I’ve always known that I was, am, and must be an entertainer. According to my mother (one of the only true documentarians of our lives), when I was four, I used to make her watch watch Sleeping Beauty and The Wizard of Oz on repeat, acting out different characters each go around and directing her which characters she needed to portray (I highly doubt if I ever sacrificed playing the evil Queen or the Wicked Witch). This behavior sufficed my creative urges for about three years until something within me, randomly, roguely, asked to take dance lessons.
My best friend from Kindergarten, Shawn, and I showed up at the Performing Arts Studio in Collinsville and met a glamourous woman in her 60s named Doris Dieu, a Tallulah Bankhead type matron I would grow to loathe, love, and worship over the next six years. Our first “class” was really just proving that we could do a somersault. That meant that we could by-pass the baby classes with her daughter, Aileen, and go straight to “the big time.” Honestly, I think she just wanted the two boys all to herself.
She was a tough old broad who expected the best from her students – and got it. Her company performances and recitals were no small affair, hosted by Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in the beautiful Dunham Hall Theatre. Everything about her shows reflected herself: elegance. We performed full ballets, bursting with theatricality. And the dancing! I remember being blown away by the “older girls” (the ones in high school) and couldn’t wait to be as good as them. (A lyrical quartet of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” has haunted me for years).
Unlike many studios, we did not do competitions (we took Cecchitti Exams instead); however, there was no lack for glory. As a talented male dancer (Doris once told me I had “the best grand plie [she] had ever seen”), I quickly became a “star” at the studio (as much as an 11 year old could be in the middle of nowhere). My contempt for her expectations turned to respect and pride that a woman as talented as she believed in me. In my last two years with her, I was spending up to five days a week rehearsing after school, rushing in our carpool from St. John Neumann – with a swing through Hardee’s for a chocolate shake and two chocolate chip cookies – in my grandparents’ van (my mother would borrow it on her days to drive), that blue behemoth with the TV and the miniblinds, where we would all crowd around that big enormous 12″ screen and watch Rescue 911, waiting for Doris to arrive. These last two years also saw the quick decline of Doris’ health.
Doris had a few brain aneurysms. She could still walk and talk and teach (although she spent a lot more time teaching from her stool), but the spark had most definitely faded. The hospital had shaved her head, but in typical Doris style, she turned it to her advantage and rocked colorful, silk scarves and turbans, looking even more like a movie star than she already did. This coincided with my first year at The Muny (the most magical place on Earth, bar none) and meeting another legendary figure in my life, Mark Krupinski – more on both of them in a moment. I felt that I had learned all that I could from Doris and that it was my time to move on.
I saw her only once after that. Getting more involved at my new studio and performing at The Muny (doing 18 shows in 7 summers), Muny Kids/Winter Muny Kids/Muny Teens (traveling show choirs advertising the season) and just being a selfish teenager kept me from keeping in contact with the woman who gave me the passion for performing. Then one day I got a card in the mail: “We have seen all of your efforts at The Muny and are very proud of you. Love, Doris and Ray.” Ray was her late-in-life husband, the one, despite her physical set-backs of illness and age, who brought the smile to her face and kept her young. In fact, at one of our recitals they opened the show with a rousing duet of “Young at Heart.” Theirs was a resurrected romance, having met 40 years prior when they both performed in musical theatre. The joy they felt around one another was palpable. The letter made me weep for a woman I had adored, yet abandoned when she was at her lowest point. I knew I needed to see her, but was putting it off as long as possible. Would she be the same grand dame I had always known? Or would she be a stammering skeleton, waiting for death? I knew her health had begun to spiral further downward; my mother had run into Aileen at Wal-Mart and got the scoop. Mom suggested I visit her. I did, but wish I hadn’t. I can never erase the lasting photos of a woman succumbing to early Parkinson’s unable to form a sentence or hold a tea cup.
A few years later, Mom came in my room and awoke me with the news: Doris had passed away on Christmas – a week prior. The funeral was over. I couldn’t say goodbye. It’s one of those tattoo moments on my memory that I can still replay to tears.
Between my final recital with Doris (where our Jazz number was to “Wannabe,” introducing me to the guilty pleasure that is the Spice Girls) and high school graduation, I spent every September – May at Krupinski Academy of Dance and every June-August at The Muny. Common denominator: Mark Krupinski.
I first auditioned for The Muny when I was eight. I had just performed in my first musical, Annie, at the Cathedral Players Guild in Belleville. And if you wanted to do theatre in the St. Louis area, The Muny was the highest achievement. America’s Oldest and Largest Outdoor Theatre (founded in 1919 and seats almost 12,000), The Muny puts on seven large scale Broadway musicals a summer. Over the years, it has hosted the likes of Bob Hope, Angela Lansbury, Cary Grant, Chita Rivera, Mickey Rooney, and any other old school star of stage and screen you can think of. In the past 30 years, it has veered away from netting the “big name” stars (budget constraints?) and focused on securing venerable Broadway and Regional Theatre players, in addition to its stalwart of St. Louis talent it rounds up year after year. The auditions are no small affair either. Hundreds of kids turn out every May to secure a spot in the children’s chorus (a group somewhere between 50-100). You sing your 16 bars, dance in groups of 20 or more, and cross your fingers.
There I was, surrounded by pageant girls in their garish make-up, flanked by Mom and Grandpa, camping out for hours, waiting my turn to enter the West Pavilion and strut my stuff. Hilariously (in hindsight), I sang “Little Girls” from Annie. You know the song Ms. Hannigan belts out to vent her animosity for children. Surprisingly, I didn’t get cast.
But I wasn’t discouraged. I came back the next two years before being cast in my first production, a musical retelling of (fittingly) Sleeping Beauty, starring Georgia Engel (from The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as all three of the fairy godmothers rolled into one, and Ken Page (Cats’ original Old Deutoronomy) as a singing, dancing, pink cow (mhm). We got to play little demons who lured Prince Charming to danger and angels in white leotards, wrapped in Christmas tinsel, singing “Long Ago and Far Away.” (OK, so this show was pretty awful, but I didn’t know it. Nor care. I was 12 years old, working with Georgia Engel – one of the sweetest, most unaffected women in the business, who gave us (all 100 of us) a personalized note, two gold pencils engraved “Sleeping Beauty ’96”, and a bag of candy – and on that enormous stage. I had found my Xanadu.
Through my tenure, I became one of the “chosen” teens. Need a few extra dancers for this show? Let’s call Saia. Need someone to move the couch in this scene? Get Saia. Miss Saigon. A Chorus Line. Joseph. Anything Goes. And my personal favorite, Peter Pan, where I was hand chosen to be the Crocodile by director Thommie Walsh (A Chorus Line’s original “Bobby”) and choreographer Liza Gennaro (Broadway revivals of The Most Happy Fella and Once Upon a Mattress, and daughter of choreographer Peter Gennaro). Of course, this was in no small part due to my relationship with Mark.
While Doris focused on classic ballet and its grace, Mark was heavily ensconced in the world of musical theatre. (And bridging these two worlds in a head-scratching-it-almost-makes-me-believe-in-Fate kind of coincidence, who was Mark’s old dance teacher? Yep). He was the choreographer for the Muny Kids/Winter Muny Kids/Muny Teens and a respected force around town. His dance classes were 90 minute crash courses in ballet, jazz, tap, lyrical, acting, how to behave in the business, and how to make friends and influence people. He was the consummate professional with an athletic style. His recitals were mini-Broadway shows (cramming eight shows a week into a single weekend – literally, we did eight shows in a weekend!). Being under his wing for seven years taught me more about choreography and how to work with kids than any one else before or since. I don’t know if I can ever thank him enough for the world he helped me be a part of or the person I have become.
It’s been ten years since I last stepped foot (or crawled as it were) on that stage and I can still remember every inch of it. That large ramp where our wrangler – and awesome human – Nancy would line us up to get ready for our entrances; that huge tree Stage Left that blocked the boom; Gary’s Stage Manager station; the commissary where I would order a BLT and oogle over the sexy equity men; the costume shop where Clayton and I would lounge in the cool air conditioning with Doc and Pete, hearing stories of old; the stoop Nancy and I would sit on as she smoked and talked of her favorite musicals; the large tents we would cram into to get dressed; the music hall where Terri would teach us our seven part harmonies; Larry’s office where I would help count the ballots to decide next season; the green plastic seats my parents and I would nest into for the midnight dress rehearsals; the brick wall in the Men’s Dressing Room I autographed with the list of the shows I was cast in; that black hollow bandstand where I sang my first solo, “Suddenly Seymour” (and croaked) and danced one late night to impress my date; the parking lot where I gave a boy his first kiss; and the East Pavilion where in my later years, I got to join the cool kids at the Equity Cast Party. No other place – minus my grandparents’ house at 709 Gawain – have I been consistently happy, special, and absolutely at home.
I’ve auditioned twice as an adult to no avail and every year I tell myself, this is going to be the year I return to try again. But another year comes and goes, auditions pass, and life gets in the way. Someday. Someday…
After high school – and a brief stint at community college, majoring in theatre, where somehow I got a D in my acting class (I guess you can’t skip the day of finals and expect to just make it up because you had known the teacher for over five years) – I did what every dancer looking to make it does (or gay boy trapped in the MidWest dying to fall in love): I moved to New York City. I attended AMDA (scAMDA as we used to joke – goddamn it was expensive) and planned to graduate and become a Broadway star. But something happened by third semester: I discovered film.
I had always loved movies. Besides Sleeping Beauty and Oz, I adored any kind of musical, naturally. For Me and My Gal, Singin’ in the Rain, Easter Parade. You name it. By the time I was 18, I had performed in at least 30 musicals on top of numerous dance recitals and company performances. It was an inescapable part of my DNA at that point. Hell, numerous kinds of art are in my literal DNA. My mother used to paint these excellent plaster statues and tells a story like you wouldn’t believe (on top of making these awesome scrapbooks); my father played the coronet in the Drum and Bugle Corps and his entire family can sing and has a flare for comedy – and the dramatic (one of my greatest theatrical pleasures was sharing the stage with him and his brother for many years in The Nutcracker); my brother, Grandpa, and Uncle Tod can all draw; and Grandma’s young dream was to write mystery novels like Jessica Fletcher. How could I not go into the entertainment industry?! But my interest for “the cinema” started in high school through my friendship with Trevor, an eccentric, attention grabbing raconteur; an unmissable figure at the center of my ring of friends. His room was plastered with movie posters and his knowledge made it (and him) sexy. We bonded over this – as well as anything pop culture really (especially award shows…). The other important key to my film education was the AFI list of the 100 “Greatest” Films Ever Made (a list of dubious masterpieces, downright clunkers, and the occasional gem). This is how I was introduced to The Maltese Falcon, On the Waterfront, Chaplin, The Manchurian Candidate, Taxi Driver, and many other landmarks in the pantheon. But it wasn’t until I watched Annie Hall and Pink Flamingos in college that my “calling” had come to me.
I’ve never wanted to call myself an actor. There has always been – even now it informs my reticence – a tinge of shame (and self-doubt in my ability) involved in admitting it. Of course I am an actor. Whether you are dancing, singing, speaking, or just standing on stage, you are acting. Acting is reacting. But actors are tools, self-involved megalomaniacs who think they are curing cancer when they are really just pretending to be someone else. The chronically unemployed. The ones hustling during the day so they can play at night. With no stability. Ever. Plus, they are not artists. Simply interpreters of someone else’s hard work. That is not the life I wanted.
One day in my tiny dorm room at The Strat, I rented Annie Hall and was floored by its artistry. Here was a filmmaker who was smart. And funny. And worked with the brilliant Diane Keaton! I was in. And quickly devoured his canon (along with my friend Hot Ashley, as I called her, because, yes, she was a girl that, dare I admit it, I wanted to sleep with – and could have; part of me wishes I would have just done it for the story, despite my recoiling libido’s reaction to her in a bath towel; twas not in the cards I suppose…). Woody Allen speaks to me louder as a filmmaker than any other, but John Waters is the person I would chose to be if I could change places with someone for a week. Or a lifetime.
Pink Flamingos. Jesus Christ. Where do I begin? If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin it for you; it is seriously a movie that needs to be experienced; one you will pause in the middle and call your friends in to rewatch its insanity (it is one of the only movies I have started over once the credits rolled). In John, I felt I found someone who shared my love for decadence, a clever turn of phrase, my obsession for serial killers (he drove cross-country from Baltimore to LA to attend the Manson Trials), a gay sensibility (yes, there is such a thing, just don’t ask me to define it), and his metaphorical middle finger to the Man, something I tried to do (and still will enact in a hopefully more mature manner nowadays) at every possible moment of my existence.
After graduation from AMDA, I went out and auditioned for, maybe, seven gigs. But it seemed like everyone else there wanted it much more than I did. I wanted to be on the other side of the table, creating. Had my mother’s premonition come true? Had I become burnt out on performing after 12 years? Or was I just ready for the next chapter?
Thanks to my student loans (the bane of my existence for the next 40 years), I got sucked into working at this restaurant for two years not doing much (minus a summer gig in New Orleans doing West Side Story and Wonderful Town, which temporarily reinvigorated my love for performing). But I was going to be a filmmaker. One of my best friends, David, was a playwright and my manager Nicca was chronically working on a book about her dead beat dad, Rebel Without a Cause director, Nicolas Ray. Standing at the counter answering phones gave me plenty of time to make lists (my version of a nervous tic to organize these constantly racing thoughts, clearly evident in my stream-of-consciousness-how-many-goddamn-parentheticals-is-this-guy-going-to-use? prose style), writing poetry (all pretty depressing and awful), and coming up with dialogue and scenarios for projects that would become my two short films, Crackpipe!: The Ballad of Bobby and Whitney (with white people as the titular heroes) and Attack of the Peanut Butter Killers (my mash-up of Blue Velvet and Pink Flamingos); both films I have no copies of anymore because I gave the master copies to John Waters at a CD signing at Barnes and Noble. I knew I needed to get my career – writer/director – started and, of course, as a way of prolonging my adolescent dismissal of responsibility, I went back to college at The New School to study filmmaking, shoveling even more dirt out of my already cavernous trench of debt. But I didn’t care. I will pay them back someday. Because someday I will be famous. And rich.
OK. Now I had a plan. If I really wanted to be a dancer, I would be in class all the time. Which I was not. If I really wanted to “make it,” I would be at every audition. Which I was not. Fuck that. I am going to pave my own path by making some edgy Cassavetes/Waters magnum opus. Because that would be easier somehow.
I adored The New School. Thanks to my credits at AMDA, I could take whatever I wanted as long as they were liberal arts. Naturally, I took film studies and writing courses. Being a “continuing education” school (read: a place for professional adults who never got their degree and want to get it now), there was a great cross-section of age and life experience groups. My Intro to Film teacher, John Freitas, became another hero. The enthusiasm. The knowledge. Maybe I should be a teacher!? No. Stick to filmmaking. Or writing.
I have written as along as I can remember. Back in 4th Grade, my friend Rich and I started writing some book about us and our wives (insert laughter) running some restaurant…the details are foggy. When I was in high school, on top of being the choreographer and star of all the shows, I started writing a book, a semi-continuation of that story started way back when, only with a new cast. It was the story of my high school friends and I, the Magic Ten, and our great adventures. This continued to morph over the years, but always remained autobiographical in some nature. I liked writing about myself (and I said actors were megalomaniacs) and kept a diary regularly. This eventually led to me writing a memoir about my sexual exploits and my quest for love outside of myself in “all the wrong places” (the original title before I changed it to That Bolt of Lightning – the thesis changed once I actually found Julian and knew that I could find love outside of myself, only that “love” doesn’t hit you like a bolt of lightning; it is slow, then all of a sudden…) and a play Second Chances about Manson, Judas, Jesus, and MLK in the afterlife. Then I saw The Last Picture Show and my life changed again.
Peter Bogdanovich, another brother in proverbial arms, gave me a window into a small dusty town in the middle of nowhere, full of vibrant, incredibly ordinary people, played by incredibly extraordinary actors. I had long since been brewing some project about my family (again, autobiography comes into play) and once I met these characters, I knew that this was the ticket: I would make my version of The Last Picture Show with Troy, Illinois standing in my for Anarene, Texas, and my parents filling in for Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson.
I started drafting out some rough sketches of characterizations and knew this would be a massive undertaking. I enlisted the help of my high school friend and LA emigrant Mary Helen to flesh out the world. Before we knew it, we had so much back story and love for our characters that we threw out the movie idea and started creating a TV series: The Millers; a dysfunctional family torn apart by alcoholism in a small MidWestern town. We spent the next year, developing it and writing a pilot. And then, like my book, like my play, like my acting career, it went no place fast. And I moved onto the next chapter.
Throughout the process of writing The Millers, I had some opportunities working on the sets of some shitty reality TV pilots and crappy cable shows as a PA and was a 1st AD on a small indie short. I quickly learned that there is nothing exciting or glamourous about being on the other side of the camera. True, my opinions are definitely tainted by the type of shows I have been on, but on average the days are long, the work is far from glorious, and the money usually evens out to about 10 bucks an hour. The only cool job on a set is the director. And the actors.
The performing bug never left me. I couldn’t see a show or even hear about one without wanting to jump up on the stage with them. Another example of right place, right time, we were living in this tiny apartment on Pico, which just so happened to be down the street from the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, a non-union 200 seat house on the cusp of Santa Monica and West LA. I had seen an advertisement for their next show and knew I needed to audition: it was A Chorus Line.
For any dancer this is the ultimate dream, the piece de resistance. Just getting to perform in the opening and closing eight years prior at The Muny was thrilling. I needed to be on the line. What a perfect way to return to the Theatre.
I was cast as “Bobby,” Thommie’s old role, which brought me a serious dose of pride that I knew him. After 20 years of being involved in theatre, from leads to ensemble, from professional to community, this is the most fun I have ever had on stage and is the bar upon which I will compare the rest of my experiences. This show came to me at the perfect time in my life. A show about dancers getting too old and wondering what they would do if they couldn’t dance anymore, what performers do for love, the sacrifices they make, at a time when I was, at a certain age, wondering if I would ever dance again. I was not acting. I was myself on that stage. Before doing this show, I seriously thought that my time in the theatre, my time as a dancer, was over. And I was OK with that. I was going to be a writer on a hit TV series. Or a director. Or a memoirist. Or a photographer. After the show was over, I knew I could never leave the theatre again. At least for good.
I started working at the theatre as a choreographer for the youth program and fell in love with choreography all over again, something I hadn’t done since high school. I started getting sidetracked again. Maybe I would be a choreographer. I am not good enough to really be a dancer. Clearly I was. Clearly I am. But that voice. That loud obnoxious voice that has always told me, you have no muscles, how can you be a male dancer? always seems to drown out that logic that Fred Astaire had no muscles either and was one of the greatest and most successful. And that I am fucking good. And it brings me the most joy out of anything I do or have ever done. So why am I not doing it full time? Taking classes? Working out? Auditioning? No. I am working on a pilot for another TV show that may or may not go anywhere.
Somedays I feel exactly like Will in You Shall Know Our Velocity! A 28 year old man on a mission to give away a large some of money to strangers, but only certain strangers that he instinctually feels deserve it in some way. There is no rhyme or reason or method to his madness except the rules he has dictated in his own mind: he wants the money to matter. This is how I feel about “art”: I feel it must matter. So I can matter. Anything I create must be great so I can be great. So I can be remembered. But I feel this is almost unattainable, not because I don’t have the potential for greatness, but because I am tasked with an impossible choice: what do I want to be when I grow up? I honestly have no idea. And I feel that something must be chosen or nothing will be chosen. But I love too many things. There are too many pieces of me that I want to express. Too many different ways to share my vision of the world.
I read a Roger Ebert review and I want to be a film critic.
I hear John Waters speak or watch Crimes and Misdemeanors and know I must direct.
I am hypnotized by the tales on Inside the Actor’s Studio and want to be an actor.
I read Heather Mingus’ blog or finish a piece I am really proud of and want to hole myself up and write for days.
I go to a Harper Blynn concert or watch some Bette or Judy documentary and need to cut an album.
I laugh at Joan Rivers or my husband’s stand-up and want to tell jokes to thousands of people.
I read Matt Markwalder’s screenplays or watch some great TV pilot and know that I need to get to work on a script that will change the industry.
I get in a heated debate over film and want to teach at UCLA.
I think about Grandma and the years I have spent in customer service and can’t wait to open Betty’s Place, my video store/restaurant for cineastes to discuss movies.
I work with my kids and see the joy on their faces and secretly want to be a father.
I step on stage and know I never want to leave it.
I feel I am getting too old for this type of foolishness. I complain I am in debt. I complain about my job. Yet I have no idea what the best avenue is to fix it. I wish there was one thing I loved, one thing I was great at. I am good at a lot of things, but nothing that says, “Jonathon is the best ______”. I know I’ll never be Woody. Or Judy. Or Gene. Or Fosse. Or Nabokov. Or Joan. Or even Mark or Doris. And I know I can’t try to be. I know I just have to be the best damn Jonathon I can. But how? What is the path? I know I want to make a difference. To matter. To be remembered. But why is this so important? Sometimes I wish I could just be like my parents. All they want to be are good people. And they spend their lives proving it by helping others. I am driving as fast as I can, but to what destination?