Wednesday, December 23, 2015
The Dog and Pasadena Playhouse
For a couple of years before America entered World War II and a year or so afterward, my father tried to make a go of it as an actor at the vaunted Pasadena Playhouse in Southern California. A number of actors went from the Playhouse to long careers in TV and the movies. Dad wasn’t one of them.
But those few years before he decided a business career was more likely to pay the bills were his bohemian experience, even though he was a bit older (early thirties) when he got into acting. And there were stories from that period that earned him a place in the spotlight at parties for years to come.
For instance, he acted alongside Raymond Burr in Arsenic and Old Lace, though “acted alongside” may be overstating the case a bit. Burr had the Boris Karloff role, the juiciest part in the play, whereas Dad was one of the two police officers who came to arrest him in the closing minutes. You probably didn’t need to remove a second glove to count the number of his lines.
I’ll Make It Good on Payday
When Burr struck acting gold by being cast as Perry Mason in the TV series, we heard a lot about how Dad once loaned him $5 to make it to payday. I never did get around to tracking down Burr’s side of the story, but they’re both dead now, so it probably doesn’t matter.
It was the dog story, though, that was the hit of the party, and Dad told it so often he had it down, like a professional comedian. In one of the plays he was in (I don’t remember the name) there was a trained dog that had been taught to bark on cue.
That particular play opened with a family sitting around the living room of its home in the Midwest, waiting for the son to come back from the war. After a few minutes of expository dialogue, one of the lines cued the dog to jump up and begin barking, signaling that the son was arriving home.
The dog was a trouper, but one night it came down with a virus, which went undetected by the dog’s handler or anyone in the cast. The play started, as usual, before a full house, and when the cue came for the dog to bark, the dog did nothing.
Ad Lib With Unintended Consequences
Had the dog barked as scheduled, one of the actors was to follow with the line, “Listen, I think the dog’s trying to tell us something.” After a brief hesitation, the actor ad libbed the line as, “Look, I think the dog’s trying to tell us something.”
At which point the dog, who had been curled up by a chair, rose shakily to its feet, looked the actor in the eye, lifted one of its hind legs, and peed all over the stage floor.
The way Dad told the story, for about five seconds it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Then the actor who ad-libbed the line was overcome by the absurdity of the situation and let out a snorting snicker. The other actors on stage began laughing uncontrollably, and the audience followed suit.
A minute later, the whole house and all the actors were still roaring with laughter, and the house manager made the call to lower the curtain, declare an intermission, and start the play over once everyone had pulled it together. The show went on, but everyone who was there that night probably never forgot it.
Dad never said what happened to the dog afterward.