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by Robert Patrick
© 2005, Robert Patrick
In 1961, a fellow waiter in Santa Fe got a call asking him to come wash dishes at the Kennebunkport Playhouse, where he’d worked the summer before. He asked if I wanted it and handed me the phone. A gruff, gravely voice asked why I would come all the way to Maine to wash dishes. I responded by asking him why he would call all the way to New Mexico for a dishwasher. Neither of us had a good answer. I assumed he had a romantic interest in my handsome blond friend. He assumed I was stage-struck. He was wrong. I’d never experienced theatre other than high-school and college plays, and was much more interested in books and movies. I was just at loose ends and had never been east. He said he didn’t want to pay my fare there and then have me skip out. I said on the pay he was offering, how could I, and what’s more, I was plain, so he would never lose me to marriage. That was the first time I heard the unforgettable Bob Currier laugh. He said he’d pay for a one-way bus ticket. I bargained to have it routed through Washington D.C. so I could see the Vermeers in the National Gallery.|
The Kennebunkport Playhouse environs were so astonishingly green to a desert-bred boy like me that I hardly noticed that they were also run-down and ratty. The prevailing tone was of past glories. Old posters featuring Tallulah Bankhead, Faye Emerson, and Diana Barrymore were everywhere. Anecdotes about them were burly Bob’s characteristic conversation. He especially liked telling one about obsessive Ms. Barrymore swearing they’d all get malaria from mosquitoes breeding in puddles under the theatre, then crawling under it with kerosene to pour on the water. Bob laughed like eight horses as he described himself crawling under and dragging her back out by her feet.
Many of the employees and acting company had been at the Playhouse for several summers, but there were a dozen or so newbies like me. All the men were gay. I asked Bob if that was deliberate, to which he replied, “No, that’s theatre.”
The brilliant set designer, Tom, was new. He’d been promised thirteen apprentices, and got only me, and only over Bob’s objections. I’d been imported just to wash dishes, but Tom demanded help, so Bob kindly permitted me also to build sets, hang lights, shift scenery, answer phones, sell tickets, fold programs, usher, run the intermission concession, sweep up, dry Penny Fuller’s head after she sang, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and do numerous small roles for no extra pay. Watching me skitter about the grounds like the Roadrunner, he shouted one day, “Don’t you sleep?” Racing past him with my arms full of scenery, I yelled, “Why? What’s playing in bed?” and retained his affection. He also roared when I, disgusted by his sloppiness with the theatre’s bookkeeping, posted a sign saying, “There’s no businesslike show business!”
Bob was clearly bored to death with his business, and desperate for amusement. He let us alone to run the place for him, which old-timers said was a new trait, for he was famous for bullying and interfering. He didn’t even show up the first day I was there. When he did wander through the dining-hall, I said, “Well, at last! I was beginning to think you were a solar myth!” My quick quips and slave-labor made me a bit of a pet, I now realize. When I got fed up halfway through the season and fled to see a college friend in New York (leaving an address so Bob could send me my pittance), Bob actually humbled himself to phone and offer me a bus ticket back to Kennebunkport, and bribed me by promising to pay my return fare to Santa Fe as well. His pouty resident boyfriend said, “I’d suspect you were sleeping with Bob, except he’s not that nice to people he sleeps with.”
My crazy runaway stunt was hardly remarked on by my peers, for absolute license for personal expression was the rule of the place. I’d never been among such sophisticated, literate, frank, witty people, and loved them all. Doing a full-scale Broadway show a week was excruciating work. Nobody had energy or concentration left to restrain themselves. Intramural affairs were carried on with startling candidness, and discussed as blatantly as if they were celebrity news. Quarreling lovers had to work side-by-side. Non-quarreling ones had to grab intimate moments when and where they could, however openly. When a pair snuck off to meager concealment during a rehearsal break, someone said, “Having a matinee, fellas?” Someone else cracked, “This dump makes Peyton Place look like a convent,” and of course, everyone immediately told all their bawdiest “Sound of Music” jokes.
I wasn’t the only one who didn’t sleep. When a day’s production work, rehearsal, and performance were done, everyone sat up jabbering competitively, drinking incessantly, and playing and singing show tunes. One boy received an advance copy of Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall album and we spent the rest of the summer singing her arrangement of “Chicago” whenever there was a quiet moment amongst the bunch’s endless movie- and stage-star stories.
We opened with a new show by the musical director, Neil, and his lover, Jim, which Bob plugged as “Prior to Broadway.” Bob said, “Why pay royalties on a known show? The first week is always death. I don’t know why I bother.” Then the stars started coming.
George Montgomery did “Under the Yum-Yum Tree.” Susan Oliver was doing it simultaneously at a nearby theatre. Bob tried to sue them, the only incident I saw of his legendary temper. Few people attended our version, which was just as well. Montgomery often had to carry the script during performance, once fell into the orchestra pit, and, pinched my and the other male crew members’ backsides till we literally had trouble walking.
Shockingly lovely Alexis Smith and her husband Craig Stevens (then very hot from his TV series “Peter Gunn”) came through with “Critic’s Choice.’ She was very professional and extremely polite, he was neither. Seeing a poster of “Yum-Yum,” she said, “Oh, George was here?” I offered to show her my bruises, and she nodded and giggled, looking even lovelier.
Eve Arden appeared in “The Marriage-Go-Round.” The lighting-man had fled in a fit of temper, and Bob had just that afternoon hired a complete novice who wandered by and said maybe he’d like to be in theatre. First act, the stage was but randomly lit. At intermission, Eve, a frightening apparition, over six feet high in spike heels and wearing bristling stage eyelashes, click-clicked over to the terrified greenhorn. We all stood transfixed, expecting a real star-tantrum. She asked in her softest voice, “Can they see us, dear?” and click-clicked away. He threw all the audience out of the theatre, and dragged a huge ladder about, hanging every light he could find. The second act was lit like a gas-station, but at least it was lit.
At her curtain call, Eve stepped forward and urged the audience to come the next week to see Edward Everett Horton in his perennial favorite, “Springtime for Henry.” I complimented her for her professional courtesy, and she said, “It’s something everyone used to do, back when there actually was a theatrical profession in this country.”
Horton’s advance man came to show the cast exactly where to stand, and tell them exactly how to read each line of the play Horton had been doing for thirty-one years. Horton appeared the afternoon of opening night and literally ran the cast through the show, taking about a half hour. I was his dresser, holding a fresh shirt for the very sweaty actor to change into on each exit after he doused himself with Florida Water. He said, “It’s bad enough those poor children have to act with an old turtle like me, they shouldn’t have to smell me as well.” Offstage, he kept company entirely with Bob and the box-office manager, George. The three of them did Bette Davis, Tallulah, and Ethel Barrymore imitations and laughed like madmen non-stop the entire week.
Bob’s illustrious sister, Jane Morgan, closed the season with her touring company of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Her large cast was gorgeous and—shall we say?—gregarious, and even included some straight men, so our actresses were for the first time all summer, happy. On- and backstage, Jane was a consummate artist. She once let me watch her make up, at which she was so adept that I was awed. Offstage, she loved to play pranks, including an elaborate one about the big house being haunted, leading to her very scary appearance out of the night as a shrieking ghost. When we all screamed, she let out a laugh every bit the equal of her brother’s.
I played her prospective father-in-law, in a wheelchair. Originally I had a bit where Jane’s sexiness aroused me to leap from the chair and Charleston with her. She cut the bit (probably because I was a lousy dancer) and just sat on my lap. I got even with her by tickling her cleavage each night with my big fake mustache.
I’ve skipped three large musicals, “Oh, Kay!”, “South Pacific,” and “Carousel,” the backstage antics at any one of which would fill many issues of this Log. As a chorus boy in “Carousel,” I habitually stood in the wings weeping each performance at the Beach Ballet. The choreographer commented one night, “My God, you’re so stage-struck!”
Indeed, I was. I would gladly have returned to Kennebunkport every summer, had I not, in my first half-hour of a stopover in Manhattan, wandered into the first underground, or Off-Off Broadway house, The Caffe Cino, and set out on forty-three years (so far) of avant-garde theatre. It’s been sheer bliss, but I do sometimes wonder what my life would have been had I written each summer for Bob a conventional, “Prior to Broadway” musical for that dead first week.
Here’s a poem (or poem-like object) I wrote about the experience:
Despite all its torments--