Sunday, November 25, 2012

The 12 Bands of Christmas Sing!

The first 12 Bands of Christmas Sing was a benefit for Cleveland Public Theatre, held on Tuesday, December 22, 1992. Featured bands included Jehovah Waitresses, Moko Bovo, Hostile Omish, Giant Jack Johnsons, King of Clubs, Hot Tin Roof, Jericho Turnpike, Chuck Mosbrook and The Electric Monkey, 6 Feet Under, The Waynes, Odd Girl Out and Rust (aka Slack Jaw).

All the bands were asked to play at least one Christmas-oriented tune, and it was perfectly all right if it were blasphemous.

For our part, the Guerrillas had written the “Six Hits of Christmas,” to be performed between acts. That night we climbed the million stairs ... there were a lot of people behind us, in front of us, passing us on their way down. We could hear the music and all the people up there. This was going to be our largest audience yet. We found the Green Room, which was very small, filled with guitars and aspiring musicians. We had no props, we had no costumes, it was going to be just us and one chair against the teeming throng.

“Hey guys!”

It was The End's Maria Farina! Maria was hosting the show!

She bopped into the Green Room to find us and give us the low-down. She was sporting a groovy new sequined vest and a flat-topped, wide-brimmed, Debbie Gibson hat.

“So what have you got planned?" she asked.

“Well, we have six short plays to do.”

“Do you need the microphone on the floor?" Maria asked. "You could do your plays between sets and maybe you can help me give away prizes.”

“Okay, cool, uh, we don’t need the microphone, though, we’ll just project.”

We moved out into the house to check out the scene. Man, there were a lot of people here. Guerrillas scurried into the seating sections during a particularly rowdy set by Hostile Omish (the boys intimidated Maria into churning butter) and handed out flyers for You Have the Right to Remain Silent!

Guerrillas were scattered about the space. Hostile Omish concluded their set. Maria looked noticeably disturbed by her butter-churning experience.

“How about that, huh?” The crowd cheered enthusiastically. “Wow,” she continued, “there’s some angry youth here ... Yeah!”

She caught my eye. “And now, here’s a very special treat -- the Guerrilla Theater Company!”

A smattering of cheers and cat-calls.

“They’ll be doing some sketches for you throughout the evening, and later we’re going to give away some most excellent prizes like they do in their show, let’s hear it for them!”

A polite round of applause as we appeared from everywhere to take the floor in front of the bandstand. Audience members got up in large numbers to get beer from the concession stand out in the lobby.

“Good evening, everyone!” I called out. My voice was thin and wispy, and it floated gently up, towards the ceiling. A large part of the crowd were talking and weren’t about to be quiet for us, not to mention the hubbub from the now very crowded lobby.

“Beginning New Year’s Day and every Friday and Saturday night from now until the end of time we do a show called --”

All Guerrillas: “'You Have the Right to Remain Silent!'”

“Make sure you get one of these flyers before you leave for a special discount --”

I was losing them.

“-- and we’re going to do a very special Christmas play for you now entitled 'It’s A Wonderful Lie'.”

And we did our little play, an indictment of the Savings and Loan bail-out, there on this small stage with people walking back and forth in front of us, struggling against the din. When it concluded we ignored the light applause and quickly did another one, about all the leftist things we want for Christmas, said thank you very much and beat a hasty retreat from the stage.

We performed some more sketches after the next band, and performed an impromptu “Trivia Round” with Maria to give away some prizes.

As soon as our shtick was spent, we grabbed our things and slunk away, even though at the rate things were going, the concert was going to continue well after midnight.

Another disappointing aspect of our not choosing to use a microphone, apart from the obvious, is that there is no recording of our having performed there.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Staging Success: The PlayhouseSquare Story

 What I am truly thankful for.

One week ago, Thursday, November 15, WVIZ ideastream aired a one-hour documentary chronicling the history of theaters built during the 1920s on the north side of Euclid Avenue. Today the district is known as PlayhouseSquare, but in the intervening time Cleveland went through its steep decline from sixth largest city in America to where we are today ... which is where, exactly, I don't know. But it's not the late 1960s, when these opulent play houses were in terrible disrepair and on the verge of being torn down to -- literally -- put up a parking lot.

Throughout this blog I have told short stories about Cleveland in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s ... research for me, but also my own education of this saggy metropolis into whose orbit I was born, and where I continue to live and thrive today. Understanding where we are and where we are going requires a knowledge of where we have been, otherwise nothing makes any sense. It's also pretty interesting stuff.

Got an hour? Watch the video. There are moments I actually cried. I miss the past I never experienced, but I more thankful to be where we are today.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Elvis at the Arena

November 23, 1956, Elvis played the Arena. One of these days I will document the Moondog Coronation Ball (1952) in some detail ... or at least spread more specious rumors. Regardless, the Arena was an all-purpose venue, the site where boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson murdered Jimmy Doyle in the sixth (literally, as it turned out) and the Cleveland Barons played hockey.

On Halloween night, 1956, the Cleveland Newspaper Guild went on strike, bringing to an abrupt halt the publication of all three Cleveland papers -- the Press, News and Plain Dealer. At the top of his game, Elvis Presley storms into town. His first movie, Love Me Tender had opened a week earlier, and the theme song was on top of the charts. No. 2 that week was Don't Be Cruel.

There wasn't a single Cleveland paper covering the concert.

Well, there was one paper covering the event. The Black and Gold sent its star photographer, seventeen year-old Lew Allen to cover the concert. Yes, that's right -- the Heights High School newspaper.

The show did not begin punctually at 8 PM that night as advertised. Excited fans were left waiting for fifteen minutes before Elvis took the stage. Legend has it he was receiving a phone call from a very ill and disappointed, ticket-holding girl who was in the hospital, and he just chatted with her for a while to try and make her feel better. Believe it or not, that's the story Lew Allen himself told, and has a picture of Elvis backstage on the phone as proof.

Allen went on to study photography at the Rochester Institute of Art, and went on a rock and roll tour in 1958, take great photographs of Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Frankie Avalon, Duane Eddy, Bobby Darin, the Hollywood Flames and others.

The Cleveland Arena and Elvis Presley were demolished in 1977.

Hockey stick.

Sources: Elvis Australia

See also: Elvis Presley at Brooklyn High (1955)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

1. Trying to sneak across an international border. I was supposed to hand over the I.D. of a colleague, was supposed to claim she is my wife. The crossing guard began asking questions, first off all, what her birthday was. I said, "I don't know," and started laughing nervously to myself. I was entirely unprepared for this and was going to be arrested.

2. A vicious house cat -- that talked. Everyone was terrified of it. There was this sweet old tabby that was going to reason with it. They were climbing a rope together. I could not get to either of them, they both went down the rope and the innocent, old cat began to scream horribly, the other cat had gotten into its face and was doing something unthinkable to him.

3. A large, volcanic eruption in the water just off the shore of a major city. We ran, terrified, as one of our party described exactly the fate that awaited us, in grotesque detail, if we were subsumed by the lava. We got into an office building however, and jumped a futuristic escalator to safety. I did have friends on a day-cruise ship just at sea. I could only imagine their fate.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Flash Gordon (1936 serial)

Warhol, Ming ... and R2-D2.

A couple weeks back, Talespinner Children's Theatre held its 2012 Glam Rock Benefit. Recently the kids and I took in Queen's Flash Gordon Theme music video, and I made a connections between Freddie Mercury's high-pitched "ah-ahs!" and the sheer unadulterated magnificent awesomeness of Max Von Sydow to cobble together some kind of Ming the Merciless get-up, replete with skullcap, dyed beard and eyebrows and green eyeshadow.


Tim reminded me afterwards that the character is another grotesque Asian stereotype, so I feel a little bad about that. But I did win for best male costume. So I got that going for me.

Buck Rogers, a World War I veteran exposed to radioactive gas and hidden in a collapsed mine shaft only to be reanimated five hundred years later, was created in 1928. The success of this popular comic strip character inspired the creation of Flash Gordon in 1934. A dashing young polo player (*snigger*) Flash and his girl Dale Arden are kidnapped by Dr. Hans Zarkov, who is obsessed with finding the origin of great firey meteors that are striking the Earth. They arrive at the planet Mongo, ruled by aforementioned grotesque racial stereotype Ming the Merciless.

The strip more or less follows the adventures of Dale being continually rescued from capture by Ming, and trips to all manner of surrounding planets, defined as all planets are in science fiction by a single weather pattern or dominant animal-inspired lifeform with one, primary emotion (see: Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on.) Sharkman, Hawkman, Lionman, Treeman. You get it.

The first film serial of Flash Gordon debuted in that most-amazing year of 1936. Olympic athlete Buster Crabbe assumed the role of Flash for 13 episodes, and another two serialized series in 1938 and 1940. The video above includes the arrival of Flash, Dale and Dr. Zarkov on planet Mongo, and the introduction of Ming the Merciless. Ming looks pretty stylish for 1936 ... and then he opens his mouth.

Anyone familiar with the 1980 film -- starring not only film legend Von Sydow but also Broadway star Topol, and classically trained British actors Timothy Dalton and BRIAN BLESSED -- might reconsider the "cheesiness" of the costumes and special effects, and appreciate instead the extent to which they created a faithful, cheery modern adaptation of the original short films.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Actors' Gym


Guerrilla Theater Company lasted two years, in two locations along Professor Street in Tremont. We had disagreements with our first-year landlord, and were happy to move into a location just a block away which had more space in which to perform, including something like a lobby.

Unfortunately, what we named The Actors' Gym was rather plain or ugly from the outside. Unlike The Professor Street Theater there were no ground floor windows, nor even a nearby lamp post. We jerry-rigged an exterior light and that was it. At night -- when we did all of our work -- the facade was rather foreboding and I know for certain of at least one person who was in high school at the time, deciding to "slum it" by checking out some cutting-edge comedy in the g-e-t-o, took one look at the place and decided it wasn't worth it.

Prior to our occupancy, the space had been an actual gym. There was shag carpeting in the main space, gang showers upstairs and down, and even a sauna. The landlord allowed us to work off some rent through sweat equity, ripping up layers of carpeting, thick plywood, all-weather carpeting, and linoleum, before reaching the original oak flooring.

The lobby was rather bizarre, with a nautical theme ... wood and ropes and salty-dog wallpaper. The coved ceiling was stuccoed.  To the left of the front door there was a counter with a display case built in and a wall behind and to the side with cubbyholes, which we used as a box office.  To the right, another display case, and two small alcoves that could act as a coat check or a tiny office.  And directly in front, a raised platform with railings around it, a kind of display area.  We left the lobby as it was, didn't change a thing.

Beach Party Night (1994) 

The other day, after supervising some of our actor-teachers and giving notes and running lines over lunch at Grumpy's, I decided to give one of our newest members, raised in Chicago, a brief driving tour of this most interesting neighborhood, which had only started its gentrification twenty years ago.


Approaching the former Actors' Gym I hollered, gaped, and pulled over. I couldn't even believe my eyes. Guerrilla wasn't my last experience with this space. Since then Bad Epitaph produced two shows there, when it was the art gallery called INSIDE and later *. In early 2001, my wife, very pregnant with our first child, performed in a show for J.P. Morgan's short-lived Radical Evil Drama company. But the facade was always the same, ugly paneling and no windows.

1989 Loma Prieta earthquake scene from Bad Epitaph Theater Company production of SIN by Wendy MacLeod at INSIDE, Cleveland, OH. September 1999. The performance space was tiny, the audience was limited to 40.
To create a realistic earthquake, the seating risers were cantilevered, one bank resting slightly on the one beneath, with large bass speaker cabinets lying on the floor beneath the audience, directed up. Actors on the still, hardwood floor throw themselves about as the set comes apart, but the audience was literally shaken by the sound, as in an amusement park ride.
What had never occurred to me was that the lobby was once an alcove. But of course it was! Stripped away, losing all of the crappy display boxes and adding high windows, the space is now an attractive show place.

You can ask Andrew. I was practically crying, it's so beautiful.

Superhero Night (1994)

Peeking into the space, there has not yet been any renovation inside the space. Just those hardwood floors I participated in discovering nineteen years ago. Signage indicates that the new owner is now in the public phase of attracting backers for a New Orleans themed restaurant.

Driving my young associate around the neighborhood, and describing what it was like two decades ago, I became excited for the city all over again. Tides rise, they ebb. But I still feel that we are moving forward.


* No, seriously. An art gallery called "*".