Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Audition

Life in Powell, Wyoming in the winter of 1976 was a bit dreary. Tired of working in a gas station, I got some student loan money together and enrolled full-time in Northwest Community College to break the monotony. I wanted to get better – a lot better – at harmonica so I became a music major. One day I saw a flyer tacked to a board in the halls of the music/theater department announcing a casting call for the summer stock show “Paint Your Wagon” at Dirty Jack’s Theater in Jackson Hole. I was transfixed.

I borrowed a microphone from the music department and carried it to my little house near campus on 8th street. Having no car, I walked downtown to a store and bought a 15-minute TDK cassette. I was ready to record my audition tape.

Sitting on my couch and holding the old, heavy vocal mic between my knees, I plugged it into the cassette deck of my stereo system and carefully played some riffs, all hunched over like a monkey trying to fuck a football. I recorded a couple of melodies I’d heard on Charlie McCoy albums. Some of it was just train rhythms I thought sounded cool. All of it was solo… Just me and a borrowed microphone.

I scribbled my name and address on the cassette in my heavy handwriting, wrote up a little letter of introduction that pretty much begged pitifully for a job, and included a photo of me clipped from the local newspaper. The photo was from the college production of “Carousel,” in which I was shown standing next to a very short woman. I’m 6’6” anyway, but I looked enormous. I put the package in the mail and agonized. How the hell did we ever survive in a world without email?

A return letter eventually arrived. I was in! Happy, happy, joy, joy.

When I got to Dirty Jack’s Theater a month later, Jon Stainbrook was disappointed that I was not taller. I looked so gigantic in the picture that he planned to have me stand up when I played, poking my head through a trapdoor in the platform that covered the orchestra pit as a gag. Good grief! That was the only time I have ever been glad I was “too short.”

There was no audition when I returned in 1979, just a phone call and a quick invitation. I will forever be grateful to Jon and Nancy Stainbrook for appreciating my music and hiring me to play it in their theater. Looking back, that audition tape was mighty lame but they hired me anyway. Part of the reason might have been that Nancy was an aspiring harp player, and part of it might have been that Jon wanted me for a dumb sight gag that would have gotten real old real fast. Whatever. I got the gig and I was on my way. I was a professional entertainer.

Playing Harp

I played country and blues harmonica at Dirty Jack’s Theater in the summers of 1976 and 1979. Not much has changed: I still play harp, but it is mostly blues music now. As I was reading through this blog I realized that I hadn’t written anything about the harp and what it is like to play.

The harmonica is just about the only instrument that is played by inhaling. All the cool notes on a harp are draw notes because you can bend – or slightly flatten – them to create a bluesy tone. But the sound of the bend is only half of it. The feeling of bending a note just right is awesome.

To get good tone on a harp you must draw air from your diaphragm, not suck it in with your mouth and throat like drinking through a straw. The killer tone comes from allowing the column of air extending from your lungs, throat, mouth and nasal cavity to vibrate and resonate as you inhale air across the reed. The feeling of hitting a good growling tone is indescribable. Your guts become part of the music.

My philosophy on playing harp is, “Less is more.” Most harp players play way too much, giving me a headache when I hear it. Let’s face it, harp is kind of limited in range and scope, and the metal reeds can be brassy and irritating. But harp is beautiful when tastefully played as a side instrument.

Sure, some guys could play harp as a lead instrument, but both of them were named Walter and lived in Chicago in the 50s. Most good harp players have about 5 good licks they can hit. After that, it’s repetition, baby. Little Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton could play long leads, but most harp players I hear today just substitute toots for tone. John Popper of Blues Traveler comes to mind…

I was first influenced on harp by country players like Don Brooks who masterfully backed up Waylon Jennings’ vocal melodies, particularly on his “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “This Time” albums. (Those recordings have been remastered for CD and are available at Amazon and elsewhere.) His phrases are lovely, simple, and restrained. He knew how to make the instrument sing a simple, beautiful song.

Playing in live performances is exhilarating. It was cool to hear my harp give the show “Paint Your Wagon” a bluesy, country tang at Dirty Jack’s Theater back in 1976. Nothing quite sounds as “country” as harp and pedal steel guitar. The same is true now when I play blues, adding a tone to the music that just can’t be found in any other instrument. And in all the other bands I was in, from rock to bluegrass to country to various blues flavors, the real pleasure was always watching the crowd get into our music and seeing them enjoy themselves.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Doc Holt

Pat “Doc” Holt was the bandleader/musical director at Dirty Jack’s Theater in the years I worked there. He was a very interesting guy.

Doc was older than the rest of us, maybe in his forties, a bit portly, with long brown hair slicked back behind his ears and a ruddy complexion. He had a raspy voice and a backslapping demeanor. I suspected he was a heavy drinker.

Every night during the curtain call Jon Stainbrook would introduce Doc as “the doctor of musicology, Pat Holt!” I never knew what he meant by that, except that Doc was good at rinky-tink barrel-house piano, and he managed the music side of the show pretty well.

Doc had it goin’ on. Every night he dressed in a black gunfighter’s outfit, complete with vest, boots, hat, a black two-gun belt, and two loaded Ruger revolvers that looked like either .38s or 357s. I could see the butt ends of the bullets shining from the revolver as he sat at his piano to my right, the gold color of the brass and the silver of the center-fire primer gleaming in the lights. On rare occasions Doc would pull his guns and fire them at the ceiling for affect. All the other guns were stage props firing loud blanks. Doc’s pistols fired live rounds, leaving bullet holes in the roof of Dirty Jack’s theater. He was a bit of a legend among the band members for this.

One night after the show in 1976 Doc invited the band guys over to his condo to play poker, which sounded like fun. We played cards, drank Irish coffee, and smoked weed far into the night. I got home at about 5:00 am, and endured one of the most miserable mornings of my life. All that Irish whiskey and weed (and the late hour) made me really sleepy, but all that coffee made me WIDE FUCKING AWAKE!!!!! The coffee won, and I was worthless the next day. Doc seemed fine.

I am told that Doc Holt died in 1986. Nancy Stainbrook is gone, and Jon Stainbrook lives out his days in a nursing home, robbed of his memories by his MS. Even the theater is gone. The only thing left is the memories of those to whom Dirty Jack’s theater meant so much.

So long, Doc. We sure did have some fun…

The Lobby

Lots of cool stuff happened in the lobby of Dirty Jack’s theater when I worked there as an actor/musician in 1976 and 1979. By day it was the ticket office, and a place where the crowds of tourists walking by could get an old west sassparilla at the snack bar. [Note: That shit is nasty – Rick]

Jon Stainbrook, the head honcho of Dirty Jack's, encouraged the cast to sometimes hang out in the lobby during the day to liven up the place, talk to the tourists, and generate interest in the show. I would take a harmonica and play either in the lobby or out on the benches that lined the covered wooden sidewalk out front. It always caused a small crowd to gather.

Sometimes I would play a Jaw Harp, an acoustic wind instrument that makes that buzzing “boing boing” sound you hear in cartoons and old traditional music. Kids loved it, but that sometimes led to problems. More than once a perturbed dad would later walk up to me frowning and thumbing his money roll, asking how much for the toy. As politely as I could, I’d tell the tightwad son of a bitch that I was NOT a peddler, I was an entertainer, and he could buy the instrument at any music store. Way to kill your kids’ early enthusiasm for music, Bozo: Be as openly sarcastic and miserly as you can about buying them their first instrument, even if it is a “toy.”

The lobby was the scene of a nightly pre-show ritual that seemed ultra-corny at first, but I grew to enjoy: The Sing Along. Doc Holt, the bandleader, would play an old upright piano in the lobby and the actors in full costume and makeup would sing old standards along with the audience milling around waiting for the show to start. It was actually kind of fun. I still find myself humming “On Wisconsin” for no apparent reason.

At the end of the show each night the cast would take their big all-at-once bow and then dash up the aisles to the lobby, where they would greet and shake hands with the audience as they left the theater. We in the band would stay and jam on the outro music as the seats emptied, so that was a lobby ritual I never got to join.

I spent so much time at Dirty Jack’s Theater in the summers of 1976 and ’79 that the lobby felt like my living room. If you remember that lobby I invite you to leave a comment. My website traffic statistics tell me more and more folks visit this site every day, and you did not get here by accident. You searched for Dirty Jack’s Theater or followed a link you got in an email. I think that lobby meant something to you too.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Believe it or not

Do you know what is now standing in the space that was once Dirty Jack's Theater in Jackson?

Just tacky...

(For this the landlords crudely ousted the Stainbrooks and ended Dirty Jack's. It just makes me ill.)

Revenge of the Duke

After the show on June 11, 1979, a gaggle of us headed out of Dirty Jack’s Theater in the direction of the town square in search of a drink. Just to the south of Dirty Jack’s along Cache Street was the local cinema, where we saw the guy who ran the cinema up on a ladder spelling out a message on the marquee… at 11:30 on a Tuesday night. He was weeping. He told us John Wayne had died.

We were a group of professional actors, by God, and we instantly sensed our vocational obligation to show proper reverence to the Duke’s passing. After a respectful few seconds of throat-clearing and foot-shuffling, an actor blurted out, “Awwww, I never liked him anyway.”

Neither did I. Still don’t, but that is beside the point. The point was that we were in search of a drink after sweating all evening under hot lights providing giggles for the touristi. The death of a cultural icon could not stand in our way.

We made our way to the Pink Garter Bar and from there to the other rowdy clubs on the square. I chatted up lots of non-theatrical friends and smoothly hit on a few ladies. When I stumbled home later I discovered, to my horror, that I had somehow forgotten to remove my makeup after the show. I had been schmoozing and working the rooms with about four pounds of Max Factor on my fiz.

Remember now, I played a bad guy in the ’79 show, so my makeup was kind of grotesque. Over a thick pale orange basecoat, dark vertical hash marks accented the creases between my brows and the frown lines around my mouth. I had heavy mascara on my lower lashes and one of my teeth was blacked out. It all looked cool in the glow of the green room or under the glare of the stage lights, but I think it was probably pretty bizarre at 1:00 am in the Cowboy Bar. But nobody said a fucking word; at least not to me.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Time to Leave Phoenix

Several readers wrote to me about something I alluded to in my last post: Somebody shot at me in Tempe one night. What was up with that, they asked. Well, here’s the story:

In early 1979 my friend Mark and I went to a fraternity party at Arizona State University and stole a keg of beer. Neither of us were students, but we were drunk as hell. I remember later climbing the fire escape stairs of Manzanita Hall, then the freshman girls dormitory, and getting caught by a stern middle-aged woman at about the 8th floor. I don’t know what we were thinking.

Later still we were driving around in neighborhoods near the university in Mark’s little MGB convertible. The streets were narrow – one lane each way – with parked cars lining the curb on each side. We came upon a pickup truck stopped in the road, in our lane facing the wrong way. Its lights were on and the engine was running. The truck was in our way, so we did what made the most sense to us at the time: We pulled as close to the truck as possible – nose to nose – and commenced to honk the horn for about 3 minutes, laughing like drunken hyenas. Finally we zoomed around the truck, shouting some obscenities as we passed.

About 100 yards down the street we came to a four-way stop. Mark looked in the rear-view mirror and muttered, “Holy Shit!” The pickup truck was hurtling toward us – in reverse – at a very high rate of speed. We figured things were about to get real western.

Mark turned right and pulled the MG over in a clearing about 40 yards from the intersection. He got out of the car to prepare for the fistfight that was sure to come. I’m really tall, and as I struggled to get my drunken self out of the tiny car its windshield exploded in a million crystals that shimmered in the moonlight. I looked back and saw the silhouette of a guy with a rifle, shooting at us.

Remember that keg of beer we stole from the frat house earlier that evening? It was crammed in the space behind the seats in the MG, and I dove back into the car to hide behind it. Bullets zinged and banged into the car. I looked at Mark a few feet away, where he was hunkering down and hoping to survive.

The guy got in his truck and sped off. We never saw what he looked like, nor did we see the license plate on his truck. When we were nose-to-nose in the street the headlights of the truck were right in our eyes, making vision impossible.

After that the idea of getting out of Phoenix seemed to get more and more attractive. Things were getting outta hand, and Jackson Hole sounded like a good place to chill.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

A Lot Happened

By the spring of 1979 I’d pretty much run out my string in Phoenix. I got shot at by a stranger one night in Tempe, I had a nasty breakup with my girlfriend, and in a fit of pique I quit a good paying job I liked. It was time to leave town.

In April I called up Jon Stainbrook at Dirty Jack’s Theater in Jackson Hole and asked if there was room in the orchestra for me. I needed a place to land for the summer, and Jackson sounded like just the ticket. At the end of the summer, who knows? I decided to worry about that when the time came.

I pulled into Jackson in mid-May, and the theater was a mess. The lobby was piled with junk, and the only person I could find was a surly fat guy busy moving things. He bristled when I asked for Jon. Things had changed. I could feel it.

When I was a member of the cast in 1976 it had been known that Jon had MS, and three years later it had progressed. He seemed weak and short-tempered. He was pale, thin, cranky. He had married a younger blond woman who seemed avaricious. The show that year was to be a revue rather than a play. One pays no royalties to stage a revue, which includes only fragments of plays. It was obvious money would be tight that season.

But I was back in Jackson and back in music. Back in show business. Life could be worse.

One gag that Jon loved and included in every show was to bring a live donkey on stage. The donkey’s name was Butch, and somewhere near the end of the show Jon would lead him on stage and do some stand-up. The tourists loved it. The guys in the band were always rooting for Butch to either bray or take a shit, but he declined to do either. Butch was a one-dimensional performer.

The show that year had a hard edge to it, at least behind the scenes. Jon cast a fat woman as a stereotypical saloon girl, and then cruelly mocked her weight with adlib fat jokes on stage night after night. At first it was all fun and part of the show, right? Later it just seemed vicious. The woman was so wounded by it she often sobbed after the show, but she sucked it up and painted her face every night, seven nights a week, and smiled as the audience laughed at her weight. Jon must have known how it hurt, but he just sliced and diced her every night with a really cruel edge to his voice. I think Jon was struggling with his own demons. That summer it seemed like we all were.

I’ll write much more about that summer later. A lot happened…