Dramatics: The chapter that never made it into the biography

That’s Joe Kirkish. He does odd jobs at his father’s grocery store – sweeping, window dressing, filling shelves – stuff like that. Except when it’s Sunday and stores are closed. That’s when you’ll find him at home, a block up the street, on the long open porch, where he’s likely putting on a show – sometimes with his kid sisters, sometimes not. That’s where neighborhood kids would gather for free fun and entertainment…

And so it happened, when I was around 10, when I’d be free from my store duties, to prove my dramatic prowess. Actually, I don’t recall how it began, likely during the Great Depression, when a dime for a weekend movie was too much and when I filled the time, to entertain – first one or two friends, then a porch full.

I was never short on ideas for entertainment. My favorite was for us to surround the wind-up our victrola, put on one of my mother’s operatic duos, and with my improvised explanations for what went on, usually holding the group: a lady singing just before throwing herself over a parapet, or a pair of lovers who planned to die together rather than face being thrown to the lions – the hotly dramatic (and totally made up), melodramatic ad-libs holding attention to the end.

Cut to high school age, where I had advanced from my porch presentations to an occasional solo magic show as “Swami Rivers” (in bushy fake black beard, white turban and borrowed long, black cloak) doing slight of hand tricks accompanied with a patter of tongue-in-cheek mysticism; it managed to hold attention with a touch of humor mixed in to conceal my amateurish prestidigitation.

That was an effective, growing period in my onstage life, which followed me (with some additional developments for more mature audiences) to my academic years at the University of Wisconsin. It didn’t take long to find about and accept a part-time job in Bob Gard’s group of drama students who, as part of his dream to invade all areas of the state, to introduce various aspects of theatrical entertainments as a valuable part of growing up in the largely rural population.

I might be called upon, for example, by a group in Oconomowoc to develop a local drama club, or to Oshkosh to give a lecture on theatrical use of make-up, or even, one time, to judge a trio of home grown stage plays. At the same time, my love for all things on the “magic boards” only grew to more advanced work backstage on the university’s professional productions. Among them was work with the famed all male musicals – starring (mostly) straight athletes with a yearn for dancing and singing as female impersonators.

Don’t snicker; it was one of a handful of universities that drew SRO (standing room only) audiences to professionally created entertainment – and it resulted with an occasional student who wound up on the Hollywood screen or on Broadway – Frederick March among them.

My job for the productions? No kidding, doing make-up and finding costumes to transform a dozen serious, muscular members of the chorus into beautiful actresses for their singing and dancing roles.

It was not easy, but it was fun.

More serious was my work on a slowly progressing Master’s thesis on the history and use of make-up on the theatrical stage – a chance to learn about that vital, dramatic aspect of stage necessity. (See more in the chapter on my life and times at the university in my memoir “Long Exposure.”)

And, inevitably, an ensuing trail of lucky incidents took me from the university to Summer Stock in Massachusetts, to an immersion in life-learning incidents during the happiest three years of my life in and around Broadway.

But that’s another story…


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