Remember those old Hollywood musicals, in which a spunky character would blurt out, “Hey, we can put on a show right here!” Well, the recent “Meeting of Minds” production at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore had that same kind of seat-of-the-pants spirit.
Owner Augie Aleksy was the moderator, and the panel featured Ben Franklin, journalist/activist Ida B. Wells, reporter Nellie Bly and yours truly as broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. The cast members spent weeks researching their characters and composing brief biographies. Well, except for John Kearney, who played Ben. Kearney already knew everything about Franklin and could speak at length without notes.
That was one of our problems in rehearsal. We could all talk extensively about our characters, but would the audience have the patience to listen? Another problem was that we couldn’t have a dress rehearsal without first having costumes. Kearney’s daughter fashioned a wonderful Ben Franklin outfit, complete with buckled shoes and tricornered hat. Nellie Bly had a tasteful turn of the century dress and I had a closet full of out-of-date sport coats. But what would Ida wear?
The Historical Society of Oak Park River Forest came through with a 19th Century black and white ensemble. The remarkable thing is that the actress Madelin Moon didn’t have an opportunity to give her size or go to a fitting. The blouse, skirt and cape simply fit perfectly. Though we now looked authentic, we still worried about expounding for a solid hour.
The night before the first performance, I visited my brother-in-law, who directs plays. He thought the production would be snappier without twenty-minute monologues. He suggested my character, Murrow, interview the other cast members instead. It was like that seminal moment in “Singin’ in the Rain” when they decide to turn their failed swashbuckler into a musical.
The next morning, I couldn’t wait to pitch the new idea to the moderator. This being Forest Park, I found him standing in line ahead of me at the bank. Augie was receptive and his wife Tracy (Nellie Bly) and the other cast members quickly agreed. I dashed off some softball questions I knew they’d hit for homeruns.
On opening night we had about 20 in the audience. I “smoked” my fake cigarettes, which covered my pants in white powder. Nellie Bly passed out trading cards bearing her likeness. The second night, the crowd swelled to 26, thanks to last-minute walk-ups. Besides giving the audience historical information, we answered the moderator’s tough questions about the responsibility of journalists in the 21st Century. Murrow was once described as “the Voice of Doom’s slightly optimistic brother.” So, I didn’t express much hope that his hard-hitting brand of journalism would ever return to the airwaves.
I learned a lot about history and a little bit about acting from this exercise. I also learned that thermal underwear can make you uncomfortably warm during a performance. Another hindrance was reading the biography of a crazy actor, while learning how to act. For his upcoming 13th “Meeting of Minds” Aleksy is planning a panel of history’s losers. Might I suggest this guy I’m reading about, John Wilkes Booth. In the pantheon of losers, he finishes a close second to Judas.