Saturday, April 21, 2012

Looking Back (part 3)

The dictionary defines burlesque as “a parody, an imitation of a serious work of art or literature for comic effect.” Sitting in the darkened auditorium of the Empire Theatre, I had absolutely no idea what that meant, but I was about to find out, and it would change my life.

The first three Acts – to say the least – had been disappointing. During the last ten minutes Roger had left twice, first to go to the bathroom and then to buy popcorn. Bill kept pointing to his watch and whispering that 180 miles was a long way to drive home late at night when we both had to work in the morning …

For the past three years I had been working weekends as a clerk in the local A&P  Grocery store. For the past year and a half I had also been employed in a regional semi-professional theatre, acting my heart out on Friday and Saturday nights (with party afterwards) and then cutting up frozen chickens in the morning with a complexion as green and wilted as last week’s lettuce (me, not the chickens. With no heads, they had no complexions. On more than one occasion I would have gladly given them mine.) In other words, driving 180 miles didn’t bother me at all. I was accustomed to pain and suffering.

The next act on the program was a comedy sketch, about a man checking himself into a clinic because he was having trouble sleeping. Of course, instead of peace and quiet, he was confronted by the most outlandish collection of noisemaking characters I had ever seen in my life. At first I was mildly interested, and then fascinated. Here was a style of broad comedy I had never seen in my life. As young and inexperienced as I was, I sat there, literally transfixed, marveling at the perfect timing, the interweaving subtexts, and the mature subtlety contained in farce carried to extremes. While others in the audience laughed, I studied.

Later in life I would have the same admiration and respect bordering on awe for the finesse of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, the Marx Brothers, later Benny Hill, Monty Python, Ernie Kovacs, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Jim Henson, Dick Van Dyke, and the varying casts of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE – each different, each unique, yet all cut from the same comedy broadcloth.

At various times over the years I have tried to find the motivating factors behind decisions I have made – why do I write and direct plays, for example. Most of the time my explorations are in murky waters. I simply have no positive insights. My appreciation of comedy, however – what it is and what it should look like - is crystal clear. My love of absurd parody started the night three boys snuck in to a seedy theatre in Indiana to watch (for all the wrong reasons) a dying art form.

Post Script.
Thirty years later I reviewed a production of THIS WAS BURLESQUE that was playing for a short period of time in town. The show was glitzy, slick, professional, and as devoid of subtlety as was possibly for a show to get. I was bored, and so were the bulk of those in attendance. Except … in the middle of the house was a group of perhaps 30 men, all seated together, all at least 80 years old. They hooted and hollered and were so obviously having a good time that they cheered up everyone else.  I studied these men for a long time, and then it occurred to me they were seeing burlesque the way they remembered it.

And then, so was I.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Looking Back (part 2)

     I never intended for this to be a multi-part adventure. The premise was simple enough; when I was 16 two friends and I drove 180 miles to bluff our way into what I had been told was the last legitimate burlesque theatre in America. (And I still believe that to be true.) But in the process of cluttering paper with words for this post , so many unexpected thoughts and realizations competed for attention that I was forced to stop and “sound the depth of what I would profess” as Faust worded it.

     I’m not sure I have it all aright yet. However …

     So there we were, 12th row of the Empire theatre, waiting for the curtain to come up – me, Roger, Bill … (green hair, red hair, sandy yellow hair. We must have looked like a living traffic light.) I had been looking forward to this very moment for over a month, discussing among ourselves even the most minute details every night on the way home from school. This was, of course, a secret far too large to keep, and soon we became the envy of every red-blooded male in the tenth grade. Life just didn’t get any better than that.

     The first act was a woman, 40ish, dressed like a drum majorette, twirling a baton and tap dancing. As one, we leaned forward in breathless anticipation, waiting for something to happen. At one point she threw the baton so far up that it careened off a stage light and shot like a guided missile into the orchestra pit. We supposed that was the end of the act, because she did a buck and wing off stage, and never came back.

     The next performer was a man in a very old-fashioned tux who sang “Ah Sweet Mystery Of Life,” while a half dozen or so overly made up women paraded around the stage in costumes reminiscent of French royalty. In unison, the three of us slumped back in our seats. Already we were mentally preparing the lies we would spread Monday morning on the way to school.

     The next act began with promise. A woman came on stage carrying two enormous feather fans – one in front and the other behind her. She danced and twirled, adroitly shuffling fans to cover what we had shelled out twenty bucks apiece to see.  When she finally fluttered off stage, I was reasonable sure I had seen a pudgy face, thick ankles, red shoes, and enough moldy feathers to outfit the entire Sioux Indian nation.

     This was getting more disappointing by the moment. Tragic. Sad. I had seen better action behind the bleachers following a football game on any given Friday night.

     And for free!

Yeah, there's more to come.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Looking Back (part 1)

I know. It doesn't look like much.

This picture was taken sometime before the first world war. When I first saw this building - my one and only visit - it was a handful or two of years after the Korean war, and the building was in the wane of life, and well aware of it.

This was the Empire Theatre in Indanapolis Indiana, and, to the best of my knowledge, the last legitimate burlesque theatre in America.

We arrived an hour early, parked two blocks away so no one would suspect three 16-year-old boys were trying to sneak a peak at tassles and feathers before they became dusty addendums in local folklore.

Roger had bright red hair, almost strawberry blonde, the color women a generation later would dye for. Bill had sandy brown har, and of the three of us, he was the only one who might have actually passed for 18. Since I was doing a play at the time, my hair had been dyed kelly green, and I had frantically given myself silver sideburns ... yeah, nobody was going to notice us, you bet.

We entered a lobby that was old 50 years earlier. The carpet was largely bare in places, the dry plaster decor chipping color, the ceiling dusky from years of cigar smoke no longer allowed.

The auditorium was cold. And large. Altogether there are perhaps 50 to 60 people scattered in a room that could comfortably seat 300.

The lights dimmed. The orchestra - piano and drums - started playing.

The curtain opened ...