by Jeff Loeb, Associate General Manager
When I was 17 I was in a production of "Bye Bye Birdie" at the St. Louis MUNY that starred Tommy Tune, Ann Reinking and southern California favorite Susan Egan. I was in awe of the show and to be on the big stage. And when I say big, I mean big. The MUNY stage is 200 feet wide with two giant oak trees on either side of the stage. Oh, did I mention that the theatre is an outdoor amphitheatre? I was one of the local kids cast in the show and my high school theatre teacher was a stage manager. He quickly assigned me to be the “teen coordinator,” which meant I was the babysitter for a bunch of other 17 year olds. Little did I know that my assignment was to be a test for another job...
At the end of the show, I got a call from the show’s producer, Paul Blake, asking if I would like to come work for him on the next show, "No No Nannette." The specific job was to shadow the '50s heartthrob, Van Johnson. Van was a very social individual and would often be delayed getting to rehearsal because he would lose track of time. Thus the creation of my new position, to pick up the actor from the Ritz Carlton (yes, even St. Louis has a Ritz) and deliver him to the rehearsal stage promptly at 10am.
At 17 I was unaware of who Van Johnson was, but I quickly learned why so many people loved this man. Van was classic old school. He wore a sports jacket for rehearsals, spoke with a tonality and clarity that just drew your ear, and never had a bad word to say about anyone. To say he was charming doesn’t give him justice.
As I continued to learn about Van, I found out that his trademark was to wear red socks. So on opening night, I arrived at the Ritz wearing a tuxedo with a red cummerbund and bow tie. Mind you this with the late '80s, when colored cummerbunds were all the rage at high school dances. Cap this all off with a mouth full of braces. I was the poster child for Naive Midwest Boy. But man did Van smile in appreciation when I opened the door.
The show ran one week, and on closing night after the show, Van walked over to me to say thank you. And in his hands he held a brand new pair of red socks. He handed them to me and thanked me for helping him to have a great run. I still have those red socks tucked at the back of my dresser drawer. They remind me of a very simple time in my life when I was truly in awe of theatre and the people that made it happen.
Now, as I take my three kids to the theatre, I realize that I have the opportunity to inspire awe in my children. No, I’m not the one on stage, but my daily job is to make sure that the actors, stage managers and production crew have a well run theatre with an excited audience waiting for the curtain to rise. I never would have imagined at age 17 that I'd be doing what I am doing now, from fixing broken seats to clearing seeing eye dogs into the theatre.
I wonder what my kids are thinking about doing when they grow up.