Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Plymouth Belvedere

“There once was a Plymouth named Belvedere, a car that many thought very queer.”  OK, no more limerick.  Remember the Belvedere?  No?  Then you must be younger than 50.  Here’s my story of the Belvedere.

In 1964 my 1958 Nash Rambler finally croaked.  After first getting the engine rebuilt in 1962, then the transmission rebuilt in 1963,  my patience was finally severed when in 1964 the transmission once again chose to refrain from transmitting.  That was it.  NO MORE RAMBLER.  Less than 90,000 miles and when I once again heard some clanking and clunking, I swore it sounded as if it was saying “Adios, Jerry; adios, Jerry”.  I was actually relieved.  I had vowed to get rid of it if another major failure developed.  So I returned the greeting “Ciao, AMC; Ciao, AMC” meaning I would NOT be buying another product from American Motors Corporation.

But what now?

My late friend, Jay Washauer, had a brother who owned a used car lot.  I forgot the brother’s name, so I will just refer to him as Jim.  Jay introduced me to Jim who graciously interviewed me as though I were seeking a job.  “No, Jim, I need a car, a good, cheap, dependable used car.  Jay says you can help me.”

So Jim said “Oh, a cheap car?”  I said “Yes, a cheap, DEPENDABLE car.”  Jim said “…then you won’t want anything I have on my lot, but I can get you a great little Plymouth Belvedere.” 
Jim had a car dealer’s “pipeline” to the Michoud Corporation, a major NASA contractor located on the coast.  He said that Michoud contracted with the Chrysler Corporation for their fleet cars and turned them over every 2 years.  He said when cars were being retired from the fleet after their 2 year tours, Chrysler re-conditioned them and sold them  to used car dealers with full 2 year warrantees. 

Jim acquired a 2 year old, fully reconditioned 2-yr warranted Plymouth Belvedere for me at his cost of $700….. a hell of a good deal.  Gloria and I were thrilled.  The only feature in that car we had a little trouble getting used to was the push-button transmission.  Until we became conditioned to that change we kept reaching for a gear-shift lever that  wasn’t there.  But that was the only draw-back …. at first.

Dependable?  You bet!  Mechanically this car was perfect, never a moments trouble, very sound.  We put many miles on it,  going on many Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee vacations … never encountering any problems.  We felt blessed.

We used to frequent Bogue Falaya wayside park just east of Covington.   This park was on the Tchefuncte River and was a favorite picnic spot, offering clean river swimming, playgrounds and ample picnic tables.  We loved it.

One Sunday Gloria said “Why don’t we go to Bogue Falaya today.”  All four kids in unison belted out “YEAH!”.  I observed that the weather seemed somewhat threatening, but that didn’t dampen any spirits.  We put our ice chest in the trunk, headed to Krogers for food and drinks, then headed down Florida Blvd east toward our Bogue Falaya destination (there was not yet an Interstate system). 

When we got just past Hammond, the sky opened up and rain pelted us unmercifully.   All the food was in the trunk and everyone was getting hungry.   Gloria said “Be patient.  We’ll soon be there.  We’ll get a picnic shelter, then we can eat.” 

After a few more miles, 4 year old son Mike said “Hey!  Not fair!”  Gloria looked in the back seat and 5 year old Felicia echoed the same sentiment.  Then Gloria exclaimed “Jerry, how did you get that chicken leg?”  Our oldest child, 7 yr old Jerry III, while gnawing on a fried chicken leg, said “I just reached through this hole and got it from the box in the trunk.” 

It was still raining, so I pulled the car into a small roadside rest area.  I turned around and said “Jerry, show me how you did that.”  He simply reached through a hole in the rear deck (just under the rear window) and pulled out another piece of chicken.  In spite of the rain, I got out of the car and climbed in the back seat, and with a few pushes of my hand, tested the integrity of the rear deck.  In doing so my hand went through it adding another hole next to the one Jerry III had been using.  Gloria asked “What’s the problem?”  I announced that the rear deck was rotten.  SHIT!

Then as I was backing my body out of the back seat, my foot went through the floor board.  SHIT!  I could see the ground below.  Because son Mike was sitting at that part of the rear seat I told him NOT to stand or put his feet over that hole.   I then tested the floor board on Jerry’s side and SHIT! my foot went through there as well…. more exposed ground.  I told all 4 kids “Do not stand or put your feet through these holesIf you fall through while the car is moving, you’d be killed.”

Rather than continue on to Bogue Falaya we decided to return home to Baton Rouge.  After all it was still raining and I wanted to minimize any chances of kids slipping through the floor board.

In the days that followed I found myself having to contend with other car body rotting incidents.  The spare tire well in the trunk was so rusted away (SHIT!) that I had to use one of our garbage can lids to fashion a large patch to support the spare in the tire well.  The bracket that supported the battery under the hood was completely rusted away and the battery just hung there (SHIT!).  I used a wire magazine rack to support the battery.

Fearing we may wind up with just a motor, 4 wheels and maybe a seat or 2, it was decided that the car MUST go.  I sold it to an insurance agent for $300 …. as is.   Other than for the body, it was still  mechanically very sound and ran perfectly.

I never thought I’d have to give up a car because of body failures.  I would find out later that the fleet cars from Michoud that were re-sold all had body corrosion problems because of the salt air they had to endure during their 2 year “enlistments” there.  Hmmm! No wonder Chrysler Corporation was willing to practically give them away after their 2 year fleet tours at Michoud Corporation.

"There once was a Clifton whose last name was Webb; "Mr Belvedere" he was which made him a celeb"  OK, I'll admit I'm no Ogden Nash.  No more limerick attempts.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

MY BRLT – The 70s

Then came CAMELOT in 1971.  The late, great Susan Straley was immediately cast as Guinevere.  I told Director Lee Edwards that I wanted the role of Arthur.  I was 36 and Aubrey Moore, who also wanted Arthur, was 46 and Lee told me that Aubrey would only accept the role of Arthur if Jerry Leggio accepted the role of Lancelot.  I told Gloria about this quandary and she said I should accept the role of Lance especially if Susan and Aubrey were going to be cast.   As badly as I wanted the role of Arthur I realized that Lee’s casting certainly made more sense.  So I accepted the character of Lancelot.  Lee reminded me that Arthur was closer to Aubrey’s age and Lance was closer to my age. 

Late in the rehearsal schedule Tech director Bill Ernst started teching the
lighting for the show.  Lance’s entrance was to be splashed with brilliance … full lighting and spots were to overpower the stage and bedazzle Lance.  The scene just before my entrance was with Arthur and Guinevere in Arthur’s dimly lit study.   When that scene ends, I am positioned down center stage, poised and ready to burst into my “CAMELOT” introductory lyric.   But when the lights came up on this very first lighting tech,  I was blinded.  I put my hands up to shield my eyes and Lee yelled “CUT!  Jerry, what are you doing?” “Lee, I can’t see.  The lights blind me.”  Lee said “Jerry, you are Lancelot.  We want Lance to really shine.”  OKaaay! 

The following night I was prepared.  When the lights came up on Lance, I was able to start my number with no difficulty.  Lee yelled “CUT.  Jerry, what are you doing?” In my Foster Grant Polaroid Sunshades I said “Lee, I need these to be able to withstand the lighting brilliance.”  Of course I knew I couldn’t do that, but I had to make a point.  Then Bill Ernst saved the day.  He said “Jer, I can help you with that problem.”  Bill, as most local theatre fans no doubt are aware, was one of the Theater’s great (if not greatest) technical geniuses.  Anyhow he mounted a small light fixture in the left stage wing area enclosed behind a black curtain.  This fixture held a 150 watt bulb.  Bill said “You time it.  At about a minute before your entrance, get inside this curtain, turn on this bulb, and gaze at it until a couple of seconds before your entrance.”  It worked like a charm.  Did it every night of the production.

In 1972 we did Samuel Taylor’s THE HAPPY TIME.  I was cast as Desmond Bonnard, Ray Spruel was my father, Grandpere Bonnard and a brilliant newcomer to BRLT, Janice Mayeux, who was cast in the role of Mignonette.  We had a great run.

In 1973 Lee begged me to play the role of Evy’s worthless ex-boy friend in Neil Simon’s THE GINGERBREAD LADY.   Jean Koprowsky had the title role and, per her usual theatrical acumen, delivered an outstanding performance.  My character, whose name I’ve forgotten, was a mechanic.  I had only one scene and Lee wanted me coming in with grease all over my costume.  So our costumer decided to scrub her garage floor using the sweater my character was to wear.  Then at our first dress parade I slipped on my jeans, t-shirt and this greased up sweater.  Lee yelled for the costumer to come on stage and then said to her (can’t remember her name) “Why would you just grease up his sweater?  Do you really think a mechanic would work in his sweater?”  She said, jokingly, “Well yes if the shop were cold.”  Then Lee said “Then for God’s sake make sure his jeans and  T-shirt are also greased up.”

In the summer of 1973 Bill Ernst’s genius would come through again.  I played the triple characters of the Duke, Dr. Carrasco and the Knight of the
Mirrors in MAN OF LA MANCHA.  My appearance as the Knight was to be another brilliant entrance reminiscent of Lancelot in CAMELOT.  I was to appear from up stage center, stepping onto the stage from atop a parapet.  This was a raked stage, so the up stage section was about 7 ft high including the parapet.  At this point up stage was a ladder to enable entrances from this up stage center area of the rake.  I didn’t like the idea of the Knight of the Mirrors having to climb up a ladder.  I wanted to just suddenly appear.  Lee said “Jerry, we can’t do miracles.”  But then Bill said “Lee, I think I can help Jer here.”  Bill always called me ‘Jer’.   He mounted some grips on the 4 corners of a forklift pallet.  Then four hefty cast members would be positioned one on each corner and when ready, with me crouched down on the pallet, they would all lift in unison and I would step off onto the parapet giving the appearance of “suddenly materializing.”   Well that was how it was supposed to work.

Our first effort at trying the pallet lift was, thank heavens, on a Saturday matinee when Bill developed this idea.   That attempt was an absolute disaster.  We couldn’t test it because the show was on.  So I, against Bill’s wiser counsel, wanted to just do it for that performance (without ever having tried it before).  On cue the 4 hefties lifted me, but each of the 4 lifted at a different rate thus causing me to lose my balance.  They did get me up and above the parapet, which meant that the audience had a quick glimpse of my attempt.  But, because of the unevenness of the lift, I fell back against the stage back wall.  I said “Bring me down. Bring me down”.  They did and I, with considerable embarrassment, trudged around the rake to make my entrance down stage….completely out of character for the knight of the mirrors . When Aubrey Moore (in the role of Quixote) and Jess Hair (as Sancho) saw me coming I could read their shocked expressions.  Aubrey dared not make eye-contact with me for fear of breaking up; Jess turned up stage, his body heaving in nearly audible giggles.  Jess simply could not control himself.  The audience came to realize what was happening (or rather NOT happening) then joined in the misplaced mirth.  We managed with great difficulty to get through the scene. 

Bill corrected the problem by mounting a wood lip at the point of my step-off.  The pallet would be lifted, then its front would come to rest at that lip offering stability for my step-off.  Worked great.  No more pallet wobble.  Thereafter, the Knight of the Mirrors did indeed just suddenly appear.

In 1974 the theatre mounted FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.  Perhaps the name Jo Paul Steiner rings a bell to many of BRLT’s devotees.  Jo Paul wanted the role of Tevya.  He spent months studying music, taking dance and singing lessons, memorizing Tevya’s lines.  Jo Paul was obsessed with that role. 

But Lee cast himself.  Well, one can just imagine what hit the fan.  WOW! Did this cause a helluva brouhaha.  Jo vowed to get even.  His loss of Tevya to Lee resulted in the creation of THE DINNER THEATER on Aubin Lane.  

Opening in mid-1974, the first THE DINNER THEATER production was

BORN YESTERDAY directed by Aubrey Moore and starring, besides Aubrey and myself, BJ Hopper, Bob Love and Janice Mayeux who delivered a perfect Billy Dawn character   This production was met with great public acceptance and rave reviews and marked the beginning of a dinner theater odyssey that would endure over 10 years.

In 1975 BRLT mounted The Sound of Murder,  another Mayeux/Leggio duo.  Wasn’t much fun for me since I had to perform wearing a back brace, which was not a part of my character.  I had wrenched my back chopping wood on the day of our opening.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was a scene where I had to fire a pistol.  I know, I know, you’re way ahead of me.  More often than not the pistol didn’t fire and of course I would simply substitute my own oral “BANG” for the misfire.   This was not one of my more pleasant stage experiences even though the audience always enjoyed the misfire.

The Man Who came to Dinner was in 1976.   The theater’s board of governors allowed Lee to selectively cast this show without benefit of auditions.   He asked people of his choosing if they would play certain roles.  Besides myself, Pat Snow, Bob Earle, BJ Hopper, Bob Rosenthall, Gladys Blieden and some 6-8 other personally selected cast members, we went into rehearsal and enjoyed a phenomenal run.

In 1977 one of BRLT’s great non-musical offerings was the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, That Championship Season.  Besides myself the cast consisted of B.J. Hopper, Jerry Brent, Hal Phillips and Michael del Rio.  This production was so well received that It was extended for several performances. 

Of particular note was an opening night unintended incident.  B.J., who at the time was around age 50, was playing the role of a retired H.S. basketball coach.  Because his natural hair was black, Lee wanted to age him.   So B.J.’s hair was “whitened”.  Whatever the substance was that was used to whiten his hair it proved disastrous.  Early in the opening night’s performance B.J.’s character, in response to a scripted inquiry, shook his head  thus causing a dense white cloud to envelop him.  Once the audience and cast had re-composed themselves, we managed to complete the act.  During intermission, B.J.’s hair was cleaned and re-whitened.  No more white clouds formed after that.

The next 4 summer musical seasons were without me … HELLO DOLLY, BRIGADOON, MUSIC MAN and OKLAHOUMA.   In 1977 I was 42 years old and tried out for the role of Curly in OKLAHOUMA.   Surely I could pass for a 22 year old Curly …. ya THINK?   Must have been about 20 Curly-wannabes that tried out including myself.   In true Lee Edwards style, when all the reading, singing and dancing tryouts were concluded, all the “Curlys” were asked to form a line in front of Lee.  I was in the middle of that line.  When I looked to my left I saw 8 to 10 kids who could have been my sons.   Then looking to my right and seeing essentially the same thing,  I stepped out of line, walked up to Lee, who was sitting at his work table, and said “Lee, I think I’ll withdraw” to which Lee said “I think that would be a good idea, Jerry”  Lesson here:  never audition outside of your character range.

Then in the spring of 1978 Lee took ill and died.  He had been working feverishly on his staging plans for the 1978 musical KISMET.  I loved KISMET.  Henry Avery, who at the time was managing a Theater in NY, was brought in to direct.  I tried out for anything in that show.  I just wanted to be a part of it.  The Borodin music from which it is scored is, to me, the most gorgeous music … bar none … of any in any of the great classical operettas and stage musicals.  I just wanted to be a part of it.

Among the many who tried out was BJ Hopper.  Everyone just knew that BJ was going to be cast as Hajj, the beggar.  Hajj is the pivotal character in KISMET.
  I too assumed BJ would be Hajj.  But lo and behold Henry asked me to do Hajj.  I was floored.  And scared.  Hajj had 9 production numbers and would also dance.  Yeah, ME dancing.  I spent 24/7 working on this show.  I took leave from my job.   I took voice lessons from Terry Patrick (or was it Catherine O’Neill?)…  I worked tirelessly and feverishly on that role … more than any role I had ever done.  I am proud to say it came off without a hitch and was a big success.   I was saddened when it closed.

Then the newly renamed AUBIN LANE DINNER THEATER (now being directed and managed by John Wilson from Nebraska) announced its launching of THE SOUND OF MUSIC directed by Henry Avery.  I was cast as Captain von Trapp and Nancy Miller was Maria.  We had a great run. 

Then John announced auditions for CAMELOT.  He asked if I would do Arthur.  It was now 1979 and, having previously performed Lancelot at BRLT in 1971, I agreed to fulfill my “bucket list” role of King Arthur.  John, being new to Baton Rouge, was at a loss as to who could do Guinevere.  I told him that he need not worry.  I would introduce him to the perfect Quin (Susan Straley) who had been my Guin in 1971.   When she auditioned for the role,  John looked over at me and said “Jerry, I’ll be coming to you from now on when casting a show.”  Besides Susan and myself, John cast himself as Merlin.  This production was also a resounding success.

Also on my bucket list was the role of South Pacific’s Emile De Becque.  John announced auditions for SP and asked if I would do De Becque.  Upon learning the dates of the run, I was forced to turn him down.  The Motion Picture Producer’s Association had invited me (all expenses paid) to their annual meeting in San Francisco to speak before their membership.  This was my second such speaking engagement before the MPPA.  The week of that engagement was right in the middle of the SP run.  John wanted so bad for me to do the role that he offered to go dark during that week.  Wow!  What an offer!  But I told him I couldn’t do that to him.  So he cast a gentleman from New Orleans who delivered a very powerful and convincing De Becque.  My loss, but I couldn’t say “no” to the MPPA.

Aubin Lane was now becoming a second home for me … and for Gloria as well.  John was doing some great work and I worked a total of 9 productions with John Wilson at the helm.   What a great 5 years!

I did several non-musicals at Aubin Lane including HARVEY which starred the late great Ray Spruell in the role of Elwood P Dowd.  I was Dr. Chumley.   Ray’s Dowd portrayal was impeccable.  Many of us dared to place Ray’s performance above that of Jimmy Stewart’s beautiful 1950 Universal film portrayal of Dowd.  This was another Aubin Lane huge success.

Then there was Aubin Lane’s KING AND I, starring the inimitable Constance Navritil as Anna and myself as the KingThis production along with SOUND OF MUSIC pretty well established me as the most “prolific stage dad” in Baton Rouge theater.

The 3rd installment of my BRLT ventures will comprise 3 decades (80s, 90s and 2000s)

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blog archive October 2014