Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

My John Houseman story

After I finished High School I spent a year at Juilliard Extension Division taking music classes. One of the things I did there was join the chorus. We performed some cool stuff (e.g. Mozart Requiem at Alice Tully Hall with Abraham Kaplan conducting, etc). We were also drafted to be in the stage chorus for an opera by the Swiss composer Ernst Bloch (Macbeth). I had to learn the music, dress up like a soldier and be on the stage in addition to singing the part from memory. Bloch was the teacher of composer Roger Sessions of the Juilliard composition faculty, and his daughter Suzanne Bloch taught early music on the college faculty.

The opera production was directed by the famous director, actor, and producer John Houseman. Among other things Houseman worked with Orson Wells on the notorious radio adaptation of H.G. Wells "War of the Worlds" which caused major hysteria and mass panic in the NY city metro area in the 1930's one Halloween evening.

You can read more about Houseman here:

He was a very daunting person, although I didn't fully appreciate his impressive credentials at the time. He spoke with a pronounced English accent, and came across as bit of an obnoxious snob to us kids. I remember a run-in he had with our chorus conductor who allowed us to sit in chairs off-stage. Houseman wouldn't have it, we had to suffer along with everyone else. We feared him. Besides directing the staging of this particular opera, he was head of the newly formed and prestigious Juilliard Drama Department. But new to the field of opera direction, his reputation was on the line.

Along with the members of the chorus, acting students had bit roles in the opera too. They were always so eager to please Houseman and get any role that they could to demonstrate their talent. For all I know, their future careers may have depended on it.

During the long and tedious rehearsals of the opera I had made friends with a couple of the acting students. In general the musicians, pianists, and composers were required to take chorus. They were introverted, anti-social, and just didn't want to be there at all (composer Andrew Violette was one of them). However I got along just fine with the actors, and made friends with one guy in particular.

One day Housman lined up the guys (from both the pool of chorus members and actors). It felt like an audition as he looked us over with his hard glare. He needed a soldier to stand on the inclined stage as an ornament with slippery leather shoes motionless for eight or ten minutes holding a lit torch as part of the set. It required nerves of steel, concentration, and cool (not my strong suit).

He explained that if the flame landed on the stage, it could set the Juilliard Theatre on fire and instigate public panic. If a piece of the petroleum gel were to land on the wooden stage, the actor would be responsible for calmly extinguishing it with his leather slippers and pretending that it was all a "part of the show."

He looked us over carefully. All the male acting students were eagerly seeking the part - and his approval too. In my memory they seemed to be begging like little puppy dogs waiting to be thrown a biscuit.

After a long deliberation, Houseman pointed to me. (I was tall and looked more like a soldier than the other kids I guess). It resulted in one of my big moments in life - to be on the big stage and have a silent role, and I actually found it fun. I had to learn when to be ready to go out, and my cue was the music itself. Over many rehearsals and several performances I sometimes lingered, but never missed a cue.

How did I get onto this long story you ask?....

The acting student who I befriended had been standing next to me in the line-up during the "audition." In affect he had unsuccessfully auditioned for the small bit-part I had somehow secured. But he turned out to have a good career in acting anyway. Even though the famous John Houseman had chosen me over him to hold the torch, this young actor soon got work on TV. He was the psychiatrist on "Cheers."

Grammer went on to star in many other TV shows and movies and led the tragic life that those people in Hollywood seem to live. He always seems to be in the tabloids (and I noticed on the Wikipedia listing that he also shares a birth date with me - although he is one year younger).

I never kept up contact with the young actor. But I do remember helping him empty a keg of beer in the Juilliard cafeteria at one of the few school social "activities."

In retrospect, as I learned more about the history of Juilliard and how the faculty treated students, Houseman probably gave a chorus member the tiny acting part to simply to piss off the drama students. It was a power trip.

So every time I hear about the TV show Cheers or Frasier, it makes me think of this story.