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?”
“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?”
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.
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