Chapter 19 – The Show Must Go On
There was a theater company in the Twin cities called Theater 1900. They did their productions on the stage of a church at 1900 Nicolett Avenue. Ergo, the name. I saw a couple of their shows during a couple of visits in 1978. They did a very successful Boy Meets Boy and Jesus Christ Superstar. With introductions from Mesa Kincaid, I went to a party and met some of the gang who ran this community theater. One thing I love to do and can do for hours at a time is talk about theater. That night I must have talked with an enthusiasm that was contagious. Years before while working at KDWB, I was in New York for one reason or another and saw a Joseph Papp Theater in Central Park production of the Shakespeare Two Gentlemen From Verona. They had musicalized the original and I loved it. I spent many hours singing along with the score in various production rooms. At the party with the Theater 1900 crowd I rhapsodized about the show and my zeal was picked up on. Add Mesa's puffery and early in the spring of 1979 I was offered a chance to direct a production of that show in the 1979 Fall Season.
In May we were ready to sell Dad's place and Tim and Kath and Sean were moving to their own home, so the time was ripe for a personal move. Back to Minneapolis. I found an old brownstone a block from Loring Park and 5 blocks from the theater. It wasn't much of an apartment compared to my earlier places but I had been de-friended by my former social circle and aside from some non-broadcasting acquaintances and the ubiquitous Mesa and Gary DeMaroney, I didn't entertain anyone anyway. Most of my stuff was left in the grocery store storage and I moved back to the Twin Cities. For a few months my life there was much like my life now. No responsibility. There are a few funny stories. There are always “my damn stories”. (Thank you Moon)
The Loring Park Brownstone apartment was funky neat and I'm sure today living there would cost someone zillions of dollars. When I was there, the walls were painted whorehouse red, the 10 foot ceilings surrounded by fabulous plaster moldings. Dark hardwood floors, 7 foot Bay Windows and a little quaint brick fireplace complimented the few pieces of furniture I lugged from Duluth. The bathroom was challenged. The tub was so old and so damaged that someone in a fit of interior upgrade had painted it. I mean, they painted the inside of the tub. The porcelain was covered with several coats of milk chocolate brown paint. The kitchen was a virtual closet with barely room for a ghetto fridge, tiny 4 burner gas stove and little two person table. Oh, yes. There was a sink hanging off one wall. The bedroom was just large enough for my bed. It was small. It was old. But, it was wonderfully funky and I loved it for 7 months. I wished I lived there now.
Two Gentlemen was scheduled for performance in September so rehearsals would begin in August. I was in the Cities a couple of months early. That July I was so disconnected from my previous Rob Sherwood life, it hardly seemed possible that only 16 months had passed since I triumphantly moved north. No one was picking up the tab at lunches and dinners nor were they listening to my broadcasting pontifications. My second Saturday back in Minneapolis, I was so bored, I hopped an airplane and spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday in New York. Back in my funky apartment and feeling guilty over the money spent,I pledged to live poor. I set a budget of 500 dollars a month and resolved to follow it. Hah! Every trip north to visit my family, I toted back a few boxes of vinyl L.P.'s. I had hundreds, thousands...promo copies from several years of visits from record promotion guys. The Electric Fetus paid a dollar a piece for 'drilled' promo L.P.'s and up to five dollars for L.P.'s without the drill hole. I was scoring a few hundred a month and proud as hell at my frugality.
This was before ATM's and Debit cards and after having to shell out thousands to pay my American Express, plastic was out. Several times through laziness or poor planning, I found myself fiducially challenged half-way through the week-end. One Saturday night, I was hanging out at a 'theater' bar in downtown Minneapolis with only loose change in my pocket. Like some bars have free popcorn or peanuts, this bar had free soda crackers and spreadable cheddar cheese. I managed to scare up 75 cents for a ginger ale (it looked like a real drink) and ate a lot of crackers and cheese. Knowing that there was no food in the pantry at home and Sunday would be a hungry day, I secretly wrapped some cheese and crackers in a napkin and put them in my pocket for later use. The next morning I awoke hungry. I grabbed my jacket and retrieved my cheese and crackers. The crackers were mostly large crumbs and the cheese had fallen from the napkin and now had a generous coating of smoker's pocket debris. The spreadable cheese instead of being covered with crushed walnuts was covered with bits of tobacco. I was hungry enough to scrape off the tobacco and eat the cheese with cracker bits. And cherry Kool-aid.
Finally the date for auditions arrived and it was time to cast my show. NOW I was having fun. We scheduled two nights of try-outs. One night of call-backs. Although I was excited as hell about doing the show, there was a nagging itch deep inside me taking a little of the glow off the moment. I learned a lesson at KSTP and WEBC. I like the performance more than I liked being the boss. It took until FM104 in Modesto years later to really understand that. Here I was choosing actors to do what I really wanted to do. I liked the creative side of directing but it isn't performance. At some point the show goes on without you. I wanted my cheese ball and I wanted to eat it too.
In the show, Two Gentlemen from Verona there are some key roles. Proteus and Valentine are the top male characters. The young man who became our Proteus was perfect. Talented and animated, I was lucky he wanted the role. At first I thought I had a problem with the Valentine. The actor was on fire. I am talking about the 'flaming' on fire. Is it a girl or is it Memorex? You could almost see the poppers oozing out his pores. It wouldn't work if Valentine seemed more likely to screw Thurio than Sylvia. We needed a major man-up. Just as the wonderful Raymond Burr actually could make you believe he was 'interested' in Della, my Valentine was a great actor. You actually believed he was straight.
There were several important females. Sylvia and Julia among them. Also important are the second tier roles of the Duke of Milan and Thurio, a rich and nerdy suitor of Sylvia. Our Sylvia was a young but very accomplished local actor. In many ways, she was too good for our production. And too honest. On the night her family came to see the show, I asked her what they thought. Without a pause she said, “They didn't think it was very good.” Way too much information. On the second night we found our Thurio and all the 3rd tier characters fell into place. One hapless girl auditioned. The pianist asked her what song she was going to sing for her audition and she didn't have one. I got involved and we spent too many minutes trying to come up with a song she knew. Finally, in frustration, the pianist suggested Silent Night. When the woman was asked what key she wanted it in she replied she didn't know. That's when I said, “Just sing acappella.” She replied, “I was going to sing Silent Night.” Later, while eating spreadable cheese I laughed till I had tears running down my leg.
Only missing was a Duke and a Julia. We found both. Deep inside, I was heartsick. I really hated casting someone ELSE as the Duke. What could I do? We held call-backs, but they were a mere formality because all the decisions were already made. We were ready to publish the cast. Before we could do it, the actor playing the Duke, called to tell us he was taking a different show. We were missing The Duke!
Who am I kidding. I got the performance bug when I was six and played the part of a beaver. Theater directing was new to me and I was a stranger in a strange land. Ahead of me were dozens of mistakes, compromises, and absolutely amateur decisions, as well as the role of The Duke. It didn't take me long to make the 'sacrifice'. I cast myself as The Duke. By doing so, I split my concentration between performing and directing. The show suffered for it but at the time I didn't care. I loved being The Duke.
The following six weeks were wonderful. I loved rehearsing. I still love rehearsing. I love sitting in the seats watching the empty theater. I love standing on the stage working out a difficult bit of blocking. I loved seeing my vision slowly come to life. I hated the compromises. I hated that not everyone was as enamored by it all as I was. If I had my way the entire cast would have rehearsed every night. It doesn't work that way. I had to learn. It was a hard lesson. The show suffered. At times my vision was greater than our ability (my) ability to make it happen. We stumbled toward opening night.
All during the time I was at KSTP, there was a morning show that ran for an hour after the Today Show. Remember, KSTP was NBC at this time. Several times, I had guested on the show including one memorable time when I was interviewed along with Charo. It was hilarious. Since the Twin Cities area is a theater town, they frequently had guests from the Old Log, Guthrie, and Chanhassen. Even though, Theater 1900 wasn't of that caliber, I thought I had an in. I contacted them and they enthusiastically invited me to come on the show and promo our production. They even suggested I wear my costume. Early on the morning of my appearance I hopped a cab to the studios on University Avenue and found out, to my embarrassment, I was going to wear the costume, sit in the audience, and get a chance to plug the show as the hosts worked the crowd. A long way from a featured guest. How far the mighty had fallen! To make matters worse, later that morning on the bus-ride home, I ran into a friend who had been so inexplicably missing for the past year and for an uncomfortable 30 minutes tried to carry on a conversation when I had nothing to say.
Doing the show was worth every moment of angst involved. We weren't a great success playing most nights to a half full house. My family came and loved it. Doug Lee, an independent record promotion guy came to see it. (He came to a dozen shows over the years including several in San Francisco) If any of my old crowd saw the show, they didn't let me know or send roses back stage. It didn't matter because I was in heaven. During the run of Two Gentlemen of Verona, I went to two parties that are remarkable. The first was a party to celebrate the birthday of one of Gary D.'s friends who at one time in the future would be Chief Engineer in Modesto. The party was on one of the nights when the show was dark and I took a Valium and planned on a quiet night privately missing doing the show. Gary called with the last-minute demand that I come to the party. Refusing to take no for an answer, he dispatched someone to pick me up and cart me over. I was dressed in cut-offs (remember, this is 1979) and a t-shirt and in spite of the fall cold, just tossed on a long coat. On the way we stopped at a liquor store and not wanting to mix hard-liquor with Valium I opted for some 70's Boone Farm crap which I started consuming on the way. Arriving at Gary's I put a little Happy Birthday cone hat on my head, unbuttoned my coat so I would look less like a Chester The Molester. I didn't realize that the name Rob Sherwood still had some panache with some people and there were several young people there actually quite excited to be meeting the 'legend'. It certainly added to that legend when I burst through the door, Boone's Farm in my outstretched hand, tossed the coat aside, flexed my hips causing the cut-offs to fall to my ankles while I said in a loud and dramatic voice, “Anyone want to fuck a fancy showgirl?”
I think I remember that story relatively well. The other party was with a different crowd and a left-over from my party days with the plastic bag heir. At this party I met someone from Dallas, Texas who was an assistant manager of a dinner theater. Not realizing that my current show was small potatoes, but sucked in by my enthusiasm, this little bit of networking led to being offered a part in Hello Dolly and it was a wonderful bit of frosting on the cake to have a show to go to when we closed. I spent 7 weeks in Dallas and it was quite different from Theater 1900. It was all business. All I did was show up and do it. The only advice I ever got was that no matter what happened just keep going. Don't stop for anything. I loved it. I slept during the day. Did the show and stayed up all night drinking coffee at Denny's and talking theater with dancers. I could easily have stayed and when I left I had every intention of going back. If not for the theater, at least for the brisket. The motel I stayed in was just across an old highway from a dive that slapped mounds of beef brisket on Wonder Bread and I was in love. The costume that fit so well when the show opened was decidedly tighter 4 weeks later.
When Mesa picked me up at the airport I was in no mood for bullshit. I had seen the promised land and now was back in the wilderness. The only saving grace was the tackiness of my motel in Dallas. My little Loring Park brownstone was luxurious by comparison and I couldn't wait to start a fire in the little fireplace. While lying in front of the fire, I suddenly realized the Mesa was talking about my hair. Since I played an older guy in Dolly, it was shorter than it had been in years and Mesa was getting a charge out of touching it. I am sorry but touching my hair is just another version of foreplay. You might as well just stick your hand down my crotch. I am sure Mesa didn't realize the message I was getting was much different from the message she was sending. I excused myself with the telephone stretched to the limit of the wire and made an emergency call to Gary D. I told him to stop at the grocery store and get ingredients for something to eat and get the hell over here ...quick! Forty-five minutes later Gary arrived with spaghetti, sauce and Parmesan. Relieved that there was safety in numbers, I enthusiastically joined in the cooking. Mesa was having none of it and before long left in a huff. My, that pasta tasted swell.
Having collected a small check from Theater 1900 for my directing duties and a nice check from Dallas for Horace Vandergelder and now with nothing to do, bored, and totally irresponsible, I hopped on the first plane to Germany. What a total waste of money. It was freezing cold in Europe and after a week I couldn't take it any more. Back in New York, I really learned how cold it can be in that city. The temperature was frigid in reality and emotionally and having wasted a shit-load of money I arrived back in Minneapolis on Saturday mid-day. Gary D. picked me up at the airport and we were sitting on the floor in my living room chatting when the phone rang. THE PHONE RANG! I have been down this road before. It started with the ringing phone call from Bob Roddy in Blythe. As I have written, the phone rang when I was waiting to see if I was going to Austin. It rang again when I got the jobs in Cedar Rapids and Green Bay. Both Scott Burton and Johnny Canton from WDGY both rang my phone as did Dean Johnson calling from KDWB. Mike Sigelman called me from Cliff Road. Jack Nugent called from KSTP and the L Brothers from Duluth.
This time when the phone rang it was Bill Johnson.
Bill was calling from Modesto. Modesto, California. What did I know about Modesto, California. Nothing. If I had looked closely at my bottle of Boone's Farm I would have seen the words, “Bottled in Modesto, California”. I used to drink a wonderful screw-top called Gallo Hearty Burgandy. If you looked carefully it was there for all the world to see. Gallo Brothers. Modesto, Calif. If I didn't know where Modesto was, I knew where California was and this stranger was calling from California.
How he came to my telephone on that early December Saturday afternoon is a convoluted story. When Dean Johnson decided he wanted a “Rob Sherwood” type DJ for nights at KDWB and then figured out it was as easy to hire the real Rob Sherwood as it was to hire a Rob Sherwood wannabe, he persevered and for better or worse got me to Channel 63. Everyone was at least mildly enthusiastic except the corporate attorney, Walter Richey. He demurred at my requested contract but in the end I was hired. With the contract. Eventually, Walter Richey became the CEO and was instrumental in dissolution of Val-Jon broadcasting and the the sale of the station to Doubleday Publishing Company. After KDWB, he got involved in some smaller station ownership that included one in the suburbs of Milwaukee, an FM in the college town of Lafayette, Indiana and an FM licensed to a tiny town in the Central Valley of California, Patterson, with a signal that covered the much larger Modesto. Mike Sigelman, three years out of U100, had networked with Walter Richey and was managing the station in Indiana. The manager of the Patterson/Modesto station was Bill Johnson.
If you look in the dictionary under the word chutzpa you would see his picture. Or at least you would see something directing you to a Yiddish dictionary where you would find Bill Johnson's picture. He was working as a manager in Flint, Michigan when he was hired to go west to KOSO-FM. It didn't take him long to realize there were problems. His first find was an old alumni of mine from U100. Chuck Morgan. The fabulous Chucker. The DJ I had almost blinded with spray from a fire extinguisher. What a small world. Bill hired Chucker as a sort of consultant. Morgan had been working in San Francisco and wasn't about to move to Patterson! But for a fee, he arrived at the station and did the silly consultant thing. He made some play-lists, created some clocks, tinkered with the processing and pretty much pissed on Bill Johnson's leg while telling him it was raining.
Well, with Bill, if one thing didn't work, try another. Don Bleu, of KDWB legendary status left the Twin Cities to work in Los Angeles at one of the flagship stations of the Top 40 format. It was somewhat of a shock that so soon after he left Minnesota, he was out at his new station and looking for work. Here's Bill! Bill Johnson, assuming that Don Bleu was looking for work, called him and offered him a job programming KOSO. This strikes me as so funny because on the face of things this was like the mouse telling the elephant he wanted sex. People like Bill do things like this without any sense of shame. Like politicians, they have rhino-skin and no embarrassment penetrates. During the times we worked together, and later as fellow broadcasters, Bill was always Bill. He didn't see himself as others saw him. He just knew what he wanted and bull-dozed his way in that direction. I've worked for some evil GM's. Bill Johnson wasn't one of them. He was a thundering, stampeding, buffalo-herd-of-one and woe be to any Indian who got in his way. His heart was large and his hubris larger. Together, we were dysfunctional, but we accomplished some good things.
Back to the story. Don Bleu isn't moving to Modesto but that doesn't stop him from mentioning my name. Bill isn't familiar with my luminous history. He calls Mike Sigelman in Indiana and asks about me. Mike must have said good things as well as giving him the information needed to get my telephone number from information (Those were the days). And that is why the phone rang.
To get a call like this out of the clear blue sky was daunting and my responses to his comments and questions were noncommittal at best. After about 15 minutes of conversation, I was ready to get off the phone. I didn't just tell Bill, “No!” In fact, I gave him some line about 'thinking about it' and I'd give him a call after the weekend. It was very vague. After hanging up and sharing the gist of the conversation with Gary DeMaroney (and laughing like hell) I put it out of my mind. I tried to put it out of my mind. Barely an hour passed before the phone rang again and Bill was back. He didn't call back to clarify our earlier conversation. He didn't call back to ask additional questions. He actually called back to tell me there was a flight from Minneapolis/St. Paul to San Francisco on Monday afternoon and he had reserved a ticket for me. Now I had a real reason to slow things down a little. This was weird. I told him I'd talk to him the next day and got off the phone. Now, I not only needed a cigarette but I need some calories. Gary and I grabbed some other friends and went out to eat. I was shell-shocked. I was also getting a lot of pressure from my dinner companions, including Gary, to take the trip. The general consensus was...it's a free trip to San Francisco. I couldn't help but see the logic behind their remonstrations and after tossing and turning the night away, the next day I agreed to be on the airplane. Bill and his Sales Manager would pick me up at the airport on Monday afternoon.
What a Jet-Setter I had become. Home for only 2 days and already back at the airport heading west. The more I thought about it, the more I pictured myself doing the Chucker. Check it out, make up some playlists, design some clocks, critique a few DJ's, give them some contests, pull some crap out of the PD grab-bag and spend a week in San Francisco. When I got off the plane, the first person I saw was a man, about my age, holding a sign that said...Rob Sherwood. He was about 5'7” tall and about 5'7” wide. In spite of his size he was dressed impeccably. Creased slacks and a crisp-heavily starched business-blue shirt. The jacket was obviously cashmere and that was a 75 dollar tie if I've ever seen one. That outfit represented a lot of cash at some California Big & Tall. I walked towards the man with the sign and my smile introduced me and he smiled back. There was a gap in his front teeth that gave him a wise-ass look, but the smile was without guile and we shook hands. It was Bill Johnson. Bill had one of those “let-me-see-if-I-can-ruin-your-career-as-a-violinist” handshakes. After shaking hands I wasn't sure whether I should call for paramedics or go directly into physical therapy. Bill introduced me to his companion, the Sales Manager, Bruce. Where Bill was loud and voluble, Bruce was quiet as a mouse. It was if Bruce was in a continuous state of embarrassment. I can understand that feeling and Bruce was familiar with it having come to California with Bill from Michigan.
We retrieved my luggage and drove into the City. Modesto is 90 miles due east of the Bay Area and almost a perfect 90 minute drive. Bill was driving a fire-engine red Chevy Caprice and with the seat all the way back to make room for that prodigious belly, he maneuvered us to one of the tourist restaurants down by the water-front. Even though the restaurant specialized (and still does to this day) in sea-food, any respectable restaurant in San Francisco has some form of Continental or Italian pasta for the hoi polloi. I actually love talking while eating and had no problem keeping the conversation going at the restaurant. Our waiter was as stereotypical as it is possible for a San Francisco waiter to be. I felt like Dorothy, not in Kansas anymore, when the waiter approached our table and said, “Good evening, Ladies. My name is Brad and I'll be your waiter tonight.” I ordered my fettuccine and proceeded to stuff myself with that wonderful San Francisco sourdough bread. And we talked. I filled them in on my career in radio, the theater I had recently done (very inflated) and my whole attitude towards the business of broadcasting. I talked and I talked. My earlier performances as the Duke and Horace Vandergelder were pale and subdued by comparison. Still, this was San Francisco and not Modesto. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
After dinner, Ms. Brad was working his tip with a little light conversation. We must have looked a bit out-of-place because he just assumed we were from out-of-town. “Where you-all from?” I spoke first and said I was from Minneapolis. He smiled as if remembering some special evening on Hennepin Avenue. Then he turned to Bill and Bruce and said, “You from Minneapolis too?” Bill shook his head and said, “No, we're from Modesto.”
The smile dropped off Brad's face and without missing a beat he said, “Oh Modesto Ish!”
Suddenly, like a arrow to the heart it was all there in front of me. I was almost 2,000 miles from home, in a tourist restaurant with a gay waiter, Mutt and Jeff, and heading to Oh-Modesto-Ish.
Coming in My Story Chapter 20 – What The Hell Am I Doing Here?