Wow, where does the time go?! Look away for a second and the next thing you know it’s seven weeks later. For those of you who have been waiting patiently (and thank you for the emails) here is the next installment of How I Got From There To Here. In the last episode I was about to open a theatre in Pensacola, Florida. However, two days before opening the fire department threatened to shut us down. And then a fairy godmother showed up…
The fairy godmother in this case was Jim Reeves. A controversial figure in local politics, Jim would soon be the mayor of Pensacola. We met Jim shortly after arriving in town. He was in charge of the restoration of the Saenger Theatre, a posh (at one time) old movie theatre and he asked us to consult on certain aspects of the renovation.
After the fire department served us with a cease and desist order — because of our lights, made from #10 food cans, we called Jim. He told us not to worry and whereas before we thought we had donated our services to the restoration of the old movie house, suddenly we were getting paid. Jim asked us how much we needed to buy real lights, took out his check book and wrote us a check. The memo line read, “Consultation services for the Saenger.” We bought new lights, hung them and when the fire department came to re-inspect our theatre we passed with flying colors. (I think Jim had a hand in that too.)
Our first show, Luv did well and we got good reviews. We mounted another play, it was also well received, but it wasn’t until we produced Happy Birthday, Wanda June that things really took off. That play, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., showed us that audiences wanted something different, something more provocative than typical dinner theatre fare. Although dinner was served in our building, it wasn’t served in the same room. That meant we weren’t bound by the same constraints of “normal” dinner theatres and we were free to do other types of shows.
We took that freedom and ran with it, mounting plays like That Championship Season, The Glass Menagerie, The Innocents, The Sea Horse, Veronica’s Room. Yes, we still did some classic dinner theatre pieces like The Owl and The Pussycat, The Odd Couple, and I Do, I Do but it was the not-so-typical shows that garnished us the best notices and drew the largest audiences.
One of the reasons we were able to mount these productions was because of the vast pool of talent available to us. Edward Miller, my partner in this endeavor, was easily one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with (and in forty-five plus years in this business I’ve worked with a lot of directors).
We were also blessed with a group of extremely gifted actors, musicians and designers: George (Gabana) Buck, Shaw Robinson, Carolyn Mayhall-Hart, Bobbie Brentner, Ed Poole, Ray Schaub, Vicki Baroco, and Teresha Thames just to name a few.
We were also blessed with an wonderfully appreciative and supportive community. Pensacola embraced our efforts and rocked our world!
We were busy, mounting a new play a month, and while we weren’t getting rich we were doing something we loved. After a year one of the large hotels on the beach, the Casino Beach Resort, approached us and asked us to produce plays in its venue. We thought this was a great idea, with a larger house we could actually make some money. Big mistake! Our production costs skyrocketed and we found ourselves working twice as hard but not making any more money.
Two things happened around this time. The film Jaws 2 came to town and I got a small, non-credited part — if you look close you’ll see me in uniform, holding my nose guarding a dead whale on the beach. Or maybe I was picking my nose, I forget. Anyway, I got a taste of the film business and I also got my SAG card. The other thing that happened was I realized if I was going to improve my craft as an actor I needed to study. My tenure at the University of Denver had been brief. In Pensacola I worked a lot – that’s one of the benefits of being your own producer – but I didn’t feel as if I was growing my craft.
Those two things along with a growing sense of discontentment set the wheels in motion and I decided to leave Pensacola. I wish I could say my partner and I split on good terms. Alas, we did not. But once my decision was made, I packed my car and headed for New York (to be continued…)
Wishing everyone a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year! See you next year. Cheers, John