Sunday, May 07, 2017

Finding Eddie at The Speakeasy

Over the Moon at The Speakeasy (w/ Jon Deline)

You find yourself in a random street corner somewhere near the border of North Beach and Chinatown in San Francisco. The smells of simmering garlic risotto and sizzling Szechwan mingle in the evening air. You've been told to keep your eye out for a fellow in a faded overcoat and a canary colored fedora. You see him slouched insouciantly against a lamp post. He whispers a password to you past his down turned brim and upturned collar, gestures with a granite jaw towards either a Chinese laundry or a dusty clock shop. A goon at the door puts a hand the size of a porterhouse steak against your chest.
"Password." he grumbles.
"Skidoo." you reply.

With a grunt he lets you pass and you make your way down the rabbit hole.
You're in one of two places: either Sam Lee's Laundry Emporium or Joe's Clock Shop. Let's say you're in Joe's. The place is littered with clocks in various states of disrepair on every available surface. A desk bristles with springs and cogs and clock faces from every drawer. There's no Joe. Instead a dame in a sequined dress that fits her curves in all the right places reclines on a bentwood chair. Her gimlet eyes smolder at you. 
"Are you here to get a clock fixed?" she murmurs, lips painted the color of a day old bloodstain.
"Not really." you manage to stammer.
"Then you've come to the right place." She purrs and gestures you with lacquered nails towards a grandfather clock that probably last worked sometime around 1902. 
You open the door that should contain the innards of the clock. That's when you hear it. Music. Ragtime. A honky tonk waltz. You step into the clock and out the other side...

And you are in an illicit gambling den filled with flappers and dandies, swells and slatterns, bootleggers and roustabouts all decked out in the full regalia of 1923. You make your way past a Bellows boxing painting that hangs above a roulette table, past craps and blackjack players hunched over the green felt of the gambling tables, their chips clicking together in their sweaty palms and past an outstretched gloved hand holding a long cigarette holder belonging to a women resplendent in spit curls. Everyone is drinking. 

A bookshelf glides to one side on hidden wheels and you find yourself in a bar where a mustachioed piano player named Oscar Frost plinks out some forgotten moonshine sonata on a creaky upright. A bouncer with a face like a clenched fist and tougher than the calluses on a barflies' elbow gives you a wink and sends you through a secret passage marked only by a D├ęgas forgery. You make your way down a long hallway. Still more music beckons you past a velvet curtain the color of a bottomless lake. 

You emerge into The Palace Theatre Cabaret, swollen with swells swilling in the sepia glow of their table lamps or spilling over the mezzanine above the bouquets of drunken boozers in the booths. 
And onstage, caught in the glare of the footlights is a bevy of beauties in matching sequined hot pants kicking their long legs in perfect unison to the din of Mr. Arnie Topman and his Infamous Five. 

In the center of the chorus girls a man in a top hat and tails sings. He's the master of ceremonies, an ever ready joker with a bucket full of clever asides in his brain pan, sporting a jet black wig and a powdered face. His name is Eddie. The song ends and he raises a flask in your direction, his lips inches from a 1923 vintage microphone and says in a voice redolent of that era "So glad you could make it. Welcome to The Speakeasy!"

Three swells swilling.

Under Construction.

It started back in 2016 and even before that at another venue in 2014 and is the brainchild of Mr. Nick Olivero of Boxcar Theatre and his peripatetic business partner David Gluck. I was brought on to create the role of Eddie the Unlucky, the irrepressible gadfly emcee of the cabaret (loosely based on Eddie Cantor and a host of other comic luminaries of the Prohibition era) in their immersive theatre  recreation of a 1923 speakeasy.  I had just emcee'd the Theatre Bay Area Theatre Awards at the Geary Theatre for Nick and he asked if I was interested in creating Eddie for this 3 million dollar project he was embarking on in San Francisco. The venue was still fully under construction. It was a dusty, echo-y inhospitable environment to do theatre in. Now, almost a year later it is one of the hottest tickets in the city. And "Eddie" is at the center of it.

Becoming Eddie.

First was finding the material. Nick had done the heavy lifting of creating a cabaret order of where the specialty acts, the chorus girls, the comedy vignettes, the dream ballets would go. Eddie would be the one to tie them all together and keep the ball rolling. The only rule: nothing written after 1923. Authentic vaudeville humor. That plus what turned out to be seven songs, mostly from the Eddie Cantor songbook; If You Knew Susie, The Dumber They Come, She Don't Like It Not Much, etc. along with classics Lonesome Pine and even Those Were The Days are sprinkled throughout the evening with patter and plain ol' stand up of the time which needed to be part history lesson and part crowd control and all funny all the time. That's not true. When things go awry Eddie waxes philosophical and even holds forth with a Shakespeare soliloquy.

The Flannerelles.
Body of Work, Work of Body.

Luckily, Eddie Cantor was an extraordinary source of wit and ribald humor for generations and we were able to cobble together a kind of greatest hits and misses into Eddie's monologues from his vast body of work. And after a couple of months I started thinking like Eddie. Seeing the world through his cockeyed eyes. 
But then came the physicality. There's plenty of footage available of Eddie in the 30's and 40's. (He was one of those rare ones that went from vaudeville to radio to television without losing any of his well deserved popularity.) But there is precious little of the work he was doing pre 1923. Just a few grainy kinescopes and some scratchy audio. 
My first clue into him was his eyes. Throughout his career he affected a goggle eyed look, eyebrows in a perpetual state of astonishment. Next came his hands, splayed and fan like, as if the palms were capturing the limelight and the fingers were directing it directly to his garrulous face. His hips were square, retaining some of that early 20th century Puritan stiffness above feet that were like mirrors of his inner state: lively, jivey and almost irrepressibly delighted at everything he saw, heard or suspected might be on the horizon.

The interesting challenge was that he was small in stature. And that was part of his charm. And I wanted that. I wanted to cram his Napoleon complex into my 6' frame. I went to my favorite body part: the chin. By tucking it, while still letting my eyebrows have that Cantoresque buoyancy, I found I could feel like the world was a little bit bigger than me. Eddie is almost coy. But because he's got a trick or two up his sleeve, it's actually decoy. That along with a slightly oversized costume seems to do the trick.

Giggle Juice and Tonsil Varnish

Since developing the role, they've had 2 others playing Eddie in The Speakeasy (including the aforementioned impresario Nick Olivero) but I like to think that Eddie Cantor himself, up in front of those footlights in the sky, is looking down with those big eyes of his and smiling, knowing we're all doing our best to give the swell swells of 2017 a little glimpse into a time when girls had gams, goons packed heat and giggle juice could get you daffy at The Speakeasy.

Eddie the Unlucky at the afterparty.

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