A Final Folly (Part 4)

This week, the fictional Kevin Gregory of Moral Ambiguity wraps up his account of Burtonville’s community theatre experience in the fourth and final installment of A Final Folly. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and if you have, please take a moment to forward the link for One More Thing to Read to your friends and post it to your Facebook timelines, Twitter feeds and all the other social media that’s out there. Here is the conclusion to A Final Folly.

After two weeks of rehearsals, the performances looked doomed. Even though Puddin and her committee put forth an optimistic front, it was clear the producers had considered skipping town when they announced that the traditional three nights of performances had been cut to one.

“Just between you and me, we’re scared to death no one’s gonna come,” she confided over lunch at Antique Galley, a place where you can get a tasty meal served in dainty portions as customers meander around you while shopping for antiques. For Burtonville, Antique Galley is like Spago. The “ladies who lunch” frequent the joint, and local celebrities are instantly acknowledged by a frantic wave or a broad smile, which tells the other patrons: “We’re good friends!”

It so happened that a number of the 577s were dining, and since Puddin draws a crowd simply by her appearance, our table was bombarded. I remained silent while Puddin did the talking. She was fully aware that the ladies knew all too well what was happening at the Picardy Pavilion. They gossiped at their hair salons, their manicurists, during Sunday school and any other place where they were required to sit still. They already knew about the clumsy dancers, the off-key singing and the “pinko, pansy atheist from New York City” who hated Jesus and bossed everyone around.

“Well, things are always difficult, but everything starts to come together in the final week,” said Puddin in her airy Southern lilt.

“That’s good to hear Puddin. I was sorry to learn about your troubles, and I just hated that you might have a flop on your hands.” This statement was as much a lie as Puddin’s. It’s usually a span of time between local debacles, and anything, which promises the collapse of a set or a kick-line tumbling like dominoes, is worth the price of admission. People hope for the worst, and support for Founders Follies had never been anything more than a chance to witness a disaster as it unfolds.

I cringed at the thought of having my name associated with such a fiasco, but Puddin assured me later that it would come together at the last minute. “The most important thing is to have fun!” A woman who dresses like an unmade bed is not terribly concerned with public opinion.

Andy was surly as usual when I met him for rehearsal on the final Monday. He’d nursed hangovers for two consecutive days, but I hoped he’d spent some time between binges making adjustments so we could hold our heads up after Saturday night’s performance. In spite of low-level participation, Andy had refused to drop the dance numbers because Harrison Production Associates didn’t have a backup plan for a lack of community support.

The jitterbug number had gained a few more couples. Two of the male dancers were calf-ropers, which was perfect when you saw their dance partners. Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine was to have had ten waltzing couples in the background, but there were only two people in town that could still waltz properly. They were so amazing they could do so in four-four time!

In the meantime, I worked with the soloists and spent several hours with a small orchestra comprised of some surprisingly talented musicians. They were pretty good except for one player who’d lost most of his hearing. Tuning up was a hassle, but as long as he felt he was in the right key, he trudged onward with confidence. Without Andy’s interference, we got a lot accomplished, and he stayed out of our way because of little dramas like the one we overheard unfolding at stage left.

A group of relatively new mothers had decided to add an unscripted comedy vignette featuring some unruly toddlers they felt would make a perfect addition to Founders Follies.

“We just gotta find a place for ’em! Everybody just loves our babies!” one lady cooed.

“I don’t!” snapped Andy, but the discussion didn’t end there. The four women had been forcing photos on everyone in town from conception to two years, and they were determined to get their angels into the show one way or another.

“Madam, I’m running a show for adults. This is adult entertainment and this is no place for children!” shouted Andy.

“Adult entertainment!” shrieked one of the mothers. “That sounds suggestive! I’ll not take part in something that my pastor can’t see!”

“What are you talking about?” asked Andy.

“You listen here Mr. Mendelbaum. We are a Christian community. We worship Jesus and believe in family values!”

“What in God’s name does that have to do with putting your bastard into my production?”

“Bastard?” she gasped. “You cursed my baby!”

“I’ll do more than that if you don’t get your fat ass off my stage!”

“Listen here mister,” a stern voice broke in. The two calf-roping jitterbuggers advanced on Andy. “You don’t take that tone with anyone around here.”

“Oh, what are you going to do? Tie me up and beat me? Go ahead! End my suffering!” Andy was in full thespian mode, but the men were taken aback because they weren’t used to sharp verbal retorts from another man. One of the crew immediately sent for Puddin who shot onto the stage in a flash of color.

“Boys, boys!” she bellowed. With her accent, it sounded like “Bowies, bowies! Back in your corners!” There was a commotion as everyone spoke at once in an effort to be heard. “One at a time!” shouted Puddin. Andy was ordered to remain mute, the men were sent back to jitterbug rehearsal, and the tearful mother was sent to the Green Room to recover. Once the group was reasonably calm, Puddin made an announcement.

“If I can have everyone’s attention, I need to give you some information that will make your Founders Follies experience more pleasant. We have hired Harrison Production Associates out of New York City to assist us.” Puddin was giving her first night’s speech, and I wondered if she’d finally overloaded her circuits. “They’ve been kind enough to send us Mr. Andy Mendelbaum as our director. We pay him to lead us in the most professional way he knows how. From this point forward, there will be no suggestions for the production, no threats to anyone—including our esteemed director, and no…damn…babies!”

“Thank God for that!” spat Andy.

“Don’t interrupt me!” she snapped. “We only have five days to get this show together, and I expect full cooperation from everyone. That goes for you, too, Andy. I expect that you’ll treat my friends and neighbors with the same respect that I’d treat yours if I ever came to see you. Do we understand each other?”

“I suppose.”

“You suppose? Andy, do I need to point out that had it not been for my intervention just now, you would’ve been tied to the back of a Dodge Ram pickup and given the opportunity to examine the infamous Burtonville potholes up close?”

“No, ma’am.”

Andy was left alone to do his job in an atmosphere that was cordial if not icy. The performers couldn’t wait for him to get on that plane, but they knew they’d never live down this Founders Follies debacle without a director. I wouldn’t say Andy was skillful, but by opening night, he’d managed to take a stack of photocopied music, some soiled costumes and a few tattered blueprints to create something that wasn’t totally humiliating.

In the formula of theme-park entertainment, the evening was a musical tribute to Americana. Switching back and forth between the fast-paced numbers, which called for as much energy as fighting a wildfire, to the near catatonia required for the Sondheim pieces, the production weaved in an out of tempos and eras as if Mr. Toad were at the helm. Cole Porter made a couple of appearances before a singing duo launched into Johnny Mercer’s Sentimental Journey, and by the time they finished with their sappy rendition, we were being taken for a ride on the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, which ended with a gloved woman waving from the window of a plywood train while using her concealed hand to carry it off the stage as she sang.

Reggie, under-pitch and overly enthusiastic, kicked off the second half. In spite of my accompaniment tape and hours of rehearsal, he had difficulty remembering the tune. The showgirls drew polite applause and a fair amount of suppressed laughter as their bejeweled headpieces swayed precariously and the feathers and beads jiggled epileptically. The one-piece outfits rode high in the crotch, which explained the need for fans the size of desk blotters.

The audience had been trapped in the theatre for over 90 minutes, and to keep things hopping, the jitterbugging couples assumed their positions, and the men tossed the women around as though they were loading feedbags onto a truck. By 10:00, the Elvis impersonator had left the stage (and probably the building), and the show’s running time had exceeded Wagnerian proportions. The audience continued cheering, but I knew we didn’t have much time before they formed a mutiny.

Suddenly the lights dimmed, and we instinctively paused for two seconds to recall if someone was scheduled for the electric chair at the local penitentiary. The audience gasped, but calm was restored when they noticed a greenish glow emerging from the rear of the stage. The scrim went up and cast-members from earlier segments stood in finale formation as the orchestra began the broad introduction to Irving Berlin’s Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free, which pretty much described the general feeling in the Picardy Pavilion.

"Give me our tired, your poor, your masses yearning to be free..." after a performance of Wagnerian proportions.  Photo credit: Ginger De Villa-Rose

“Give me your tired, your poor, your masses yearning to breathe free…” after a performance of Wagnerian proportions.
Photo credit: Ginger De Villa-Rose

The music swelled at “Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed, to me,” and there was what could only be described as a small disturbance in the rear of the formation as the fat lady showgirl, now without the very large fan, glided forward wearing a turquoise sheet and a face tinted to look like oxidized copper. She reached her mark and raised her torch just as the chorus sang “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” At this point, one would think Miss Liberty could have been granted fifteen seconds to stand watch over her harbor of “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” but there was a percussive slam and we were off and running with a medley.

Carmelita stomped on stage in a gingham skirt to tell us that this land was hers and ours from California to the New York islands. She barely got out of the Redwood Forest before the music shifted to This Is My Country, starring Puddin and backed up by the jitterbuggers who weren’t any better at singing than they’d been at dancing.

The musical transitions, complete with an awkward journey around the Circle of Fifths, grew to a feverish pitch. Either the people at Harrison didn’t like contemporary patriotic music or they stuck to things in the public domain, but we were left with George M. Cohan. I signaled the orchestra, and we lurched forth like a Derby contender out of the gate. There was a quick four-measure introduction before we heard Reggie warbling the first words of Yankee Doodle Dandy off-stage before sidestepping an entrance dressed like Uncle Sam. In rehearsals he’d been told to ham it up, but with performance adrenaline coursing through his veins, Reggie strutted and kicked like he needed an exorcist. He couldn’t remember half the words as he murdered the melody. Nevertheless, he seemed to be having a ball. The audience was truly having a good time in spite of the fact Reggie was less like Uncle Sam and more like Aunt Betsy Ross on white lighting.

When he reached the final refrain, Uncle Sam thrust the handle of his cane into the wings and pretended to pull out the chorus line, which consisted of the three remaining women from his earlier number. They were still wearing their Vegas headgear, and the crotches of their tight suits were riding higher than ever, but they’d abandoned their rattan fans in favor of lit sparklers. The gals shuffled to center stage like they were in a police lineup, rigid with concern since they hadn’t been allowed to light the sparklers in dress rehearsal. Reggie continued braying through the last note and then took so many bows during the vamping of the next song, that I half expected to see a Vaudeville hook yank him off the stage.

The music changed to an acceptable tempo, the showgirls moved backward, sparklers still lit, and the orchestra introduced God Bless America. A special shaft of white light amongst a sea of red and blue illuminated Carmelita as she channeled Kate Smith. The entire gang, standing behind her, lit even more sparklers as the music swelled. I didn’t see how we could get any louder, as the musicians were giving it all they had, but we climaxed right after the oceans became white with foam.

The sustained note was held until it sounded like a gun went off. Actually, one had, the prop man hoping against all logic that his track pistol would resemble canon fire. Some woman in the audience screamed, and there may have been others, but we couldn’t hear them as Carmelita shot into a higher octave. At the same moment, it appeared the backdrop was falling down—worth the price of admission—but it was only the unfurling of the credit union’s giant flag.

Well, it would’ve unfurled, but something went wrong for about 45 seconds. We saw the stars but not the stripes because Ray Gene Ledbetter, hovering on the scaffolding at stage left, missed his cue because he’d mistaken the “canon fire” for an assassination attempt. Again, Andy had insisted the gunfire needed no rehearsal just like the sparklers. The last note echoed through the performance hall, and as it finished reverberating, the final corner of Old Glory fell limply to the ground in silence. You could hear a pin drop.

Just as I felt the audience had turned on us, the people jumped to their feet and the room erupted into the most thunderous applause that 300 people can produce. We’d finally made it to the end. Throughout the five-minute standing ovation, I recalled the stumbling dancers, the angry director and the divas’ deplorable behavior. It was a ghastly performance by most people’s standards, but as bad as it was, Harrison Production Associates of New York knew that the most important thing in getting an audience to its feet is good old patriotism. While Australia has its dingoes, America has its jingoes.

 © 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


A Final Folly (Part 3)

This week, the fictional Kevin Gregory of Moral Ambiguity fame continues to recount his experience with Burtonville’s community theatre. Here is the third installment of A Final Folly.

Burtonville’s population is comprised of many faithful Christians. The consensus was to forego Wednesday evening rehearsals so people could attend mid-week prayer services. Truth be told, anyone involved with Founders Follies would’ve preferred clowning around on stage to reading scripture. The notion of a missed rehearsal did not sit well with Andy, who’d never heard of such religious fervor, and he ranted about provincialism and superstition though few hung around to listen to his diatribe.

With Wednesday out of the question, vocal auditions were to be held on Thursday night at “six sharp!” The Picardy Pavilion was practically empty until 6:45 when the biggest collection of scene-stealing wannabes managed to crawl out of the woodwork in hopes of getting a piece of the spotlight. There were a few men, but the theatre was filled with 40 women carrying purses stuffed with cassette tapes, CD accompaniment tracks and tubes of lipstick. Most were in their forties, all were heavily made up, and the majority had recently emerged from her favorite nail salon. Puddin’s granddaughter was among them, and she shared the family fondness for clowns by having them painted on the tips of each fingernail.

“They’re appliqués!” she exclaimed to Puddin. “Donna Jean can’t draw worth a flip. I can’t believe you thought she painted ’em on. That’d cost me a fortune!” Carmelita was one of those attention-stealing women with strong lungs. No doubt she could be heard over every other spectator at a Crimson Tide game against LSU, but it wouldn’t stop her from insisting on a hand-held microphone when it was her turn to sing. To her, the whole point of performing was to appear as if she were “in concert.” Holding a microphone simply lent an air of authenticity to her “art.”

Carmelita was not the only one who felt that way. The advent of Karaoke and reality television had given these women courage, and each took to the stage, belting out everything from Under the Boardwalk to Top of the World like American Idol hopefuls. One woman moved into position and tried to sing How Great Thou Art. She twisted her upper body in my direction and hissed: “It’s in the key of D!”

“You’re mistaken, it’s in B—flat,” I shot back. With that, I rolled a chord and told her to hit it. She started off with a weak, “O, Lord my God,” and Andy screamed like he was thwarting a rape. “I can’t tolerate religious music!” The entire auditorium went silent. “I will not have this in my theatre!” he shrieked.

His theatre…the nerve…can you believe?” These were some of the words I could make out amongst the murmurs and whispers after the would-be soloist ran from the stage and people started moving about again. By Friday morning, the entire town had heard about this scene, and Andy had been branded an atheist. No one in Burtonville knew much about Jews, but it was assumed that someone from New York City who didn’t have a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would never deny someone the right to sing about God. This is still America, after all!

I wasn’t sure if people skipped Friday evening rehearsals or if they’d dropped out because of Andy’s tirade. The small crowd, as I learned, was due to the fact the entire evening had been set aside for the ultimate Founders Follies challenge: the jitterbug.

Many fine performances can be seen in Chicago, but none will offer a performance of the jitterbug as accompanied by Bobbie June Benefield.

Many fine performances can be seen in Chicago, but none will offer a performance of the jitterbug as accompanied by Bobbie June Benefield.

Being musical director for this event was not an honor as much as it was a thankless inconvenience. Transitioning into a fulfilling life in Burtonville after my years of singing all over the world meant establishing a good reputation. If I walked off the job, my social life would suffer more than if I’d been given a 960 telephone number. There were others falling all over themselves to take my place. Sooty could be there in ten minutes after feigning reluctance for five, but Bobbie June Benefield was already in the building and waiting to pounce.

Having grown up amongst the pious, I’d learned early on what a floozy was. Floozies were women who rarely went to church without someone insisting they go. They seldom made second visits unless they’d been “convicted by the Holy Spirit.” If a floozy were particularly troubled by her wild life and had decided to change her ways, she might return a third time before concluding Hell might be hot, but it was at least full of fun people who knew how to have a good time.

Bobbie June Benefield was a floozy I’d met during my elementary school years. Back then, her hair was the color of a fine French burgundy, and it was styled like Jackie Kennedy’s circa 1962. The frames of her sunglasses had been dotted with rhinestones, and she had metallic threads woven into her clothes, which caught the light when she moved, giving the impression that she sparkled. She smelled like Kool menthols barely masked by a layer of White Shoulders.

I only saw Bobbie June during the Christmas season when she played the piano for our school musicals. Mama didn’t like her because she showed the signs of “hard living.” I asked what hard living was, and was delighted to learn it was everything I’d ever hoped it would be. It meant “going out all the time.” When I pressed for more details, I learned that going out all the time meant Friday and Saturday nights in dark places full of music, drinking and dancing. Mama had hoped painting a sad picture of tortured lives would keep me away from riff-raff, but I became desperate to get my childhood over with so I could have adventures with the likes of Bobbie June.

Bobbie June didn’t read music even though she claimed to have written a song, which had been published in New York City. She could barely thread her way through the musical called Santa and the Spacemen in which I’d been cast as Martian #1. I had a few lines to speak before joining two other Martians in the number Little Red Men from Mars. After we finished, we were to vanish. This script notation had excited me, as I envisioned going up in a puff of smoke like Samantha Stevens, but ours was an elementary school production without a special effects budget.

Every afternoon between Columbus Day and the week we blocked the musical on stage, I spent twenty minutes with my fourth-grade teacher and Bobbie June Benefield. It turned out she wasn’t as much fun as I’d hoped. She was not the least bit interested in the fact I’d been taking piano lessons for two years and probably read music better than she. By December 15, her smoky odor had finally gotten to me, and I hoped to never deal with her again.

As Andy told the jitterbugging couples where they would stand, Bobbie June Benefield arrived with an old vinyl handbag on her left arm, and she plopped it on top of the piano, covering my stack of music. The years had been unkind, and the purse was missing three of its four pegs on the bottom, causing it to lean like a tree in a strong wind. She’d not maintained her looks, and the deep burgundy locks of middle age were now the color of steamed shrimp and two inches of white roots beneath looked like a side of rice.

Bobbie June no longer wore heavy makeup, but this was a period in life when she should’ve considered something to soften her severity. The circles under the eyes were dark, and her mouth was framed with deep hash marks, which had been etched by countless drags on her beloved menthols. She was wearing an old t-shirt, which had been handed out to Founders Follies cast members long faded into memory.

“You’re in my seat,” she said in a friendless tone. The humility approach hadn’t worked with Sooty, but I gave it another try.

“Oh? How is that?”

“I’m here to play the jitterbug number.” She said with such confidence it might’ve been true.

“No one has mentioned this to me.”

“Why would they?” She paused to look me over. “Who are you?” She may have looked like a bag lady, but she still had the self-assurance to believe she was top dog.

“Who wants to know?” I asked. It was time she learned a thing or two.

“I’m Bobbie June Benefield,” she said as if I’d just landed from outer space. She had chutzpah, but I wasn’t giving up so easily.

“Oh, yeah, I remember you.” She beamed just before her face morphed into the same eerie expression Gloria Swanson wore in Sunset Boulevard. “You played for a Christmas musical back when I was in elementary school. So many years since then, I didn’t recognize you.” The haughtiness drained from her face.

“I’m sorry, but I still have no idea who you are.” If she subscribed to The Burtonville Register, as everyone did, she couldn’t have helped but notice the recent articles describing my retirement from professional singing, my appointment to the local college’s music faculty and my community involvement. She might not have recognized my face, having not seen me in person since I was nine, but I was sure she recognized the name Kevin Gregory.

“Be that as it may, I’m directing the music for this production, and no one has mentioned your participation to me.”

“No one plays the jitterbug like I do, and this town loves it!” she barked. “I play it every year, and they always want me back.” Could this be true? Did she show up to play the number, take a bow and maintain a reputation of being the greatest honky-tonk pianist in the region? Her t-shirt was terribly faded, but I could see the year printed on it was 1978. Unless her other wearable souvenirs were in the laundry, I suspected she hadn’t played for Follies since.

“I’ll get Puddin and we’ll work this out.” I walked away without looking back, and when I returned with assurances that Bobbie June was not allowed to go near the piano, she’d vanished like the Christmas Martians of my childhood along with her worn-out handbag.

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


A Final Folly (Part 2)

As One More Thing to Read enters its third year, I’m sharing some of my work in progress. The fictional Kevin Gregory of Moral Ambiguity has returned to his small southern hometown of Burtonville where he has been roped into community theatre. Here is the second installment of A Final Folly.

On the first morning of rehearsal, a bubbly blond who’d agreed to take on the role of stage manager greeted me. Puddin was somewhere in her seventies, but looked younger simply because her hairdo spiraled like vanilla soft-serve on top of her head. Her makeup was applied rather heavily, though the rough texture of her skin didn’t allow for an even application of eye shadow and foundation. Her thick eyelashes had been made in China, and though this was the first day of rehearsal, she was ready to play Elizabeth I in the final act.

Her costume, for her ensemble couldn’t have been seriously considered clothing, appeared to be a floral, fitted bed-sheet, cinched at the waist with a hot-pink rope. The low-cut design exposed a sun-damaged décolletage. A harlequin brooch with eyes of miniature diamonds was pinned at her cleavage as a sort of fastener. I thought the harlequin was a tribute to the theatre, but later heard about her extensive clown collection housed in a converted garage. Puddin clicked back and forth across the stage in Plexiglas high-heels of a staggering height for someone who’d deposited well over 100 Social Security retirement checks. Underneath her flowing bed-sheet, she wore tight Capri pants with nylon stockings several shades darker than her skin.

Puddin called us to order and introduced Andy Mendelbaum once again. We were not a large group, only four, including Andy and Puddin. The other gentleman who’d shown up was Sooty. I’d heard of him, but we’d never met. I’d no sooner taken my place at the piano and opened a folder of the photocopied hits of yesteryear, which Andy had shoved at me, when Sooty, full of indignation, advanced.

“So, you’re going to be musical director this year,” he said in a phlegmy voice. His tone suggested someone who’d been thoughtlessly cast aside after many years of devoted service.

“I suppose I am,” I replied with as much humility as I could muster. I’d not been told that Sooty was to be involved with the production, and I felt as though I’d shoved him out of a job.

“Well, either you are or you aren’t,” he said. “This job’s not for light-weights. There’s a major time commitment here. I don’t see how you can give up your job and your life for the next three weeks and make this many rehearsals. I’m retired, and I wouldn’t have a problem, but I’m not the one in charge here. Not that I ever was! In my day, we had a room full of women here at nine every morning ready to rehearse.” He said this as if it were my fault no one had shown up. “Puddin! I can’t believe this! Nobody cares anymore.”

“These younger women have jobs nowadays,” said Puddin, “and we’re lucky to get them by six or seven in the evening.”

“In my day—” began Sooty.

“Things haven’t changed that much since your day,’’ interrupted Puddin. “This is a rehearsal for the women’s chorus and you should’ve realized you wouldn’t be needed. Why are you here?”

Bed-sheets or not, I suddenly developed some respect for Puddin who could obviously fight her own battles—and mine—in spite of the scatter-brained act she put on for everyone around her. She’d taken Sooty down a notch, but the momentary tension was unbearable. Puddin, frozen in position, awaited a response, and Sooty was speechless for what I imagined was the first time in his life. The skirmish could’ve escalated, but the old man chose to gather his things. He swept past me reeking of stale cigarettes, which explained why they called him Sooty. I still didn’t know why Puddin was Puddin, but figured there was a story behind it.

Andy announced the cancellation of daytime rehearsals, a brilliant decision in light of the turnout. He was concerned about major rewrites, and I was delighted I wouldn’t have to spend my days hacking through songs unsung since Hit Parade. Being classically trained in voice, I was not accustomed, nor was I looking forward to reading smudged melody lines and being forced to devise decent accompaniments from chord symbols for no pay.

While reviewing the songbook, I realized Founders Follies was basically a Vaudeville show. The musical numbers set the mood to break up the lackluster comedy writing. Familiarity with the bon mot of Wilde and Coward were not prerequisites to understanding Follies.

As for the music, there was no particular theme. Randomly selected songs meandered aimlessly through a century’s worth of once popular tunes, beginning in the 1920s. Besides a couple of numbers recorded by Rosemary Clooney and Elvis, I didn’t recognize much of anything at first. Andy made a point of suggesting I take advantage of the free morning to work out accompaniments before the evening rehearsal, which was to begin at “six sharp!”

The audience begins to gather in a theatre similar to the Picardy Pavilion.

Rehearsals never ran on time at the Picardy Pavilion.

At 6:30, there were five people meandering around the auditorium, and none of them had come to sing. Joan Henderson James, the recovering stroke victim, and three other women listened as our illustrious New York director was introduced once more. After a round of light applause, he ordered the female quartet into position where they began to block the choreography for Limehouse Blues. Being unfamiliar with the song, I’d found a wonderful jazz recording on the Internet, but Andy informed me this was not to be a jazz number.

“We’re going to use it to open the second act,” he explained in his thespian voice.

“It’s going to be sung by a man, and these women are going to strut around like Vegas showgirls.” To pull it off, Andy’s plan required a dozen women, but since we’d only mustered four, no one could be excluded—especially on our wide stage. Besides the half-paralyzed Joan, the other three showgirls had their own troubles. Andy barked out directions, and whenever he screamed, “Left!” the woman whose hair looked like a straw hat invariably turned to her right. Radio City Music Hall is able to keep its kick-lines full of uniformly shaped women, but Andy soon realized Burtonville was not New York. Local women varied in size, and one of the larger ones possessing the look of a high-fructose corn syrup addict glided across the stage with surprising grace.

“Can you believe that one considers herself showgirl material?” Andy asked me in a loud stage whisper before singling her out: “Each of you showgirls will be holding a fan, and for you we’re going to give you a very large fan. Then you’re going to walk to the back and stand behind the rest. Now don’t worry; you won’t be standing there all the time. At the bridge, you’ll move over to the wings and stay there until the end of the number.” After a failed first attempt, and an even worse second attempt, Andy dismissed the women to a room down the hall so I could work with one of the male soloists.

Reggie boasted that he was a 1958 Burtonville High School graduate who’d never left town, and his laugh exposed him as the love child of Paul Lynde and Phyllis Diller. He was a retired insurance salesman, and claimed to have honed his theatre skills in the past two years. Honed was an overstatement, but two years explained a lot. Aside from his inappropriate sexual innuendo, I was more concerned by his inability to sing in tune. We’d worked together for less than five minutes when he confessed he couldn’t stand as long as he used to, and practically sat on my lap as he collapsed onto the piano bench. “It’ll be so much easier for us to work this way,” he cooed in my right ear.

I hammered out his part, but trying to get him on pitch sounded as though I was using a Civil Defense siren to tune bagpipes. He screeched like a dying eagle, and his southern accent made diphthongs out of one-syllable words. At least he knew when he missed a note. He used these opportunities to body-slam me while giggling maniacally. He stood up when I ended our session, and I suggested he take his music home and practice before our next meeting.

“I don’t read a note of music,” he squealed. “Why don’t I come over to your place and have you go over my part?” I offered to make a recording and bring it to him, but he wasn’t interested in my solution.

“It would be a better use of my time to wait until you’ve received all your solo assignments,” I said. “At that point, I can sit down and record them in one session.”

“Good thinking! I’ll bring some wine and we’ll make a night of it!” Reggie locked me in an intimate embrace from which I could not break free.

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


A Final Folly (Part 1)

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.

The Picardy Pavilion aspired to be something like the Ogunquit Playhouse.

The Picardy Pavilion aspired to be something like the Ogunquit Playhouse.

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