September 10, 2017

How my stage career nearly began as The Friendly Eagle

There, but for the grace of God....
After five posts on Samson and Delilah, I'm not quite ready to plunge into a series of essays on Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West, coming to Virginia in late November. Soon, but first a short break.

In the meantime, allow me to relate a really weird performing-arts-related memory from my early days in Virginia. It's a tale of how my career on the stage nearly got off to a TRULY unlikely start.

I've been fortunate enough to be cast in some memorably great roles: Mozart's Count Almaviva; Sondheim's Sweeney Todd; Rossini's Don Magnifico; Mecham's Tartuffe; and others. But today I will describe the role that wasn't to be:

The Friendly Eagle.

It was 1976. I had just completed my Master's in piano from Indiana University's School of Music. My parents had retired from Evanston Illinois to Williamsburg, so I traveled there to spend the summer and figure out an answer to the existential question "NOW WHAT?"

The immediate problem was the matter of a summer job. Williamsburg is a tourist town, so it's not that difficult to find work in the summer months. I hit the bricks, filling out applications here and there, and working the phones as well.

One of those phone calls was to the gigantic theme park off Route 60: Busch Gardens. Spread over some 380 acres of heavily-wooded land near the James River in James City County, the park is known for spectacular roller coasters and draws up to three million visitors a year.

A return phone call brought good news: I had an interview for employment! Yay! I was given the building and room number where I was to report. I wore a freshly-pressed shirt and sharply-creased trousers and made my way to the enormous complex with a parking lot so large that shuttle busses conveyed the public from its farthest reaches to the gate.

I anticipated a typical interview en route to a job pushing a broom or making hamburgers. Arriving at the appointed place at the appointed time, I joined a group of five or six other aspiring employees, all of us unsure what was happening. Was this going to be a group interview??

Suddenly, the door burst open and in strode a man of beefy physique. Heavily tanned, he wore a Hawaiian shirt open at the chest. Heavy gold chains hung around his thick neck. He had the air of a Hollywood producer; all that was missing was a pair of sun glasses. He launched into his spiel:

"Good morning, people, how are we doing this fine sunny morning?" he boomed, all extroverted hail-fellow-well-met. With astounding energy, he continued: "Here at The Old Country (that's what the park was called back then) we're looking for real PEOPLE PERSONS. Is each of you a people person? How about you, Glenn? (He seemed to know our names.)

I allowed as to how yes, I was a people person.

"I could tell that by looking at you, Glenn, good for you. Now folks, this here audition we're about to begin..."

Audition? For a fast-food job? What?

"...this here audition will give you a chance to show your ability to think fast and really get into character."

Get into character? WHAT WAS HAPPENING?

He locked eyes with me. "Glenn, here's what I want you to do, my friend. What would it look like if you were an egg frying in a pan? Ready? Aaaaand... GO!"

Improv. We were all going to do improve to get our summer jobs.

I resisted the urge to say aloud what I was thinking, namely: "There's been a mistake. I just want to push a broom or flip burgers." But an inner voice warned against rocking the boat, so the following little scene ensued:

I lay down on the floor, flat on my back, with my arms outstretched, as if the "white" of my "egg" had spread out on the skillet that was the carpeting. Awkwardly, I began flopping around, vaguely simulating my concept of the egg bubbling over what was obviously too high a temperature for a properly-cooked egg. It lasted about ten seconds.

Ten incredibly long, incredibly lame seconds.

"Okay, GLENN!" boomed Cecil B. DeMille encouragingly. I was done. I could leave. "Oh well", I thought, "there's always McDonald's". I left the park, still not knowing what the HELL that had all been about.

The next day, the phone rang. I'd been hired! And then I learned what the job entailed. In those days, the park had costumed characters who wandered the grounds. greeting children, patting them on the head and posing for pictures. My character: the "Friendly Eagle". The photo above will give you an idea of the nature of the "role" in which I had been "cast". Wow - an ACTING GIG!

Kind of.

Did I take the job? Are you crazy? Would YOU spend an eight-hour shift wearing an eagle costume in the 100-degree heat and humidity of a southeastern Virginia summer? That's a ticket to suffering on a scale hitherto unknown to me; I'd led a pretty sheltered life.

Instead I got a job as a security guard at another tourist trap in the village of Lightfoot; a huge outdoor mall known as the Williamsburg Pottery.

Some pretty good stories about that job, actually, but not for this blog because it lacked even the tangential connection to "performing arts" that I'm pretending was found in the Friendly Eagle.

Somehow, I doubt that James Levine ever went through things like this.........

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