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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Lights! Camera! Byron!

From the Wings Dept.: It’s back on Broadway, and audiences again are voting on which ending to give The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There’s also a walk-on opportunity, which, when the show arrived at Schenectady’s Proctor’s Theatre in 1988, were given to a TV personality, a radio personality, and me, representing the Gazette, for which I wrote the following.


THE SPOTLIGHTS SHINE into the wings with a painful glare. People are hot, people are hurrying. I'm standing by a fake door in a silly outfit clutching an oversized bell. In just a moment I'm supposed to walk onto the stage of Proctor's Theatre in front of 2,000 people to perform an all but impromptu scene . . .

Pam Mizell and costumed me.
Gazette photo by Ray Summers
Who cares if Lana Turner really was discovered in a Hollywood soda shops: the fact is that such discoveries occur and any scout worth his salt knows to keep his eyes peeled. So far, however, my phone has stayed silent, despite a cameo appearance in The Mystery of Edwin Drood last Saturday evening.

An hour before show time a stagehand runs an upright vacuum cleaner over the raked stage that dominates the touring set. Worklights emphasize the falseness of the stylized flats. Backstage a props table displays some of the items – plastic turkey, plate of real oyster shells and fake trimmings, decanter and glasses – that will look real as life in the play.

Company manager Megan Miller determines that I’m the supernumerary for the evening and welcomes me, for one performance at least, to the cast.

“This is something new we’re trying out in Schenectady,” she explains.  “We just started our tour with performances in Brooklyn and a stop in Virginia, but this is the first time we’ve used people from the community in ‘Edwin Drood.’”

It’s not new to the Music Theatre Group, producers of the tour. “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The King and I” are two previous tours that passed through Proctor’s and used local talent.

“We feel it’s nice for the theater and also for the community,” Miller says. “It’s good publicity and the audience really gets a kick out of it.”

I’ve been asked to represent the Gazette. It’s flattering, if puzzling: the cameo would seem to be designed more for a television personality than one whose face is unknown. And, indeed, my predecessors are Liz Bishop of WRGB television and Ric Mitchell of radio station WPYX.

Miller turns me over to stage manager Joe Walsh, who seems to be covered in electrical apparatus. He will stand in sight of a TV monitor throughout the performance coordinating the myriad cues for props, sound, lights and actors; right now he pleasantly leads me to the wardrobe area for costuming.

“It’s very easy,” he assures me, draping a large blue cloak over my shoulders. “You’re the Town Crier. You walk out ringing a bell, you say a couple of lines. Here’s your script.”

Enter downstage right. Holler “Eight o’clock on a Christmas Eve and all’s well” a couple of times. Turn to the audience and give a mock weather report.

“Oh, it was written for a weather personality,” says Walsh. “Just cut those lines.”

Reducing my tiny bit by about half. My first bitter taste of the heartlessness of show biz.

I’m introduced to my co-stars: Eric Burgan and Mark Aldrich, whose characters are the clowns of the show. In a corner of the wardrobe area we run the short scene. After my entrance they will explain my identity – “He’s a journalist.” “A journalist! We’d better be careful!” – and invite me to join them in a “Charles Dickens cocktail.”

“What,” I say, “is a Charles Dickens cocktail?” “A dry martini,” is the reply, “without an olive or twist.”

Satisfied, they join the rest of the cast for a vocal warmup. “You’ll be great,” Shirley Regnier assures me. She’s a wardrobe assistant who works for a number of nearby theaters. “Liz Bishop was here last night and she really lit up the place. Really! I mean, she was kind of scared to go on but she sure got the place buzzing.”

Across the room sounds a cry of dismay. “What do you mean, he’s here?” Toni Larsen is Proctor’s production coordinator, one of those rare people who can hang on to her sense of humor in the face of all the disasters her job invites. Right now she looks like she’s let go of that sense. “You said he wasn’t going to make it tonight,” she says to another wardrobe assistant, “and I just got somebody else to do the part. Now what am I supposed to do?

“We, uh, we were just kidding,” the accused explains. “We were teasing Shirley that she’d have to go on.

“Great,” says Toni. “Great. Now I have to send this other guy home, is that it?” Patiently but deliberately she lectures them on the sorry consequences of joke that goes too far, and they scurry off sheepishly.

Upon which Toni and Shirley shake hands and giggle. “Got ‘em, didn’t I?” says Toni. “I heard they were getting a little out of line, so that fixed them. I made it all up. There’s nobody else here.”

With a few minutes to go before curtain time I return my costume and bell to the wardrobe area and take a seat with the audience. I won’t be needed for another 40 minutes or so.

But I return well before I’m supposed to so that I can stand in the wings and soak up the ambience usually the province only of those who make a living in this make-believe world.

The electronic Walsh stands by his monitor murmuring light cues. Beyond him the stage is so bright as to seem washed out. There’s a dance number in progress that finishes to a swell of applause. I’m practically thrown against the side wall by the torrent of actors that emerges.

“Get ready,” Toni whispers. “You nervous?”

I shake my head. I’m too busy searching my mind for a replacement line to ad-lib for the weather gag.

“You should’ve seen Liz Bishop last night. Scared? I had to stand here and hug just to get her calm enough to go out there.

“How was Ric Mitchell?” I ask.

“Just as scared.” But she doesn’t mention any hug. I wonder if I should at least feign fright in order to steal some reassurance.

Eric Burgan appears, now wearing a derby and wig and baggy pants. “You okay?” he says.

I nod. I audition my replacement line with him. He likes it, and hurries on for an entrance.

Leaving me waiting with Mark Aldrich, who will cue me. Nothing really to worry about; this company has it all worked out. I can hear Walsh whispering nearby: “Prepare spot for door. He’s coming onstage.

“That’s you,” says Aldrich. I yank a door handle, swing the bell, step onto the stage.

It’s huge. At least, it seems to have no far end, but that may be a trick of the lights. I shout out my lines, hearing the words echo from loudspeakers above me.

All you can see out there, where the audience is supposed to be, are lights. And a few laps and faces in the front row. But you can feel them. A crowded, happy house radiates a remarkably powerful energy.

“Eight o’clock and all’s well on a Christmas Eve!” I bellow, then step forward to add, “But I generally wait until AFTER the show to give my review!”

The response is a rumble like the Times Square Shuttle arriving – laughter! And, unlike the frequent phenomena of offstage life, because I wanted them to laugh!

It is over in a moment and I watch the rest of the play with an increasing sense of depression. Wasn’t there a sparkle, an Olivier-like greatness about my bit that should set any latter-day Vivien Leigh to swooning? Would the company truly leave town without me?

The Mystery of Edwin Drood will tour for the next eight months and lure dozens of bold would-be Hamlets on stage. As for this ham, well, I’m not changing my phone number anytime in the near future, and have taken to hanging out in soda shops around town.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 7 October 1988

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