My First Theatre Experience

Albert Vetere Lannon

© Copyright 2019 by Albert Vetere Lannon

Photo of a 50's candy store.

I 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 Street where I lived and across the street from the corner candy store where we hung out, sipping sodas and playing the jukebox.

Then 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?

My 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.

But 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.

So Johnny-Boy and I decided to do some acting of our own. We worked out a script and rehearsed, and finally it was showtime!

We 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.

Ya shouldna done that ya f----n’ creep,” I’d shout.

Kiss my ass ya rat bastid,” Johnny-Boy would shout back.

The 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 it up.

We 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.

The exterminators were there for three days.

Yeah, 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 professional show.

And, 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.

So 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.

Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?
-- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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