One: In the Band
From 1961 to 1963, I was the first chair trumpet for the Dundalk High School band in Baltimore, Maryland. This was the band in the Band Room, of course, where we reveled in playing yellowing old jazz charts that someone had donated in a big steamer trunk, plus arrangements of modern music and seasonal tunes.
There was also the marching band—an entirely different story.
At some point in the late 50s, a kid died on a football field in Baltimore County, creating a flurry of protective measures for all schools. As a result, there was no high school football in my time. There was, however, the annual Steel Bowl, played on Thanksgiving Day, which pitted the Dundalk YMCA against the Sparrows Point YMCA. It was called the Steel Bowl because the field on which the game was played was the property of Bethlehem Steel.
It was our lot to represent Dundalk by marching up and down the field during halftime, playing fight songs from various universities. As the holiday season approached, and the leaves burst into color, and the air began to take on autumnal crispness and the early bite of winter, the band members began to fall into a state of gloom.
It was a logical reaction: marching band meant marching and we were like a centipede with two hundred left feet. In our defense, playing music while trying to walk a relatively straight line and not bashing into the player in front of you is much harder than anyone might think.
During October, we went outside once a week to stumble up and down on the track field, playing songs such as “I’m A Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech” and “On Wisconsin.” We had no fight song of our own.
A week before the game we were given our uniforms: green with gold trim—the school colors. If we were motley, the uniforms were circling the drain. They smelled like mothballs and old sweat, had holes all over them ranging from cigarette burns to what looked as if someone had tried to chew through the sleeve, and were made of a unique wool that seemed to enhance the cold, rather than fend it off. We were sent home with a note asking our mothers to do what they could to rescue the uniforms.
On Thanksgiving morning we were driven to the game site on a rattling yellow school bus. The field was a dirt and mud plain with rickety bleacher seats. Behind the seats were some booths selling hot dogs, snacks, and hot drinks. The steel plant sat on land that was bordered by various waterways leading out to the Chesapeake Bay, which meant that at any time of the year there was a strong wind cutting across the property. In November, the wind was sharp as flying icicles.
The band members had nothing to do until halftime, so we alternated between watching the game, visiting the food stands, huddling together to stay warm, and of course trying to get into the right huddle with a person of interest; I liked a certain red-haired clarinet player.
By the time we were set to march, I was almost too stiff to walk onto the field. The thought of putting the ice-cold mouthpiece to my lips gave me goosebumps; the fear of it being like sticking one’s tongue on the frozen pipe kept me anxious for days on end.
We staggered up and down the muddy, gouged field, playing our marching songs largely to an absent crowd who were now the ones huddling for warmth on the lee side of the service booths. The wind seemed to gather strength on the open field; our cheeks were flaming red and I could feel my thighs chafing from the biting gusts that were passing unimpeded through the uniform fabric.
Finally finished, we broke ranks and ran off the field at top speed. We descended on the booth area with only one ambition: get a hot drink to stop our teeth from chattering and bodies from shaking.
And here is what happened all three years, because learning from experience didn’t seem to be in my stars at that time: drinking the hot chocolate too quickly, I burned my tongue.
Scalded it, seared it like a steak, turning it into a floppy piece of insensate meat with no taste buds, making it so useless I might just as well have had someone sew a whoopee cushion inside my mouth.
And of course, I couldn’t taste any bit of the Thanksgiving meal my mother served later that day and the same a year later and the year after that.
I never told her.
Two: James Dean
It’s Thanksgiving, 1979. I’m riding in a taxi heading uptown. On my lap is a pan, still quite warm, filled with mashed sweet potatoes seasoned with cinnamon, vanilla, brown sugar, and butter, with marshmallows melting on top.
I’m staying in New York instead of going home because I have to work on Friday. I’ll visit Baltimore at Christmas time instead.
I’m heading to the apartment of Bobbi and Mark Gordon, who are the virtual mom and dad of our playwriting workshop—The New York Writers Bloc. It’s been going for just over a year. Most of us in the group are in our twenties and early thirties and we look to Mark and Bobbi for reassurance that there’s a point to all this striving. They have managed to live as theatre people for quite a while, while maintaining a positive outlook.
They’re a remarkable couple, truly devoted to one another. Mark is this mellow guy, always seems content with the world, and a fine actor. Bobbi, well, Bobbi doesn’t act for a living anymore but she’s a phenomenal performer in our weekly script readings. She’s one of those rare people who just seems to love absolutely everyone she comes in contact with. Her normal greeting is “HEL-lo, my darling, tell me how you are.” And you do, because she surrounds you with her aura.
As the Bloc is in its infancy, the notion of having a potluck Thanksgiving together evolved readily. Bobbi is roasting the turkey and while she labors in the kitchen, Mark is mixing up a big batch of Manhattans for all. The rest of us are bringing side dishes. I know my dish is pretty basic but it’s all I could think of; as the cab careens uptown the aroma is making me high and hungry.
We gather in their living room. It’s an old-time New York apartment: a little darkish until the late afternoon sun lowers itself over Jersey. There are many rooms with high ceilings, each filled with family photos accompanied by shots of both hosts acting in theater, films, and commercials. They have been friends of Woody Allen for most of their lives, so there’s Mark in Take the Money and Run and Sleeper. He also did a lot of network TV in the 70s, including a soap. My favorite, though, is Mark as Chuckles the Clown on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Mark’s Manhattans loosen everyone up very quickly; we’re chatty as a flock of parrots. The founding concept for the Bloc is that it would incorporate actors and directors, rather than being limited to playwrights. This has helped us talk about the plays being worked on as performance pieces, not literature, as has been the case in playwright-only groups too often. It has also created significant bonding across the disciplines. Our Monday night workshop meetings feel more like family gatherings, much of that due to our mama and papa. It’s a hard city out there, an unwelcoming world in the theatre and we cling to one another, sometimes just barely safe from going under.
The time comes to eat and we queue up. There’s all the dishes arranged around the golden turkey: mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, a tossed salad. Oh, and the sweet potato dish, which gets more takers than I’d imagined; I’m very relieved not to be uncool. Mark does the carving with great flair and we settle into the business of consuming hillocks of food.
During dinner, the talking goes on without interruption. It’s a mix of what we’re doing in “the business” at the moment—and hope to do—and what we might be doing with family on this day. Everyone is groaning or laughing over being trapped at one gathering or another around a holiday table. It’s good to be relieved of familial duty for one year.
After dinner is cleared away and dishes done, one of the women comes rushing into the room with two photos.
“I had to show these to everyone. I saw these in your study, I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not, my darling,” Bobbi says.
We clamber to look. Both are of Bobbi, back in her 20s. In the first, it’s just her lounging on a sofa, cigarette in one hand, dressed all in black like the quintessential beatnik girlfriend, sexy as hell. It’s a truly stunning photo. She’s an attractive woman now in her early 50s but back then? Wow.
But the second photo is something else entirely, far beyond just the recognition that Bobbi was once an exceptionally beautiful young woman. She’s in a black one-piece bathing suit, on a beach, teasingly biting the extended finger of a young guy. But, um, it’s a young guy who kind of looks like, kind of—is that, no, really, it can’t be; it’s JAMES DEAN?
We all go nuts.
Everybody turns to Bobbi, settling in like kids in jammies, dying to hear the stories.
Bobbi—back then Barbara Glenn—tells us about being Dean’s girlfriend, of their tempestuous time together, full of break-ups and reconciliations. How he hated a Broadway show he was in but once he got great reviews for the role immediately took off to make movies. How he criticized her in a letter for “selling out cheap” because she was doing a swimsuit photo shoot.
“So he broke it off with you to do a film?” someone asks.
“Oh, no, I was the one; I’d fallen madly in love with someone else.”
Bobbi just points across the room. Holy cow: Mark. Mark took Bobbi away from James freaking Dean. He grows ten feet tall before our eyes.
The last thing she tells us leaves such an impression on me that I eventually write a one-act play about it. When James Dean died, Bobbi’s phone rang off the hook and reporters came pounding on her door, dying to get hold of the letters he’d written to her. People were offering hundreds of dollars for them.
“I never sold them,” she says and that’s where she ends her stories.
When I leave, my mind is a bit blown. I’d come in contact with a lot of famous people through a previous job at the Actors Studio, some of them legendary like Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Penn. But this is different. This is someone we know well and love, who was a friend and lover with, who knew the bad breath of, the ups and downs of. This has somehow made Dean, who is a sort of infinite icon, into just a guy who had difficulties with relationships and couldn’t hold on to a woman like Bobbi. He was just a person. Somehow, it makes it possible for me to believe that however flawed we may be as people, the chance we can succeed at what we love is greater than I ever thought before.
It’s a cold day. I decide to walk down Broadway for a while, maybe to Lincoln Center. The buildings feel close as I go, not just vertical and indifferent now, but sheltering and alive and warm.
Michael Wright is a playwright, poet, fiction writer, journalist, performance artist, and stage director. His novel Down the Ocean: Summer of ’64 will be available on Amazon beginning December 15th. His poems, plays, and fiction have appeared in such productions and publications as Triple Feature (Heller Theatre), This Land (Tulsa), The Tulsa Voice, The Vineyard Theatre (NYC), Moondance Film Festival, The National Audio Theatre Festival, among others. His books on writing for performance include Playwriting in Process, Playwriting Master Class and Sensory Writing for Stage and Screen. He is a member of The Dramatists Guild and PEN America. http://michaelplaywright.blogspot.com/