Professor Joe Goldblatt
Theatres throughout the world have been closed for some time and many may never re – open. Just a few weeks ago, a family member told me that the pandemic could actually mean the end of live theatre. I was shocked and quickly reminded him that if theatre remained out of human reach indefinitely, it would still eventually be found and consumed by audiences, regardless of the difficulty or danger of obtaining this priceless gift. Theatre provides lifetime memories.
I had my first exotic and erotic taste of live theatre when I was a young lad of sixteen in my hometown of Dallas, Texas. My folks lived in a neighbourhood that one would not automatically associate with the appreciation or consumption of the fine arts. Pleasant Grove was a lovely place to grow up and the primary entertainment options were the outdoor drive in movies and Friday night high school football games. However, I constantly yearned to somehow participate in live theatre and fortunately, one of my high school teachers provided a life changing gateway for me.
Ann Taylor Reeves was my drama teacher and she was also a local professional actress who had recently appeared in the musical “The Boyfriend” at a relatively new theatre company located in downtown Dallas. Miss Reeves, as we always addressed her, suggested to me “Joe, they need ushers at Theatre Three. Why don’t you go talk to them. You will be able to see all the plays for free.”
I was then introduced to Cheryl Garcia who also lived in my neighbourhood, however, she appeared to be much more sophisticated and had a more worldly aura than many of my other friends in Pleasant Grove. Cheryl invited me to come to Theatre Three on an Sunday afternoon and learn about ushering during a matinee performance of the musical “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!”
Nash Metropolitan Rambler
When I arrived in my Nash Metropolitan Rambler convertible I discovered a very small theatre on Main street in the center of downtown Dallas. The building housing the theatre had previously been a garage where cars were repaired. Upon entering the small lobby I could still smell some of the strong chemicals and fuels used to operate the garage.
Cheryl quickly instructed me in how to arrange the hand written tickets for the audience members to collect and then handed me a raggedy old mop and rusty bucket filled with dark gray dirty water and told me to clean the lobby floor. My first job in a professional theatre involved learning skills in organisation as I carefully arranged the tickets and also presentation as I made the black painted floor gleam in time for the arrival of the audience.
I also learned skills in catering as I was shown how to brew coffee in a large urn and pour soft drinks that would be for sale at the intermission. There was a palpable sense of excitement as the actors began to arrive for the 2pm matinee. In those days there was no stage door and all of the company members entered through the lobby greeting me with a warm hello as they made their way backstage.
The theatre itself was one of the first in the round theatres in the United States and this innovative concept had actually been developed by another theatre maker named Margo Jones. For many years Miss Jones had produced world premieres of plays by authors such as Tennessee Williams in her theatre in the round that was at the State Fair of Texas which was located barely more than a mile away from the present home of its successor, Theatre Three.
Theatre Three had been conceived by Norma Young, Jac Alder, Esther Ragland and Roy Dacup and its first home was in a hotel ballroom. When the garage on Main Street became available they decided to set up a permanent performing space and thanks in large part to Jac’s training as an architect, they could create a bespoke and flexible space for a wide range of live dramatic performances.
Once the invisible curtain finally rose on the production, I heard the magical sounds of a live musical come to life as the small orchestra of four musicians seated upon a raised platform pounded out the melodies and the company began to sing. The notes drifted into the lobby and my imagination soared as I wondered what mysteries were unfolding a few feet from where I was standing.
After the audience had left the theatre, Cheryl invited me to stick around and usher for the evening performance with the incentive “You can watch the show.” I was completely hooked!
That evening as the house lights dimmed to black and the audience shifted in anticipation in their old worn and creaking seats stacked in three rows upon wooden platforms, my eyes widened as I felt the warmth of the theatrical lights and saw for the first time a professional company of players, without any separation between audience and actor, projecting love, laughter and a joi de vivre as I had never known before.
The leading actors, Larry O’Dwyer and Camilla Carr simultaneously shared the deepest of personal secrets with the audience that surrounded them and also exuded that rare quality that theatre has offered since the Greeks, respect, admiration and appreciation for their rare talents in drama, music, dance and poetry.
The strong smells from that era remain with me today as I recall the sweetness of the perfume from one of the actors as she walked by me. Her name at that time was Patsy McClenny whose golden blonde curls and porcelain complexion made my heart beat faster than ever before. Patsy, who would later become the glamourous and well known television and stage actress Morgan Fairchild, played the role of “The Girl” in a musical. I was sixteen and she was eighteen. This may have been my first, not so secret imaginary love affair, and not with a mere girl but with an seductive older woman! Morgan later in her career performed the role of Mrs. Robinson in the stage production of The Graduate.
The blending of aromas in the theatre, as though there were ever so many different climate zones that seamlessly blended tobether to create a rich stew of dramatic intrigue and intensity. From the front sidewalk I could smell the matches being struck to light the cigarettes of the audience members and inside the lobby the smell of the strong coffee being brewed and as one made their way backstage the aroma of the makeup and powders being applied by the actors and occassionally the pungent smell of the back up sewage drain left over from the old days of the garage.
It seemed appropriate to me that a place where manual labour had been the focus of the work as cars were repaired would become a home for live theatre. Theatre is indeed about work and it is also about using the language of the author, the creativity of the actors and the engagement of the audience to repair the world one theatrical beat at a time. Over the many years that I watched the invisible curtain rise at Theatre Three, my young heart began to beat in time and at once with them with the music, the words, the costumes and scenery and much more that I came to cherish in this small playhouse. This is where my first dreams of a life in events management were carefully nurtured.
Current Home of Theatre Three
Soon, a larger theatre was required for this successful company and the players said adieu to their precious home on Main Street. I stood next to the orchestra during the closing performance of “The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd” as the company sang directly to the audience these lyrics from “Sweet Beginning”…
This, my friend, is only the beginning –
Such a sweet beginning, too.
Now, at last, I see a chance of winning –
See a chance of breaking through.
Once more my heart soared as I witnessed and felt the umbillical cord between audience and actor pumping a life giving force filled with both memory and hope that would promote new growth despite momentary separation.
Nearly fifty years later, I read the autobiography of the composer of “Stop the World…” and “Roar of the Greasepaint…” and wrote to the composer, Mr. Leslie Briccuse and told him how I had been mesmerised by the performances of his music by Larry O’Dwyer, Camilla Carr and their fellow company members. I also told him that his song “Sweet Beginnings” had enjoyed a particular poignancy when Theatre Three performed in their little shop on Main Street for the final time. He graciously thanked me for my memory and wrote back to me the closing lines of his song “Sweet Beginnings”…
So, my friend, let’s send the old world spinning;
Change is what I recommend.
Come on, my friend, let’s see this sweet beginning
Through to the bitter end!
Through to the bitter end!
As our theatres now struggle to survive and re – open, I believe it is important, now, perhaps more than any time in recent history to remember that sacred memories such as these are crafted by great dramatists, directors and actors and we must recommit to insuring that the birthplace for these memories is not only cherished but also cared for with the same fervor and love we would provide for our own childhood homes. After all, these memories continue to roar throughout our lives and indeed, this is only the beginning.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is the author, co – author and editor of 38 books in the field of events management. He is emeritus professor of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. And he was an usher at Theatre Three in Dallas, Texas for many years. Many thanks to the talented artist and poet, Caley O’Dwyer Feagin, for inspiring me to share these memories. If you would like to join me in supporting live theatre, join me in making a gift to Theatre Three at https://www.theatre3dallas.com/support/