The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Long and Wandering Postmortem

I always advised composition students to focus on a single subject in their essays. But in this long post, I ignore my own advice. I'm really all over the place--music, family, play directing, a specific play, William Gillette, set design, a theater tech issue, incidental music, and even a tornado. I hope I don't lose you along the way.

I've enjoyed music all my life, but early on I wasn't exposed to much of it. A couple of my aunts played the piano really well, but my immediate family was not musical; we never had a record player and the only radio was in the bedroom I shared with my brother. In church, Mom and Dad and my brother and I held the hymnals and mouthed the words but never sang.

When I married, that changed. Joyce was from a very musical family and when we got together she broadened and improved my narrow and restricted musical tastes considerably.

Later, I directed several plays at the college where I worked and one of the things I enjoyed the most was selecting incidental music for the performances.

The last play I directed was Postmortem by Ken Ludwig; this mystery drama was set in the early '20s. It was a really fun play to work on and had as its central character the great American actor William Gillette, who brought Sherlock Holmes (with Sir Conan Doyle's blessing and encouragement) to vibrant and exciting life on the world stage.

William Gillette had a most interesting life and you can read all about him in Wiki. From his inventions and work in theater he made a fortune which allowed him to build a castle-like mansion in Hadlyme, CT.

The play by Ludwig, Postmortem, is set in Gillette's elaborate castle which had 24 rooms. On the grounds, the actor built a three mile miniature railway. The place was first turned into an amusement park after Gillette's death, but after a +$10 million upgrade by the state in 2002, it became a state park which entertains about 100,000 visitors annually.

Our version of Postmortem was performed in the spring of 1991. That's our student designed and produced program in my shadowy pic to the left.

Below is an equally dark photo of a ground plan of the set for our production. Unfortunately, I haven't yet located my 3D sketches of the set, nor have I been able to find any pics of the completed set. I always started with a 3D drawing and then eventually worked out a ground plan (see below).

You will notice from the ground plan drawing that our theater had a serious design flaw. (I use the past tense here because the building that housed the theater was almost destroyed in the tornado of 2006.) The proscenium was extremely wide and the stage was not very deep. It was 40' across and only 12' from the curtain line (the dotted line) to the back wall (the top edge of the drawing above). If you wanted a closed curtain to hide something on the set, it couldn't be placed in front or downstage of that line.

I always used a cleaned up version of the ground plan to draw out complex blocking maneuvers for the actors. The numbers on this drawing are numbers of flats that we had in our store room which could be repainted and used in the production. Of course we always had to build a few new flats to fit the special requirements of each production.

The set was quite elaborate for our little 400 seat theater and had several levels and exits. There were also  some special and technical effects in Ludwig's play that involved a seance and a ghostly apparition.

Unfortunately, on opening night we had some difficulty with one of those effects, for which I take responsibility. I had assigned a first time tech guy to the catwalk projector. He got the jitters, forgot to check out the projector which didn't come on during the performance. I should have caught this during our tech check in the hour before the audience arrived. But I didn't.

Anyway, if you can roll with such misfortunes (which are a natural part of live theater), they're usually not as bad as they seem to be on the surface. I always tried to coach student actors and production workers to keep focused and continue. We're learning and we're having fun. Mistakes sometimes happen. Keep your wits about you, keep things moving, and the audience probably won't even notice. 

Everything else worked opening night, and, thanks to some quick thinking on the part of our leading man and leading lady who covered the lapse with improvised dialogue,  I don't think the audience noticed.

Now...about that music. Incidental music is used in different ways in a production. Played for 15 minutes as the audience enters the theater, it can set the mood before the curtain opens. Used between scenes and or acts, it can underscore a theme or emotion or provide transitions. At the end during curtain calls and as the audience is leaving the theater, the music can remind the audience of what was important. In a couple of instances I linked my musical choices to specific characters and let the actors know that the song in question was their "theme" song. They got a kick out of that.

Postmortem was set in 1922 and so locating music was difficult (remember, our production was mounted in 1991, right before A. Gore invented the internet).With limited funds and time, I was able to find some albums with a few early '20s tunes and then cheated just a bit on the rest.

I discovered I liked this old music and it made me realize that a person who sticks only to his own time period for popular music, will miss out on a lot of good stuff.

A few of the songs we used were Paul Whiteman's "Whispering," 1920; Whiteman's "Lonely Melody,"1928; Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin,'" 1929; and this great tune from 1928, sung by "the voice of the Southland" Gene Austin, "My Blue Heaven."
In 1928, "My Blue Heaven" became a huge hit on Victor 20964-A for crooner Gene Austin, accompanied by the VictorOrchestra as directed by Nat Shilkret; it charted for 26 weeks, stayed at #1 for 13, and sold over five million copies becoming one of the best selling singles of all time.[3]
Bing Crosby (whose "White Christmas" broke that best selling singles record years later) was an early admirer of Austin and gave him credit for inspiring his career. If you have time read the wiki entry on Austin--as one of the first "crooners" he had quite a career himself.

Finally here's an artist from that era I did not include in my incidental music selections for Postmortem because I didn't know about him--Russ Columbo. Wiki says Columbo
was an American singer, violinist and actor, most famous for his signature tune "You Call It Madness, But I Call It Love", his compositions "Prisoner of Love" and "Too Beautiful For Words", and the legend surrounding his early death.
Columbo died in an accidental shooting. A friend was playing around with an antique gun, pulling and releasing the hammer and fiddling with a match at the same time. Somehow the match got beneath the hammer just as it fell. It ignited and an old forgotten ball was discharged into Austin's head. He died several hours later.

One of the tunes I like by Columbo is this one, which became Bing Crosby's signature song...

Too bad Gore hadn't invented the internet before '91, because had I known about Columbo's version of this song, I would definitely have put it in the Postmortem playlist.


  1. A most interesting post, Dan. I had no idea you were an impresario! (so to speak)

    I have my parents to thank for my love of music. While neither my Mom nor my Dad played an instrument or sang they had a very extensive record collection that stretched back to my Mom's high school days. So I hear you loud and clear about "limiting yourself" when it comes to a particular genre of music's "time." Mom also was the first person who exposed me to classical music and I owe her a LOT for that.

    You were very fortunate... in many, many ways... to have Joyce come into your life. I think I'm feeling a tinge o' green coming on. ;-)

  2. Ipresario....heh. We did about 20 plays during our educational careers. Joyce was usually state manager and set decorator and I directed. They were fun but involved much planning, lots of hard work and long hours. We also learned that even at that level, there are Divas. Or at least wannabe Divas!

    And what you say about Joyce is true. I am indeed fortunate.