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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Jonathan Frid and Arsenic and Old Lace

While Jonathan was on the "Arsenic and Old Lace" tour in 1987-1988, I was working at the Ensemble Studio Theater as the artistic director, Curt Dempster, assistant.  Curt was to be another important part of my professional life, and that's another story entirely.  The period between 1986 and 1991 was very intense for me professionally and I would stay associated with EST throughout that time.  By 1989, I had enrolled in the theater's highly regarded two year intensive study school focusing on acting and playwrighting.

Getting Jonathan ready to go on the tour was something else.  When you are going away for not just a week but months, it is tough to decide what to pack.  It was winter when Jonathan was starting the Arsenic tour so packing coats was an issue.  He had two steamer trucks and one of them was packed with every single coat he owned.  "I want to have a choice," he said when I stared at the collection of coats with my mouth open.  Let's just say I needed a sedative by the time the whole packing deal was done as he could not make up his mind.  The irony is that every time I saw him later on the tour, he was wearing the same coat.

On weekends in 1987 while Jonathan was on tour, I frequently traveled to see his play on the east coast.  This afforded me the opportunity to see him on stage many times (he was always fresh each night) and now I knew some of the other Arsenic cast members, it was fun to see them again and again.  Between shows, Jonathan and I met to talk about "Fools and Fiends" as a wonderful thing had started to happen: Jonathan was getting bookings in the cities he was appearing in with "Arsenic."  In the professional theater, actors have off on Monday nights and that is when Jonathan would get booked at local regional theaters and colleges to do his one-man show.  This was terrific and, of course, provided more meat for the publicity campaign tying in his reader's theater program and be able to explain what it was in high profile print and television interviews that accompanied the larger tour.

When you did work for Jonathan, he made sure you wanted for nothing.  In addition to getting paid for my time, he paid for dinner and hotel room service when I was there working on fine-tuning "Fools and Fiends."     This really made life easier as the work sessions with Jonathan were always intense.  What we planned on doing was sending out flyers to the substantial list of Dark Shadows fans we had accumulated, to those fans who lived in the area where Jonathan was doing "Arsenic" and when he was also doing "Fools and Fiends."

What we discovered during this time was that Dark Shadows fans did come see Jonathan but most just came to the stage door AFTER the shows - "Arsenic" and "Fools and Fiends" - they did not go see the actual productions.  They came backstage for an autograph only.  Now, this wasn't true of all fans, of course.  But more often than not, when Jonathan asked the fans at the stage door how they liked the show they admitted they had not seen it.

So it didn't make any sense to continue soliciting Dark Shadows fans by mail.  It was a big cost with little payoff.  I think this really hurt his feelings.  After being told how much fans adored him for his work on DS, so many of them would only come to the stage door for an autograph and not come see him on stage either in "Arsenic" or "Fools and Fiends."  With that marketing target of no use to us now, we decided to create surveys to hand out at theaters where Jonathan performed his reader's theater programs to ask them who they were, how they heard about the show, why they came, etc.  The response we got back was gratifying - many theaters and even public library programs where Jonathan was doing "Fools and Fiends" had patrons who came because they were either subscribers or patrons.  Many of them had no idea who Jonathan Frid was or, for that matter, what to expect from a reader's theater program.  Turns out they were quite pleased with the performance and impressed with Jonathan's considerable theater resume.  The man worked in some of the best theaters with top stage directors all over the country.  It wasn't hard to be impressed.

Jonathan had to accept, somewhat reluctantly, that there were not enough DS fans who would come out to support him in his stage projects to depend so much on them for attendance.  That shifted the marketing focus considerably to theater go-ers, and we had to make them care about seeing a show by an actor they were probably unfamiliar with.  That meant selling the show to the regional theater programmers so they could sell it to their subscribers.  Once again, with Jonathan's extensive theatrical resume and the success of "Arsenic" it was much easier to market an actor who was currently active and receiving a lot of media attention.  VARIETY reported that the Broadway tour of "Arsenic and Old Lace" was shattering box office records across the United States.

(To be continued)


Cousin Barnabas said...

I'm really enjoying these essays.

Anonymous said...

Preface to comment. i hope you do not mind my sharing thoughts and perceptions. I know that you will not print anything that you feel is inappropriate to your blog, which makes me feel, in turn, that I can simply make a statement without need of it appearing, necessarily.

On his website, John Frid had remarked about the stage door fans not translating into theater attendance. That gave me the impression that "Arsenic" may not have done that well. I'm glad to hear it did and that was the wrong impression to take away from that remark. I notice that he never bragged or fluffed when he could have. I take a moment here to state that as a newly awakened fan circa 2011, I was playing catch up. It began with admiring the actor's performance in DS on my nostalgic and long-awaited re-visiting of the show after a spotty viewing when it first aired, recognizing that he was a special sort of person, and feeling the need to know the man behind such a moving performance. It baffled me that anyone could even come up with a "Barnabas" so convincingly. That was my hope in reading and viewing all he posted on his website. I enjoyed the dualities and paradoxes and the way he communicated including in interviews. You don't want the PR John, just the real one as he chooses to express himself. I liked that one had to think about what he said and always in some greater context. That is precisely why he is a stand out. However, you, as one working for him, I am sure found it challenging! One paradox being that he wanted you to be direct and get to the point, yet he could be a little obfuscating either intentionally or unintentionally. HA. Life on ones own terms. -Kristine R.

Samantha said...

It just boggles my mind that the majority of Dark Shadows fans wouldn't go to see his shows. If I'd been alive back then, I know I would have! I'm already trying to get as close to doing that as I can, and I discovered Dark Shadows less than a year ago.

I'm loving reading your blog posts. :)