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archy and mehitabel -- 1975

This is the story of how a theatre project in 1970s Portland Oregon brought together a group of teenagers to make something that was truly magical.

From the time I was a small boy, my parents were always giving me books to read. I cherished them all: The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The 13 Clocks and The 1001 Arabian Nights. When I was eleven years old, my mother gave me her own copy of the lives and times of archy and mehitabel, a book that she’d loved for years.

It was a collection of short free-verse poems and stories that, according to the book cover, was written by a man named Don Marquis. But the first page revealed a different story. Marquis (pronounced MAR-kwiss) was a real-life columnist for the New York Sun newspaper in the early 1900s. One day he told his readers that he’d left a sheet of paper in his typewriter overnight and when he came into his office early the next morning, he saw an extraordinary sight. A cockroach was typing words on the machine. With great effort it was leaping head first from one key to another and another and another. Marquis reported that he had watched from across the room for an hour until the cockroach, exhausted from its work, fell onto the desk and crawled away. Examining the paper, he found a full typewritten page.  Because the insect couldn’t press the shift key at the same time that he was jumping on a letter key, it was all typed in lower case. It began:

                                                                   

 

                                                             expression is the need of my soul
                                                             
i was once a vers libre bard
                                                             but i died and my soul went
                                                             into the body of a cockroach
                                                             it has given me a new outlook on life

and it ended with

                                                             leave a piece of paper in your machine every night

                                                             you can call me archy

For years, Don Marquis’ daily column in The Sun was devoted exclusively to Archy’s musings and rants about his life as a cockroach and about the comings and goings of the many creatures who inhabited the back alleys of New York City. Archy wrote poems and stories about the bugs and the birds, the mean rats and tomcats and, most notably, he wrote about his dear pal Mehitabel. She was a ragged and battered alley cat with a limp in her left hind leg and an indomitable spirit. This was a revelation for me because my mother had named our family’s cat Mehitabel and I’d never known why. The first collection of the columns was published as a book in 1927, followed by several more books over the years. I couldn’t get enough of them.

 

Then one day when I was 15 years old, I was in my high school library flipping through their collection of LP records when I saw an album cover that stopped me in my tracks.

In the 1950s, someone had adapted the stories and poems into a musical!

 

Now, I’d been a theatre kid since I was seven years old and could hardly contain my excitement at this discovery. I skipped Algebra and the first half of lunch to listen to the whole album through headphones on the library’s only record player. The title of the show was archy and mehitabel: a back-alley opera, but this wasn’t anything like the bits of Mozart operas I’d heard or even a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. It was Archy’s poems turned into a long series of bluesy-jazzy songs, and I loved it. I checked out the record and brought it home with me that afternoon. As I showed it to my mom I blurted out, “Somebody should produce this show now!” She looked at me, nodded her head and said, “Yeah, somebody should.” In that instant, it dawned on me exactly what she meant, and exactly what I needed to do.

 

I was that somebody who had to produce it.

 

I sent a letter to the address on the back of the album jacket to ask how I could get the performance rights, but never got a reply. Considering that the address was for an office in a New York City building from 1955, the year the record was released, it’s not surprising that I didn’t hear back from them. I relied on one of the lessons my mother had taught me: It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission, and decided to produce the show without paying royalties. It’s been nearly fifty years, so I’m trusting that we’re way past the statute of limitations for these sorts of things.

 

I should explain that my living situation as a teenager was a little unconventional. My parents had divorced when I was eight. My father had remarried and my siblings and I lived with our mother in a commune of sorts that she’d started in Northwest Portland. A lot of the people in the commune (affectionately called The Cosmic Bank) were other teenagers. In our big old Victorian house, each of them found a level of freedom that they didn’t have under their own parents’ roofs, and a sense of home and community that they’d been searching for.

 

My first step was to get hold of the score and libretto. Now that I knew the musical existed, I went to our downtown public library (this was the fall of 1974, decades before Google). With the help of the reference librarian, I learned that the piano/vocal sheet music had been published, and I put in a request for it on inter-library loan.

A week later I got the phone call that it had been delivered.

As thrilling as it was to look through the pages, I was disappointed to see that it only had the songs and scenes from side one of the record. It turned out that although the flip side felt like the second act of a two-act musical, it was actually a different show, recorded a year later and with a single narrator playing all the parts.

 

Luckily enough, two of the residents of the Cosmic Bank were accomplished musicians. John Smith was a guitarist and Don Miller was a pianist. The two of them cued up the B side of the record and listened to each song over and over again as they carefully transcribed what they heard into the sheet music that became Act 2 of our production, turning a single narrator’s voice into a handful of roles for different actors. Together, they arranged a full orchestration with Don playing on both the upright piano and on a synthesizer, flipping the switches and pushing the buttons to create a small ensemble with flute, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet, and violin. John was on guitar (except for when he slipped backstage to make his entrance as the Moth), and we invited David Robboy, a slightly older friend from a sister commune, to join in on acoustic bass.

John Smith.jpg

I cast myself as Archy (of course), and there was no question that the chorus of Mehitabel’s singing-dancing alleycat gal pals would be played by the teenage girls who lived at the Cosmic Bank: Valerie Day, Junie Wright, Mary Rose Sullivan, Lori Bilbao, and Laurie Sammons.

 

At 17, Sue Twohy was a couple of years older than me. She was one of those people who lit up the room whenever she swanned into it. She was so funny, but not "telling jokes" funny. Sue had this wickedly hilarious and quick sense of humor that made her amazingly fun to be around. And she was hands down the best actor-singer-dancer that I knew. I gathered up my courage and asked her if she’d like to play Mehitabel in our production. She said yes, and she was brilliant in it—the absolute heart of the show.

All of these young women collaborated to choreograph their dance numbers themselves and they enthusiastically brought their collective spirit and genius to it. 

I gave some thought to all the teenagers who either lived in the house or hung out there and imagined who I felt would be good in the other roles. One by one I told them about a character and asked if they’d be interested. In some cases, they’d never been in a play before, but I promised that I’d coach them and support them all the way. Heather Perkins signed on to play The Bragging Flea, Geph Peterson (now Ole Peterson) would be Broadway the Lightning Bug, and our guitarist John Smith stepped up to play the Moth.

Walter Wesley was glad to play Mehitabel’s Tomcat boyfriend Bill in Act 1, and Rex Ettlin agreed to learn to sing as the old trouper Horace: Mehitabel’s Theatre Cat boyfriend in Act 2.  Rex’s brother Mark would operate the follow spot, and Luke Grimm would run the lighting & sound board. 

All of the characters in archy and mehitabel are insects and animals except for one. The narrator of the show is Don Marquis. To emphasize the difference, I wanted to cast an adult as Marquis. John McMahan was a much-loved teacher at the Metropolitan Learning Center (MLC), an alternative school in Northwest Portland, and someone in the cast suggested that he might be a sympathetic volunteer. I cut class from my own school one afternoon, headed over to his classroom at MLC and introduced myself. I told him about the project and asked him to join us. Without a moment's hesitation, he generously said yes. 

The characters that Don Marquis created are indelibly associated with the illustrations in the books drawn by George Herriman, who was also well known as the cartoonist/creator of Krazy Kat

dancingdame.jpg

One of the teenagers in our neighborhood was a guy named Will Spray, and one of Will’s gifts was drawing. I asked him if he would be willing to draw original illustrations for our poster and program in the style of George Herriman. He happily gave it a whirl and the results were wonderful.

Of all the people who spent time at the Cosmic Bank, one of the most universally loved and admired was a fellow named Chris Kliks. There was always an impish twinkle in his eyes and always a sense of adventure that he carried into every encounter. In the 1970s, Chris was the unofficial documentarian of our corner of the world and with his artistic flair and technical skill with a camera he captured the special magic that all of us lived. Now, nearly 50 years after we worked on this show, Chris managed to dig out a storage box with the slide photos he took during our rehearsals and performances and it’s thanks to him that we are able to have these images here. 

archy and mehitabel was the first full production that I ever directed. To this day, there is nothing I love more than working with actors as their director. Looking at these photos after all these years, it has been so gratifying to see my 15-year old self listening to actors and supporting them with the same degree of love and care that I bring to my work now. 

With limited resources, we always managed to find ways to make things work. We rehearsed all the individual scenes in the house, but didn’t have the floor space inside to work on the big song and dance numbers. We marked out the street in front of the Cosmic Bank and rehearsed outside. Designated spotters were posted on either end. Right in the midst of rehearsing a number we’d regularly hear one of them shout Car! or Bike! Don would stop playing the music and all the dancers would get out of the way to let the person pass. Then everyone would go back to their positions and we’d pick it up from where we’d left off. 

When we began work on the show, we didn’t actually have a theatre lined up for the performances. All my life I have been a “get-started-and-trust-that-somehow-it will-all-work-out” kind of guy. This may actually have been the project where that began. In between rehearsals I went scouting to every Portland theatre and performance space I could think of, but got nowhere. Through a curious twist of fate, I wound up taking the Tri-Met bus to the campus of Reed College, where I walked into the administration building and asked the President’s secretary if he had a few minutes free. President Bragdon graciously made time for me and I made my pitch. We were a group of teenagers called the Serendipity Actors, and we were putting on a musical. We needed a theatre where we could perform it early that summer. He told me that the college’s theatre was empty the first weekend in June, and that it could also be available for our load-in and tech rehearsals in the week leading up to it. But, he explained, we couldn’t just have it for free. We’d need to pay the rental fee. I quietly gulped and asked how much. He told me that our rental rate for the week would be one hundred dollars. I took a breath and said that I realized it was a lot of money but I was confident that we would be able to raise it. He picked up his phone and called the Chair of the Theatre Department to tell him to set aside that week for the Serendipity Actors. We held some bake sales and had a fundraiser and I delivered the rental fee to him in cash.

 

At age 15, I was clueless that he was essentially giving it to us for free—that the hundred bucks would go toward paying a student techie to be on hand while we were there, and that he was likely using some discretionary account to subsidize whatever else it cost to keep the building open that week. Paul Bragdon was part of the village that “raised” us kids and nowadays I try my best to emulate what he taught me about what to do when it comes to supporting young people.

It was an unseasonably hot June the week of our load-in and tech rehearsals, and the theatre building wasn’t air conditioned. Most of the guys worked shirtless and everyone made hand-folded fans out of pieces of paper we found around the place. But we loved every minute of it. It was our baby and it was really going to happen.

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On opening night, the crowds poured into the lobby. Stationed at the box office table, my best buddy Howard Ish was—as always—both understated and flamboyant. It was the 1970s and we were mounting a teenage revolt against capitalism, so our ticket prices were: 1 dollar for rich people, and 75 cents for poor people. Two of the residents at the Cosmic Bank, Rosalio and Mary Anne, had prepared a concessions table with “Rainbows and Lemon Aid” which brought broad smiles to the faces of pretty much everyone who bought a slice and a glass. Our photographer Chris, and Rosalio’s brother Mick ushered the audience into their seats. 

Rainbow cake.jpg

Our production of archy and mehitabel: a back-alley opera was an unqualified success, with three packed houses and a shared feeling of utter joy among actors, crew, and audiences at each performance. 

After the final bows and after we struck the set and returned all the set pieces and costumes we’d borrowed, the whole company headed out in a caravan of cars to the banks of Oregon’s Metolius River for a cast party to celebrate all that we had accomplished. 

People talk about their belief in the power of art-making to positively impact the lives of young people when they have the freedom and opportunity to work together creatively and make something they are proud of.

 

I know it is true, because it happened to us in Portland Oregon in 1975. 

[Click play button to watch a 16-minute slideshow documentary with music from the score performed by Don Miller

or click HERE to watch it full screen on VIMEO]

Christopher Kliks recorded one of our performances on audio tape, but unfortunately the reel was lost years ago. If you would like to listen to the original Columbia Masterworks recording with Carol Channing, Eddie Bracken, and David Wayne, it’s available on YouTube HERE.
 

If you would like to learn more about Don Marquis and his creations, treat yourself to E.B. White’s beautifully written tribute HERE.

All photos by Christopher Kliks (except for the black and white exterior of the Reed College Theatre, courtesy Kathleen Worley, and the photo of John Smith with his mandolin, courtesy Valerie Day).

 

You are welcome to post your comments below, and, if you were involved in the show, your own memories of it.

Comments (12)

Guest
Apr 23

I chanced upon your link while following Bob Hicks' daily art posts. I loved learning about what you all did together. David (Gerson) Robboy is an old friend. Thanks for doing this and for writing about it.--Theresa Koon

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Guest
Feb 19

Beautiful, Will! The combination of storytelling, photos, video and music are wonderful. Thank you for sharing this.

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Guest
Feb 13

Fabulous storytelling and fabulous story! Such an empowering accomplishment!

~ Catherine

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Guest
Feb 13

Will! It is amazing to see how much of the you I know in the present in this blueprint of Will in his formative years.

I love everything about this and just wish I could hop a Time Machine so I could be in the show <3

Julia

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Guest
Feb 13

Oh, Will! This is so fantastic. Thanks for putting this together and sharing. And thank you, Chris Kliks, this took me right back. Love, Jeana

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Ann McFarlane
Ann McFarlane
Feb 12

Such an Amazing Array of Talent and that wonderful 70's vibe in Portland ( almost said Potland ) I miss it sometimes. seeing people took me right back and though times have changed.. sometimes I wonder if we aren't the same somehow.. deep down.. the same longings.. the same needs.. the same hopes and fears. So wish I'd seen the production.. and also been to the Cosmic Bank.. The free spirit within lives on.. throughout the ages.. being rediscovered every time a child reminds us to be curious again.

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Guest
Feb 12

This is tremendous, Will! So glad you shared it.

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Heather Perkins
Heather Perkins
Feb 12

What a great documentary. Shout out to Chris for always being there to capture incredible images. And of course, thanks to Will for fostering this lightning in a bottle - a real creative community.

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Guest
Feb 12

How fortuitous to have such great photo documentation available. Accompanied by your warm and generous storytelling, Will, you provide us with a re-living of one of those highlights of teen life many of us can relate to. What a grand adventure!

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Guest
Feb 12

I loved reading this account. What energy and creativity! I knew some of you and this brought back warm memories.

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