First Theatre Experience
Albert Vetere Lannon
Copyright 2019 by Albert Vetere Lannon
love the theatre. I’ve been able over my eight decades to see
lots of plays, from street performers to first-class houses in New
York, London, San Francisco, and now, Tucson. I didn’t grow up
with theatre in my life. As a street kid on New York’s Lower
East Side the thee-A-ter was something uptowners with money did and
they did it uptown. We made do with the fourth-run Stuyvesant movie
house on Second Avenue, around the corner from twelth
where I lived and across the street from the corner candy store where
we hung out, sipping sodas and playing the jukebox.
the late Zelda Fichandler, successful in Washington with the Arena
Stage, converted the Stuyvesant into the Phoenix Theatre and began
producing plays. It was, I think, 1954, the same year the one tree
on my block was cut down. My kid sister and her gang started hanging
around the stage door for autographs and brought back stories: this
actor was a drunk, that one wore a wig, didya know so and so was gay?
Except we used far less polite terms in those days. My friend Bobby
said he got to make out with a musical star, but he liked to BS a
lot, so who knows?
best buddy Johnny-Boy and I snuck in a few times at intermission and
saw half of some plays. Then we flirted with a couple of young
usherettes and they snuck us in to seats that were never sold because
they were right over the entry way and uncomfortable. We saw a
musical revue with Nancy Walker, and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,
with Robert Ryan, and others I can’t remember.
what started to gripe us was all these uptown people coming to our
neighborhood and acting like they owned it. They took over the candy
store at intermission and looked at us sitting in the booths smoking
and sipping cherry cokes like we were lower creatures with our
dungarees or pegged pants and DA haircuts. Like we were the
cockroaches that infested the apartments we lived in just a few feet
away. We got madder and madder.
Johnny-Boy and I decided to do some acting of our own. We worked out
a script and rehearsed, and finally it was showtime!
chose a Saturday night intermission and the corner was packed with
uptowners in suits, sports jackets and neckties. They were smoking,
or talking with their girl friends, or just waiting for the show. Well,
they got one. Johnny-Boy and me, dressed as usual in
motorcycle jackets and dungarees, pushed our way into the middle of
the crowd and started on each other.
shouldna done that ya f----n’ creep,” I’d shout.
my ass ya rat bastid,” Johnny-Boy would shout back.
uptowners began to move away from us. Johnny-Boy gave me a shove,
hard enough to push me into someone, and I’d come back at him
swinging. I pulled my punch so that I didn’t really hit him,
slapping my leather jacket with my other hand. He’d throw fake
punches at me and it sounded and looked like a real fight, scuffling
and cursing until some Hero – there was always one around
trying to impress his date – tried to get between us and break
would turn on him and belt him a couple of times and then run like
hell before somebody called the cops. The Hero would be doubled over
or holding his bloody nose, wondering what happened. Johnny-Boy and
I would scoot through the alleys and end up on a roof, laughing like
crazy about our version of the thee-A-ter, high with an adrenalin
rush. We’d gotten in a good one at the invaders; maybe some of
them wouldn’t come back.
But they kept on
coming and Bob, the candy store owner, threw us out so he would have
more room to serve egg creams at intermission. The invaders had
crossed a line for sure now, pushing us out of our own turf! So the
following night we went up the block to Carl’s basement –
his mother ran a rooming house – and we collected cockroaches
and waterbugs in a paper bag. Then we got Little Petey – he
was the smallest guy on the block – to sneak in when the candy
store was packed at intermission, open the bag, and drop it.
exterminators were there for three days.
the Phoenix Theatre…. Maybe they thought they were going to
bring culture to the masses but it was the start of gentrification
and the East Village. Despite all that, I did grow up to love
theatre, and continue to go to this day despite old age and cancer.
Tucson is blessed with many good theatre companies, and – free
plugs -- we get season tickets for Rogue, and attend just about all
of Pima Community College Theatre Arts Program’s amazingly good
shows. Their student-performed musicals are as good as any
with a shout-out to the late Christine Tamblyn at San Francisco State
University’s Interdisciplinary Creative Arts, late in my life I
blossomed as a performance poet and wrote and performed short theatre
pieces in San Francisco and Tucson. Those first theatre experiences
planted seeds that eventually bloomed.
thank you, Zelda Fichandler, and my sincere apologies to the people
that we hurt in our mock fights, and to Candy Store Bob. Theatre
allows us to escape the everyday world, or to better understand it,
with a personal connection between the actor and the audience that
television or movies can never have. Theatre is, I think, especially
relevant during these trying times.
there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
story list and biography
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