Sunday, November 06, 2005

40 years as an Actor

Hey, Bloggers!

Hallowe'en marked the 40th anniversary of the beginning
of my career as an actor, and to mark that auspicious
occasion, here are two anecdotes; the first is the
story of how I got that first job 40 years ago, and
the second is my proudest moment on the Broadway
stage.

Enjoy!
Don Stitt
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In 1965, my best friend's father was president of the
Society of American Magicians, and my freind and I had
a little magic act that we would do at parties, which
consisted of cast-off tricks from the father's
collection.
On Hallowe'en, my friend's father invited me to come
along to the SAM's annual convention, which was held that year
at the Roosevelt Hotel.
I remember getting a lot of celebrity autographs that night,
from Henny Youngman to The Amazing Randi, among others.
But my friend's father was there to do business, so Rob
and I were put in a small theater where magicians
were doing their acts for booking agents, and the magician
on the stage was none too good. He was a white guy doing
an oriental magician shtick, complete with bad asian accent,
and he was doing some of the tricks that Rob and I did in
our act.
I leaned over to Rob and said, "If this guy makes the mistake
of asking for a volunteer from the audience, watch what happens."
Sure enough, the magician asked for a volunteer from the audience,
and my hand shot up, and since I was cute and harmless looking
and on the aisle, the magician chose me.
As I stepped up on the stage, I could see that the next trick was
what magicians call a "patsy trick" meaning there are two seemingly
identical props, but one DOES the magic trick, and the other does not.
In this instance, there was a bottle which appeared to remain
rightside-up after being turned upside down.
Because they were identical, I couldn't tell which bottle did
the trick, and which one did not, but I was pretty sure that the
bottle the magician had placed on the left side of the table was
the one he wanted there, and vice versa, so while he stood downstage
of me, explaining the trick to the audience, I switched placement of
the two bottles.
The magician came up to me and said, "You take the bottle and turn it
over, like this."
But his bottle was upside down.
I said, "You mean like THIS?" And I did the trick with the other
bottle, and it "miraculously" remained rightside up.
The crowd roared it's approval.
As fate would have it, the vice president of the Manhattan Savings
Bank happened to be in the audience that night, and was looking for
a small, blond boy he could cast as a Dutch Boy Doll in a Christmas
musical the bank was producing for the holidays. He signed me on the
spot.
In no time I was doing four shows a day with pros from the worlds
of nightclubs, vaudeville and circuses.
A lot has changed since that first New York booking in 1965.
Television is in color now, we put a man on the moon, and Univac is
no longer the only computer. (Oh yes, they have added microphones
to the theater since then, too.)
But to this day, I still get a thrill from that unique backstage
smell of sawdust, hot glue and fresh paint, and when the spotlights
are in my eyes, and I can hear a few hundred strangers laughing at
some stupid thing I have said or done, I'm still as happy as that 9
year old boy on that Hallowe'en night 40 years ago.
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My role in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,
was based on legendary disk jockey
Alan Freed, and it included a loosely-scripted
prize-giveaway "in one" before the main
curtain, as a distraction while the bandstand was
set up.
The director had hired me partly because of my
stand-up comedy experience, explaining that
if something went awry, it would be good to
have a quick witted fellow onstage to cover.
We agreed that a red light would be hung on
the pinrail, and I'd keep talking as long as the
red light was flashing.
My little piece of the action was in Act Two,
and usually lasted between 3.5 and 5 minutes.
But one night at the Shubert, probably around
March of '91, I did my usual shtick, and the light
was still flashing.
No problem. I did the 90 seconds' worth of
"back up material," and looked up.
The light was still flashing.
But, hey, I'm a pro, so I launch into my old stand-
up routine, artfully editing-out references that
would have been anachronistic to 1959. This
buys me 4 more minutes.
And the light is still flashing.
Using the scenario as part of my very-real investigation
of what was wrong, I said, "We seem to be experiencing
technical difficulties." I stuck my head behind the main
rag and Doc, the head carpenter, snarled, "Get back out
there!"
But I was not out of ideas. Not quite.
I walked over to one of our backup singers, Jill "Crossing
Jordan" Hennessy, and improvized an interview.
This bought a couple of more minutes, after which I
was pretty much out of ideas.
And the light was still flashing.
So I did something I'm pretty sure nobody ever did
in the Shubert Theater's century of history: I jumped
down off the stage and said to the first guy on the
first aisle, "Hi. What's your name?"
He said, "Mike."
I said, "Hey, Mike, where ya from?"
He said, "New York."
Well, we were all from New York, since the Shubert is
on 44th Street. But we were supposed to be in
Clearlake, Iowa, so I said, "All the way from the Eastern
Seaboard, ladies and gentlemen."
It got a laugh,, and the red light went out.
I knew if I could segue back into the show seamlessly, I
would be the hero that saved the day.
I said, "Mike, what brings you to Iowa all the way from
The Big Apple?"
And Mike said those three magic words, "Rock and Roll!"
I said to the crowd, "Are ya READY to rock and roll?"
They cheered long enough for me to scramble gracelessly back up
onto the stage.
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, put your hands together
for a larger-than-life welcome for that larger-than-life rock
and roll star, Mr. Jay P. Richardson....The Big Bopper!"
And the band struck up Chantilly Lace, and Dave Mucci came on
and rocked the crowd.
I went into the wing, and the entire crew had lined up
to give me a standing ovation.
I had covered a 3.5 minute spot for 12 minutes.
Mostly off the top of my head.
It seems they had set up the entire bandstand 18 inches
left of the spike marks. Part of it was in the wings.
They had to unplug the instruments, strike the instruments,
collapse the bandstand, move the bandstand, assemble
the bandstand, restore the instruments and reconnect
the instuments.
They had done all that in 12 minutes.
Oddly enough, the director, musical director and producer
had been in the house that night, and they passed me
backstage, never saying so much as "Thanks."
I mentioned this with some umbrage to my stage manager,
the very witty Peter Mumford. He intoned," Mr. Stitt,
you've been in show business long enough to know that
nobody says anything to ya when you do it RIGHT!"

As George S. Kaufman once said, " I can only fall back
on a cliche and tell you, 'That's Show Business.'
I can further advise you to 'stay out of it.'"