August 8, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
This is amended from when first posted 8/8/16:
“So it’s really happening,” smiled Willie, the guy with the whitest teeth I’d ever seen. “Pretty hard to believe.”
“There was never going to be any other outcome,” Nancy snorted, which she did a lot. Then she crushed her cigarette out on a paper plate and sighed, “What I’m surprised at is that it took so long.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. No one at the lunch table was looking at the bigger picture. Didn’t they realize we all had a personal stake in this?
I held up the headline that was lying on the table right in front of them; the front page of the New York Post which read: “Nixon Quits Tonight. Addresses Nation at 9.” They looked at me strangely, wondering why I was making them look at it again. I said, “Guys, curtain’s at 8:30. Are we doing the show tonight, or what?”
It was around noon time August 8, 1974, and I was talking with an actor and actress who I was spending the summer with, among a larger group of thirty or so, performing two-week summer stock. It was forty-five years ago and the summer I turned seventeen. We were all students hanging out in Plymouth, Massachusetts at what was then a one-hundred-year old barn, that had been a theatre staple in the community since 1937. Most in the company were either in or had just graduated college. I was by far the youngest of the group. I actually had to return to high school at the end of the month, something I was really not looking forward to.
That evening, we were set to perform Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, the summer’s fourth show. Due to the Nixon news, it wasn’t surprising people were calling in all day to cancel their tickets. The President resigning on a live broadcast (in the days before anyone owned a recording device or streamed) was must-see TV for sure.
“Fifteen minutes to places,” shouted our stage manager, the nicest person on the campus. We were down in the basement of the old farmhouse getting into make-up. At least I was, in my feeble attempt to look as much like a forty-year-old as humanly possible, an impossible task. The stocky actor playing one of the poker players, took a sip of black coffee and sighed. “Fifteen minutes and fifteen people. Somebody tell me again why are we doing this?”
“This is crazy!”, said the high-strung actor playing Felix. “Somebody already asked an usher if we were stopping the show at nine o’clock to listen to Nixon’s speech. Another guy brought in a transistor radio. Where’s Philip? We gotta cancel.” At the sound of his name, our fearless leader stuck his head in the dressing room and said, “Don’t have a fit, we’re canceling. There are only 7 people out front. Equity rules state that if the cast outnumbers the audience you don’t have to do the show.”
“We’re not Equity,” I pointed out.
The boss shot me a look. He left and I started smearing my face with cold cream. While taking off my make-up, I loudly suggested that we all watch the speech together — in the theatre. “We put a television on the stage and sit in the audience,” I said. “We’ll make it into a show.”
So it came to pass that at 8:55 p.m. the entire staff nestled into the first three rows. A twelve inch Philco black and white T.V. was placed stage center on a hassock that was being used as part of The Odd Couple set. Joints were passed back and forth. Wine flowed. And why not? According to Walter Cronkite’s intro this was an historic occasion.
When the rumbly, tremulous voice of Nixon began everyone booed. “I have never been a quitter,” he intoned, only to be shouted down by “till now” from all in attendance — and in perfect unison.
The slightly surreal scene was phenomenally beautiful to me even though Nixon was refusing any accountability. If he would only just… nah, that was never going to happen. No way.
As Nixon droned on, it started to become painful watching him worm his way out of the humiliating situation he had brought upon himself. It was awful, really, when you came right down to it. And as the speech continued, I almost began feeling sorry for the disgraced soon-to-be-ex-President.
No, that’s not true. But the entire rest of the story is.
And where will I be tonight on the anniversary of this occasion? At the Priscilla Beach Theatre. No, really. That’s true, too. I’ve directed a production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that opened last week (appropriate title marking this anniversary, now that I think of it). So if you’re in the neighborhood of Plymouth Massachusetts, stop in. It’s playing through August 17th.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions, at Ron@ronfassler.org.