Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Belk Summer

 The summer of 1973 was going to be huge in my life.  I was going to Europe with my friends for three weeks in July.  I needed spending money, so I got a part-time job at Belk Department Store in Columbia as a porter.  My job description was to carry packages out to customers' cars.  Otherwise, I sat in a small office with my co-worker named Al.  He had been a porter for a long time.  Our focus was the third floor, which had mostly home items like rugs, toys, housewares, bedding, and TV's.  Al took a lot of smoke breaks.  I didn't smoke at that time, so I did most of the work.
 One day, a man bought an oriental rug.  Those things were pretty heavy, and usually Al and I would do it together.  But, he was on a smoke break, so I had to do it myself.  It is amazing what one can do if you put your mind to it.  We also sold these artificial trees.  There was a metal rod that went up through the trunk, and it came off in sections.  There was a small piece of metal exposed at each section.  A woman, with a small child, bought one of those trees.  I took it down in sections to her car.  As I was putting it in the car, one of the metal sections put a hole in the fabric of the inside roof.  I saw it happen, but I didn't say anything.  Her little boy also saw it and said, "Mommy, he put a hole in your car!"  He kept repeating this, as I was going back inside of the store.  Well, the store had to repair the woman's car.  I never heard the last of that.  Another time, a mother was taking her child to the restroom, and the child didn't make it.  He put a mess on the carpet outside the 2nd floor restroom.  They called Al and me to clean it up.  We had maids for that, but they weren't there.  We refused to clean it up, so a saleswoman did it. 
 Belk knew I was going to Europe for three weeks.  When I came back, I brought an ashtray from London for Al.  I wasn't able to get my porter job back though.  I guess they were still reeling about the damaged car, so I got a job in their warehouse, which was several blocks away from the store.  Mr. Richie was my supervisor.  He had been in the Army, and treated the workers as soldiers.  It was hard work.  I mostly put price tags on shoes and cosmetics.  When I got off, I smelled like perfume. 
 Despite the hard work, I developed a love for Belk and its people.  That would carry on through life.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


 I had graduated from Anderson College and was back home in Columbia.  One Sunday afternoon, I got a call from my friend Jimmy.  His speech was slurred.  He told me that he just wanted to say goodbye.  He had taken some pills and wanted to kill himself.  Why?  It was a bit unclear from his call, but it had something to do with the lack of friends.  He and I had gotten close during our time at school and the theatre.  He was planning to go with us to Europe in July.  But now, he was taking a rather drastic step.
 I knew about suicide attempts.  I had tried too, but this time was different.  Jimmy was ready to go, but I was not ready to have him go.  I tried to get him to stay on the line as long as I could.  He was drifting in and out.  There were a lot of tears on both ends of the phone.  After a while, he finally said that he was hanging up and going to sleep. 
 The line went dead.  I immediately called a psychology professor from Anderson named Dr. Mandrell.  This was before 911 was around.  I told him what Jimmy had done and asked for his help.  He called the ambulance, and it got to Jimmy's home in time.  The doctors said that there were two things that saved Jimmy's life that day.  The first was that he had eaten a big meal for lunch that Sunday, and the drugs took longer than usual to get into his bloodstream.  The second was that Jimmy had called me. 
 He was not able to go to Europe with us.  His mother took his place on the trip.  Jimmy and I are still friends to this day.  I am glad.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


 As I have said earlier, I was "Joe College" during my Sophomore year at Anderson.  I did all kinds of things that caused people to take notice of me.  It felt good. 
 At the end of 1972, I was given the Best Actor award.  I prepared a speech, but they didn't let me give it.  I still have it if I win an Oscar.  Early in 1973, I was named to "Who's Who in American Junior Colleges".  Lenny and Sandra also were named.  I wrote a poem called "A Little Story", which was published in our school's literary book "Ivy Leaves".  It was also published in a national poetry book.  You can read it in my blog called "My Works".  I was named to the Delta Psi Omega Honor Dramatic Fraternity.  I had to prepare a dramatic work to recite at that induction, which was held at Mr. Vivian's house.  I did the soliloquy of King Arthur from "Camelot".  A couple of years later, I was inducted into the Alpha Psi Omega Honor Dramatic Fraternity at Presbyterian College.  Apparently, I was the only person in SC at that time to be in both.  At graduation from Anderson, I was named to the Denmark Society, which is the top award that one can get from Anderson.  Nobody knows until their name is called.  Lenny and Sandra also got that award.  There were about 15 of us that received that honor. 
 Pretty good for a person that my high school guidance counselor said that I wouldn't amount to anything.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Midnight Man

 It was announced in early 1973 that a major motion picture was going to be filmed in and around Anderson and Clemson.  It would be called "The Midnight Man" and would star Burt Lancaster, Susan Clark and Cameron Mitchell.  Lancaster would also co-direct the project.  Since I was on top of the theatre world at Anderson College, it made sense that I should be in the movie, so I went to an audition in downtown Anderson.  Burt's son Bill was there.  He was also going to be in the movie.  Bill Lancaster went on to write "The Bad News Bears".  Bill and I hit it off, and he recommended me to his dad for a part. 
 As they began filming, there was a need for a bar in Anderson, but the county was dry, so they had to get special permission to construct a bar downtown for the movie.  It was Catherine Bach's first film.  She was nervous, but still pretty.  I watched the filming of her scene with Burt and Bill. 
 I had not gotten a call to come until late one night to report early the next morning.  Also coming with me were my friend Jimmy and his friend Ed.  We were to wear nice clothes for a scene in a bar/dance club in Clemson.  I wore the same outfit that I had worn in "Blithe Spirit".  I loved the outfit.  It was a cardinal red jacket with red and black polyester pants with deep cuffs. 
 When we got to Lamar's in Clemson, it was raining and we didn't know where to go.  We walked into the front door of the club, and they were filming another scene.  They had to cut the shot.  I thought they were going to make us leave the set, but we were able to stick around.  We did get to see Cameron Mitchell, Susan Clark and Ed Lauter.  We waited for a few minutes until it was time to bring us into the club.  There were about 10 of us in our group.  They put Jimmy at the bar, where they were serving real beer at 8:30 in the morning.  Ed and I were picked to dance on the dance floor with girls.  While we were standing around, Burt came over to me and said he had a special job for me.  I was going to be cast as Susan Clark's teenaged love interest, and he wanted me to dance with her.  He asked me if I knew how to dance, and I said no, so he spent 15 minutes teaching me the moves.  Years later, I met Jack Palance and told him that Burt taught me how to dance.  He joked that he didn't know that Burt could dance.  Burt told me to do the best I could. 
 There was a jukebox in the club.  A tech guy looked at the records and only recognized one--"Rocky Mountain High" by John Denver.  Not the best song to dance to, but it was slow which would help me.  I met Susan Clark.  She had been in Playboy a few months earlier, and I couldn't get it out of my head that I had seen her naked.  I was 19.  That was a big deal.  Susan was all business.  I tried to break the ice with her, but she would have none of it.  Burt wanted to rehearse our scene of dancing together.  I did the dance moves that Burt had taught me, but Susan wanted to dance faster than me.  We kept stepping on each other's feet.  She got her foot caught in the cuff of my pants and almost fell.  She was tripping me with her feet.  It was not a match made in heaven.  She started to cuss me out for being clumsy.  Burt, who was directing the scene, told her that I was doing the best I could, and he stood up for me.  She threatened to walk off the picture if she had to dance with me.  So, to appease her, my role was reduced.  Instead of being her young love interest, I was moved to dancing with a 17-year old high school girl, who was much better looking than Susan.  In the film, Susan is dancing by herself.  It kinda looks strange. 
 Another problem we had was the dialogue.  Between the music and the dancers, they couldn't hear a bit of dialogue that had to be given between Bill Splawn, who played the club owner, and a waitress.  So, I learned something about illusion.  In fact, there was a phrase used a lot by the tech folks--"We deal in illusion".  Our shoes were making too much noise on the dance floor, so we took them off and danced in our sock and stocking feet.  It made for a little sliding around the floor.  In the film, you never see our feet.  Another bit of illusion was the false wall that they built in the club.  It made the club bigger depending on the camera angles.  They removed the wall and had the camera about two feet from me in one scene.  Burt said not to look at the camera.  It was pretty hard to do. 
 It took 4 hours to film a scene that took about a minute of film.  4 hours of dancing to a John Denver song.  Our legs were about to fall off.  Jimmy got drunk at the bar.  I got a check from Universal Pictures for $16, which was pretty good for 4 hours of work.  About a year later, the film was released.  Jimmy, Ed and I went to the premiere in Greenville.  We watched the film, and halfway through the two-hour movie was our big scene.  I was 16-feet high.  It was a shock to see it.  The movie itself was very good.  It was a murder mystery.  After the movie was over, Jimmy came up to me and asked for my autograph.  He was kidding around, and then strangers came up to me and Ed and asked for our autograph.  I guess the strangers thought we were somebody.  When the movie came out, I was a student at Presbyterian College.  A lot of folks recognized me.  I saw what fame was like, and I liked it.
 The movie was never released officially in the United States on video or later DVD.  It was on TV some, and on video overseas.  I don't know why it never has been.  I think it was also Ed Lauter's first film.  Morgan Woodward played a state senator.  Mills Watson was in it.  A week after my scene was filmed, Susan Clark was quoted in the newspaper about how nice the folks were that she worked with.  I guess she had blocked out our encounter.  It was just as well, but the interview came over as being kind of fake from her.  I liked Burt Lancaster, and he allowed me to use him as a reference for my future work.  I also learned from that experience that the bigger the star, the nicer they are.  Burt had won an Academy Award for "Elmer Gantry".  Susan had been in Playboy.  Burt was very nice to me.  Susan was not.  Nothing more needs to be said.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Blithe Spirit

 Mr. Vivian was looking for a play for the Spring of 1973 at Anderson College and found "Blithe Spirit" by Noel Coward.  It required everyone to speak with a British accent.  He told me early on that I would be cast in the lead role of "Charles".  It was the first three-act play, where I had the lead, at least that I knew in advance.  I began to prepare.  I studied British accents for a couple of months.  I listened to recordings of accents and came up with one.  It was actually a cross of George Harrison and Margaret Rutherford.  Don't ask me why.  I found it quite natural.
 Sandra and Talula were cast as my wives.  We had very good chemistry going into the play, as we were the best of friends.  Mary, also my friend, was cast as the psychic.  Jimmy and Gila were cast in supporting roles.  Mr. Vivian rounded out the cast with two others, including his granddaughter.  We worked on the play for a couple of months.  There were some things we needed to work out that included special effects.
 One was the bookcase.  There needed to be books flying off the shelves to suggest the house being haunted.  That required a hole being drilled into a bookcase, large enough for a broom handle to push a book from behind.  There was a wire that stretched across the stage from the top, where a small sheet would be dragged across as if it was a ghost.  The hardest thing was the movement of a table during the séance scene.  We got a lightweight card table and put a tablecloth over it.  The cloth had to be long enough for the audience not to see that my knees were moving the table.  That was hard to work out, because I couldn't show my body moving.  Sandra, Talula, and the little girl had to be made up with white makeup.  It was a little hard on the skin.
 I tried to get into character during rehearsals.  There was one scene, where I got mad at Sandra, who was playing one of my wives, and I actually threw some water in her face.  She didn't like that, and I never did it again.  The play called for liquor to be served in some scenes.  Anderson College was a Baptist school, and references to liquor were out of the question, so we had to rewrite the liquor scenes with serving tea instead.  A couple of the lines had to be rewritten, because it didn't make sense that "Charles" got drunk with tea.  After all of these things, we were ready for opening night, or so we thought.
 There was one major problem with opening night.  We had not had time to rehearse the third act.  Mr. Vivian had to ask us to memorize the lines and go for it.  At the opening of the third act, the scene is of the psychic and me talking about what has happened with two wives dying.  She and I were sitting there in the center of the stage around a small table with tea.  Mary and I were both experienced in acting, but not so much in improvisation.  We learned something that night.  As we were talking, I said a line which wasn't in the script.  Mary's eyes got big, but she knew she had to carry on, so we made up ten minutes of the play.  Nothing that was in the script.  We drank a lot of tea, and we talked about a lot of stuff including the weather and the other characters.  There was no way we could get back on track.  It was terrifying.  Off stage, we could hear a lot of commotion.  Mr. Vivian was whispering "Where are they?".  After a while, Gila, playing the maid, was pushed out onto the stage to tell me I was wanted in the other room.  I went off stage, and Mr. Vivian showed me where I needed to be.  I went back out, and we got back to the real play.  The audience never knew the difference.  If anyone saw the second night of our performance, they would have seen a different third act.  I share this story to anyone who gets flustered when performing.  As long as you stay in character, you too can carry on.  After all, the audience doesn't have the script in front of them.  Good thing.
 We got a lot of positive reactions to the play.  I used my accent in stores in small towns.  I always got service in the stores, because they had never heard anyone use that accent before.  Sandra, Talula, and I even performed a scene from the play in the Frankfort, Germany airport three months later to the pleasure of the crowds.  I learned a lot about the Theatre from that play.  I do not recommend anyone making up lines, but you have to carry on no matter what happens.

Monday, September 7, 2015


 As mentioned earlier, I started out in debate in high school and failed.  I had to go to mock Congresses to get some success and win awards.  I eventually got into the National Forensic League.  When I went to college, I was not thinking very much about going back into debate.  I did take Speech courses, but they were mostly filled with preachers, who wanted to try out their latest sermons on the audience.  I attended a couple of debates as a freshman, but they were not all that interesting. 
 After I changed my major to Speech and Drama in my sophomore year, I found debate was more possible.  There were three of us on the debate team--Gila, Mike and me.  Gila was there mostly to observe and act as a timekeeper.  Mike and I were the team.  Mike was studying to be a preacher, and he had a good speaking voice.  I was the researcher.  The two of us made a good team.  We went to Clemson to observe how debates were done in college, and then we started participating.  We went to Georgia to do our first debate and won.  We then went back to Clemson and won.  What was our secret?  We approached it like a chess match.  Anticipate every possible move and be prepared to counter the argument.  We spent hours going back and forth on issues.  We didn't want any surprises.  We became so good that we weren't losing any debates.  All we had to do sometimes was to walk into a room and see other team grimace.  We went to Lenoir-Rhyne to do a debate, and they put us in a Sunday School room at a church.  It was a little strange debating in front of a picture of Jesus, because sometimes the debates would get a little heated.  Mike, especially, had trouble with debating in a church.  But, we went where we were invited.  Anderson College gave us a school car to go to these debates.  I liked to drive fast, and once I hit an off-ramp from the interstate going 90mph. We were going so fast that I couldn't stop at the top of the ramp, so we just blew through the stop sign and got on the ramp back on the interstate.  Mike would lean out of the car window and yell.  We had a good time.  Once, we were coming back from a debate and were pretty hungry.  Mike suggested we stop at a farm house to see if they had any food.  We stopped at this house and told the old couple that we were their long lost cousins from Baltimore.  They said they didn't know they had relatives in Baltimore, but they invited us in, and we had a great dinner.  We then thanked them and headed back to school.
 Every year, Anderson College would host a debate between Harvard and our debate team.  There was a lot of pressure on Mike and me to defeat the team from Harvard.  This was the big time.  I suppose that the Harvard team would say that they didn't get any sleep the night before.  I didn't either.  They would say that they had car problems getting down to Anderson.  One thing you learn in debate though is to leave your problems at the door and do what you have to do.  We did.  We won.  Hands down.  By our win over Harvard, Mike and I were ranked in the top ten debate teams in the country.  By some accounts, we were number one in the country.  Invitations started coming in for us to compete in tournaments all over America.  We had to turn them down, because I was involved in doing a play, and Mike had his church responsibilities, but it was flattering to be invited.
 After my play responsibilities were over, we got an invitation to come to UCLA.  Our expenses would be paid.  Mike was very excited to go to California.  We were set to go.  Then, a conflict arose.  Sandra was going to be in the Miss Anderson County beauty pageant.  I had helped her with getting her ready for that event.  We had rehearsed her song.  We had worked on her poise.  It was very important to me to be there for her.  She needed me to be there for her.  So, I had to tell Mike I couldn't go to UCLA.  He was crushed.  He was mad.  Most of all, he was hurt.  He didn't speak to me after that, and our debate team dissolved. 
 In my college yearbook, he wrote that he was disappointed that we didn't go to UCLA, but we still had Harvard.  I saw Mike a couple of times after that over the years.  He died at a young age of cancer.  Sandra came in 4th in the beauty pageant.  She and I are still good friends.  I often wonder what if we had gone to the debate tournament.  Where would I be today? 

Saturday, September 5, 2015


 Elton John recorded a song years ago called "Friends".  It was for the movie of the same name.  That song became the theme song for some friends of mine at Kilbourne Park Baptist Church, and it spilled over to friends at Anderson College.  It started with Sonny, Ellen, Karen and me.  It spread to my new friends of Sandra, Talula, Mary, Jimmy and me. 
 Mr. Vivian was in charge of the Chapel Committee for AC.  He needed student volunteers to work in the chapel office during the chapel time.  Attendance was mandatory for chapel, so the volunteers had to check the rolls taken in chapel.  Sandra, Talula and I were the volunteers.  It was really a way to get out of chapel, but we were also the ones most involved in the drama programs, and we were also very good friends.  Sandra was from a very small town in Anderson County called Sandy Springs.  Talula was from a very small town in Orangeburg County called Bowman.  We used to kid Talula about cows, as she was a farm girl.  As it turned out, Bowman's street signs had cows on them.  Sandy Springs had a mill nearby, but it was mostly just a crossroads.  Sandra and I were sophomores, while Talula was a freshman.  I became their brother, and they became my sisters.  It became a time, where we got very close. 
 As time went on that sophomore year of mine, Sandra and I became closer.  I helped her prepare for both the Miss Anderson College and Miss Anderson County beauty pageants.  She was first runner-up in the first one and fourth runner-up in the second.  I prepared her with stage presence and talent.  Talula would later compete in the Miss Orangeburg County pageant, and she got Miss Congeniality. 
 Mr. Vivian was taking a group of people to Europe and the Middle East the summer of 1973 and asked us if we wanted to go.  We said yes, because it would be one last hurrah of the three of us being together.  It was not hard to convince our parents to also say yes.  They also knew how close we were, and it would be safer if we went as a group.  More on that trip later.
 Mary was from Greenville and a sophomore.  She had a hippie spirit, and so did I.  We were buddies.  Her father was on the radio and TV in Greenville.  We hung out a lot. 
 Jimmy was from a small town in Pickens County called Easley.  He was also involved in the drama program.  He was a freshman, but he seemed older than he was.  He also signed up to go to Europe with us that summer. 
 I was no longer the loner who was hated by everyone.  I was no longer the one who would never amount to anything.  I had friends.  Real friends.  Good friends.  Loving friends.  Caring friends.  It felt good.  Real good.  Amazingly good.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Breaking of Bread

 When Mr. Vivian was planning the drama season for 1972-73, he originally wanted to do a play around the death of Jesus, but there were some limitations around our stage, and it would be too big to produce, so he settled on "Laura".  The spring play was to be a bedroom farce, but the female lead didn't want to kiss me, so that was scrapped.  In between the two plays, he planned to do a one-act play about the Civil War called "The Breaking of Bread".  It involved two soldiers, one Union and one Confederate, who meet on a battlefield.  There were about five other guys, who played dead soldiers.  I was cast as the Confederate.  Dennis, who had just played the lead in "Laura" was cast as the Yankee soldier.  His parents objected.  They didn't want Dennis to play a Union soldier, so the parts were switched, and I was the Union soldier, and Dennis was the Southerner. 
 We rehearsed for a few weeks.  We were to do the play in chapel for the students at Anderson College.  The play was set outdoors, so we tried to get a little realism in there by spreading leaves all over the stage, and get a tree stump to put near the middle of the stage.  We also put limbs around the back of the stage.  There were two fight scenes, and we choreographed them.  Since I couldn't wear my glasses in this play, I had to memorize where everything was on stage, so I wouldn't run into anything.  I also had to know when Dennis was going to throw a punch.  We scheduled the play to run just before Thanksgiving. 
 The first performance was for chapel.  During the first fight scene, Dennis threw a punch, and I wasn't ready.  He caught me on my nose, and it started bleeding.  I had to carry on.  Later, some folks in the audience asked me how I got ketchup up my nose to get it to look like it was bleeding.  I told them it was magic.  During the second fight scene, the object was to fight over a rifle and Dennis would come up with it.  Unfortunately, the rifle was brown and so were the leaves.  It got lost under the leaves, and we couldn't find it.  The play couldn't continue until we found the rifle, so I started by slinging him across the stage, and he felt under the leaves for it but it wasn't there.  He did the same thing to me.  No gun.  Panic set in.  The fight scene went on longer.  Dennis flipped me over him, and I landed on the gun, hurting my back.  I held it up to him, and he grabbed it.  We could then proceed with the play.  The audience never knew.  Toward the end of the play, there is a climatic duel.  I had rigged my gun with a cap, which would go off.  Unfortunately, when I pulled the trigger, nothing happened.  I tried again, and the cap didn't fire.  It had worked great in rehearsal.  So, I made up a line about Yankee guns not working right.  It got a little laugh from the audience.  Dennis's gun fired. 
 The reaction to the play was very positive, and there were three churches in the area that wanted us to come and do it there.  The fight scenes went okay, although my back had not healed, so I would reinjure it every time.  At our third church, we did the scene, and Dennis slammed into the stump.  After the play was over, we were in the restroom of the church changing our clothes, when Dennis asked me what a broken wrist looked like.  His hand was swollen.  Mr. Vivian had to take him to the hospital.
 The play had a powerful message, but it was jinxed.  About three years later, I had to direct a one-act for my Senior year at Presbyterian College.  I picked "The Breaking of Bread", but I rewrote it to be a story of World War III.  One character was from America, and the other was British.  I cast two actors from the Theatre program.  One of the two said something funny during rehearsal, and I laughed at him.  He thought I was laughing at his performance, and he got offended and walked off of the set.  I had to recast it with a week to go.  It went off okay, but it wasn't memorable.  After all, that play was jinxed.