“Oh Mr. Huston, I want to be in the theater!”
“We all do kid. We all do.” A young, starry-eyed Eli Wallach to a weary Walter Huston outside a Broadway theater stage door in the 1930’s.
At 41, some men are arguing cases before The Supreme Court or performing brain surgery or accruing benefits from a civil service job. At that age, I was on stage at a former Times Square porno theater in front of an audience of two.
Nude except for a grass skirt, a wild, white wig, my face painted with blue and white stripes à la National Geographic, dancing and chanting non-sequiters such as Michako Kakutuni and kugel, all in order to portray a witch doctor summoning the undead for “The Dance of The Zombies.” I did get to sort of meet Joe Franklin.
Some years ago over the summer, after responding to a casting notice on Playbill.com, I became involved with a sketch comedy group organized by the Anne Riceish looking Pam. In her 30s, rotund, usually swaddled in black, with tresses of dark hair, and vocally talented, she was one of those vibrant characters one often encounters on the fringes of show business. It is virtually impossible for the unconnected to connect with the entertainment industry decision makers who are secluded in impenetrable glass fortresses. The dreamers are left to flap around “creating their own opportunities,” often led by charming, mentally unbalanced schemers.
With the assistance of her low-key, Grateful Deadish, pony-tailed husband Nick, she assembled a group of eight actors and comics. For a month we rehearsed their dozen short spoofs and parodies, a few of which were very funny. Some of the gems were about Harry Potter, reality television, temperamental actors shooting a porno (I was the exasperated Gary Marshall type director) and my tour de force as “Dr. Lou,” the soothing host of “Teen Talk.” I advised a 16 year-old girl to keep her football captain boyfriend by having sex with him, and a boy to use heroin instead of marijuana.
Rehearsals took place at a small, East Village art gallery that the owner rented out after hours to theatrical types at bargain prices. This project reached a thrilling finale when we actually recorded them in a real sound studio in The Film Center building under the guidance of a real producer.
Supposedly Pam had connections at Sirius Radio and our efforts would eventually be broadcast during The National Lampoon hour and CDs would be sold and we’d all be getting money. However, no contracts or releases were produced for us to sign and our addresses were never collected to send us our checks.
While our future ticket to riches was being edited, Pam unleashed plans for her/our next glorious endeavor, The Haunted Side Show. This would be a 30-minute Halloween extravaganza to be performed six times a night. Based on charging the public $20 and selling out, (her last year’s similar event had “lines around the block!”) we’d EACH get PAID $40 PER SHOW meaning over $200 A NIGHT. WOW! As the art gallery was double booked, this presentation took place at the outdoor seating area of a coffee bar on Avenue A. We then did three readings in this bucolic setting. Since she didn’t have to pay rent to the gallery, our refreshments were taken care of. The show consisted of sketches at a scary carnival presided over by “Coffina,” a sort of crypt keeper Emcee. We divided up the other characters.
Adorable, 23 year-old, blond, longhaired Jeremy would play The Pirate, Dracula, and Jack The Ripper who executes Coffina. The Dorothy Parkerish Laura, as a vicious Mermaid and as Dracula’s victim. Dizzy, mature but ageless Brenda, as a fortuneteller with a haunted voodoo doll. The amiable and chubby Patsy as a German accented witch reminiscing about Hansel and Gretel. I was to be Frankenstein’s Monster and an audience member tormented by the possessed voodoo doll.
Rehearsals went on for a month a few days a week usually at the art gallery, once at a popular rehearsal hall on Lafayette Street. Reaching October with no word on WHERE we’d be performing was odd. When pressured Pam said, “I think it will be in a loft in Soho…The Mermaid’s tank is built and the vampire’s coffin is almost ready…”
Our original troupe was supplemented by one of Pam’s associates. Colin, a 30ish Mario Cantone type who would be performing an original monologue as a wildly gay Igor and as The Witch Doctor. Another newcomer was Mira, an attractive belly dancer in her late 20’s.
Several swings who would cover all the parts were engaged to gives us a break from the undoubtedly grueling six performances a night routine. These lost souls were Lucy, a wide-eyed kook in her early 20’s, Ellen, a nurse in her 40’s Shirley, a raucous, thin, frizzy-haired Lesbian in her 50’s, and Bernard, a hunky opera singer in his 30’s.
Through emails and surreptitiously in person Laura and I shared our doubts. We had met many years earlier when we were young NYU bohemians, lost touch and miraculously met up again during the forming of this troupe. She rattled off a list of conflicts expecting Pam to declare that maybe she should drop out. “That’s okay. We’ll work around you!” I took a wait and see approach.
About a week before performances were to begin Pam sent out an email proclaiming that the show would be at The Laugh Factory in Times Square! Incredible! At Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets it was a great location. Rehearsals were to be held in the adjacent office building.
The Laugh Factory was originally the lavish sex palace Show World. In its pre-Giuliani, Disneyfied heyday, its three floors housed $.25 peep booths, small private rooms with women behind glass catering to the desires of the men who put money through slots, and selling areas with a variety of pornographic material and sexual paraphernalia. It had been converted into an Off-Off-Broadway theater complex and in the last two years was the New York City branch of the Los Angles comedy club. Outside, speakers blared the sound of loud laughter to get passersby’s attention. In time this seemed like a mockery of our efforts. The red and black décor with red walls, and small-mirrored tiles arranged in numerous triangles on them were preserved from the building’s licentious past. A bartender said that the place was haunted by the ghost of a murdered prostitute found in the ladies room. “Cut up real bad. Sometimes you smell her perfume…”
There was a spacious room for headliners and for big shows, and upstairs were a small cabaret and our theater. With 100 seats, it was an impressive venue suitable for genuine theatrical events. The backs of the rows of chairs were equipped with small tables where the audience’s required minimum of two drinks could be placed.
Lucy and Ellen called Pam to quit. Pam believed that it was because she chided them for not knowing their lines at recent rehearsals. Nina, the professional makeup artist that had been engaged, announced that she has last minute tickets for a motivational speaker at Madison Square Garden and has to leave soon. Pam had not obtained the promised makeup spray gun and Nina also has not brought her makeup kit, so she uses the Rickey’s assortment Pam bought to make me up. I do look great as Frankenstein’s monster.
“Where’s Mira?” The belly dancer did not show up. During rehearsals she confided to me her reservations about not getting paid as she is in high demand for paid parties and events that she’d have to refuse in order to perform in this show.
On our opening night no one came. This unattended performance was used as a necessary run through. We then goofed around and wrapped it up at 10:00 PM. There had been no “big sandwich” that had been promised by Pam during rehearsals. She had claimed that her sister was an executive at Subway and that we’d be supplied with a free food. Earlier, Pam was eating and no mention was made of food for us. The phrase “big sandwich” became short hand to express our frustration.
The next night as there were no tickets sales, Pam decided that we should use the time to hang outside in front of the theater and out flyers for the show. I stood on 8th Avenue dressed as The Monster accosting weary commuters on their way to The Port Authority.
“I’m a friend of Pam’s but she’s a great con artist! She CONNED The Laugh Factory into giving her the theater for free as well as the rehearsal space. ‘I’m very well known and have a following. My Halloween show last year was sold out!’”
“PLEASE! She was a $10 an hour witch at Madison Square Garden last year! They’ll throw us out of here!” cackled Shirley. During one of the run throughs when we were playing zombies she grabbed my crotch.
Outside, flyering as The Witch, she bellowed “Live Pussy!” to guys leaving the next door X video emporium. She tells me that she is not coming back tomorrow as this is taking time away from the one-woman show that she is developing. We exchange business cards. I’ll miss her playful bawdiness.
It also became apparent that the show is not very good. From the audience and from behind the stage curtain I watched the parts that I wasn’t in. Curtain pulling became problematic as the deputized stagehand, a short, goateed boy in his mid 20’s, never returned after opening night. From then on, the actors had to coordinate the back stage technical elements as someone had to.
The spectacular opening sequence was Pam emerging from a large upright coffin center stage. Encased in black, her face madly painted and wearing a red and black Mrs. Lovett wig, she proceeded to greet the audience with expository bad puns and then sang a lengthy original blues number accompanied by a rickety cassette played over the sound system. This was intended to begin the show with big laughs that as the ever-present curtain puller I never witnessed. She was always discombobulated by the difficulty of locking the door of the coffin. As she wrote the material it was fascinating to observe that her recitation of it always varied.
Another bit that thudded was a song sung by Pam in a Baby Jane Hudson blonde banana curl wig and Patsy as French conjoined twins wearing a connective striped outfit. They sat sewing while performing their Franco-English chanson, which never came out with the desired alternative and simultaneous effect.
The Stockholm Syndrome is the notable psychological phenomenon where over time hostages identify with and form a sympathetic bond with their captors. It also exists in The Theater.
Actors starved for opportunities to perform find themselves in a negligible project usually spearheaded by someone of questionable sanity. Instead of sensibly withdrawing, as they instinctively know they should based on similar past misadventures, they sublimate their powers of reason. They stick with it by formulating delusional rationalizations for staying. “You never know!” “Someone important may see it!” “It’s not that bad.” “It could get better.” “I do have a good part.” “It’s too late to leave it would be unprofessional.” Outlandish claims by the instigators could happen. The cast often shares these insights secretly after the project is well underway. “I wasn’t sure.” “That doesn’t sound right.” “This is the worst thing I’ve ever been in!” On opening night, “One down, eleven to go!”
Throughout the run I check with the box office about our tickets sales. Usually the ticket agent was a funny, African-American girl.
“Do you know if any were sold for tonight?”
“No you don’t know or no, none were sold?”
We laugh. “None.”
Sometimes, “OHHH you have two customers for the next show!”
I give the information to the cast as Nick who runs the lights and sound, invariably lies, telling us about fantastical high-ticket sales to pep us up.
One would think that a 30-minute show that had been rehearsing for a month would be pretty good shape. GAFFES GALORE. Sound miscues, flubbed and forgotten lines, people not position for entrances, the curtain was improperly pulled thus obscuring the crucial dancing voodoo doll. I was in that bit and did pull the platform with the doll out, “It would be great if we could see him!” I improvised.
Being the truly deranged individual infected with theateritis I am, it did have its exhilarating qualities. Two women were in genuine hysterics when I was wheeled out as The Monster and brought back to life. Especially when I leapt into the audience to grab one of these ladies. The 2001: A Space Odyssey/Zarathustra theme was supposed to be playing during my resurrection. Apparently no recording was obtained as Coffina HUMMED it. Later, when I was an audience plant that was brought up by the fortuneteller, it had been obvious this actress was flailing. I looked in her eyes and saw she was totally lost. I had to feed her cues. It went well.
Had a glass of wine at The Laugh Factory bar to come down from the high. Saw JIMMIE WALKER schmoozing with the crowd of about 20 after his 8:30 show. He is still alive and around.
Like being 16, and in summer stock…
At 11:00 PM many of us got dressed and left taking the side entrance to avoid Coffin outside flyering in hopes of attracting people for the midnight show.
I arrive at 6:00 PM and am the first there except for Pam. She reprimands me for leaving early last night as she supposedly had two guys interested in seeing the midnight show. The cast last night did not actually leave after getting dressed but went for a drink and returned! I plead confusion. Colin, I later learned was in costume for my part of The Monster, but no one actually attended the show.
Later on, Pam continued her habit of defensively thinking out loud. “I spent $2000 on a publicist! Unless people start coming, I’m never getting my money back!” Seeing the lack of makeup and supplies it seems unlikely that there was ever that much money to spend on publicity. “When I get that money back, I’m going to pay you guys!”
Most apocryphal was when Mira arrived just in time from a gig in Westchester during her belly dance got entangled in the scenery and it hilariously became “The Dance of The Cobwebs.” That was her only performance before she fled the show.
Our one performance tonight was for Patsy’s parents. She plays the German accented vulgar witch who reminisces about Hansel and Gretel. It went well and we wrapped at 10:00 PM.
One very special performance was for Brenda’s male companion and their actress friend. He was originally going to attend last night’s midnight show. “Call him now Brenda and tell him not to come! We are not staying late just for him!!” I growled and was seconded by everyone else.
Jeremy called Pam at 6:30 PM to say he wasn’t coming. This was understandable as lives an hour away in Brooklyn, had been to a party the night before, had attended all of the rehearsals and performances and had had enough. Pam was livid. I heroically interjected as to how to divvy up his parts between Colin and me. The show must go on.
With a puffy shirt, suede vest and an eye patch I became Jack Nicodemus, the 345 year-old pirate who comes out with a vicious mermaid in a tank. Behaving like a carnival barker, I invite the audience to come up and take a closer look. An audience plant is eventually pulled into the tank where it is intimated that he is drowned by the mermaid and that she also eats his liver.
After this bit, while the curtain was drawn, I then changed into The Monster. No time for makeup so I wore a cheap mask.
I also ended up having to play Colin’s role of Mahalo, the witch doctor who summons the dead for the finale. Colin wore the grass skirt over his clothes. Since this was the closest I would likely get to onstage nudity and feeling confident after having gone to the gym for three months, I wore the skirt over my boxer briefs and was shirtless and barefoot. I put on the wig and painted my face with blue and red stripes and gave it my all. Not since the 1940’s when Laurence Olivier appeared in repertory at The Old Vic in Oedipus and The Critic had such dazzling virtuosity in The Theater been witnessed. Had a glass of Merlot after. We wrapped up at 9:00 PM and return (?) to The Laugh Factory on Thursday.
An email from Pam:
Thank you all for your hard work and dedication to this project. It has been a lot of fun to work with all of you and I hope you feel the same.
I know that everyone is disappointed with the attendances thus far. I know I am. Because of this, we are revamping the schedule.
Since there are no advance sales for tomorrow, we are going to cancel the Thursday performances.
Our next performance will be FRIDAY at 8:00 PM. We are pushing for shows at 8, 10 and 12.
Everyone get out there and push the show. Please let me know if there are shows in the schedule that you cannot make.
Colin has a lucrative engagement for the weekend reading tarot cards and so is no longer with us. His Queer Eye Igor monologue is retired. Not mentioned is the absence of Bernard the opera singer who was supposed to join us this week covering the men’s roles. Nick runs from the sound and light booth to play the audience plant that gets slaughtered by The Mermaid. I assume the mantle of The Witch Doctor for the rest of the run. Two people for the 8:00 PM show and four the 10:00 PM, all strangers. Laugh Factory Merlot for me in between performances. At 11:30 PM we were allowed to leave.
It was a night for the theatrical annals. Five shows! At 8:00 PM there was incredibly nine people, the largest audience of our run. Merlot afterward to unwind.
Most cherished is the audience of four at the 9:00 PM show. It included a professional couple in their late 20’s from Queens, Frank and Lauren. They are good friends of mine who at his instigation have come to see me and often suffer through every show that I’ve been in in for the last three years. These minor works of varying degrees of accomplishment have been performed at venues from The East Village to The Upper West Side and in between.
After the show I met them in the lobby and they were supportive as always. “Great makeup as Frankenstein!” “I couldn’t stop laughing when you chanted Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters as The Witch Doctor!” As I had not promoted this event with emails, phone calls or flyers to anyone else, this praise is the only I shall receive from those who know me. Hugs and handshakes as they leave. Merlot! Next!
Seven people at 10:00 PM. A silent German couple at 11:00 PM. We began dressing at 11:40 PM but a mysterious couple arrive for the midnight show. “FUCK!” bellowed Jeremy as he was late for another party. We raced through it and leave at 12:40 PM.
During the course of this exhilarating evening some of Pam’s Orson Wellesian pronouncements included, “Next year skeletons with The Werewolf and The Mummy. I’m sure the club owners are trying to take the show away from me and are trying to copy it.”
Obviously due to budget restraints there is no professional makeup remover. Instead, there is a container of super duper baby wipes. After several day of following five performances tonight using scores of them to wipe off the globs of green, gray, white and red and black liquid (for scars) , my face is very red, dry and every line and wrinkle is accentuated. Suffering for art…
With the countenance of a vintage stuffed owl and that of a Friar’s Club Buddha, and wearing a cranberry blazer, JOE FRANKLIN sat through the penultimate performance of The Haunted Side Show at The Laugh Factory. Except for a woman in the cast playing an audience plant he was alone, which added even more absurdity to this surrealistic spectacle.
Often peeking thorough the curtain I was transfixed as he stared impassively NEVER laughing or reacting during the show. At first the chronic puffing up of his chest seemed like a reaction but it was just a natural tic. He did not even respond to my tributary adlibs.
As The Monster I howled “Martin Paint!” and on my line to Coffina, “You doctor?” I improvised, “You Dr. Brown?” She was rattled, “Who is Dr. Brown?” OF COURSE those were long time sponsors of Joe Franklin’s legendary Channel 9 local talk show that spanned the eras from Eddie Cantor to Carrot Top.
My Yiddishisms as The Witch Doctor also were met with silence. Following the zombie finale where the undead threaten to leave the stage to eat the audience’s brains, the curtain came down and rose for the cast to take their bows.
He BOLTED. There was to be no backstage congratulatory visit from this venerated show business legend. Earlier he was griping to the audience plant. “Are you going to the stand up show downstairs at 8:30 too? It’s 8:15 already!”
His renowned warren of an office that was crammed with ancient LPs and historical performing arts memorabilia was in the building adjacent to The Laugh Factory. Pam ran into him several times during our residency, imploring him to come see our show. It’s close proximity and his always being on the lookout for new talent must have led him to keep his word. His presence made this performance the supreme highlight of this theatrical folly.
If it had been the last performance it would have been fitting. Instead, that was for three friends of a cast member who caused a ruckus at the box office when they learned they would be compelled to buy two drinks in addition to the $20 cover. Pam eventually offered to pay for their drinks as they had old flyers before the club’s policy was known. THAT was more then the surviving cast of eight diehards got after a month of labor. Our recompense so far was a medium sized Hershey kiss and one Subway sandwich of our choice. Our addresses were collected for a future check, “That couldn’t possibly repay you all…”
The drink server distracted them several times during the show taking orders, etc., so many of the punch lines and bits went unappreciated. The highlight here was when Pam is crouching in a tank, her hand manipulating the gypsy fortuneteller’s singing and dancing voodoo doll puppet. I, as an audience member come up on stage to stab it with the fortuneteller’s knitting needle and blood spurts out of my chest. As always, I very carefully proceeded to do this but THIS time Pam HOWLED FOR REAL as the needle pricked her hand. Symbolic of a great deal.
Afterward there was a false alarm about three people for the 10:00 show. Many of us got made-up again, but soon Pam and Nick called it a night and the two-week run was over. We took off our makeup for the last time and packed up our stuff.
Pam was distant to me. Had my barbs been overheard? Was she pissed off about my Joe Franklin riffs? Was she really stabbed by my thrusting of the knitting needle?
There were farewells, handing out business cards to each other and promises to keep in touch and then we split up.
Laura and Brenda throughout all of this had been discussing their next appearance together. That was to be in a loony anti-Bush performance art piece performed the next month in a Chelsea gym. The girl playing The Easter Bunny had dropped out recently. Would I be interested in auditioning for the role? “I don’t think so…”
Earlier Pam relayed to us The Laugh Factory’s proposal of adding previously unscheduled performances on Halloween night. EVERYONE was busy. Instead, Pam would be doing a solo show as Coffina.
“I love the theater and all the charming people in it!” John Barrymore.