Christmas Creeps In

I had left UNC and was living in an apartment over my friend’s recording studio, way the hell out in New Jersey. When I look back on it now, I can’t believe how long I lived there, it was basically all of August and September, which is a long fucking time to crash at somebody’s pad. I was living with a girl at that point, and she moved up with me to stay in this three room crap-hole with no kitchen, mounds of stored equipment and a couple of giant boxes of porn. The girl and I slept on a fold-out futon, and every once in a while we had to find somewhere else to sleep, if a rock band from the city was staying out there for a week. We’d come back from staying in the sleaziest motel in New Jersey to find cocaine tracks on the laminate furniture and porn remnants strewn everywhere.

I had been offered a tour with Theatreworks, which I now believe is one of the very best theater companies in New York city. They’ve employed more people than the WPA in the thirties, and if they weren’t sending out small union musicals for kids to enjoy all over the country, then Equity’s unemployment rate would leap by about 15%. But, since they didn’t want to cast the girl I was with, I turned it down. Strange to think of now, had I taken the tour and gotten my equity card, I would have had six months employment, I would have dumped the girl, and I would have been living in New York since ’96. Instead, I turned down the tour and, in January moved to LA with the girl who would eventually break up with me because she simply couldn’t stop fucking the busboys at her waitress job.


It was getting to be the first of October, and I had turned down the jobs offered to me, either because I was taking the girl seriously, or because the money was terrible and I had no way of getting into the city every day because the train was expensive, and our car needed to be parked somewhere and that was outrageous. I was starting to get freaked out and desperate.

At the same time, a lovely little theater company in Rome, New York was looking for three cast members who could do their Christmas musical. Their biggest concern was that they had a small two room apartment to house the actors, and cramming all three in there was tough if two of them didn’t want to share a room. Plus, they only had one car to let us use, and they’d discovered that two cars was really important.

It was, perhaps, the single greatest auditioning experience of my life. I came in and sang and they fell in love with me, then my lady friend came in, and they found out we were a couple, and BANG, they gave us contracts.

We got the scripts in the mail, and as I looked through the three acts, I thought to myself “Um, this seems like three and a half hours of show.” It wasn’t that we had two weeks to rehearse it that worried me, it was that… I mean, it’s THREE HOURS! Who the hell, outside of Wagner, wants to watch three and a half hours of theater! Especially when one of the acts is a Christmas Review containing “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

(I will eventually come up with a list of good Christmas carols and bad Christmas carols, but, trust me, Do You Hear What I Hear is on the list. I believe that Charles Manson could have gotten off if he had just played a recording of that song for the jury and said “This is what our culture has come to! Don’t you see? I had to kill SOMEBODY!”)

We began rehearsals, and I also hustled myself out as a carpenter for building the set. An extra $6 an hour, on top of the several hundred we were getting a week to act. But, the cool thing is that I spent all that time with the husband/wife team that run the company, and I got to exercise every ounce of my talent.

I’m not saying the shows were great, by any stretch. The first act was a straight up Christmas pageant, where we somehow married “It’s A Marshmallow World In The Winter” with “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”. I got to wear a sparkly bow-tie and spangled vest with a tux shirt, and I’m pretty sure I got to sing a solo in the middle of “I’m Gettin’ Nothin’ For Christmas”. The second act took place on a train car in the mid 30s, I’d guess, where I played a singing waiter and I got to play guitar. Because guitar was big in the 30s. The last act was set in present day, but I played the ghost of a woman who lost her husband in WWII.

We opened after two weeks with a flawless set, perfectly off-book and on key, with a Christmas show that lasted four hours. And four hours is a long time, definitely, but when you are doing the show for the strictly over-70 set, you can imagine that bathroom breaks were long, hearing aids went up and down, and there was a lot of LOUD snoring.

Oh, and yeah, you did the math right. I got the gig the beginning of October, and we rehearsed for two weeks. Look, I’m not making this up, I’d tell you the name of the company, but there is the farthest outside chance that the couple who still run the theater have heard of google, and they’ll show up here and get hurt by my slick ribbing, but I’m telling you, this Christmas show opened, not just before Thanksgiving, but BEFORE HALLOWEEN. We had a couple of days when it was HOT.

Now, after we opened, the producers, being no dummies, realized they needed to drop one of the acts, and the one hour train ride with the inexplicable and barely understandable immigrants and the anachronistic busker/waiter would have to go. With that removed, it also dropped one half hour intermission, so all we had to do was tighten up the two other pieces, and we were right at two hours.

(I’m sorry, permit me a little aside here. Why a half hour intermission you ask? Well, that’s gonna lead me to something else. The performance space was one end of a restaurant, a buffet with long tables. I gotta say, some people just know how to make money, they really ought to just be allowed to print it, for chrissakes. They had a restaurant that was never completely full, so they just built up one end of it to look like a performance space, replaced the area in front with long tables and set up a buffet. Instead of charging for a $8 meal, they charge $65 tickets and pack the place with octogenarians. Which means that the first five minutes of the first act, during the opening monologue and number, one of our responsibilities was to gently remove people’s purses, canes, keys, wallets, even FEET, from the front lip of the stage, and to sweetly try to make sure everyone is either awake for the show, or will remain asleep for as long as they need.)

(But why a half hour intermission? Because there was one toilet for the men, one for the women. Including the actors.)

(((I’m sorry, let me be a little bit more specific here, because often “toilet” means “the room wherein several stalls and urinals are held”, and that’s not what I mean at all. I mean “one toilet”. For each. Which means there was a long line of men waiting outside, and one old guy inside staring at his dick, praying that the pee would come out at some point.)))

(((((Yes, I know. But for the grace of God, and one day… I know, I know.)))))

So, let me talk about this last piece, because it really is a touch of brilliance. The producers were the husband/wife team, but the director was the husband, and he had also taken on the role of “playwright”. Now, this guy was corny as hell, he was a bigger punster than my Jewish friends, but he was also wicked smart and as pragmatic a man as I’ve ever met. His advice for producing is stuff I’ve held on to tightly.

(He said “advertise a comedy, but give the people a drama.” Everyone likes to think they’re going to see a comedy, and it gives people permission to laugh at stuff, but what people really want, when they’re sitting there in the dark, is a tight drama. He said “build every set with the basics first and flourishes next.” I’ve lived to regret ignoring this, since my garage now has two sets of baffles in it. He said, “Producer, Audience, Playwright, Director, Designer, Actor,
in that order.” By which he meant, if an actor was having a problem, it would have to be passed up the chain of command, which would be four levels away from importance to a producer. If the Playwright had a problem, it was only one level away. The audience was the final arbiter.)

In this last play, I was a ghost of a woman that was married during World War II. The actress playing the woman was 73 when we started the play, which, I don’t think makes her old enough to have had a husband and kids before the war, but maybe she started early. In any case, the character has a boyfriend that has been pushing for marriage for ten years, asks her every year at Christmas, but, y’see, the first husband was declared dead, but they never found his body.

So, I appear as an imaginary figure at one point, singing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, just the first half of the first verse, ending with “and presents on the tree…” and then the show goes on. Then, I come to life as a ghost in my WW II uniform and sing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” playing it on the piano in her living room, this time the whole song. We have a wonderful ten or fifteen minute scene, at the end of which I tell her that it’s time to let go. It’s time to embrace the life she still has left, she should marry this man. And then I kiss her good bye and sing a little something I like to call “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”.

Now, this shit was fucking SOGGY. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, which matched perfectly with the fact that, already, there wasn’t a dry seat. All of the “MARGARET, WHO IS *THAT* GUY”s had already been gotten out of the way during the first part of the act, so every single ancient audience member knew who I was by the time I had my long scene. And every single person in the audience saw themselves in Gail, the actress playing the grandmother.

Gail had lived upstate for about 20 years since she stopped acting in the city. She taught acting at SUNY Oswego or something, and now, in her early 70s, she had retired from teaching and just did the odd show now and then for fun. I don’t know how she survived having to listen to me sing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” three times a show, two times a day, five days a week for almost two months, but I very quickly found myself thanking God that she was willing.

She was still tall, although not as tall as she had been, and still had a striking frame, although a bit stockier than it once was. Her hair was silver, not white, and cut into a strangely specific long-bob, as if she had gotten a very severe haircut once in the 70s, hated it, and then a month later when it grew in she realized it framed her face perfectly. She had the blue twinkley eyes of a woman that was used to men’s attention, and the earthy slowness to her gestures that implied a sort of center. This was a woman who, for a ringing phone, dropped exactly nothing.

And, the thing I found most attractive, she suffered fools not at all. The specific cast of this show was made up of hippies, gym rats and extroverts, to the point where every single person (except for me, of course) had fantastic bodies, and every single person was completely naked all the time. It’s hard to describe the level of depravity, but I can tell you exactly what each of the women in the cast had their pubic hair trimmed like, exactly what sort of nipples they have. All it takes is one actress to tip the balance toward nudity, and this particular cast happened to have, in every single role, one of those actresses.

Except for Gail, of course. I hung out with the actors and with the woman I was with, but man did Gail have no patience for my bullshit. I would go on and on about something (big surprise) and every once in a while I’d see Gail just glance at me like I was a fucking ASSHOLE. I remember, one time early on, I had a particularly good zinger. I don’t know if it was a pun or an observation or what, but it was powerful and insulting and everyone was laughing and Gail was staring at me. I told her I was sorry, almost as an impulse, and she said, “Don’t you want to try for more than this?” and I asked “more than what” and she said “More than *this*” and she gestured around a room of naked laughing hot girls, letting her hand almost linger on the woman I was with at the time.

And then, every show, on stage, I could tell she was in love with me. I came out in a soldier’s outfit and she had several opportunities to get close to me, and she would climb inside me, almost. The weeks crawled by and we talked more and more outside the show, walking around the grounds together between shows while the girl I was with went to the gym with the other hotties. We were supposed to kiss during the show, just once, just as a good bye, and it quickly became the best moment in the show.

I started dreaming about her. I wanted so badly to talk to her when she wasn’t around. When we had huge snowstorms, I would think about the fact that they might cancel the show, and it would kill me because I wouldn’t see Gail. This woman who was almost fifty years older than me.

It was amazing on stage. After sitting for an hour and forty minutes, the audience that had been spinning and moving and getting up to go to the bathroom and asking for more coffee suddenly didn’t speak. I know it’s because they were seeing one of their own talk about their own lives, but part of it is because there was a sexual electricity going on between the two of us. You can always tell on stage when two people want to be together but haven’t yet, in the same way you can always tell when two people have already done it, and the former is so much better than the latter. When I held Gail at the end, the audience applauded every night, as if it were the end of the show. The end of the show was six minutes later, when Gail’s character accepted the marriage proposal.

In the middle of December, the director pulled us aside. There were only about 15 shows left, but the relationship between the two of us was getting distracting to the audience. I laughed him off at the time, but he was right. By the time the other actor came on, the entire audience wanted Gail’s character to die so she could be with me in heaven. It became the end of “Somewhere In Time”. Gail suddenly figured out what was going on and kiboshed me hard. I’m sure she thought all of the affection she was getting from me was identical to her many students, and as soon as she realized that I had a full out crush on her, she sat on it.

I never told the girl I was with. Never really told anyone. She was 73 in ’96, she’s be 83 now, and I don’t know what she’s doing. Gail isn’t even her name, I’ve totally forgotten her name. But my… whatever it was… love affair, I guess, with her was the beginning of the end of that life. I had spent my time making as many pretty girls laugh as I could, and that had been enough for me as an adolescent, and that started to change by early ’97.

It took me years, but every time, after that show, every time I looked at the woman I was with, I wanted her to be more substantial, more relevant. Our relationship was dying long before she started fucking busboys, and she wouldn’t have had to seek out the attentions of busboys if I hadn’t lost so much respect for her that winter. I wanted to share my life with a woman who would laugh at my jokes and then say “what *more* do you want? If you want more, then I will stand by you and get more with you.”

It’s weird to think now, as I do when we’re upstate New York for Christmas, about that show and that time. But the smell and the frozen crunchy snow bring me back to her, and it’s amazing to know that a love affair doesn’t need anything more than a conversation and shared passion, nothing more than a dare to achieve and a circumstantial kiss for it to be capable of changing your life.