Dad's Brief Stage Career

 Dick Miller 

October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.

© Copyright 2014 by  Dick Miller 

Photo of the actor who played the role in the 1951 film.

For a number of years my parents were active in amateur theater productions, mostly at our church and in the local community center dramatic group. Mom was the one who liked to be on stage and dad worked behind the scenes. He designed and built sets, painted, acted as stage manager, and did just about anything but step out onto the stage.

As a result of their involvement, I spent a lot of evenings during rehearsal time sitting in the back of the theater doing homework, reading books, and watching what was going on. I sometimes had the opportunity to help out during performances as a call boy, which meant running to the dressing rooms from the wings to call the actors when it was time for them to make their entrances. On one special occasion, the dramatic group was doing a performance of "Teahouse of the August Moon," and my job was to tend the goat in a tent behind the theater until it was time for the goat to make its appearance. But mostly, I sat in the back and watched.

My father was actually pretty creative when it came to set design on a limited budget. We used to do musical and comedy reviews as fundraisers for our church every year, and they were very popular and well attended. There were a lot of talented people in our church who were willing to strut their stuff, and we hired an old time vaudevillian director with his long-time pianist accompanist to pull the show together.

One year, for a change of pace, we decided to do a classic melodrama, complete with shining hero, a heroine named Nell, a dastardly villain complete with mustache and cape, and the obligatory scene with the heroine tied to the railroad tracks as a train approached out of the tunnel. In order to simulate the oncoming train, dad had rented a large photographic iris whose opening could be adjusted to simulate the size of the oncoming locomotive’s headlamp. He built a flat that looked like tracks leading into a tunnel and mounted the iris at the far end of the black tunnel, placing a light source behind it. During the performance, he stood behind the iris, gradually enlarging it to simulate the oncoming train, simultaneously gradually increasing the volume of the phonograph recording of locomotive sounds he had next to him. And, to put the icing on the cake, he blew smoke from the cigarette he was smoking out the iris opening from time to time. Now, that's special effects on a budget!

That was dad's comfort zone: being behind the scenes, making his contribution where the audience couldn't see him. But there was one time when someone persuaded him to do otherwise.

The community center dramatic group was doing a production of "Detective Story." The Oscar-nominated 1951 film starred Kirk Douglas and William Bendix. Our director needed a number of authoritative-looking men for roles in the play, and my dad, a 6'1" fireman, filled the bill. The director cajoled and persuaded dad and finally got him to take a small but important part as the Lieutenant in charge of the precinct where the action takes place. Coincidentally, the actor in the film and my father both had the first name Horace.

Having an on-stage role didn't keep dad from designing and building sets as usual. Since his part was fairly small, he didn't have to participate in many of the rehearsals. My mother didn't have a role in this play, so I wasn't sitting in the back of the theater during rehearsals as usual.

Finally, performance time was drawing near, and dress rehearsals were upon us. Mom and I were invited. I was warned that this was a mature play, and that some of the language and situations might be a little too "grown-up" for my 10-year-old years. I was also reminded that this was just pretend, and that dad was just doing and saying what this script said for him to do and say, a concept that I well understood.

Mom and I settled into our seats, the house lights went down, the curtain was drawn, and the performance began. Everything went smoothly until, at one point, in a scene with the main detective character (played by Kirk Douglas in the movie) and my father, the detective said something about what he heard on the radio. The Lieutenant (played by my dad) slammed his hand on the desk and roared, "20 years ago I threw my radio the hell out the window!"

I was aghast!

I had never seen my father lose his temper!

I had never heard my father curse!

I guess I had gotten so caught up in the performance that the distinction between my father and the character he was playing had gotten blurred.

I recovered fairly quickly, and figured out that that violent, cursing man on the stage was not really my father. But I suspect he had been hiding a talent all those years while working behind the scenes.

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