Sunday, May 18, 2008

A sort of Legacy

Looking back, you wonder whether you've had any impact on the world. As for me, I can think of only one thing I might have left behind as a legacy, a tradition, in the theatre.

Back in the '80's, I toured with a show called "One Mo' Time." The show was based on a hit Off-Broadway revue created by New Orleans musician Vernel Bagneris, and it was a vignette of the onstage and offstage lives of black vaudeville performers touring the American South during the 1920's.

I was the Head Props person. In addition to being in charge of all the objects actors touch, hold, carry, or move - furniture, purloined letters, wedding rings, beer glasses, magic wands - the Props department has two other responsibilities: supporting the musicians - moving pianos, setting up drums, setting up the orchestra pit - and the floor. Whether there's a rug, a dance floor, a painted ground cloth, or the stage floor itself, the Props department lays it out, nails it down, sweeps, mops, vacuums or cleans it.

Our tour was what's called in the business a "Bus and Truck" tour, one that plays such short stops it's cheaper to travel the cast and crew in buses that followed the trucks hauling scenery, lights, and costumes.

When I was touring with "One Mo' Time," I worked with the House Propman in each theatre. He helped me set up the props, and then during the show I taught him his cues while I ran mine.

"One Mo' Time" had a musical number where the lead actor sang a song called "The Jailhouse Blues." He went out on stage in a striped convict suit, dragging a ball and chain shackled to his ankle. At the end of the musical number, the ball and chain suddenly flew offstage, dragging the actor off by his leg.

The ball and chain were my responsiblity.

A sturdy black cord was attached to the ball. When the actor went out onstage, I knelt behind in the wings, and played out the cord as he went. When it came time for him to be dragged offstage, I pulled the cord and ran as fast as I could.

Most of the theatres we played were so small, with such little wing space, that I didn't have much room to run straight off. So I would pound a nail into the floor close to the proscenium wall, bend it over, and wrap the cord around the nail to turn it 90 degrees. When I had to pull Smokey offstage, I'd run upstage, straight to the back wall, which gave me the 25 or so feet of travel needed.

Once, when it was time for the Jailhouse number, I discovered that my nail was gone! Sometime between rehearsal and showtime, the House Propman had identified the nail as something dangerous marring his floor, and had pulled it! I frantically reeled in the cord by hand, making such a mess of it that Smokey made it offstage before the ball.

I promised Smokey it wouldn't happen again.

We played - well, just to name a few - Syracuse, Utica, Rochester, Schenectady, Albany, Fort Wayne, Evansville, Erie, Lexington, South Bend, Carbondale, Muncie, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Elizabeth, Memphis, Des Moines, Madison. In each of those towns, when I put my nail in the floor downstage right by the proscenium wall, I surrounded it with a square of white tape, and a magic-markered warning notice: "Stage Right Nail: Do not remove!"

After "One Mo' Time" closed in Boston, I picked up a couple more shows playing the same circuit. I noticed that in some theatres my Stage Right Nail was still there, with its white tape square and warning notice.

Just for fun, I started asking people working in those theatres - "What's up with that Stage Right Nail thing?"

Stagehanding is a transient occupation. People come and go; get dispatched to different theatres on different days; people quit and do something else if the work dries up in town. So even though sometimes I'd return to a city where the stagehands remembered me, other times the crew were complete strangers.

So I was delighted to hear someone say in one city: "I don't know the story behind it, but it's been there as long as I've worked here. I think it's some kind of tradition in this theatre."

If you happen to work in the theatre on the bus-and-truck circuit in the Northeast and Midwest, and you've always wondered about that bent-over nail pounded into the floor downstage right by the smoke pocket - with the cryptic warning sign - let me be the one to claim it as my legacy.


KathyR said...

That is a great story.

"A tradition!" -snerk-

DaveyWaveyGoodAsGravy said...

Best. Story. Ever.