It all started quite early. My fascination with all things theatrical; and I can pinpoint the moment when this started to germinate.
When I was a kid, nine or ten maybe, my grandmother often took me to the Czechoslovak National Theatre, to a matinée, and usually to see some Czech nationalist piece. This blatant introduction to culture should have been abhorrent to me, but oddly it was not. It's not that I actually enjoyed our little outings; I approached each with trepidation and a desire for secrecy. What if my soccer friends found out I was going to a theatah in the ahftanoon? It didn't matter as I was actually drawn into the dramas and the operas because I wanted to know why and how things happened on the stage. I remember one production, - Dvorak's Rusalka, I think - where the curtain was painted with a floral motif and when the house lights dimmed, the curtain simply vanished… disappeared in front of our eyes, and the stage opened up. It was a neat trick and I wanted to understand the mechanics of it. Eventually I did.
…to the end of the short Cornwall summer of '72 and the French restaurant in Penzance where we worked was about to close, either for the winter or for good, nobody knew. It was time for Maureen and me to move back to the metropolis of London where we were certain to find jobs. My old digs in Fulham were still available so we moved there and began looking for work. Maureen thought about possibly restarting her modeling career and spent her time with agents, photographers and the like. I was at a crossroads. I felt it was time to get a real job that actually led to something other than...another job of the same ilk. But money was tight and that meant I had to go back to flippin' hamburgers.
I applied for a job as a short order cook with a small chain of American-style restaurants. The executive who interviewed me listened patiently as I exaggerated my meager accomplishments. Then he freaked me out:
"Karel, you are not a cook kind of person, are you, you are more of a managerial type".
So I was hired as a Trainee Assistant Manager for one of their restaurants on King's Road in London.
Whooppee! I was going places now!
The exhilaration soon turned to frustration. The staff in the restaurant, including the existing manager, resented my presence and were hostile towards me. I tried very hard nevertheless. My duties included weekly stocktaking and manning the cash register at busy times. Both turned into a disaster. During stocktaking, I reached very high in the pantry to see how much mustard was left in the gallon jar. But as I tilted the jar, the lid slowly slipped off and a gallon of French's Yellow Mustard poured on top of my head. The manager- little weedy son-of-a-bitch - hated me because I could expose his stealing, so he tried to discredit me by taking small amounts of cash out of the cash register that I was responsible for so that I'd be short every day and then he'd scold me for it. It was very frustrating and the job didn't pay well either.
I decided to look for an additional source of income. One day I was wandering through the West End, the theatre district, and on a whim I stumbled in the stage door of the Prince of Wales Theatre. I asked if they had any part-time evening jobs. The Master Carpenter hired me as a stagehand on the spot. My life changed direction forever.
The Prince of Wales Theatre was a typical West End commercial theatre. A play or show would come in, perhaps from out of town with financial backing by "angels", and if it was popular it ran for a while. Months, maybe years or even decades. At the time a musical called "Trelawny" was being performed. It was a period musical starring a young method actor named Ian Richardson, who later created many great and memorable characters in English film and television. Sadly, in the US he was known only as the "Grey Poupon Man" riding in the back of a chauffer driven Rolls Royce. The musical had a large cast, many scene changes and the three hours I spent in the theatre each evening seemed to just fly by.
Soon I settled into a routine. I'd finish my day at Hamburger Hell around five pm, then I'd take the subway (the tube) to the West End and stop for a beer or two in the pub across the street from the Prince of Wales stage door. Gradually the cast members, as well as stage management would drift in and we'd sit in a corner, drink ale and chat. It was very democratic; I never felt that I was on the lowest rung of the theatrical hierarchy. Ian Richardson often came in with his wife, who was also his dresser. In spite of his somber and forbidding looks, he was very friendly and I often talked with him, hoping to soak up as much as I could about the theatre business. I had no ambition to act which I considered-and still do- to be very difficult. Besides, there were not many parts for actors with a Czech accent! So I learned about the technical aspects, lighting, scenery and theatrical jargon.
One day my restaurant and theatre schedules conflicted and I had to choose. It was a no-brainer and just like that I was out of the restaurant business. For good as it turned out. Maureen and I struggled a bit financially for a while. She also got a job in Theatre Royal, Haymarket, perhaps the most traditional theatre in the West End. The owners there resisted any technological innovation, including a communication system in the dressing rooms so the actors could be called and reminded that their scene was coming up. Maureen became a call girl and this meant she had to traipse up and down the backstage stairs, knocking on dressing room doors ("This is your five minute call, Sir Michael, five minutes") and making sure that actors didn't miss their scene.
She did a short stint with "A Voyage Around my Father" with Sir Michael Redgrave and then "Crown Matrimonial", a play about the abdication of Edward VIII with an ensemble cast that included Wendy Hiller, Peter Barkworth and Eileen Atkins, which ran for about two years and we both became friends with the younger cast members.
To my shock and horror, "Trelawny” suddenly closed. Within hours one Saturday night the sets were torn down, loaded into pantechnicons, and the stage left completely bare. All the stagehands were let go. "Sorry, lads, that's showbiz" was the sendoff from the Master Carpenter as he stirred his sugar-laden, milky tea in the untidy comfort of his lair under the stage.
Again the world was an egg and I was outside of the shell looking for a crack.
Through some friends from the Trelawny cast I landed a full-time job as an Assistant Stage Manager (ASM) in Players' Theatre Club in Villiers Street, Charing Cross. Ah, the glamour of it all!
Players' was traditional Victorian Music Hall entertainment, basically a nightly collection of singing and/or dancing acts strung together by Mr. Chairman, an MC and accompanied by a pianist. Sounds a bit boring, but it was somewhat offset by the fact that the Victorian songwriters were a singularly horny and filthy lot. The lyrics of the period songs were packed with sexy innuendo and suggestive repartee. For example, a seemingly harmless ditty titled "Esau, Esau, Take me on a See-Saw" was not an innocent request to go to the playground.
The acts changed every two weeks so there were almost constant rehearsals taking place. The sets were minimal; a backdrop, a chaise longue, a cheval mirror, various drapes. But there was a full lighting rig, a bit dated, but ideal for me to learn the basics like different spots, how to focus them, colors, masking and so on. The theatre itself was in a tunnel! Yes, the elevated Charing Cross Railroad Station had a series of tunnels under it and Players' occupied one of them. The tunnel walls were painted, in of all the available colors, pink, making the auditorium a pink tunnel, a moniker that was exploited to its fullest.
The tunnel form presented some unique challenges. There was no wing space backstage and there was no fly tower; scenery could not be flown in and out as in conventional theatres. Instead, our canvas backdrops were rolled on long six inch diameter tubes. The front-of-house lighting consisted of spots mounted on pole that was attached to the tunnel wall. It was here I dodged death for the second time. I was on top of a ladder positioning a spotlight some 30 feet above the auditorium. The spot was tough to move and as I applied more force to turn it, the brittle electrical cable broke and shorted directly into the metal pole I was holding onto. I screamed as I felt the electricity coursing through my brain and heart. I tried to jump, but my hands were locked to the pole in an electricity-induced death grip. The whole episode lasted only few seconds until a fuse blew somewhere and suddenly I was free... flying through the air and landing in the auditorium. With my crotch across a seat back! I was in pain and shock, but I survived.
The performers' accommodations were spartan at best. There were two gender specific dressing rooms - long noodles of space with barely enough room for a long shelf, some mirrors and lights and a row of chairs. It was my job to call the actors and actresses to the stage where they would take their turn. Invariably, the actors would be lounging around fully dressed in their costumes, waiting their turn, but the actresses...that was an altogether different ballgame. They were always half naked, for some reason, as I called the ten minute call through a half open door. A kaleidoscope of nipples, panties, hose and bodies that hadn't seen the sun in years greeted me. Sometimes one of them would call me in to help with an obstinate corset or to discuss some scheduling issue. The exposure didn't seem to worry them even though some of them were, to put it delicately, past their prime. I was always professional even as I heard them giggle as I closed the door. I suspected that some of that breastage was for my benefit.
The Stage Managers' job was to operate the lighting during the show. The lighting console was a large wardrobe-sized contraption with three rows of levers and banks of switches. It looked like a machine that Frankenstein would have had in his laboratory. The operation required hands, elbows, knees, and sometimes a forehead or even a crotch. It looked as if the operator was trying to seduce the machine, which in a way he was. It was a stressful job, because every mistake was immediately visible to the audience and resulted in a pissed off actor who was left in the dark.
One Monday afternoon, the Stage Manager came in and announced that he was leaving for pastures greener and with a mighty slap on the back left me to cope with the show that evening. I had less then an hour to master the infernal machine, but the actors and I stumbled through the show that night and gradually I mastered the lighting console as one would learn to play an instrument.
I was now the Stage Manager in charge of scheduling the actors' rehearsals, locating their music for the pianist, working with the director on sets and lighting. I was hungrily learning everything.
The annual highlight was a Christmas pantomime which, in England, means stylized low-brow entertainment, usually involving audience participation by booing the villain and cheering the hero. Often there is some cross-dressing going on and lots of off-color jokes. The Players' pantomime was more traditionally based on well known stories (Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk), transformed into a kind of musical with numbers shamelessly boosted from Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and so on. The lyrics, of course, were appropriately adapted to the story. I remember one year, the finale consisted of Beethoven's Ninth, the bombastic, choral part performed by a cast of 20 accompanied by a piano! Acoustic and un-amplified! It was all lightweight stuff, but I didn't care. The "panto" was closer to real theatre with real scenery, special lighting and effects.
For us, everything revolved around the theatre. Maureen and I joined a couple of actors' clubs where the West End casts congregated after the show. One was in the basement behind Haymarket. An unpretentious place with walls painted black, dim lights and carpet you'd stick to. Lauren Bacall was in town doing "Eve", a musical based on "All About Eve", and she'd come to this club often until she caught Jerzy the Chef playing with his emaciated Polish pecker in the kitchen and she swore never to set a foot in the goddamn, fucking filthy place again. Verbatim!
Sometime in the mid-seventies, Jack appeared. I had no idea that I was about to play a title character in a musical. A couple of actors walked in with a script for a new musical they'd written and a few months later we were putting on a new, major production called "Jack the Ripper: The Musical". This was a big deal as new musicals were few and far between; especially those featuring a sadistic serial murderer. This Ripper was different with an all-singing all-dancing cast of East End street-walkers, all but one doomed to a terrible fate that blissfully took place somewhere in the wings and out of audience sight. It was a sanitized, inoffensive portrayal of Victorian London of which Walt Disney would approve.
All of the tarts had hearts of gold, sported all of their own teeth and didn't reek of rotgut gin. The Ripper was not identified, but he appeared on a translucent screen as a menacing, cloaked shadow with a huge carving knife in one hand a Gladstone bag in the other. As the shadow loomed over the terrified tarts and assorted townspeople, the curtain came down on Act I. Yes folks, this was my claim to fame as I acted my heart out clambering on rickety steps behind a screen.
The musical was not particularly well received by the critics. One shrill article in the Daily Telegraph indignantly lisped:
"Jack the Ripper: The Musical?! What's next? Hiroshima On Ice?".
But it was a modest success in the small Players' Theatre, with the audiences blithely unaware of the bigger drama that was unfolding backstage. What started as a healthy rivalry between two of the female leads quickly escalated into high-level bitchiness followed by full Götterdamerung. The hostilities simmered throughout the run and came a boil on the last night.
Toward the end of Act II, the two actresses had a scene together with Annie Chapman offering Marie Kelly the loan of her hat, presumably to attract a better class of a john.
Annie: 'Ere, Marie, tyke me 'at
Marie: Aw, fanks Annie, that's so noyce of ya.
Annie: Mind, don't break the bleedin' fevver!
As the precious hat is transferred between the actresses, a bright peacock feather breaks off the hat and slowly spirals down to the stage floor. I can see the hate and anger in their eyes as they watch this harmless little incident unfold. Both actresses storm off into the wings and Marie is so enraged that she misjudges the distance and walks straight into the tunnel brick wall hitting it squarely with her nose which starts to bleed profusely. At this point, the house curtain comes down and both actresses return to the stage for a showdown. Ever seen a catfight in period Victorian dresses? Still wearing my cloak and the top hat I jump between them in an attempt to bring the situation under control; pick up both of the clawin', spittin' and bitin' ladies, drag them to the stage door and throw them out into the dingy, dank, cold Victorian alley that looks remarkably like the set we have on stage. I lock the stage door, half hoping that Jack the Ripper reincarnate might find his way to Hungerford Alley and swiftly commit a murder deuce, thereby ending my misery.
Ten minutes later, Marie and Annie were begging to be allowed back in the theatre. They still hated each other, but for the moment, warmth, comfort and some medical attention was needed. This interval lasted 45 minutes instead of 15 as we cleaned the stage of spittle and torn under garments, repaired Maries' bloodied proboscis and calmed everyone down. We made it to the end of the show, but the usual last night party was not as boisterous as usual.
Post Mortem (duh)
I stayed at the Players' Theatre for another year or two but the novelty started to diminish and I longed to work in real theatre. Drama, ballet, opera, maybe. It was time to leave. Jack the Musical transferred to one of the West End theatres but closed after only a few months' run. Players' Theatre Club also moved a couple of times and sometime in the eighties the pink tunnel was abandoned and new premises were found just up the street. But it was not to last. Financial problems led to the eviction of the Club from the new theatre, and since then the remaining core performers put on sporadic shows in various venues in the West End. It was the end of an era.
And the curtain effect that so fascinated me? It's one of the oldest tricks and it is done with a thin painted gauze drop and lighting. To start with, the gauze curtain is lit from the auditorium and the stage is totally dark. Immediately behind the gauze is a black velvet curtain. The audience sees only the painted gauze curtain. A few moments before the performance is due to start, the black velvet curtain is “flown out”, but the stage remains dark and invisible. Then the front of house lighting dims and the stage lighting is slowly brought on and the gauze completely disappears and few seconds later is "flown out" without anyone noticing. Elementary, my dear Watson!.