I’m a bit nervous about writing this post, because it may lose me many friends, but here goes anyway.
I really don’t like Halloween.
Is anyone still reading? For the one or two of you who might be, I’ll try to explain (in Dottore Gianni’s long and twisted manner) why.
I used to explain the reason for my dislike of Halloween thus: I was long a professional actor (still am apparently, having just sent off my Actors Equity dues, even though my last Equity gig was in 1997!), and actors are paid to dress up, so the novelty of getting into costume for Halloween is lost on many of them…well some of them… hmmm, maybe a handful…well, ME anyway, THAT I know for certain. The thrill of pretending to be you’re somebody/something one day a year for tricks OR treats, when almost everyone else is doing it, does not interest me, because when one does it many days a year because one has to, it becomes mundane, not special, and particularly after many performances in the same costume/role, not a treat.
It was not always so. From the time I was a very wee lad I was dressed up in costumes by members of my family – and not just at Halloween, apparently.
|I was too young to have thought of this myself!|
|I didn't come up with this, my paternal grandmother did!|
That must have been fun, judging from my enthusiastic poses in old black and white photos, and I clearly enjoyed it for a time, as some of the photos are of little Jackie after he KNEW what he wanted to be for Halloween.
|I think this must have been MY choice, yes?|
|You KNOW this is my choice -|
|Jack the sailor? And my sister Judy as...what?|
|If I were KING of the fore-e-e-est|
Judy must be the queen of May
In the third grade, when I lived in Rantoul, Illinois (my father was stationed there in the Air Force for one year) and went to St. Malachy’s Catholic School, I was taught by Mrs Buckingham, whom I remember adoring, and for one hour of the day by a really scary nun (catechism class) who did cruel things to kids, including me (but that’s a story for another post!) and whom I did not adore. Come to think of it maybe a scary lady in a strange black outfit and no discernible evidence of hair was already, deep down inside beginning to make me think less of dressing up in a costume.
I learned a song In third grade that is one of the only songs (except for hymns in Latin such as “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo”) that I remember – and I remember it all:
Halloween is coming
With ghosts and big black cats
Halloween is coming
And we’ll put on our masks
We’ll knock on your door
Yell “trick or treat!”
Then run run run way down the stree-eet
Halloween is coming soon
Catchy, yes? And you’ve not even heard the melody!
Interestingly, despite the nightmare nun from hell, I wanted to be a priest at this time. I bring that up because it was another occasion for dressing up and for informally performing. My poor sister Judy, two years younger than myself, was coerced (or physically dragged, can’t remember which) into the performance.
We had a toybox, which in my mind resembled an altar. I covered it with a towel, then put a towel on my back and became a priest celebrating the mass. My sister I forced into being an altar boy (there were only altar BOYS to my limited knowledge at that time). I’m not even sure if I bothered to costume her, but her main stage direction was to kneel, and probably look up reverently at her older brother.
The next year we moved to Alaska and stayed for three years (fourth thru sixth grades for me). Which is the first memory I have of performing in any official way. Whether it was fourth or fifth grade I can’t remember, but the school I went to (Sunflower or Aurora, depending on the grade) performed a pageant about Alaska and what was known as “Seward’s Folly” because back in the nineteenth century Secretary of State William Seward wanted to buy Alaska for the U.S. and a lot of people did not think this wise. I remember playing (and I’m quite certain playing well) one of two dubious Republican (Republican! My first role a Republican!?) senators with whom Seward engaged in heated debate on this subject. We also sang “Getting to Know You” from The King and I for some reason, and the state anthem of Alaska, which is nearly as impossible to sing as our national anthem. I remember only some of those words, as my main memory of not having the five octave range it took to get through the song! It began
Eight stars of gold on a field of blue,
Alaska’s flag may it mean to you
(those first lines sung pretty low on the scale)
the blah blah can’t remember can you toodle-do
(then somewhere along the line rising in the scale)
the blue of the fields, the evening sky
and something else silly la-la-la, why why why…
(those lines rising into pretty high territory musically and then…)
the bear, the dipper and shining bright
(here’s where most sane people would just give up and stop singing it was so high, but it goes higher still)
The great north star with its steady light
O’er land and see a beacon bright
Alaska’s flag to Alaskans dear
The simple (or was it symbol?) flag of the last frontier.
God! Wonder if it’s still the anthem? Poor Alaskans! The first line of the last stanza pounded forward one note at a time, the highest note on the first syllable of “steady” – a real bitch of a note to sing – “Grab yer gonads boys, that’s the only way you’ll hit it!”
|Another "costume" with|
my mother - I was a Boy Scout
though not a very good one - if
that's a merit badge it must be the
one for showing up.
Even with the impossibility of that song, I liked getting up on stage and performing, though looking back, I can’t think why I wasn’t cast in the lead – Seward – cannot figure it out…surely it was a mistake…but I wonder what jerk got that role?!? Which brings a painful memory to mind – I auditioned in Alaska for a local opera performance of the young lead in Amahl and the Night Visitors, but my voice was already changing and some cute little blonde asshole named Benny Gantz got the role instead. Harumph! I was BORN to sing “Don’t you dare, don’t you dare, don’t you dare ugly man hurt my mother!”
Through good times and bad, for better or worse, I got hooked on theatre and costumes in Alaska, and throughout the rest of my school years I relied in large part on performance to get myself noticed. “Attention! Attention must be paid to this…boy!” (with apologies to Arthur Miller.) God knows my good looks were not going to cut that particular piece of cake!
|good looks were not|
my strong suit
And at least through the years in Alaska I know I still liked Halloween. But something awful seemed to happened to Halloween at some point during the fast-forward. One began to hear about people sticking razor blades in apples and then handing them to trick-or-treaters, other such awful things, Whatever else the 50s were (and they weren’t all that much, believe me) Halloween was fun! We didn’t have to worry where we trick-or-treated, we just had a good time, no dangers apparent. At least not to me. From my point of view it all seemed benign, nothing to be afraid of except the make-believe terrors of dressing up in costume and running down the street calling trick or treat, as the old song goes.
I’ve done no research on this and don’t intend to, but maybe we were being protected. Some of the great trick or treat years were spent by me and my sister and my then one brother (later three in all) on an Air Force base – security was tight, we lived in a non-racial segregation, in officers’ housing, no NCOs allowed, right? Hmmmm…so maybe it was just that I had grown up somewhere along the line in those fast-forwarded years and began to hear real horror stories about the make-believe horrific Halloween, which made it seem less appealing.
I’ve written another long blog, much more serious in tone than this one, on the subject of my youth as an Air Force brat and my use of theatre to get me through it, so let’s fast forward through Halloweens, costumes and performances in my school years to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was out and about on my own.
In 1966 I joined the Air Force myself. I would find this ironic, except that it was expedient instead – Vietnam was escalating and I’d have been drafted into the army or marines, much less safe military venues at that time than the navy or air force. And hey! It was another chance to wear a costume!
|Dottore Gianni as Airman third class with his maternal grandparents|
And when I was stationed in Germany (the better part of 1967 through 1968), I, along with MUCH help from the director of the social club on the base I was stationed at, started a theatre group, The Hof Little Theatre,
|full of sound and fury|
in the evening of
and though I was not paid, I dressed up as characters in plays, one called The Gazebo, an inconsequential comedy, another a really pretentious evening of Shakespeare “conceived, directed and starring” Jack Hrkach (oh yes, my god! What hubris!), and the best of the lot, a one-act by Christopher Fry called A Phoenix too Frequent.
|Jack as Tegeus in A Phoenix too Frequent|
|They had to, or felt they had to, curl my hair for the role|
I am not remembering how the Germans celebrated Halloween, but shortly after that holiday the Germans had one LONG holiday called Fasching.
|Dottore Gianni as Linus|
It began on the eleventh moment of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – making it 11 November, also Armistice Day – and last until Ash Wednesday! Not non-stop – that would have killed even the Germans – but during that time costume parties were thrown, a lot of beer was drunk, there was even a Fasching train as I recall. You never got off, it just rode you around and you drank beer and partied until you passed out. Then the conductor shook you awake and you were returned to where you got on. Why? As the Germans say” Macht nichts…Fasching!” (“Makes no difference, it’s Fasching!”) My friends and I dressed up and went out to the bars in costume – I as Linus from the Peanuts cartoon strip – and got wasted fairly regularly.
|in The Tempest|
After college I went to an assortment of colleges on the G.I. Bill, performed in theatres at the Takoma Park campus of Montgomery Community College in Maryland and on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in (buess where?) Florida. There I met the woman who’d become my wife, who was an actress…we were, as it turned out, doomed as a couple, but there it is. So it goes.
|in The Lady's Not for Burning at FAU|
By this time I had completely eschewed Halloween, was already having doubts about costumes and the theatre, and graduated with a degree in English. Still I kept getting drawn to the stage. Joanne (the wife) and I moved to Washington D.C. where she did astonishingly well,
|with Mark Jaster in Scapino! at|
Shakespeare & Co
and where I got a little work, at Shakespeare and Company, at the Folger, the Source Theatre, Catholic U while getting my Masters (this time in theatre) at Georgetown U where an egotistic professor of Shakespeare put on Macbeth with himself in the title role – oi! One of the worst and certainly the longest Macbeth in the performance history of the play. By the time Ray whatshisface (the professor) spoke the line: “I ‘gin to be a-weary of the sun” many in the audience had ‘gun to be a-weary of the play. I was Malcolm. I was very good. I even had the smallest role in the biggest production I was ever in – Durrenmatt’s The Physicists, starring Irene Worth, Len Cariou, Brian Bedford and George Grizzard (what a cast! And what a fine police photographer I was in it!) at the Eisenhower Theatre of the Kennedy Center. So costumes in theatre yes, but at Halloween I merely bought candy for the few kids that might come trick-or-treating in the fairly shabby part of DC in which we lived.
At the same time I earned money recording Talking Books at the Division of the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress, where I was able to perform without a costume – a great gig. We got divorced, made a few pathetic attempts to get together with other women, and then, when I was just about to give up on the theatre forever and work full time at the Library of Congress I was offered a ridiculously good role at a theatre in West Palm Beach FL as well as my Equity card, so I took it and was more or less employed through the 1980s as an actor.
|With Bruce Ward (on the left) as Jack Worthing in|
The Importance of Being Earnest
|With Annie Stafford in Dark at the Top of the Stairs|
Caldwell Theatre Co
|As Noel Coward in|
Ashes of Roses at CRT
one of my favorite roles ever!
|another favorite as the Monarch of the Sea|
in H.M.S. Pinafore, also at Cortland Rep
|Equity Guest Artist at FAU|
as Captain Jack Absolute
in The Rivals
It was in these years that I wore costumes in many plays, and while some of it was great fun, I, somewhat like Macbeth “’gan to grow a-weary of the…stage.” I found myself being rejected more than I was being cast, and when I finally would get cast in a great role I would get an offer that conflicted with it, usually in mediocre play in a mediocre role but at a salary much more financially rewarding than I would have got for the great role. I had to take the better paying job because I was, as were (and still are) so many, a starving actor. I was also having little luck with women until I got into a long-term relationship with someone I adored, another actress, but alas that fell apart, and so did I.
It was time for a major change and in 1987 I took it, beginning a Ph.D. program at the City University of New York. I focused on theatre history, and focused very hard on it apparently because I began paying less and less attention to a third woman – and yes a third actress (you’d think I’d learn, right?) – and while I lost her I gained a degree, and shortly thereafter a job at Ithaca College where I remained from 1990 to just a few months ago.
In my early years at Ithaca I still did summer stock, but less happily than I had in the 80s. My enthusiasm continued to wane, the lowest point coming in a production of Something’s Afoot, a cute, Agatha Christie murder-mystery musical, for which the concept was a black and white film –
|Dottore Gianni in|
this meant black, white and occasionally gray costumes and worst of all, black and white make-up! Some in the show enjoyed it, I loathed every minute. So, in 1995, when the artistic director of the Cortland Repertory Theatre theatre where I worked, was fired, it was more opportunity than disappointment for me. I worked professionally only once after that as an Equity Guest Artist at Cortland State in a late nineteenth century melodrama about David Harum (and so titled), a real character and horse trader in the town just north of Cortland, Homer, NY. It meant driving the better part of an hour evenings during the school year in February and March, in sometimes awful snow. A fellow actor could not remember his lines to save his life, I had a scene with a real horse on stage, and when the horse raised his take and shat all over the stage, even though I offered a rather clever ad lib I KNEW I had had it with costumes and the theatre.
As for Halloween, for years it had not interested me, but at least I had given out candy to kids trick-or-treating. Now I began to loathe it, all the time and money spent on it, the foolishness of dressing up and going to a costume party (and then dousing the costume while nearly drowning in a tub of water dunking my head and “bobbing” for apples), the ridiculous pastime of trick or treat when children get ridiculously greedy over a ridiculous amount of candy that will only serve to make them fat.
I began to find excuses to not be home for trick-or-treaters, and when I WAS caught at home I darkened the place as much as possible, put a bowl of candy outside my apartment door, and let them have at it, though there were few takers. The next day I’d bring the leftovers to the theatre department main office and the admin assistants would put it out for the students, who wolfed it down. I’m not sure when trick-or-treat night is this year. On the day itself? Probably. I haven’t yet bought any candy, and may not. I live in an apartment complex with VERY few young children, and it will be very easy to pretend not to be home at trick-or-treat time.
Ha! You know I find this essay on my dislike of Halloween a bit like Chekhov’s great monologue, On the Harmfulness of Smoking Tobacco. The “tobacco” is really an excuse for Chekhov to get at other, more complicated subjects (his wife, his life), as I suppose Halloween is for me in this post. But while Chekhov’s piece and this one are dark they can also be very comic, at least in places, at least to me, at least in a Chekhovian sense of comedy, which is, I'm afraid, not very easy to describe, less easy to perform
On the left a photo of me in my dressing room as Equity Guest Artist at FAU, playing one of my favorite characters ever, Dr Astrov in Uncle Vanya.
In this production I am not ashamed to say I was very, very good!
TREAT or TRICK!?!
|Dottore Gianni's last role to date, and probably|
forever more - a cameo as Polski Ogorki
in a delightful dance concert, number
wonderfully choreographed by
Mary Corsaro, 2010
Now THAT was fun!