Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Other Theaters

There were three live theaters in Jackson Hole back in the seventies: Dirty Jack’s, The Pink Garter Theater, and The Jackson Playhouse. Dirty Jack’s was rather barn-like, but that contributed to the charm of the place. It seated about 400, with a rather large lobby in front. The floorboards creaked and it was decorated in ersatz Old West motif. It was like walking into a saloon in an old horse opera.

We were rather intimidated by the fancy-shmancy Pink Garter Theater. They had an actual curtain, for gawd sakes. In 1976 they did “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” and I remember watching it early in the season and wondering if ANYONE would come see our show. It all seemed so crisp and glitzy.

The Jackson Playhouse, on the other hand, made us feel kind of superior, with its small, cramped theater and low-budget production. They put on a lowly revue that season rather than a real play, so we were a bit smug. Still, I remember being impressed with their players. Bad house, bad show, but talented cast.

The cast at the Pink Garter included two young women who were sisters. They danced in the chorus and had to wear costumes that were quite thin and clingy and did not allow for a bra. The sisters were Mormons and were unspeakably embarrassed that the outlines of their nipples showed through the costumes. So, they took to putting bandaids over their nipples to keep them from pressing against the thin fabric. Each night for the rest of the season they looked like they had these weird square nipples, with the contours of the small gauze pads on the bandaids clearly showing. It was kind of surreal.

My worries about drawing audiences to our show were wasted. We packed the place and got the best reviews in the local press. We partied with some of the guys from the other theaters, since we all got off work at about the same time and many of us headed for the rowdy bars. After a few weeks all the intimidation we felt abut the Pink Garter and the smugness we felt about the Playhouse were long gone. We all drank ourselves to oblivion and howled about that square nipple thing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Dancer

On a sunny morning in June of 1976, a leggy blonde dancer stood facing me in my room. Her big eyes were wet. She asked me a question.

I stammered, “Wh – what?”

She repeated, in a small voice. “Do you ever get lonely?”

I may have been a yokel from small-town Wyoming, but I sensed opportunity here.

The dancer looked at her feet and said, “I just need somebody to hold me.”

Performing everyday is emotionally jolting. I knew she and I shared a loneliness and emptiness only two performers in the same company could know. We nearly lunged at each other in that initial embrace.

For hours, until nearly curtain time, we soothed each other like newborns. I comforted her and rocked her like her back ain’t got no bone. Our sweat mixed and pooled in the muscled crevices of her dancer’s belly. That was the only time, and we never spoke of it again.

Except it never happened. It all flashed through my mind in a microsecond as her words hung in the air. This beautiful young woman was lonely and needed someone to hold her. But I never touched her and I sent her on her way.

I mumbled that I had a girlfriend back home, that she and I were sort of engaged. Years later I kicked myself for this, knowing later the girlfriend was screwing around on me at almost that very minute, and we would last only a few more months together.

And what about me? What would happen to me if the dancer and I fell into each other’s arms? I fall in love with every woman I am intimate with, and love would have wrecked our summer. Her passion may have lasted until curtain time that night, or until the next morning, or through the week, but it would have surely been passing and temporary. Like a library book. But I would have still been in love.

I could relieve her of her loneliness, but only by bearing it for her. Misery passes among actors like a virus. Who would I pass it to?

That June morning is one of the great regrets of my life. Why didn’t I sweep the lonely dancer into my arms and make love with her? At the same time, it is also one of my proudest moments. I stayed faithful.

But maybe the dancer just needed a hug that morning. I wish I had given her one.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Actors - Part I

I should have saved one of the playbills from the shows in 1976 and ’79, but even if I had it would likely have been lost in one of my many moves from place to place. I have some vivid memories of the actors I knew at Dirty Jack’s Theater back then, but I have forgotten most of their names.

Two that I remember clearly are Randy and Bob Houghtaling, a sister and brother pair of actors. Randy was beautiful: Slender and elegant. She was also quite aloof. Some of the band members were convinced she was lesbian, or at least bi, but that was probably just the snubbed testosterone talking.

In any situation involving prolonged close contact of young adults there will be some sex goin’ on, and we were no different. The actors mostly lived all together in a converted motel, for gawd sakes. This was the pre-AIDS era. Copulation was inevitable, if not procreation.

Anyway… Randy was the object of desire for many of the young men in the cast and orchestra, but I never heard anything that convinced me that she had succumbed to the grubby charms of any of my buddies. She was cool and brassy. She could slay you with a wisecrack and drink you under the table. One night her lung collapsed during her sleep and she missed a few shows. Randy was mysterious and dangerous. If you stared at her too long you could burn your eyes. Or grow hair on your palms. Or something. I’ll bet she changed her name to something exotic and is now doing performance art in Greenwich Village.

Bob was also quite tall and slender, and he was one of the best actors I ever saw. The band members (who had the best seats in the house) were all big fans of Bob, and we watched him closely every night.

Now, Bob did not have a big part in the show: In fact, he was only in the chorus. But Bob put everything into every gesture to stay in character and entertain. His antics were often small but hysterical. He had this one thing he could do that was kind of gross, but it amused the shit out of the guys in the band:

Part of any old western show is whiskey. The “whiskey” in the bottles was really instant iced tea (not cold). The actors would swig that stuff all through the show to simulate drunkenness, and there is a lot of drinking in Paint Your Wagon. Bob would spit that tea everywhere, and he could even drool it out of his mouth and down off his chin, and then suck it all back up again. It was disgusting, but the band was impressed.

Just drinking that stuff out of those bottles was a profile in courage. The tea mixture was of uncertain provenance (I don’t know who mixed it) and as far as I know the bottles were never washed. I saw them laying around half-empty after every show, and filled again at curtain time the next night. They looked kind of crusty and infested. I visualized a science project’s worth of bacteria whenever an actor took a swig.

In 1979 I returned to Dirty Jacks and in addition to playing in the band I had a small part on stage as the bad guy who wore a tin nose. It was a scene from some western, and the show that year was a revue.

I got shot every night in a shootout wearing this tin thing over my nose, with two leather strings tied around the back of my head. It smelled nasty and was uncomfortable, but this was Show Business, right? I was a good trooper, so I wore the smelly prosthetic nose and got killed by the good guy every night. I was so evil the audience often applauded when I was shot.

One day I complained to Jon Stainbrook about the tin nose, and he laughed in my face. He said, “Do you know who wore that nose last year? Bob! If I were you I’d go boil that thing out or something.” Big yucks all around, while I imagined I had contracted some latent flesh-eating organism.

For better or worse my nose survived. But after that the tin nose smelled like bleach, which watered my eyes as I lay dying each night.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Nancy Stainbrook

When I began this web site I thought of Nancy Stainbrook, who was the heart and soul of Dirty Jack's Theater, and I Goggled her name. I found a reference to a gift made to the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole in her memory. That is how I discovered that she had passed away. I do not know the details of her passing.

I remember her fondly. Nancy Stainbrook was comfortable and at ease with herself, and she was utterly the same on- or off-stage. That was among her greatest talents. She was gracious and generous with her time and attention, even to the new harmonica player in the orchestra. Nancy, as it turned out, also was a harmonica player.

I remember knowing that she had studied for a time in Hollywood with the Disney Company. It was clear that she was a brilliant set designer. She took that dingy old theater and made it remarkably light and limber, with the players splashed across the stage as if splatters on a painting. Her sets were 3-D, with motion and depth. It was fun to be part of it.

I did not know her well. Nancy was a charming and gentle actress who made it look easy when I know it wasn’t. She romanced the audiences, and they loved her. So did we. I hope she found great happiness.

Friday, June 10, 2005

The Stage

The orchestra pit at Dirty Jack’s theater the years I worked there was center stage rear on stage level. That’s right… The band was right in the middle of everything. The orchestra pit is normally off in one of the wings or in the footlights, but this was very different.

The set was multi-level, with elevated platforms for the chorus and dancers raised about two feet above the stage floor on either side of the band pit area. Another platform about six feet high extended over the orchestra pit with stairs rising on each side, covering the band so that we were in the shadows unless lit by the follow spot. A couple of scenes actually took place up there above the band.

One brief scene in “Paint Your Wagon” had three or four of the actors kneeling on the platform over our heads and singing some hymn in a cappella harmony. It was my job to play a major G chord on the harmonica on cue to give them their pitch. Just blow on the 2-3-4 holes of a G harp for a couple of seconds. Simple.

Well, after a few weeks of this I decided the tone could stand some embellishment. So, out of nowhere one night when the cue for the tone came I played a pretty little gospel riff that resolved beautifully into the G major chord. Very Nice! Like that guy in the movie “Drum Line,” I added a little sum’ sum’ to the score.

The actors were not happy. They expected a short chord and instead got something they’d never heard before. Actors, I found out that night, hate surprises. I heard it from all sides after the show. “Don’t EVER do that again!”

Spending 110 consecutive nights right in the middle of a live theater performance teaches a person a few things about entertainment. I learned about pace and timing and touch. And I learned that acting – good acting – is not just hard work, it is really fucking hard work. Some jobs are emotionally draining; acting is emotionally devastating. The good actors I knew at Dirty Jack’s were enormously talented and devoted. I expect that many of them went on to great success in the theater.

I will write more about the actors in my next post.

Googled!

I know you’re out there! Now you can find me.

This website has hit the Google index, so all you ex-Dirty Jacksters can find this place on those odd occasions when you idly wonder what ever happened to all those great (and no-so-great) people you shared a stage with so long ago.

I’d kind of like to know myself…

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Bicentennial

The Fourth of July will be here soon, and it always makes me think of Independence Day in Jackson Hole in 1976. For two weeks, three of the finest, most outstanding country rock bands ever – anywhere – played within one minute’s walk from each other around the town square in Jackson. Cow Jazz was at the Rancher Bar, Tarwater was at the Cowboy Bar, and Sawmill Creek was rocking the Wort Hotel. It was country rock bliss. After the show at Dirty Jack's Theater each night we orchestra guys would all crawl from one packed pub to the next, soaking up the amazing music.

As far as I know, all three bands have become defunct, but Sawmill Creek still has a web presence and still sells CDs. The first two albums are still some of the finest country music ever recorded. My old friend Jimmy Christensen was a member of the band then, playing pedal steel guitar. Highly recommended.

When I came back to Dirty Jack’s in 1979 I saw a band in Jackson that was absolutely amazing… A bluegrass/Celtic band called Succotash was rocking the World Famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar to its rafters. The smoky, rough, tough Cowboy Bar liked its country music on the hard side, yet this bluegrass band had ‘em hootin’ and frothy. They were that good. And I was secretly in love with the girl who played fiddle and sang lead.

In 1980 I became the manager of the Pink Garter nightclub in Jackson Hole, and I made it a point to hire Succotash (who had changed names to Swallowtail) to play at my club. The bandleader was a guy named Steve Kritzer, who is still making terrific music around Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. Catch his act if you can.

The most important stuff I ever learned about playing music I learned nearly 30 years ago prowling the bars of Jackson Hole, listening to and playing with bands like Sawmill Creek, Cow Jazz, Tarwater, and Swallowtail. It would be cool if I could inspire some young musician the way those guys inspired me, lo, these many years ago.

Were you in Jackson back then? I was the tall guy playing harp. Please post a comment.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Band in 1976

We did the show “Paint Your Wagon” in 1976 to rave reviews. Jon and Nancy Stainbrook, brother and sister who owned the theater, starred in the show. They produced a first-class presentation that year, hiring professional set designers and carpenters from Los Angeles. The earthquake scene at the end literally brought the house down.

I played blues harmonica in the orchestra and had a small part playing straight man for Jon’s nightly stand-up riffs. It was like watching a high-wire act close up: from the wire.

The orchestra that year was kick-ass, and the actors were a bit put out that the audience would sometimes stay and listen as we jammed on the honky-tonk exit music. The bandleader and musical director was a guy named Doc who played the piano. My memory is imperfect, but others included guitar/banjo (Tim), trumpet (Sean), trombones (Bob and a guy whose last name was Coover), and drums. There were others in the pit too, including a bass player, so please remind me of their names if you were there.

The drummer deserves special mention. His name was Marco and he was my roommate for the summer, although he spent the entire summer sleeping elsewhere. He was from Reno, and was known as a “good drummer.”

Well. Marco was one of those people who operated on a different plane. The shit that came out of his mouth often was apropos of nothing, and made no sense. But he was harmless, and he was a “good drummer.”

Marco was good, but he never played any song at the exact same tempo twice. Once he got going, at whatever speed made sense to him at that minute, he was great. But the countdown to a song was always an adventure. The first couple of bars often jangled until we caught on to Marco’s timing nuances.

But we were a good band, and we got respectful props from the well-known bands that passed through town that summer and got comped to our show. It was my first regular paying gig, but it was some of the best music I ever made. If you saw the show, I bet you remember the orchestra.

Hi!

In the summers of 1976 and ’79 I worked at Dirty Jack’s Wild West Theater in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was a helluva good time, and a time that I remembered often. I would sometimes search on the Internet for any shred of information about Dirty Jack’s, but I found pretty much nothing.

It was low wages and funky living conditions, but it was Show Business and it was in the most beautiful spot on earth, the Grand Tetons. At 7:00 each evening we would put on our makeup and perform for a packed house of vacationers. After the show we would head for the bars that ringed the town square and listen to (or sit-in with) the best country-rock bands in the world.

They were the best summers of my life. If you ever set foot in Dirty Jack’s theater, please post a comment with your stories.