Harry M. Bagdasian, freelance writer/director
If one day I was to write a memoir, I would have to include several stories about my oldest and best friend, Ken Bloom. In one way or another Bloom had something to do with many of the more interesting occurrence in my professional career. Here are a couple stories.
Story #1 - FOR LACK OF A PIE …
The woman had gone out to find a pie but all she could find was chopped herring. Okay, I’m getting to the punch line too soon.
So I’m in the projection room of the Biograph theatre in Georgetown, Washington, DC. It’s about 11:30 PM. We’re into our second hour of the “All Night Glut” film festival fund-raiser for New Playwrights’ Theatre (there’s irony, huh? Raising money for theatre by showing films?) You see, Ken Bloom, Associate Producer / Director / PR guy extraordinaire had an incredible sense of humor. (He still does, by the way.) When Melanie and her boyfriend PJ, manager of Washington’s beloved Biograph Theatre, suggest doing a dawn to dusk movie fest as a fundraiser for our theatre company, Bloom titles it “All Night Glut.” Why “All Night Glut?” … because Ford’s theatre was currently presenting a show call “All Night Strut” and … well it made sense at the time. Listen, Bloom is the imaginative kind of guy who, when he finds out that two theatres in town are holding firm to their plans to produce productions of Hamlet because both artistic directors are too stubborn to give in to the other, and that their Hamlet performance schedules overlap on one weekend, he insists we do a production of Hamlet that one weekend as well.
Wouldn’t it be fun if the Friday “Guide To The Arts” read “Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet” one right underneath the other?
HAMLET! the poster
But we’re NEW Playwrights Theatre and we only do American playwrights.
He then puts out a press release explaining how, in fact, Shakespeare’s plays were written by some guy in New Jersey. The press release also stated that the same author wrote the Boy Scout Handbook. Then he gets a script of a 30-minute Hamlet and announces he'll do it as a musical. (Life with Bloom was never dull.)
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Bloom ran the phone line out the window and set up an "office" on the
sidewalk while we were sand blasting the interior of the building
This a maybe a good time to explain how a couple of Bloom bogus press releases were taken literally by the Washington Post which seemed to enjoy publishing the silly information he sent them. You see, Bloom directed a series of very popular musical comedy revues and book musicals by Tim Grundmann at our theatre. Often times, the shows would go into rehearsal without being completely written. So when it came time to alert the press about the “upcoming new Grundmann musical,” Bloom’s imagination kicked into gear. Truth is, it didn’t matter what the publicity said because people came because they saw the names “Grundmann” and “Bloom.” The guys had a dedicated following. So – Bloom announced Tim’s next show in a press release stating how the new musical would feature the stories of lesser known first ladies of the USA. It got published almost word for word in a “Theatre Notes” column in the Washington POST. (Woodward and Bernstein did not run the Style Section.) Here's the clip:
Then there was the time he got bored making cut lines (picture captions) on the publicity photos for a show and sent out a picture on which the cut line identified the photo of three of the performers and explained that they would appear as three famous stars of the Yiddish Theatre in Tim Grundmann's new musical OUT TO LUNCH a salute to Yiddish Theatre. (In actuality, the musical, OUT TO LUNCH was a sci-fi adventure story.) Someone at the POST decided to play along, and the picture was published real big in the “Weekend” section of the POST with the cut line as written and submitted. Our development director, Karen Brooks Hopkins (now President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music,) answered the phone on the day the picture ran. Poor Karen. She had an irate woman on the line screaming "What are you doing? That Tanis Roach didn’t look anything like Molly Picon!" Here's the picture:
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here's the actual published cut line for those of you who have eyes as good as mine:
Okay, I got sidetracked, sue me. But back to the Biograph Theatre.
So, it’s about eleven thirty and George Holets comes into the projection room of the Biograph Theatre saying “Harry, you better come down to the lobby.” I ask why. He says “don’t ask, just come on down.” The expression on his face gives away nothing.
Oh shit, I think, trouble of some kind. There are times when I hate being the head of this non-profit and this was probably about to become another one of them. So I follow George down the narrow stairway toward the lobby, thinking why is it always trouble or drunks who make attending these fund-raising events such a pain in the … hold that thought. I turn the corner. There in the lobby stands little pint-sized Melanie in a puddle of goo peppered with chunks of something I can’t quite make out. First thought – she was very sick.
Her boyfriend, PJ, the theatre manager, was scraping up the goo off the red lobby carpet and shaking his head in disbelief.
“What happened?” I had to ask.
“She couldn’t find a fucking pie, man.”
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Melanie - 1976 - without fish -
sorry, Mel, only snapshot I could find
In a very disjointed fashion, Melanie explained with hardly a hint of anger in her voice – she was pretty stoned at the time – how PJ’s old girlfriend had planned to “pie” Melanie when the fund-raiser began, but when she finally got her shit together, the old girlfriend, whose name I can’t recall, was very stoned and unable to find any place that sold pies at that late hour, but surprise, surprise, the deli was opened so she bought a huge bowl, had the deli guy put a couple pounds of chopped herring into the bowl and came here and dumped the contents on Melanie’s head.
By the time she got all of this out in that disjointed, stoned story teller fashion of hers, I was in tears because I was laughing so hard.
Melanie continued toweling off her hair as PJ dumped a bunch of stuff that looked like kitty litter on the rug and began to vacuum it up.
Inside the movies continued to roll.
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The remarkable Ken Bloom at NPT 1976 (yes, the picture is printed backwards - the
schedule for DRAMATHON '76 on the blackboard kinda gives it away, huh?)
Story #2 - WE (they) BUY THE BUILDING IN 67 HOURS
Thank You, George!
Was what we did illegal? I have no idea. If it was, it wasn’t the first law we broke in our bohemian days creating theatre in that funky building on Church Street. But here’s another Bloom story – well, kind of a Bloom story anyway.
Okay, picture this. We’d been in the Church Street building for about four months up to our necks in new plays – readings and productions and busy, busy busy. Then reality descended. You see, we were renting the place from an Australian painter named Robin Hill for $500. a month. Now that was a friggin’ huge building for only $500 a month! How did we pull that off? Luck. As his real estate agent explained it to me, Robin was under the gun of the IRS for back taxes and he had worked out some kind of deal with them that the IRS would immediately receive any income Robin could derive from the sale or rental of the property on Church Street. That being the case, Robin apparently didn’t particularly care how much income the place generated. And he loved the idea of his building being used as a theater. If it generated two bucks or two thousand bucks a month, it made no difference to him as long as the IRS was getting something. Did we have a great deal or what? There was, however, a small hitch. Our rental lease very clearly stated that, should anyone make an offer on the building, New Playwrights’ Theatre would have right of first refusal if we could match the offer.
That shoe dropped around 2:00 on a Friday afternoon in the early Spring of 1976.
The real estate agent called me and in a very friendly manner explained that Robin had an offer from a buyer for the purchase of the property on Church Street. The offer was for $100,000. If we could match the offer by 9:00 am Monday morning, New Playwrights’ Theatre could own the building. And if we couldn’t, we’d have to vacate within 90 days. Oh shit. So I ask, how do we do this? The agent very patiently explained that a contract offer and minimum down payment of 10% would have to be on his desk by 9:00 am Monday morning. I don’t remember much of anything else we said to one another. I probably hang up the phone, chained smoked two or three cigarettes (or maybe something less legal than tobacco) and wondered over and over, and over and over, where were we going to get $10,000 by Monday morning at 9:00 am? I vaguely remember explaining our new challenge to several staff members and hangers on, then realized I had better break this breaking news to the Chairman of our Board of Trustees.
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George Palmer at the tiller of his boat sailing on the Chesapeake Bay 1976
in the striped shirt is Robbie McEwen
Okay. The Chairman at that time was a remarkably optimistic entrepreneur named George Palmer. Long story short … George’s immediate reaction … we put together a partnership … ten shares at $1,200 each, thus raising $12,000 immediately. We would call the partnership “Church Street Associates” … the partnership would buy the building with $10,000 down and have two grand in the back as a cushion … and lease the building to New Playwrights’’ Theatre on a net-net basis (meaning our monthly rental would equal Church Street Associate’s monthly PITI payment on the building.) George said he was good for one share.
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Ken Bloom, George Palmer and Robbie McEwen
So, it was agreed that everyone would call everyone they know and find people to buy up the nine remaining shares in the partnership, and get their checks to George by Sunday night. Forget what was playing on stage that weekend. We had a real life drama of our survival in a building we loved and wanted for our own. Okay. Step one … find 9 more investors to join the partnership.
There was an additional complication. In addition to the fact that we knew damn few people who would throw a grand into a real estate venture that may or may not ever pay off, “Church Street Associates” needed a checking account in order for us to get a check onto the real estate agent’s desk at 9:00 am on Monday morning (never mind the fact that there had to be money in the account – a detail that seldom stopped us a in our daily running of the organization because we generally played a money game which we laughingly called “beat he bank” with our theater checking account.)
There was no way we could play “beat the bank” in this instance.
Here’s where it becomes a Ken Bloom story. In my usual drama queen mode, I whimper to Bloom about how not only do we need to find a ridiculously large amount of money in a very short amount of time, but we need a checking account.
“Let’s go for a walk.” Bloom says. “Rhett, go!” and our beloved theater dog, the phenomenal German Shepherd Rhett Butler was out from under Ken’s work table and at the theater door in an instant. (Okay maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way, but it sounds good – and I am pretty sure the dog went with us because Rhett usually accompanied us to the bank when we took deposits. And that’s where Ken aimed to take me – to our Branch of Washington National Bank on Dupont Circle.)
You see, Bloom is a charmer. It’s not bullshit. He’s genuinely charming and friendly with people with whom he chooses to be (for whatever reasons – hey, I’m no anthropologist, okay?) And because of this, Bloom, and with him, I, had become very friendly with the young lady who worked at the bank that handled our meager amounts of cash. Bloom suggested we talk to her.
So we go to the bank, sit with Debby or Cindy (I really wish I could remember her name because she did us two very nice favors in a 12 month period) and I put all our cards on the table.
“So how do we open a checking account today without any money?”
“No problem, she explains, handing me several items. “Take the new account kit – it has several starter checks -- and take these signature cards and be back here at 9:00 Monday morning and I will open the new account for you at the same time your chairman is making the offer on the building.”
Maybe she didn’t say it exactly that way but you get the drift … she was giving us a checking account with which to buy a $100,000 piece of real estate without our giving her a cent. Talk about “no money down”!
But if we don’t raise the money? I had to ask. She waved that thought away and wished us luck in finding the investors.
Feeling very happy, as well as slightly stunned, Bloom and I left the bank, went back to the theatre, happily explained to George that we had a checkbook and just needed money to make it good.
Now how in the world that girl decided to trust Bloom and I with a bunch a starter checks for a yet to be liquid checking account I will never know. But she did. We didn’t even have to make up a story (which Bloom is a superstar at doing.) And yes, over the weekend George tapped friends and moved 7 of the remaining 9 shares. The other two shares were picked up by two actresses that worked with us … Jamie McLean and Melanie Graham … yes, the Melanie who later had a couple pounds of chopped herring poured over her head in the lobby of the Biograph Theatre – small world, huh?
So first thing Monday morning, Bloom and I were at the bank to make the deposit of the investors’ checks and George Palmer was at the real estate agent’s office buying the building for the newly formed “Church Street Associates.”
Suddenly our rent jumped from $500. a month to something over $1,000 a month. We probably had enough in the bank for our first month’s rent … but thanks to George and that clever lady in new accounts, we owned out place.
Three or four years later, at the insistence of our accountant, Dennis Roberts, we actually purchased the building from “Church Street Associates,” and each of the partners made a modest profit on their investment.
A couple notes about that nice bank lady – as sort of a coda to the story. I really wish I could recall her name because, in addition to being helpful, she was one of those friendly people you truly appreciate having in your life -- even though it was only a business thing. I remember the day we went into the bank and she showed us her engagement ring. She was so happy. And it was easy to be happy for her. A while after that, about a year after she helped us with the Church Street Associates caper, Bloom and I were talking to her and complaining about a restaurant that had stiffed us on a $400 payment for the back page ad on our program. Their check bounced on us twice. “Just redeposit the check with a demand for payment,” she explained. Whoa. There was a new concept (new to us at least.) The “demand for payment” enabled us to redeposit the restaurant’s check into our account, and our bank would send the check to the restaurant’s bank where it would sit and immediately suck up the first $400 deposited into the restaurant’s account. We got our money, which was a damn good thing. $400. to us in those days was a fortune – almost a month’s salary for some of us in 1977 – I think we were all earning $125 a week. Unfortunately all these bright memories have a down side. One day we went into the bank and she wasn’t at her desk. Sadly, we learned the smiling, friendly and helpful bank lady and her husband had been killed in an auto accident.
Nameless bank lady, you are fondly remembered. You helped us secure our theatre home and bring those dishonest restaurant guys to justice. Bless you!
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"BAGDASIAN and BLOOM I Presume?"