“Dig! We can do this!” When things seemed tense and uncomfortable, Nick Beat’s dramatic proclamation at a pivotal moment in the Big Daddy play was a battle cry, which rallied everyone to forge on! And forge on we did!
And this is how it all began…
I first met Bob Wayne in 1966 at Santa Monica College. (Back then, known as SMCC, Santa Monica City College). Bob sat behind me in an English Lit class. He and I would make fun of the professor. He was an old, crotchety guy. Be careful what you make fun of.
I remember walking to my parked car, hearing 1950’s Rock & Roll coming from a beautiful blue 1965 Corvette Stingray. It was Bob giving me a wave. Seeing him in that late ‘Vette, which he still owns to this day, was a tip off of what was to come!
When we transferred to Cal State University, Northridge (but when we were there it was San Fernando Valley State College) we both lived at the dorm (which isn’t there anymore) and that cemented our friendship.
Bob had an electric organ in his dorm room. That was another tip off of what was to come.
In 1973, Bob formed an “oldies” band with Marty Kaniger, his childhood friend. And what did they call themselves? “Big Daddy Dipstick and the Lube Jobs.” Yes, that was the band’s first name. They performed locally in the Los Angeles area, and I used to go hear them at Regular Jon’s, a small pizza restaurant in Brentwood, California (which isn’t there anymore).
In 1982, the band along with Rhino Records came up with the idea to perform contemporary songs in a ‘50s style.
They performed at numerous local clubs in Los Angeles. I went to hear them…a lot.
Rhino Records picked them up; they dropped the “Dipstick and the Lube Jobs,” and the record albums soon followed (on vinyl of course)! I’ve still got all of mine…signed by each band member.
It was during this time that Bob suggested I introduce the band when they performed. At that time, I was a high school teacher and we came up with a gag: as Principal Heffler, I was to introduce the band as if at a high school assembly. We tried it out at At My Place, a terrific club in Santa Monica, CA (no longer there – see Bob’s blog dated July 20, 2014).
The intro worked! We did it a few times. The boys, behind me, playfully taunted their principal. One of them – I never found out who – always flew a paper airplane at me.
However, the gag didn’t work at The Palomino in North Hollywood, CA (no longer there. See Don’s blog dated March 6, 2014). I got boo-ed. This particular audience wasn’t there for our playful introduction. They were there for the music. I think I blocked most of it. But it sure did work at At My Place!
Everyone loved At My Place. Big Daddy was a regular there. It was their home. (see earlier blog on this website.)
With the success of a number of albums, Big Daddy came out with their then latest CD, “Cutting Their Own Groove,” in 1991.
Rather than doing a series of conventional concerts, the band came up with the idea of doing a play to promote the CD. Rhino Records was equally enthused about the idea and agreed to produce the play.
In the winter of 1990, the band asked me to write and direct the play. I immediately took a leave of absence from my high school teaching job. I always knew I’d be creatively involved with Big Daddy in some capacity, and here was my chance!
We first met to discuss the play at Delores’ Restaurant on Santa Monica Blvd. (which is not there anymore. Are you noticing a trend?). All the band members were there: Bob, Marty, Tom, and Don Raymond who had replaced David Starns in 1986… plus four other members: John Hatton, Norman A. Norman, Bob Sandman, and Damon DeGrignon. It was a large table.
First we discussed the hook of the play: Why are they doing contemporary songs in a ’50s style?
We brainstormed ideas: maybe they had been frozen and didn’t age, and they thawed out decades later? Maybe they got scooped up by a flying saucer, they didn’t age, and decades later they got plopped back down on earth? But we decided to go with the back-story that they already used from the first two albums: In 1959, the band went on a USO tour, got captured by Laotian communist revolutionaries, and – decades later – they were finally rescued by the CIA. And so they perform today’s songs the only way they knew how: in the classic styles of the 1950s.
And we then came up with the name of the play, “Big Daddy… Stranded in the Jungle,” from the 1956 hit by The Cadets.
Next we broke down the main beats of the play:
Act 1 begins in 1959 at a high school talent show with their pathetically bad individual acts; then to the malt shop and their “Let’s-form-a-band-so-we-can-get-babes!”; then to the band’s garage.
Act 2 takes place in the present after their rescue with Big Daddy on a talk show; then their first performance… at a Head Bangers’ ball (hey, this was 1991) when they get boo-ed off stage; then back to the band’s garage.
Act 3 is the Big Daddy concert.
At these early meetings, we discussed the characters they played, their descriptions, and how each was unique from the other:
Bob was “Lightnin’ Bob,” Mr. Energy; Marty was “Marty the ‘K’,” with his passion for pink clothes; Don was “Donny D.,” the heartthrob; Tom was “Bubba,” words are playthings to him; John was “Spazz,” the nerd always with his bass fiddle, slide rule, and pocket protector; Norman was “Norman,” every mother’s worst nightmare; Bob Sandman was “Guido,” the pissed-off Italian; and Damon was “Nick Beat,” the beatnik.
I remember when discussing the characters with them I said that Bubba was somewhat dull and slow; Tom got a tad defensive: “No, Bubba is special; he’s just a tad different. In fact, every now and then pearls of wisdom come out of his mouth.” Correction noted.
I took my notes from that meeting and started working on the first draft.
At that same time, we scouted equity waiver theatres, those with less than 100 seats to qualify for exemption for union wages for the two professional actors we would soon hire. We hit quite a few theatres. But the Groundling Theatre in West Hollywood, CA has the name. From its sketch comedy and improv workshops came legendary comedic actors including Kathy Griffin, Phil Hartman, Will Ferrell, Jon Lovitz, and Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman).
In addition to its reputation, it was a good venue for the band: the stage felt right, it was in a good location, and the guy in the audio booth knew what he was doing. I remember Marty was pleased with him. And that’s saying a lot. But, most of all, it was the Groundling’s name.
In fact, I tried to capitalize on that name by printing, “The Groundlings Theatre Presents – Big Daddy… Stranded in the Jungle!” They made me change it. After all, they weren’t producing the show, they were only renting their facility to us.
And so we locked in the theatre! Contracts were signed. “Stranded in the Jungle” had a home! The play would run on Wednesday nights for eight consecutive weeks.
One of the first things we did was shoot images to be projected during the play showing Big Daddy held captive by the Laotian revolutionaries. Tom knew of a Laotian family that agreed to help. With a 35 mm camera, we shot black and white slides (something else I imagine no longer exists). This captivity sequence was photographed by Tom’s wife, Wanda van den Ende, at the Will Geer Theater in Topanga Canyon…see below.
To complete our cast, we hired two professional actors: Don Dolan and Wayne Duvall.
Don played the sleazy agent Irv Berger. He was a regular on “General Hospital” for years.
Wayne played the talk show host Al Lasko (a la Steve Allen). He has gone on to featured roles in Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”.
I kept revising the script. We had our initial rehearsals in my rec room. Not yet ready for stage blocking, these first rehearsals were more like a table reading. It’s such a cliché to say a project was a collaboration. But it was so very true. I did not write it solo. Far from it. The boys had a great deal of input. After all, who would know their character better than they?
This was in 1991, computers were not yet common. I remember at first going to a typing service. But there were a lot of input and script revisions. So, because of this project, I bought my first computer!
Also, the Internet was young and this was prior to mainstream emailing. Sending out multiple copies as email attachments would have been miraculous. Instead, I was busy re-typing, printing, and duplicating the scripts.
With a lot of help from the band, I continued to flush out the story.
In a twist of fate, I was back as Principal Heffler! After a brief monologue from sleazy agent Irv Berger, I began the story as the principal of Dwight D. Eisenhower High School, and – along with Carol Hatton, Spazz’s actual wife who played the student body president – I conducted the school’s talent assembly. I was heckled by Bob “Guido” Sandman, who was planted in the audience just to taunt me.
In the opening scene, the high school talent show, Bob and Marty were the first ones on stage, and they did an over-zealous and very bad performance of “Tom Dooley” with Bob on kazoo, Marty on autoharp, and Nick Beat on bongos; then Spazz came out with Bubba and did their own original – and embarrassing – dance craze called “The Spazz” which fortunately never caught on; when heartthrob Donny D. – along with Norman on keyboard – came out to croon Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are”… Carol sighed, swooned, and fainted in my lap; and finally, with Norman suddenly realizing he’s alone on stage, be breaks into a spontaneous – and truly disgusting – version of “Swinging on a Star”.
As all this was going on, Guido continually heckled me from the audience as I tried my best to reprimand him.
Carol, being very versatile, played two parts: in addition to the love struck student, she played a nasty dominatrix with a whip at the Head Bangers’ ball.
Later on in the first act, on a TV talk show (an homage of the old Steve Allen Show), the boys spoke to the host about their ordeal in Laos, and then – with Spazz setting up a movie screen in his Spazz-like way – they showed those black and white slides of their captivity on a Kodak Carousel Slide Projector. (Yet another relic of the past.)
Now, this is something I came up with that I’m particularly proud of: Just before the talk show scene, I wanted a creative way to transition from 1959 to the present. Picture a dark stage, a spotlight snaps on revealing an old radio from the ‘50s as we hear the music and news broadcast from that specific decade. Then a radio from the ‘60s, then the ‘70s, and so on.
Yup, I was really proud of this device to show the passage of time.
We recorded these musical interludes and broadcast announcements at Bob’s studio, Sunburst Recording in Culver City, CA.
Once the script was pretty much complete, we started the staging and blocking rehearsals.
Was I really going to direct this? I called on my director friends for some guidance and tips.
We had frequent rehearsals in my condo rec room. Although I felt comfortable with the physical blocking and dialogue coaching, I cannot stress enough how much the process was extremely collaborative. It became more and more obvious that in addition to being talented musicians, these band members knew their characters and how to say their lines.
Spazz built a counter for the malt shop scene and a riser for the drum set.
I called on the favors of friends and family. Jerry Schneider, a childhood friend, helped Wanda shoot the captivity slides. My dear friend Barbara Rinetti was our stage manager and prop master. She kept a close eye on all the props. Another friend, Arlene Wexler, came on board as the costume designer. And Spazz’s two sons (with a little help from Carol) were our assistant stagehands.
A lot of time was spent finalizing the playlist: the selection of songs and the order in which they were to be performed.
As opening night got closer, we had our rehearsals in the theatre. Then it was time for the full dress rehearsal, with wardrobe and props… and the concert itself. That’s where I first saw the play in its entirely: the story in the first half, and the concert in the second half.
At the curtain call, we decided to have Principal Heffler invite everyone – audience, cast, and crew – to join Big Daddy at a ‘50s Café just a few doors down from the Theatre called Mel ‘N Rose’s. Get it? The Groundlings is on Melrose Blvd. (It’s not there anymore. Yup, there’s a definite trend here.)
As to be expected, there were some creative differences about the play. But all quite minor.
1. Rhino suggested we take out the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the play. I thought it was a clever way to push us back to 1959 and begin the talent show. They thought it was not a strong start. B ut the band liked it. So, everyone agreed to keep it in for the time being.
2. During the talk show scene, it’s revealed that George Bush is President of the United States. Norman A. blurts out, “Bush?! It’s about time we had a chick in the White House!” Originally, it was most likely an ad-lib from Norman. (Hey, I certainly didn’t write that line!) We all laughed, but none of us – Rhino, Big Daddy, myself – were sure about keeping it in. Again, we agreed to keep it in on opening night.
3. After the boys are rescued and back to the rehearsal garage, they try to play a CD on a record player. Scratch, scratch! Bob picks it up and asks, “I wonder why they’re called CDs?” Bubba takes the disc from Bob, looks at it, and says, “Maybe because they’re so small, you can hardly ‘see dees’.” The band moaned. Yes, it was a groaner. Tom didn’t want to say the line. The band agreed with him. I was alone on this one. I pleaded with everyone to keep it in. “Yes, it’s corny. But it will be funny. Please just try it on opening night. If it doesn’t work, it’s out.” Reluctantly, they agreed.
May 15, 1991. Opening night. I remember it well. Rhino hired Bobby Cowan as the publicist, so the critics were there: Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times, and LA Weekly.
I’ve written and sold a number of screenplays. But I never wrote a play (or in this case co-co-wrote) let alone directed one.
At 8:00 pm there is a hush as pre-recorded “sitting down” music plays, ending with Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” filling the theatre.
Jerry Lee Lewis is done. Silence.
It’s show time!
Sleazy agent Irv begins his monologue.
Backstage, we are able to peer through an opening in the curtain. The house is packed.
Critics are in the front row. What’s worse: my family members and close friends are there… yikes!
I remember standing backstage next to Marty moments before the start of the play. He looked at me and said something. I can’t remember what it was he said, but it somehow made me feel more calm and confident.
Irv finishes his monologue.
It’s 1959. The Groundlings Theatre is now a high school auditorium.
I am to walk out on stage. Solo.
Principal Heffler – wearing a coat and tie and thick glasses, holding a clipboard and pen – walks out on stage to greet the 99 “students”… and hopefully get all of them to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
(Stay tuned for “Hey, We Put On a Play!” – the second and final chapter of “Big Daddy…Stranded In The Jungle” by “Principal” Ira Heffler.)