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CURSE WORDS + SENSITIVE LANDLORD = NEARLY EVICTED
Washington, DC, 1973 - The Christian Service Corps vs Playwrights' Theatre
After a very successful first season of four bills of one-act plays, Spencer Tandy talked me into renting the O Street Theatre and to produce T. J. Camp, III’s full length drama, MOOCH. It seemed like such a great idea at the time. The play was very good. Thos (his nickname, pronounced”toss”) was a critics’ darling, Playwrights’ Theatre was loved by the leading critics in town. What could go wrong?
Sherry Skinker & Rosco Born in MOOCH
a play by T. J. Camp, III directed by Jay Stephens
a Playwrights' Theatre Production at the O Street Theatre
First let’s look at the positives. Thos (rhymes with DOS, as in disk operating system) was a good playwright and deserved all those great reviews because he was, simply put, a solid dramatic craftsman. Thos could write dialogue which created characters at would, as we often said, “jumped off the page.” The stories he wove for the stage were simple, gritty and engaging. In our first season, we produced two of his one-act plays. Richard L. Coe, drama critic for the Washington Post called “The Return of Capt. D. B. Amatucci” “the best short play I’ve seen in a long, long time.” So … we had a strong script, a writer whom the critics adored and a funky Off-Off-Broadway kind of theatre we could rent for a percentage of ticket sales! We’re talking no money down for a facility – how good is that, huh?
the poster for MOOCH was by Jeff Hart
The O Street Theatre, by the way was the garage for the Wilken’s Coffee Company that later became the home of one of Washington’s first “regional” theatres – The Washington Theatre Club (WTC). The company was started by John and Hazel Wentworth back in the late 1950’s, developed a large subscriber following and built themselves a larger theatre at 23rd and L Streets, NW sometime in the late 1960’s. Similar to Theatre Lobby, WTC was Washington’s “Off-Broadway” providing Washington theater lovers with production they would not see at Arena Stage nor The National. And WTC had more money than Theatre Lobby. While WTC offered its subscription season of plays on 23rd Street, they would sometimes use the old space at 17th & P, but mostly that 120 seat venue was idle. Then again, there was an exception. The exception was a musical that I believe originated at Georgetown University – a rock and roll musical called SENIOR PROM. It was a very popular production and it ran for more than 100 performances – an unprecedented run in the late 1960’s in Washington, DC. Word on the street was that if “Grease” hadn’t made it to Broadway when it did, “Senior Prom” would have. Too bad. Tough break for the hometown artists.
(pictured left to right) Rosco Born as Arthur, Sherry Skinker as Laura
and Mary Ann Fraulo as Marsha in rehearsal for T. J. Camp, III's
play MOOCH - a Playwrights' Theatre production at the O Street Theatre
Somewhere along the line, WTC sold the O Street Theatre to the Baptist Church across the parking lot. In turn, the church leased it to a group called The Christian Service Corps. Their plan was to turn it into a TV Studio for their video production to support and expand their missionary work. The leader of The Christian Service Corps agreed to lease the building to us (ASTA) for August and September as a very reasonable base rent plus percentage of the box office. It was a pretty decent deal, I recall. The building was is very sad shape but we cleaned it up enough to make it usable. But let me tell you, no one, I mean NO ONE would go into the basement of that place. We stuck to the first floor. Here’s how weird it was … P. Gail Duncan who understudied both female parts in the show, and I were hanging backstage one night, just listening to the play, and relaxing, when a rat came up those dark and creepy basement stairs and sauntered across the small backstage space where we were seated. Gayle spotted the large rodent first and, seeing her eyes grow very wide, her hand cover her mouth and frantically point, I turned and caught a glimpse of our large visitor. We couldn’t say anything because only a flimsy black curtain separated us from the set, stage and audience beyond. Gayle reached for her purse and I wasn’t sure why until later when she explained to me that if the play weren’t going on she would have “plugged that sucker.” Turned out that Gayle was packing heat that night. Hell, turns out she carried that handgun every night because she, like so many actresses before her, was a waitress and working in the city and often getting off late at night, she felt safer with a pistol in her purse.
Okay, the theatre was pretty decrepit and would make Charles Addams smile. It was also managed, I learned, by fanatics. Fanatics who did not trust us. During the rehearsals one of their minions snuck into the theatre and stole a script because some intern with that group overheard a rehearsal in which there were “bad words exchanged.” So instead of asking for a copy of the script, one of their minions stole a script. A couple of days later we are told we are being evicted because the show is not “up to their standards.” I asked to meet with their Board. They agreed. I show up with Richard Haight, our lawyer and the playwright, Thos Camp. They asked a bunch of questions. We answered them honestly. At the meeting they insisted that Thos had to take out all the “cuss words”. I turned to Thos and asked him if he wanted to do that. He said, “no.” I tell the gathered Board members of the Christian Service Corps that we will not censor the script. Their leader then announced that we had 24 hours to vacate the theatre. I counter their demand by telling them that Thos and I are going on the radio at noon that day for an hour long interview over WGMS, the local classical / arts station. (WGMS in those days did a noon time show called “Luncheon at the Kennedy Center” which had Mike Cuthbert interviewing local and visiting artists having lunch, munching lunch and plugging their work. (The food was really good, by the way) So anyway, there I was sitting in that hot and crowded room telling those dour faced people that we would go on the air and tell the entire story about their agreeing to rent us the theatre and then trying to censor the play and when we refused to bow to their demands they were going to throw us out. I finished by speech and there was silence. Then Reverend whatshisname asked us to step outside so his people could consider what I just said. I told them “fine, but we have to leave for the Kennedy Center in 20 minutes.”
Richard Haight, Thos Camp and I waited in the narrow hallway. About five minutes later The Reverend Whatshisname came out of the room and told us that the Christian Service Corps will honor their contract with us but for one play only. The option for the two additional productions would be subject to script review. I said fine.
Sherry Skinker as Laura and Rosco Born as Arthur in
T. J. Camp, III's new play, MOOCH at the O Street Theatre
photo by Doc Dougherty
Off Thos and I went to Kennedy Center where he had the trout I had the veal and we had a wonderful time talking about Thos’ play and the upcoming premiere of MOOCH at the O Street Theatre. We never spoke a word of the attempted censorship to the media.
The play opened, received fabulous notices and big feature stories in both the Washington Post and the Washington Star Sunday editions. Thos was interviewed on numerous radio and TV stations and we generally received great publicity. But few people were buying. It was an artistic triumph … and a financial disaster so I closed the show a week early.
I learned two things that summer. First – producing a drama in August in Washington is a bad idea. A musical sure … if you can get it opened and received good press in late June, early July, you can build a run into the fall. But in those days, August was a very hard month to peddle a drama in this town.
Second, I learned that the lovely and talented P. Gail Duncan packed heat.