Harry M. Bagdasian, freelance writer/director
THANK YOU, RHETT BUTLER
theater canine/ theater critic / fund-raising pawn
Billy Turnbull, Rhett Butler and actress Jamie McLean
in the theatre lobby January 1977
When we hired Billy Turnbull as our technical director in 1976 we got the best package deal you can ever imagine. Billy was great. And what was additionally cool was that along with Billy came his constant companion, Rhett Butler. Rhett was a relatively large male German Shepherd and the most intelligent canine I ever encountered in my life. Here’s the thing … I am not a dog person, but I, as well as everyone else around the theatre, loved Rhett Butler.
You could communicate with Rhett unlike with any dog I grew up with (we had some doozies, believe me, so when I moved out on my own I never again had a dog.) But Rhett was too wonderful not to like. First of all, he was a great listener. Ask him a question, he would cock his head and give you such a look that you could swear he knew what you were talking about.
Billy had taken the time to attend obedience classes and work with this extraordinary dog. Lucky us. We all reaped the benefits.
Billy taught us all the commands, even how to get Rhett to corner a would-be attacker (but never gave us the attack command.) Let me tell you, when you told Rhett “watch ‘em, Rhett!” you saw nasty-looking fangs, heard some really scary growling and saw a large dog crouch and ready himself to attack whomever you were pointing at. Then, as soon as you gave the correct command, Rhett instantly relaxed and reverted to his regular laid back doggie self. It was an astonishing transformation. I only witnessed it once when the command was demonstrated, and, fortunately, never in a confrontational situation with some bad dude on the street thank you very much.
Now Bloom, is a total dog person and if he had an errand to do, he would take the dog. Going to the printer? The bank? To get carryout for lunch? A simple. “Rhett, want to go?” And Rhett would get up quickly, bark enthusiastically and head for the door where he would patiently wait for whomever had made the invitation. The word “go” was magic to Rhett.
Many times when Bloom and I would take box office deposits to the bank, we would take Rhett. We carried the leash but seldom used it. A simple “heel” and Rhett would remain next to you as you walked the city streets. When we reached the bank, we could point to a spot under the front window and simply state, “Rhett, stay’” and he would lay down where we pointed and stay until we returned.
Rhett was a total chick magnet, of course, so when we’d be leaving the back sometimes people would comment about “such a well-behaved dog” etc., etc. One afternoon when we were leaving the bank, a young female bank employee was returning from lunch. She made a big fuss over Rhett which Rhett enjoyed, of course, and from that day forward, when we were in the bank she would ask about Rhett. If Rhett was waiting outside, she would sometimes leave her desk (she ran new accounts) go out and pet the dog. No kidding. She was a total dog person and being new to the city didn’t have a big enough apartment to have her own dog, so occasional hugs with Rhett gave her a much needed canine fix.
Okay, everyone is familiar with the expression, “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Well, let me tell you … Rhett Butler’s friendship with the new accounts lady, believe it or not, actually made it possible for us to buy our building on
. I’ll get to that in a minute because there are a couple other Rhett Butler stories I want to relate. Both include Bloom.
One evening before a performance of Tim Grundmann’s musical comedy revue, “The Bride of Sirocco,” Bloom went on stage to give the “welcome to out theatre give us money” speech. Nothing unusual about that. We all took turns doing the opening speech and asked for money and in the spring and fall asked the audience to subscribe to the season. Anyhow, on this particular evening things were a little different. Bloom took Rhett Butler up on stage with him. “Sit, Rhett,” Bloom commanded, and Rhett took a seat downstage center right there next to Bloom.
What the hell’s Bloom up to now, I wondered, watching from the back of the house.
Okay. Remember how when you said the word “go,” Rhett would bark enthusiastically and run for the door? Okay. Bloom decided to exploit it. He did the usual “welcome our theatre give us money” speech and asked the audience to tell their friends about this show.
One quick note. At the time there was a theatre/film critic on Washington, DC television named Davy Marlin Jones who would end his Friday evening segment buy reading the names of movies and plays from three by five cards. If he hated the offering mentioned, he would discard the card with a smirk. If he liked the play or movie he would put the card in his pocket.
So that particular night, following his “welcome to our theatre give us money speech,” Bloom asks the audience to tell their friends about our show, “The Bride of Sirocco.” “It’s a really great show, but don’t just take my word for it. I have with me this evening the world renowned canine theatre critic, Rhett Butler.” Bloom then produced a few three by five cards and begins reading names of other plays in town. After he read the name of a production on a rival theatre’s stage, Bloom would look at Rhett who simply look bored. Bloom then tossed the card away. And, honest to God, after he named one local production, Rhett actually yawned. That got a great laugh. Then Bloom asked “Rhett, what do you think about the “Bride of Sirocco?” (hitting the final syllable real hard so it sounded like “go!”) Yep. You guessed it. Rhett leapt up, barked enthusiastically and ran up the center aisle and out to the lobby of the theatre. Bloom just smiled at the audience, put the card in his pocket and exited to great applause.
Needless to say, several of us stole Bloom‘s idea and did a similar bit when it was our turn to do the “welcome to our theatre give us money” speech during the remainder of the run of the show.
Yes, Rhett was great company and fun to have around. Two more instances then I will get to the story about how Rhett’s friendship with the bank lady helped us buy our building.
That winter, or was it the following winter? I don’t remember exactly, but what my wife Robbie McEwen reminded me was that Rhett broke his leg. No, he wasn’t hit by a car. Rhett hit a car. A parked car. He was running in the snow and slipped on some ice and slammed into a parked car … and broke his leg. Of course, Billy, being a devoted buddy to this lovable canine, made sure Rhett got the best of care and our beloved theatre dog was returned to us relatively quickly. Of course, Rhett had a cast on his leg, but he still managed to get around the theatre just fine.
Now, Bloom, who is never one to miss an opportunity, gets up one evening for the “welcome to our theatre give us money” speech and, once again, he gets Rhett Butler into the act. This time, as Bloom takes the stage for the speech, he has Rhett come limping on close behind. Picture this: Bloom downstage center calling offstage and this big German Shepherd, leg in a cast, comes hobbling on stage and sits down majestically right next to Bloom. What a sight. A boy and his dog. Timmy and Lassie. Rin Tin Tin and Rusty or Sergeant Preston of the Mounties and Yukon King. Such wounded dignity! Okay, you’re probably ahead of me and guessed it, Right there in front of a sold out house Bloom anointed Rhett Butler the “poster dog” for our fund-raising campaign. It was hysterical. The more solemn Bloom got, the funnier it was. There was Bloom with this giving a heart wrenching speech about how people should give money to New Playwrights’ theatre and that “your money will be put to good use” with a crippled canine beside him. Rhett looked at the audience with big pleading brown eyes. You’d think Billy had gotten Rhett acting lessons while they were at Catholic University. Father Hartke would have been proud. But, no kidding, Bloom actually said something like “some days this wonderful dog goes without his supper because there just isn’t enough money.” And Rhett cocked his head and look sad. “How can you say no to this face?”
I have no recollection if we raised a lot of money that night or not, but I do remember it was one of the most original “welcome to our theatre give us money” speeches in the history of the non-profit theatre movement in this country. Only Bloom could pull it off.
Finally … “Dramathon ‘76” (26 plays in 52 hours – a great fund-raiser – thank you Billy Brosnahan who thought of the title of the event) featured a very clever musical called “Metro, the disaster musical” Washington’s subway system had recently opened and it was an era of great disaster films - “The Towering Inferno” came out the year prior – so two clever guys from Georgetown University, Bobby Higgens and Michael Meth, figured what the hell and created a fun musical spoof of the genre. Having been around the theatre, Bobby and Michael knew Rhett and decided to write him into the show. Rhett starts as a seeing eye dog for the blind singer in a girl group caught on the trapped subway. Then, when the going got rough, Rhett moved into Rin Tin Tin mode and went for help – successfully. Rhett performed beautifully. (Maybe he did get acting lessons from Father Hartke.) Higgens and Meth later expanded the musical – enlarging Rhett’s part, and we considered it for a full production. Unfortunately, “artistic differences” led us to drop the project. Regrettable. It could have been one hell of a project if only we could have come to consensus on the rewrites. Oh well. “Metro, the disaster musical” will have to remain a legend. Kind of like Rhett Butler.