May 15, 1991. Principal Heffler walked out on the stage, and…
I asked everyone to join me in with the Pledge of Allegiance. And the entire audience stood up!
Well, almost the entire audience. One person remained seated. I pointed to him and said, “Stand up, son.” Then, remembering this was Eisenhower High School, I added, “Make Ike proud!” And he did. And the audience loved it.
As I continue with my welcoming comments at this “high school assembly,” my character, Principal Heffler, was taunted by Big Daddy band member Bob (“Guido”) Sandman who was a plant in the audience. He stood up and yelled out, “A hefer?! Ain’t that a cow?!” and grinned at the shocked audience members.
I singled him out and fired back with, “I got my eye on you!” But he’d continue to make nasty comments about me.
Fed up with his taunts, I kicked Guido out of the theatre/auditorium. The audience applauded. In fact, a number of people thought it was the real deal.
In the dressing room backstage of the Groundlings Theatre, there was a speaker mounted on the wall and, with a mic planted in the audience, you could hear not only the actors… but also the audience’s reaction.
We were only a few minutes into the play – Principal Heffler had left the stage – I was alone in the dressing room, the band was on stage… acting. I listened to the speaker, and…
It was working!!
The audience was laughing.
I remember so vividly that first night, in the dressing room, listening to the audience’s response. All the actors were on stage; I was by myself. Hearing the audience laugh like that was an extremely emotional moment for me. I had written a number of screenplays, but never a play. This time the feedback was immediate. And what I heard coming from that mounted speaker felt truly exhilarating.
Okay, so we now know the Pledge of Allegiance worked. But what about the other two creative differences? (See “Hey, Let’s Put On A Play!”)
Yes, we allowed Norman to blurt out, “Bush?! It’s about time we had a chick in the White House!”
And so what happened? Um, I never heard an audience boo. I mean, really boo.
The problem was that these Big Daddy boys were good kids. The line was not nice. And the fact it came from Norman A Norman, whose character was slimy, somehow made it even worse. (Again, let the record show I did not write that line.)
And the final “creative difference”: After Bob holds a CD and asks, “I wonder why they’re called CDs?”… Bubba takes the disc, looks at it, and says, “Maybe because they’re so small, you can hardly ‘see dees’.”
I’m proud I stood my ground because it was perhaps the loudest laugh in the play. Tom and I still reminisce about that line. However, to be fair, it was Tom’s delivery – he breathed life into that line – that made it work.
So, two out of three “creative differences” worked. Not bad.
The scenes of the play seemed to flow fine. Beginning in the past: the school talent show, the malt shop, the band’s garage. Then the present: the talk show, the Head Banger’s ball, back to the band’s garage. And finally the concert.
And the beats within the scenes seemed to work.
The play itself was solid, and the concert was the pay-off. Everyone was pleased.
And the cast, crew, and audience celebrated that night at Mel ‘N Rose’s ‘50s Café down the street. (Remember – The Groundlings is on Melrose Avenue!)
At the café, rather than merely basking in the moment, we spoke at length about how to improve the play – dialogue, acting, staging, etc. I found the band members to be highly professional, engaged and committed to the project.
We continued to make minor fixes.
We videotaped all eight performances. A few nights after each performance, all the band members would gather at my home to watch the play and critique their performances.
As the weeks went by, we continued to refine some beats. These small tweaks helped make the play tighter.
It was notable how even the band members’ families rallied to make the entire process work: As mentioned in my previous blog, John Hatton’s wife, Carol, and their sons were very much involved.
The other band members’ wives helped with merchandizing, especially Marty’s soon-to-be-wife, Vicki. She was always there, in her poodle skirt and white socks, selling Big Daddy CDs.
Tom Lee’s wife, Wanda, took photographs that were used in the play.
And Don Raymond himself designed the very cool “Stranded in the Jungle” T-shirts.
Then there were the fans.
With the success of their concerts and CDs, Big Daddy already had a solid following. Many fans came to see the play multiple times. One passionate fan, Jane, attended every performance, and arrived two hours before every show. In fact, she got there before any of us did! (And she drove in from Chino, a 90-minute commute.)
As mentioned in my previous blog, I had been a high school teacher and took a leave of absence to do the play. Unexpectedly, many of my students attended. They, in particular, knew the music and loved the way the current songs were parodied.
Publicist Bobbi Cowan did a terrific job of promoting “Stranded in the Jungle”. The Big Daddy play was featured on “Entertainment Tonight” with Mary Hart and John Tesh, and “Good Day LA” with Steve Edwards. Also, NBC’s “Entertainment Guru” and MTV’s Kurt Loder promoted the play. NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross even did an interview with the band and I at the Groundlings during our dress rehearsal.
One night, one of the performances was slightly “off.” I never figured out why. The actors were fine, but the audience was somewhat nonresponsive. It just didn’t work. We watched the tape. No answers. It just happened. But thankfully only once. Ah, the pitfalls of live theatre!
And we had our crisis. Or what we thought was going to be a crisis. A few days before one of the performances, Don Dolan, who played sleazy agent Irv Berger, told me he couldn’t be at one of the performances. I panicked. Do we get another actor? There was no time for that. We needed someone who knew the play and was familiar with the part. Someone – I don’t remember who – suggested we ask Wayne Duvall, who played the talk show host, to play both parts?! I asked him, and he jumped at the opportunity! As the sleazy agent, he pulled it off with humor and verve. Wayne embraced the role, made it his own, and had a blast. So did the audience.
There were some notable highlights. In the Los Angeles Times, John Hatton’s Spazz was singled out for his comedic timing. But it was Tom Lee’s Little Richard that brought down the house. If there was a climax to the two-hour play, this was it. With his shiny cape flowing behind him, Bubba rocked it!
The final performance was on June 26, 1991. Moments before the opening act, Don Dolan whispered in my ear, “You know, Ira, often on the last night odd things can happen.” He gave me a wicked smile. And then Irv Berger, the sleazy agent, walked out on stage and quickly went off-book! He adlibbed much of his dialogue, even mingled and interacted with the audience. WTF? At first, I was uneasy with this. But I quickly “let go” and got into the spirit of the last performance.
After the final performance was done, it was time for our final bow. I walked out first, followed by Carol Hatton, Wayne Duvall, and Don Dolan. Then the band members – Lightin’ Bob, Marty the “K,” Bubba, Donny D., Spazz, Norman, Guido, and Nick Beat – entered the stage from opposite sides. We clasped hands and did a “wave.” I took the mic and did my usual thank-yous. When I was done, Bob took my mic and graciously thanked me for all I had done. Then he and the rest of the band presented me with a Big Daddy jacket embroidered with the name “Principal Heffler.” And, yes, I still wear it proudly.
“Stranded in the Jungle” sold out every performance during its eight week run.
The play ran during the summer of 1991. As mentioned in my previous blog, many of the locations are no longer there. However, the memories are there… and still clear.
I always felt funny taking credit as writer and director. But I like what Spazz said to me one night. Halfway through the play’s run, he told me I was the catalyst of the play. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ll take it.
“Stranded in the Jungle” was nearly a quarter of a century ago. How I miss their creativity and our collaboration. Maybe we should bring it back?
Without a doubt, Nick Beat’s prophetic words “Dig! We can do this!” were spot on.
IT’S ME IRA… AT THE GROUNDLING THEATRE BEFORE THE LAST SHOW!