Our guest author today is the incomparable Lenny Kleinfeld. If you’re not familiar with Lenny's work you’re missing something really special. Make that really hysterically special. Lenny’s first novel, “Shooters And Chasers,” is one of the funniest crime novels I ever read. His recently completed second, “Some Dead Genius”—the manuscript of which Leighton and I were privileged to read—is the funniest. As Lenny puts it, the exact date “Some Dead Genius” will be inflicted on the public has yet to be determined. Lenny began his career as a playwright, columnist and freelance writer in Chicago. Then he sold a screenplay. He is currently 27 years into a business trip to Los Angeles. —Jeff
So I dropped in. It was at the Play Circle, a 140-seat theater in the Student Union, where, Wednesdays through Sundays, they showed movies. But three or four times a year the Union funded original student plays in that space. You got a $250 budget and three performances: one Monday night, then a matinee and an evening show on Tuesday, after which you had to strike the set so the movie screen could be re-installed.
I walked into what was a typical late-1960s rehearsal; the cast was stoned and doing improvs, riffing on Peter Pan. A short time later so was I. A short time after that I was informed I was in the cast, despite the fact I'm one of the worst actors in the English-speaking world. Stuart, no fool, cast me in the role of a dialog-free spear-carrier. More precisely, a gun-, baton-, and tear-gas-carrying riot cop.
Riot police, in Peter Pan?
Glad you asked.
Stuart was doing a site-specific adaptation of the J.M. Barrie classic. Specifically, it embodied the sex, drugs, rock&roll and political upheaval going down in Madison. Peaceful anti-war demonstrations on the campus had been attacked by the city police. Some of the students fought back, so what were essentially police riots were dubbed student riots. Several continued for days, ending only when the governor called out the national guard to get between the cops and the students, not to mention get between the cops and the taxpayer-funded campus before they wrecked the place.
Therefore, Peter Pan was now a free-spirited hippie dude. His sidekick, Tinkerbell, was a hairy guy in a fringed leather shirt who dealt acid—I mean dispensed fairy dust, which sent Wendy and her brothers on a trip to Neverland, where the Lost Boys were a commune of semi-feral teens, the Indians were African-American Black Power radicals, and Captain Hook wasn't a pirate, he was a cop, as were his men, who wore leather jackets, helmets and aviator shades.
The trip Peter, Tink, Wendy and her brothers took to Neverland consisted of a heavy-duty light show. The set and everyone on it were covered with deeply colored stage lights, pulsing oil projections, blacklights, strobes and a movie of flowing lava, accompanied by In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida played at brain-mulching volume.
And, center stage, waiting to greet Peter and Wendy, was Stuart's Big Allegorical Move: six naked female dancers. They symbolized, he explained, innocence.
Later, after the first dust-up between the Lost Boys and the cops, the women danced again—this time in tights, nude only from the waist up, to symbolize compromised innocence.
Then, after Peter shoots and kills Hook—these were turbulent times, man—they symbolized the loss of innocence by dancing fully clothed, with fright wigs and monster make-up. Though, if I remember correctly, they wore leotards with no bras. As did a good portion of our audience.
Ah, our audience. The previous semester Stuart had done a fantastically creative, hilarious and disturbing comedy that was a huge hit. So when the 420 tickets for his Peter Pan were released—the Union gave them away free—they were gone in an hour.
When we arrived for a combined dress/tech rehearsal on the Monday afternoon before our Monday night opening, the theater's lobby was packed with students who couldn't get tickets, imploring Stuart to let them attend the rehearsal. He agreed, but asked them to wait while we got set up.
At that point I was collared by one of the students—a photographer I knew from the student newspaper, for which I wrote. He asked if we would let him in early, get him a front row seat, and permit him take pictures. He promised to provide free copies to the cast—an offer Stuart agreed to, as this show had no budget for production photos, and none of us had snapped a single shot during rehearsals.
So we did the dress/tech in front of a full house, and despite the usual glitches requiring stops and starts to get the equipment and the actors coordinated, it worked. The audience left happy and we got busy with the usual frantic last-minute fixes for the official opening.
That went even better. Big fun, standing ovation. But no big opening night party. We were exhausted from rehearsing and building the show, and had to be back at the theater by noon. After going to morning classes.
I hadn't told anyone in the cast this was also my birthday. But when I got back to my apartment, one of my roommates eagerly led me to the kitchen, where, despite being high and munchy, he hadn't cut into any of the three birthday cakes sitting on the kitchen table. They'd been baked by four women I was seeing; two were roommates who collaborated on cake #3.
Age of Aquarius, my ass. It was the Age of Dionysos, Mars, Dionysos, Apollo and Dionysos.
The next morning it morphed into the Age of Kafka & Fellini. I had no idea my photographer pal was also a stringer for AP and UPI. He'd been supplying them with shots of massive anti-war demonstrations. This time he'd sent photos of our little show; mainly, for some reason, shots of the totally nude dance number.
The wire services had distributed them globally; they'd been all over European newspapers and TV, and during the day began to appear in the American media.
When we finished the matinee we were greeted by reporters, cameras, and breaking news. Madison's District Attorney had issued a statement: if we did our third and final performance we'd be busted on indecent exposure charges.
A recent Supreme Court decision had rendered such laws unconstitutional in cases where the work had artistic and/or socially redeeming value. A prosecution would fail, or if it succeeded, would be overturned on appeal. But the DA was a Republican who was up for re-election in a month. This was about political exposure, not nipple and genital exposure.
And yet the university locked us out of the Play Circle so we couldn't do our final performance.
So we broke in.
So the school pulled the fuses.
So we lit some candles and occupied the theater.
So a deal was struck. If we left the theater, we'd be allowed to return and do a matinee for a tiny audience: the DA, the Chief of Police, and three theater professors. After the show the five would share their professional assessments of the play's socially redeeming allegorical nipples and genitals.
In the meantime, the story surged way off the charts; Johnny Carson was cracking jokes about us on The Tonight Show.
So the next afternoon we took the stage, with the three professors sitting on one side of the theater, the DA and Police Chief on the other. When we finished, the professors went to the center aisle and waited to discuss things with the law enforcement officials.
The law enforcement officials brushed by them without a word and marched straight to the lobby—which was jammed with a mob of reporters, TV cameramen and still photographers large enough to cover an actual national emergency.
The DA pulled out and read a typed statement, about how after witnessing and evaluating a performance of Peter Pan, it was in his opinion obscene, and any further showing would meet with the full wrath of the law.
Our first instinct was to commandeer the theater and do our final performance—but that was a non-starter, what with the school able to cut off the electricity.
However… a student film society, which had two movie screenings scheduled for the next night, offered to let us use the room they were in—a six-hundred-seat lecture hall. Both showings were sold out, so we'd do two performances—to a total audience of 1,200.
The thing was, after the DA's threat, half of the cast dropped out. Every actor and dancer had gotten calls from their parents. Damn few—if memory serves, the exact number was zero—were supportive.
Dire measures were necessary. I was promoted to the role of Second Mate Smee, which entailed me inflicting dialog on an audience.
On the other hand, one of the involuntary accommodations improved the show. Two of the Lost Boys were twins who constantly squabbled. One of the twins dropped out. So the remaining actor played both brothers, as one schizophrenic who argued with himself. It was a ton funnier.
The serious problem was the dancers—there were only two left. The choreography looked like crap. It might work with three, but there was no time to rehearse in a new dancer—not that any women were volunteering.
André De Shields volunteered. He was playing the leader of the Black Pantherish faction. André was—still is—a brilliant actor, singer and dancer. And willing to work nude. But, after some thought, Stuart chose to have André wear a dance belt, just enough fabric to cover his privates. Stuart knew there'd be cops in the audience, and in those days, even that far north, a black guy swinging free between two naked white women might press bad buttons. He didn't want the show stopped, perhaps violently, less than halfway through. Followed by pornography and sex trafficking charges.
So we went ahead with our semi-defiant closing night of Peter Pan—on a very narrow lecture hall stage, which flattened our movement, so it had a sort of two-dimensional shadow-puppet quality. No matter; it got roaring responses. One of which we discouraged, when a student jumped to his feet and shouted, "Let's all take off our clothes in solidarity!" What a social activist considers solidarity, us theater sluts consider upstaging.
Speaking of clothes, the undercover cops in the house were easy to spot. There were like 596 long-haired college kids in tie-dye, bellbottoms and India-print dresses, along with four chunky adult men with crew cuts, wearing chinos and windbreakers, which they kept zipped up in an attempt to conceal the holsters that were bulging under the jackets' elastic waistbands.
On the far right side of the lecture stage there was a door that led directly to the campus outside. After our final curtain call we all—in full make-up and costume—ran out the door and fled into the night.
The DA issued warrants for Stuart and the two female dancers. They only had the name of one—Carolyn Purdy, Stuart's girlfriend. The other was a Jane Doe warrant. They never caught her.
Stuart and Carolyn hid out for a few days, hired a lawyer and turned themselves in.
The DA was re-elected and dropped the charges.
Stuart and Carolyn got married, started a successful theater company in Chicago, and raised three terrific daughters.
In 2007, André De Shields was nominated for a Tony for his performance in the original Broadway production of The Full Monty.