Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Any woman who has given birth knows that if enough time has passed, you begin to forget the pain of the birth process itself and concentrate on the love you feel for the little baby in your arms. It's the only reason why there are families that have more than one child, I suspect! That lovely process of selective memory. We remember that it hurts, but we can't actually feel the pain any more and only remember that we recovered and had something that we loved and were so proud of in our hands.

I've been thinking a lot about that phenomenon since the e-mail arrived yesterday afternoon...and anybody who has known me since the mid 1980s is going to be shocked to hear what I'm about to write.

The letter was from a woman whose name I didn't recognize, but she was telling me that the Lamplighters, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2012, wanted to put out a Volume 3 of the company's history and she wondered if Alison or I would be interested in being involved.

My first reaction was to laugh hysterically, think that there was NO WAY I wanted to put myself through that again, and to forward her message to Alison. I knew Alison, too, wouldn't be in the least interested.

I thought that I had told the story of the Lamplighter histories before, but research shows that it's only come across in bits and pieces, so let me set it all down in one place. The year was about 1975. Walt and I had been attending Lamplighters shows since the 60s, before we were married. We had become Lamplighter groupies, were subscribers, had introduced lots of other folks to the company and we were on the mailing list, receiving company notices.

In one of the notices was a little announcement that a woman named Alison Lewis was going to be working on a book to celebrate the company's 25th anniversary and she was looking for volunteers to help. Two of us wrote to her and showed up to work on the book. It was serendipitous. Carolyn McGovern, Alison and I were all the same age, we all had kids and we were all at a place where our youngest child (in Carolyn's case her only child) had just started school, so suddenly we found ourselves with time on our hands. We all loved the Lamplighters and thought it was important and would be fun to record its history.

I still remember the first day I showed up at the Lamplighter warehouse. It was like Dorothy opening the door into Oz for the first day. It was just this dusty, dingy old storehouse but for me, it was entering the land of Oz. I remember seeing a suit of armor from a production of Yeomen of the Guard as I walked up the rickety stairs to Company Director Spencer Beman's office. I could recognize costumes, props, and all sorts of paraphernalia that I'd seen in shows over the years. It was magic. Of course by the time the book was finished the magic was long gone and you can't go home again, but that first day was really magic.

We worked on the book for months. There were lots and lots of interviews, most of which I transcribed since I was too far away to be part of the live interviews. But I did interview some of my favorite people. We built a humongous roster of everyone who had ever appeared in a Lamplighter program and all of the things that they did (>4000 people and 25 years of shows). We had hundreds, if not thousands, of little slips of paper with information on them that we spent months compiling for the roster. We made a list of every show the Lamplighters had ever done (whether in their own theatre or a guest appearance somewhere else).

We started with two huge garbage bags stuffed full of programs, reviews, and photographs and then scoured everybody's photo albums for missing programs and additional photos to get a complete picture of the company.

And then there was the text. We decided to divide the book into three sections and each of us would write one section of it. But I chickened out. I felt I didn't have the skill to write my section and make it sound as scholarly as the other two women, so Alison ended up writing two sections, and I wrote the first draft of the preface.

Though we had the nominal support of the Board of Directors, the deeper we got into the project the more roadblocks were put up by Spencer Beman, the Company Manager. Spencer hated women, and especially competent women and the more competent we were, the more he made our task difficult. He belittled us at every turn and put up as many roadblocks as he could to thwart the project. In fact, when it came to "acknowledgements" in the book, we were tempted to leave Spencer out completely, but Alison, ever the diplomat, wrote "Because of this history, Spencer Beman suffered numerous distractions from his already monumental job as producer and executive vice president of the Lamplighters; this book could not but become an additional burden for him." It was much kinder than he deserved.

We were not celebrated for our accomplishment when the book was published (except years later), but the board did get together to have a dinner for us. We sat off in a corner feeling like we were intruding on them!

However, despite our bitter feelings after the book was published, I stuck around the Lamplighters and worked off and on as a volunteer for the next ten years, which is when my friendship with Gilbert became very strong. The two of us started what became the permanent company newsletter, "Cock and Bull" and forever changed the course of Lamplighter Galas, when we wrote "Major General Hospital."

When Gilbert died in 1986, I was adamant that we put out a supplement to Book 1. I wanted there to be somewhere where Gilbert's accomplishments could be recorded for posterity. I also wanted MY period of time with the Lamplighters to be recorded.

Carolyn was so burned by Book 1 that not only was she uninterested in a second book, she refused to ever go to another Lamplighters show. But Alison was willing to work with me on a second book. It was she who convinced the Board to let the project go forth, while I sat waiting for her at a cafe. I suspect many things were said that she protected me from, but ultimately we had our OK.

The second book went easier. People who had joined the company since Book 1 was published felt they had missed out and so were eager to cooperate. They were familiar with what we were capable of producing and there was less skepticism about the project. Again, we did interviews and updated the roster, now including members of the orchestra as well.

By the time the book was underway, Spencer had been eased out as Director and Alan Harvey had taken the job (both men have since died). Alan was wonderfully supportive. Things still did not go smoothly, but with Alan's backing, so much better than the first time around. I was also not only more confident in my writing ability by this time, but it was also important for me to tell Gilbert's story. I did most of the writing, with Alison coming in to help me sound scholarly.

When the book was published in 1987, I felt I had done what I could to preserve Gilbert's legacy, as well as continue the story of The Lamplighters' next ten years, and I was ready to close the door on my involvement with the company.

When the 50th anniversary was coming up, people started hinting that there should be another book and I steadfastly said I was definitely not interested. And so the 50th passed with no updated history.

We have continued to go to Lamplighter shows, but my heart was not with the company the way it was before Gilbert died. I worked on scripts for a few of the annual Galas, Walt worked on the tech crew. We traveled with the company to England for an International competition (which The Lamplighters won).

But as time passed, I was of less and less value to the gala committees as more and more talented people who were there all the time became involved. Walt (and the rest of the tech crew) was eased out when the company started performing in a union house and had to work with union tech people.

We don't see all the shows any more, but we see most of them. We don't have season tickets any more, but buy single tickets, sometimes for a San Francisco performance, sometimes for a Walnut Creek performance, sometimes for a Sonoma performance. Sometimes we don't go at all (I wouldn't mind never seeing HMS Pinafore again, thank you).

After I forwarded the e-mail off to Alison yesterday, I started toying with the idea of working on a book for the 60th and I decided that, to my great surprise, I was interested. It would be completely different from either of the previous two books. It would be like going in cold because I don't know the performers any more--I don't even pay attention to their names any more so with few exceptions I can't tell you who is new and who has actually been around for several years.

Then an even more surprising thing happened...Alison said she was interested too, though didn't want to take a leadership role. So we have let the woman who wrote to me know that we're both in, and that she (or someone else) will have to be the leader 'cause we don't want that responsibility this time around.

We'll all meet next month and map out what needs to happen and who is going to do what. I can't believe I'm actually going to do this again, but...what the heck! It will involve commuting back and forth to San Francisco, and will give me a chance to listen to a lot of audio books!

1 comment:

Mrs. Gamgee said...

It sounds like an incredible project. Good luck with the next installment.