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…