Maybe even more than I love to act I love watching acting especially when it is joyous and unashamed. As I’ve testified before, I grew up watching actors, if not always knowing that’s what they were doing, I knew I enjoyed watching it happen. Whether it was the beginning of my love affair with A Christmas Carol, hearing those chords of the overture from the live orchestra, the first show I saw, The King and I, seeing my G & S idol Martyn Green in HMS Pinafore or sitting in so many rehearsal halls catching the final run through of a show that’s following my about to close production, I love actors acting and watching them at it. Nevertheless, nowadays it takes a lot of doing to get me into a theatre seat. I trust my friends will keep to themselves any remarks about how much trouble it might be to get me out of one…
I recall many a live show seen with my family, but when I see a classic film I can all of a sudden vividly recall seeing it from the vantage point of my Dad’s lap. If he ever gets canonized maybe he could be the Patron Saint of Classic Films? When I see any of these movies or others with some of the same actors, I remember what he’d tell me about them and the specialty bits that made them so beloved by audiences. I will repeat and emphatically maintain that TCM has been my grad school in acting, character acting in particular, but I saw a lot of these films on much bigger screens. Back before there were laptop computers, when phones were only as smart as the person rotary dialing a number, in a time folks bought a portable TV to watch those new UHF channels, back in those kinder and simpler times there was no such thing as home videos of anything available. I recall the Beta v VHS war. DVD? In my day a proofreader would have figured it a typo for the underwear brand. If anyone wanted to see a classic film without cuts or commercials we had to find a revival film venue, an art cinema.
Boston wasn’t all that far from my hometown by miles but it was an attitude apart from my day to day and once upon a time for me, very exciting. These days going into Boston is too much like going to work thanks to a mind-numbing stint teaching at a bartending school and gigs that grossly underpay local, non-union actors. Besides, the Boston I once knew, with the English Room restaurant on Newbury Street, Jordan Marsh with Santa’s Enchanted Village, the City Service sign in Kenmore Square and free parking on Commonwealth Avenue on Sundays, all these are as long gone as my youth. What I most loved about the trips into Boston were the movie houses that were once there. No, not the first-run houses, although I’m of an age when Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Oliver and several shows in Cinerama had reserved seats and programs given out. No, for me the real places were the revival houses that often had several different programs a week.
I think the last hold out was the wonderful Exeter Street movie theatre, once a church and since subdivided making any return to movie house format impossible. I first saw A Night at the Opera at the Exeter and Monty Python and the Holy Grail there as well. Many others too and I recall how bad the sound system was. My favorite venues were in cahoots with each other, the Kenmore and Park Square Movie Theatres. I cannot begin to say what a difference it made to see the films from decades before my own time on big screens and in communion with packed audiences eager to share the experience. TCM on my vintage console at home makes do but these were films meant for big screens that did indeed look like they were made of silver. I learned a lot watching those actors then and I still do.
Some time back a tour I was in played my hometown venue and I was glad to have so much family, so many friends and such a bunch of strangers who’d read the bit in the local rag make a fuss over me during the show and in my curtain call. We’d had a long tour already and almost two months more to go when we played this performance. A few weeks after we closed and I was home again, a good friend whose sons call me “Uncle” had seen me in it and made some remarks about my bit in the show. Oh? Seems I should have been ashamed of myself and how was I allowed to get away with what I had done in my book scenes, especially in the second act! “OK,” I answered, “You see any of the other guys in the scenes doing anything helpful in the story-telling department?” Of course he hadn’t because my much loved colleagues had stopped caring all the time. Had I not seen all those great scenery chewers from bygone days, I’d never have had an idea, let alone known how, to keep the scene moving and still land the laughs where they were supposed to be. BTW, having no shame helps too.
Movies now? Hell, big screen, shbig shkreen, I hate mega mall movie going and I’ll eventually catch anything good on future tour busses or in actors’ housing. Going to the theatre? Well, I’m brought up to know I love this ritual, but being on stage is what I do to try to scratch out even a modest living. It’s really hard going to see anything like my job on what should be time off, especially if the proposed theatre party is my first free day or evening after I’ve just opened my own show. I’ve been working hard rehearsing, keeping my mouth shut with patience tried during tech and haven’t I earned time back for me to get some rest? And that’s how I feel about what I get to see for free. But wait, I have to pay to see the show and give up my own time too? No need to show me the exit, thank you very much, I’m not interested. I’m not going. When the show’s open, especially that first morning in, I will sleep, sleep and sleep and play the game I love best: God Help the First Living Thing to Wake Me!
The second summer I got to return to my vacation from the saloon biz and do some stock I met my theatre godfather who encouraged me to turn pro. I will only use his first name, David, here so there are no repercussions against him. We were allowed to see the show that was running while we were rehearsing our own for free. I forget the title but it was a charming comedy. One in our cast had a nice role in this play as well, so I was eager to go and cheer on a castmate. David would have none of it. “I’ve been at this so many years the last thing I want to do is go watch any other actor work,” and I couldn’t get the attitude but maybe as I’m getting older and more crotchety I’m finding I can understand. When we’re working and trying to still have some sort of time for ourselves but stay true to our duties to the show we’re in it’s hard for me to be spontaneous and just go do something I’ve not prepared to do. If a tour is coming by within a day’s drive that a friend is on and I know ahead of time, I’ll go see it even if I’ve a matinee the next day because I’m prepared. Like I try to explain to film directors, I like to rehearse my spontaneity. There are times when I’m at work, much as I love actors and seeing us all act, the last thing I want is a busman’s holiday.