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Zan Thompson

A Replay of Times Behind the 4th Wall

June 05, 1988|Zan Thompson

A pelican sailed out of the sunset sky, its wings motionless. It landed on the bowsprit of a boat at the dock outside the window and began the serious business of looking for bits of fish.

I was sitting with Karl Thomas and a new friend, Helen Jordan, at a window table of a restaurant in Port Hueneme a couple of weeks ago. Tommy and I go back to the early days of a show called "The Drunkard," which ran at the Theatre Mart in Los Angeles for 27 years. It was the longest run in the history of theater for a production in one theater. Tommy says that everyone calls him Karl except the "Drunkard" alumni, and we don't call him anything but Tommy.

Tommy had called me and asked me to drive up the coast for a visit to remember our "pious friends and drunken companions," as the old song book has it, to replay the times when we and the world were younger. And Tommy wanted me to meet some new friends of his who were also in love with life behind the fourth wall.

That's the imaginary wall across the edge of the stage at the curtain line that separates the world on the stage from the mere mortals in the audience who, bless their hearts, pay the money that enables actors to live in the bewitched world of the theater, full of sweat, hard work and magic.

Love of the theater is as virulent and unreasoning as a love of politics. I have survived both and there isn't a penny's worth of difference in their all-consuming fevers. Both fields are only worth the tremendous hard work if they bring fun and excitement.

Tommy could design and build anything we needed in the theater and also do a show-stopping song and soft shoe to "Oceana Roll." In "The Drunkard," he played Farmer Gates, the Minister, the Philanthropist Arden Rencelaw and the juvenile lead, Bill Dowton. He was a genuine utility actor and good friend.

I was in the show for 12 years, all through my years at Mount St. Mary's College and when my husband Doug was in World War II for four years. "The Drunkard" started out as a morality play against drink and was first performed in 1843 at Phineas T. Barnum's Museum, where the old humbug had a hit show.

We played the show as actors and actresses of the original period would have. The gestures were flamboyant and the characterizations were straight. Telegraphing a laugh is the surest way to kill it. We were blessed with Galt Bell, a producer-director who had discovered the old play, cut it and staged it in Carmel and brought it into Los Angeles with some homemade scenery, a Model A and about $100.

In six months, to our complete surprise, we were a hit, the "in" place to take guests, and I remember when we first sold out for three months in advance.

After Tommy had left the theater, long after I did, he and his wife, Ada Lilly, the original Mad Agnes in the show, moved to Port Hueneme. Tommy was a design engineer and played at community theater.

He has now found and works with an amorphous group of players for lots of fun and occasional profit. They do versions of old melodrama scripts, tongue-in-cheek and larded with references to local folk, which delights their audiences.

The guiding hand and director of the group is an actress named Elizabeth Harris. I have met Liz, a pretty, dynamic woman who studied with Lee Strasberg. She was a working New York actress, which is remarkable considering the odds against it.

Her health brought her to the edge of the Pacific where she began to coach drama. She bought a Victorian house in Oxnard a year and a half ago and teaches speech arts and all-around theater.

The classes support the melodramas the group plays. In the fall, Liz hopes to move her troupe into an old building near the Buenaventura Mission in Ventura called The Livery. Tommy will design and build the stage. Liz hopes to do a wide variety of theater.

She has toured "Belle of Amherst," the one-woman show based on the poet, Emily Dickinson. She played "Amherst" all over Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Helen, who is a junior high school teacher, toured the same citrus circuit with Tommy in "The Gin Game," the Hume Cronyn-Jessica Tandy vehicle.

Liz bubbles with enthusiasm and plans. She is writing a musical based on chemical and alcohol dependency, not your average wow-'em subjects, but Liz told me she had seen these problems in her family and she wants to tour junior high schools, high schools and colleges with this play. There is no preaching in it, just a square look at a family shredded by these blights.

It was great to see Tommy, to talk and listen and remember when we laughed, worked, sweated, cried and grew up in the theater. Tommy, the lucky man, never kicked the habit. He still has that opening-night shine in his eyes.

Would we do it all again? Well, Tommy's doing it, and as for me, give me a four-bar oom-pah pickup, the blue costume with the skater's whirly skirt, opera lengths, red shoes, the sailor hat and Tommy and three other actors who know the routine and I'll do, "Strike Up the Band, Here Comes a Sailor." There's the intro. Let's take it, fellas.

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