Saturday, November 26, 2011

My Acting Career

While attending Iowa State, I was in the cast of the university’s annual open house show called “Stars Over Veishea” twice participating as a dancer.  Veishea is an acronym formed from by using the first letters of the five colleges at that time, Veterinary medicine, Engineering, Industrial Science, Home Economics, and Agriculture.  I was and still is, the largest student run university musical events in America.  In addition, I performed in the annual Modern Dance Club recital each year I attended ISU.  These activities helped me immensely by providing me diversions from my rigorous engineering studies and various jobs I needed to have to provide money for myself. 
Anyway, I had dancing in my blood and spending a year out of college dancing and teaching at Arthur Murray’s only reinforced my craving.  So I after the family and I moved to Dayton, Ohio to work at Frigidaire and after I got settled, I started looking for a way to continue dancing on stage.  I got a part in “Guys and Dolls” being produced by Dayton Community Theatre.  I didn’t have a speaking role but I was required to look slightly thuggish, something I probably have a natural talent at. 
One day, the actor (who resembled Pacino) got a hair up some opening of his body which seems to irritate him to no end and I noticed it caused the director to question his whole approach to playing the part of Nathan Detroit.  He and she had words, He walked out. The director turned to me and said, “I want you to play Nathan”.  I was stunned and did not feel I was ready to make such a psychological leap, and I protested, sighting my lack of singing talent, only to be cajoled and “a we need you now” plea from the director. 
So for two nights, I held my play book and read my lines to help out, and felt the first realization that I was starting to enjoy this and all the challenges it might bring.  Then HE came back.  The humble and contrite one came back and reclaimed his rightful place as Nathan Detroit, leaving me with mixed feelings, with relief being the strongest one.
So the play went on and was performed and we all did a great job.  I studied how to play the part of Nathan secretly, just in case.  Nathan was the central figure in the play and the actor did a great job.  It was a great feeling to be in a cast, to be part of something that was so rewarding. 
My wife and I did meet a lot of people in amateur theatre after that and much of our social life was tied to people that attended amateur theatre or took part in it. 
Eventually, we moved from Dayton to Marion, Indiana home to RCA and a manufacturing plant just starting to mass produce color picture tubes, where I work at various engineering related jobs. 
After one lives in Marion for a while, a town of 42,000, one finds time to wonder “that am I going to do with all this time on my hands?”  I searched and found Marion Civic theatre in answer to a small notice in local paper of tryouts for the play, “Never Too Late”.   I went only to check everything out but was asked to read for a very small part in the very first of the play.  And I walked away with the part of Doctor Kimbrough. 
As it turned out, this was my first role with many others to follow.  I can count 26 roles I had either at Marion Civic Theatre or in Kokomo Civic Theatre.  Probably the roles I had most fun portraying was Oscar, in “The Odd Couple” and Col. Thomas McKean in “1776”.  What roles do I think I portrayed the best?  That would be the brother Tom in “Glass Menagerie” and Creon in “Antigone”. 

And I directed 8 productions including, “Music Man”, “Picnic”, “Antigone”, “I Never Sang for my Father”, “Plaza Suite”, “Six Rms Riv Vu”, “Prisoner of Second Avenue”, and “Play It Again Sam” with the help of my daughter Vikki. 

The photo below was taken for the Kokomo Civic Theatre program of "Desperate Hours" where I played an escaped convict, one of Humphrey Bogart's roles.

I was president of Marion Civic Theatre for a long time, I build sets, I lugged chairs and platforms, I helped with lighting, and I sold tickets along with several other dedicated people.  It was what I did, that, and playing golf in the summer.
Vikki went off and became a theatre major, first at Penn State University, then at Pittsburgh University where she received her MFA.  She has used her talent by appearing in several plays in small Chicago theatres, before getting married to an actor and moving to Los Angles.
When I moved away from Marion, I never felt the urge to start over at another amateur theatre group.  I found skiing and tennis and they have commanded my attention.  I did gain a lot in my theatre experiences and I did slowly become a better actor and perhaps if I stayed with it longer, I could have become a good actor.  But the flame that burned so intensely for such a long time is keeping me warm and comfortable now by my occasional looking back at it with wonder. Ok, with a little pride also.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Music Career

Looking back on how I started to try to master the piano, I can point all fingers at my mother.  I never quizzed her later in life or at the time how she came to be a somewhat competent pianist, but she could play pretty well and had memorized permanently a couple of rather sophisticated pieces. 
The first house I remember living in was at 122 Grace Street in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  I don’t remember that there was a piano in the house.  We moved when I was in first grade to 620 Harrison Street so I must have been between 5-6 years old and my mother had acquired a Steinway upright that must have been handled down from her family. How else would she be able to play?
Pianos were much more popular in the 30’s and 40’s in households back then and having one was a symbol of status and, in the days before  television, were a source of entertainment.  If there was a piano in the house there was someone who could play it, and people could gather around and sing carols at Christmas time or when company came and the conversation started to drag a bit, the piano was used to put some energy back into the room.
My mother arranged for me to start taking lessons soon after we moved.  And like all beginning piano players back then, I was taught out of Thompson music books.  I can remember that first I was taught to read notes in the treble clef and used my more dexterous right hand, then the bass clef using my left hand.  I was quite proud when I played my first tune using both hands at the same time.  Soon I was able to translate what I saw on paper to my fingers which produced correct sounds that reinforced what I was doing.  If the product didn’t sound right, I knew I made a mistake.  What took place also was the ability to later be very accomplished with the typewriter.  At the time I took typewriting, I was the second fastest typist in my class and the fastest was a girl who was a better pianist that I was and never got anything but “A’s” for grades.  I am sure this speaks to my brain getting itself organized to be adept at hand-eye coordination. 
As I advanced through the Thompson books I soon reached a point where sheet music was introduced.  Each year as I advanced through grade school, my musical talents also improved.  At some point I studied under Mr. Sandborn whose studio was in Omaha, just a short distance from where my father worked.  To attend my lessons, I would leave after school traveling by way of a neighborhood streetcar to the center of Council Bluffs then transferring to the Omaha streetcar.  Later the streetcars were replaced by buses, but the routine remained the same.  After my lesson, I would eat at the diner my father managed before making the return trip.  Four times a year, Mr. Sandborn would hold a concert in his studio with a program supplied listing all his students in order of skill, with the most skilled playing last.  As I grew older and more accomplished, I managed to play third from the last before moving on to a different teacher. 
My move was done to avoid the long trek to Omaha and to study under a woman who would teach me ragtime and boogie and other music of my own choosing.  I played with a lot of passion but my fingering technique was anything but classical.  This finally caught up with me when I tried to play more difficult pieces, like a Rachmaninov where all five digits of both hands need to strike the keys rapidly to produce dramatic wonderful chords.
Harrison Street grade school only went up to 5th grade.  So for 6th grade I transferred to Washington Street grade school which went up to 8th grade.  This was the first time I didn’t stay in one room for the entire school day.  There were 6 rooms for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, two for each class, and we rotated after each hour.  Classes were English, arithmetic/spelling, art/reading, geography, physical education/science, and music/penmanship.
Our teacher for penmanship and music was Miss Wind.  I imagine she was in her sixties because she had white hair.  She was tall and always dressed in long black dresses with accompanying old lady black shoes. And she was not especially fond of children, particularly those of the male gender.  It all honestly, her appearance could have made her eligible to be a character in the TV show, “The Adams Family”.  However, the characters in the show seemed to be happy with their macabre outlook, and any display of being happy was not something she shared with her classes.
I am not sure how this started but, sometimes she would leave the room and my classmates egged me on to play the piano while she was absent.  So I played “Bumble Boogie” or “Sabre Dance” which I had memorized, to the delight of my classmates, whose ears were longing for something other than Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven.  Of course, she happened to come back as I was playing, but I think she was in a position where she could not disapprove.  After all, it was a music class.

In my class reunions many years later, my former classmates would reminisce with me about my boogie-woogie days, something I had forgotten about.  I guess I made a lasting impression in a very small way.
When I was in high school, the music teacher encouraged me to play the organ situated in the school auditorium during my study hours and I continued to dabble here and there playing for school events.  But I had long stopped taking lessons and my interests in sports, girls, and making money dominated my life to the detriment of my music career. 
I have no regrets about this.  I make no efforts to dig out my electronic keyboard, the sheet music I still have, and play to amuse myself.  But, if I had a baby grand sitting in my front room, I would be tempted to give up crossword puzzles and to master those wonderful Rachmaninov chords.