The Politics of Will Rogers

I’m halfway through the run of Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of “The Will Rogers Follies.” I play Wiley Post, the aviator who was piloting the plane that went down  in Alaska in 1935, claiming the lives of both Rogers and Post as a result. I spend the entire show sitting in the audience, yelling “Let’s go flying, Will” every once in awhile. It’s kind of a running joke until the end of the show, when it finally dawns on everyone as to what happens when Will finally takes me up on my offer.

Let’s go flying, Will!

The subtitle of the plays is “A Life in Revue,” meaning that the events of Will Rogers’s life are recounted in the context of an old-style Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza, complete with massive old-school singing and dancing from a bevy of beautiful showgirls. It’s mostly lighthearted fun, but you get a clear sense of Will Rogers’s political point of view throughout, most notably his serious third-party credentials.

At one point, he is asked which political party he belongs to. “Oh, I don’t belong to any organized party,” he replies. “I’m a Democrat.” He also claims that Democratic conventions are much more fun than Republican ones, because the Democrats know they aren’t going anywhere afterwards. In real life, he stepped away from the Democrats in 1928 to run for president as the head of the Debunk Party, which actually carried the District of Columbia in the general election.  Rogers said he took that as a personal compliment, seeing as how the people in DC are the ones who have to live with whoever gets elected for the next four years.

The show turns serious right near the end, as Will Rogers goes on the radio to address the country in the wake of the Great Depression.  The dialogue in the show is a condensed version of a speech that’s come to be known as ““Bacons, Beans, and Limousines.” You can watch it for yourself here:

Watching the speech every night has been a delight, as David Lutken’s performance in the role of Will Rogers has been a joy from beginning to end. Having seen it multiple times, I have had ample opportunity to consider not just the performance but Will Rogers’s message, which has sparked an economic epiphany for me.

Specifically, I’ve decided that a major source of the world’s economic and political missteps come from the mistaken assumption that money and wealth are the same thing. That was an assumption that Will Rogers embraced, and the speech in the show contains couple of moments that demonstrate that he didn’t make any distinction between the two.

The first comes when Rogers, talking about how to relieve the suffering of the unemployed, insists that this shouldn’t be too difficult to do. “We’ve got the money,” he says. “There’s as much money in the country as there ever was, only fewer people have it.”

In a strict sense, that’s true, but it’s also irrelevant. There probably were just as many pieces of paper with pictures of dead presidents on them after the 1929 stock market crash as there were before it. But that same amount of money represented a smaller amount of wealth. When old people go on and on about how, in their day, it only cost a nickel to ride the bus, they’re ignoring the fact that a nickel back then reflected essentially the same amount of wealth as the two bucks it takes to ride the bus today. Probably more, in fact, given the technological improvements that have cut the real costs of public transportation. Money is a reflection of wealth, not the other way around.

When the stock market crashed, the money didn’t go anywhere, but a huge amount of wealth disappeared. (Actually, in strictly economic terms, that’s not entirely true, as the stock market was trading on an assumption that the country had more wealth than it actually had, and the crash was the free market making a ruthless correction to bring fantasy in line with reality. But that’s getting a little too far into the weeds on this.)  So while Will Rogers could stand up and say there was just as much money as there ever was, he couldn’t accurately go on the air and say there was just as much wealth in this country as there ever was, because there wasn’t.

If money and wealth were identical, the way out of the Depression would be for the government to write everyone a check for a million dollars. In fact, why doesn’t the government just write us all billion dollar checks and be done with it? We could all be rich! I get first dibs on the private jet with the cool flames on the sides.

But that doesn’t work, because giving everyone a bunch of money for no reason just makes everything cost more. When you increase the money supply without a commensurate increase in wealth, a billion dollars can’t buy you a private jet any more than today’s nickel can get you a bus ticket. You end up having to take wheelbarrows full of dollar bills to the grocery stores to buy one loaf of bread. That’s why governments that try to dig their way out of debt by printing up more money end up collapsing into crushing poverty that takes generations to overcome. If you doubt me, take a vacation in Venezuela and see how well printing money has solved all their problems.

The second part of Rogers’s speech that raised some economic red flags was when he started talking about how we get money. “A man can make a million dollars overnight and he’s on every front page in the morning,” he says. “But it never tells you who gave up that million that he got. You can’t get money without taking it from somebody else.”

This is the kind of zero-sum thinking that fuels President Trump’s rants against China. He’s always complaining about how much money we “lose” in trade with other countries, when neither country loses anything. When people pay money for something, they’re doing it to get something in return. When we give China a billion dollars, they give us a whole bunch of stuff, much of which we can resell at a higher profit than what we paid for it. In international trade, its usually the case that after money changes hands, both sides walk away wealthier.

Of course, a great deal of money spent on perishable goods that don’t appreciate in value, but even in those exchanges, both parties walk away satisfied, because nobody feels wealthier if they go to bed hungry when they refuse to buy food for dinner. Money, therefore, is usually offered as a reward for creating wealth, and those who “give up that million that he got” always gets something of value in return for their cash.

Those misunderstandings aside, Rogers is on to something when he talks about wealth disparity and the social responsibility we have to care for our neighbors. While the free market is very good at creating wealth, it’s entirely indifferent to the needs of those who, for whatever reason, are not able to create enough wealth to meet their needs. Good government is able to balance the need for a vibrant free market with concern for the poor. Such balances require active compromise and consensus, and they require input from all sides.

This is probably why Will Rogers’s maxim that he never met a man he didn’t like is so valuable in today’s political world. He’s not saying that he endorses everyone’s point of view; he’s saying that even people who do the wrong things are often doing it for the right reasons. Accepting the good faith of an ideological opponent is a great way to build a country, and a great way to live a life.

To sum up: Will Rogers had some economic misunderstandings, but overall, he was on to something. You’ll get a better sense of the if you come see my show. Get a ticket on the third row, and you can even sit next to me!

Various and Sundry

I’m now writing a lot more than I ever have, but not much of it is posted here. I’m sorry this blog is being neglected, but, since nobody pays me to write it, I’ve been forced to shift my focus to wordsmithing in ways that produce income.

That said, there’s a bunch of stuff I’ve written that I haven’t linked to anywhere, so I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by shamelessly plugging some of my stuff and reviving this moribund blog at the same time.

Here’s a piece I did on the National Endowment for the Arts that echoes an earlier blog post I wrote about my experience as a musical theatre panelist for the NEA.

Here’s one where I review the Netflix movie “The Most Hated Woman in America”, which I doubt anyone else but me has actually seen. I think Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a fascinating figure, despite the fact that I disagree with her profoundly.

It looks like Disney isn’t going to put Carrie Fisher into Episode IX at all, so this article about repurposed footage is probably irrelevant now. But here it is anyway.

I turned a Facebook status update game into a column! Behold the Jim Bennett Guide to Broadway Musicals.

This is NOT a review, but it is a nice little piece about my experience in The Will Rogers Follies.

Incidentally, every time I do a show for Pioneer Theatre Company, I feel a need to take a picture of myself in costume next to the portrait of my great-grandfather that hangs in the lobby of the theatre, like so:


The eyepatch is cool but problematic, as I have to sit in the audience and watch the whole show without any depth perception.

The show is getting some great reviews, and I’m even mentioned in a couple of them.

Here’s the Deseret News review, which includes the following line:

Wiley Post, Rogers’ fellow aviator (played by Deseret News columnist Jim Bennett) delighted the audience as an agitator who would occasionally stand up and holler at Rogers.

Nice to get a mention, although I’m hardly an “agitator.” Pretty much all I say is “Let’s go flying, Will!” Glad to know that’s all it takes to “delight the audience.”

I’m mentioned in this review, too –

Wiley Post (Jim Bennet (sic)) has some of the funniest lines–but I grew to dislike him–the character, not the actor. If I tell you why, it’s a spoiler if you don’t read the Wikipedia link I added. Bennet (sic) has great timing and it was fun that he did his entire performance from a seat in the audience.

It’s nice to be disliked for the right reasons, so I won’t dislike the reviewer for spelling Bennett with only one T. And, really, I should be nice to her, because the reality is that I don’t have any funny lines at all. Unless, again, you think “Let’s go flying, Will!” is funny.

Moving on…

In this piece, I slam the new Alec Baldwin Match Game.

And in this piece, I praise Mystery Science Theatre 3000, because it’s awesome.

That’s all I’ve got. Come see me at Pioneer Theatre! Show runs until May 20. If you get a seat on the third row, you can even sit next to me.

An Evening with Stallion Cornell

Allow me to quote from my very first post on this blog, On Being Stallion Cornell:

I was a theatre major at USC, and, as such, it was my duty to dig up a string of monologues for class assignments, and, invariably, the same monologues kept being recycled, and I can only take so much Christopher Durang. So I started writing my own and, to be sure that I was being judged on my acting and not my writing, I attributed them to a fictional author, the good Mr. Cornell.

These monologues got goofier and goofier, and they usually involved bizarre situations with really loud people. The first of these, which included all manner of shrieking punctuated by the phrase “I’d offer you a biscuit first, but I don’t like you very much,” still remains my favorite, although the one where a guy rips out his own heart and smothers it in mustard remains a close second.

Perhaps the highlight of my university education came when a classmate and I wrote and assembled several of these monologues for a one-night-only performance of “An Evening with Stallion Cornell” at USC’s Bing Theatre. Great actors performing truly stupid monologues is a joy forever. And this guy’s performance, which involved ripping out a heart/KFC chicken sandwich from his chest and proceeded to pour ketchup all over it and eat it, still makes me laugh every time I think about it. (He was supposed to use mustard, but I freely forgave the departure from the script.)


End quote.

I now offer a modified quote from another post:

If you’ve ever taken an acting class, then you know the constant demand for new material – especially monologues. People don’t generally speak in monologue form, so most plays focus on one line at a time, not whole paragraphs. Still, every acting teacher or auditioner demands that the actor perform a monologue, and the number of good monologues out there seems to shrink with each passing year.

That actually makes sense if we’re playing it old school. If you’re doing a classical piece, then there are only 37 Shakespeare plays to choose from, and everyone’s heard all the good stuff in them before. But the Troubled Young Actor Community is stuck on all the same tired modern pieces, and you hear the same ones over and over.  You get very sick of them very quickly.

Now I recognize that for auditions, I could have just written my own monologue, but the minute you did, you were being judged not just as an actor, but as a writer. And the actors who did that always looked like pretentious buffoons. Auditioning is nerve-wracking enough without having to have another layer of judgment slathered on top of the first one.

So I used my pseudonym Stallion Cornell to become a monologist.

I remember taking the stage on one audition and unleashing Stallion once again.

What piece would I be performing? I was asked.

“An excerpt from ‘The Worms of Hell,’” I answered.

The Worms of Hell? The director cocked his head. I’ve never heard of that.

“It’s by Stallion Cornell,” I said, assuming that he, like anyone who was anyone, would have heard of him. Which is an easy assumption to make, because everyone in the theatre likes to appear well-read and contemporary and comments on books and plays that they’re supposed to know.

All right, fine, said the director. Go ahead.

So I did.

“What makes you think you’ll ever be able to understand?” I said. I was powerful. Commanding. And, most importantly, loud.

Loud is good.

“I don’t need your pity,” I howled. “I don’t need your sickly sweet smiles–I don’t need you to tell me everything’s all right. Time?!”

I laughed scornfully. Scorn is always good, too.

“What is time to a man like me? I’ve seen a nation die–I’ve seen all I’ve ever worked for crumple into one bloody heap! Can you give me time? Time for revenge? For death? For the angry fire that I will never tame? The churning, fiery volcano of hate that burns hotter than the sun itself?”

Oooh, I was cooking now. Time for just a smattering of PG-rated profanity.

“Damn you! Damn you to Hell! And may the infernal demons which slather for your soul consume your very innards in their unyielding flames! I’d offer you a biscuit first, but I don’t like you very much. So die! And let the worms nibble on your bowels.”

I got the part, and the director didn’t get a biscuit.

It was hard to keep my secret from my classmates, but the adults, if they ever caught on, never said anything. And it didn’t hurt that Stallion’s pieces were now being used at several auditions, on campus and off. My fellow actors, it seems, were just as bored with the old stuff as I was, and they used the Stallion pieces to cut through the noise.

So it became a simple thing to toss off a ridiculous monologue here and there, and everyone felt like they were getting away with something.

One of the proudest moments of my life was hearing that one of the actresses in my class used a Stallion Cornell monologue to land a recurring role on a soap opera back in New York. And back in Los Angeles, the last week of my tenure at USC, some the best actors in the school gathered in the largest theatre on campus and produced, to a full house, the entire collection of monologues I and a friend had written over the past four years, each as scornfully and loudly as possible.

It was billed as An Evening with Stallion Cornell. 

My favorite was Jovan Yvan Rameau, now a world-renowned actor who spent that evening in a white spandex unitard, performing a monologue to his dead wife that involved him ripping a KFC chicken sandwich out of his chest and then pretending it was his heart, which he then proceeded to eat with a big mess of ketchup. The guy who videotaped the performance got some pretty rocky footage of that one, because he was trying to keep from rolling in the aisles. Jovan then pretended to die of leg injuries.


End this quote and all quotes.

I’ve mentioned Jovan twice now, but I wanted to cover this ground sufficiently so you could understand the context of what I’m about to share with you.

You can now watch, in its entirety, An Evening with Stallion Cornell, transferred from VHS and now on Vimeo in digital glory.

The conceit was that Stallion was one of the great playwrights of the ages, and all of these monologues were excerpts from his famous plays, works like “Booze and Betrayal,” “Rat in a Box,” and “Love and Guts.” Oh, boy, love and guts.

I don’t know if you will enjoy it or appreciate it as much as I do. Probably not. It’s utterly ridiculous, for the most part, but it truly represents the highlight of my theatrical life. It;s a thrill to watch so many young, talented people completely committed to hamming up material that is too absurd for words. The goal was for the actors to have more fun than the audience – except the audience ate it up. And how could you not?

One of the delights of rediscovering this is Ed Hofmeister’s treatise on a new theatrical art form that the fictional Stallion embodied – the Theatre of the Massive. I really wish this were a real thing. Maybe, after this goes viral, it will be.

Or maybe nobody will care. Maybe it’s just a bunch of punks having fun a quarter of a century ago. I can appreciate it on that level, too. I adore all the people in this video, and I miss seeing them every day. I am so grateful to them for this moment we shared, and for their genius and friendship, not necessarily in that order. I’ve reconnected with a few of them, but I’d love to see them all again. Maybe we could get together and do an encore.

Regardless, in case you want to skip to the best part, Jovan’s monologue begins at 55:00.

A Cheap Lawyer’s Trick

So, on Facebook, an old friend threw down the gauntlet on a subject that is near and dear to my heart and rather boring to most folks.

I quote his original post in full:

I now vent in the specific direction of “Oxfordians” who believe that William Shakespeare did not write his own poetry and plays: REALLY? Have you read Edward DeVere’s poetry? Have you studied anything about his personal narcissism? Have you asked yourself why such a vain man would put his own name to poetry that a sixth-grader might be ashamed to own – but Shakespeare’s name to the greatest English verse ever conceived? Have you wondered how a subpar writer who died in 1604 could’ve written plays credited to William Shakespeare that were written after that? Some dated as late as 1613????!?

Edward-de-Vere_1528470c

Edward de Vere, AKA William Shakespeare

This led to a lengthy and, to my mind, extremely pleasant exchange, other than the friend of my friend who referred to me as a “garrulous douchebag.” In this exchange, I pointed out that I fully believe that William Shakespeare wrote his own poetry and plays, but I believe William Shakespeare was a pseudonym, and not William Shaksper of Stratford, who usually gets the credit. I also addressed the dating of the plays, but the subject of DeVere’s supposedly low-quality poetry called to mind an excerpt from Charlton Ogburn’s “The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality,” which is a tome that many Oxfordians consider to be the gold standard of Oxfordianism. I had thought that the test he mentions on page 393 of that book would be somewhere online, but, alas, it is not.

So, being the garrulous douchebag that I am, I thought I ought to remedy that.

I now quote Ogburn at length from pages 393-393 of his book. His words are in blue. In this excerpt, Ogburn quotes a Dartmouth professor names Louis P. Bénézet, whose words are in green.

_________________

The reader who does not see signs of a common origin in the two sets of verses might test his ability to discriminate between the styles of Oxford and “Shake-speare” on a pot-pourri made up by Louis P. Bénézet of Dartmouth… Professor Bénézet writes:

This mixture contains seventy lines; there are six passages from the works of one author, seven from the other; no passage is longer than eight lines; none shorter than four. 

It has been most interesting to see the Shakespeare scholars tackle this problem. I handed the book to a former college instructor in Elizabethan literature, now an editor for a well known publishing firm. He picked it up with an air which said: “This is going to be easy. Just watch me detect the true Shakespeare lines.” I had given him the number of lines in each selection, so it should have been doubly easy. He not only failed to pick the Shakespeare passages among the first forty lines; he exactly reversed them, attributing de Vere’s stanzas to Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s to de Vere…

An old friend of mine, who has been teaching English for forty years, took my booklet home and made an honest attempt, after careful reading and study, to pick out the Shakespeare passages. I met him afterwards, and he confessed that he had missed three of the first eight and was not sure enough to go on to the end. 

But the most surprising test was an interview which I had, four years ago, with a famous professor of literature from one of the nation’s oldest and greatest universities, a man whose name is synonymous with literary knowledge and who is quoted from coast to coast [William Lyon Phelps of Yale].

I read him the pot-pourri. “What do you think of it?” I asked. 

“It is beautiful,” he replied. 

“Where do you place it?” I asked. 

“Oh, it is Elizabethan,” was his answer. 

“Did one man write all of it?” I persisted. 

“Oh, unquestionably,” said he…

A prominent literary figure, a committed Stratfordian, to whom I submitted the test, would have nothing to do with it, calling it “dirty pool” and “a cheap lawyer’s trick.” Here it is:

[Stallion editorial note: I will now show you the trick in question, but I’ll do it in black text to make it easier to read, as well as numbering each line. See if you can tell which is which. Unfortunately, Ogburn never provided an “answer key,” so I had to Google all of them to find out for myself. All of DeVere’s poetry comes from his youth, so one would expect it to be less accomplished than what he later wrote as Shakespeare. At the same time, I think this amply illustrates the fact that DeVere’s supposedly shoddy poetry is only shoddy by reputation, not by empirical examination.]

  1. If care or skill could conquer vain desire,
  2. Or reason’s reins my strong affections stay;
  3. There should my sighs to quiet breast retire,
  4. And shun such sights as secret thoughts betray;
  5. Uncomely love, which now lurks in my breast
  6. Should cease, my grief by wisdom’s power oppressed.
  7. My reason, the physician to my love,
  8. Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
  9. Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
  10. Desire is death, which physic did except.
  11. Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
  12. And frantic mad with evermore unrest.
  13. Fain would I sing but fury makes me fret,
  14. And rage hath sworn to seek revenge of wrong;
  15. My mazed mind in malice is so set,
  16. As death shall daunt my deadly dolours long;
  17. Patience perforce is such a pinching pain,
  18. As die I will or suffer wrong again.
  19. For if I should despair, I should go mad,
  20. And in my madness might speak ill of thee;
  21. Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,
  22. Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be.
  23. Love is a discord and a strange divorce
  24. Betwixt our sense and rest, by whose power,
  25. As mad with reason, we admit that force
  26. Which wit or labour never may endower.
  27. My thoughts and discourse as madmen’s are,
  28. As random from the truth vainly express’d;
  29. For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright
  30. Who art as black as hell and dark as night.
  31. Why should my heart think that a several plot
  32. Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
  33. Or mine eyes seeing this, say this is not,
  34. To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
  35. Who taught thee first to sigh, alas, my heart?
  36. Who taught thy tongue with woeful words of plaint?
  37. Who filled your eyes with tears of bitter smart?
  38. Who gave thee grief and made thy joys to faint?
  39. Who first did paint with colors pale thy face?
  40. Who first did break thy sleeps of quiet rest?
  41. Above the rest in court who gave thee grace?
  42. Who made thee strive in honor to be best?
  43. Who taught thee how to make me love thee more,
  44. The more I hear and see just cause of hate?
  45. O, though I love what others do abhor,
  46. With others thou shouldst not abhor my state.
  47. What worldly wight can hope for heavenly hire,
  48. When only sighs must make his secret moan?
  49. A silent suit doth seld to grace aspire,
  50. My hapless hay doth roll the restless stone.
  51. Yet Phoebe fair disdained the heavens above,
  52. To joy on earth her poor Endymion’s love.
  53. And shall I live on earth to be her thrall?
  54. And shall I live and serve her all in vain?
  55. And kiss the steps that she lets fall,
  56. And shall I pray the Gods to keep the pain
  57. From her that is so cruel still?
  58. No, no, on her work all your will.
  59. And let her feel the power of all your might,
  60. And let her have her most desire with speed,
  61. And let her pine away both day and night,
  62. And let her moan, and none lament her need;
  63. And let all those that shall her see,
  64. Despise her state and pity me.
  65. Let him have time to tear his curled hair,
  66. Let him have time against himself to rave,
  67. Let him have time of Time’s help to despair,
  68. Let him have time to live a loathed slave,
  69. Let him have time a beggar’s orts to crave,
  70. And time to see one that by alms doth live
  71. Disdain to him disdained scraps to give.

The answers are in white text below. Highlight to read.

So? How did you do? Let me know in the comments. Don’t cheat; that’s no fun.

Shakespeare wrote lines 7-12, 19-22, 27-34, 43-46, and 65-71

Edward de Vere, using his own name, wrote lines 1-6, 13-18, 23-26, 35-42, and 47-64. 

 

The Rise of Ad Hominem (and the decline of everything else.)

(Title gleefully lifted with apologies to Hugh Nibley.)

Sadly, the Mormon faith has become a place that incentivizes the survival of the least fit. Since strict obedience is demanded and harshly enforced, only the least talented, least articulate, least nuanced thinkers, least likely to take a stand against abuse, and the least courageous people thrive in the Church today.

– Kate Kelly, former Mormon and current leader of Ordain Women, writing for the UK Guardian.

So there!

As one of the untalented, inarticulate, nuance-free, abuse-tolerating cowards who remains in the church, I obviously have no standing to answer this charge. Which, ultimately, is Kelly’s purpose here. Once you accept her premise that all Mormons are knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, you can save yourself the aggravation of listening to anything they have to say.

If not “skeptic,” what should the opponents of climate science be called? … The dissenting scientists have been called “lukewarmers” by some… It is perhaps no surprise that many environmentalists have started to call them deniers.

The scientific dissenters object to that word, claiming it is a deliberate attempt to link them to Holocaust denial. Some academics sharply dispute having any such intention, but others have started using the slightly softer word “denialist” to make the same point without stirring complaints about evoking the Holocaust.

The above is from a column in the New York Times devoted to finding the appropriate ad hominem label with which to utterly dismiss people who notice the earth hasn’t warmed at all in 17 years and that all the alarmist climate models have been wrong by a factor of 300%, and so maybe a regressive tax on the poorest of the poor that even alarmists admit won’t lower global temperatures might not be a good idea.

I’ve written about Shakespeare denialism many times before… and I’ve started to feel like I’m running around in circles while simultaneously banging my head against a wall (do not try this)… When the media use false balance in stories about the “authorship question,” they also bestow undue legitimacy on a discredited notion. Shakespeare deniers have received sympathetic treatment in surprising places for a long time.

A recent article on skeptic.com from an orthodox Shakespeare scholar that maintains the best way to deal with the myriad of problems with the conventional wisdom about Shakespeare’s authorship is to call those who ask questions “deniers” and refuse to create the “false balance” that comes from letting them speak.

“And lest we get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

– President Obama, February 10, 2015

Rather than be concerned about the barbarism being perpetrated in 2015 in the name of Islam, Christians should recognize they are disqualified from passing judgment because other Christians committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ a thousand years ago.

To sum up:

Contrary opinions no longer need to be refuted; they only need to be disqualified. And disqualifying opinions these days is remarkably easy to do.

Heaven help us all.

Discrimination Goes Underground

Back when I was still in the theater biz, I had an exceptionally awkward conversation with an exceptionally dimwitted producer trying to get my advice as to how he could avoid hiring any homosexual actors.

(As an aside, who would go see a professional theatrical performance that didn’t have any gay people in it? Given that there has likely never been any such production, we may never know the answer to that.)

He was unfazed when I pointed out that he was both colossally ignorant and loathsomely bigoted, so I appealed to his reptilian instincts and told him he’d be in trouble with the law if he were to proceed with this plan.

“Oh, we wouldn’t have to tell them that’s why we’re not hiring them,” he said. “They’d never be able to prove it anyway.”

I thought about that as I read the story of Elaine Huguenin, the New Mexico photographer who, because of her religious convictions, refused to take pictures of a gay couple’s commitment ceremony and ended up losing a lawsuit because she ran afoul of the state’s new anti-discrimination law. Had she claimed to have another assignment the day of the gay wedding shoot, she could have bowed out without raising any eyebrows or prompting any litigation. She’s being punished not just for discriminating, but for being honest about what she believed. In that sense, she’s morally several steps up from the anti-gay producer, except that his theater kept hiring gay people in spite of their pinheaded leader, so it’s hard to tell which situation is more problematic.

Huguenin’s lawyers argued that the New Mexico statute preventing anti-gay discrimination violated the First Amendment by suppressing Huguenin’s freedom of religion. Dale Carpenter of the University of Minnesota filed an amicus brief that said, in part:

“Consider, for instance, a freelance writer who writes press releases for various groups, including religious groups, but refuses to write a press release for a religious organization or event with which he disagrees. Under the court of appeals’ theory, such a refusal would violate the law.”

That’s true, but it would also probably never happen. Even if someone complained, the state wouldn’t be likely to prosecute. State crackdowns on religion tend to be a one-way ratchet.

Defenders of this decision equate opposition to gay marriage with racism and claim that Huguenin violated the law precisely “as if [she] had refused to photograph a wedding between people of different races.” But if that’s the standard, that would mean that the flip side would also be true. Professional shutterbugs in New Mexico could be conscripted into service as the official photographers for the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan.  Or, if it’s opposition to immoral sexual behavior that is uniquely restricted, then what’s to prevent producers of pornography from legally compelling Ms. Huguenin to take pictures on their behalf?

But, again, who thinks either of those scenarios would ever come to pass? Not me, certainly.

This is not to say that gay weddings have anything in common with pornography or Klan rallies.  Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that the First Amendment was designed to protect a wide variety of religious expression, even if, or perhaps especially if, that expression is out of step with the conventional wisdom of the day.

But that doesn’t seem to be how it works in practice.

Fact is, we place clear restrictions on religion when it interferes with someone else’s fundamental rights, and I’m okay with that. I’m glad, for instance, that anyone refusing to let a black person shop at their store can’t justify themselves by saying that racism is part of their religion. With the DOMA decision, homophobia and racism are now considered legally and morally equivalent, so more Huguenin-esque incidents will crop up in the days ahead. But even more likely, you’ll see more of what my gay-hating producer was doing. Opposition to homosexuality will go underground, and gay people will encounter increased discrimination disguised as something else.

I’m not sure what to conclude from this, although I’m happy to call attention to what a slimeball my old producer was.

On Being Hated

Thinking about my previous hatred essay, I came to realize that I’m usually on the receiving end of the whole hate thing. I’m somewhat impressive in the sense that over the course of my life, more than a few folks have hated me with a burning passion. Something about me inspires pure loathing that can last for years, even decades.

Case in point: For most of my childhood, I was in a performing arts group in LA called the Kids of the Century that sang at state fairs and such. We traveled to most of our gigs in rented buses, and Hank and Sheila – not their real names – used to share a seat near the front and proceed to make out in front of everybody. They were one of those gross, cutesy couples with the pet names and the Eskimo kisses and the slobbering. Always the slobbering. Being an insecure adolescent, and probably being somewhat jealous because I wasn’t making out with anybody either in public or in private, I mocked them every chance I got. I don’t remember what methods I used, but knowing me, I was probably pretty annoying.

Fade out, fade in. Several years after high school, I went to a Kids of the Century concert, only to see Hank and Sheila, now a happily slobbering married couple, sitting two rows behind me. It made me smile to see them again. I went up to them at intermission. Hank was very friendly, and we chatted amiably, but Sheila wouldn’t speak to me. When she saw me coming, she made a point of standing up and dramatically stalking off in a huff. I was unable to take a hint, so I caught up with her, but she still wouldn’t speak to me. She wouldn’t look at me. And all I was trying to do was say hello. I went back to Hank, who sheepishly told me that Sheila still hadn’t forgiven me for the way I’d made fun of her all those years ago, and she still talked about me with venom in her voice.

Keep in mind – I hadn’t seen Sheila for probably close to a decade. I hadn’t been talking about her. I hadn’t thought about her. Yet after all this time, she was, in the words of the Scottish poet, “Gathering her brows like gathering storm/Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.”

It was a bad scene.

I’m not justifying my adolescent behavior. I’m saying that, by keeping that hate alive for so long, she did herself a whole lot more damage than she did me.

To sum up: Languatron comes by it honestly.

On Hating

My six-year-old son hates school. At least, that’s what he screams on a regular basis. “I hate school! I HATE IT! I HATE IT!” He repeats this mantra every night before going to sleep. There’s usually some flailing involved, too. You get the idea.

Now I don’t think he really hates school. He’s all smiles when he comes home, and he looks forward to meeting his friends every day. Besides, hatred is hard work. It takes concerted effort, and, quite frankly, he’s a lazy kid by nature. I don’t think he’s up to it.

I know I’m not.

I’ve hated bosses and I’ve hated obnoxious actors and I’ve hated girls who done me wrong. But it never sticks. The last time I made the effort to really hate somebody over a long period of time was back in college. They were my dance teachers – the Landrums.

Bill and Jacqui Landrum.

They were pure evil, and I hated them with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Especially Bill.

Not that they cared. They’re big time choreographers in Hollywood – the last time I saw their name in the credits was for the movie “O Brother! Where Art Thou?” They’re both successful and confident, and my hatred didn’t faze them in the least. That’s how it works, you know. The hater damages nobody but himself, while the hated go on blissfully without caring. As my old boss used to say, hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.

Initially, the Landrums and I got along well, despite the fact that he was this faux-European snooty guy who looked like an emaciated Arnold Schwarzenegger, and she was a forty-something Fran Drescher type who looked she’d had her face shellacked. I was a crappy dancer, and they were freaks, but I could live with that.

The famous – infamous?- Bill Landrum moment was when he was showing us the correct dance move to open and close our arms.

“You cannot just open thim like some veectim,” he would say with his untraceable Germanic/Mexican accent. “You must be a king! You must say ‘hello!’ “ And on ‘hello,’ he would snap his fingers, slap his pelvis with both hands, and then thrust out his arms and his ‘jewels’ with power and authority, all the while saying “Hello! These are my jewels! You don’ like them? I take them back!” And then he would snap his fingers again, withdraw his arms and pelvis quickly, and then bow his head with ludicrous solemnity. (At least, that’s how we all did it when we imitated him ad nauseum.) He was quite a character, that Bill Landrum, and I actually liked him once. (I didn’t like his jewels, though.)

I remember the exact moment when I turned on the Landrums. They had come to see a show in which I sucked out loud. It was Noel Coward’s witty one-act play “We Were Dancing,” and I played a zombie in it. The script didn’t call for a zombie, but I played one anyway. Bill told me my performance was “unacceptable.” And he was right. And I knew he was right. But I didn’t want to hear it.

So I had two choices. I could have sucked it up and gone on with my life, or I could hate him.

Two roads diverged in the wood, and I, I took the one that let me hate Bill Landrum with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns. The whole experience gave me an enlarged capacity for petulance that has not served me well in these subsequent years. Were I to meet them today, I’d apologize and try to bury the hatchet. But I’d probably still think they were loons.

Back then, though, I was far less enlightened. I devised a whole host of ways to irritate them, particularly Bill. I remember once he told us to hold out our arms at our sides so we could just barely see our hands in our peripheral vision. Like a jackass, I stretched out my arms out at well over a 180-degree angle, far too widely to be seen in my periphery. Bill came up to me and said something like “Jeem, you can’t see your hands!” And I said “Yes, I can! See?” And then I wiggled my right-hand fingers, as if to cutely wave “hellloooo!” Bill, flummoxed, just said “Fine. You’re special,” and walked away in a self-righteous huff.

The nastiness increased, and so did the audacity of my defiance. I remember when we all had to stage our own dances, and I did mine accompanied by PDQ Bach’s classic “Little Bunny Hop Hop Hop.” I hopped like a bunny and hit myself over the head with a cardboard tube. I’m not sure I kept a straight face, but they sure did. They were less than pleased.

And then, of course, there was the infamous moment that I will never forget, even though I wasn’t there to witness it. I had stopped going to their class by this point, but my crank-calling Esteemed Colleague I mentioned two days ago showed up at my invitation and, after dropping my name and asking if I was there, proceeded to dance to the carnival music coming out of his own boom box. When confronted, he introduced Bill to a little stuffed raccoon and said “Say hello to my little raccoon.” Bill wasn’t interested. After being forcibly and profanely ejected, My Esteemed Colleague opened the door again, and his little raccoon, a wind-up toy, came scurrying across the floor.

The next hour, I arrived at Landru’s class a minute or two late, and everything came to a screeching halt as my friends turned and stared at me to say, almost in unison, “Uhhh, Jim – what the HELL was THAT?!!” One classmate said, “At first, it was just kind of surreal, but when he came back the second time, we thought he might have a bomb.”

I’ve enlisted My Esteemed Colleague’s peculiar talents for equally baffling stunts in later years. When Tuacahn came to LA for auditions for our 2001 season, I asked him to come and audition. The season was as boring and white bread as humanly possible – “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music” – and he came in and did this wild improvised monologue about ball bearings that were running through his veins. He then burst into song, singing something of his own composition with the lyrics “You don’t believe in the Prime Directive? How did you ever get into Starfleet?” There was some pseudo-dancing and writhing involved, too. I had to leave the room because I was laughing so hard, mainly at the stony faces of the other producers and directors who had no idea what to make of this guy. When I came back in, I instantly offered him the role of Captain Von Trapp, which nearly gave the director of “The Sound of Music” a heart attack.

I’m sorry, what were we talking about again?

Andrew Fogelson’s Magic Kiss

So I’m watching the extras on the “Superman: The Movie” DVD, and up pops Andrew Fogelson, billed as head of marketing for Warner Brothers from 1978-1980. Suddenly, in my mind, I’m back at Calabasas High School; the year is 1985, and Andrew Fogelson is not happy with me.

Calabasas High School is nestled in a corner of the San Fernando Valley, and it boasts such illustrious alumni as Ricky Schroeder and Erik Menendez. (I knew Ricky Schroeder, but not well. I don’t think I ever met Erik Menendez, though, but that’s OK, because Erik Menendez kills people.) Other alumni include Stallion Cornell and Andrew Fogelson’s two sons. One of those sons shared the stage with me in the Calabasas High School production of “The Music Man,” a show in which I was cast in the lead as Professor Harold Hill.

Some background: “The Music Man” is the story of a traveling salesman – that Harold Hill guy – who goes from town to town and sells the locals all the instruments and uniforms necessary to create a first-rate boys band. He does so by promising, in turn, to stick around and teach the band how to play. The problem is that he “don’t know one note from another,” and he skips town with his money before he has to lead the band. However, in the course of the play, Harold Hill falls in love with Marian, the local librarian, and refuses to leave, even when he’s about to be exposed as a fraud. The best line in the show is when Hill tells Winthrop, the librarian’s young brother, why he’s sticking around.

“For the first time in my life,” he says,” I got my foot caught in the door.”

He’s then handcuffed and dragged before the town council, where he discovers that the angry residents are preparing tar and feathers. When all is lost, the boys band unexpectedly shows up, all decked out in their uniforms, and they stumble their way through the Minuet in G, which, as unpolished and discordant as it is, still impresses the children’s parents, who forgive Hill everything, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The Music Man is one of the musical theatre classics – a hokey old masterpiece that still gets pulled out of mothballs every year by high schools all across the country.

Our version was originally supposed to be directed by some artsy woman who’s name I don’t recall, but she was summarily replaced when Andrew Fogelson, the big time Hollywood producer of such cinematic tours de force as “The New Kids” and “Just One of the Guys”, deigned to step down from his lofty studio pedestal to grace us lowly high school weenies with his presence. He had never directed anything, as far as I knew, but he was a Hollywood bigwig, and that was enough to recommend him as the new director of “The Music Man.”

From the outset, it was a disaster.

Fogelson arrived at the first read-through with his very own entourage, which consisted of several leathery-faced woman who paced up and down the room smoking cigarettes. Put simply, they were script doctors. It was their job to “update” “The Music Man” to give it a hip, Eighties sensibility. They did this by adding a couple of hemorrhoid jokes and butchering the ending, thereby destroying the entire integrity of the piece.

It was decreed that the new, hip, 1985 ending would replace the “foot caught in the door” line with an all-new, ridiculously craptastic speech that began as follows:

“Tell me, Winthrop – have you ever heard about the Magic Kiss?”

I was then supposed to tell this cock-and-bull story about the Legend of the Magic Kiss, which I don’t remember – it probably involved elves or vampires or something. Anyway, the gist of the thing was that sometimes people got magic kisses that made all their dreams come true and set the whole world right and made lollipops and rainbows fall out of the sky. This provided the set-up for the actual Magic Kiss, which Marian the Librarian plants on me just as I try to lead the boys band at the end of the show. After the kiss, the band inexplicably plays with perfect virtuosity; I become the triumphant hero, and everyone with an ounce of common sense works very hard to keep their brains from exploding.

It was flat-out awful.

The Magic Kiss demonstrated that this Fogelson guy had absolutely no respect for the material he was directing and even less understanding of the principles that made “The Music Man” such a success in the first place. The original ending was consistent with the show’s basic themes – it was a gentle valentine to the small Iowa town where the author, Meredith Willson, had spent his own childhood. This Magic Kiss drivel was a bizarre, insulting non sequitur – the equivalent of having Harold Hill team up with Batman at the end of the show to go cruise for chicks. Which is a pretty good idea, now that I think of it.

Anyway, I made it clear, in my surly, I’m-16-years-old-so-I-know-everything manner, that I was not pleased. When my direct pleas to forego the changes fell on deaf ears, I tried to stir up an insurrection among fellow cast members. When that proved ineffective, I was reduced to making as many snide little comments during rehearsal as possible. My favorite was when the choreographer said something like “There’s no reason this show shouldn’t reek of professionalism!” and I shot back with “Oh, there’s no question it’ll reek.”

Yes, I was a jerk. But I still think I was right.

I should have been fired and replaced, but, to his everlasting credit, Fogelson put up with my whining, and we forged an uneasy truce as we slogged ahead. The one thing he didn’t do was actually rehearse the magic kiss scenes until about two days before the show opened. He didn’t want to give me a chance for more subterfuge until the last possible moment.

I remember that fateful night as if it were yesterday. Fogelson was about ten feet in front of the stage, pacing nervously. He was carrying a portable microphone in one hand and a mini-speaker attached to said microphone in the other. He barked orders through this tiny box with relentless impatience and a barely contained fury.

As I recall, I was going out of my way to make sure life wasn’t easy for him.

The entire cast was onstage for the final scene of the show. Everyone watched as, at the appointed time, I strolled over to Marian the Librarian so she could, for the first time, pucker up and magically smooch me. This would have been an awkward moment even if the script hadn’t sucked, since I was 6’4” tall, and I had to lean down and kiss my 5’ 2” leading lady. I was in handcuffs and I couldn’t grab her in a Gone-with-the-Wind style clinch, so I had to stoop downward like some lobotomy patient for no reason other than to reach her enchanted lips. I was like a handcuffed giraffe making out with a penguin. If only the magic kiss had provided her with 12-inch lifts!

Anyway, I went through the motions with the least amount of enthusiasm possible, and everyone knew it. I rolled my eyes, mumbled my lines, and smirked my way through the whole thing, and I think we did it a couple of times that way before Fogelson lost it.

“No! NO! NO!!!” he shrieked, his voice amplified by his tinny little sound system. “I have HAD IT! I have ABSOLUTELY HAD IT!” He was seething now, and the little drops of sweat were beading up on the top of his bald-yet-very-tan scalp.

He allowed himself a moment to dramatically gather himself before walking up to the stage and motioning me in to speak with him face to face.

“Now you listen to me,” he snarled. He spoke in a low, unamplified voice, but it was still loud enough for the rest of the room to hear, and every word was punctuated with a steely, controlled rage.

“You’re going to do it again,” he said, matter-of-factly. Oh, how he would have liked to rip my head right off of its neck! “You’re going to kiss her,” he insisted, “and you’re going to love it. You’re going to pretend it’s the greatest kiss you or anyone else has ever gotten. You’re going to do it right. And you’re going to stop putting me and everyone else through this crap. Do you understand me?”

I nodded sheepishly, and I went back and took my mark. All the breathing in the room seemed to stop. Dozens of onlookers waited anxiously to see what I was going to do next.

The scene began. I dutifully loped over to Marian, bent over, and kissed her on the mouth.

I paused.

Then I threw my hair back, raised my arms, and shrieked “HOT DAMN!!!” at the top of my lungs.

Andrew Fogelson threw down his microphone and box on to the hard linoleum floor, which made a loud “SCRONCH” sound as he stormed out of the room.

I don’t remember much after that. I know he must have come back in and the rehearsal went on, because I ended up performing that stupid scene during the two-week run of the show, and in retrospect, the 1985 Calabasas High School production of The Music Man was actually not that bad. The hemorrhoid joke worked, too.

But I made damn sure that Hollywood producer Andrew Fogelson would never hire me for a role in “Just One of the Guys II.”

Neverland

So I wrote a musical.

Not many people do that these days. That’s because new musical is expensive to produce and exceedingly likely to flop. Once upon a time, show tunes were hit records, and musical adaptations swept the Academy Awards. Nowadays, a musical comes along every decade or so that captures the public imagination, but most of the time, nobody pays attention.

When I was working at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, I decided that Tuacahn ought to devote its time to producing new musicals. So I wrote one that I thought they could use. And, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t. I still think they should, though, since the musical is actually pretty good.

PeterPan2The show is called “Neverland,” and it’s a sequel of sorts to the classic story of Peter Pan. I chose Peter Pan as a subject because:

A) It was a concept that would have built-in name recognition and mass appeal, and:

B) The characters in Peter Pan are now in the public domain, so there’s no sticky copyright issues to worry about.

I’d rather not summarize the story, as I still hold out hope that the thing well actually get produced someday, but I thought you folks might be interested in the four songs from a demo CD we recorded. An old friend of mine who now teaches at BYU hired the singers and musicans and orchestrated the arrangements, and I wasn’t present for the recording session – I wrote all the songs, but I don’t know any of the people who are singing them.

Neverland
In many ways, this is the weakest recording of the four, only because the soprano’s got a really hooty voice that makes it hard to understand the words. I like the arrangement, though, with its groovy Celtic feel and the beautful use of the tin whistle. When the harmony kicks in, I really dig it. This song opens the show.

Hook of the Jolly Roger
Goofy fun, and it includes some transitional dialogue from the show. That’s my old friend, the guy who orchestrated this whole thing, playing Smee. Only drawback: Both this song and the fourth song, Dead, rhyme “dinner” with “innards.” What’s my problem, I wonder?

A Princess Bride
Originally written for an aborted stage adaptation of the movie The Princess Bride – there’s that sticky copyright issue again – the song was altered to fit Princess Tiger Lily’s dilemma, as she has to choose between a prince and Peter.

Dead (The Lost Boys Funeral Song)
I’ve sung this song in public many times. This version needs percussion, but otherwise, it works pretty well. Dead demonstrates that no one really dies in Neverland – a lost boy who is killed at the end of Act I is the one who sings the last verse. It also has the word “stallion” in it.

So whaddya think?