Things I Learned from R. B. (March 29th, 2020)


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Episode 9

Bequeathed upon the teller of a tale is a sacred trust to be accurate and truthful.

The two are not the same.

Accuracy requires dates, times, locations—yet spins the story by using the bias of the narrator.

Truth, on the other hand, is unflinching, insisting that what was everlasting be presented without coloration or commentary.

For this reason, I will not tell you the whole odyssey of our brief, five-month stay in Mobile by the Bay. I might be tempted to use accuracy to place the pieces of the occurrences in the exact position which might make you feel sorry for me – or pronounce me innocent.

I was not innocent.

I was young, arrogant, unaccustomed to being told what to do and I had too much talent to be placed in such a small vessel of possibility. The result was outbreaks of jealousy, anger, resentment and vicious rumor.

The worst part of the journey came when my middle son was hit and run by a car, and after a three-month stay in the hospital, ended up in a vegetative state, demanding constant care-giving.

Now, when we were able to bring Joshua home from the hospital, I was sitting in my living room one chilly October morning, having negotiated a severance deal with the church which allowed us to stay and be paid through the end of November, perched deep in thought when the phone rang.

To my astonishment, it was R. B.

Accurately, he, too, had suffered some setbacks on his quest in Minnesota for his new job. The truth I never really knew.

We told him of our predicament and he asked if he could join us, and travel with us to the next location—wherever that might be—and continue our lives in a much different framework than the optimism that permeated us upon arriving at the small church in Alabama.

I was lonely.

I was disturbed.

I was anxious for someone to hear my representation of the accuracy of our experience—without ever seeking for the truth.

I welcomed R. B.

He, too, was in need of a sounding board.

That’s what we did. For about a solid month, while I was auditioning for other positions, taking care of my son and trying to line up the dollars in my bank account like good soldiers, we commiserated and dreamed of more to come.

R. B. and I found each other over despair.

Yet how far can two crippled men travel together before they resent one another?

Things I Learned from R. B. (March 22nd, 2020)


Jonathots Daily Blog

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Episode 8

The tour ended in a rather joyous splash.

Of the ten thousand original dollars offered by the investors, we were able to complete the entire project, travel all across the country and still return five thousand dollars to them.  It wasn’t great—but considering the industry of music and theater, not too bad at all.

The cast gave hugs, promised to write, took addresses, and in a matter of two hours, what began as a dream ended—leaving me with a deep sense of loneliness.

For me, it was not just the end of a tour. It was also the demise of the music group I had been traveling with for eight years. My partner from the inception had grown weary of pulling her makeup out of a suitcase and was going back to Ohio to begin the next chapter of her life. I didn’t have the heart to go on without her. Singing voices can be replaced, but memories and passion are rare and come at a premium.

On top of that, I was reunited with my two older sons, who were rather pissed because they had spent two months with their grandma—especially since the littlest one rattled on about stories from the road.

The rent was due, and the refrigerator needed to be filled. I had no money. Worse—I had no plan.

About five days after the tour disbanded, I was sitting in my small apartment in Nashville, musing my fate, when the phone rang.

It was R. B.

I had completely forgotten that he also lived in Nashville. He was calling to ask my advice on where to find a reasonably priced place to record some of the music he had written. This was back in the time when “reasonable” and “recording” were two words that couldn’t be used in the same sentence.

I was also a little needy to be needed.

So I offered to use my gear at church nearby, where the pastor and I were friends.  When we arrived, I asked R. B. to sing me his songs. There were six in all.

The problem with sitting and listening to a singer-songwriter is that he or she often feels the need to take ten minutes to explain the origin of their three-minute song. After about an hour-and-a-half, we finished, and R. B. asked me my opinion.

“There’s only one way you can tell if a song is any good,” I said. “Without hyping it, telling its story or sharing a tearful story, just play and sing it and see if people dig it—just for its own worth.”

R. B. frowned at me. Part of the frown was due to the fact that he didn’t know exactly what I meant, but most of it was caused by R. B. being very unfamiliar with criticism.

I listened to the songs individually one more time, and told him that of the six, there were two that people would enjoy hearing and other artists might like to sing.

That afternoon we recorded those two songs. I overlaid some piano, organ and vocals and did a quick mix on it over to cassette tape, so he could take it home and listen.

He was thrilled.

I must have gotten about seven calls in the next two days—R. B. pointing out things he had just discovered and expressing how grateful he was that I took the time to help him.

Meanwhile, I made a contact with a minister in Mobile, Alabama, who was just beside himself—overjoyed to have my wife, kids and myself come down and join the staff.

I had never done anything “churchy” before, but the opportunity came with a house, free utilities and a small salary. So I looked past my apprehensions.  I buried my dreams and made plans to move my entire entourage to Mobile, Alabama.

Shortly before we left, R. B. came to dinner and told us that he had just hired on with an electronics firm in Minnesota. We shook hands. I think he even mustered a hug.

As R. B. left, I remember thinking, “I’ll probably never see him again.”

 

Things I Learned from R. B.


Jonathots Daily Blog

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Episode 7

Eight thousand three hundred and twenty-nine miles.

From Erie, Pennsylvania, down to Jacksonville, Florida, across to Houston, Texas, up to St. Louis, Chicago, then over to Detroit, and even Nashville, Tennessee—with many cities in between.

For thirty-one days we traveled to twenty-five cities, putting on performances of my musical, surviving on fast food, common hospitality, and the financial generosity of an audience asked to pass the hat.

Providing our transportation were two leased vans—one stripped of interior seats, which acted as utilitarian, hauling equipment and suitcases. The other was a twelve-passenger van for the cast.

There were nine of us in all. I drove the passenger van, and Gary and Don took over the responsibilities of the “Ute Van.”

They liked that. And little else.

I often wondered why the two of them had auditioned for the play in the first place. Then I realized it was because they didn’t think they would be good enough to get in, but thought it would be fun to try—never imagining they would run across a producer like myself, who was so desperate for a cast that he hired them.

Every once in a while, just to keep things honest, I sent R. B. back to ride in the Ute Van along with Gary and Don, to act as my eyes and ears.

Unfortunately, R. B. was so inexperienced that he didn’t realize the pair was smoking pot right in front of him. When we stopped for gasoline, his innocence played out comically in how loopy he acted—from exposure to second-hand smoke.

When I cracked down on Gary and Don about the grass smoking, they immediately assumed that R. B. had squealed. They confronted him and he denied it, but they never believed him. They used the remainder of the tour to make his life as miserable as possible, with practical jokes, mocking him in front of the girls in the cast, and I think once even peeing on his costume.

Even though I tried to correct the matter, the cast members were not my wards of the court, but rather, young people wanting to get by with as much as they could and doing as little as they could in the process.

One of the girls challenged R. B. to “stand up for himself.” He explained that such a maneuver was against his Christianity because he believed in “loving people and forgiving them.”

Although his rendition of the Gospels was accepted by the other cast members who heard him share it, I interrupted with a different interpretation.

“Forgiveness is powerful if you’ve already established yourself as the salt of the Earth and the light of the world. If you’re valuable—nearly indispensable—then offering the humility of forgiveness carries some weight. But if you’ve spent most of your time on the back of the bus—or the back of the van, in this case—your forgiveness just looks like what any loser would have to do.”

R. B. had to make a choice. Was he going to side with me and the rest of the troop or was he going to quietly join into the rebellion of Gary and Don, as they attempted to convince themselves that they could do everything better than me?

One night, the sponsor at our concert called me into his office about an hour before showtime. He was an old buddy—going way back. He knew everything about me, and I the same for him.

He said, “You need to get your cast straightened out. I just had three of them in here, trying to convince me that you were crazy and that they needed some relief from your dictatorial style.”

Before I could even ask my friend who the three were, he identified them. “It’s your three boys,” he said. “Gary, Don and R. B.”

I wasn’t surprised with Gary and Don. But I was quite astounded that R. B. sided with his tormentors against me.

I know the cast thought I was going to yell at them before the show once word spread that I had been informed, but I did no such thing.

When I was introduced to do the opening words before the musical began, I received warm applause from the audience, which remembered me from former days. I did something that surprised everybody—even myself.

I said, “I want to thank you all for coming out here tonight. We are not in very good spirits and have been arguing with each other for several days. I didn’t want to try to fake you out. I didn’t want to pretend. I didn’t want you guessing. The cast that’s about to come out and perform are doing a good job, and they’re probably peeing their pants right now, wondering why in the hell (pardon my language) I’m saying this. The reason I am is that we don’t have to be perfect to do good things. But it sure helps if we’re honest. So I would like you to forgive us for being mere mortals, and please allow us to take you on a journey. Perhaps in pursuing that odyssey with you, we might get in better moods ourselves.”

The audience burst into applause.

The overture began and we were off to the races. It was a brilliant show.  When some of the cast members made their entrances, you could see tears in their eyes.

I didn’t have any more trouble with Gary and Don. But R. B. was never able to get over the fact that in his opinion, I had humiliated them all in front of the audience.

Even though Gary and Don despised him, R. B. chose to befriend his detractors.

Things I Learned from R. B.


Jonathots Daily Blog

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Episode 6

Opening night for the musical arrived about thirteen days before the cast was suitable for public viewing.

Yes, another fortnight and we might have achieved “adequate” with the possibility of “passable.” But as the maniac once said, “The show must go on.”

The music was learned and the pitches, generally pleasing. But the vignettes that separated the numbers were filled with so much wooden acting that we could have built a fort.

As to the choreography, we should have put a disclaimer in the show’s program, warning parents to cover the eyes of their small children.

There was one saving grace:

Our homosexual producer had gathered all of his flair and had designed and purchased stunning costumes. They were accessible and colorful—and as we found out later, easy to clean. They gave the show the appearance of legitimacy.

During the final rehearsal, which blended chaos with over-optimism, R. B. appointed himself cheerleader for the troupe. Whenever a note was missed or a cue ignored, he stepped in and said, “Don’t worry, guys. We’re going to do great.”

I probably should have stopped him, but before I could, one of his fellow-cast members snarled, “Hey, R. B., just because they’re dance slippers doesn’t mean you need to slip up.”

R. B. laughed, completely oblivious to the fact that he was being critiqued.

During the time of preparation for the evening’s fiasco, I made two requests: don’t drink too much water or you’ll sweat like a pig; and under no circumstances were any of the cast members to go into the lobby in costume—so we could keep the surprise of the quality costumes from the audience until stage time.

R. B. ignored both.

Feeling the need to use the bathroom because of over-watering his hole and not wanting to stand in line with his cast members at the facility backstage, he drifted his way through the halls to the lobby, where he not only used the bathroom donned in his costume, but stopped off to talk to the audience members in the foyer, who were complimenting him for his appearance.

Then, under the influence of the fumes of appreciation, he walked down through the auditorium and jumped onto the stage, where we were all waiting behind the curtain.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been any more infuriated—yet it was hardly the time for a teaching moment.

I took a deep breath, channeling my Knute Rockne, and tried to deliver a pregame speech.

I think I did pretty well, but all the cast members knew there were so many gaps in the training for the show that it was literally impossible for anything to happen short of the Hindenburg.

I still held out hope that maybe the god of dance would send angels to join us. He did not. Instead, arriving on opening night were the devils of dunce.

And I didn’t even take into consideration that the lack of preparation would be further complicated by nerves—great stage fright. There were at least five times when the musical came to a complete halt while the cast members stared at one another, wondering whose turn it was, and the audience giggled uncontrollably at the mishap unfolding before them.

I wanted to run.

The advertising had been so good that the theater was packed. There were two nights scheduled for Columbus before we hit the road—and both performances were headed toward standing room only.

Of course, I realized that once the word was passed about opening night’s bedevilment that few people would show up for the second go-round.

The little boy in me arrived. I wanted to disappear, go back to the rehearsal camp and wait for the cast to join me later. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was stand out in the lobby with my fumbling thespians. For of course, I knew it ultimately would be viewed as my fault. But I came and stood among them.

Back at the rehearsal camp, discussing what to do the next night—how to quickly simplify the choreography so as to not look quite so inept—and which songs to go over, R. B. spoke up, interrupting my instructions.

“Excuse me,” he said sprightly. “Guys, I think we did pretty good for our first try.”

Now, I’ve never been in a room with a lynch mob. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people to become so enraged that they grab someone and rush him into the forest, throw a rope over a tree bough and hang him on the spot. But I would venture to say that the cast came close to putting R. B. in a “neck-tie” that night.

I stepped in to protect him, but also rebuked him.  “Listen,” I said, “there’s nothing wrong with stinking and doing a shitty job, as long as you don’t pretend it doesn’t stink and that it’s not shitty. It was my job to get you guys ready. I didn’t do it. But it was your job tonight to give your best performance. As you go to your beds, you can ask yourselves if you did just that.”

R. B. was offended.

Matter of fact, I found out the next day that he stayed up crying to one of the girls about my “attack.”

I worked with the cast all the next day, and by the time we arrived for the second performance, we were miles further down the road than we were the night before.

Of course the problem was, the audience had decided to stay miles away.

Things I Learned from R. B.


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Episode 5

R. B. really liked girls.

They did not share his interest.

There were many reasons for this.

First and foremost, R. B. had an opinion on almost everything, which he spoke clearly and loudly, leaving little room for input or variation on his stance.

He also thought of himself as being macho, trotting through rehearsal camp without a shirt, which might have been effective had he not sported the motif of skin and bones.

He was very religious, making it clear that women were equals except when they were married. Then they needed to be submissive to their husbands.

And finally, he maintained the hygiene standards of a twenty-four-year-old single man whose mother apparently gave up on confronting him in his early teens.

This did not stop him from trying.

The female members of the cast often looked over at me haplessly, wishing I would stop R. B. from flirting. I did occasionally step in when it was obvious that his overtures border-lined on verbal rape. But R. B. never missed a beat.

Then one of the sponsors of our show caught wind that we had gay men as choreographers. Even though these “sodomites” had left, during the process of their departure, they had outed our producer as a “penis preferrer.”

The sponsor was outraged. He requested a meeting with me to find out what I planned on doing with this obvious sinfulness in the organization. I invited the cast to the meeting so they would be privy to all conversations, with nothing done behind their backs.

The premise was simple.

My sponsor, who was named Tim, was telling me about my producer, who, ironically, was also named Tim, accusing him of being “homo.”

Tim, the sponsor, assumed that once I understood the situation, I would kick my friend and producer to the curb, restoring righteousness to the surroundings. He also let me know that the other sponsors, who were not as religious as he was, also did not approve of the producer’s lifestyle.

When Sponsor Tim was finished talking about Producer Tim, I sat and stared at the cast. I was curious to see if anyone would speak up.

They sat quietly. It was an era when, even if you disagreed with the treatment of homosexuals in America, you had a tendency to keep your mouth shut so as not to uncork the wrath of the religious right. Also, the mental health professionals of the time considered same-sex relationships to be “aberrant behavior.”

R. B., who had never lacked a prejudice or two, spoke right up, saying, “I think that Tim has to go.”

Feeling some need for comic relief, I patted the sponsor on the back and said, “Tim, you don’t have to go.”

There was a much-needed laugh in the room. However, it was quickly swallowed by the monster of intolerance.

R. B. did not think I was funny.

“You know what I’m saying!” he said. “We can’t have a homosexual working for us and think that God’s going to bless!”

Bouncing off R. B.’s theory, I asked the cast, “Do you think Jesus would kick the homo to the curb?”

You could tell they wanted to say no, but remained mute—like we all do when yellow seems to be our favorite color.

Sponsor Tim pursued. “You know I admire you,” he said to me. “I know you’ll do the right thing.”

“Thank you for that,” I said. “Truthfully, Tim, I don’t know what the right thing is. But I know what the right thing is for me. I’m looking at something called loyalty. I don’t know how immoral it is to be a homosexual, but I do know how immoral it is to be disloyal to a friend. The only reason you’re sitting here tonight talking to me is because my friend, Tim the Homosexual, believed in this project, got investors, and even arranged for this beautiful facility wherein we sit. I consider that to be good fruit—and since I know that good fruit doesn’t come from a bad tree, I think I’m going to stand with my buddy and keep working with him out of loyalty, because I consider it to be true morality.”

Tim the Sponsor glared at me like I had just been belched on the beach by a huge whale. There was the inkling in the room to applaud, but it was quelled by provincialism.

R. B. stood up and left.

Amazingly, Sponsor Tim accepted my stance and said that because he loved me, he would honor my decision and not interfere. If you think about it, that was remarkable.

After the meeting, R. B. came into the room, where I was alone.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to quit the play,” he said.

I didn’t say a word. After a long pause, he continued. “Sin is sin and wrong is wrong. Even if we think we’re defending for the right reason, evil still lurks to destroy us.”

As brave as I had been with Tim the Sponsor, I suddenly was worried that I was about to lose a cast member nine days out from the premiere. I buckled.

“Listen, R. B. Give me a break,” I said. “I’ll check into this. If there’s truth to it, we’ll cross it when we get to it. Okay?”

R. B. peered at me for a moment and then sprouted a smile. He stood to his feet, hugged me and sauntered out of the room.

All at once, I realized that he had never intended to quit. He just really enjoyed threatening.

Things I Learned from R. B.


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Episode 4

A rehearsal camp.

It is what we called the thirteen-day period leading up to the beginning of the tour of our musical.

The cast arrived: Mittie, Dan, Ginger, Greg, Luanne, Dollie, R. B., Matt and Blythe. Unfortunately, we had to axe Blythe and Matt because we caught them sleeping together in one of the bedrooms. We had a “no fraternization” policy for the cast, and Matt and Blythe—well, they screwed it.

Somehow or another, we’d landed an amazing facility for hosting this little shindig, with six bedrooms, six bathrooms, a complete kitchen and a small gymnasium including a PA system for rehearsing. The owner of the location was so impressed with our endeavors that he only charged $150 a week. Unfortunately, I think we bounced a check to him. (We made it right.)

The mornings were spent learning music. This went great. Music was what I did. We also worked on some acting. Since all the members of the team had seen movies and television, we kind of wiggled and squirmed our way into understanding the characterization needed for their roles.

But afternoons did not go so well. They were set aside for choreography. Only one of our cast members could dance. All the others were either timid or inept, leaving our three choreographers in a constant, bitchy dismay. Two of this trio were fellows who had performed on Broadway—gay men (this was back in the time when the words “gay” and “men” never appeared in a sentence together.)

The other choreographer was a “mimist” from Miami (say that quickly five times). She was a Lesbian, though our cast was so unfamiliar with the term that they believed she was an immigrant from Lebanon.

So terrible was the movement portion of the play that a reporter from the city newspaper, who came to interview me and happened to sit in on a rehearsal, joked, “Hey. Don’t give up. You can always have the claim to fame that you came up with ‘collisionography.’”

I didn’t laugh. I should have. It might have kept me from crying.

The absolute worst of our dancers was R. B. He had two left feet, and that was just on his right leg. R. B. couldn’t dance. It’s not that he shouldn’t or wouldn’t—it needed to be forbidden.

The terrifying part of the situation was that R. B. was our most enthusiastic hoofer and believed with all his heart that he was heads and tails, if not feet, above the other cast members.

One day, in a fit of frustration, Gay Choreographer 1 screamed at him, “You dance like an elephant imitating a cow!”

The only reason R. B. knew to get offended was that the fellow was spitting angry. That night R. B. packed his bags, preparing to leave—and I consoled him into staying.

I lied.

I told him I had fired the choreographer who yelled at him, when actually the guy had quit in despair. So R. B. stood tall, stating to me, “That guy just doesn’t know talent when he sees it.”

I should have said something. I should have spoken up. But I was so afraid of losing a cast member less than two weeks from the start of the show that I remained silent and let a very cocky guy walk out of the room—setting us all up for a “Great Collision.”

Things I Learned from R. B.


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Episode 3

The next morning my phone rang at seven o’clock.

It was R. B.

With nearly a tear in his voice, he explained that he’d been up most of the night, worried about the money he would receive while traveling with the cast of the musical.

The producers had joined with me in giving to these student-actors, who would be performing the parts, thirty-five dollars a week plus all expenses. At the time, most traveling casts of this style were charging the participants for the privilege of traveling. But it felt right for us to offer the young humans a little money for their concerted efforts.

But R. B. was not satisfied with the base wage.

He explained his bills. Three times. He also shared that his father had taught him that being frugal and prudent with your money was the best way to stay happy, and free of both debt and interference from others.

He was about to tell me that he was going to bow out when some evil spirit of compromise jumped up in my soul and I said, “How about we give you seventy-five dollars a week? But please, don’t tell the other cast members.”

There were so many things wrong with that statement, I don’t know where to start. But whereas R. B. was worried about the money, I was concerned about filling all the cast slots, and was in no mood on this early morn to lose one of them.

He agreed—with just a hint of reluctance, to let me know that he was well worth the offer and more.

As I hung up the phone I thought, “Is this going to end up biting me in the ass?”

I knew it would.

But I thought some scrambled eggs and turkey sausage might sooth my nervous soul.

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