLT theatre would be casting its very first stage musical … SOUTH PACIFIC.  Oh my God, I really wanted to be a part of that production, but my tour would be ending about a week after SOUTH PACIFIC would be closing.  I was heart-sick.  Back then I was too young for the role of Emile De Becque, but just right for Lt. Cable.  Hell, I even had the uniform.  I approached my commander, Col Daigle, and explained my plight and said “Colonel, I really need to be a part of that show.  Is there any way I could …..”, but he cut me off with “Leggio, go back to your desk.”  Gulp!  My patriotic duty trumped SOUTH PACIFIC.

Anyhow, SOUTH PACIFIC came and went.  I didn’t even get a chance to see it.   My active duty ended in late 1962.   Gloria and I, my nearly 2-year old son Jerry III and recently born daughter Felicia  returned to Baton Rouge.  My job with the Louisiana State Employment Service was waiting for me and life returned to normal.  I wasted no time getting back on stage.  

In 1962 Lee cast me as the older brother in Neil Simon’s COME BLOW YOUR HORN opposite Tony Clesi, Bob Earle and Shannon Rifkin.   Tony played my younger brother even though he was 2 years older than me.  Hmmm.   This would be the first of many stage appearances I would share with the great Bob Earle who, sadly, is also no longer with us. 

Then in 1963 came A SHOT IN THE DARK.   I was cast in the leading role of the magistrate and lost 11 pounds in that show.  With nearly every performance I would have to cover for our leading lady, a lovely ex-nun and a very fine actress, who would go up on her lines every night… always in a different part of the script totally unaware of her goof-up. And the worst part – she never knew it.  For anyone who has ever performed on stage, you should fully appreciate the tension such anticipated mis-steps would cause an actor.  To lose weight I prefer dieting rather than stage tension.

Back in its early days the theatre’s governing board required that each of the season’s offerings would NOT be announced until that season’s preceding production had been cast.    Another rule was that an actor could not perform 2 shows back-to-back.  The rationale for adopting these practices was to prevent prospective cast members from “saving themselves” for a particular production later in that season.  While this “unknown” was frustrating, it did provide a sense of excitement and suspense to the casting and production process.

The following summer of 1963 was KING AND I.   No role for me here, but the late Aubrey Moore and the late Constance Navirile delivered sterling performances.  

Then came the announcement that excited everyone –  Clifford Odets’ COUNTRY GIRL.  The movie with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and William Holden had been released 10 years prior and was still fresh in everyone’s mind.  Aubrey Moore was cast in the Crosby role of Frank Elgin,  Ellen Moore (Aubrey’s wife) played Georgie Elgin (the title role) that Grace Kelly had performed and I was Bernie Dodd, the William Holden role.    Despite a little opening night “mishap” our production won kudos from a grateful press.  

Unlike today, reviews back in the 60s-80s would appear the very next morning in the Morning Advocate, then another review would appear later that same day in the STATE TIMES.   This practice often resulted in late Friday night cast vigils often at a bar or a coffee house while awaiting the advocate’s distribution to the newspaper vendors around 2 or 3 AM.   COUNTRY GIRL’s review headline was “Little Theatre’s Production of ‘Country Girl’ is lauded” by Ed Perez.

I’m sure the reader wants to know about the “mishap.”                               

A very intense scene between Bernie (my role) and Georgie (Ellen Moore) resulted in a “furniture malfunction”.  There were several wicker chairs in this scene and when, in my attempt to drive home an important point to Georgie, I would support one foot on one of the wicker chairs.   Well, on opening night my foot went through the wicker seat of that chair.  Without missing a beat I continued delivering my line while wrestling that chair off my leg.  Needless to say that scene tension was transformed into a near catastrophe as the audience howled and Ellen and I struggled to maintain some measure of composure.

The next announced production that year was HAMLET.   Wow!  Did I ever want a role as badly as that of Hamlet!   But the Theatre’s “no back-to-back” rule might impair my chances.  Didn’t matter. Immediately I began learning the role.   Perhaps if I showed that I was acutely familiar with this Shakespearean tragedy and demonstrated that I would be a “perfect Hamlet”, then maybe the board would grant me an exemption.  Maybe.   With the tryouts I was thoroughly prepared.  But then “Hamlet” himself tried out … Stanley Beatle, who I had never seen or heard of before, but who delivered a smashing audition and won the role.  Darn!  Oh well, whoever said that theatre would not ever generate moments of disappointment?

Then in ’64…. MY FAIR LADY.  I tried out for Freddy, but Lee said "Jerry, you're NO Freddy."  He cast Patrick O’Neill who turned in a perfect Freddy.       

A year later Lee cast me as Sky Masterson in GUYS and DOLLS which included cast notables Bob Earle, Aubrey Moore, B.J. Hopper, Jess Hair, Carl Bruser and Flip Ross.   The first four of these are no longer with us, but I’m not sure about the latter two. 

Then a year after that in 1966 Lee cast himself as Pseudolus in FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and asked me to do MILES GLORIOSUS.  If you’re familiar with FORUM, you may remember the scene when Miles is weeping over the body of his “dead bride-to-be”.  Pseudolus is trying to console him and Miles will have none of it.  At one point Pseudolus asks “Could I get you something to eat?” And Miles says “Oh, no, I couldn’t eat a thing.”  Well one night I decided to inject a little adlib at this point … unbeknownst to Lee.  When he asked “Could I get you something to eat?” I said instead “What are you having?”  The look on Lee was one of stark terror, then I added “On second thought I really couldn’t eat a thing right now.”  Lee exhaled with great relief.  The adlib brought the house down (thank God), but Lee, being the purist that he was, said “NO” when asked if we could leave it in.

In 1967 I was Bill Sykes in OLIVER.  My opening night was a disaster.  The lyrics to MY NAME were to be in cockney dialect (thank God).  After the first 8 bars of
Biceps like an iron girder,
Fit for doing of a murder,

If I just so much as heard a 

Bloke even whisper...

My name! Bill Sikes... 

Well I suddenly went up … went completely blank and started muttering in cockney doubletalk.  I was even reported as having sung “I have forgotten all these lyrics” which I had.  The review that appeared the NEXT day in the paper by Anne Price said my character was sufficiently threatening, but my lyrics seemed to get lost in the scenery… which they had.

I was redeemed the following year however when Lee cast me in the role of Billy Bigalow in CAROUSEL (inspired by Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE).  My leading lady was Ina Claire Shirley (in the upper picture) who had one of Baton Rouge’s loveliest Soprano voices at that time.  In the lower picture with me is Avis Barney in the role of the Carousel owner.  

No mishaps with this production.  If you are familiar with CAROUSEL, then you know how sappy and maudlin it is, but the Rodgers and Hammerstein music is utterly breathtaking.

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