Momentous Monday: Curtain Down

Although my days on stage are probably over, I can’t believe how formative they’ve been. I will miss them.

It has now been approximately one year and seven and a half months since the last time I set foot on stage to do an improv show and, at this point, I think I really have to resolve myself to the fact that I will never perform in front of a live audience again.

It’s sad, but it’s reality. The first big block happened when COVID shut down the theaters, including the improv theater I’d been performing at. We sort of went on hiatus, with most of the four companies still doing Zoom shows or meeting regularly that way, but then at some point the parent company basically dissolved everything else, so that the Sunday Team, College League, and Rec League were officially disbanded.

I’m not even sure at this point if the Main Company still exists or not. By a fluke of timing, the company had decided to give up their too expensive lease on their old space effective on April 1st of that year — a decision made before COVID would have wound up sticking them in an arrangement they could not have afforded had they stayed.

Ever since that time, though, I’ve been meeting weekly with Rec League members via Zoom, and for a long time we would have a quick catch up, followed by an hour or two of various Zoomable improv games.

In the last few months, though, the group sizes and enthusiasm for doing games seems to have waned a lot, and it all seems to correspond to the second shut-down after that single week at the beginning of July when it looked like we were going back to normal but then the Delta Variant reared its ugly head, even threatening the fully vaccinated.

Also, our fearless leader, who used to also be the education director for the improv company and Rec League Coach, has taken on a new career as an audio book narrator and, since he can do that from anywhere with a home studio set-up and an internet connection, he’s leaving town and moving far away in January.

A lot of my friends seem to be moving out of California as well, although I don’t think it’s so much a knock on the state — which is wonderful — as it is the realization that they can suddenly do what they in a place that is a lot less expensive because they’re suddenly not tied down to a physical office location.

Hey, I’m considering it myself. I just have to decide whether I want to move in-state or out, whether I want to be closer to my mom’s family and make my ancestor’s journey in reverse, or whatever. I do think, though, that I would like to be some place more rustic, where I can have a nice house, a few acres of forest, and multiple large dogs, and where nature can recharge me.

One thing I’ve learned on my summer and winter camp trips in the last couple of years to Big Bear: When I go to a place like that, I sleep much more easily than I do in the city, wake up with the dawn, and find nothing more enjoyable than to wander off into the woods on my own as the sun is just rising and the morning mist is lifting, perhaps to encounter a stray deer who seems just as curious as me as I do about them.

Not that I’m not really into city living, either, but I could use a balance. Let’s say… 67/33 rural to city? But also 99/1 liberal to a-hole.

Yeah, hard balance to manage, I guess, until enough of us disperse and turn all the red places purple.

Back to the original thesis, though: Even if the improv company comes back and starts up its education department and the Rec League again, I’m still not sure that I’d go back, or be able to. The main reason there is that this having been sheltered in place for so long has reverted me to who I was before I found improv, and that’s not good.

When it comes to performing on stage, that has been a part of my life since forever, despite my being a total introvert. Well, once upon a time, until I figured out that I was an ambivert.

But from when I started doing elementary school plays all through drama and band in junior and high school and college, and then bands after college and theatre as an adult and improv way too late in life as an adult, the thing I realized was this.

Sure, I was an introvert in person, afraid to engage with people, except that I could be an ambivert when I was dealing with people I had already made friends with and trusted.

I only became an extrovert, though, when I had an instrument and music or a character to hide behind.

“Okay, so I get to put on this costume and play with these props and say these lines that aren’t mine? Cool. So I don’t give a flying fuck of what those people out there think, because they’re thinking it about my character not me.”

Or… “All right. So I’m standing behind these keyboards and playing notes and singing back-up and I’m half-naked because that’s just the band style right now, and we’re surrounded by screaming fans. Fuck it. They love us, and I’m having a religious experience with my bandmates anyway because, music. So I am invulnerable!”

And this is really why performing was such a big part of my life for such a long time. It was something I never expected that I’d get into and yet I should have figured out from the get-go that I would have. After all, I had my first music lesson when I was seven, and one of the first awesome “toys” my parents bought me was a rape-recorder with a microphone, so I started impersonating radio DJs and creating my own characters.

That, and lip-syncing to records in my bedroom, most of which were Broadway soundtracks. Yeah, that should have been my parents’ first big clue right there.

Although, after my career as a playwright and writer took off, if you’d asked me, “Are you also an actor?” I would have said “Oh, hell no.” And I would have been lying.

More honestly, I should have said, “Yes, but not a really good one,” and that’s certainly the case. I never did do leading roles, but I never wanted to. Why? Leads have to learn way too many lines and work far too hard. Much better to be the weird background business, and I kind of made it my specialty to play “weird background business.”

I’ve done way too many police officers and guards, random monks, a dozen ensemble roles in one piece, Jesus-y stand-ins, depressed bears, other animals in general, a raft of “Christmas Carol” characters culminating in the Ghost of Christmas Future (i.e. The Grim Reaper), and roles on and off stage in far too many musicals.

So how I could have not really considered myself both an actor and a playwright this entire time is kind of beyond me. However, there’s one big note. Until I started learning improv, which wasn’t all that long ago, I never applied my acting skills to real life.

There was me on stage — Extrovert. And me IRL — Introvert. And never the twain shall meet.

Or did they?

Actually, after I got into improv was when my introvert personality began to slip way IRL, and I became so much more of an extrovert that it was ridiculous. Why? Most likely because that’s when and how I learned to play myself as a character — maybe. Or, barring that, it was when I learned how to apply the insulation of a stage persona IRL.

And it all got better after that.

But, sadly, as I said, I have to believe that those days are over now. I have no idea what’s coming next, only that this plague has changed us. Maybe I’ll take to the stage again some day — but it may be far away and in a very different context. Wish me l….

Nope, sorry. Tell me to “break a leg.” Thanks!

Sunday Nibble #22: Summer camping — sort of

Recently, Amazon Prime recommended something called The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, which aired on ABC in 1976, and it is… beyond surreal.

Basically, it was a make-good on a contract with ABC after two star-vehicles created for him failed. These were The Paul Lynde Show and Temperatures Rising, although in the case of the latter Lynde was brought in to replace the original lead, James Whitmore, of a failing series — never a good sign — and it was rechristened The New Temperatures Rising Show.

It’s no secret now — hell, it wasn’t even really a secret then except to Middle American audiences — that Lynde was as gay as Christmas on Fire Island. He hardly did anything to hide it, and even when he was supposed to be playing straight, married men he would camp it the hell up.

Somehow, he endeared himself to audiences, though, particularly as the put-upon father in the film version of Bye-Bye Birdie, and especially as the extremely flamboyant Uncle Arthur in the TV series Bewitched.

He sealed the deal when he became center square on The Hollywood Squares beginning in 1968 — and all of his best answers were so campy and over-the-top that someone had to be absolutely blind to not figure out how gay he really was.

Although, who knows? Maybe it was the idea that he was the wacky bachelor uncle who was too funny to have sex, so he was “safe.” Although if you look at a lot of his answers on Hollywood Squares, it’s hard to really believe that.

I mean, come on. He’s not even trying to hide it — and these are just six minutes out of hours of stuff.

By the way, the audience’s reaction and Paul’s response to the last question, at about 5:34, says it all. At least in some circles, they knew, and he didn’t even try to hide it.

This brings us to his Halloween Special, which is a bizarre combination of over-the-top camp combined with Lynde, playing himself, continually being cast in scenarios where he’s basically competing for female attention.

By the way, one of the principal writers on the special was Bruce Vilanch. If you don’t know who he is, the short version is that he is one of the funniest writers in Hollywood who has put humorous words into the mouths of everyone, since forever.

He punched up the jokes for the Oscars for years, and was the subject of the 1999 documentary Get Bruce! He also used to be the head writer for… The Hollywood Squares, and he was also loudly and proudly gay, although behind the scenes.

So we wind up with this bizarre mish-mash in which Paul Lynde is whisked away by his maid (Margaret Hamilton) to visit her sister (Billie Hayes). This is when he discovers that they are both witches, which is somewhat meta because the two of them played, respectively, The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and Witchiepoo in the 1960s TV series H.R. Pufnstuf. They resurrect those characters here, and at least one of them is a gay camp icon.

The rest of the special involves the witches granting Lynde wishes, and in the first two he wishes to be a trucker and then a Sheikh — the first to seduce a diner waitress (Roz Kelly) and the second to seduce proper British Lady Cecily Westinghouse (Florence Henderson). He gives the witches the last wish, and they decide to go to a disco.

Along the way, the band KISS shows up and performs a few numbers.

If ABC wonders why they couldn’t get shows with Lynde to take off, this is a prime example. He was a fixture on Hollywood Squares for years. His Halloween special was never even re-run until the days of streaming.

If you have the slightest clue about Lynde’s private life, every single instance of him trying to seduce a woman here comes across as either cringingly inauthentic or, less charitably, as acts of hidden misogyny — we’re going to play the “girls are icky” game, but from a macho position.

Hm. Camp gay man portraying toxic masculinity? How very 1970s of them.

The other thing that really stood out for me, though, was how absolutely fucking boring and corporate KISS were. Now, I was never even familiar with their music, having been lucky enough to have avoided exposure to it in its heyday, but I had heard things from older cousins about how Satanic and evil and scary they were, or whatever.

I do remember some brouhaha when they ditched the costumes and make-up in the 1980s, but in watching them in this special now, my main impression was that they didn’t look scary or evil or anything like that. They just looked ridiculous.

This was what happened when somebody threw some 50 year-old brand manager a stack of records by Ozzy Osbourne and David Bowie and Alice Cooper, along with concert footage of the same, and said, “Come up with a band like this.”

I know it wasn’t intentional, but while the aim was for ultra-macho and dangerous, what they really managed to create was four young straight guys trying to do drag, but chickening out before the wigs went on.

Maybe that was totally appropriate for this special because, in a way, KISS actually represented exactly what Lynde had been forced into doing by strapping down his sexuality and pretending to play a straight man. The only difference was that he sort of managed to walk out with his dignity somewhat intact because he never actually gave up his personality along the way.

If anything, this special is a nice time-capsule reminder of how much mainstream pop culture in the 1970s sucked royal donkey balls. Oh, that’s probably the case now, as well. We’re just a lot better at design, costumes, hair, and make-up.

You can view the whole special in good quality if you have Amazon Prime, or watch it here, if you must.

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