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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ghostwriter to the Vampire and Other Stories, Pt. 1

Jonathan posing just before a rehearsal at a New York Public Library in 1986
(NOTE: This entry is just one of a series on Jonathan Frid)

A review I had written in a Philadelphia theater magazine of Jonathan Frid's then "work in progress" of FOOLS AND FIENDS got into his hands.  He made inquiries as to who I was and within a few months of my write-up of his new theatrical ambitions, I went from one in a large audience in a ballroom to one of a few in Jonathan Frid's apartment.  It was April, 1986. I still lived in Delaware, just south of Philadelphia - a city he knew well - and I was looking to move to New York to pursue work in the theater as an actor and writer.  

Jonathan Frid was looking to hire someone to help him in the writing of original material for his first of what would be three-one man shows, JONATHAN FRID'S FOOLS AND FIENDS.  The original material in question was the narrative that connected the short stories in the reader's theater program he was developing for touring on the college/university circuit and theaters across the country.  It was a lofty ambition, I thought.  Why I thought it was a lofty ambition was not something I felt comfortable in sharing with this man who was interested in opinions on the new material he was presenting at these rehearsals in his apartment.  

Like many of my generation, I grew up watching "Dark Shadows" in the afternoons and I was fascinated, absolutely gobsmacked with the character of Barnabas.  My favorite characters up until this point in 1967 had been Zorro and The Green Hornet.   Barnabas was different.  I couldn't get enough of him or the actor's voice.  I read in magazines how this actor had gone to school and out on the road to study and hone his craft.  I decided that I wanted to be an actor.  I was forever hooked on the beauty of The Spoken Word and the power of the voice.  

Now, almost twenty years later, the skinny, spastic redheaded girl who was mesmerized by Barnabas Collins was sitting in the creator's apartment and Jonathan Frid was a real person indeed, shaking my hand gently and then raising to his lips to kiss it.  I nearly passed out.   A  few apartment rehearsals later, Jonathan invited me to a meeting with his business partner and manager, Mary O'Leary, and young writer and rehearsal organizer, Billy McKinley.   I had given them my resume which detailed my theater and literary experience both in academic and professional settings since the four years I had been out of college.   I was as intimidated as I ever had been.  What I admired most about this actor was his extensive and impressive resume in addition to his obvious talents as a performer. And here we were his asking about me and my work.  

Would I come and work for him - or, more to the point - his new production company Clunes Associates?  I had planned on moving to New York anyway and within a few months I did just that.  I was pleased with myself as I had made my intended move and already had a theatrical project I was involved with.  

But the hard part was yet to come.  Jonathan said that "we" had to have some strong conversations about marketing.   He asked me for my opinion on how to proceed and what obstacles we had to overcome.  I am not known for mincing words when asked for my opinion.  I don't strive to be mean or hurt (usually) and here I had to be blunt - and I was scared I would get kicked out of the opinion.  

"Well, I see two major obstacles," I ventured, somewhat reluctantly.

Jonathan was a little impatient at that.  He didn't like to chase or prod.  Spit it out, already.

"The first obstacle is trying to explain to people what Reader's Theater is and convince them it's exciting to watch."   Jonathan smiled and nodded.

"The second issue, I think, is getting the word out there that you are, like, still alive as you have been out of the public eye for quite a long time."  Much to my relief, he smiled rather broadly at my honesty.  

Later when we went out to dinner, I apologized if I hurt his feelings.  "Oh no no, stop that!" he said, impatiently.  "We need to know what we are up against."
Jonathan later told me that he had problems finding people enthusiastic about his wanting to get back into the business with this idea of reader's theater AND willing to debate with him on the merits of this, that and the other thing.  In other words, not be a "yes" man.  If you were someone constantly in awe of Jonathan and thought everything he did was wonderful and right, you would not last in his employ.   He came out and told me he appreciated people who were willing to be confrontational with him over material he was working on.  I assured him that I had no trouble with being confrontational.  I also told him that I admired him as an actor, couldn't wait see what he did with this reader's theater program but I was not a star-struck person.  The fact that I admired his talents didn't mean that everything that came out of his mouth was golden.   I remember he smiled and winked at me.    Whew, I was lucky I could just be myself and not blow this deal where I was now living in New York City and involved in a theater project just getting off the ground.

In my relatively short life (28) I had already collaborated with others on a variety of stage works, in addition to accepting commissions to write plays commemorating a significant event for civic and religious groups in the Mid-Atlantic area.  Naturally, I was a little intimidated at the prospect of working on a collaboration with an actor I admired and whose professional and life experience greatly exceeded my own.

JONATHAN FRID'S FOOLS AND FIENDS was indeed a joint effort.  What I came to appreciate about Jonathan was the fact he respected the opinion of those whose background was not nearly as accomplished as his own.  He asked me, Will McKinley and Mary O'Leary to vote on the stories that we felt should be included in the final "cut" of the one-man reader's theater program.  We did and that became the show.  My task was to write narrative that would tie together the stories.  The way this final worked was that I would write narrative that was really more conceptual than in Jonathan's actual voice.  He would take what I wrote, pick out what he wanted, write a bit of it, I would take that and flesh it out more using what he wrote and then fine-tune it.  This took lots of time.  I easily was putting in 25-30 hours a week at Jonathan's apartment and my own work space at home at this particular task.   I was contracted to be a ghostwriter meaning my name would not appear on any copy.  

The number one frustrating trait of Jonathan's was the constant changing of his mind.  There were days I thought I would take the gas pipe after having spent hours and hours working on a narrative we agreed the day before would go a certain way - only to discover he had completely changed his mind about the tact he wanted to take.  Then he would forget that he had said this, that and the other.  To keep things on track, we agreed to audiotape our work sessions.  This helped for me to review later what we had talked about, agreed on and what he ultimately wanted to do.  This also prevented him from denying that he ever said something when, in fact, he did.  His memory was never good and in these work sessions I came to realize that he had some form of dyslexia.  This realization brought back memories of watching "Dark Shadows" and hearing Jonathan as Barnabas say "This night must go nothing wrong" (or something like that).   Ah, that explains it, I thought.

Jonathan hyper-focused which could be mentally exhausting for me as he went over and over the same material, getting everything he could out of it.  What kept it all pleasant (and me sane) was the side-tracking that went on.   It was during these "asides" that I learned how much we had in common despite our age difference: a love of old movies, political satire, Carol Burnett, Ruth Draper, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn (he loved redheads), Bette Midler, rooting for the underdog in life, history - quite a bit to talk about.

Something we would be working on would remind him of one thing, we would start talking about that which would lead to another topic and so on.  

Jonathan was a generous employer and while with him working on a project, he wouldn't let you pay for a meal.  You had to be on time, prepared, and focused.  But the sometimes grueling schedule of working on the development and fine-tuning of a performance project was made bearable by Jonathan's personality and humor.  We shared the exact same sense of humor and view of life.  He was so funny I came to describe him to people as one of the funniest people I've ever known in my life.  Some twenty years later, this is still true.

While a project was being finalized for performance, it was not unusual for me to be scheduled to spend all my days at Jonathan's apartment.  He asked that I do this.  I kept a graveyard shift, word processing job at a large law firm in lower Manhattan.  He had me come to his place at 8:30 a.m. after work, have me sleep in his bedroom until 2 p.m. while he worked in his office/living room and ran errands.  I would wake up to whatever he fixed for me, work for about four or six hours, have dinner and I would go home to shower and change for work - and it would all start over again the next day.    This schedule could go on for weeks with the agreement weekends were usually free.

Well, not entirely free.  It was on weekends during 1986-1988 that I worked on marketing proposals and direct-marketing letters for Jonathan's manager and business partner, Mary O'Leary.   We even went to weekend conferences hosted by organizations that brought together programmers from nationwide and regional colleges, universities and theaters.  We also developed acting workshop programs that Jonathan would conduct.  That was something I worked on with Mary, who held a degree in Theater Education and then, obviously with Jonathan too.

Then something happened to shake everything up.  Jonathan was asked to read for the role of Jonathan Brewster in "ARSENIC AND OLD LACE."  This particular production was on Broadway in 1986 starring Jean Stapleton and Marion Ross as the crazy sisters.  Jonathan initially resisted the offer because he wanted to focus on the one-man show but fortunately Mary talked him into it, citing that it was a good business move.  The Broadway tour of this production would take him across the country, garner press attention and let the public know that he was alive and relevant.  If we were going to make a go of the one-man show, we needed to sell it and sell him.  We had been buoyed by the initial response to Jonathan while attending the conferences and selling the show to programmers.  A high profile Broadway tour of a popular play would be just what we had been looking for.

So, just before Christmas, Jonathan Frid would step out on a Broadway stage for the first time in over twenty years, to conclude the remaining two week run before commencing the Broadway tour.

What this meant was finalizing the FOOLS AND FIENDS script and put it aside for the time being.  I was then hired to run lines with Jonathan every night (after his day rehearsals) for about three weeks.  To learn lines, he would have me be the character (and he wanted me to act the character) and respond in kind.  He had me do this for his tape recorder in which I would say the line of the character and he would mouth the words to leave time for him to respond when he was listening to the recorder by himself.  I even went with him to the rehearsals at the theater to take notes and sometimes run the lines with him and Larry Storch, occasionally with Jean Stapleton.  

Jonathan and Larry Storch had very different theatrical backgrounds.  Storch had an innate sense of timing and Jonathan did not trust his sense of timing.  There is a scene in the play where the Storch and Jonathan characters are trying to get a body through the window.  Storch's timing was instinctive whereas Jonathan needed to have it literally timed out.  This caused frustrating on Storch's part and he was as patient as possible though sometimes he looked at me and mouthed "HELP!!"  I studied how Storch did this scene in rehearsals and back at Jonathan's apartment we physically rehearsed the scene over and over until he got comfortable with hit.  By this point, I had memorized much of the dialogue in the play and was able to play Storch's character with Jonathan.  He noted that I seemed to have gotten down how Larry did the scene and that these rehearsals would help him get his own timing down.  It did.  

The day he was to open (replacing Abe Vigoda) in the role he went to the theater very early.  He was nervous, I could tell.  I had a beeper for work and Jonathan also used it to contact me. After telling me he didn't need me for the rest of the day (he opened that night) he wound up beeping me several times for this and that and I finally convinced him to just let me stay at the theater.  He was uptight, nervous - and that always manifests itself in his being snappy and overly picky.  I practically hid in the the corner of his dressing room saying nothing while reading the newspaper, Playbill or whatever.  I had written the Playbill copy of his biography which pleased me no end.   He finally told me that my being there made him feel better.  You couldn't prove it by me but, hey, if he felt that way, fine.  I just wanted him to relax and do well.

He asked me (and paid for) to go watch Abe Vigoda twice in the role.  Jonathan himself never saw him play the part and didn't want to.   I don't remember why he wanted me to do that.  It may have been to make a comparison to see how different Jonathan would be in the role.  Jonathan had to be told by the director a few times not to worry about the comedy.  Jonathan didn't see where his character was that funny compared to the hilarious antics surrounding him.  He had to learn to trust the material.   Jonathan asked me to come watch the show a few nights a week (as his guest) and take notes on what I thought of what he was doing.  

In spite of his nerves, Jonathan was great opening night.  He brought flowers (as was his habit) to the leading ladies Jean Stapleton and Marion Ross.   He also got great reviews throughout the tour of the production.  Sometimes he was the only one of the cast who got a good review in a particular city, such as Philadelphia.   He started to relax, fans living in and around New York City came to the stage door and it turned out he had the biggest stage door "business" of all the cast.  I would come and take him home every night in my car.   We would go for a drink at Pete's Tavern.  He still wondered about when he would get back to the one-man shows.  That would never leave his mind.

The cast of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE in a more casual shot.



Linda Dachtyl said...

Wow, Nancy this is something else, how you connected through your own review of his work, etc...

I have thanked you before, but will again. You were instrumental in keeping Jonathan in front of the public. I have never been to a DS festival (although I love the show), and the Readers Theater shows came close enough for me to attend without too much traveling, etc... This is where I preferred to meet him if I got the chance without all the craziness that can surround a convention, etc.. I feel the same way concerning meeting musicians, more of an educational environment such as clinics, workshops, college artist-in-residence programs, etc..

I can imagine how difficult it would have been to lay it on the line on the business matters not knowing if your words would be received. Luckily they were and his shows had a long run. I saw all three versions of them. I enjoyed the theme of each one as they were both educational and fun and it was nice to see Jonathan in an informal environment, although nothing was informal about his great delivery of these readings.

Ivelisse Diaz said...


You stated that you wrote this blog for your own emotional need, well, we are reading and taking to heart everything you wrote about him because it fills a little of the huge emotional need his death has left in us.

The one thing we ask is that you please reconsider andcontinue the narrative and share more of your memories of Mr. Frid and pictures. You were fortunate to have been a friend of a man that many of us never knew personally, but loved nevertheless. We too have taken his death hard, and you have provided us with some comfort. Yours is the most well rounded, and complete portrait of a reluctant iconic. Please reconsider and share more of the Jonathan you knew with us. This might be the closest we ever come to a biography of his life. He is and will be greatly missed.

Thank you for sharing these memories and my condolences on your loss.

Trudi said...

Hi! I have a question I wonder if you could answer? Back in the day I saw one of Mr. Frid's shows, and one of the stories he performed was about a woman who got locked in her bathroom and couldn't get out. It was a very suspenseful story, because she was about to go abroad for a few months, and she'd stopped her mail, and none of her friends were expecting to hear from her for months, etc. I'd really love to read that story, but I don't know the name or the author. Would you happen to know, by any chance? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Nancy, Did you ever watch DS after its original airing? It is remarkable that it inspired you to be an actress at that young age and that John/Jonathan gets credit for that. It makes the fact that you became involved with his productions a really amazing story, and one of my favorite parts of your blog is your reflection on this. Kristine

Karen van Hoek said...

I love reading your reminiscence about working with Jonathan. It's very interesting to me to hear about how changeable he was. He sounds like a very complex person. I was also surprised because I hadn't realized until I read this entry how close in age you and I must be. I had assumed that someone who worked with Jonathan so many years must be a bit older than I, but it turns out that you began working with him at such a young age that my mind is slightly blown. How lovely that he trusted and respected your judgment, and that you connected in so many ways despite the age difference.