As One More Thing to Read celebrates its second anniversary, I want to thank my readers for returning time and again to see what’s been on my mind. As promised early on, I said that I would occasionally post some of my work in progress, and I want to do that over the next several weeks. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Kevin Gregory after Moral Ambiguity, he returned to his small southern hometown to teach at the local college. He also got involved in community theatre, which leads us to the first installment of A Final Folly.
Founders Follies began when the locals needed to raise money for Burtonville’s long-awaited civic center. Tickets cost less than two dollars in those days, which explains why it took over 50 years for the dream to become reality. During those decades, voters approved multiple bond issues to build a high-school auditorium, improve it and expand it. Burtonville ended up with a two-thousand-seat venue, complete with balcony, orchestra pit, professional lighting and more dressing rooms than Lincoln Center. The school board happily opened it to the community so Burtonville might have a functioning civic auditorium. To the casual observer, the need for a civic center appeared to have been met, but Founders Follies continued taking place every summer though no one understood why they were still raising money.
At some point, there was a parting of the ways with the school, and the follies crowd tapped their rich friends to build them a theatre. It wasn’t long before there was one less wheat field on the edge of town. Burtonville’s uninvolved segment of the population couldn’t care less since a cultural center would have no impact on their lives. A strong percentage of people publicly loved the idea of a civic center, but they privately decided not to give one red cent to build it. Among the upper middle class, half of them supported the arts and believed a civic center would strengthen the local economy, but the other half could not be persuaded the endeavor was anything but foolish. One of the bankers questioned why any reasonable person would abandon a two thousand-seat auditorium, which was paid for, in favor of a facility that could only accommodate 500. If one were trying to lure a big-named performer, wouldn’t sane people prefer to sell four times as many tickets?
“Someone please explain what’s wrong with the high-school auditorium!” he demanded.
“It’s a high-school auditorium!” came the obvious reply. Like the high school auditorium, The Picardy Pavilion, named for the late Paul and Laura Belle Van Doran Picardy, whose names were on everything in Burtonville from office buildings to chicken salad, boasted a theatre with many dressing rooms and an orchestra pit, but the follies folks also saw to the Pavilion’s construction of an official Green Room, coat check and scenery shop. The vestibule welcomed visitors with a grand staircase and an ancient chandelier, which would’ve looked perfect at Tara in Gone With the Wind, but terribly out of place in the contemporary atrium vestibule. These special touches, to the dismay of the architects, were felt to make the new facility warm and inviting as opposed to the high school auditorium with all its extra seating.
The irony of the Picardy Pavilion was painful at its grand opening. Those well-intentioned folks who had simply wanted a place to “put on a show” in their younger days could barely make it from their cars to the new theatre once the grand opening was scheduled. Those sweet octogenarians had dreamed of performing in a place like this, but they could barely shuffle up the entrance ramp with their walkers and canes let alone perform in high-stepping dance numbers.
While lounging in plush theatre seats in rows set wide enough to accommodate multiple oxygen tanks, these dear people congratulated each other on a job well done when in reality Founders Follies had barely raised enough to pay for the carpeting.
Even though their role had been shoved to the side as soon as the Picardy Family’s representatives greeted the first cement trucks to arrive on the scene, the follies folks continued making valiant efforts to support the Pavilion. In the post-construction era, the group’s purpose was even more vague, but out of respect for tradition, Burtonville continued showing up every August. One particularly nasty person was blunt about the group getting its own stage. “We’ll be subjected to round after round of endless theatrical butchery until the last old heifer keels over. With any luck, it’ll be during a curtain call.”
On the second Sunday of each July, The Burtonville Register published the casting call in the Lifestyles section. The notifications were printed in the same type used for name changes and public notices in the back. The casting calls were meant to be hidden, for those who’d planned to participate were well aware of the performance dates, the best parts of the next production having been cast during the wrap party 11 months prior.
Burtonville is basically a New England town though it’s located somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line. One is still referred to as “that new guy” after having relocated there fifty years ago—from ten miles away! Burtonville is a very friendly town, but don’t let the outward warmth and friendliness fool you. The residents are leery of Johnny-come-latelies as evidenced in the telephone number hierarchy. My ancestors settled the area before the telegraph and never had to worry about the possible stigma of the first three digits. My newlywed parents got their phone with the KRamner-7 telephone exchange and they kept the number for over 60 years. The phone company dropped exchange names in the sixties, and local numbers began with 577, but it wasn’t until the early seventies when Burtonville’s population grew enough to require the new 575 prefix.
The 577 people had no doubt they were the backbone of Burtonville. They were the ones who’d built the community and had the bloodlines to produce Pulitzer Prize winners, an Oscar-winning director, three foreign dignitaries, an opera singer (me!) and a country music performer or two. They were the kind of people who saw the need for a civic auditorium and would get one through the support of their neighbors.
The 575 people started moving in, and they dutifully attended Founders Follies over the years. They should buy tickets, thought the 577s; after all, they would be around for years to enjoy the many fine productions at the Pavilion, and it was only right they should do their part. With the 577s on the east side and the 575s moving into the new homes on the west, the groups coexisted slightly more amicably than those sharing the Gaza Strip.
No one prohibited 575 people from auditioning for Founders Follies, but their presence on the stage wasn’t felt until 1978 when a couple of second wives who’d married divorced 577 men got in by mistake. The men, who’d lost their houses along with their telephone numbers when their first marriages ended, had bestowed familiar surnames on their new brides. The two women were in before anything could be done about it. Within a decade, a battalion of second wives had joined the act to form kick-lines right along with the women who’d been left to raise their children as single mothers of means. Even though the atmosphere appeared harmonious, there was still a lot of animosity and suspicion between the 577 women and their 575 counterparts. Those who’d been lucky enough to hold onto their husbands and their phone numbers thought the whispers and giggles were the best parts of the cast parties.
When dial-up Internet, fax machines and cell phones demanded new numbers, the state added another area code, which gave both the 577 and the 575 subscribers a bracing telecommunications slap in the face.
“It’s socialism, pure and simple!” railed an elderly lady who was appalled at the thought of a level playing field. She admitted defeat too quickly for the shortage of new phone numbers also meant the advent of a new prefix. 575 was no longer the tell-tale sign of the anti-establishment now that 960 had come into use.
When I returned to town, settling in after decades as an internationally renowned singer, I was advised to make sure the phone company gave me a 577. “If you get a nine-six-oh, people will think it’s long distance, and they won’t call you.”
The rebellious streak in me wanted to have a 960 number, but I was given a 577 without being asked. One indignant woman stormed up to me and demanded to know just exactly how I had gotten a 577 number when her son had been slapped with a 960 the previous year. Since he’d come from a 575 family, I joked that the people at the phone company knew breeding when they heard it. She was not amused.
Being a 577 with a musical reputation, I was asked to oversee the music for what would become the final Founders Follies. At the time, no one knew it would be the last hurrah, and I’d hoped to carry on this fine honor, as I understood it to be. I’d performed on some of the world’s finest stages, produced several wonderfully acclaimed albums and had been on television. I was certain a two-hour song-and-dance production would hardly be the most difficult challenge I’d ever faced.
Traditionally, tryouts had meant a crowded room full of anxious housewives awaiting the next opportunity to escape the daily drudge. They’d looked forward every year to three weeks of rehearsal, which provided glimpses of possibilities had they not married the scotch-soaked med student or the loudmouth know-it-all who turned out to be the district attorney. However, these women were now over 65, and with the advent of grandchildren, they’d grown weary of community involvement. Those who weren’t fully invested in the Cult of Grand-motherhood could barely lift an arthritic knee, and the once full audition room was practically empty.
The director, a flamboyant alcoholic who worked for Harrison Production Associates in New York, traveled from town to town with scripts, music and soiled costumes, putting on the same show every three weeks. We were introduced, and he pulled me aside to convey his grave concerns.
“This stage is enormous, and whoever heard of a small-town auditorium having an orchestra pit?” said Andy. His full name was Andrew Mendelbaum, about 55, and the type to let you know he was the world’s foremost authority on musical theatre even though his sole connection to 42nd Street was emerging from its nearest subway stop.
“I was in Raleigh last week and I had forty young women in a kick-line. It was a thrust stage, and I had them kicking three rows deep. I come here to Burtonville, and you’ve got a stage that’s as wide as a football field and only four old broads have signed up. That one over there’s dragging her leg like she just gnawed off a foot and left it in the trap, and the one standing across from her has the shakes so bad that her signature looks like a seismograph reading!”
“That’s Joan Henderson James,” I said. “She had a stroke several years ago, and they say she never misses tryouts. The trembling lady started Founders Follies. She’s an institution.”
“She looks like she’s ready for one. The music calls for a kick-line and these old women can’t lift a leg to use stairs! I’m a director not a gerontologist! I’ll have to call New York; they don’t pay me enough to put up with this!”
To be continued
© 2016 by Patrick Brown
The narrator of A Final Folly is Kevin Gregory from my first book Moral Ambiguity. To learn more about the book and my second book Tossed Off the Edge, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1