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Three score and ten or more

Monday, June 07, 2010


My post about the school bus was a lead in to this.  When I was about to graduate, I had assistantship offers from four schools to go work on my Masters.  When I applied for these assistantships I hadn’t been aware that my recent marriage had born fruit, and Janet was pregnant, with a baby due in September or October.  It, therefore seemed like a bad time of year to try to pack up and move to Indiana, or even Utah.  I decided to look for work.  After some letter writing, phone calls, etc., I was offered a teaching position at Twin Falls High School, in a town about a two hour drive away.  The complication was that I had often stated during my training in theatre that I would never be a teacher.  I had thus avoided taking any of the courses in Education save one, a course in Methods and Materials for Teaching High School Speech and Drama.  I had taken this, primarily because Janet (who was a Speech and Drama Education major) was taking it (My grades were always higher when we took courses together, my wife is SO much smarter than I) and it was being taught by a teacher that I knew and admired.  It was a darn good thing I had taken it, because the job offer wouldn’t have been made otherwise.  The conditions were that I would take enough Education courses in summer school to qualify for a Provisional Certificate.

I did that, and that was an adventure all its own, but I will hold it for a while and write here about my first year of teaching High School.  After we moved to Twin Falls, I discovered that I was moving into a program that had a bad reputation.  The previous teacher had been a sluff off.  Students told me that he had spent a lot of time playing “Hang” , on the chalkboard with his students.  Many of his students had been put in his classes as a “GUT” course because they had flunked a number of other courses and needed to pass “something” in order to graduate or stay in school.  Most, or all of his students got good grades.  When I was hired, the assistant superintendent took me aside and pointed out that it was necessary for school morale that Speech and Drama students needed to stay in the classroom just like everybody else.

I perceived that it was going to be an interesting time, so I started out, making my courses as demanding as they could be, with lots of homework, so the first week or two of classes was a bit awkward with about fifty percent of my students dropping the class.  I have already told the story of the student who, when I had my back turned shouted out “Hey Johnson, go F*** yourself.”  I turned around and shouted “Who Said that”?

The young man in black leather jacket with bleached blond bangs on his forehead smiled and waved his hand.  I marched to his side, grabbed his black leather jacket in both hands and jerked him out of his seat (which would have gotten me fired immediately in these days of political correctness).  When he was up, I took a good look and realized that he was six feet four or five (I’m about five-ten) and weighed a good two hundred forty or fifty pounds, all muscle.  Saying a quick prayer, I shoved him up to and out of the door of the class (which fortunately opened out) and shouted “Don’t come back till you have a note from the Dean (they had Deans in High schools back then). 

He didn’t, and turned out to be a pretty good student for me until he was expelled from school and sent to reform school or prison for breaking a whisky bottle over the head of a basketball player from an opposing team as the player was leaving the court for halftime.

My second play at Twin Falls High School was Rebel Without a Cause, the movie of which featured James Dean and Dennis Hopper (whose recent demise brought about this whole line of thought).  We had open auditions, and I felt like I had a pretty good cast.  As  I met with the cast for the first time, being a little concerned about availability and expense of props, I asked the boys in the cast if any of them had switch blades.  All but one reached instantly into pockets and pulled out a switch blade. two or three of them snapping open.  (Can you imagine the reaction if that happened nowadays?  I’d probably be fired and the whole group of boys (one of which turned out to be the Salutatorian at graduation) would have been expelled, if not jailed.   To make a long story short, every one of the guys had a black motor cycle jacket, most of them had Chuk Boots (Wellington type short boots which had received their name from a Mexican Motor Cycle gang from California-  possible mythological- I never met any such, called Pachuko)

I needed a couple of pistols for the play but chose not to find out if any of the cast was “carrying” at the time.

A couple of side elements:  We did have a “gang” at the school, led by the student who ended up playing the James Dean role in the play.  (And who was also an entrepreneur owning one of the local Dairy
Queen type stores and his own               course.)  He was very handsome, an excellent student, but still the leader of the gang.  When the school outlawed motor-cycle jackets  this young man, and all his followers showed up the next day in sport-coats, dress shirts and ties.  The rumor was that any other student who wore a tie to school that term (and yes, in that period kids wore ties to school occasionally) was likely to get the tie cut in half and have the opportunity- possibly the necessity- of eating the remainder of the tie.

The play was excellent if I do say so myself, and I do.  It drew large enthusiastic crowds, many of whom had seen the movie and wanted to see it live.  It was not without problems.  I mentioned that I needed guns on stage.  One of the characters shoots another on stage.  This of course is done with blanks.  It takes some training to shoot blanks on stage because the blank cartridges (at least, possible no longer) contained small wads of cardboard where the bullet should be, and that wad of cardboard can do serious damage if it hits anyone, so the shooter has to learn to aim at a place that is safe but which looks like it is pointed at the victim.   Being a pessimist, I also had someone backstage with another blank pistol in case the one on stage mis-fired or jammed etc.  We went through dress rehearsals with the onstage gun shooting properly and even rehearse it a couple of times with no bullets on stage, but the offstage gun doing the shooting, and the timing worked beautifully.

During one performance the actor brought up the gun and pulled the trigger to “click click click” a total misfire, I waited for the offstage shots, and nothing happened.  Finally the “victim” grabbed his chest and shouted “Oh,  MY HEART” and collapsed on the stage and the play went on.  I discovered after the play that the revolver used on stage had two cartridges ( I never put more than one extra in a weapon because there is always a chance of accident) but the cylinder hadn’t been turned so that those cartridges  were where they should have been, and the assistant stage manager who was supposed to make the backup shots had just been distracted and missed the cue.  By the time she got her pistol up, the victim had already died on stage of  a heart attack.  I was grateful that she didn’t shoot anyway, I can imagine the laughter if the audience had heard two gunshots after the victim was down.

Times are different.  I know communities which require an officer of the law to be present backstage when  weapons are fired onstage.  I am not sure what I would have done for switchblades, but I am sure no one would have been allowed to bring one from home.   

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Things Change, part 2 or so

When Janet and I were first married, we were starting our senior year in college, and were both “on our own” financially, so, in addition to classes, working in plays, and “honeymooning” (We had too many commitments to have a honeymoon) we both worked.  Janet worked in the college library, and I had three jobs: I worked in a shoe store, I drove a school bus, and in my spare time I sold Hi Fi (this was a pre stereo world) equipment in a direct sales situation.

One day as I was driving my school bus on its morning expedition, with a forty foot bus loaded with Junior High School and what would now be called “middle school” age kids, some students in the back of the bus started fighting.  I saw nothing but fists and other children leaving their seats to get a good view. 

I stopped the bus, walked to the rear, forced all to their seats and took the fighters out of their fight, separating them by moving one of them to the front of the bus.   Our instructions were: “If students get into a fight on the bus, drive the bus directly to the “bus barn” notify the transport manager of the facts (this was also pre-two way radio and pre-cell phones), and hold the students on the bus till school authorities arrive.  The authorities turned out to be an assistant superintendant of schools and a deputy sheriff.

By the time the “authorities” arrived the students had been sitting in a parked bus for about fifteen minutes and were “restive” at best. (They were yelling about missed classes and homerooms, and otherwise generally yelling)  When the Deputy parked next to the bus they quieted quickly.  He came to the door and asked me to tell the students to file out one by one, and leave nothing on the bus. 
Anything left on the bus would be thrown away.

The students did as they were asked, and as each one came off the bus he/she was taken to a closed off area and searched, along with all their backpacks (not many, this was also a pre-backpack to school era) and books.

This was in a town of about fifteen thousand (including suburbs) that was pretty much considered a peaceful place, without gang activity, and where youth in general were considered pretty upright, so I was shocked at the end of the time to find that they had taken five sets of brass knuckles and a couple of switchblades from the students.  The deputy then came into the bus and searched, finding another two sets of brass knuckles and four rolls of pennies or nickels.  (He explained that rolls of coins clamped in the fist made a pretty good weapon and kept the knuckles from being broken).

This was my hometown, and I was aware of, and in my time even participated in, the occasional fight during recess or after school, but the amount and types of weaponry in my thirteen and under year old bus riders shocked me.

After the search, the students (all, even those with weapons) filed quietly back on the bus and I took them to their schools.  (This was only the second of three trips I made in the morning, but someone else had been sent to pick up the students in my third trip.)  I will say that the students in my second route were very well behaved for the rest of the school term.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

continued—Dennis Hopper

Janet has completed her eye surgery and been released until her post surgery examination tomorrow morning at 8:30.  We are now comfortably ensconced in a motel across the street from the hospital (making an 8:30 AM appointment from home, when home is 2  plus hours away and you are still feeling rocky from surgery is not practical).  I was pleased and somewhat surprised that the motel has a wireless connection, but since it does, I am posting again. 

I read, in the hospital waiting room, an obituary for Dennis Hopper who was only two or three years younger than I, and it brought back a lot of memories both of my own interaction with Hopper, and my thoughts about Rebel Without a Cause which was one of his first films and which was one of the first plays I directed on the stage.  In this post, I will reminisce a little about my own first (and last) contact with Hopper.  I will write about my production of Rebel  in a future “Things Change” post.

In 1957, I  was really lucky to get a summer job working as an Actor at the San Diego National Shakespeare festival.  We had auditions  and began rehearsals for Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, and Antony and Cleopatra.  (and I had pretty good roles in all three).   We had been in rehearsal for about a week, when someone came into the theatre and said something like “Guess what? Dennis is here”.  At that the director took a break in rehearsal, and we all went out to talk to Dennis.  It turned out that he had been a member of the  Shakespeare Festival company for several years.  Since leaving the company he had been in Rebel Without a Cause,  with James Dean, and at that point he had just completed filming for Giant, also with James Dean  (which had not yet been released).  As we got outside, all of the permanent members of the company were hugging Hopper and he was enjoying the attention and chatting amiably with everyone there (including me).  He took the time to show off his car, which was model that virtually no one had seen up to that time.  It was one of the original versions of the Ford Thunderbird.  As I remember, it was a convertible, and when he let down the top, the rear quarter of the car (that which in any other car would be a trunk) lifted up and the hard top slid back under it.  He repeated the process several times to the ooh’s and ah’s of all concerned.  After about half an hour he excused himself saying that he didn’t want to interrupt the rehearsal  any longer, and he had an appointment with and agent (or someone) in Los Angeles later that day.  We went back into rehearsal, though every break was filled with Dennis stories (Some of which were pretty wild.)

After that day, I followed Hoppers career with interest, feeling that in some roles he was pretty much indulging himself, while in others he was really brilliant.  I have even enjoyed his commercials for pension plan investments.  I will miss him.   Who knows? I may get to chat with him again in the near future (Though I am sure he wouldn’t know who in Heck he was talking to).   When I next have internet access, I will tell a little about my experience with Rebel.