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