Dear Skylight Friends,
It was my first job and it lasted twenty three years. People made fun of me because I chose to move to Milwaukee (ostensibly to see if there was civilization west of the Hudson and to be nearer to Marie Kohler’s ailing mother) and during my first year I often found myself twiddling my thumbs in between cleaning my desk of the bits of terra cotta tiles that regularly fell from the ceiling because the roof was used for growing plants. I wondered whether my career path from the Harvard Business School to a converted tire recapping garage on Cathedral Square was logical in any way. But I kept busy because we were doing shows, lots of them.
Jack Strawbridge, Ray Hickman, and Monty Davis initiated me into the Skylight’s rhythms of self deprecatory condescension mixed with pride that comes from knowing that at least you have a job right now even though it will end in seven weeks. My first Skylight show was El Capitan by John Philip Sousa with a creaky libretto by Harry Bache Smith. On opening night the marching band from St. John’s Cathedral High School played Sousa marches on the sidewalk as the audience arrived. The old marquee which Clair Richardson had scrounged from somewhere clicked noisily as the bulbs flashed on and off. John Bohan was waiting outside after the final curtain in his taxi hoping for a fare. Those were the days.
Clair fired me that night for reasons which in retrospect make a funny story. It has to do with the house light rheostat and my thinking he said “applause” when what he had really said was “a pause.” The next morning when I came to collect my things he chewed me out for keeping several members of the Clarion Society (later renamed the Skylighters) waiting. The fired was immediately retracted and we carried on, sometimes reaching a fever pitch of antipathy and bad feeling, but usually finding each other good company. He was irascible and unpredictable but also charming and outgoing (especially with the ladies). He knew he was a character and he liked to enhance his reputation for flamboyant skullduggery.
I was happy to clean up around his edges and I learned a lot from him though he wasn’t what you could call a conventional mentor. He taught me how to write a press release by tearing apart my formulaic efforts (I had graduated cum laude with a BA in English from a prestigious ivy league college)and finding something unique and interesting in whatever it was we were trying to sell. I also was happy to take the fall for missing pages in his copy of The Mikado which he only discovered when he opened the book for the first time during the first rehearsal. How could you not love a guy who’s work ethic was this transparent?
I was a lucky person to have found him and his theatre to append myself to. We did show after show after show and had a good time doing it. Sure there were things like the ladies’ chorus class action suit over being paid half of what the men’s chorus was. And there was the famous moment where he blew smoke in the Hungarian bass’ face during the intermission of the last performance of Barber of Seville so he could fire him for cause when he erupted and later win when the singer applied for unemployment. Charm with Clair wasn’t a constant.
With Clair everything was personal, nothing was about money. If he liked you, he’d throw you a bone. If he didn’t you were pretty quickly out the door. But he didn’t mess with the talent collectively. For him it was never us and them when it came to the performers. The stagehands and the musicians unions were another story, though, and we had to pay through the nose later when we had to interact with them.
Clair loved his (very few) board members. He was fond of saying the only board meetings he liked were those that could be held in the back of a speeding automobile. He wept uncontrollably for at least an hour the day that Allen Slichter died. And after Clair himself died, I realized he had spent the week before going around town saying goodbye to the people he worked with. Like Helmut Bolk, the printer on North Avenue who had served in the German army during the second world war whose print shop smelled of molten lead and ink and who used his old linotype machines to set the type for our programs and all those awful season brochures. And Darinka Kohl of the Hook and Eye costume shop whose license plate was “Nazdar” in her native Czech. And Damien Jacques, who had been his drinking buddy when he was on the city beat...
When Bill Theisen asked me and Paula to do a show for the Skylight’s fiftieth anniversary season, we agreed because he convinced us that these kinds of reminiscences would make a fun evening for me and give Paula a chance to bewitch her audiences with her extraordinary voice once again. We decided to make a serious effort at putting something together that would be surprising and enjoyable at the same time.
We were planning to visit my parents in New Zealand (Cole Porter’s first published song was “I’ve a Shooting Box in Scotland”, so, not to be outdone, my parents have a sheep station on the edge of Fjordland National Park on the south island of New Zealand.) In order to give ourselves time to think and write, we booked passage on a container ship, the Hansa Flensburg, from Long Beach, CA to Tauranga, NZ. With the prospect of fifteen days at sea with nothing to do, we visited the Sam Ash store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and bought an electronic keyboard for our cabin. We brought along all the songs we could think of as well as a bunch of plays by the likes of J. M. Barrie, Noel Coward, Booth Tarkington, and W. Shakespeare, and something began to take shape as we crossed the ocean. Not that it ranked as even a passable first draft, mind you, but it put us in the mode of writing a show. I started to work on some of the Dudley Moore piano pieces which I performed in the Chamber Theatre’s production of Beyond the Fringe with Norman Moses, Bill Leach, and Monty Davis. They were silly then, and now seem positively strange without the other three zanies to contribute to the levity. Bills’ introduction of one of the pieces was: “Mr. Cabot will continue to play with himself upon the piano – forte, this time in a rendition of that old English nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet, named for an entomologist of the same … name.” (I guess you had to be there.) Lord, how I miss Monty and Bill, those two wondrous beings of the theatre who graced us with their gifts for so long and so unstintingly.
So I gave up on all of the Fringe pieces except for one bit which I’d like to lob toward the current Skylight Board of Directors in an effort to get them to see what is happening to the artist community in Milwaukee. The set up is that a news reporter (picture an English version of Tom Strini) asks Lord Cobbold, the English Censor: “What do you think of sex and violence in the cinema these days?” My answer, as Cobbold, was: “I think far too much sex and violence gets by in the name of entertainment these days. I mean, when I go to the theatre I want to be taken out of myself. I don’t want to see lust, rape, sodomy or incest. I can get all that at home.” I never thought I’d see the day that my funky family of theatre-crazed addicts would be mobilized to take to the streets in opposition to a monolithic pseudo-institution which I unwittingly helped to create.
The Skylight is in total free fall as I write this. My friends of yore are rebelling in righteous indignation to the (dare I say despotic?) utterances of the leadership which clings to the notion that boards of non profits should never break ranks and say what the individual members think. (We used to all Clair Bialystock behind his back, but we never called him Il Duce…On second thoughts maybe we did.)
One of the current board members referred to the “whiff of the mob” in a recent e-mail exchange. This same board member is now counseling keeping a certain member of the artist community from attending proposed artist forums in the Skylight’s building even though he may be employed by another organization in the building. I find this counter-intuitive, counter-productive, and destructive.
Until the players drop the rhetoric and talk to each other about their differences, there is no hope of repairing the breach of trust that is alleged by those who feel most wronged. To consider anything in this situation as helping one side against another is to contribute to the further destruction of a legacy of which I am surprisingly proud.
When I travelled to Milwaukee for the last Skylight Board meeting I was overwhelmed by the intense “mob” allegiance to whatever the legacy of the theatre is. When I saw Ellie Quint, Peggy Peterson, Jenny Clark, Joel Kopishke, Leslie Fitzwater, Norman Moses, and all the rest of them milling around on Wisconsin Avenue before the board meeting, I felt that I was connected to a past that is worth valuing. This is not a mob, this is a family that has been thrown out with the bath water.
I have never met a breach I couldn’t try to heal until this one.
Yesterday, while weeding, (“Il faut cultiver notre jardin”) Bill Theisen called to tell me that he was going to push send on the e-mail that would sever his ties to the Skylight (the best of all possible worlds.) I feel intensely frustrated that I couldn’t successfully bring Bill and Eric Dillner to a table to save the theatre as we knew it. We talked for a while about various spurious allegations that have been circulated in this strange internet conflagration that erupted on June 16. He assured me that the deal to hire Eric’s wife for at least a show a year never happened, and he told me that he laughed when Eric suggested replacing two of the Barber of Seville chorus men. The details are the detritus of unresolved conflict. How sad. How puerile.
That moment and many others like it (people not communicating successfully) have moved the Skylight into another plane of existence.
Which is one which neither Paula nor I wish to enter. We won’t be travelling to Milwaukee for a show on New Year’s Eve. If you have bought tickets, please contact the Mildred Lindsay box office for a refund. If you think we should pay for your tickets to our non-show, please do respond to this e-mail.
If Eric Dillner, Suzanne Hefty and the current board of the Skylight are successful in moving the theatre to its next iteration, more power to them. If not, the legacy could turn out to be like a phoenix. But I’m not sure. That the Skylight could survive losing its current artist base is a possibility. Of course it reminds me a little of the war to end all wars where human lives were thrown away by officers who didn’t understand what trench warfare was really all about. It may indeed be possible to find excellent artists to step into the abandoned positions of the old Skylight regime, including singers, set designers, conductors, rehearsal pianists, and education staffers. But Paula and I can’t in good conscience cross the line that has been drawn by our old friends without betraying them, and theatrical allegiances die hard. Maybe we can be there (with our walkers) for the Skylight’s sixtieth and all the current hullabaloo will be a faded memory.
I hope so.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
the cabots quit: "how sad. how puerile."
colin and paula cabot will not be returning to the skylight opera theatre to perform in the 50th anniversary season.
posted at 12:23 AM