I recently wrote an article about the Citizens Who Care show, which we saw this afternoon. This was an article near and dear to my heart because it was meant to memorialize two of the guys who died this past year, particularly our friend Jim Hutchinson. I wanted to share the article here.
Jim Hutchinson, who, with his wife Pat, was one of the founding members of the group and who took charge of all the backstage arrangements and so much more, lost his battle with cancer in April of 2012. Tenor Peter Shack, who never missed one single Citizens Who Care performance in twenty years, lost his own battle with cancer a month later.
"Jim helped launch this idea," said Stephen Peithman. "His death has been difficult for Citizens Who Care because Jim did so much behind the scenes. People just took it for granted.. He did a masterful job. Everything was there when we went into the theater. Ken Wagstaff has taken on many of those roles this year, but it has taken us all a bit of time to make sure all the pieces are in place."
Of Shack, Peitnman says, "Peter was with us from the very first Citizens Who Care show. He was just one of those very interesting people. Such a talented guy, so un-full of ego. He was very confident in what he could do and worked very hard. He always took direction easily. His main concern was doing a good performance. He was a joy to work with. He was also a great calming influence, which was important."
Hutchinson was so central to the annual Citizens Who Care show that in his last days, he was the one who set the program for this year’s show.
As it happened, Peithman’s partner, Larry Fanning and Hutchinson were both undergoing chemotherapy treatments at the same time.
"Jim’s treatment was much worse, though you’d never know it," explained Peithman. "His brand of chemotherapy was pretty severe, but he was always very supportive of Larry. Shortly after last year’s Citizens Who Care show, we went in for Larry’s chemo and Jim was there with his daughter Kate. Kate sat and visited with Larry while I sat with Jim. I told him I was already giving thought to the next show and that I had several ideas. The one that struck Jim most strongly was the music of Bing Crosby. He said ‘I think our audience would like that very much."
They continued to discuss the possibilities of doing a show around Crosby’s career and by the time Peithman left, he had settled on that for this year’s show. As it turned out it was Hutchinson’s last chemo treatment and he died shortly afterwards. "It was totally unexpected," said Peithman. "You expected Jim to live forever. He was such a gentleman, right to the end. This show was his last gift to Citizens Who Care."
"The audience will have a good time with this show," said Peithman "They will come away with a feeling for the amazing career – 50 years – that Crosby had, and so many different kinds of music that he sang. Peithman also found a lot of great stories to tell during his research.
People may have one impression of Crosby, the crooner, but he was far more than that. He was an architect of 20th century entertainment, a force in the development of three industries that barely existed when he came into the world — recordings, motion pictures and broadcasting.
Throughout much of his career, he dominated the music charts with nearly 300 hit singles to his credit. To this, he added stardom in movies, radio and television. His work helped to transform and define the cultural life not only of the United States, but of the world.
People may forget that his career started with jazz, but once he realized how to really work a microphone, that he could modulate his voice if he got very close to the mic itself, he could sound as if he was singing just to one person who was listening. The mic discovery changed everything. It was a different approach to singing than had been attempted before and opened the way for a lot of other crooners, like Russ Colombo – but nobody did it as well as Crosby. He set a whole new standard for ballad singers.
Crosby had a successful radio show that went from the 30s to the 50s. Radio gave him a chance to sing songs that he never recorded and he gave new songwriters a place to perform their works. In film, he learned different styles of acting. "He was an instinctive actor when he was comfortable with a role," said Peithman.
With Bob Hope, he made six different "Road" pictures over 12 years, where the men drove co-star Dorothy Lamour crazy with their ad-libbed insults, but even the insults were scripted by gag writers.
The problem with making Bing Crosby the subject of a Citizens Who Care show is that there is almost too much material. "A big problem is figuring out what NOT to sing," laughed Peithman.
When Peithman and Martha Dickman begin putting the show together they start with list of songs and getting them together in a logical sequence. The biggest challenge is to make sure each of the singers is well provided for. "There is no point in doing a song if you don’t have a singer who can do it justice and enjoy performing it."
"You also need to consider the line of the story you’re trying to tell and how the songs tell that story. To me that’s the secret of all of our shows’ successes, but the ones that have been most successful are where the songs and the story you’re telling complement each other."
One way to get in a lot of songs is to do medleys, where bits and pieces of many songs are woven together. In this show there is an Irish medley ("Crosby was Irish and recorded a lot of Irish songs throughout his career.") and a medley of Western numbers like "Don’t Fence Me In." ("He loved to do unusual numbers," explains Peithman.)
Paul Fearn, familiar to Davis Musical Theater audiences, will be sitting in Peter Shack’s seat and Lisa Derthick will be filling in for Lenore Heinson, whose schedule did not allow her to participate this year. Both were known to the other members of the group, and so they fit right in. "It’s important when we present ourselves to the audience that they get the feeling these people like each other."
There are two things you can count on in this year’s concert. One is that the audience is going to have a great time, and the other is that where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day, Jim Hutchinson and Peter Shack will somehow be listening and smiling.
After the concert there was a small reception for all who had been involved. I was invited, because I was Walt's wife. At the reception the president of the organization came up to thank me for the article and tell me how beautiful it was. Then he said, "do you ever write anything else for The Enterprise?"
Sigh. I've been the only theater critic for the paper for thirteen years!!!