Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Letter from Neal Lewing

[Note: For some reason, the promotional flyer for DJ's 1978 production of "The Hallelujah Trail" included a photo of Neal Lewing in his demonic role as Very Strange from "Cat Ballou" in 1972. -Rick]

I was in the original Dirty Jack’s company of 1972. The ones I hung out with the most, outside the theatre, were Pat Holt and Jim Loe. Jim was the keeper of Dynamite, a 25-plus-year-old horse that appeared live on stage every night and, frankly, was a better actor than some of the people. He sure got more laughs. He had several expressions, including yawns, head shakes and eye rolls that were often perfectly timed. Ray Edwards, who played the scene with him, was always cracking up when Dynamite was on a roll.

We did 101 performances of the show and I only missed one. I’d gone out hunting moose in the swamps with my dog one day and came down with strepp throat. Couldn’t even get out of bed, much less talk, sing or breathe. Jon Stainbrook stepped in for me that night, after getting properly oiled. What got me out of bed and back on stage was when I heard Jon had gotten more laughs than I had!

Once the show was up, we had our days free. What saved it for us was that, about every two weeks or so, Rick Camp (the director) would come and say, “Such-and-such scene isn’t working too well. I rewrote some and have an idea. We need to rehearse.” To which we all said, “Yes!” It gave us something new to do.

The show as a western, of course, and at the end, Kid Shelleen and I would have a gunfight to end the show. The theatre was very intimate and the front row was quite close. We used real .45’s and started out just shooting at each other once. Of course, by the end of the run, we were blowing off every round we had, 10 or 12 shots as fast as we could pull ‘em. Then I’d holster my iron and by the time I hit the floor, the stage was blue with smoke. One night, a kid came up to me after the show and held up what looked like a huge spit wad. It was my wad from the .45 that had hit him in the chest. He was thrilled.

This is the only show I’ve ever done in 45 years where someone actually had to come out and say, “Is there a doctor in the house?” About four of us had the real guns and they were loaded with blanks. One night, while I was on stage, we heard a shot from the dressing room. We all knew what had happened. Rick had been practicing his quick-draw and, as you can guess, wasn’t quick enough. The pistol discharged right into his calf – blew a silver-dollar-sized hole in his pants and one almost as big in his leg. Everybody knew who it was, especially when he came limping on stage with a hole in his pant leg.

Anyhow, this is basically how the program looked. On the back were lyrics to most of the songs for the sing-along in the lobby before the show. I never participated in that as I had pretty extensive makeup to do and only had a half-hour to do it. (If you recall the movie, Strange has a tin nose. Well, my guy had a tin ear, and a scar that ran the length of my face. (I still have that prosthetic.)

“The Ballad of Cat Ballou”

Written and produced by Jon Stainbrook
Directed by Richard Camp
Music written and arranged by Patrick G. Holt
Piano: Patrick G. Holt
Percussion: Derrick Huffsmith


Tim Holt -- Pat Holt
Violet O’Hara -- Karen Kreider
Frankie Ballou -- Ray Edwards
Cheyenne Rose -- Linda Gregg
Judge Cuthbert Crater -- Rocky Quarels
Ambrose Wolfinger -- Richard Camp
Legs Whooshe -- Nancy Stainbrook
Chester Honey -- Nancy Hopwood
Trixie Belle -- Robyn Ranck
Flora Whinney -- Karen Kreider
Farnsworth Wolfinger -- Tom Kibbe
Cat Ballou -- Rose Alaio
Bartender -- Cliff Forest
Clay Boone -- Jay Dobbs
Elmer ‘Very’ Strange -- Neal Lewing
Kid Shelleen -- Ray Edwards
Sam Bisbee -- Jim Loe
Snively E. Dogfinger -- Rick Camp
Dynamite -- Dynamite

At one time that year, it was actually possible to do 5 shows a night, (different shows) which we did for about two weeks. There were three summer theatres operating then, all within about two blocks of each other. Dirty Jack’s and the Opera House were both operated by Jon Stainbrook, so our collective company was pretty big. We never got a chance to see each other’s shows, but I think the Opera House did more than one show. I know they did “Calamity Jane” (Nancy Severson) that year, but not sure what else, if anything. Their format was pretty much the same as ours. The other theatre was the Pink Garter and they did a little different format, but also mostly western in theme. We only went there once and that was after our show to see a presentation on the Tetons.

It was customary for each theatre to provide three actors for a week’s worth of Shootouts in the town square – two dancehall girls and a drunk doctor – and usually three different actors each night. I had a blast with it and would volunteer a lot – I got to do it many times. A stagecoach would pull into the town square (with the actors aboard) and would be held up at gunpoint by Clover the Killer, a one-eyed local town character who’d done the shootout for years. He’d rob the stage but before he could ride away with the loot, the Cache Creek Posse would ride in and apprehend him. They’d set him on his horse, with hands tied behind his back and proceed to hang him from the elk horn arch at the corner of the park.

Jon Stainbrook acted as commentator for the whole show and would interview Clover before they hung him. In the course of the interview, old Clover would tell of his frontier escapades and end by commenting on the indignity of dying at the end of the rope. “How would you want to go out?” Jon would ask. “I’druther shoot it out with the posse,” Clover would drone. Of course, Jon would have the crowd whipped into a frenzy by this time. So the shootout would begin, with posse members stationed at various spots on the street, on rooftops, etc. Clover was taken off his horse and given his gun back, then placed in the center of the square. At a signal from one of the chorus girls, everyone would blow off as much powder as possible, guys would fall off roofs and hang ‘dead’ over hitching rails, and Clover, of course, would go down.

Jon would then call for the drunk doctor to come and pronounce the corpse deceased. The doc would check for a heartbeat by laying his ear on the guy’s butt, ad lib a little, and pronounce him dead as a doornail (or somesuch just as colorful.) The survivors of the posse would toss Clover over his saddle and they’d all ride solemnly out. The whole show started at 7 and was over by 7:30, just in time to invite everyone to attend one of the local theatres, especially the sing-along at Dirty Jack’s. The Opera House had its own pianist and, consequently, its own sing-along. So that was one show.

Now, 1972 was the 100th anniversary of Yellowstone Park. The Opera House’s pianist had written a 30-minute musical revue on that theme, so during shootout weeks, we had just enough time to hoof it a block to the theatre, suit up in our red-white-and-blue T-shirts, hats and jeans, and perform the revue on the chuck wagon stage adjacent to Dirty Jack’s. About a dozen cast members were chosen from both theatres and you could do it or not. I don’t remember much about that show, except for the first few measures of the opening song about Yellowstone and that Johnny Maclebee (sp) played a grizzly in a full-body bear suit. Johnny was from the Opera House company and weighed in at about 350. I always felt so sorry for him, since by 7:30, the sun was right on us and he’d sweat like a bear! The show lasted a half hour, the closing number leading everyone inside the lobby (the Sarsaparilla Bar) for the sing-along at 8. So that was two shows, the sing-along was three and, at 8:30 on the dot, the main show (“Cat Ballou”) would begin. That was #4.

“Cat” ran for 101 performances, 7 nights a week from mid-June to mid-September. July 29 was our only night off, the theatre having been booked to a chamber orchestra concert (!) that night since before it opened. Pat Holt and I went to his cabin on some lake south of town to go fishing, but it rained all day, so we just sat in this little camping trailer and played cards for hours until all the liquor was gone, then went back to town and went bar hopping all night. Nine Harvey wallbangers and gallons of beer later, we went to bed.

Some time in late July, one of our cast members observed that, by the time “Cat” got out at about 10:30, the streets were still full of people milling around. This lasted until around midnight every night. He suggested we put together a some entertainment to attract those crowds. Of course, being young and foolish, we all said sure. So we pooled our talents and came up with “The Late-Night Revue” (I don’t think that was its real name), sort of a spoof history of communication. We had songs and sketches and it was great fun and ran about 90 minutes, with no intermission, and got out a little after midnight. The crowds were ok, but the show, for some reason, only played about two weeks. We got paid extra for each of those shows, so it was to our benefit to volunteer for duty, five shows a week, if only for a short time. It also gave us something to do.

That and the fact that, with 101 shows, once the play was up, it was up, and our days were free. Now, it doesn’t take too long to do everything in the area, and we couldn’t go too far, having to be back to the theatre for a 6:30 call. Yellowstone Park was fairly close, and there were lots of other attractions to take advantage of, including Headwater Float Trips, a local whitewater rafting outfit that took floaters down the Snake. All the pilots were good guys and they’d come to the shows and hang out with us afterwards in the bars sometimes. They were all pretty loose in their ways, if you get my ‘drift,’ so it wasn’t long before we started referring to them as “Floatwater Head Trips.”

As for the cast, several of them (Ray, Jay, Rose, Karen, Nancy Hopwood (‘Hoppy’), Kibbe and some others) had all known each other before. They were from New York. Ray had a typical New York look, with long dark hair, chiseled face, hook nose and an accent. Rose was a beautiful dark Italian princess-looking girl. Hoppy and Kibbe were close and Jay had a wife, I think, who was not in the company. Rocky (a short, stocky mustachioed kid, funny as a rubber crutch – sometimes he looked Mexican, so we called him Paco Quar-lez`) was from Thermopolis WY, some from Colorado (Linda Gregg, I think – she was also a very saucy, funny lady) and John Juneiman and myself from Montana. John and I had known each other for several years and worked together in some Montana theatres when we auditioned for Jon in Missoula. Juneiman, originally from New Jersey, was hired as lighting tech and me as an actor. About three weeks into the season, Hurricane Agnes hit the shores of Jersey and John had to leave the company to go back and help his elderly parents dig out. He was gone for the rest of the summer, so, aside from my dog, I had a room to myself.

I started hanging out with Pat Holt right away. He intrigued me musically and we hit it off. We usually hung out at the Wort Hotel, where traveling musical groups would often play. We met and hung out with a group called the Command Performance for their two-week engagement and compared notes and decided that’s what we (Pat and I) would do at the end of the season – go to Salt Lake City (where he was from) and start a show band. The season closed in mid-September and, after a two-week break in Missoula, I headed to SLC to join up with Pat. I’d also convinced Juneiman to come out and join the band, which he did.

Now, my Salt Lake adventure is a very long, tortured story so you’ll have to wait for the movie. Needless to say, Pat flaked out and the venture never materialized so, as my father had just died in late October, I finished out my stint playing music at the Holiday Inn, turned 21 in Salt Lake City, and left Utah in December of ‘72. One thing I will thank Pat Holt for, though – he was responsible for getting me the gig at the Jackson Hole Elk’s Club that summer. That launched my own professional music career.

The following summer, 1973, I returned for my third season at Fort Peck Summer Theatre in eastern Montana, and at the end of that summer, traveled to Jackson to see some of the old gang. I had breakfast the following morning at one of the cafes on main street and sat beside Mario Puzo (“The Godfather”). He didn’t recognize me. But I did hit it off with my lovely waitress, who told me her name was Song. For some reason, I didn’t stay an extra day to get to know her, (if anyone from subsequent summers in Jackson ever encountered her, I’d love to contact her again) but in a sense, I knew her well. As I was leaving, my cowboy boots clacking across the old board sidewalks, a rhythm came to me. A melody followed as I headed my car north, back to Montana, and by the time I got home, I had a new song. Some people write songs about the ocean, or tragic love affairs, failed relationships or moonlight and stars, but “My Song is a Lady.” It became the title song of my first album a few years later.

So thanks, Rick, for the opportunity to relive a great episode of my life. I had such fun in Jackson and there are tons of memories. I can probably come up with more if I sit down and think about it long enough. Anyhow, best of luck with your project. I'll tune in from time to time to visit.

-Neal Lewing