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Things coming full circle for Doug Marr, Phil’s Diner Series and Circle Theatre

April 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Things coming full circle for Doug Marr, Phil’s Diner series and Circle Theatre

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in June 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

NOTE: THIS IS A 2017 STORY

 

In June, things come full circle for one of Omaha’s longest-lived stage companies, the Circle Theatre, in support of recovering resident playwright Doug Marr.

Doug and wife Laura Marr were among 12 founding members of the Circle, created in 1983 by a cohort of UNO theater grads and professors. The group enlisted Doug, then a poet, into writing an original work to perform. That play, Phil Contemplates Putting a Jukebox in the Diner, became an unexpected sensation early in 1984 at Benson’s Joe & Judy’s Cafe. It spawned a successful series of 11 Phil’s Diner plays Marr wrote and the Circle produced, even as the cafe changed hands.

Marr went on to write many plays outside the Phil’s series, including Starkweather for the Omaha Community Playhouse. As Circle members dropped out owing to job and family commitments, the Marrs carried on, eventually moving the theater to Central Presbyterian Church and more recently, Urban Abbey. In 2016 the Marrs handed off operations to Fran Sillau, who joined the company in the late 1990s.

Now, Sillau and the Circle are reviving the play that started it all, with many of the original cast, for six scheduled performances at Harold’s Koffee House in Florence. Only this revival isn’t purely about nostalgia. It’s for a purpose. Show proceeds will help offset major medical expenses incurred by Doug after undergoing multiple surgeries the last two years. Omaha’s most prolific playwright is in need of a serious rewrite.

Most recently, a pressure wound got infected to the bone. That  necessitated surgery followed by weeks of rehab at a care center. In an interview at the Marrs’ midtown home, Doug sat at the kitchen table surrounded by medical bills. One alone totals $85,000. Medicare pays some but finding the rest on Laura’s teaching salary and what he makes writing is rough.

The costs extend to a regimen of eight prescription drugs he’s on. It’s all on top of being a paraplegic (he’s been paralyzed from the waist down since undergoing risky spinal surgery at age 22). Since then, he’s only been able to walk with the aid of crutches. The pressure on arms and shoulders bearing his full body weight blew out both rotator cuffs.

He’s never wanted pity, but to entertain us through his craft. He’s done it over and over again. Now that he needs a little help, he’s touched that his old theater gang is rejoining for the cause. They, in turn, are happy to do so. Reliving the most intense theater experience of their lives makes it all the better.

“Fundraiser aside, I think it’s amazing,” Marr said. “We’re hoping people in the Florence area will kind of glom onto this new experience.”

M. Michele Phillips. who’s directing the revival, said, “To bring it full circle is something that never happens because theater’s so ephemeral and when it’s done, it’s done, so this is totally cool. What was always nice about the Circle Theatre was the ensemble. The ensemble was always full of great people you loved working with.”

Michael Markey, who’s reprising the role of the mensch diner proprietor Phil he originated, said in rehearsals it doesn’t seem decades have passed.

“It’s just like we finished yesterday – the interplay, the shortcuts. You know what the other person’s going to say or how they’re going to react. All that’s there after 30 years. Bill Lacey (he plays Al the grouchy short order cook) I haven’t seen in 30 years let alone act with, and we’re right there.”

“It doesn’t take time to catch up and reconnect to people you were that close to, even though it was a long time ago,” Lacey said.

Then there’s the added benefit of everyone bringing more life experience to the material.

“I think the fact everybody’s a little bit older makes the acting more intuitive,” Phillips said. “It seems like second nature.”

“This experience was very embedded in who I was as an actor,” Markey said. “I tend to believe it was probably that way because it was so different. It was so organic as environmental theater that it all came rushing back as soon as we started doing it again.”

Markey said there’s nothing like the intensity of creating theater together for imprinting things in you.

“There’s a trust factor that comes about from working with people over and over again. When we started this we were 12 people who had worked together in UNO and in other community theater who had built that trust, and we spent the first six months of the Circle just working on developing that truth and the improvisation and all that. So that ensemble was part and parcel of who we were.”

The late Matt Kamprath is the stock company’s lone member who’s gone.

In a gender twist, Stan, the homeless philosopher has changed to Stella. Laura Marr, one of Omaha’s most distinguished actresses, plays her. Other characters include Daryl the savant dishwasher, Grace the sharp-tongued waitress and Rudy the jeweler.

Then as now, the players are an extension of the Phil’s Diner universe of neighborhood dreamers, schemers, working stiffs and misfits whose stories Marr explored.

“It had that feeling of an extended family where Phil kind of took in all these different characters over the years,” Marr said. “He was kind of their father in a way.”

The verisimilitude increased placing the actors of these archetypal diner denizens in an actual eatery.

“Because I think part of what the whole experience was with diner theater was to be surrounded by the play in this natural found space,” Laura said. “It gave a really interesting feel as an audience member and as a performer. You can produce the play just as a play but to actually mount it in a setting like this opens a new generation up to what found space theater is and to the possibilities of it. It’s very different doing it that way then doing it on a stage. It requires a different type of style, awareness of the audience and a whole lot of things as a performer.”

When Phil’s Diner debuted, it was a first for area theater.

“It was an experiment the first time we did it,” Markey said. “We only planned on doing it one night. We’d see if anybody came and what they thought because it hadn’t been done before, and the response was so electric it was like, ‘OK, this will work.'”

Until, then, Lacey said, “We didn’t know it would work – we really didn’t.”

What made it a must-see?

“It was so unique to go to a diner and see a play, so there was the novelty aspect of it,” Phillips said.

“Doug created a wonderful slice of life of people you run into, talking the way they talk, being who they are, and you’re just sitting in amongst this group of people you can completely relate to,” Markey said. “Doug’s writing is so earnest – it’s who he is. He causes us to look at the people around us and embrace what’s good about them. What’s good in us comes out because of them.”

Putting on the plays created lasting bonds for this cadre of University of Nebraska at Omaha thespians.

“A group of us from UNO had decided that after we graduated we really wanted to work where we live, instead of live where we work,” Laura Marr said. “We didn’t want to necessarily go off to New York or L.A. if we could try something here and it could be successful.”

The Circle was formed at the Marrs’ wedding reception. To everyone’s surprise, Laura recalled, the theater was a hit right out of the gate. “We had no idea it would so quickly become self-sustaining and a viable medium for us.”

Years of staging work coincided with troupe members getting married, starting families, moving on.

“We really went through a lot of things together,” she said. “Even if we don’t see each other for a long period, anytime we get together we just pick up where we left off because we’ve shared so many experiences. That includes our college years when you really start to figure out who you are and what you want to do and what you believe in. When you have a core group of people that comes together with those very strong themes and you create something together, I don’t think that ever goes away.”

Doug Marr, who only penned that first play because he was the group’s lone writer, said he soon discovered his calling. “I found my voice – I found the way I could express myself.” The sold-out shows, he said, “really blew me away.”

The Circle eventually drew deeply from the American theater canon and became known for casting disabled persons and staging signed shows.

“Before the word inclusive was even a thing, they lived it, they embodied it,” said Fran Sillau, who himself has a disability, “and that didn’t happen everywhere. It was a very special place with very special people.”

It was Sillau’s idea to revive the first Phil’s Diner. Marr was to write a new one but got sick. He intends finishing it yet. “It’s going to be years later – with a lot of the same characters,” he said.

Michael Markey feels there’s an advantage to doing Phil Contemplates first because it gives the ensemble a chance to rediscover the characters with a piece they know and introduce new audiences to diner theater.

“Now we have the foundation for the reunion piece.”

Marr has no problems reengaging with his Phil creations. “They were such a part of my life. They’re attached to my soul. They’re like real people to me.”

Laura’s grateful the work and theater have a new life. “I think that’s the whole purpose of starting something – to see it continue. It’s so interesting to see it from a different perspective because when you’re in the day to day workings of something it’s very hard to be objective about it. With Doug’s health issues over the past two years, it’s really been a relief to us to have someone as competent as Fran (Sillau). He’s got very good vision and some great people supporting that vision. He’ll move the organization in new and exciting ways.”

For the Marrs, it’s nice having a finished script and someone else put up the show.

“It’s not like the old days where Doug was producing so much work and the work was so popular we would start rehearsal on a new one while we were still in production on on,” Laura said.

She feels the Circle’s endurance might explain why other grassroots theaters appeared here.

“We had a big influence in the emergence of all of these little theaters,” she surmised. “They began to pop up and stay and do very interesting original work.”

“It gave everybody the courage to try it,” Michele Phillips said. “These guys actually accomplished it. That was exciting for everybody in the theater community.”

Giving back to a local theater icon, Phillips, said, “gives everybody impetus to do a really good job because there’s no more dedicated theater practitioner than Doug. Just getting around is such a struggle for him,nbut he’s never late, he’s always on top of it.”

“He’s an inspiration –  that’s why we do it,” Sillau said. “Thanks to him I learned that someone with a disability could make what you want out of your life.”

“It’s a great opportunity to say thank you to Doug and Laura for keeping the theater alive,” Markey said.

Doug Marr appreciates it all, even though some days the pain is just too much. Like Phil and the bunch, he remains hopeful.

“I mean, there’s going to be a point in my life when it all crashes down … cause it’s just going to be too difficult, but right now I can’t not keep going. There’s still challenges out there, there’s films to watch, books to read, and also it’s a good time to start working on getting things published, like Starkweather and some of the other pieces I’ve written. Even the Phil’s Diner series. They have to be totally rewritten on the computer, but I’ve got time.”

Shows are Friday and Saturday nights, June 2 to 17, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Harold’s, 8327 North 30th Street. Tickets are $25 and include a cup of coffee and slice of pie. Visit circletheatreomaha.org.

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Niche theater for classics still going strong in 25th year

April 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Niche theater for classics still going strong in 25th year

Cathy Kurz and her Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

A quarter century since Cathy Kurz was told, “No one wants to see this stuff,”‘ her Brigit Saint Brigit (BSB) Theatre company still draws paying audiences to productions of the classical canon.

Works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekov, Ibsen, Miller, O’Neill, Williams, Albee, Stoppard and other playwright legends grace its stage. Since leaving College of Saint Mary eight years ago, the theater’s moved around and now alternates its site-specific work between Joslyn Castle, First Central Congregational Church and other venues.

This 25th anniversary season concludes with Uncle Vanya, April 5-20, at the Castle and The Shakespeare Revue, May 3-24, at First Central, on select dates. All shows are 7:30 p.m.

Low overhead helps keep expenses down, but what’s truly made BSB sustainable without a fixed home is an unwavering commitment to mission.

“Going to rehearsals and working with actors and reading all these plays and thinking about them – that work is everything. That produces the endorphins that make everything else happen,” said Kurz, BSB artistic director and co-founder. “I know the medium, I know the story, and when I read it, I can imagine the story in the medium, and that makes all the difference.”

It helps she’s yoked to a fellow believer in her husband, Scott Kurz, BSB managing director and frequent actor.

Her own fascination began in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. First, watching television productions, then film adaptations and, finally, live theater.

“I just remember being gob-smacked. I would still be sitting there when they were sweeping up. I was entranced by the smell of the greasepaint, the whole thing, I knew nothing about how it worked. I just knew I liked being there.”

The theater became her home through studies at Friends University (Wichita) and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Trying to translate these plays to the stage and working with actors to find the extra dimension that occurs in the theater has been the greatest love of my life. I’ve had so many incredible learning experiences.”

She feels classic theater can touch all of us deeply.

“Story is the oldest form in the world. Humans love to be told stories, The reason why these scripts have lasted is they’re so good. People don’t get an opportunity to see them. When they do, they realize today’s dramas pale in comparison, and then you combine that with the fact it’s live, it’s right there, and it’s really spellbinding. “There is no spectacle that even remotely can do what theater does. It’s that visceral encounter with talented live actors working right in front of you in a play that’s well-paced and interpreted. There’s just nothing like it. It’s spectacle. You can’t pause it, you can’t start eating and drinking or get distracted. It’s right there and it amazes people.”

When she moved to Omaha in 1980, the Norton Theatre was the city’s only regular classics showcase, Kurz directed several seasons there. When it closed, she felt adrift. Stage manager Cathy Murphy-Barron and actor John Jackson agreed they should stop simply lamenting its loss and, thus, they formed the nonprofit BSB.

“I didn’t know if people would come. I was discouraged from doing it by others,”  Kurz said.

She persisted anyway, buoyed by her fellow travelers.

“If, as a director, you have talented, disciplined, dedicated actors and you can match them, then you’re going to do it. I’ve never believed you have to have a fancy backdrop or electronics or big screens. That’s not how we are. If you believe in the power of theater and this material, you’re going to do it wherever you can.”

BSB found an instant following and developed a company of players.

But, she acknowledged, if the Norton hadn’t closed, “i don’t know if I would have started the theater.”

BSB produced its earliest shows at Joslyn Art Museum, then Bellevue University, before taking residence at College of Saint Mary in 1997. BSB stayed 11 years.

“College of Saint Mary was just pivotal. They were so supportive of us. We had storage space, dressing rooms, offices. We rehearsed and constructed sets there. People liked the location. We really did build a lot of audience over that time.”

But when CSM experienced an enrollment boom, it reclaimed the space.

“We were really sorry to leave.”

That was 2008. Then came a twinning experiment with the Blue Barn, followed by a stint in the Capitol District before settling at the Castle and First Central. One-offs happened at Mastercraft and 40th Street Theatre.

The Castle’s 19th century architectural splendor lends itself to period pieces without having to build sets and First Central’s flex space allows great freedom.

Kurz wasn’t sure audiences would follow BSB from venue to venue, but they have. Now she wants the uninitiated to know that instead of treating Chekov’s Uncle Vanya as some dry academic-historical exercise to sit reverently through, it’s okay to laugh.

“It’s not dour. There’s a lot of humor. It’s just life.”

The greatest affirmation she receives is seeing patrons after a show “affected” the same way she was when first captivated by theater.

“There isn’t a greater gift.”

She’s grateful a new generation of theater lovers is being cultivated by BSB public after-school programs conducted by actress-educator Patty Driscoll.

By Kurz remaining true to her vision, BSB remains vital.

“This 25 years has has a lot of ups and downs, tension, drama and worry. The thing that’s kept it going is the belief in it and the love for it.”

Visit http://www.bsbtheatre.com. Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part III

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part III –  history, art, music, theater, film, culture, entertainment, society
 

South Omaha takes center stage


What would Omaha be without South Omaha? Well, for starters, the city would lose a whole lot of history, culture, character and vitality. Just like the murals springing up all over South Omaha, the area is a mash-up of races, ethnicities, cultures, neighborhoods, traditions, colorful characters and intriguing landmarks that express a diverse tapestry of work, family and social life that not only enriches the city’s livability but that helps make Omaha, well, Omaha. Sometimes though it takes an outsider to appreciate the personality of a place. Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces has spent time in South Omaha the last couple years familiarizing himself with the area and its people in prepration for creating stage works that celebrate different aspects of South Omaha for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. In 2015 and again in 2017, the conference’s PlayFest is focusing on South Omaha as part of its Neighborhood Tapestries program and each time Garces has gone into the community to extract its essence. His process involves walking the streets, stopping in places to talk to people and formally collecting people’s stories through interviews and exercises he conducts. His resulting new play “South” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31 during the free PlayFest at Omaha South High School. Some of that school’s students participated in story circles Garces conducted and will perform in the play. This is my story about the appeciation that Garces has gained for South Omaha. The piece appears in the May 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Image result for south omaha 24th street

 

South Omaha takes center stage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com)

 

South.

When applied to Omaha, the word refers to a neighborhood and a school where cross-cultural intersections happen every day. South is also the working title and setting of a new play by Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces. His original work is having its world premiere at South High on Wednesday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the May 27-June 3 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC).

South Omaha’s a landing spot for migrants, immigrants and refugees. South High’s a microcosm of the area and its range of social-racial-ethnic diversity. Garces spent time in South O researching his play. He visited there in 2015 for a similar project. His new drama expresses fears, aspirations, issues and traditions of the two primary populations comprising the area today – Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Other ethnicities are represented in the piece as well.

The GPTC production is part of the conference’s community-based PlayFest. The free show featuring South High students will be performed in the school auditorium. South High is at 4519 South 24th Street.

The annual conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College takes turns exploring aspects of inner city Omaha through its Neighborhood Tapestries. Last year’s focus was North Omaha. This year, it’s South Omaha. Garces visited last fall garnering the raw material for the play from story circles convened with people who variously live, work and attend school there or otherwise identify as South Omahans.

“Community-based work creates a story vibrantly alive in the truths of the specific community participating in it,” said GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler. “It allows for the community to share stories directly, in-person, and with the depth theater provides. With the annual PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries we are creating a living history of the local neighborhoods of Omaha that is unlike any other that exists for the city.”

For South, Garces created two fictional families. One, Lithuanian-American. The other, Mexican-American. The lives of Lina, younger sister Gabija and their parents are juxtaposed with the lives of Lupe, younger brother Diego and their parents. The two households contend with things universal across cultures but also singular to their own family and life situation.

 

 

 

Image result for michael john garces
Michael John Garces

 

 

Once Donald Trump got elected President, Garces returned for an extra story circle, this time with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who expressed concerns about anti-immigrant stands.

“It just changed what it meant to write a play at this moment,” Garces said. “I appreciated how my colleagues at the conference stepped up to that and had me come back out to have more conversations with people, which was really necessary.”

The threat of DACA’s repeal, wholesale deportations and a border wall were among the concerns shared.

“There was definitely some trepidation expressed to me about what certain changes would mean for South Omaha, particularly for young people.”

In the play Lina’s intensely curious about the legal status of friends Lupe and Diego, who avoid the subject until something brings it to light. The two girls wind up protesting on behalf of immigration reform. Garces said, “I talked to people with a very wide range of relationships to activism, so I wanted to represent young people who were activists like Lina and Lupe, and others, like Diego, who aren’t so much.”

By play’s end, Diego’s run afoul of the law and he and Lina have grown apart. Lina and Lupe ponder their respective futures. Lina’s free to go and return as she pleases. Lupe and Diego don’t have that luxury.

“Lina is frustrated with some things happening in her community and for her to leave is a different choice then for Lupe to leave because Lina knows she can come back,” said Garces, whose play intentionally explores who America is home to and isn’t today.

“I think this notion of home is challenging and contested right now. What does it mean to live in the United States since you were 2 and be told you have to go back ‘home’ to a place you don’t have any memory of and whose language you may not speak and leave the place where you do speak the language and where everyone you know lives. There’s a high degree of precariousness and uncertainty for people.”

Questions about identity and home resonate for Garces.

“There’s definitely personal connections in the play for me of families being put under stress by political concerns and as a young person having to make those decisions. Some of the interpersonal stuff that happens both within the family and with friends resonates, too.

“My father’s Cuban, my mother’s Anglo-American, and I grew up in South America, which has its own series of complexities. But at the end of the day I have friends who can’t make the same choices I can make. Regardless of how complex my life and how hard the choices may be, regardless of my convictions, there is always the simple fact I have an American passport, which unless I do something very specific cannot be taken away from me. And so I have the option of certain choices some of my friends don’t. Me choosing to leave the United States or stay is a vastly different choice than it is for someone who’s not a citizen.”

In terms of how South Omahans view themselves, Garces sees a dynamic, healthy tension between permanency and transition. It’s a working-class place with rich history and strong cultural ties, yet always reinventing itself. The one constant is aspiration.

“When I talk to people in the taqueria or the school or the Lithuanian Bakery or wherever I go, there’s always this sense of people looking forward to what’s going to be possible for the next generation and what is the neighborhood going to be. It’s been so many things but what it’s going to be is always in question.

“The sense of excitement and possibility around that is very real. The food, the murals, the sense when you’re on the street that lives are being made and that it’s a place of possibility – that’s what I’ve really taken away with me from South Omaha.”

He said even apart from questions about how federal policies, laws or executive orders might crack down on illegal immigrants, currents of change fill the air.

“I hear this from young people, old people, people from a wide range of backgrounds talking very consistently about how the neighborhood is perceived to be changing. People talk about what they think is positive about that change but also express concern.”

He said he finds people there take a “great deal of pride in their origins. whether Lithuania or Mexico or other places, whether they’re first, second or third generation.” He added, “They’re very proud, too. of being from South Omaha. At the same time they feel South Omaha is not highly regarded by people not of South Omaha.”

GPTC associate artistic director Scott Working, who’s directing the play, admires what Garces has wrought.

“He artfully distills dozens of stories and hundreds of images into these beautiful collections of relatable moments. His characters absolutely feel like you ran into them on South 24th Street. Some of our younger cast were a part of the South High discussion and recognize moments in the play that were in that conversation.”

Garces was still tweaking the ending in mid-April. Though he also directs and heads L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company, he’s put the production in the hands of Working, co-designers Bill Van Deest and Carol Wisner and costumer Lindsay Pape.

“As a writer I tend to try to create a framework that’s pretty open for the designer and the director to interpret that physical world. I talked to Scott about how from my writer’s perspective I think the play needs to flow and there needs to be rhythm but beyond that I’m trusting in them to capture something sort of essential about what it means to be in South Omaha. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with.”

Garces has enjoyed the experience of representing the former Magic City in a dramatic structure.

“It’s been a really good process. I’ve felt really supported by the conference. I don’t mean to sound all Hallmark about it but you occasionally have those artistic experiences that just feel good and this has been one of them. This has felt really right.”

He’s also come to feel a kinship for South O. Though he’s learned much over two years, he considers himself “more informed guest” than honorary South Omahan.

For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit

http://www.gptcplays.com/.

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

December 26, 2016 1 comment

Omaha has a corps of performing artists who command a level of admiration and respect that rises above the norm. These special entertainers have earned this status by the high craft and integrity they exhibit. When it comes to musical theater and singing, Camille Metoyer Moten is pretty much at the head of this class. She’s been captivating audiences for some four decades. She’s won all kinds of accolades and awards for her artistry. Not one to rest on her laurels, she’s as busy today as ever and she may just be in her prime now in her 60s. She’s as smooth and unruffled on stage as one can be, but don’t mistake her carefree manner for being untouched by trouble or pain. She’s seen plenty of both. Her from-the-gut performances draw on a lifetime of experiences, some of them tragic and traumatic, others joyous and blessed, and always informed by her deep faith, unflagging spirit and unflappable demeanor.

My New Horizons cover story on Camille appears in the January 2017 issue hitting stands and arriving in mailboxes the last week of 2016. My blog leoadambiga.com also features earlier stories I’ve done on Camille and other Omaha songstresses. Link to some of these stories at –

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/02/15/omahas-black-sirens-of-song-and-spoken-word/

And here are links to yet more stories I’ve done on popular Omaha singers:

Mary Carrick

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=mary+carrick

Anne-Marie Kenny

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/28/life-is-a-cabaret-the-anne-marie-kenny-story-from-omaha-to-paris-to-prague-and-back-to-omaha-

Karrin Allyson

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=allyson

Quiana Smith

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/23/quiana-smiths-dream-time-2/

 

 

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the January 2017 issue of the New Horizons

 

Lady sings the blues

Classy, sassy Camille Metoyer Moten has entertained with her cabaret singing and musical theater performances since the late 1970s. Besides being much beloved, she’s considered a real pro. Her much sought-after stagecraft has earned critical acclaim as well as Omaha Community Playhouse and Theatre Arts Guild awards.

The free, easy way she handles a song and wins over an audience belies the family tragedies and personal struggles she’s endured. Listen and look close enough and you’ll detect the wistful blue notes of the jazz vocalists she grew up listening to. Like them. she knows about pain. Her late parents were at the forefront of Omaha civil rights work before their lives were cruelly cut short. Her mother Lois died of brain cancer at age 43. Seven years later her father Ray was shot to death at the family barbecue joint at age 52.

Bigotry and bias have confronted her. Illness has attacked her.

A strong faith, a sure sense of self and a rock solid marriage to husband Michael Moten have helped Camille cope with loss and setbacks and thus avoid the pitfalls many of her idols suffered.

Music was all around her as a girl. She and her sister Lanette, also an award-winning musical theater artist, inherited their singing chops from their mom. Lois would harmonize, scat and sway to records she played in the family’s northeast Omaha home.

“She was a wonderful singer,” Camille recalled. “We grew up listening to lots of jazz albums. Dinah Washington. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Nancy Wilson. That was her thing. She was so into it.”

Her mom oft-told the story how she auditioned for and was asked to tour either with the great Count Basie or Duke Ellington but turned the opportunity down. Though flattered by the offer, Lois was engaged to her future husband, Ray Metoyer, a serious Creighton University student not about to let his fiancee go on the road.

Camille began showing off her own pipes as a toddler.

“I wanted to sing but I didn’t know a song, so I would sing about the furniture and anything that came into my view.”

Encouraged by her mother, Camille learned lyrics to standards but was timid to have an audience around.

“She loved that I would sing but I was really shy to sing, so I would be like in the basement singing and if I’d hear somebody coming. I’d stop. I would always pretend there was a microphone.”

Her first time on stage came in the first grade at Sacred Heart School when she, Lanette and their brother Raymond sang “Do Re Mi.”

“I just remember being so scared but I wanted to do it so bad.

Everybody was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this little girl with this big voice.’ I think my desire to perform really got reinforced then because people made a big deal of the fact my voice was fuller. The more I sang for school programs the more compliments and confidence I got.”

 

SWING!!

 

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A wide music repertoire

Even early on she drew on diverse musical influences.

“There were so many things I liked. I loved the jazz. I also loved the musical theater. And I also loved classical music.”

The same holds true today.

“It’s a mishmash of several things. A lot of it’s Barbra Streisand. I always liked the way Nancy Wilson presented herself. Lena Horne, too.

Just very classy. So I always want to at least appear classy on stage because I’m really kind of an awkward person. But when I’m on stage I feel like I have a little more finesse.”

She holds Barbra in special regard.

“I think her voice is amazing. I just got to see her in concert for the first time in August in Chicago. My children bought me a $500 ticket. It was so awesome to listen to her. She’s 74-years old but she can still soar up to those high notes.”

No wonder then Camillle’s stoked about a March 31 tribute concert she’s doing in honor of her idol. The “Bubbly with Barbra” show at the Playhouse is a fundraiser for the theater’s operations.

“I’m so excited about it because I’ve been worshiping her since I was 11-years-old,” Camille said.

Kathy Tyree, Dave Wingert and Jim Boggess will join her on select numbers.

 

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Race

The role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl that Streisand made famous on stage and in film resonated strongly with Camille, who made playing the part a life-time ambition she realized in 1994.

“I related to that character so much. She’s this odd little duck that has talent that nobody could appreciate because of her package,” said Camille, whose light-complexion, blonde-hair and green-eyes made her conscious of her nontraditional African-American appearance.

“I got a lot of comments about my look.”

The many shades of black were inescapable, she said, because “my family’s all different colors and it’s something that really sticks out.” She added, “My father was very fair, my mother was pretty brown, so all of us came out different. I came out with all the recessive traits.”

Descendants on her father’s side are of mixed race Creole heritage. Both her paternal and maternal family trees owned property in the South. There’s quite a story behind her father’s family line in Louisiana. The first Metoyer there built a plantation and his son Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer befriended a family that owned a slave, Marie Coincoin, with whom he became infatuated. He built a plantation for her and she lived in the house with him and they had children together. Threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, he built her a separate house in back. When he decided to have white heirs, he gave her her freedom and let her keep their children. She became a leading entrepreneur in the state, even building her own plantation. The black branch of the Metoyers lived as aristocrats.

Lanette and Camille dream of making a musical out of the story.

Their mother grew up in Mississippi and though their father was born in Omaha, thier grandfather Victor came from Louisiana. Victor worked as a railroad dining car waiter for Union Pacific. He and a fellow waiter opened a BBQ eatery. They alternated operating it based on their UP runs. When Victor was on his Omaha to California run, his partner manned the joint, and when his partner was on his Omaha to New York run, Victor handled things. Grandpa Victor also co-founded the adjacent Key Club. Eventually the Metoyer family owned the restaurant outright. Three generations ultimately ran it.

Camille’s father dropped out of Creighton just short of earning a degree in order to support his family. He worked many years as a Boys Town counselor. Camille and her siblings got to know some of the boys. One escorted Lanette to a homecoming dance. Raymond vacationed at Lake Okoboji with students his father brought to camp.

At night Ray Metoyer helped his father Victor run the family barbecue place. Ray’s eldest son Raymond, who became a television news reporter, partnered with his father and grandfather in the business.

Camille knew her dad caught flak the way she did.  “We looked alike, so he was very sensitive to making us understand that it doesn’t having anything to do with anything.”

Both parents made sure their kids knew that light or dark needn’t define them.

“They always impressed upon us that that didn’t make a difference,” Camille said. “That was their main thing with us – it doesn’t matter what you look like. Your blackness has nothing to do with your physical appearance.”

 

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Camille and her brother Raymond on the family home’s backyard, circa 1970s

 

 

Civil rights

Camille’s parents were both active in local civil rights efforts. Her father was part of the social action group the De Porres Club whose boycotts in the late 1940s and early 1950s forced businesses to hire and serve blacks. He also headed the Urban League of Nebraska when it hosted Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson in separate events. Camille met both leaders and recalls Malcolm X as a very tall and tender man who mentioned that she reminded him of his daughter.

Her folks also participated in demonstrations by the 4CL or Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties in the ’60s. The Metoyer kids got dragged along to organizing meetings at Zion Baptist Church.

“It seems like it was always in the summer. It was so hot and packed in, everybody sweatin’ on each other,” recalled Camille.

She and her siblings were young when the civil rights marches and speeches filled the airwaves.

“I don’t think we understood the whole significance nationally. I understood there needed to be change and it was going to make the world the way it should be. Our parents sort of instilled in us this is what it’s going to be, this is what we’re working for, this is where we’re going to get to. They were dedicated to lifting black people to the place that we deserve to be. That was their focus. That, and impressing upon us that you’re just as good as anybody, so there’s no reason feeling like you’re falling short.

“It was very important to them. Sadly, we’re not there all these years later. As I reflect back on it, I appreciate more or understand better the sacrifices they made to do the things they did.”

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

Once, Camille was with her folks and others at a protest when they were all arrested.

“We were protesting for open housing down at the City Council chambers. I was in the fourth grade and my parents decided it was important I participate. The police came and we all sat down. I sat on my dad’s lap and when the police picked us up they had to pick us up together. He was going to make this as difficult as he could for them.”

A press photographer snapped a pic that went national of cute little Camille in braids, tortoise shell frame eyeglasses and dress carried by her indignant but dignified father like a precious bundle.

“This picture of my dad carrying me out went out on the Associated Press all around the country.”

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

The poignant photo got new life five decades later when Camille and Lanette appeared in Having Our Say, a play about the real-life Delany sisters living through generations of racism. The themes echoed things the Metoyers experienced themselves.

Doing the play brought Camille and Lanette, who’ve always been close, even closer together. The project also gave them a chance to honor figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” Camille said.

 

Camille and her sister Lanette in Having Our Say
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Camille’s late parents Lois and Ray Metoyer

 

Strong stock

Hardly a day goes by Camille doesn’t think of her parents.

“My dad was the epitome of a professional, educated man, although he could be very crazy as well. But I never heard him swear. But my mother on the other hand would come out with a few things if she got irritated enough. His thing was always about professional appearance and how you present yourself. My mom was concerned about that, too, but she was more of a gregarious, outgoing, earthy person. She was maybe a combination of what Lanette and I are now,”

Her parents’ fight for equal rights got personal when her family integrated all-white Maple Village in 1966.

Camille said, “My father wanted to have a closer commute to Boys Town and he felt the education we were getting in North Omaha schools was not equivalent to what west Omaha schools offered.”

Even aspirational couples with the desire and means to live outside segregated areas had to take special measures to get around red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants. The Metoyers had black realtor George Thomas secretly negotiate with NP Dodge to arrange for the family to purchase their new house.

“We had to go through the backdoor to get that house,” Camille said.

‘We surprised the neighborhood because they didn’t know a black family was coming.”

Lanette recalled, “It eventually was known blacks had purchased the house and therefore our dad, grandfather and several white male employees that worked for my dad would spend nights at the house until we moved in.”

Camille said, “We had a lot of backlash. It was crazy.”

A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in.

The family moved in late at night to avoid a scene but some neighbors gathered outside to glare.

For several nights. Camille’s father and grandfather stood armed guard inside. It reminded her mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Mississippi.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the front-line,” said Lanette.

The siblings remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. Once, the house got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

At their various schools the kids encountered racism.

“If things happened at school we’d come home and talk about it. We always just knew how to handle it. Before we moved there, our parents anticipated there would be issues. They warned us. But they added we have every right to be where we want to be and don’t let anybody tell you anything different.”

Camille said her parents admonished she and her siblings to  “always address discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”

Whatever the sitaution, like the family being refused service at King Fong’s downtown, it became a teachable moment.

“My mom explained how it was their loss and we would encounter people that would not like us without ever knowing us. I guess they always gave the impression there was something wrong with those people – there was nothing wrong with us. They told us when you come across people who are ignorant you educate them, you don’t argue or get angry, because they need help. To this day, if I have the opportunity to enlighten somebody, I will, as opposed to getting angry. That works with my whole Christian faith.”

Finding a foundation for her music and faith

The Metoyers found acceptance if not fairness. Auditioning for a role in Guys and Dolls at Burke High School, Camille said the music director opposed her being cast on account of her race. Camille had an ally in her drama teacher, who swore “she’d never let that happen again.”

Despite resistance, her passion for performing wouldn’st be denied. She planned going to California to pursue a singing-acting career but then her mother became ill. Losing her mother, she said, “really took me off my path.” She wasn’t sure what to do next when a friend of her father’s who ran the music department at Xavier University in New Orleans convinced her to give it a try.

“It sounded just great to get away. I went and auditioned and got a       scholarship. That’s how I ended up there. The great thing about Xavier is that I got classical training but I also sang with the jazz band,

so now I’m able to do all of that – which makes me marketable.”

Still bereft by her mother’s death and far away from home, she searched for answers and came of age as a young woman.

“I was really angry and I became kind of agnostic. I thought how could God take such an amazing person. I lived like that for awhile. I hooked up with Michael and we were into the fast scene.”

Getting high became her lifestyle. Then one day Michael had a born again experience.

“He was completely changed after that day. I was still getting high and just out there and suddenly we were incompatible because he didn’t want to do the things I wanted to do anymore. My own born again experience took a while. I refused to go to church with him and continued to party while in my heart and mind knowing I wanted what he had. I just didn’t want to give up me.

“Finally one evening he was going to church and he begged me to come with him and I said no. He was literally in tears. I found out later he was thinking that if I didn’t come this was to be the end of our relationship. After he left for church I felt bad, so I drove to the church. When they had the altar call he took me down but I didn’t want to go – I was not ready.”

Her willfulness wilted in the following days.

“God made Himself more and more real to me until finally one day I agreed to pray with Michael and some of his new friends from church.  That night as I prayed God took over my tongue and I spoke in a heavenly language which the Bible explains is God’s spirit dwelling in us. And by that spirit being in us we can now be saved.

“From that moment my life changed – no more getting high, no profanity. My view of mankind changed and my purpose changed. It was no longer about me but about Him.”

 

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Camille and her husband Michael Moten back when they were first married
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Camille and Michael today

 

A new beginning from a terrible end

Her faith was soon put to a severe test when her father was murdered at the family restaurant on a late summer evening in 1979.

“A year before there was a woman that got hired at the restaurant. He caught her taking money and also soliciting the male clients and so he fired her and she didn’t like that. She would call the house and tell people she was her man. She harassed him for a year and it was getting more and more severe: a window broken out in the house;  showing up at his job and security escorting her off campus.”

On September 17 the woman went to the restaurant and confronted Metoyer with a small caliber gun. She fired it once and the bullet struck him in the neck and he bled out on the scene.

Not long before, Camille and Michael, who were by then married and raising their first child, interviewed to be family teachers at Boys Town and they were hired. They moved to Omaha to start their new life and career in the shadow of Ray Metoyer’s senseless death.

“The thing that was so difficult about it at the start was that it was two weeks after my father was murdered, so I was coming to the place where he worked. i heard over and over again how much they admired and respected him and what a loss it was, so I was constantly reminded of him.”

It was the most challenging period of her life until a bout with cancer 30-plus years later.

“I moved across country, I lost a loved one and I had a 2-year-old. I had all of those stressors. Today, Michael looks back and says, ‘How did you get through that?’ Through a lot of prayer and believing this is where God wanted us to be.”

The decision to be a family teacher continued her parents’ legacy.

“That’s how we were raised. It’s always about giving back, contributing, making a difference, helping however you can. Besides, once Michael and I  gave our lives over to Christ it seemed like a natural thing to do..

“We had the very first girls program. Boys Town had just started the family teaching model. We had an off-campus home at 35th and Davenport. Our girls were all local, so we were able to work with and counsel parents. Then we moved to campus, where we had a transitional living home for boys to learn to live independently.”

It took some adjusting for Camille and Michael, too.

“Initially, the greatest challenge if you have children is being able to divide your time in a way that everybody has a significant amount of you without sacrificing one for the other. A lot of family teacher couples are not successful with that. My kids became very close with a lot of those Boys Town kids.”

She said an important lesson she learned is “don’t take things personally and understand what’s happening.” She added, “There were some kids that can really get under your skin but you can’t let them get under your skin. I would always think, If only I could have had you as a baby. I would have loved to have given them what they should have had early in life. That always made me soften my anger.”

Feeling burned out after 16 years, Camille left Boys Town for a job at the YWCA coordinating programs that introduced girls to nontraditional careers. Then she applied her behavioral management skills to the former Western Electric plant then recently renamed Lucent Technologies, where her sister worked.

 

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A performing life

Meanwhile. Michael, an ordained minister, felt the call to form a church, One Way Ministry, in 1994, that he still pastors today. For years, Camille served as music director and only recently stepped down so that she can sing in the choir.

All the time she worked regular day jobs she rehearsed and performed musicals and concerts evenings and weekends. Her music career took off when she joined a cabaret troupe formed by old friend Becky Noble. They’ve long paired as Nebraska Arts Council touring artists. Camille’s performed with the Omaha Symphonic and Opera Omaha chorus and she’s toured with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. She sang with Soli Dep Gloria Cantorum on a concert tour to Barcelona, Spain.

She’s enjoyed a long collaboration with Chuck Penington and his band. She also headlines her own band. Her keyboardist, David Murphy, offered his take on what makes Camille such an enduring favorite.

“The reason the community loves her is she’s authentic. She’s the real deal. She walks the walk and sings her heart out. It all comes from her soul. She intuitively manages to find the heart of any song,” including ones he’s penned. “It’s about the music and not about her. She consistently respects and enhances the material she tackles and still makes it her own. I absolutely believe she could’ve gone to either coast and had a brilliant career as a performer. Omaha is lucky to have her.”

When Camille’s two kids were small she dragged them to rehearsals. Even today, with her kids grown and out of the home, she’s busy booking, preparing and doing shows. Though her schedule can be draining, she said performing “fills you back up.”

Even though art should be color-blind, race can be an issue, as when she broke color barriers as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Eva Peron in Evita, and when her voice and repertoire aren’t what people expect.

“I don’t have a gospel voice. People expect that because I’m black. I was raised Catholic, so I didn’t have that whole gospel thing. Jazz and musical theater are my influences.”

She’s also a rather subdued performer.

“It’s the purity that I’m into and not all that other stuff and I think people eventually appreciate it.”

At the invitation of friend and sometime collaborator Kathy Tyree she sang at Salem Baptist Church last summer for a gospel program.

“I don’t have gospel arrangements, so I sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ because I find that song very spiritual and they loved it. It was the most talked about song of the evening amidst all these amazing gospel songs. It was the purity of that that people related to.”

Her muted voice blended with Tyree’s big sound for a Divas By Design show they did at the Blue Barn Theatre last fall. The two go way back.

“Camille and I did our first show together 26 years ago: Sophisticated Ladies at the Playhouse,” said Tyree, “What I admired most about Camille back then is what I admire most about her now and that is her peaceful spirit and how beautifully and easily she shares her gifts. She’s not only an amazing artist but a beautiful person as well. Her unshakable faith in God keeps me in awe and her love for people is one of the many reasons I love her so much.”

Not long after Camille’s spiritual awakening in New Orleans and her resettling in Omaha, she landed the role of Mary Magdalene in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Orpheum Theater. She went in to audition for a spot in the chorus but got the plum female part. Her performance won raves and established her as a bright new talent. But she was wary before the opening night curtain rose.

“I had never done anything other than high school-college shows. It was a big leap. I remember standing backstage looking out at that full house and my heart going ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump. I started saying a prayer and I heard God say, ‘What is wrong with you, this is your dream, I’m giving you one of the desires of your heart – would you please enjoy it.’ He made me think how trivial this really is compared to homelessness and sickness and that I should just go out and do what I do and entertain the audience.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten nervous-nervous like that again. It just calmed me right down.”

Whether doing a play or a concert, her approach is “very consistent.”

“Doing musical theater, whatever that character is, that’s who I am. Doing cabaret, each song is like its own little vignette, so every song is its own character. When I perform my purpose is to take whatever the composer and lyricist wrote and try to interpret it with whatever he or she had in mind and bring the audience into it. I want to be true to that.

“Somebody told me a long time ago it’s not only about a pretty voice. and it really isn’t it. If you think about all the successful entertainers it really in’t about their singing … but it’s what they do with a song, it’s the passion they bring out of a song. Once you know the song and once you understand what’s behind the song then that’s what happens.”

Her sister Lanette’s seen her on stage perhaps more than anyone and she marvels at Camille’s “persistence to step outside her comfort zone and create any character she tackles and make it believable.”

 587447Surviving health crisis and moving on

Everything was coming up roses for Camille personally and professionally when she got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. As a woman of faith, she sought healing through prayer. Heeding her Higher Power, she canceled a surgery and found a new doctor.

“She confirmed I still had the cancer. I told her my story and she revealed she is a woman of faith, too, Most doctors don’t talk about it.

She said, ‘First of all, I understand where you’re coming from spiritually and secondly you’ve had this cancer for a really long time – it is a slow growing cancer and if you’re not ready to have surgery then we don’t do the surgery because then you won’t heal.’ She had total respect for my belief. I knew God provided me her. He got me to the right team.”

Camille underwent radiation chemo treatments, hormone blocker regimens but in the end she required a mastectomy. She continued performing during most of the journey, even proudly displaying her bald head. She had reconstructive surgery in 2014 and 2015.

Not one to dwell on anything, she’s moved forward from the experience.

“The mindset I had at the time is my mindset and it goes along with my philosophy – that’s over, it was a little side step.”

She chose to share her cancer odyssey with the public via Facebook posts. She and her “prayer warriors” exchanged messages of hope about the challenges, indignities and joys of the journey. Her observations ranged from silly to sweet to sublime. Thousands followed her progress, including the inevitable ups and downs, and she later compiled her affirmations into a book.

“I just want to be able to make people understand that Jesus is our healer. We use medicine also but it doesn’t always work. He’s the plan and medicine is the backup plan. I think the more people understand that the better the outcome is.”

Camille’s as busy as ever these days. “I just think of it as this continuum that keeps going.” It’s not like she’s slowed down since realizing her dream of playing Fanny Brice. “That was a high, high point for me but then as things developed there’s been so many other high points.”

It always comes back to keeping it real and finding the root.

“Somebody told me not too long ago, ‘When you sing, you sing from here,’ putting her hand on her midsection. I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much,’ and she said, ‘I mean that, not everybody sings from there.’ And I think she meant from my core, from my heart. That’s what I strive for, that’s my intent.”

From her gut, springs all the glory.

Visit www.musicbycamille.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Hot Movie Takes: “A Thousand Clowns” and other ’60s films begat golden age of ’70s cinema

September 14, 2016 Leave a comment

 

 

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Hot Movie Takes:

“A Thousand Clowns” and other ’60s films begat golden age of ’70s cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

The other night on YouTube I watched a largely forgotten but seminal American movie from 1965 titled “A Thousand Clowns” and it reminded of two things: As a kid, that movie was way too mature and cerebral for me to fully appreciate; and it was part of a vanguard that helped usher in the New Hollywood. Those of us who regard the last Golden Age of American cinema to be the 1970s know full well that that New Wave of American film really began in the late 1950s-early 1960s, before finally becoming a full fledged movement in the late 1960s. That movement or wave marked by personal, humanistic-themed filmmaking led by auteurist directors hailing from television and film school persisted throughout the following decade. This was the period when the studios were “taken over” by the artists or so it seemed. The new freedom allowed a brash group of filmmakers to assert themselves on the American and world cinema scene. The new school directors whose work most stood out then included: Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, John Cassavetes, Mike Nichols. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Richard Rush, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz, John Boorman, Peter Yates, Michael Cimino, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.

But those hot new directors were not the only ones making waves then. Indeed, a few veteran studio directors long since having gone independent made some of their strongest works in that era, particularly John Huston (“Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “Fat City,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Wiseblood”). Then there were directors who made only one or very few notable films in that time only to disappear from the world of features or never to catch the magic again. “A Thousand Clowns” director Fred Coe was one of these. He was a writer and producer who had his biggest success in TV, but he made two films right in the thick of that transition in American features that caught the wave in their own idiosyncratic ways. The first was “A Thousand Clowns,” which writer Herb Gardner adapted from his own Broadway play. The other was “Me, Natalie,” which like “Clowns” has a great reputation, but I have never seen it to judge for myself. Before the film adaptation of “Clowns,” he directed the original Broadway play, which was a commercial and critical hit. For the film Jason Robards and Barry Gordon reprised their starring roles from the stage version.

 

 

Now having viewed “Clowns” for the first time through adult eyes – decades removed from when I last saw it –  it is clearly part of a continuum in American film that pushed boundaries and assimilated stylistic techniques and humanistic themes prominent in the cinematic new waves of Italy, France and Great Britain and that reflected the growing social tumult. “Clown” stars Robards as a quintessential New York City nonconformist named Murray who has raised his nephew Nick (Barry Gordon) ever since his sister abandoned him to his care. He’s a sardonic writer hedonistically living off of his imagination and irascibility. Out of work by his own choice and none too eager to rejoin the Rat Race, he lives by his own rules and seemingly without adverse consequences. His nephew is, on the surface at least, more of an adult than he is and goes along with his flights of fancy as much to humor him as anything. Even when Murray’s guardianship of the boy is threatened by this carefree lifestyle and cavalier attitude that sees him run through women, defy authority and flee responsibility, he doesn’t change. Then, in the strangely melancholic and wonderfully anarchic spirit of the story – something of a cross between the Marx Brothers, “The Producers,” “Harold and Maude” and Woody Allen – a couple from the child welfare board visits the uncle and nephew’s apartment to make an assessment. William Daniels as Albert and Barbara Harris as Sandra play the romantically involved couple. He’s an uptight case worker and she’s an emotionally fragile psychologist and they have wildly different responses to the situation. He’s appalled and annoyed by Robards’ seeming indifference to this official inquiry and the threat of the nephew being taken from the home. She, however, is charmed by the Murray and Nick’s insouciance. The professional and personal relationship between the neurotic couple devolves right before Murray’s eyes and he takes up with her that very day. That still leaves the matter of Murray needing to find a job before a hearing in a few days to determine the boy’s fate.

NOTE: Nebraska’s own Sandy Dennis played Sandra in the Broadway play and won a Tony for her efforts.

Robards is perfectly cast as Murray. He had a gift for irony and larceny. I’ve always thought of him as the Bogart among his generation of actors. Gordon, who as an adult became the long tenured head of the Screen Actors Guild, plays prococious and worldy wise without cloying cuteness – something akin to what Jodie Foster did a decade later in “The Bad News Bears” and “Taxi Driver.”

Murray’s staid agent brother Arnold (Martin Balsam), frantically lines up interviews for him but Murray can’t or won’t sell-out and ends the day still unemployed. This causes Sandra to lay down an ultimatum: find a job or lose me. There’s a great scene between the brothers when an exasperated but loving Arnold explains to Murray why they are so different. Arnold needs the security that comes with showing up for work everyday. He’s settled for the consumerist American Dream, even if it is a fraud, and he’s willing to play by the rules to remain a sheep and to be comfortable. He has a family to support, after all. By contrast, Murray’s search for whimsy in a system designed to crush individuality and his penchant for calling out the hypocrisy around him leaves him fighting windmills that cannot be harnessed. Arnold admires and pities Murray;s inability or refusal to compromise. Murray feels anger and sorrow that Arnold long ago lost his freedom. In the end, Murray sacrifices his independence for the sake of the kid and the girlfriend and perhaps his own peace of mind by going back to work for Leo, the manic, egomaniacal host-producer of a children’s TV show, brilliantly played by Gene Saks. The ending bothers fans of the stage version, who feel the film makes it seem that Murray too has sold his soul to become just another sheep. But my take is that Murray’s simply adjusted his attitude, much like his hat, to appear to be a conformist on the outside when he’ll really always remain a free spirit and independent agent on the inside. It’s what you do for love, in this case his love for the boy and for the woman.

 

 

Director Coe opens up “A Thousand Clowns” by variously  following Murray, Nick and Sandra cavorting about the city, their spontaneous play in stark contrast to the regimented patterns of workers moving in lockstep to and from work. These moments represent their escapes, if only fleeting, from harsh reality. These scenes give the film a kinetic, pure cinema look and feel that also emphasizes the whole theme of moving against the tide. My take away from the story is that Gardner views the constructs of 9 to 5 civilization as a game in which the House (corporations, society, government) is always going to “win” and the best antidote to staying sane and happy in this rigid, stacked paradigm is to see it for what it is and have a good time winking at it. Murray is not so much a rebel then as a survivor who gives as good as he gets on his own terms. He will always be an outlier with a barbed comment or silly joke or impulse to do something spontaneous. It’s his way of saying; I am here, I am alive. I own my own thoughts and behaviors. And I don’t give a damn what you may think of me. While it’s message may be muddled for some, I think it’s basically just saying; No matter what, be yourself. We all make compromises, but be true to yourself.

All of this is played out against the subtext of what was happening at the time in society with the civil rights and black power movements, the birth of women’s lib, the Vietnam War, the counterculture revolution led by rock, the growing drug culture and consumerism run amok. Things were on simmer in the early and mid’60s and would come to a full boil by the end of the decade. The film is a mood capsule for the dissatisfaction people were feeling without ever overtly referring to any of these things. But it’s all there between the lines.

 

 

“Clowns” came smack dab in the middle of a flood of films starting to redefine American cinema in the 1960s:

Shadows

The Hustler

Lolita

Wild River

The Manchurian Candidate

David and Lisa

America, America

Dr. Strangelove

A Hard Day’s Night 

Nothing But a Man

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Lillith

In Cold Blood

Mickey One

The Graduate

Bonnie and Clyde

Point Blank

Faces

The Producers

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Catch-22

Midnight Cowboy

Alice’s Restaurant

Easy Rider

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

MASH

Five Easy Pieces

The Landlord

Husbands

Harold and Maude

The French Connection

The Last Picture Show

Mean Streets

The Conversation

These and many other films brought a new freedom and excitement to bear that opened up American cinema more than at any time since the pre-code silent and early sound era. The best of these new films variously introduced new levels of naturalism, expressionism and impressionism to the screen. It was an anything goes time informed by the cinema of the world. America made its own indelible contributions to this rich cinema stew. “Clowns” rarely gets mentioned in appraisals or retrospectives of ’60s and ’70s film. It’s not nearly as well known as many of the films in the above list. While it’s not a great film – Coe doesn’t quite get the visuals aspects of the story right in my opinion and I think he doesn’t make full use of the dynamics between Murray and Nick – it’s a very good and important film. I can’t wait to discover more of these gems that have got lost in the shuffle.

Here is a link to a superb tribute essay written about Herb Gardner and “A Thousand Clowns”–

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/herb-gardner_b_3993759.html

 

This post falls under the heading: This is why I do what I do

August 15, 2016 Leave a comment

This post falls under the heading:

This is why I do what I do.

 

Received the amazing email message below from Kac Young. She fell under the influence of a dynamic group of radical feminists at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, California of all places during the late 1960s. These were provocateurs who challenged all kinds of conformity and many of them were the nuns who taught there. These women were unafraid to challenge the status quo when it came to the Catholic Church, higher education, culture and society. They were known as the Rebel Nuns of Hollywood. They brought cutting edge figures to the campus, including activists and artists. Among the resident artists was Megan Terry, a major figure in the New York and national experimental theater scene then. Kac Young appeared in the original production of Terry’s “The Tommy Allen Show” at the college. Kac found a Reader cover story I did on Megan and Jo Ann Schmidman, who together forged compelling, socially relevant work at their Omaha Magic Theatre. Kac wanted to make sure Megan knew that one of those cheerful subversives at the college, in fact the very woman who brought Megan there, had passed away.

 

 

Megan Terry

 

You can linl to that Reader story at–

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/the-magical-mystery-tour-of-omahas-magic-theatre-a-megan-terry-and-jo-ann-schmidman-production/

I have also included, thanks to Kac, links to some content about the places, the figures and the times she references in her message.

Kac says some very nice things about my writing but you should know she enjoyed quite the career as a television director before changing careers a few years ago. She’s also an author. Check out her website at http://www.kacyoung.com/about-kac-young/ and her LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kacyoung1.

Kac Young

Here is the message she sent that made my day yesterday and that I think you will enjoy too (that’s Kac on the right).

“Dear Leo: I was in the original play The Tommy Allen Show that Megan Terry wrote and directed at Immaculate Heart College in 1969.  I was searching for her and found your incredible interview with her and Jo Ann Schmidman. I’m now following you and what you write about because you are terrific and there are no accidents. Thank you for a great piece on Megan.  I am writing to you because I want to get in touch with Megan. The beautiful nun who hired her to come to our drama department passed away two summers ago. She was Sr. Ruth Marie Gibbons that we all called “Ruth.” She was one of the leading drama teachers and persons of theatrical merit in the 60’s and 70’s having worked with Joe Papp, The Bread and Puppet Theater and La Mama. She graduated from the then Carnegie –Mellon and was way ahead of her time and vocation. Ruth brought Megan to our campus for the experience of having a radical playwright in residence at Immaculate Heart College which was frequented by The Berrigan Brothers and other anti-war protestors. These are the nuns who rebuked the Vatican and left the church because the powers that be in Rome wanted them to get back in their habits after a two-year experiment without them. The nuns found that being out of the habit made their work in the community more effective and in line with their purpose which was to serve humanity. The uniform habits proved to be a barrier and they wanted to be effective not quaint.  They were a feisty lot and they were smart. They owned the deed to the property at Western and Franklin in Hollywood, where AFI now sits, and were able to subsidize their mission statement with the proceeds from the sale of the College land.  They formed a lay community and have been doing good in the world ever since.

“I wanted Megan to know Ruth died. I thought maybe you could connect me with Megan. Or at least forward my info to her.  It was 47 years ago that we worked together. I became the 4th woman to join the Director’s Guild in 1973 and have three Doctorates to my name and other rabble-rousing credits.  It would be great fun to speak with Megan and let her know what an impact she had on all of us and the theatrical world. She probably already knows that, but it never hurts to tell her again.

“I love your writing Leo and I thank you for anything you might be willing to pass along to Megan on my behalf. Thank you…Your help is much appreciated. Thank you and I’ll be reading what you write from now on.  Thanks a zillion.” -kac

Love and Heartlight

 

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

 

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center

 

Here are some links about the times and the place that was so alive in the 60’s.

http://www.laweekly.com/arts/the-rebel-nuns-of-hollywood-why-they-embraced-the-60s-and-broke-from-catholicism-5726544

http://www.independent.com/news/2008/aug/28/how-group-ex-catholic-nuns-saved-their-famous-mont/

http://www.skylightbooks.com/event/rebel-nuns-immaculate-heart-community-discuss-art-and-legacy-sister-corita

The most famous of them all: Sister Corita Kent.

http://articles.latimes.com/1991-01-28/entertainment/ca-236_1_fine-art

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine was performed first in LA at The Mark Taper Theater and was based on the Berrigan work.  Those were the people who gathered at the college along with Megan Terry, our playwright in residence.

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-berrigan-legacy-20160501-story.html

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