Wow! I really loved your show… by
100
(152 Stories)

Prompted By How We Met

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Where in the world is the Egyptian princess?

1975. America was in a recession after our prolonged and costly assault on Vietnam and the repetitious orgasm that ejaculated men in giant spaceships from Terra to Luna.

The princess lost her startled expression, nodded, and looked deeper. I could see her think, Is this guy for real? How does he know about German expressionism? He’s a musician, for chrissake!

Oh yeah, and we were de-industrializing our economy, selling off the family farm, and crashing the stock market. Then, our Saudi petrol tit, resentful of our love affair with Israel, yoked us with an oil embargo, collapsing the veins of our fossil-fuel addiction.

Okay. So what does a recession have to do with true love and a lifelong partnership?

Meeting my true love was all about the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, or CETA, a federal jobs program designed to soften the recession with training and public-sector jobs for the long-term unemployed.

Some guy — I call him The Wag — ensconced deep in the bowels of CETA’s bureaucracy, reasoned that artists were, by definition, long-term unemployed. Writers, musicians, actors, painters, poets are always broke. But aren’t they workers, too? asked the Wag. So…

Why not give artists a slice of the CETA pie?

San Francisco provided the petri dish for the first CETA-sponsored arts program. Through the S.F. Arts Commission, CETA hired 120 artists at $140 per week to do what we loved to do! State-supported art in America? Unthinkable! But I was one of them.

As a CETA artist, I collaborated with other theater artists and musicians to launch two circuses, develop music workshops for ‘underserved’ neighborhoods. It’s amazing what a steady paycheck can accomplish.

Two productive CETA-subsidized years later, I got a call from the business manager of a new, feminist theater company saying they were looking for a musician with acting experience. I had both.

I was skeptical. When you’re in the theater long enough, you begin to see that the ratio of bad theater to good theater hovered at about 11 (bad): to 1 (good).

But the business manager seemed smart, if a bit brusque, and she never spouted any mission statement, feminist or otherwise. I hate boilerplate in the arts but theater companies are often forced to overcook their mission statements. For funding. Sometimes they begin to believe their own bullshit. Here, the lack of dogma was refreshing.

This refreshing feminist theater was performing at a well-established music hall. I was impressed; the venue didn’t usually hire slouch acts, so, I took up the biz manager and attended the cabaret. I stood in the back, just to be safe. I could always beat a retreat without detection if the show stunk.

The music hall was a low-ceilinged, brick-walled underground club. Bob, another CETA artist and now a long-term pal was sitting at a cigarette-burnt upright piano, pounding out a Bertolt Brecht song with music by Hans Eisler, two of the great — if cantankerous — theater artists that helped enliven Berlin’s radical expressionism in the 1920s.

I worshipped this rich time in progressive culture, before socialists began devouring socialists and Hitler stepped in. Expressionist art was revolutionary, sophisticated, and offered a kaleidoscopic view of the horrors of das kapitalistas. That hadn’t changed after two world wars, so the Weimar art thing seemed relevant.

Again, you may ask, what the hell does 1920s German expressionism have to do with meeting a soul mate in the 1970s? Answer: Because on a personal level, I’m a lover of brains. And on a political level, I can’t imagine living or creating with anybody who didn’t share my politics and culture.

Oh sure we argued plenty, including about political issues but when you meet someone so aligned with your own sensibilities that you morph into one pulsating body and brain, that’s probably a good thing… right? But that tale awaits us.

So there sat Bob, crouched over the piano, fedora and all, banging away to the unmistakable intro to “Money Makes the World Go Around” from the guileful musical, CABARET.

I heard the sound of taps on jazz shoes, fast, syncopated and synchronized, and five female tappers entered stage left.

The light shone rosy, the women’s costumes shouted anarchy and sex. They begin to sing but I focused on the dancer in the middle. She wore shorts and knee socks and a burgundy satin blouse, and her thick, curly hair floated around her dark features like an aura.

She moved effortlessly in the best tap style, lightning-fast feet moving independent from her upper body. She looked like an Egyptian princess that destiny had displaced from Alexandria to New York or Berlin… or San Francisco.

I emerged from visceral shock of the dancing princess and the wanton Weimar tableau of light, dance, and music and tuned in to the lyrics. Yes, the familiar chorus to Cabaret’s “Money” stayed the same, but the verses were hilarious, a tap-staccato, savvy, sarcastic present-day commentary on corrupt politics in our City by the Bay. I guessed that the princess had written the lyrics: She led the other performers with an author’s authority.

I hadn’t seen political commentary performed with such wit, sophistication, and skill since I had left the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Maybe not even then.

After the last number, I slipped backstage and approached the princess. “Oh wow,” I said. “I really loved your show!”

The princess frowned, stepped backward, genuinely startled. She looked at me as she might have seen a ghost… or a charlatan.

Undaunted, I continued. “I’m So and So, the musician.”

“Oh,” she said. “Yes.” She extended a hand on the end of a stiffened arm.

I briefly shook the soft, warm, distancing hand. “You took me to Berlin. Weimar. Brecht, Grosz, Lotte Lenya.” I wasn’t dropping names, I was genuinely ecstatic. “Only it’s now, not then!”

The princess lost her startled expression, nodded, and looked deeper. I could see her think, Is this guy for real? How does he know about German expressionism? He’s a musician, for chrissake! “You liked it?” she said.

“Yeah!” I said. “I felt like Brecht was in the room.”

She scuffed her taps on the floor. “I thought it was horrible.”

My heart took a leap, bees began to buzz. Wow, I sighed inside. An authentic, brainy, beautiful complicated woman with politics. “I hear you’re looking for a musician,” I said.

We’ve been together ever since.

# # #

Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Zussman says:

    I like the way you take us back to San Francisco in the ’70s and set the scene while we patiently wait for your soulmate to appear. When she does, we know why.

    Fourth from the right?

    • Correct on both counts: Egyptian princess is fourth from the right, and glad I got across a sense of why we’re together. Also…

      One of the more deft, diplomatic, and subtle editorial suggestions I’ve ever received — “Cut!” I think the lesson to be learned is: when you ask the reader questions like “Okay. So what does a recession have to do with true love and a lifelong partnership,” I should probably respond, not with more words, but fewer words. Oh well, onward and — hopefully upwards.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    “Our Saudi petrol tit”; whew, what an image! As always, your writing is spectacular. I am there with you…OF COURSE I know the song and all the allusions. What a glorious way to meet. Wonderful that it’s worked out for you.

    • Thanks for your writing words and best wishes. And yeah, it was a cool way to meet a soulmate. On common ground, in the theater. I’m glad you could wade through all that obsessive exposition! I’m off to read your latest work.

  3. Suzy says:

    You certainly took us on a long journey, Chas, but it was so worth it when we got there. I love that what clinched it for you was that she responded to your praise of her show by saying she thought it was horrible. I also love your picture of the whole company.

    A little confused about the timeline of you and your true love getting together, since this story appears to have occurred in 1977, and yet in Winter Sun you didn’t break up with your law student girlfriend until late October 1978. Poetic license?

    • Part of how I understood the depth of her commitment to her work was her total disbelief that people liked her work. I’m glad you got that!

      And yes, poetic license. Thanks for your response, Suzy! Oh yeah, and that’s a pic of the cast of an entirely different show, but who’s counting? They come… they go… 😉

  4. Suzy says:

    I saw a show here in Ashland last night with some amazing tap dancing, and it made me think of your phrase in this story, “lightning-fast feet moving independent from her upper body.” That’s a great description.

    • American tap dancing originated on plantations. he plantation owners feared an uprising such as the rebellion in Haiti and knew that their African slaves communicated effectively via drums. Slaves were not allowed drums or even crates; they might become telegraph machines. In the fields, however, slaves communicated via foot stomping. They avoided detection by not moving their upper bodies. Hence, the basic posture of tap, which has, of course, opened up to full-body movement, while still retaining the still upper-body posture. It also helps the feet go pitty patty faster. Heh.

      • Suzy says:

        Very interesting history of tap dancing. I had no idea! BTW, if you are wondering, the play that had the tap dance number in it was Twelfth Night. Not sure that was quite what Shakespeare had in mind!

  5. Susan says:

    One of my favorite college classes was “Paris in the 20s.” The music, the writing, the art and community of artists of that decade…a rich time indeed. How wonderful that you met your soul mate in that context. I’m thinking it set the stage (pun, I know, I know) for your life’s rich partnership.

  6. Sounds like a great class! The cross-pollination in Europe was also intense. Altho the romance and stellar brilliance of Paris’ scene was different from the Weimar era’s art against grim political turmoil, there was always the threatening rise of fascism in both countries, and the art reflected that. And yes, we met under great circumstances. The theater provides a great arena for attraction!

  7. rosie says:

    Just delightful. I have several different copies of that particular play by Brecht but never heard a satirical one brought into the present. Did they make recorded copies of the musical?

    • Cabaret was not a Brecht play, Rosie. It began as a novel, written by Christopher Isherwood about a Berlin nightclub circa 1930 as Hitler rises to power and introduces the pivotal character of Sally Bowles. In its next permutation, the novel became a play called “I Am a Camera” in 1951 and “Cabaret” the musical, reworked by Isherwood, became a big Broadway hit in the late 1960s. The film came sometime later. The cabaret put on by the Egyptian princesss in SF was a collection of reworked or relevant songs from the world of Brecht and Eisler and, of course, “Money Makes the World Go ‘Round.”

  8. rosie says:

    You are correct, of course, I was thinking of another play…whose name refuses to come to mind at the moment. It was of that age and time when the communists were being persecuted in Germany. If I remember it, or find my copies I’ll post the correct name. Thanks for the additional history.

    • Rosie, I’d like to know the name of the play you were thinking of. Oh, there were a few Kurt Weill tunes in the Egyptian princess’ anthology. Weill wrote the now-well-known music to Three-Penny Opera. He and his wife Lotte Lenya escaped Germany to continue their careers in America. The couple, as individuals were two of very few Weimar progressive artists who survived Hitler and actually enjoyed success in NYC and Hollywood.

      Brecht didn’t fare so well. I think he was too much of a curmudgeon to tolerate Hollywood, and he had relatively little experience as an individual writer. He was a cranky collaborator and many of his plays were actively co-written by several brilliant, but rarely recognized women of the theater. His brilliant, ‘good soldier Schweik’ humble-bumble refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) might have been the pinnacle of his Hollywood career. He left the next day for Europe. He wrote some great poems about Hollywood. The Swamp https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=24871 and Hollywood Elegies: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/54758

  9. rosie says:

    You are a fountain of info. I didn’t realize that so much of his work was done by others. I was about 12 years or a little older…when I first was introduced to his work by my brother who was in advanced classes and gave me his books to read. One was The Good Woman of Szechuan. Now I wonder who really wrote what. Nonetheless I enjoyed the plays that I read.

  10. rosie says:

    Hi Charles,

    I finally remembered the name of the play I was thinking of “The Three Penny Opera”. I have 2 or 3 versions recorded with different actors.

  11. rosie says:

    I didn’t go and check the recordings so I failed to notice that Bertolt Brecht didn’t write the 3 Penny Opera. Oh me, at least I am getting an education here.

    • But Rosie, Brecht DID write Three Penny Opera! He wrote the lyrics to Kurt Weill’s music for this ‘play with music.’ He is, after all, a poet. He also worked closely with Elizabeth Hauptmann, who translated the story’s 18th-century precursor “A Beggar’s Opera. Hauptmann collaborated on the book (the libretto in opera) with Brecht. He also drew on work by the robber, blackguard French poet Francois Villon and even Rudyard Kipling. As with music, theater is often a thing of rags and patches, with people taking bits and pieces from everywhere. It’s the beauty of collaboration, and I don’t want to give you the impression that Brecht just sat around and collected the kudos!

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