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"My first professional theater job."
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Published 7 years ago
It was Friday afternoon in mid-June, 1962. I had just stepped out of the shower, and was feeling considerably better for having removed a layer of cement dust and sweat when the phone rang.

My mother got to it first, but held it out to me, saying, "It’s Mr. Daniel’s wife. She wants to speak to you."

Mr. Daniel had been my high school band director, but I had graduated several weeks before, and couldn’t imagine why his wife would want to speak with me. I took the phone, warily.


“Hi, David. This is Estelle Daniel; Dick’s wife. I need to ask a big favor. Dick is running a fever of one hundred and four, and is supposed to be playing Kismet at Painters Mill Theater tonight. I told him he’d do no such thing, and asked who he thought he could get as a substitute on such short notice. The part is reed four: tenor sax, a little bit of clarinet, and flute. Orchestra call is at seven thirty, with an eight o’clock curtain. It’s a union job, so you’ll have to have your card with you, to sign the green sheet. Are you available?”

I was ecstatic! This would be my first real theater gig, and to top it off, it paid union scale. That meant double pay for playing flute, and another double for playing clarinet. “Sure,” I said. "What’s the uniform?"

“Oh, good thing you asked, ‘cause I forgot to tell you - black tux. White shirt with stand-up or spread collar, your choice. You DO own a tux, don’t you?”

“No, but Dad and I are the same size, except for trouser length. I can borrow his, and get mom to help me pin up the cuffs.”

“Okay, great. I’ll tell Dick to get back to bed and quit worrying.”

I hung up the phone, and scampered around, making sure I had plenty of fresh clarinet and tenor sax reeds in the case, and I hauled Dad’s tux out of the closet.

Mom looked at it critically, and said, “You have to press the trousers, Young Man, or the hanger crease will show. Put them on, and we’ll pin them up first. While you’re doing that, I’ll set up the ironing board.”

Our ironing board was just that: a board about six feet long that mom had covered with padding and an old sheet. Mom got it out of the closet, and laid it across the backs of two dining room chairs. Then she got the pressing cloth and dampened it under the kitchen faucet. Setting it in a ball on one end of the board, she said, “Put the shoes on, and get up on one of these chairs, so I can see what I’m doing.”

I did as I was told, and mom expertly folded the bottom inch of the trousers under, securing it with half a dozen straight pins on each leg. “Ok, “ she said, now press the creases in at the bottom, then press out the wrinkles. Remember not to slide the iron across the pressing cloth. Just pick it up and set it down in a fresh spot.”

The iron was an old American Beauty that weighed about five pounds, so “pressing” required hardly any effort at all. But you did have to be careful because it had no temperature control. It was either on or off. I had been ironing my own shirts since I was about fourteen though, so felt confident I could handle it without scorching the wool.

I was just finishing up, when I heard Dad’s VW pull into the garage.

“Oh, good! Your father’s home early. You better take his car tonight. I don’t know how much gas is in the bus.”

“Hi, Honey! I’m home,” Dad said, as he came in the kitchen door. He set his lunchbox on the counter, and gave Mom a big hug and kiss.

“What’s up? “ he asked, “It looks like my eldest son is stealing my clothing.”

Mom laughed and told him about my getting the call to go play at Painter’s Mill. “I’m not sure how much gas is in my car. Can he take your car tonight? How much gas is in it?”

“It went on Reserve on the way home, but we can dump some in from the lawnmower can. I filled that yesterday.”

My hopes sank. I had known the big five gallon can was empty, but was hoping Dad wouldn’t notice, and I wouldn’t be able to mow the lawn on Saturday. Oh, well, I thought, You can’t always win.

I didn’t say anything, but put the trousers back on, and put the ironing board and iron away.

“How was your day?” I heard Mom asking as the dining room door swung shut behind me.

I went upstairs and dug around in Dad’s bureau until I found the Sucrets box he kept his studs and cufflinks in. Then I put on the rest of the uniform, and went back downstairs.

“You clean up surprisingly well,” Mom said, and gave me a peck on the cheek.

Dad handed me a five dollar bill and said, “You can stop off after the show and pick up a sandwich for yourself at the Twin Kiss. Come home across Garrison. I don’t want you driving out on Reisterstown Road any more than you have to. We’ll be waiting up, to make sure you get home okay.”

I pulled into the entrance, and when the parking guard saw my tux, he waved me through to the cast and crew parking, around back of the theater. I got my tray pack case out of the back of the car, and strode into the theater as if I knew exactly what I was doing, but I was really nervous. This was professional theater, and even though I thought I was a good musician, I knew I was really in a little over my head. When I got to the orchestra pit, I began to get really scared.

The Reed One musician was Gordon Miller, principal clarinetist with Baltimore Symphony. The Reed Two player was Rupert Neary, who had started me on flute when I was in the fourth grade. The Reed Three player was Bob Spangler, from whom I had been taking saxophone lessons for the past four years. The First Trombone player was Carl Dietrich, who had been working for Menchey Music when I bought my flute from them in 1953. The Lead Trumpet player was Bob Kersey, who taught at Milford Mill High School, and who directed the Pikesville Kiwanis Marching Band. I had been playing flute in his band ever since I was in the seventh grade. As far as I was concerned, these guys were all musical GODS!

I set up my horns, and started leafing through the book, to see if there were any nasty passages. It was loaded with sixteenth note runs, full of accidentals, and in a gazillion sharps. I began to get really scared, and must have looked it.

Gordon Miller turned to me as said, “Don’t worry, Kid. You’ll be okay. Just remember to start and end every run on the right note, and let whatever happens in between, happen. And don’t play in any holes. Also, remember the biggest rule in theater playing: If in doubt, leave it out.”

All the first act is a complete blur. During intermission, I went outside with Gordy Miller and Rupert Neary to smoke. All the rest of the guys came up and introduced themselves, but I don’t remember a single name. I was still pretty scared.

The second act started, and I was reading like a demon, still scared, but catching a few more notes in each of the tricky passages. About three pages into the second act, I turned the page, and someone had written in large letters, “Be ready to look up.”

I assumed there must be some sort of cue I was supposed to get from an onstage actor, so I was “on my toes”, waiting. The next page had the same note, and on the facing page, it said, “Be REALLY ready!”

We were in the middle of a long dance number, and it was zipping by in a gazillion sharps at tempo di tear-ass. I was scuffling like mad, trying not to screw up, and in the middle of the next page, during a four bar rest was written, “LOOK UP!”

I looked up on stage, and was looking straight up under Ethel Merman’s skirt. She was wearing sheer-to-the-waist pantyhose. And I was no good. I almost dropped my flute, and I completely lost my place in the music. I missed about three pages before I could compose myself. I glanced over at Gordy Miller, and Carl Dietrich, who was sitting behind him. I thought the two of them were going to fall off their chairs, they were laughing so hard.

Fast forward to July 4, 1998. I got a call to substitute on piccolo with the Baltimore City Park Band. When I showed up at Patterson Park, and strolled over to the bandstand, the first person I saw whom I recognized was Gordy Miller. I hadn’t seen him since that fateful night at Painters Mill Theater.

“Dave B…!” he exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you in - what’s it been - almost forty years? I remember that night when you subbed for Dick Daniel, at Painters Mill. I thought you were gonna pass out,” and he doubled over, laughing.

I played piccolo with the Baltimore City Municipal Concert Band for the next ten years, until we were phased out of the City’s recreation budget. Gordy Miller sat directly behind me playing first clarinet, and in all that time, I never heard him play one wrong note. But whenever I think of him, I remember my first pay theater gig, playing Kismet.

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