the first of May that year, 1971, Dale called from San Francisco
saying he had gotten us a great opportunity! Russell rolled his
eyes, of course, and would later say, many times, “every time we’ve
ever gotten a call from Dale ...” and generally mutter “...it’s been
a !%*¡ª/@#**,” or something like that.
seems Dale was acting in a theater downtown, getting paid, and as
the current show was about to close, he had talked with the producer
and told him about the great theater company he had up in Seattle,
all ready to come down to San Francisco with there enormous hit,
“The Dr. W.C. Waterhorney Traveling Medicine Show,” and that the
producer would be a fool not to grab this exciting new act now!
here’s the other side of the story: it seems this producer was a
soft-core porno guy named Hank Donnig, the man behind Carol Doda, of
breakthrough topless fame in North Beach, and had been experimenting
with a sort of X-rated theater, I guess to compliment his topless
acts then in the skids from being old hat. He had been rather
successful with a piece called “Geese” with Carol Doda and Charles
Pierce (of all!), and had followed that with a truly rotten piece
about “sex counselors” who give couples hands-on advice while the
audience watched, or something like that. Well, Dale somehow got
the part of the sex counselor, with his dirty-old-man imitation, and
was very much enjoying the theater again.
Hank Donnig somehow agreed that W.C. Waterhorney would be just the
thing to follow his other shows. I think he was getting
disillusioned with the theater or at least tired of such laborious
projects and was ready for anything that he didn’t have to do. And,
according to Dale, the show was all rehearsed and ready to go.
Dale had explained that Dr. W.C. Waterhorney was played by the
marvelously talented Billy King, a rolly, naughty, modern W.C.
Fields. This kind of thing is just what Billy loved to hear and,
though the rest of our group couldn’t see it in their interest to
accompany us, we finally headed south with Billy and his wife, Olga,
myself and Russell, still rolling his eyes, I tell you.
all went down, on the bus, I think, to San Francisco and crashed
around in friends houses and began to work on the show.
Encore Theater, we found, was a basement space under a big movie
theater right downtown on Union a half-block from Geary Street and
the three or four legitimate theaters of which San Francisco
boasts. In a sort of dark and creepy environment, we met the
producer, Hank Donnig, a kinda young, sleazy guy who wanted to see
what we had. Well, we pulled out a couple of our old skits, the
Chicken and the Egg, for example, and a few scenes from the Cowboy
Story and he wasn’t very impressed but Dale and a few hangers-on
were rolling in the aisles with laughter. Dale was always good at
that. He had also convinced Hank that Hank really knew very little
about the theater but that he, Dale, knew all about it and could
spot a hit. So, Hank left us alone and Dale said OK, let’s get this
show on the road!
announced try-outs to fill out the cast a bit and got a few actors
and actresses who came into the show not really understanding much
about our style of working or sense of humor (one, a stunning woman,
would drop out before the show opened; “I’m sorry,” she would say).
The show would be a series of skits based on nothing really, except
held together by the fabulously funny master of ceremonies, Dr. W.C.
Waterhorney, Billy King himself.
Thinking himself a real theater producer now, Hank contacted the
biggest publicity agency in town, run by an experienced older
couple, and turned Dale loose on them. They were getting paid well,
no doubt, and fed back all the same enthusiasm for the piece as Dale
and assured us that, with their help, we had a huge hit on our
hands. They would run big ads in all the papers and we would get a
lot of publicity.
show slowly took shape, or rather didn’t take much shape, with only
some silly excerpts from out previous hits, The Gangster Story,
Dimples, and Cowboy Bob. A tall, lanky, long-haired hippie named
Terry MacDonald came on board and got a bunch of Bob Galleger’s parts.
He was a great guy who would be with us for a long time. Dale added
a sacarine little piece which was supposed to be the semi-sweet
counterpoint to all the rest of the hilarity. I don’t really
recontacted our friends Ed and Alma Weingold up at the Julian
Theater and they had come around a few times. Dale felt we needed
some live audiences to judge our reactions by (Boy, did we!) and so
Ed and Alma started bringing around some friends, one, a great girl
and laugher, Marge Rooney, whom Alma had known in the theater back
east, their friends David De Montluzin and Maria Scattuccio.
Somehow our ridiculous humor was right up their alley and they
screamed at all our antics.
opening neared. Russell and Olga got their picture on the cover of
the Chronicle’s Datebook section and we were told all the critics
had been invited and tickets were being sold!
night was June 17th and packed, especially with our
friends all comped and the general excitement. The agency couple
were fluttering about and seats on the aisle were taken by all the
city’s big critics.
King started with his terrible raw-egg-juggling act, which actually
got egg on some of the audience and all the big critics walked out
after ten minutes. About half the rest of the house would leave
before the end, but our new friends, Marge, Maria, David, Alma and
others laughed and screamed all the way.
next day, all the reviews were terrible. Some called it the worst
show to hit San Francisco EVER. The show was canceled immediately
and Billy and Olga flew back to Seattle, Dale went to Los Angeles,
and Russell and I looked at each other and said “Now what?”
it seems Russell had gotten a little friendly with Hank, the
producer, and, of course, Hank had this empty theater on his hands
(he probably had some kind of lease he couldn’t get out of), so
Russell says, well, the thing he, Russell, really was best at was
booking wildly popular bands into clubs and making lots of money.
even had us out on his boat on the bay one day, a small sort of
thing and a stunning young woman Hank kept around named Venessa and
we all went out and talked about how to make the Encore a really
happening place! So Hank said, go for it guys.
of course, Russell knew no wildly famous bands nor how to contact
them. He did manage a few high school groups from Laffayette and
Walnut Creek who thought it was cool to play in the city, even in a
dump like the Encore. Once we had Sopwith Camel, but that was the
extent of our famous bands. A local, that is Tenderloin, improv
theater group directed by a real weirdo named Monty Pyle did this
kind of slice-of-low-life, endless piece, to very small houses and
sort of took over the space for a short run; the dark, dank basement
was much to their liking.
MacDonald hung around and helped out and then Hank had also brought in a
ticket girl for the box office, one of the girls he had worked with
in North Beach for a long time. Her name was Joy Phipps and at one
point a few years back, Hank had tried a new gimmick to get around
the nudity laws; he covering the naked Joy with paint and had her
roll across a canvas, thereby making “art.” She was billed as Joy
the Living Brush and had a short dalliance with fame, her
picture was on the cover of LOOK magazine (BELOW) and I think Hugh Hefner
bought one of the paintings. Anyway, she was now our ticket girl
and somehow found us hilarious. We soon recruited her into our
see, to keep our wits about us and something to do, we would produce
a few silly, short skits and living tableaus to go between the acts
which Russell was booking.
during the show or intermissions, off on the side of the stage, we
would have a tableau on view, sometimes with a little peephole for
the viewer to look through. We had started the idea out with a
silly piece called “Locker Room Follies” (I would use that
brilliant title several times again), in which the viewers, through
a row of five simultaneous peepholes, saw the TEAM returning from
the FIELD and STRIP down NAKED, until it is discovered that ONE of
the team is a GIRL and they all SCREAM and run off CHASING her.
Then we would cover the peepholes and line up fife more viewers and
do the whole thing again. And again and again.
particularly eerie tableau was called “Sweet Hour of Prayer” and the
viewer had to poke his head into a little slot; there he came face
to face with a bloody killer (Terry) with upraised dripping knife
about to be plunged for the second time into the bleeding heart of
an old lady (Joy) stabbed while reading her now blood-splattered
Bible. That kind of thing.
Upstairs, at street level, the box office opened into a small white
room before the stairs down into the theater, which we filled with
art shows from time to time. We would let anybody show their work,
of course, and one guy came with a very large (about eight feet!),
polyfoam sculpture of a turd, and quite realistically done, brown
and bubbly, you know, I think he was one of Monty Pyle’s group.
Well, we never saw the artist again, but he left us the sculpture,
which we had for years.
sculpture inspired, in fact, one of our most, well, memorable
tableaus. It was called “Flies on Shit” and featured Terry and I
dressed up like flies, black leotards, fly masks, socks on our hands,
and climbing over the turd and licking it and above on a ladder,
Russell squatting with his pants down and his ass toward the
audience, like he’d just taken this huge dump. We decided to do it
during the intermission of one of our teeny-bopper band concerts.
The scene was set up sort of next to the stage, on audience level
and Vanessa, for some reason, was there and at the intermission of
this high school band the announcer announced a “living tableau by
the AAA Acting Company --- ‘Flies on Shit’.” The lights came up on
the beautiful Vanessa, in a skimpy outfit and the audience hooted
and whistled as she slowly drew back the curtains on our scene. The
young sort of family, teen audience from Walnut Creek let out a
silent gasp, then scream and the audience, especially the young
girls, on dates and such, did not take to it at all and half walked
out right then. The band was pissed, let me tell you.
month of July passed like that and having a great time in the dark
bowels of the theater, drinking cheap wine in gallon jugs and taking
odd jobs like Terry and I hosing off awnings of nearby stores in
exchange for booze.
was a doomed adventure, and soon Hank cancelled the whole thing and
we found ourselves without a theater and Russell and I moved into a
big old Victorian in Noe Valley where John Counter happened to be
living, it belonged to his parents. The place had a nice back yard
and a big garage/basement, which was perfect for rehearsals. So,
soon we dusted off “Pals of the Saddle” with Terry in Bob’s role,
and Joy in Olga’s and hawked it around North Beach. We would do it
for free, of course, just pass the hat after the show and so we were
soon performing at the Coffee House on Broadway, and, occasionally
up at the Julian on Potrero Hill, and again having the time of our
came up a new piece. We wanted to stage something like our
“20-minute spectaculars” that we had done in Seattle, with music and
silly singing and dancing and lewd innuendoes, that we could play
around in some coffee shops and such. We set it in the Bay Area, a
spoof of those 50's sci-fi pix and called it “The Triple-Dick
Monster from Outer Space” with a very graphic poster, of course,
about a monster from outer space who has three dicks and lands in
Piedmont and is the last of his species, and whose mission is to
mate with as many young high schools girls as possible, his anatomy,
of course, allowing him to impregnate three at once. Terry would
play the monster.
the show was ready for an audience and we invited our usual bunch of
friends to preview it in our basement and everyone got very stoned.
Well, the ceiling in the basement was a little too low for the big
monster costume we had made and Terry was having a hard time, always
hitting his head on the rafters and then too, he had some problem
with his pants, his actual pants under the costume, which kept
coming undone and would fall down. For some reason he didn’t have
underpants on and it was hard holding up his pants and working the
three dicks and saying lines at the same time. It was a sight and
our audience thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.
Alma said we should call it the Quadruple Dick Monster.
played it around North Beach during the Fall of ‘71 and further
enhanced our reputation.
* * *
the end of the year Dale was back in town, I guess, the past faded
sufficiently to show his face again and we got the idea to do a
Gertrude Stein and try to interest the Julian Theater. I had always
liked a piece called “Turkey and Bones and Eating and We Liked It”
and so we cast Dale, Joy, Terry, me, a couple others, and Russell as
Gertrude Stein playing the piano and narrating the piece directly to
the audience. Dale also played the silent role of Alice B. Toklas
sitting with Gertrude at the piano during the interludes and eating
brownies. Well, the whole thing was very obtuse and strange but
with some great scenes, like Dale as Mark Anthony and me as Cleopatra
watching “our son” partaking in the military games with the
soldiers. That kind of thing.
In another scene I
played "William," the young innocent whom Dale seduces with the sins
of gambling and smoking. He was always good at the dirty, old
the Julian people didn’t know what to make of it, but we had a good
house and a growing bunch of our friends who were into our kind of
humor and the piece went over very well.
most memorable, to us, part of the evening, though, was our opening
act. With the play running only about forty-five minutes, we had
asked around if anybody knew a musician or somebody who could open
for us and kind of pad out the evening into a full show, if you know
what I mean. Well, somebody said they had this good singer who
could come, so we said OK. Well, it turned out to be Maria
Scatuccio, whom we had met briefly, friend of Alma’s and Marge’s.
She loved our piece and we loved her singing and we would go on to
become long and best of friends.
* * *
was the spring of 1972 and we were having a great time and being
hippies. John Counter had moved back to Seattle and Russell and I
stayed in the big old Victorian on Vicksburg Street in Noe Valley,
long before the area all became cute, you know? And rehearsing in
the basement and playing around town in our silly shows. We were
Joy, Terry, Dale, Russell, me and a couple hangers-on as usual.
We loved the little back yard and hung out smoking pot and planting
flowers. Charlie liked it, of course, up and down the stairs
all day long. I painted a little watercolor looking out the
My dad had given me an old 50's GMC pick-up truck which had been on
the farm for just ever and we tooled around San Francisco in it,
first picking up some hauling jobs and then putting an ad in the
paper to do gardening. The ad said, "I can make anything grow.
Bill" Well, the double-entendre worked to our advantage in San
Francisco, of course, and soon we had a nice few little jobs.
* * *
Meanwhile, Ed Wiengold from the Julian Theater and his wife Alma were
planning to go back east for the summer to work stock, which they
had done several times before. Ed was hired as general manager of
the Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, Connecticut, of which I’d never
heard, and Alma as actress. So he started talking to Russell about
a job in publicity during the summer, an area in which we’d always
been strong. Then he mentioned that they needed a costume designer
and pretty soon it was arranged that I would be costumer and we
would all go to Connecticut!
the old ‘50 GMC pick-up and, of course, our
dog, Charlie. Totally broke, we decided to drive the pick-up across
country, with Charlie, starting plenty early and going slow and
enjoying seeing the countryside. Remember, this is 1972 and we were
packed up the truck and nailed a couple of antique tin “Hires Root
Beer” signs onto the sides and headed out to my Dad’s ranch in
Fresno as a first stop. It sure was a long way! There in the barn
we changed the oil and lubed the thing as best we could, my dad sort
of shaking his head and wishing us luck. We saw from coming to
Fresno that the freeway was going to be difficult for us; we were
going so much slower that the traffic. So, when we finally departed
we took the back roads all the way. Through Sanger, Centerville,
Reedly, Dinuba, Visallia, and on past Bakersfield. I felt I was
passing through my old life, remembering the hundreds, thousands of
hours on slow old school buses carrying me to school and back
through these same old roads. I think we got about half way to Los
Angeles the first night and, trying our procedure planned for the
whole trip, we pulled off the road at a wide spot and bedded down in
the back with Charlie at our feet.
next morning we rose early and looked out on the California road and
studied our map. Golly, we had come a short way! And golly, were
we tired and sore and dirty and hungry! But we fired up the Jimmy
and headed slowly on our way East.
a wonderful trip, really, May and Spring in the desert, and the
truck ran well. It was a steady ol’ boy. Charlie rode in front
with us and loved the scenery going by. Sometimes we would take
turns having a nap in the back while the other drove, and about
every three or four nights we’d treat our selves to a little motel
and showers and sheets.
always on back roads and, therefore, stopping in little back-road
gas stations, where the country attendants would talk and idle away
the time. “How far you goin’ with that thing?” they would ask,
pointing to the truck, seeing our California plates.
“Connecticut!” we would answer.
you ain’t,” they would comment with a chuckle, especially at the
first. The farther and farther we went, however, they began to change their
come all the way from California in that?” they would ask, looking
at our plates, and our
proud grins got broader as we traveled across they big, wide
Now Sharon, Connecticut,
is one of those adorable little New England villages you see on
greeting cards and ads for things like White Christmas and such,
nestled into the rolling hills in the upper part of the state not
far from the borders with New York and Massachusetts and just like
lots of others we would see around there that summer. All the lawns
and bushes were always neatly trimmed and the houses painted white
and little bronze “darkies” on the front steps to hold your, I
guess, reigns. And all the houses had these little stuck-on, green
painted shutters. I would later come to see these shutters as a
metaphor for the town and the area and the people there. The
shutters would be open, and in would come light and friends and the
people just loved you to come visit and be so sweet. And then the
shutters could be closed. And you would not be welcome. And the
people would not be sweet and welcoming. And the shutters would be
We had come to the
theater, to do summer stock, to stay for the summer and only the
summer. The townspeople were welcoming and just loved us and our
work in their cute little summer theater, and they would accept our
long-haired ways and hippie looks and think we were just so cute and
so talented for their cute little theater. And then we would be
Ed had made
arrangements for us to stay in the little guest house of a nice
family who lived about five miles out into the woods. It was a cute
little place and we drove the poor old truck back and forth about
three times a day. It was completely surrounded by woods and fields
and Charlie loved it, of course. The first day he ran out into the
wilds and didn’t come back for the whole day. When he finally
staggered back to our little cabin, he was limping something
fierce. We examined his paws and they were swelled up with blisters
on every pad. He had to lay on the floor for three days. The poor
little guy had run his feet off!
The theater was in a
big, old converted barn and in the adjoining shed was housed our
costume shop and collection of clothes. I was planned to design, I
think, eight of the ten shows. The two others were to be designed
by another person from the area and we would overlap our working for
several weeks. Turns out he was this old queen, who had done lots
of shows there and the first thing he did was fill the costume
room’s sink with ice and set up a complete martini bar.
“Drink up!” he
proclaimed. We had a good time.
So, Russell and Ed were
across the street in the offices of the theater and I was around it
all and enjoying the work. It was a ten-week season, through the
summer, with a different show each week, and this year called “Ten
Decades of American Theater” (!). With a bunch of old war horses
like “The Great Divide,” “The Front Page,” “End of Summer,” “Dark of
the Moon,” “Light Up the Sky,” “Watch on the Rhine,” “The
Gingerbread Lady,” “The Price,” and “A Touch of the Poet.” Creaky,
at best, you know?
And I also noticed that the theater lobby
was pretty bare, and suggested I could help decorate it a bit. Ed
said, wonderful! And Russell had lots of big glossies of all the
cast members, some fairly big names, too, Olympia Duccacas, and such.
So I made ten big collages of the plays and actors and hung them up
as lobby cards. Russell got a nice big article about me doing
collages for the plays in the local newspapers, and featured the
drama, “Watch on the Rhyne” and featured Alma Becker in the lead.
It was a big, broken swastika and I always liked it. The collages
were all tossed out, of course, but I still have the newspaper
Russell and I had never
been to New York and here we were just a couple hours away, so one
day, Ed and Alma, who had been lots, of course, suggested we motor
down, in their car, thank God, for a visit. We could only go down
one evening and come back that same night. Oh, well.
It was a nice ride and
we were getting excited, and headed for Greenwich Village. As we
pulled off the West Side Highway to the first stop light, a tattered
old bum was standing in the street singing at the top of his lungs,
“…It could happen to you!”
We went into a little
dark coffee house in the Village for a bite to eat and I got a blow
job in the bathroom. I gotta come back here, I thought to myself.
The theater also
employed a big crew of apprentices, well, didn’t pay them, of
course. Like my apprenticeship in Helena, Montana, the apprentices
work for free, for the experience of working in the theater, and for
the credit on their resumès. They also had a tradition of sutting
on “apprentice productions,” usually one performance only on an
afternoon matinee. I convinced Ed to let my direct a silly little
script I had been writing called “Rocket To Mars.” It was perfect
for the apprentices, and we had a great little performance, if sort
of stupid. The script would be dusted off again later for our big,
full-length movie. But that was later, as I say.
So we’re nearing the
end of the summer, when one day Russell comes gasping in to the
costume shop and says “Oh, Bill!”
“Russell, what’s the
He collapsed into a
chair and began to explain. Seems he was at the cabin with the
family and Charlie, of course, and the Grandmother of the family is
visiting and agrees to give Russell a ride into town. They get into
her big long car and she can hardly see over the steering wheel and
starts forward. Then there’s a bump and a painful howl. She’s run
No, she just ran over
his rear end. Well, she feels terrible, of course, and they all
rush Charlie to their local vet and he’s undergoing surgery. She’ll
pay for everything.
We went to the vet.
He’s put a pin (!) in his hip to hold it together and, yes, he’ll be
fine, but he needs a long recuperation. And, no, he can’t walk for,
well some months. Holy Toledo!
So, we have to carry
poor Charlie outside and inside and everywhere but, of course, he’s
always trying to get up and hurting himself and the vet said he must
be completely prone in order to heal, so we finally build this big
chicken-wire cage that just fits in the back of the truck and is
only about a foot high to keep him from getting up and he has to lay
there all the time and look up at us with his big sad eyes and we
finally leave Sharon, Connecticut, for about the longest ride back
to the west coast you can imagine.
* * *