xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: An actor's life for me. Not!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

An actor's life for me. Not!

When I was very young I wanted to be a song and dance man. Aged about eight my parents took me to Inglewood's  Civic Theatre  theatre where I saw 'The Jolson Story".In the opening scene young Asa Yoelson is wagging it from the synogogue and sitting in the balcony at a vaudeville show.
At some point the violin playing comedian on stage asks everybody to sing along with him, but of course, nobody does. Except young Asa. He sings like an angel and the crowd loves it. Pretty soon Asa is part of the act, he calls himself Al Jolson and the rest is history.

Whenever I went to the old time vaudeville shows in the 1950s and 60s at theTivoli Theatre in Beaufort Street or His Majesty's Theatre in Hay Street, I always went in hoping that somebody on stage would invite everyone to sing and I would rise to my feet and famously  launch myself into the world of show business.Obviously, it never happened.

I did get to be involved in the acting game when I was a student at Graylands Teachers College in the late 1950s.To develop our self confidence and oral expression it was mandated that each college group had to perform a play reading of a well known play each year. College play readings were performed in the hall and were full-blown productions with costumes, scenery, stage lighting and sound effects. In deference to the trainee teachers' lack of experience and the pressures of academic studies, the actors did not need to memorise their lines and were allowed to read from their scripts during the performance. In fact, some of the students did manage to learn their lines and get through each performance without carrying or referring to their scripts. Others managed to hide their scripts in their hats, various parts of the scenery, at the back of ‘the flats’ in the wings of the stage, in their costumes or even pinned to the back of someone else’s costume.
My friend, Brian Pinchback, who eventually obtained his Masters Degree in psychology and became a high ranking member of the Department of Foreign Affairs, was one  student who did memorise his lines. Brian gave a dramatic and emotionally charged performance as Denmark’s troubled Prince Hamlet. This was all the more incredible because Brian had had no previous acting experience. Our English lecturer and drama teacher, Peter Mann, had chosen him simply because he was the only blonde haired male in our group.

Despite  my stage ambitions, I never made it to the ‘big time’ in college play readings. In First Year my group put on J.M Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, an amusing commentary on the class system of Victorian England. In his wisdom, Peter Mann decided that I did not really suit any of the parts on offer. Instead he put me in charge of the sound effects.

The Admiral Crichton concerns an upper class English family who are marooned on a desert island with Crichton their butler. Crichton is the only one with any practical experience of actually doing anything useful. The rest of the family rely on him entirely for their survival. As a result, Crichton, over time, becomes their acknowledged leader. The formerly upper class family members become very much the island’s under class and are very happy to have the admirable Crichton in charge of their safety and well-being.

There was not a lot of scope for sound effects, though, with Peter Mann’s help, I constructed a ‘wind’ machine which consisted of three pieces of three ply securely wired to a common garden hose reel which had been completely covered by coarse canvas. When the hose reel was rotated the wooden blades sounded very much like the wind whipping through the ship’s sails or blowing through the tropical palm trees. When the sounds of a storm were required, I rotated the reel rapidly with my right hand and wobbled a small piece of galvanised roofing with my left. This was about four years before I saw Rolf Harris launch his wobble board from the studios of Perth’s Channel Seven.

At the climax of the play, the family are all gathered on the beach, sitting in a circle around Crichton. They have reconciled themselves to island life forever and have decided that Crichton will be their permanent leader. The group then stands, joins hands and bursts into a joyous rendition of Oh We Do Love to be Beside the Seaside. During the course of this song a cannon is heard firing in the distance. A British frigate is signalling its arrival in the lagoon, adding another dramatic twist to the fate of Crichton and the family.

It was my job to put into effect J.M.Barrie’s instructions that “the sound of a cannon shot is heard far off”. I told Peter Mann that I would purchase a firecracker and let it off backstage to achieve the right effect. Peter Mann appeared rather dubious, but cautiously agreed with my suggestion.
On the night of the play reading, I took up my position in the wings on the extreme left of the stage behind a thick curtain. Here, unseen by the audience, I had a perfect view of the players and could use the wind and thunder machine as required. I had also discovered a small peephole in the curtain so that I could look out at the audience.I did this frequently, happy to see pleasure on the faces of the large crowd as they enjoyed the performance of my friends on stage. I noted that the front row was full of notables such as Dr Traylen, the Principal, Dr “Jock” Hetherington, the Vice Principal, Miss Dolly Newton, the Warden of Women, and several other lecturers including Miss Lesley Graham, Mr Ross Bromilow and Mr Len McKenna. The play proceeded as rehearsed and the dramatic singing on the beach scene finally arrived. I was ready for it.

I had actually purchased two penny bombs, just in case the first one was a fizzog.Of course this was the 1950s and before the government banned Guy Fawkes Night and the sale of firecrackers. I had also found out that the actors only knew how to sing the first few lines of the song, so I needed to have my timing spot on. I also was not sure just how loud the penny bomb would be. After all, there were very thick curtains, several asbestos walls and about 250 people in the hall to deaden the sound. To help the firecracker resonate, I had placed it inside a metal waste paper bin. At the back of the stage lurked Peter Mann, who nervously glanced at me throughout the performance. He was not terribly happy that I would be lighting a match and exploding a firecracker backstage in contravention of several fire and safety regulations, but it was too late now. The show must go on.

Oh we do love to be beside the seaside…”

I lit the match, touched it to the wick of the firecracker, dropped it into the waste paper bin and then quickly looked through the peephole to note if my sound effects would be picked up by the audience.

We do love to be beside the...”


The noise was deafening. Truck Traylen, Jock Hetherington and the first four rows all jumped out of their seats. Even I was shocked by the noise. Billowing smoke and little pieces of red and brown firecracker paper fluttered across the stage clouding the actors, some of whom had gone into shock thinking a real bomb had gone off. At length the audience recovered. The little pieces of paper stopped fluttering to the ground, the smoke cleared and the show continued.
Unfortunately, the next line was, “Hark, is that a shot I hear?” It wasn’t J.M. Barrie’s intention, but on that night that line got the biggest laugh of all. I didn’t hang around backstage after the show. I didn’t think bumping into Peter Mann would be a very good idea. I dashed off quickly to the ‘after the show’ party being held in a house in Subiaco being rented out by four of the girls in the play. I was one of the first student to arrive. Later in the evening, when the party was in full swing, Peter Mann turned up. To my complete surprise he seemed quite happy. The show had been received very well and everyone was in a sparkling mood. Much later in the evening, I even shared a drink with Peter Mann who told me in confidential tones that some of the sound effects “were perhaps a trifle overdone”. This was in contrast to most of the other party goers, who during the evening, told me that I had made sure that The Admirable Crichton really went off with a bang!

The next year, my group produced Hamlet, featuring the aforementioned Brian Pinchback as the troubled prince. Peter Mann did not ask me to do the sound effects. Instead, I was one of the guards on watch at Elsinor Castle when the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father appears. Another one of the guards was my great friend, Sean Walsh. In producing the play it had been decided to construct two walkways extending out at an angle for about twenty feet into the hall from either side of the stage. These walkways were then decorated and painted up to look like the battlements of a castle.

At the beginning of the play, Sean stood on the left battlement and I on the right. We saw the apparition and conducted our conversation with the ghost from these positions. Naturally, many rehearsals were held in and outside of college hours and everyone eagerly awaited the night of the performance. As the performance began, Sean and I marched out in military fashion and took up our respective positions on the battlements. Slowly the lights dimmed. The audience hushed, the curtains opened to reveal the rest of Elsinor Castle glowing in eerie moonlight.

Lucy Walsh, no relation to Sean, was in charge of the lighting for all college productions. Lucy spent most of her time at Graylands College in a pair of khaki overalls, clambering across the rafters in the hall to position and re-position the stage lighting. She did her work enthusiastically and Hamlet was her crowning glory. The lighting effects were excellent. However, the moonlight was causing problems for Sean and me. We had not learned our lines off by heart and we could not read them in the dim light. The fact that we were about twenty feet out into the darkened hall made the stage lights even dimmer. Although we had not memorised our lines, we had a rough idea of the dialogue.What followed was five minutes of creative Shakespeare with such riveting dialogue as:
“What ho, Marcellus! Forsooth, how goes the watch, forsooth?’
“Yea, verily in truth, forsooth, methinks I’ve seen that ghost again tonight. Verily, in truth, methinks I have, forsooth.”
“Gadzooks. How so? Where so, forsooth, hast thou seeist it?”
“Methinks, on yonder battlements, yonder.  Yea, verily, forsooth, methinks”
And so, this travesty of Shakespeare’s masterly prose rambled on and on until the ghostly apparition appeared at the back of the stage and said the damning lines that would set Hamlet on his fateful obsession. After the ghost disappeared, Sean and I continued our impromptu impressions of Shakespearian conversation between two scared soldiers. Eventually it came time for us to move back onto the stage proper and exit via stage left and right, respectively.

As I moved off, I remembered my final, scene ending line, which was, “Something’s rotten in the State of Denmark.” Maybe so, but not as rotten as our acting in that opening scene.

Although I did not star in the Graylands College playreadings, I did get onto the stage and into the limelight from time to time. At the regular college camps at Point Peron, I had fun writing skits and reviews that often lampooned college life. After the play reading of Hamlet, I wrote a skit entitled Cutlet, which parodied Hamlet and finished up with everyone stabbing or poisoning everyone else to death. The cast all finished up as a pile of dead bodies in the final scene. To try to make up for the terrible mix-up in the first scene of Hamlet, I wrote the opening scene for Cutlet. This had Cutlet’s father appear as a black-faced ghost singing like Al Jolson to his little Sonny Boy, Cutlet:

“Climb upon my knee, Cutlet boy.
Though your twenty three, Cutlet Boy,
You’ve no way of knowing,
I’ve no way of showing,
What your uncle’s done to me,
Cutlet boy!
Your uncle, he poisoned me.
Darn right, boy, he poisoned me.
Now it’s up to you,
Cutlet boy!
So your mother, she’s shacked up with him.
Time you, my boy, you hacked up to him!
Now, I’ll rely on you, Cutlet boy!”

And so on. It didn’t get any better, but it made me feel as if I had made some amends to the Bard of Avon.

Other outlets for my latent inclinations to be a stage entertainer were the lunchtime concerts that various students put on in the hall from time to time. I once teamed up with my friend, Ivor Davies, to do a passable version of Brush Up Your Shakespeare from Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter’s musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. However, I was quick to modestly admit that Cole Porter did a much better job of putting Shakespeare to music than I had in Cutlet.

In 1955, the film Blackboard Jungle was released to great acclaim. It featured Glen Ford portraying an idealistic teacher in a tough school in New York. He had major conflicts with a bunch of juvenile delinquents led by a mean and lethal Vic Morrow. The film was a powerful social comment and a huge box office hit. However, the major impact of the film was its sensational soundtrack with Bill Haley and His Comets commanding everyone under thirty to “Rock Around the Clock”. Fans jived wildly in the picture shows and music was changed forever. It was the dawn of Rock 'n Roll.

By mid-1956, Elvis Presley was already ‘The King’. At lunchtimes, some male students used to go into the college hall, turn on the public address and give their impressions of Elvis. Even though I was a staunch Bing Crosby fan, more tuned in to crooners like Perry Como, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, I used to jump on the stage and do my Elvis impressions.

“This is an impression of me doing an impression of ElvisPresley doing an impression of me,” I would yell and let fly with the latest Elvis hit. Other students used to come and eat their lunch while the Elvis impersonators did their thing. Occasionally, a fine fellow named John Maloney would sit at the piano and expertly play Lullaby of Birdland or some groovy Dave Brubeck jazz number, just to remind everyone that “real” music still existed. Television’s Ron Howard was right. They were indeed such Happy Days.

My only other major stage acting experience was when as a young teacher I appeared in The Desert Song. In 1960 the Bunbury Musical Comedy Group was founded and chose Sigmund Romberg’s classic musical of the Riff rebellion against the French as its very first production. The story revolves around the mysterious Riff rebel leader, The Red Shadow, who also leads the double life of a mild and gentle French language teacher in Casablanca. Because of the double roles, the hero, had 28 entrances in the show. I, however, could proudly boast that I had 29 entrances. This was due to the fact that because of a lack of male members in the cast, I had three roles to play as a Riff, a Legionnaire and a harem guard.
In the first scene, I created some sort of theatrical history by chasing myself off the stage. The show opens with the Riffs gathered on stage and the Red Shadow leading them in the stirring Song of the Riffs.

Over the ground,
There comes a sound.
It is the thunder,
Of the Shadow and his band.”

This then lead into a rousing chorus, at the end of which the Riffs lustily sing that:

If you’re the Red Shadows foe,
The Riff will strike with a blow,
That brings you woe.”

At that exciting moment I rushed onto the stage and cried out, “Master, Master, I have seen the French!”

“Where?” asks the Red Shadow.

“Over yonder hill,” I replied with a dramatic gesture towards the green EXIT sign halfway down Bunbury’s Railway Institute Hall.

“Come on men, let us away,” commands the Red Shadow, leading everyone off at stage left.
I was the first one off, quickly shedding my djalaba as I raced around the back of the stage. I was wearing my Legionnaire’s uniform underneath. On the way to the other side of the stage I was handed my Legionnaire’s hat and a machine gun, which was actually a tractor muffler, painted black, with a canvas strip bullet belt and fake wooden bullets attached. In the wings at stage right, I then lined up with the Legionnaire Captain, about to march his troops on stage.

As the last of the Riffs were departing to the left of stage, the Legionnaire Captain marched his four soldiers on from stage right rear, pointed to a papier mach'e boulder and said to me, “Set up that machine gun in position of ambuscade.” If I had been any quicker, I could have shot myself in the back.

Ah, yes, some wonderful memories of my brilliant stage career that wasn't. The good thing, however, was that I quickly realised that teaching was mainly acting, anyhow, so in the end I had a pretty good run.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would love to hear your opinion! If for some technical reason it won't let you leave a comment, please email me at bourke@iinet.net.au