The Rock ‘n’ Roll Kid

When we’re young, we want a lot of things for ourselves. As we age we realize the absurdity of those desires one after another and let them go. I had to come to grips with the knowledge that I would never own a pair of spring shoes that would enable me to leap over the garage. It also became obvious that a boy with a hefty fear of heights would not ever become a jet pilot. But there is one desire I hung onto for years. Despite repeatedly falling on my face, I always thought that someday I could be a good musician. Not a “great” musician, that would be out of the question, just “good” or even “passable.” There were only a few minor problems with this – my manual dexterity wasn’t very good, I had little or no sense of rhythm, and I couldn’t bring myself to practice.

On the other side of the vacant lot* from our house stood the large brick house of Fauniel Fellhauer. She was a piano teacher. Her house had been designed with piano instruction in mind with a large living room – perfect for recitals. It had a raised platform at one end on which stood a grand piano. There were two rehearsal rooms with upright pianos in the basement. When I was seven my mother enrolled me in piano classes. After three or four months of very slow progress, Ms. Fellhauer came down to a practice room to see how I was doing and found me asleep on the floor behind the piano. It was decided that I needed a little more maturity before I could try it again.

After that, there were minor flirtations with the saxophone (that lasted about two weeks) and the ukulele (a month or so) before I came face-to-face with the upright double bass. And that was because of 8th Grade gym class. The rule in gym class was that you first had to climb a twenty-foot rope to the top before you could play basketball or volleyball. Every class became four other nerds and I taking turns hanging from the damned rope while we grunted and struggled to climb it. Meanwhile, all the other kids were having fun and snickering at us. Then I heard that if you joined the school orchestra, you could do that instead of gym class. My only question was, “where do I sign up?”

I had several reasons for choosing the bass as my instrument. I liked that deep sound that an upright bass makes, you can kind of lean on it as you play, and it doesn’t require a lot of nimble finger work. While the violin is flying through some multi-sixteenth-note arpeggio, the bass has to produce a single, “zoooom”. When I realized that the bass was so big I couldn’t take it home to practice (darn!) I was sold.

Over the next year and a half, I learned to play the upright bass. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was a Junior High School orchestra and I was no worse than anyone else. If you’ve never heard a Junior High School orchestra play, and if you like things that are simultaneously painful and hilarious, by all means, go. At the end of the school year, I was promoted to the new Laramie Senior High School on the other side of town. They had an orchestra, but being a member no longer excused one from gym class. So I gave up the bass and went back to standing with the other nerds and weaklings while everybody else played basketball and other sports. Instead of having to climb a rope, we were required to climb a peg board.

I might never have gotten another swing at being a musician if it hadn’t been for the machinations of my older brother Chuck and his friends Dean and Gary. Dean played drums, Gary played electric piano and Dean’s alcoholic father played the saxophone. All they needed was a bass player and Chuck, who knew his way around the guitar, was quite willing. What he needed was a bass – or rather a more portable electric bass guitar. And Dean’s Father’s Music Store just happened to have one of the new Fender Precision Basses in stock.

Having sunk all his money into a hot rod that wouldn’t go faster than forty miles an hour without vibrating so bad your fillings would fall out, Chuck had to try to find a way to get my parents to pay for the new bass. Here was the pitch: “Tim played the big double bass in Junior High, but now he can’t. How about buying it for both of us and we’ll share.”  Having been primed beforehand by Chuck and Dean, I lied and told Mom and Dad that I had a couple of friends who were putting together a rock ‘n’ roll band and would love it if I had a bass to play. The instrument was purchased and Mom even threw in some lessons for me.

An old World War Two veteran named Mel Orlick had been a big-band drummer in the 30’s but lost a leg in the war. He and his wife lived in a tiny house in Laramie and he gave music lessons. After the first couple of lessons, I had learned just about everything that he knew about playing the bass which wasn’t a lot. But I kept going back because I liked the guy and enjoyed his company. He would sit on his bed, play the guitar, sing, and beat time with his stump. We’d play “Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown”, “Pennies from Heaven”, or “We’re in the Money” then we’d take a break and he would tell a rousing story about him and his fellow sailors getting in a fist fight with Marines in a Pearl Harbor bar. We’d hoot with laughter, then he’d pick up his guitar and we’d play another old song.

About that time my good friend Charlie, who played guitar and knew a fellow named Dwayne who’d just bought an electric guitar, started talking to me about a rock and roll band. My lies had become prophetic. Although Chuck was playing with Dean and Gary’s foxtrot-style band most weekends so the bass was not always available, Charlie and Dwayne and I were able to put together about an hour’s worth of music. We had no drummer, nobody sang, we didn’t even own a microphone, so we learned instrumental songs like Telstar,  Green Onions, Walk Don’t Run and others by the Ventures. We weren’t very good but since we were available and we were cheap, we managed to book a few gigs around town.

At one of these gigs, a dance in the Laramie High School cafeteria after a football game, a kid was standing against the wall in the dark and studying us. His name was Dennis Woods. I don’t know if Dennis already owned an electric guitar or that we inspired him to buy one, but by the time I finished high school and went into the Service, Dennis had begun organizing and rehearsing a band. When I got tossed out of the Service a year and a half later, Dennis’ band was going strong. When they had come to that question that every band comes to – “what the hell do we call ourselves?” – they decided they wanted something that sounded “Space Age”. They settled on the name The Retros. It wasn’t until they had spent money on posters and publicity material that they found out that “retro” meant “backward”.

It wasn’t long before The Retros broke up, as teenage bands invariably do.  And Dennis – everybody knew him as “Woody” – began putting together a new band. My old friend Charlie was now in the Navy but his younger brother Don was as good a picker as Charlie was and Woody asked him to play lead guitar. Max, one of the most cheerful and good-natured men I ever knew, was to be the drummer. Woody recruited me to play the bass.

After a month or two of rehearsals, it became clear that my simplistic Mel Orlick-inspired bass patterns were inadequate for rock ‘n’ roll and instead of asking me to buckle down and really learn to play the bass, Woody strongly suggested that I buckle down and learn to play keyboards. His younger brother George had just bought a bass guitar and was already better at it than I was.

After some wheedling with my parents, they agreed to cosign a loan. I in-turn agreed to look for a job to pay for the loan and ended up at a local furniture store delivering console TVs.  So I found myself the proud owner of a Farfisa Portable Organ.  Now all I had to do was learn how to play it. With a book titled “Learn to Play the EZ Way” and what I could remember from my Fauniel Fellhauer lessons, I was able to play background chords for simple things like “Louie Louie” and “Little Latin Lupe Lu”. But when I tried to play any tune that required a modicum of complexity, my fingers would bump into each other and I’d quickly get lost.

So when we played I mostly stood behind the keyboard, played the tambourine, and sang backup. On some songs, just to change it up,  I would stand off to one side, play tambourine and sing backup while Woody played my keyboards. But I was cute, back in the day, and could sing a little, so my bandmates put up with me as long as the band was together. Some friends of mine told me they once had a teenage band in Evanston and they tossed a guy out of the group by stacking his equipment on his front porch, ringing the doorbell, and driving away. At least I was spared that kind of humiliation.

Before we had actually started to play in public and after much discussion, we settled on the name “Mes Amis” which means “My Friends” in French. That meant that most of our audiences had no idea what our name meant and the few that did, hated it because it reminded them of the French classes they despised. Back then I preferred “Woody and the Ax Men”.  I still do.

People who believe in reincarnation will tell you that it’s the secret and strong desires you hold in your heart that will dictate the circumstances of your next life, though what you may have to put up with to get there could be truly awful. If that’s true, then next life look for me in a stinking bar on a back street on the bad side of Old Rangoon. I’ll be the piano player.


*Go to the column on the right and click The Vacant Lot

Patchouli Oil Blues

I took my first hit on a marijuana cigarette in September of 1968. I was at a small party with some friends who played in a rock ‘n’ roll band and I noticed what had to be a joint smoldering its way around the room. When it got to me I thought, “What the hell?” I took a long drag then held the smoke in my lungs for as long as I could, just like I’d watched other people do. I’d like to say that I immediately saw God and had an instantaneous understanding of the workings of the universe. But I didn’t. I didn’t really feel anything. It must have been four or five joints later when I took my umpteenth hit that I realized I was well and truly stoned.  Everything was suddenly warm, fuzzy, and very funny.

And so I began. I liked the feeling so much that I swore off drinking. At least I did until I found out how good a beer tastes when you’ve been smoking pot. Then someone introduced me to cheap red wine and hashish and the prospect of hanging out in dark alleyways with other winos suddenly wasn’t as repellant an idea as it had once seemed.

Near the end of October, a bunch of us piled into an old van and traveled down to Boulder. There may have been more hippies in Denver at the time, but per capita, no place was hipper than Boulder. I can’t remember if we had any other reason to go to Boulder other than to just congregate with as many Flower Children as we could find. So we went to Central Park on the corner of Boulder Canyon and Broadway. We were not disappointed.

The park was crowded but the weather was cool, so instead of clothing being optional – as it probably was in the summer – clothing was pretty much mandatory. But what amazing clothing it was. The vibe was part Thrift-Store and part DIY creative. As long as it was brightly-colored and it flowed, it was acceptable.

Those of us who had come down from Laramie found a spot of grass and sat down. We talked, smiled at people going by, flashed peace signs now and then, and tried to look totally blasé about it all.

“Hey Tim,” my friend Randy muttered. “Take a look at these two. About ten o’clock.”

I casually turned my head and looked back over my shoulder. A couple of big-time hippies were strolling together down a path that was near to our group. When I say “big” it was, about the guy at least, true. He could have tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds. A mass of wavy hair and a lumberjack beard hid most of his head. He wore a pair of blue denim farmer’s coveralls with large triangles of red bandana material let into both sides of each leg, turning them into bell bottoms with shoulder straps.

His “Old Lady,” which was a term of endearment at the time, also wore bell bottom pants, but hers were so big and so long that they dragged almost continuously on the ground. She wore a white leather jacket with long fringes on the arms and across the back and around her head was a lengthy tie-dyed silk scarf, the ends of which undulated in the air behind her.

There was a slight cross breeze and as they passed our little group, a terrible smell assaulted my olfactory lobes. A nauseating odor, it was as if someone had found a two-weeks dead opossum next to the road and dumped half a bottle of air freshener on it. It was a long time after the couple had passed before the smell finally dissipated and an even longer period of thought before I came to a couple of decisions. The first was, “If a person does a lot of drugs and doesn’t take a bath, this must be what their body odor smells like.” The second decision was, “I don’t ever want to smell like that.” So the obvious conclusion had to be, “I’ve gotta remember to always bathe.”

A couple of months later, I found that this was a scent that people voluntarily put on themselves. They, in fact, even paid for the privilege. The flowers of the patchouli plant – a native of India – were steamed, dried, and then made into Patchouli Oil. The hippie subculture originally started using it because it’s sharp, sickly-sweet, gamey odor would cover the smell of marijuana smoke. It soon became fashionable among the “far-out” – the people we disdainfully referred to as “tweeks.”

We weren’t always so cynical. For myself and my friends, for about six or eight months, everything was peace and love and flowers in our hair. Then a young man named Rusty came into our lives.  He’d grown up in Riverton and Kent, one of our crowd who was from there, brought him along to several parties.  Rusty was tall, long-legged, and hyper-kinetic. Talking a mile a minute with one foot bouncing wildly up and down, he’d tell us elaborate lies and then make fun of us when we believed him. For example, one day he came strolling into our house and told us that he’d just seen a whole busload of Scottish senior citizens in downtown Laramie. Their tour bus driver had let them out and then gone into the Cowboy Bar and drunk himself into a stupor. Now there were old men in plaid skirts stomping around the streets and shouting at people unintelligibly. We all looked goggle-eyed at him and each other, trying to stumble through a drug-induced mental fog to try to make some sense of it. Suddenly he started laughing maniacally and miming a fisherman bringing in a big catch.

“Wow! Look what I’m reelin’ in! Tell Cookie we’re havin’ tuna tonight. I just caught a whole school of ‘em!”

This strange game quickly caught on until nobody would believe anything they were told for fear of being “reeled in” and made fun of. The second game Rusty taught us was to be very suspicious of anyone trying to be “hipper than thou.” If somebody new casually laid a story on us about being “on the Haight” and “hanging with Kesey” they’d be labeled a “hopeless tweek” and the butt of sarcastic jokes for days.  

One weekend Rusty and his friend Kip were back in Riverton and asked a young friend if he could score a lid of grass for them. The fellow said he’d do it but wouldn’t tell them the Dealer’s name. Finally, under pressure, the kid agreed to tell them but they had to agree not to get violent. Rusty and Kip said okay and the guy told them the only name he knew the dealer by – “Captain Mind Candy.” Rusty and Kip had to get out of the car and walk up and down the street several times just to cool off. When they finally came back they gave the kid twenty bucks to make the buy for them but said if the bag had a peace sign drawn on it or smelled of patchouli oil, the deal was off.

Now we come to my old friend Dave. Dave loved to argue. I can remember standing in front of a fish tank with Dave and having a loud, emotional argument, complete with ad-hominem attacks, about the relative intelligence of guppies. So it will come as no surprise that when Debbie, a fellow philosophy major, invited Dave back to her apartment for tea and a talk about a class they were in, the discussion quickly devolved into a debate about some obscure philosophical point. Dave got so involved in presenting his side of the disagreement, along with his usual disrespectful eye-rolling and loud interruptions, that he didn’t notice Debbie’s roommate, Jane, sneaking up behind him. In her hand was an open bottle of – you guessed it – patchouli oil.

Jane had sprinkled nearly half the bottle’s contents on his head before Dave realized what was happening. He left the two hysterically laughing women with some well-chosen epithets and went home. He later said that he had to take three showers and shampoo his hair six times before he could feel like he’d gotten rid of most of the smell.

Two days later, Dave dropped by Kip and Rusty’s house for a visit. No sooner had he sat down than the two began to sniff the air experimentally. Without a word they picked Dave up, Rusty taking his wrists and Kip taking his ankles. They carried him outside and threw him in the garden. Then they calmly walked back inside and locked the door.

A Pie for Lou

In the summer of 1962 I was working at Alexander’s Fine Jewelry in their original Laramie store on Ivinson. I cleaned display cases, swept the floors, and tried to teach myself how to use the engraving machine. As I worked, I day-dreamed about throwing a pie into someone’s face.

During the summer, the ABC television network had revived the Saturday morning kids show “Lunch with Soupy Sales,” re-titled it “The Soupy Sales Show,” and put it on as a late night program. The format was almost exactly the same as before, except they had adult celebrities on as guests. I watched this show whenever I could; not because I liked the cringeworthy jokes, not because I enjoyed seeing a paw-puppet grunt at Soupy from behind his window jamb, but because invariably Soupy, or his guest, or both, would get hit with a pie.

Pies would come at Soupy from every direction. Most usually, it would be a full in-the-face shot, leaving Soupy to look into the camera and slowly scoop the pie filling, and chunks of crust, out of his eyes. But sometimes a pie would drop on top of his head, sometimes it would be two pies – one in each ear. One time he dodged one pie, only to turn around and walk face-first into another, stationary, pie.

I became obsessed with the idea of throwing a pie into somebody’s face.

A block west of our house on Kearney Street stood a white, two-story house. This was where the Schilt family lived. When I was a kid, as far as I knew only two boys lived there. I never saw, or at least noticed, any adults on or about the property. I remember there was a garden out back so somebody must’ve been working it. Maybe they only came out at night and spent the daylight hours peeking through the blinds, who knows?

But their youngest son I was quite familiar with because my brother Chuck and he were the same age and got into trouble together frequently. The boy’s given name was probably something like Elmer or Clarence, because everyone knew him as “Corky.”

There’s a story about Chuck and Corky that has very little to do with my main point, but I think it needs to be told, so I’ll put it in here.

Because an old friend of my father’s owned a Pontiac car dealership in Cheyenne, every couple of years my mother would load the children into the old Pontiac station wagon and drive to Cheyenne. We’d visit with their family, go to a little café and eat cheeseburgers that came in a plastic basket, and then drive back home in a new Pontiac station wagon.

My brother Chuck was practically born clutching a steering wheel. Whenever we’d take these drives, he’d sit up front and watch and study everything that Mom did to pilot the Pontiac down the road. He must’ve finally decided that he had it all figured out, because one day both Chuck and the car were missing.

I don’t know if Chuck had plucked the keys up out of the little dish Mom kept them in, or if she’d left them in the ignition. The latter wouldn’t surprise me. This was Laramie, after all, and nobody ever locked anything.

A few minutes later, one of the local Policemen came upon an odd sight. A Pontiac station wagon was puttering down the road at fifteen miles an hour. The driver’s small head came up barely high enough to see over the dashboard and his skinny little arms were spread out wide to grip the wheel. The Policeman flipped on his red light and the station wagon pulled over and stopped.

The cop opened the car door to see Chuck, who was kneeling on the seat, look over at him with an expression made up of equal parts of guilt and wonder. On the floor where he had been working the pedals with his hands, was Corky Schilt, grinning happily.

Corky had an older brother named Lou. Lou Schilt was nearly ten years older than Corky which made him about fifteen years older than me. When I was sixteen, I was sure that any man over thirty, especially if he was bald, already had one foot on the first step of the Old Folk’s Home. But Lou acted differently to me and my friends than any other undoubtedly adult man in Laramie. Looking back, it was obvious that it was a clear business decision for him to be so friendly. He had opened Lou’s Sport Shop on the corner of 3rd and Grand only a few years before.

There were other places in Laramie one could buy sporting goods, but it was obvious that the prim older ladies and paunchy, cigar-chomping guys who waited on you had never oiled a baseball glove or tried to ski down a mountain in a snowstorm without goggles in their life. This was not the case with Lou. He remembered your name and what sports you were interested in and made jokes about “Johnny Unitas” as he rang up that new football you were buying. He knew who his market was and he made us feel like we were pals.

So, back to pie-throwing. I can remember discussing it with my friend Steve. “I’m really feeling like I’ve gotta hit someone in the face with a pie.”

“How about Glenn?” he suggested. “We could go out to the Frostop for root beers, and you come in when he’s not looking and POW!”

I thought about it for a bit, and then said, “Nope. I think it’s gotta be an adult – someone with some dignity to lose, but someone who’ll get over it pretty quick too.”

Lou Schilt seemed like the prime candidate. The morning of “P-Day” I bought a frozen lemon cream pie and left it in the back seat of my car when I went to work so by lunchtime it was well thawed. I took the pie out of its box and put it in a larger generic cardboard box, then met Steve and together we walked to Lou’s Sport Shop.

I was not, normally, a fearless kid. It would take me fifteen minutes of screwing my courage up to call a girl and ask her to go with me to the movies. Even after I picked up the phone I’d briefly consider hitting myself over the head with the receiver before dialing. And yet, here I was walking into the store with no hesitation. Lou was in the back near the register talking to two or three of his friends.

“Hi Tim, Steve,” he smiled at us. “What’s up?”

“”We got in this cool display over at the jewelry store,“  I said. “I thought you might like to take a look at it.”

I set the box down on the counter. Curious, he leaned in to see. I slipped my hand into the box, holding the flaps up to block his view, and then pulled out the pie and hit him square in the face with it. All I noticed as I turned to run was that pie had squished under his glasses and he couldn’t see.  When he met me later, Steve said that Lou did try to chase me, but he slipped on a blob of pie filling and nearly fell.

It didn’t end well. Lou didn’t quickly get over it. He called up my mother threatening a law suit and scaring her so badly she went immediately to bed with an asthma attack. I had to go apologize to Lou, and then spend several hours on my knees shampooing the carpet in his store. After that I was grounded for two months.

But you know what? It was worth it!

Fat Tuesday

 During my first forty years on this planet I had made numerous stabs at being a writer and had given up in frustration each time. I could not touch type. Nothing would choke off the flow of ideas like having to stop every eight or ten words, roll the paper up, and erase or white out the dumb mistake I just made.  The cry of anguish usually came when I rolled it back down and typed another mistake right across the remains of the first one. Everything I wrote ended up with holes erased through the paper or blobs of White-Out every other line.

But then someone or some group of people invented the Word Processor. Hallay-freakin-looyah! Like the most understanding of lovers, a Word Processor will always say, “I forgive.” Until they put up a Temple of Gratitude somewhere, I will continue to put rosebuds and gumdrops on my personal homemade shrine to the Word Processor.

When I first moved to Chicago in 1987 I took with me a gaggle of ideas for a Musical Play called Charlie and Cinderella. The basic idea was that a young would-be writer is sitting in the audience of the play Cinderella with a notebook making changes to the story. And the play goes all wonky because anything he writes, the characters have to deal with. So the Fairy Godmother casts a spell, goes out into the audience, and drags him up on stage by the scruff of his neck. She tells him he has to deal with all of his own changes himself and still make the story come out with a happy ending. As I started assembling the pieces into a script (I had a computer called an Amiga with an “amazing” memory of 256K) I went looking for a Composer.

A friend of a friend knew a musician named Elizabeth Doyle who was interested in writing songs for the stage. She read some of my work, I listened to some of her music, and we decided to give it a go. Using what we had done together on Charlie and Cinderella as an audition, we entered the New Tuners Musical Theatre Workshop as a team. After we completed the Introductory Program we were asked to pitch an idea for a new production that New Tuners would put up. The catch was that it had to be a brand-new post-Intro Workshop idea, and therefore Charlie was out.

At first we liked the idea of adapting an old drama called Death Takes a Holiday. But before we could even try for the rights, we heard that it was going to be remade into a movie. The film that eventually came out (and bombed) was Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt. So, it was back to the proverbial drawing board. Elizabeth found a Victorian Era mystery novel called The Woman in White. By Willkie Collins, it is considered to be the first mystery novel ever written. The Villain was a wonderful character – a huge, charming man, he was cultured and witty and rotten to the roots of his well-manicured fingernails. But the novel moved around from one place to another so much it was practically a road movie. A play needs to be done on a limited (meaning cheap-to-build) set.

After considering and ultimately rejecting several other ideas, we came upon the faint outlines of a plan that just might have legs. “What if we took the character we liked so much from The Woman in White and dropped him into a Death Takes a Holiday-like situation?” Then another concept waddled up and sat down – “Instead of Death, what if he turns out to be The Angel of Death?” Just this simple change and the character took a big side-step further away from being The Villain. He became The Messenger.

We knew we were getting close, but we were still missing one crucial part – where to set it. Our thought was “If we are writing a show that features a visit from the Angel of Death, where do we set it?” Death takes a Holiday was in a wealthy man’s mansion. But we wanted upbeat singing, dancing, and all manner of colorful craziness to contrast against our serious subject. I don’t remember which of us first conceived it, perhaps it was a simultaneous brainwave, but we realized it had to be New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras is the biggest continuous party on the North American continent. Outrageous costumes, drunken revelry, and all kinds of wildly immoral behavior go on for more than a week. All of this culminates on Fat Tuesday (the English translation of “Mardi Gras”). The next day is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent and six weeks of abstinence and repentance. The metaphor is unavoidable.

Elizabeth and I pitched the idea for Fat Tuesday to the New Tuners in 1992. They strongly encouraged us to get to work on it.

According to our signed agreement, Elizabeth would be the Composer and I would be the Lyricist and Book Writer. The “Book” is dialogue and plot – everything in the musical that is not a song. The other two job descriptions are pretty much self-explanatory. Each Composer-Lyricist team on any given musical has their own way of producing a finished song. Here’s the workflow that Elizabeth and I settled into. First, we would discuss where a song was needed and what it needed to do to carry the plot forward. Then we’d talk about an emotion or mood we wanted the song to convey, and then finally we’d spitball phrases or verbal hooks.

For example, we wanted a fun, upbeat rouser to open the show. Elizabeth remembered seeing the French phrase “Laissez le bon temps rouler!” in connection with Mardi Gras. It means “Let the Good Times Roll!” When the show opened several years later, the first stanza of the Opening Song went like this:

“Down there by the banks of that old muddy rollin’ river,

There’s a mighty message that the river can deliver.

Listen closely and you’ll hear it say,

Laissez le bon temps rouler.”

When we had agreed on a possible song, Elizabeth would spend some time working on a tune. When she thought it was right, she’d play the song into a cassette recorder and sing the lyric pattern as la-la-la-la. After getting the cassette from her, I’d replace the la-la-la’s with words that were clever, told the story of the song, and rhymed perfectly. Of all the different kinds of writing that I’ve done – screenplays, short stories, novels, straight plays, blog stories – the most difficult, by any measure, is lyric writing. It’s like trying to walk barefoot and blindfolded through a roomful of mousetraps. It’s slow, tentative, and painful.

How difficult, or easy, is it to write the music? I haven’t got a clue. I am a man who has many talents. I can grab hold of my toes and hop over a line on the floor without letting go, I can touch the end of my nose with my tongue, and I can make a mean potato salad. But I’m a musical moron. I take cold comfort in the fact that a huge majority of human beings on this planet are just as musically illiterate as I am.

Here’s my theory – I think that on a certain late summer morning a very select number of young kids are awakened by a tapping at their window. They open it to find an owl holding a letter for them in its beak. They are invited to Treble Cliff, a secret school that will train them to be musicians and composers. They learn to perform magic while the rest of us Musical Muggles are left with a few Ocarina lessons in sixth grade.

Here’s a quick story to illustrate my point. One day Elizabeth and I were sitting together in the Workshop listening to a discussion about someone else’s project. During the break we had talked about a point in our show that was crying out for a song. A group of people, strangers to each other, have gathered in the lobby of a small hotel in New Orleans. They have all come to Mardi Gras, each with his or her pressing reason. Then a huge ebullient man wearing a top hat, cutaway coat, and diamond stick pin breezes into the room and bids them all welcome. He announces that their hotel bills have all been paid, that they are his guests and that a costume, in the correct size, has been selected for each of them and is hanging up in their separate rooms. He disappears into an elevator, leaving them with their mouths open in disbelief.

“If that happened to you what would be the first thing you’d think of?”

I answered, “Who in the Hell was that guy?”

Later, in the workshop, Elizabeth’s eyes took on a faraway glaze, and she quickly opened a loose-leaf binder and got out musical notation paper. She would close her eyes; arrange her fingers on the edge of the binder; and play what she was thinking, then write it down. Or her fingers were making the notes come alive in her brain. Like I said, it’s just freakin’ magic. The resulting song, “Who in the Hell was That Man?” became one of my favorites in the production.

Anyway, just because a song is finished doesn’t mean it will have a place in the show. Elizabeth and I wrote something like thirty five songs to get the fourteen that Fat Tuesday opened with.

In February of 1995, Elizabeth and I flew down to New Orleans and spent two or three days in the French Quarter during the height of Mardi Gras. We felt that it was ridiculous to write a full Musical about the event without ever having been there. We put on costumes (I had a long gown, a feather boa, and a wig – all of which set off the full beard I was wearing nicely), we caught strings of beads, and we watched young girls on balconies pull up their tops and wave their breasts at cheering crowds of men down in the street. Many of the things we saw and participated in made their way into the show.

After three years, we had our musical written. Singer/actors were found and we did a reading of the show in front of the Decision Makers at New Tuners. The good news was that, yes, they wanted to produce Fat Tuesday there at the Theatre Building. The bad news was that they felt the show needed a Page One rewrite. In other words, “Throw out pretty much everything you’ve written and start over.”  

After taking a few days to absorb the blow (and me wondering why I ever gave up drinking), we got back to work. We had about nine months to do what had originally taken us three years. We tossed out whole scenes, changed character’s motivations, and rewrote dialogue and lyrics as we went. We wrote several new songs and plugged them in. We grieved as many things we were quite proud of were made to walk the plank. By February of 1996, when the show was to begin pre-production, our tentatively approved script and score were ready.  We could sit back, relax, and enjoy the process. Or so we thought. We were invited to sit in on auditions, watch rehearsals, and give a few notes to the Director. Then during the last week of rehearsals, we were summoned to a meeting with the Producers, the Director, the Music Director, the Choreographer, and several other people who had something to do with the show (I wasn’t sure what that was) and who had an opinion. By the time we reeled out of that meeting we had a list of requested changes three pages long, single space.  It wasn’t a Page One rewrite but it was close. And we had a week to complete it.

Some of the things on that list were, I thought, awfully nit-picky – “Shangri-La” doesn’t perfectly rhyme with “Mardi-Gras” so that whole verse has to be replaced. While others were of the “That’s so obvious, why didn’t we catch that long ago” variety. One problem still bothers me to this day. A character is forced to tell the woman who has loved him for years that he has an incurable disease and is likely to keel over at any time. But he also has the strength and agility to dance and sing right up to the time of his demise. What affliction could he be suffering from?

I took most of that week off from work and wrote furiously. Since most of the notes we got were Book or Lyrics-related, Elizabeth could only watch and cheer me on. The Producers even hired another writer to help me out on a few things. Even so, all the way up to Dress Rehearsal we were bringing in new pages. Finally, mercifully, the show was locked.

Fat Tuesday opened on April 10th, 1996. The reviews were, as the saying goes, “mixed.” The critics loved the Music and thought the Lyrics were okay, but most of them didn’t care for the Book. Despite this, and due to New Tuners’ publicity efforts, the show played to mostly full houses for the next six weeks.  A musical is a very expensive thing to produce and only turns a profit if Public Demand is strong enough to keep it running for a long time. Six weeks is not a long time. Because we had a Contract that stated that the Creative Team got a small percentage of the box office, Elizabeth and I got about $825 each. I think the Producers lost money.

My wife Michelle and I had both decided, even before Fat Tuesday went up, that our road did not run through the theatre community of Chicago, but through the film and television business of Los Angeles. Two months after the show closed we packed up a U-Haul truck with our two cats and everything we owned and headed west.


If you live in Chicago or if you are planning to visit there, I would urge you to find out where Elizabeth is playing and singing and go take in her show. She writes a wonderful blog – – and in it lists all of her upcoming gigs as well as tips on restaurants, books, films, and whatever strikes her fancy.