Close Encounters of the Nice Kind

PART 1

In 1972, my husband Bill and I and our friend John Hennen pooled our meager resources, and with the help of numerous friends and family members, we opened the Brooke Hills Playhouse as a summer stock theater in a pre-Civil War apple barn in Brooke Hills Park just outside of Wellsburg, West Virginia. It was a magical summer, and we produced five plays on the barn stage.

That fall after closing up the playhouse for the winter, Bill and I headed to Mt. Vernon, Ohio where he was to produce a musical about the town’s favorite son, Daniel Decatur Emmett. Emmett is not a household name. His contemporary, Stephen Foster from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is much better known, but Emmett is worthy of note.

Both Foster and Emmett were composers. Foster is best remembered for “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Hard Times Come Again No More,” “Camptown Race,” “Old Folks at Home” (“Swanee River”), and “Beautiful Dreamer,” some of the most popular of his 200+ compositions.  Emmett also had quite a few “hits” including “Turkey in the Straw,” “Blue Tail Fly” (also known as “Jimmy Crack Corn”), “Old Dan Tucker,” “The Boatman’s Dance,” and “Dixie.”

n0807-1-72dpiOf course, “Dixie,” Emmett’s mega hit, became the anthem of the Confederacy during and after the Civil War, which is ironic since it was written by a guy from Ohio! Emmett’s other claim to fame is that he is credited with the birth of the minstrel show, wherein the performers wore blackface and performed songs, comic sketches, and dances, a precursor and perhaps the great, great granddaddy of the Broadway musical.

So that is why we were in Mt. Vernon, Ohio in the fall of 1972. Mt. Vernon had a darling, red-brick, opera house with large white pillars outside and a gem of a stage and a house with a horseshoe balcony within.

Some of the townspeople had put together a show about Emmett in the past, but the show had never caught on. Bill was to hire a playwright, a music arranger/conductor, and a director, and stage several fundraisers to bankroll the resulting production.

Bill’s first fundraiser was to book the Princeton University Triangle Club, a troupe of Princeton students (still all-male in 1972) who produced a musical, student-written review that always ended with the guys performing a kick line in drag for the finale.  (The club, now coed, has been performing since 1890 and touring since 1898. Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josh Logan, and Jimmy Stewart are just a few of the Triangle’s famous alumni.

After the Triangle Show, titled Future Schlock that year, was booked for December, Bill James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_(1939))had the brilliant idea to invite the famous actor Jimmy Stewart to Mt. Vernon to introduce the show and share some of his memories of the shows he was in.

One day I was home alone when the phone rang.

“Hello,” said a slightly familiar voice. “Is this Mrs. Harper?”

“It is,” I said.

“This is Jimmy Stewart,” the voice with its famous intonation and inflection said.

Stunned, “It sure is,” I said, and Mr. Stewart laughed.

“Well, may I speak to Mr. Harper?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Stewart, but Bill isn’t here. He’s out and about doing producer things, I think.” Since this transpired in the pre-cell phone era, I couldn’t do anything.

“Well, yes. Could you give him a message?”

“Sure.  Absolutely. No problem,” I rambled on.

jimmy-stewart-color“Well, it was very nice of him to invite me to Mt. Vernon for the Triangle Show. Being a part of the Triangle Club is still a very fond memory. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten to the age where I just don’t travel much anymore except for work. Please give Mr. Harper my regrets, and let him know that I wish him and Mt. Vernon much success in their production about “Dixie.”

“Yes, I’ll tell him.”

“Well, thank you very much, Mrs. Harper, and goodbye.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Stewart,” I said, “and thank you for calling.”

I hung up the phone and thought, “Holy smoke!  I just talked to the great Jimmy Stewart!” It was so unbelievable. He didn’t have a personal assistant or a secretary call. He called himself! AND I got to talk to him. It was a huge thrill that lingered for days.

Actually, the chat with Jimmy Stewart made up for the “celebrity” that Bill did engage for the Triangle fundraiser. Paul Lynde, an actor, comedian, and TV game show personality (“Hollywood Squares” for 13 years) was born and raised in Mt. Vernon. He was often voted the most-loved person on TV, but that night in December 1972, he was a jerk!

He arrived at the pre-show cocktail party in a red, velvet tuxedo jacket with green, velvet pants. The pants had the added fashion adornment of small, embroidered, red and dark green Christmas trees. It definitely brought attention to him. Unfortunately, he was also drunk and very loud and snarky.  He made a few inane comments at the party, drank some more, and took his seat in the sixth row of the audience next to me, his hostess for the evening, as Bill was busy with the crew and cast of the show.

Lynde sat in the audience and started making loud remarks, such as, “Hey, lady, in front downloadof me!” The lady declined to turn around. “What’s the matter, lady? Are you afraid your face will frighten me?” The audience was shocked or embarrassed and only chuckled a little. “Listen, lady, is that a hat or do you just have a big head?” More embarrassed tittering. “’Cause, if that’s your head, your going to have to remove it.” To no one’s surprise, the lady got up and left, as did her companion, who didn’t say anything, but who did give Lynde a great, nasty look, which had absolutely no effect on the jerk.

Although he was supposed to introduce the production, Bill had the good sense to simply introduce “our guest and favorite son Paul Lynde. Would you stand and wave to your fans, Paul?” Bill went ahead to make a pitch for the show about Daniel Decatur Emmett which would open in the summer. Bill also introduced the evening’s entertainment.

During the first act, Paul Lynde kept up a running commentary and a slew of insults and creepy remarks about the sexuality of some of the cast members. He drank more at intermission and mercifully slept through the second act. At the end of the show, I was tempted not to wake him, but he was supposed to make an appearance at the cast party, so I roused him, and we went to the party where I handed him over to Bill. At the party, Lynde drank some more, made some funny and some embarrassing comments about growing up in Mt. Vernon, and was hustled off to his hotel.

Bill picked him up the next day, drove him to Columbus, and put him on a plane back to California. The Triangle Club moved on to their next gig, and I wrapped myself in the wonderful memory of chatting with one of the nicest, true gentlemen in America, Jimmy Stewart.

(n.b. We left Mt. Vernon in early May 1996. Bill never did get the show about Daniel Decatur Emmett up and running. I’m not sure he even got it written. We didn’t exactly hightail it out of town in the middle of the night, but somehow it felt that way to me.)

PART 2

In 1980, I moved from being a classroom Language Arts teacher to an itinerant, resource teacher of the gifted in the Brooke County, West Virginia schools. At that time I was the first and only gifted teacher (Okay, that should be “teacher of the gifted.”) in the county, and I started with two precious 3rd graders, Natalie Mirasola and Angel Crabtree. The next year saw the addition of more students in higher grades, and eventually, as more students were added to the program, more teachers of the gifted were hired, and I moved up to the high school. I was assigned a nice resource room and instead of pulling students out of classes, I made up programs that I publicized in a monthly newsletter, and the kids signed up for those things they wanted to participate in.

By far the most popular program I ran was a Mentor-for-a-Day thing. The kids told me what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I found someone in that field they could shadow for a day.

I had a lot of kids who wanted to be lawyers, dentists, engineers, or doctors.  When three guys all expressed a desire to be pilots, I wrote to U.S. Air, which had a big presence in Pittsburgh, and the boys were invited up to meet some pilots and to spend some time in a flight simulator. I drove the boys to Pittsburgh, and we had a grand day.

I had a student named April who had a lot of allergies, and she thought she’d like to be an allergist. I paired her up with a doctor and during the day April asked a lot of questions and was allowed to sit in on most of his consultations. All was going well until a woman arrived with some kind of growth on her eyelid. The doctor prepped the eye and proceeded to surgically remove it, and April proceeded to faint!  She came to school the next day and dropped into the resource room to tell me how the mentorship had gone. After telling me what had happened, she said something like, “Well, I know one thing for sure. I’m not going to be a doctor!” We laughed, and she said she was glad she had found that out while in high school instead of med school.

download (2)In the fall of 1985, two students, Leslie Higgins and Carla Lada, said they wanted to be actresses. As a drama major myself (although not an actress), I was thrilled, but the actors and actresses who performed at the summer theatre I ran were chemists, insurance salespersons, accountants, secretaries, steelworkers, reporters, teachers, and anything else that earns one a living. Like me, they had real jobs to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. They did plays in the evenings and on weekends to feed their souls. So the task was to find a professional actress with whom the girls could spend the day.

My son Andrew was four at the time, and one day the two of us were watching Mr. Rogers. Bingo! Lights on! “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” was filmed in Pittsburgh, a mere 40 miles away.

The next day I wrote to Mr. Rogers, explained the Mentor-for-a-Day Program and Leslie and Carla’s request, and asked if the girls could spend a day with Lady Aberlin (actress Betty Aberlin). He wrote back so quickly I couldn’t believe it, telling us they would be filming soon, and that we should come to the KDKA-TV studio on such and such a day and to be there by 8:00 a.m.

On the mentorship day, Andrew (who only knew that we were going to Pittsburgh), Leslie, Carla, and I headed to the studio. When we arrived, we were warmly greeted by one of the producers who invited us to this lavish breakfast buffet, set up for the cast and crew in the lobby outside of the massive sound stage doors.

As we ate, the producer explained how the day would go, and as she was talking, Mr. Rogers himself came out to greet us. Andrew was unusually quiet as Mr. Rogers bent down to shake his hand and say hello. I finally said, “Andrew, do you know who this is?”

“He looks like Mr. Rogers,” Andrew said, “but he’s wearing glasses.” And he was!  I hadn’t even noticed, but Andrew was a true fan.  Mr. Rogers took off his glasses, and Andrew lit up, shook his hand, and said he was glad to meet him–the perfect, little gentleman.

As Mr. Rogers turned to talk to the girls, Andrew wandered over to the large door which was slightly open.  The next thing I knew Andrew was yelling, “MOM, IT’S MAKE BELIEVE!” and he was through those doors like he’d been shot from a cannon.

I looked at the doors, looked back at the producer and Mr. Rogers, and started to dash for Andrew. Mr. Rogers immediately said, in that calm, soothing voice of his, “Let him go. He’s the reason we’re all here.”

“Well, I’ll just make sure he’s okay. Okay?” I said.Mr R green and trolley

“Certainly,” said Mr. Rogers, “but he’ll be fine.”

I went through the doors and walked onto the set for the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Andrew was already down on his knees beside a guy who was working on the trolley.

“Everything okay here?” I asked.

“Yep,” said the guy. “Looks like I finally got an assistant.” Then to Andrew, “What’s your name, Buddy?”

“Andrew.”

“Well, Andrew,” said the guy pointing to his toolkit. “Can you hand me a screwdriver?”

Andrew took a look into the box then looked back at the technician. “Do you want a flat head or Phillips?” he said.

The guy, who had been kneeling, fell back onto his butt, stunned. “How do you know different screwdrivers?” the guy asked.

Andrew didn’t know how to answer, so he looked up at me.

I explained that I ran a summer theatre, and Andrew spent all of his daylight hours with me at the Playhouse. His playpen had been set up in the lobby for the first time when he was just 7 months old. Andrew knew all of the hand tools, and he was eagerly awaiting the day when he’d be allowed to use the power tools.

“A flat head screwdriver, Andrew,” said the tech getting back to the job. “Let’s get this trolley up and running. Mom, he’ll be fine, if there’s something you need to do.”

And I went back to the lobby, wondering if Andrew would get paid scale.

fred_danieltigerEventually, the filming was about to begin. Mr. Rogers, who wrote all the scripts for the shows and all the music, had changed into all black as he would be a puppeteer that day.  The four of us were shown to seats on the set, and Andrew and I stayed for a while before heading across town to the Children’s Museum, one of our favorite places in Pittsburgh.

I don’t remember what all the girls did while during the rest of the day. I know they had a great time as to this day they both count it as one of their fondest memories, as does Andrew, who gave me a little book for Christmas about ten years ago titled, The World According to Mr. Rogers (Important Things to Remember).

On a similar note, when I was teaching, I had a  student who brought her college entrance essay into the resource room for me to look over before she submitted it. The essay’s title was “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Mr. Rogers.” It was a wonderful piece that elicited both tears of laughter and poignancy.

I’m sorry to say I can’t remember who the student was, but after we had done a little editing, I asked if I could copy the essay. A day or so later, I wrote to Mr. Rogers again and enclosed a copy of the essay.  Again, with almost lightning speed, I received a lovely letter to the author from Mr. Rogers praising the essay and thanking us for sending it to him.

With the recent movies and publicity about Mr. Rogers, there’s not much I can say about this wonderful man that hasn’t already been said or written.  I only know that my students, my son, and I were blessed to have met or been touched by this talented, gentle, loving genius.

PART 3

Richard and I married in June 1995, and my son Andrew and I joined Richard and his son Kevin in San Jose, California where Richard was a regional manager for a large paper company. Richard’s other son John was already out of the house and working in Manhattan, but the two families melded into a family of five.

As one of the sponsors of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am Golf Tournament held every February, Richard’s company provided tickets for their customers, and he and I got to go as well. On February 2, 1996, a beautiful, California day, we drove down the coast to the Monterey Peninsula.

We had taken my mom and dad, an avid golfer, down to Pebble Beach when they had visited us in October. That was a quiet day, and we had a lovely lunch in the formal restaurant overlooking the 18th green.

This day in February was hectic as the crowds were large, attracted not only by the pro golfers but also by the celebrities who participate, such as Kevin Costner, Tommy Smothers, Craig T. Nelson, and many others.

The one celebrity who always attracts a large gallery is Bill Murray, who dresses bill-murray-mediumoutrageously (This day he sported plaid plus fours, a striped shirt, checked vest, and a green beret which featured a golf ball, hole, and flag atop it.) and entertains the crowd with a running commentary.

After we arrived at the course, Richard looked up Bill Murray’s tee time. He would be teeing off on the tenth hole at 10:30. We walked over to number 10 (thankfully Richard had played the course and knew where we were going), and Richard suggested that we walk down the fairway to a point near where Richard estimated that Murray would land his tee shot. The tee box was surrounded, and the crowd there was six and eight deep. Down the fairway, Richard picked a spot, and we took our place on the ropes–front row!

Shortly thereafter, Bill Murray approached the tee box, made some crazy comments, much to everyone’s delight, took a practice swing, and let ‘er rip. The ball headed our way, and landed in the right rough four feet in front of me! Could Richard pick a place or what?

Murray walked down the fairway and headed toward his ball and us. When he got to his ball, I said, “Happy Ground Hog Day, Bill.”

Bill Murray golfBill Murray looked at me and said, “Thank you!” and I think he originally thought I was referring to his movie. He did a little take, as maybe it dawned on him, that it actually was Ground Hog Day. “Oh, yeah, RIGHT! Thanks a lot,” he said then got back to the business at hand with something like, “First strike of the day and into the rough. This allows me to demonstrate my golfing prowess.” The fans laughed. Murray hit his ball which landed in the left rough down the fairway, and then he was gone.

We followed him for a while then moved on to watch Tiger for a few holes and Phil for a few. I don’t remember who Kevin Costner was playing with, but we watched his group for a while, and I still remember how nicely Costner was dressed–pants with a sharp crease and cuffs, spectator shoes, a short-sleeve, button-down collar shirt, and a tie all in beige and white and brown. He looked sharp.

As it happened, we had lucked out by going on Friday, Feb. 2. It rained the following two Bill_Murray_Cannes_2019days, and the tournament was canceled after that second round with no winners being declared.

In his post-round interviews, Bill Murray lamented for years how much he wanted to win the AT&T, and he did finally win with professional golfer D. A. Points as his partner in 2011.

My close encounter with Bill Murray was pretty short, but he, too, seemed like a nice guy.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Close Encounters of the Nice Kind”

  1. You were a terrific gifted teacher and a gifted person! So glad our daughter had the privilege of being one of your students! Thanks for sharing your adventures in writing! 💕

    Like

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