January 6, 2013
1979. I was reeling from divorce and having severe vocal problems after screeching the parts of Judas and Jesus (not at the same time) in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” for the better part of four years in the seventies. My classically trained tenor voice had abandoned me, supplanted by a whisper. A doctor said only silence would cure me. How long? One year.
I knew I would never again sing professionally—my vocal chords were shot and so was my acting ambition. I wanted to stay in the arts—plays were my life; I would write a play. One morning, I sat at my desk, poised my two middle fingers and faced my typewriter. And stared. I had writer’s block and I hadn’t written anything.
That Christmas, I drove down to my hometown of Alton for the holidays. I met an old high school friend at for a drink and we caught up. The startling life story that pal told me stayed in my brain, and I knew what my play would be about. There would be a shotgun on a bar and a juke box. The writing god Anton Chekov once observed, if there’s a gun onstage it had better go off. My gun would go off in blackout. The end.
I got back home on New Year’s Day and began to write. The only training I had had was in music, so I thought of the characters as soprano, alto, bass and tenor, and as a string quartet—bingo. I composed the first draft on staff paper: recitative, aria, fugue, counterpoint. The shotgun was a tympani hit. I began typing the second draft, and six months later I had written a one hundred forty-five page play. (Note to playwrights: a one hundred forty-five page script is at least three hours long. Unless you’re Shakespeare, do not submit.)
On a warm night in spring in 1980, I walked four blocks to my bar, the “Irish Eyes,” on Lincoln Avenue, the only copy of my manuscript under an arm. It was a Monday or Tuesday night. A few regulars were there, plus a stranger sitting next to my friend George Moxley. The stranger had a shaved head (before shaved heads were fashionable) and wore tinted glasses. He was a dead ringer for Telly Savalas, the actor who played Kojak, on TV—if Telly Savalas wore a blue work shirt with the sleeves ripped off. The guy looked like a Hells Angel.
I slammed my bound manuscript on the bar and called for drinks for the house. Luckily, that only meant four or five drinks. George, from the Beat generation, stroked his long white beard with his right hand and smiled. “Did you finish, Blue?” Yes. Kojak didn’t even look my way.
George went to the can, and Kojak turned to me. “So you’re a playwright” Yes. “Do you know who I am?” I thought, Telly Savalas gone to seed. “I’m Dr. Mel Slott. I’m chair of the theatre department, at Governor’s State University.” I clenched my jaws. (Note to playwrights: Be open to serendipity even if it bites you on the ass.) “Give me the manuscript, Mr. Playwright. I’ll take it home and read it tonight. And I’ll call you tomorrow and tell you whether or not you’re a playwright.”
Dr. Slott walked out Irish Eyes with my only manuscript. George, on cue, grinning, came back from the can. “Did Mel offer to read?” Yes. “Good. I told him you’d be in today or tomorrow.” George had set me up.
The next morning, I walked into Dr. Slott’s tasteful apartment, on Diversey Avenue. There were exotic paintings and sculpture hanging from the walls. The furniture was stylish. Dr. Slott was dressed in khakis and a long sleeved pullover made of some woven fabric. It was like he was a different man from the night before. I know now, he had been slumming.
And there, on his cream-colored carpet, was my unbound manuscript, arranged in rows, twenty pages to a row. The pages had literally been slashed with a red pencil; whole pages were mutilated. Dr. Slott had murdered my precious. I began to cry and wail like a puppy left out in a blizzard. (Note to playwrights: Crying and wailing to theatre people is like being a vegetarian in a steak house. You will be eaten.)
“Shut up,” Dr. Slott said calmly, sitting in an easy chair. “Shut the hell up, pick up the pages, read what’s left and let’s see what happens.”
I obeyed. I picked up the pile of bruised pages—they couldn’t be flattened, as the slashing had made them fluffier—and sat on a couch and began to read. Dr. Slott sat across from me, arms and hands raised from his body, fingertips touching. He didn’t move a muscle. I read between gulps of sobs. Eighty minutes later, I read, “Blackout. We hear a shotgun blast. The End.”
Slott flashed me a Cheshire cat smile. “Did we learn anything?”
“It’s the same play,” I said. In my head, I heard the triumphant swell of Leonard Bernstein’s “Let Our Garden Grow,” the finale to his masterpiece, “Candide.” I was high.
“Exactly,” Dr. Slott said. “It sounds like music. How did you manage that? Retype and send the play to New York, to a director I know, Bill Hunt. Oh, Lesson Two, never ever give a stranger your only manuscript.” (Lesson Three comes from Edward Albee: “Never have a character do a monologue from offstage.”)
Slott the Greek-Kojak-the Nutty Professor walked over to me and signaled for a hug. We would be friends for the rest of his life.
‘Who loves you, baby?’