The first time I saw William Windom do his one-man James Thurber show was at Pepperdine University. It was as if someone had given me a marvelous present--like all the books in the world, a collie puppy, a square-cut emerald. The pure rightness and excellence of his presentation make you grin to yourself, sure that you are the one member of the audience who really knows what is there for the looking and listening.
Windom does many college shows. Since the first time I saw him, he has developed a second show using James Thurber material, which I had not seen until the other night in Hidden Hills, a night blue with cold.
I don't know how Windom discovered that he was the man to use the Thurber pieces. Fortunately he did, because James Thurber has been gone a long time and the New Yorker magazine, which published his stuff all during his life, is in the wracking agony of change. The magazine has a new editor, which has caused a great flap. The man who is leaving is only the second editor in the history of the magazine.
The first editor was Harold Ross, the stuff of legend. He had the wit to buy the cartoons and prose of Thurber, whose work has the clarity of spring water.
His cartoons are those of woefully homely people doing perfectly sane things in a totally daft way. He used very few lines for his cartoons, making them look deceptively simple so that you're tempted to say, "I could do that."
No, you couldn't. But if you know where there is a treasure-trove of New Yorker magazines from the '30s and '40s, look at the Thurber cartoons and rejoice. I'm sure they're collected somewhere.
His writing is easier to find. It is in several collections and there is at least one book of his short pieces from the New Yorker.
A few years ago, Windom starred in a television series, "My World and Welcome to It," based on Thurber.
It was bright, witty, sensitive and canceled. That was when Windom got the idea to do the one-man show, which he put together with the blessing of Thurber's widow.
Windom walks onto a dark stage and a spot finally finds him, wearing a green visor, which Thurber did. The cartoonist had tragically poor eyesight, which, at the end, was almost gone. There are those who say his loopy cartoons are so spare because his eyesight was so far gone. I think it's far more likely that he drew that way because he could do it with a few lines and be roaringly funny.
The only things on stage with Windom are a table holding an ancient typewriter and an accompanying chair. He projects the cartoons on a screen and, sitting to the side, gives us the caption to each one and almost no commentary. He lets Thurber speak for himself.
When Windom does the prose pieces, it takes a few seconds to realize that he isn't talking to you himself. His delivery is so unlabored, you feel as if he were sitting at your kitchen table telling you something that happened to him that day. Some of them are funny and some of them are so poignant they make you swallow. One piece called "Evenings at Seven," as I remember, has an ending to break your heart. It's a poor little Everyman talking, describing a chance meeting with a long-ago love. It's all as mundane as a saucepan and at the last, he makes a small and worthless declaration of defiance at the world, his wife, the fates, the sad inevitability of his life. Another actor might have leaned on the line, spoken it louder. Windom comes in under it and reads the line as if he were offering the audience a small and ailing bird. It hurts and it's good theater.
Windom also does a one-man show on Ernie Pyle, the World War II correspondent who was the chronicler of the enlisted man, the foot-slogger. Pyle did for the infantrymen in print what Bill Mauldin did in cartoons. It's a great show too.
With television presenting us with its diet of sitcoms, it is too easy to forget how marvelous it is to go to the theater and watch someone who is very good at his craft. The performance I caught was presented by the Woodland Hills Community Assn. as a benefit for their neighbors across the freeway, the Motion Picture Country House. Good for them.
Windom plays Dr. Seth Haslett in "Murder, She Wrote," among other acting assignments.
He'll be doing the first Thurber show in San Luis Obispo at Cal Poly University in the campus theater on April 3 at 8 p.m. If you're around, go. He's an actor.