For the next few months, this blog will report on the progress, problems and prospects of the new Musical McManus Comedy, “My Favorite Toy Was Dirt: An American Story in Concert.”
We will also keep fans up to date on our new Facebook Page, “My Favorite Toy Was Dirt.”
Yes, you, dear reader, will have a bird’s eye view of either:
a) A great new and successful enterprise, that will make audiences roar with almost unstoppable laughter, or, possibly
b) One of the biggest misadventures in the annals of musical and comedic creation.
I can remember how it all began. Pat was my advisor at Eastern…the University, not the hospital or the corrections center….although they all have a lot in common. I had enrolled in to get an MFA in creative writing. Pat was a professor there at the time, and he mentored me, much like Rancid did to him, although Rancid was a lot less cruel.
After two years of hard work, Pat took me aside just before I got my degree, put his hand on my shoulders, and looked me in the eyes with what I misinterpreted as incredible sensitivity. “Tim, after reading your stuff for two years, I think you better stick to acting.”
“And now, since you will be getting a graduate degree in English, which practically guarantees you will be unemployed, I should probably write something for you to perform right away.”
Scarcely five years later, Pat said he wanted to do a theatre piece. I asked him what kind. He described a “comical musical” with singers and dancing girls, lots of dancing girls, glitzy scenery, a cast of 35 and some dancing girls. Then he showed me the budget for this extravaganza, and that’s when I knew we had a one-man show.
But now, thanks to some wonderfully generous Kickstarter contributors and thanks to the Spokane Arts Commission, we have a small nest egg that should get us started. Olivia Brownlee (at oliviabrownlee.com) is the composer and she will be creating original music for this show (and conducting the first few performances) that will be a testament to Pat’s humor, imagination and his ability to make people laugh so hard that when I perform, the laughter hurts my ears.
So, let’s get into the nitty gritty. How to describe the piece? Think Mark Twain meets Spike Jones. Or Frank Zappa confronts the Marx Brothers. Or Peter and the Wolf on steroids where nobody dies in the end, not even the wolf.
It is scored for 7 Musicians Versus 1 indentured Actor. The musicians actively perform in the piece, interjecting, interrupting, and contributing to the hilarity and mayhem on stage.
Olivia and I have known each other for years, but this is the first time I have had the opportunity to work closely with her and I have to say, I’m a bit terrified. She brings a baton to our meetings, and often when I am talking, she sharpens the baton with bits of sandpaper she pulls out of her pocket. Why would a conductor need a sharp baton?
She also gently reminds me that the McManus performances I have done are of one-man shows where I have had complete control and didn’t have to work with others. She states, quite simply, “THAT WILL NOT BE THE CASE HERE.” She often talks in capitals to me. I have not yet found a response to capitals, but silence is working right now.
Which is what I’ll be until the next round…..which we’ll publish in mid-August.
For the next few months, this blog will report on the progress, problems and prospects of the new Musical McManus Comedy, “My Favorite Toy Was Dirt: An American Story in Concert.”
I don’t have a dog. Which makes walking it a lot easier.
Instead, I interact with the neighborhood dogs. Kind of. I don’t escort them around the local City Park paths. No, what I do is watch out for dog walkers.
My walks are a must if I am to exercise these old bones. Dogs I encounter help me stay alert and fit by providing a different kind of exercise, one that combines awareness, judgment and fear.
The Park has signs posted all over: Dogs Must Be On Leash. Not so unusual since the City’s street ordinances also instruct that Dogs Must Be On Leash.
Evidently this directive applies primarily to all of us who have no dogs. Because for people that do, the signs seem mere suggestions, hints, or worse, simply stopping points so that pets can check their pee mail.
It usually goes like this. I am walking up a hill, trying to avoid slipping on the ice beneath me and still keep up a good pace. Occasionally I’ll see a few winter sparrows and chickadees that stay around all winter because they have become too lazy to go south, because people feed them tankfuls of sunflower seed….but that is another story altogether.
Then it happens. A brownish mid-size mastiff and his owner appear a few dozen yards ahead of me. Of course the dog is not on a leash. The leash is on the owner, encircling her neck.
The dog sees me, and immediately bounds my way. I stand perfectly still, something I am very good at, having been forced to practice on a daily basis for years, and wait. The dog stops bounding when he reaches me. He bends his thick neck downward and sniffs my gloved hand. Then he growls, a deep-throated growl, assertive but not yet aggressive. I do nothing because I know he is telling me to wait, that soon we will all see how this will work out. The owner is closing in, perhaps 15 feet away, and she laughs, a kind of coy laugh containing embarrassment, dismissiveness and a slight trace of cruelty.
“Don’t worry,” she says, laughing, “he won’t do anything. He’s perfectly harmless.”
Well, that’s sure comforting. Could have fooled me. A 100 pound bag of harmless! Although, as I point out to her, “He already has done something. He growled. And he has his nose on my hand.”
Now she is close to me, which is NOT comforting, because as the distance between us shortens, the dog repositions himself in front of me and growls again, prepared to “intervene” should I try to get too chummy (fat chance) with his mistress.
“Oh,” she laughs. “That’s just Brutus’ way of greeting you. You don’t have to worry.”
I want to blurt out: “What if I want to worry? What if worry is all you have when you’re not armed? What if worry is the thing that keeps people alive when confronted by forces stronger and bigger than themselves? Forces like Brutus.” But I don’t say it. Because Brutus might take offense or she might hate sarcasm and have already trained Brutus to hate those that practice it.
And now comes the important part. Since she does not volunteer to place the leash on Brutus, and since I really doubt she’d be able to “control” Brutus even if she did, but still feeling that I’d be much more comfortable with a leash somewhere between the brute and me, I say: “Would you mind putting his leash on?”
This is the turning point. Either she will or she won’t. Mostly, people equivocate: “Well there’s really no need, you know. He’s friendly.”
Friendly to whom? That is the question of the moment. I believe that Brutus is friendly to his mistress. I believe he may even be friendly to other family members and small children and maybe even musicians, but alas alack what reason does he have to be friendly to me?
As calmly as I can, I respond: “I don’t doubt Brutus’ ability to be a friend. He is probably a good friend to many who know him. It is not the “friend” part of Brutus that I am worried about. It is the “dog” part. And of course the long, sharp teeth. And the fact that he’s in much better shape than I am.”
She laughs, but to my relief, also begins to slip the leash around the hound’s neck. “You know,” she says, “you really ought to have someone look at this irrational fear of dogs you have.”
“Lots of people already do,” I say, “mostly dog owners who have a fear of following a simple city statute about walking their dogs ON A LEASH.” Brutus growls when I raise my voice.
But it’s okay, now, because I am already back on my walk, heading for the next rise in the path and the pit bull on the other side of it.
National Senior Citizens Day, August 19th, was initiated by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to acknowledge and celebrate the life-long contributions our nation’s seniors. So I believe that achieving “seniorness” is honorable and nothing to hide. However, not everybody reacts so enthusiastically.
For instance, recently my wife said that she didn’t “feel like” a senior. That she was going to defiantly delay seniorhood for quite some time, maybe years. She said to me “After all do I look like a senior?”
Now I have been married for 22, er 24, er 27….more than a score of years, and I knew this was an important moment in our marriage. A straight answer to a question like that was needed and needed quickly. No hesitation allowed upon pain of some seriously undercooked seafood.
So I just blurted it out: “Have you taken the test?”
“What test?” she asks.
“The senior test, the one that lets you know when you’re a senior.”
For instance, you know you’re a senior when most people you talk to end their conversations with the phrase “For goodness sake, Write it down.”
Your wife sends you to the store to pick up a few items. By the time you get the car started not only have you forgotten the items but why you’re in the car in the first place, so you run back and say, “Honey, could you write it down.” You know you’re a senior when she says: “Write what down?”
You know you’re a senior when you show up for your colonoscopy…at your optometrist’s office. (Bet you didn’t see that one coming.)
You know you’re a senior when you find yourself brushing your teeth with hemorrhoid cream…..write it down.
You know you’re a senior when you discover your seven day pill container is empty, so just to make sure, you double down on your blood pressure meds….and there goes Friday….
You’re a senior when you refer to one of the grandkids as “it” because you can’t remember if Erin is a boys or girls name…..write it down
You’re a senior when your visits to the doctor become more frequent than dinners with your family….and then you start asking the doctor to come to dinner with your family.
You’re a senior when you start calling everyone “Love” or “Hey there” because it’s easier than remembering actual names….write it down.
You’re a senior when you begin to enjoy and appreciate menus with pictures.
You’re a senior when you can’t read instructions anymore so the tricycle you just assembled for the grandkids has all three wheels in the back.
Or during your whirlwind trip across Europe you spend more time staring down at bathroom tiles than palace frescoes.
You’re a senior when most of your major body parts have started to shrink.
You think that wireless blue tooth is something that’ll cure your gingivitis.
And you find it ironic that the only thing keeping you from visiting other continents is your incontinence…..write it down.
You’re a senior when people ask “how are you?” and you actually spend an hour telling them.
Or you realize you’ve forgotten to brush your teeth…because they’re still sitting on the sideboard.
You’re a senior when you get tweeting and twerking mixed up, and dislocate your hip trying to send a message.
You know you’re a senior when you plan your trips around rest stops.
You’re a senior when your pulse hasn’t been detected for two years.
Or when the remotes in your house outnumber the devices you own.
You’re a senior when your hearing test indicates you have become stone deaf, but only in the frequency range of your wife’s voice.
You’re a senior when “A Night Out” means you forgot your keys again….write it down.
You know you’re a senior when your family won’t let you help clean up after dinner, when you nap as much as your cat, when fiber content becomes more important than taste, when you carry more pills in your pocket than spare change and when they tell you they’ve discontinued your blood type.
But there are good sides to senior status. When you’re in a hostage situation, you’ll probably get released first.
And you won’t have to spend any more money on books. Just reread the ones you have for the first time again.
And when there are screaming kids and babies in a restaurant or an airport or park, you know they’re not yours!
As George Burns said: You can’t help getting older but you don’t have to get old. Write it down.
Oh, by the way, I should tell you. My wife passed………The test, the test!
I was just thinking about some of the places I’ve performed and wanted to share….especially for those of you who get the idea that touring is glamorous!
The Opera House in South Texas where dust and mold from the vaudeville days clung to the main drapes and curtains like jelly on bread and the dressing room had this warning sign posted over the sink, right below the cup dispenser: “Whatever you do, don’t drink water from this sink!!!”
The Basque Hotel in Winnemucca where I performed a cold January night on a 6 inch elevated stage that was 8 foot square. It ran the against the wall of what was ostensibly a dining room with seating for 60, except during the winter, when they allowed 90 in to see the show so that the increased body heat could replace the broken heaters. Of course I wasn’t about to freeze since the ancient stage lights hung from a light bar about a foot away from my forehead.
Lincoln, MT’s Community Center/roller rink/movie hall/wedding venue and trauma center. A huge popcorn maker provided free bags at any event, almost every night. The first batch, the extra and the leftovers were dumped out the stage door in back. Consequently the local deer population usually arrived well before show time to chow down on the treats. They congregated so thickly in front of the stage door that when I arrived I had to shoo them away with my hands, literally beating them on their rumps so they would move, and I could get in to perform.
The large school room in Stanley, Idaho, where the Mountain Mamas brought me in to rid the town of winter blues. They were great. They had no stage lights so they “borrowed some lights” from the edges of the landing strip that graced the runway of the small airfield just outside of town and mounted them with bungees to the tops of ladders at the sides of the room.
The tattered Elma Theater in Elma, WA, which was on its last legs, and no one was looking for prosthetics. I agreed to a benefit show to help, and it is the only time I experienced rain on the stage and me during a performance. It came pouring down from the fly space above, a fly space with holes as big as your fist. There were also sparrows nested in the wings and every once in a while, one of them would simply dart across the stage, sometimes missing me by inches.
The huge calving shed in Hermiston where hardy wheat farmers and ranchers crafted a stage by laying sheets of plywood over hay bales. The uneven surface of the stage didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that they made the evening a dinner theatre where everyone sat and ate on more hay bales. They had decorated the bales with candles and kerosene lanterns. In theatre, you are told to pay 95% attention to the show at hand and 5% attention to make sure that the theatre is not burning down. The percentages were reversed that night. I have seen a hay bale burst into flame and I didn’t want to repeat the vision.
Ah, touring, ain’t it grand!
It began twelve days before Christmas. That’s when Bernie gave me the bird. In a way, I can understand him. He fills out one of those “Win Your Holiday Turkey” contest slips at the neighborhood deli. Only who’s to know the prize was alive?
Of course Bernie turned to me. He knew I had experience slaughtering and dressing animals from my having grown up in New York City. So he leaves the big white thing tied with a shoestring to my front door knob, along with a bag of seed and a note wishing me merry giblets.
I let it in. What else can I do? But I have to tell you: I never knew turkeys were that big. I mean I’m used to them on a cutting board, in pieces. And this one is a real gem. At least a fourpoint tom. And the gullet: a halfpound dewlap minimum. I figure it will last through two jars of mayonnaise easy. Only thing a little strange: the bird is white, from tail feather to top comb.
I’ve got a tiny balcony to my second story apartment. So I stretch a little turkey wire around it, and bed the bird down. I tell it my plan: I’ll fatten it up, give it the life of Reilly for a couple of days, then kill it, dress it down and maybe even mount its rack…with plenty of time leftover to find the best recipes for poached poultry.
My cat, Anastasia, a Maine coon cat with a beautiful plume for a tail, is quite perplexed by the new lodger, but keeps out from under claw.
As I go to sleep that first night, something tugs the back of mind. But I put it to rest, assured by the prospect of a Christmas feast, and knowing that the bird was still alive.
On the tenth day before Christmas, I am beside myself with glee. The bird is eating everything in sight. If he gets much bigger I’ll have enough to serve heart shaped turkey patties for a romantic Valentine’s dinner.
As I look closely at this huge awkward thing, I have this nagging feeling again…like I’ve seen it somewhere before. Then it hits me. “Baretta.” Now some of you may not remember the television series of that name. That’s too bad, because it was one of the great bachelor epics. A bachelor police detective lives alone in a kind of fleabag apartment building. To perk up his life a little, he had this bird, a kind of big white parrot named Fred.
When I look at the turkey, I can’t help but see the resemblance. A little bigger, maybe, but resemblance nonetheless. So I decide to call him Fred in honor of the TV show. I want us to be on a first name basis before our relationship is…severed, so to speak.
Meanwhile I sharpen my log-splitting maul. I figure I’d do the deed out on the porch the next day. The temperature’s dropping and if I’m lucky, I’ll have the bird flash frozen in no time. I like to freeze all the turkey parts I don’t plan on using Christmas Day — all except the giblets. I don’t like the taste — or even the idea — of giblets. I’m not even fond of the way the word sounds.
But what the heck, Anastasia can tear ‘em apart, as long as I don’t have to deal with them.
That night, I fortified myself with a prune and rum yogurt fizz and girded my loins, figuratively, for tomorrow’s task, because, after all, the bird was still alive.
The next day began early. At 3 AM I heard noises from the balcony, kind of a Morse code-like tapping. It was Fred, freezing out there, pecking at the French door with his beak, asking to be let in. I figure, why not? A last request from the condemned…so I relent.
The bird snuggled up by my feet while Anastasia kept to the pillow. I felt surrounded but kind of good, warm at both ends. In the morning I felt closer to Fred, and I realized things were getting too friendly. I needed to give the bird a new moniker, a name that would allow me to keep a slight hostility towards him, so I could perform the deed with detachment. I change his name to Nixon.
As I whet the ax, I whet my appetite with visions of cranberries nestled on white meat. Nixon is ensconced in the pile of logs near the fireplace, pecking on wood mites. I see in his eyes that he’s definitely not going out on the balcony again…ever.
I wanted a meal, not a house guest, but I allow as he deserves one more day. I plan the execution for first light on the morrow and let him enjoy the sound of crackling logs as long as he can before he gets rotisseried over them. I sleep peacefully, ax by my side. I knew that we are getting closer to that romantic moment when the cat knocks down every ornament I own just before she and I exchange gifts, and after all…the bird was still alive.
On the seventh day before Christmas, I learned a lot about poultry behavior. I didn’t know turkeys could move that fast. Turkey trot indeed. Nixon was in the Argentinean tango league.
I was trying to explain that to Agatha, my 88-year old neighbor as I extricated the business end of the ax from the wall above her sink. Luckily I missed the water pipes. Unfortunately, I missed Nixon too.
He holed up in the fireplace after that and wouldn’t close his eyes all day. Which was all right with me — it took that long to let the plaster set and the paint dry. I felt I owed Agatha something, so I promised her a drumstick. Of course, Nixon was in no mood to talk drumsticks, because, after all, that damn bird was still alive.
On the sixth day before Christmas, I made the decision to hypnotize Nixon, and THEN commit the crime. Of course, you are all familiar with this process with poultry. Simply draw a straight line on the ground in front of a fowl, he looks at it for a while, and then, VOILA, instant catatonia. The bird is immobile.
I guess it was the thud of the next morning’s newspaper hitting the front door that finally woke me. I couldn’t figure out how I had fallen asleep standing up in front of a line on the floor. Or how I had misplaced a whole day! I mean it was the fourth day before Christmas, and the Bird was still alive.
But the new day brought new ideas. Drugs. I would drug the bird and place his inert neck across the block. I hand painted some Valium capsules to resemble prime grubs and placed them strategically near the woodpile. Nixon took the bait. Limp as a sack of dew-laden grass, he folded easily across the upended log. I raised the honed steel…
Whether it was the cat’s scream or the sight of a turkey lurching up full speed at me while spitting out undissolved pills from under its tongue that caused my aim to veer, I’ll never know. I finally found Anastasia’s tail on the coat rack. She looks good as a Manx — anyway I got her retail in the first place. But you couldn’t say I wasn’t worried. I mean, after all, THE BIRD WAS STILL ALIVE.
On the second day before Christmas, I would have no more of it. I hadn’t used the shotgun since boyhood, but who could miss at three feet? As I pointed the muzzle at Nixon’s eyes, I couldn’t help but think of all the Bambis in all the forests all over the world. Just as I was about to relinquish my feast to sentiment, the bird dove for my trigger finger. The gun veered crazily and the last thing I recalled was the deafening roar of both barrels discharging at once.
Neighbor Agatha says there’s always something to be thankful for. If it hadn’t been for the turkey, she says, I might have ended up eating alone. Of course I had to invite her over. You’ve no idea what buckshot does to a microwave, even when it’s slowed down by a couple inches of sheetrock.
So we chowed down together for a strictly vegetarian celebration on Christmas Eve. Actually there was an advantage. When we needed something I didn’t have, we could step right through the opening and get some of Agatha’s china, at least the pieces that weren’t shattered.
Of course, the landlord came by to assess the damage. He kept yelling that he doesn’t allow barnyard animals…only the occasional pet. Agatha and I wondered to whom he could be referring. At table on Christmas Eve, there were just the four of us: Anastasia, Agatha, me, and Fred, my albino blue heron.
After Agatha left through the hole, I sealed it as best I could with duct tape and junk mail, while the animals cleaned up the table. A storm brewed outside. I was waxing poetic, and decided to take pen to paper:
‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the flat,
Not a sound to disturb us,
Not one single spat.
Anastasia purred softly,
Fred by her side,
I whipped up dessert,
While underwear dried.
I felt selfindulgent and boring as hell;
When all of a sudden I heard the front bell. It rang again. Feigning indifference, I answered.
She must have been 80 years old. She looked brittle and her skin was the color of burnt filo dough. Despite the wind howling, I could hear her creak. And she smelled like the bag lady of Hanford’s reach.
I figured she was OK though, since the animals lit on her like she was a prize fish carcass.
“Come in,” I offered.
“I am in,” she said, brushing past me. She dumped herself and her load of paper bags on the living room couch. “Could I have something to drink?”
I brought her water. She took the tattered scarf from her mottled hair and removed her shoes. Her feet were parched and leathery.
I was going to ask her to make herself comfortable but by then, the question would have been redundant. Not wanting to appear impolite, I explained that while I was only too happy to provide this momentary shelter from the ravages of storms, I was expecting company first thing in the morning and therefore…..I let the sentence glide to an extended landing. I was more than a little startled by her response: “So am I,” she said flatly.
She chortled through what appeared to be three good teeth in an otherwise cavernous mouth, and promptly nodded off, Fred perched on her arm, the cat serpentined in her meager lap. Perplexed, I pondered the possibilities. I could call the home for the bewildered. No, they might think I was just trying to get rid of a delinquent, ancient relative.
I could leave, take in a show and stiff drink and hope that she’d be gone by the time I returned.
I could wake her up and tell her my hovel had been invaded by killer wasps drunk on lutefisk and lefse. Or that crazed penguins were ready to leave the cracked bathtub in search of human flesh.
The amazing thing was that I knew nothing about her, yet felt perfectly comfortable in her sleeping presence. I rifled through her bags in hopes of discovering just who she was, and God forbid the ominous nature of the “visitors” she was expecting in the A.M.
One bag contained several dried fish, some bread and wine.
Another loomed empty.
A third bulged with the detritus of civilization. She must have rummaged through the back alleys of the world. There was a guide to Uruguayan beers, a pamphlet outlining 98 uses dead circuit boards, a doityourself kit on doing it yourself, a conversion unit for turning tap water into wine, manifestoes, recipes, elk horn buttons, unfinished sentences, bottled screams and a bandolero from the Gaza Strip.
My consideration of these items was interrupted by the sharp crack of her guttural voice: “So, what is it that Timmie wants for Christmas?”
First, let me tell you, no one, but no one, except my Mom on days when I was awful, has called me Timmie since early childhood. Second, how did she know my name? I had the bizarre feeling that happens to you when you first realize that thousands of eyebrow mites live out their life cycle on your face without your ever really feeling them.
“How do you know my name?” I demanded.
“Just a stab in the dark,” she retorted.
And then a wild inspiration hit. I garbled, “Now wait a minute, you just didn’t guess you knew who I was. Are you S SSanta Claus the real one?” She said nothing, so I plunged ahead.
“I mean a lot of people think of Santa as male, fat and bearded, but that’s probably just some guy from central casting. You’re really the one, right?”
I wondered if the reindeer were parked on the roof. I could barely contain my excitement.
The hundreds of lines that marked her face crinkled in merriment, her liquid eyes sparkled with the knowledge of a thousand Christmases. For an instant, a simple, radiant beauty poured through her wrinkled smile. I suppose I could have stared at the depth of that smile forever if the door hadn’t quite suddenly opened.
Three ragged and haggard mudridden men entered and sat on the floor beside me. They, too, had bags filled with the remnants of eons: astrolabes and tool tables, fishing gear and stuffed hawks, pieces of eight and pieces of wit, sandy shells as tiny as drops of mist, a pharaoh’s footstool, bits of old dreams, leviathan teeth, an ancient slingshot, an ageless rose.
They smiled in acknowledgment and talked with the old woman in a language I once knew but have long forgotten. They lit incense and offered her gifts of greeting. All through the stormy night they talked, softly and with purpose.
At dawn they bundled up in long woolen topcoats, and with the woman, trundled off towards the East. The bags of goodies were gone. They left the empty one for me. To fill. I found Anastasia purring at the bottom of it.
The bird, the cat and I stood on the porch and watched them mount the hill. To Bethlehem. To Gethsemane. Again. I wondered how many times we would have to see them climb it before we found peace. I closed the door and inhaled deeply. Myrrh and frankincense cloaked the morning air.