Sunday, July 03, 2005

Mark and the Great Food Strike

On a day early in May of 1976 when the cast of Paint Your Wagon first gathered, I met the guy I will call Mark. Mark was a guitar-playing singer with long hair who fashioned himself in the mold of Jackson Browne or James Taylor or something. He whipped out his guitar and sang a whiny song in a nasal voice even before we’d all said “Hi.” He seemed a bit too eager to impress upon us that he was a REAL performer among us amateurs. I developed an instant distaste for the guy.

Mark had a pretty big part in the show, singing many of the ballads and playing sidekick to Jon Stainbrook, the head honcho of Dirty Jack’s Theater. But Mark just irritated everybody with his pretensions and self-importance.

The “board” part of the “room and board” arrangement for the cast at Dirty Jack’s was not too fancy. [Neither was the “room” part, but that is another story.] In fact, the cast ate every morning at an open-air restaurant attached to the theater that served only sourdough pancakes. We also ate there in evenings when it served only barbequed chicken. The menu was limited and the food was bland, and it was the same day after day.

Early in the 1976 season, Mark became dissatisfied with the food. We all grumbled about it, but it was an understood part of paying your dues in small-time professional theater… No big deal. But Mark was upset.

He escalated the thing into some kind of labor action, complaining about the food to Jon Stainbrook and suggesting that the cast was behind him. Yeah, we were behind him snickering.

Jon Stainbrook was pissed; not that someone would complain about the food, but that Mark had tried to stir up dissention over it among the cast. I learned that summer that Jon carries grudges.

Mark had a funny scene in the show where he popped his head up though a hinged trap door on the stage floor and delivered a laugh line to Jon, who was standing down stage center. One night in late July Mark stuck his head up on cue but mangled the line. You could tell he had tried to adlib something clever but it just came out goofy. Word tore though the cast that Mark had been smoking dope behind the theater between scenes.

When Mark delivered his goofy, clumsy line, Jon Stainbrook turned slowly and looked at him, and then turned slowly back. He skipped his dialogue with Mark’s character and went on as if he did not exist. I doubt the audience caught on to anything, but to the rest of us it was the kiss of death: “Mark sleeps with the fishes.”

Sure enough, at the pre-show make-up ritual the next night I saw Mark in the costume of a bit player, and the small-part actor wearing Mark’s stuff. Mark still sang his nasal ballads, but he no longer had a speaking role.

It wasn’t all about Mark blowing the line or getting high before going on. It was also about complaining about the food and making trouble with the cast. It was about paying your dues. And we who disliked Mark thought it was all pretty damn funny.