Inspired by Tomás, I thought I'd offer up a remembrance of a night at the Oakland Coliseum ... I can't believe I've never written of it here, but a quick search says no, so I'll go for it.
Back in 1991, Ric Flair moved to what was then still called the WWF. Flair, probably the greatest pro rassler of all time (despite the fact that he only had about four moves), was the top choice of the wrestling cult fans, while Hulk Hogan, the WWF champ at the time, was the #1 guy with the more casual fans ... in those days, as is still true, most people knew who Hulk Hogan was, he was a national pop culture hero. Flair, who like most rasslers switched back and forth during his career between good guy and bad guy, was always better as a heel, and he didn't really need good-guy ("face") status, because his fans rooted for him whether or not he was "good." His coming to the WWF was a very big deal in the wrestling world, even though Flair was already in his 40s.
Obviously, Flair vs. Hogan was going to get a big marketing push, and their first-ever match came in Oakland at a "house show" (i.e. one that wasn't televised). Flair had been the champ in his previous federation, WCW, when he came to the WWF, and there was a dispute over the championship belt, which Flair kept even after he left WCW. Meanwhile, Hogan was the WWF champ at the time and the Oakland match (as, I'm sure, all of their matches during that tour) was billed as a battle of champions, as well as an actual WWF championship matchup. The match's plot was simple: after some extended brawling that had both men in front, Flair cheated his way to a victory, in the process winning the WWF championship. Since wrestling championships very rarely change hands in a non-TV bout, you expected something would happen, and indeed it did, as a WWF official came out, explained to the ref that Flair had cheated, and declared Hogan the winner. If you feel like watching 15 minutes or so of early-90s WWF action, here's a match from later in 1991, after Hogan had lost his title to the Undertaker, which follows the same basic plot:
What made this all worthy of a blog post was the crowd. I have no idea what it was like in other parts of the country, although I suspect that Flair played well in the South where he'd been centered for so long, while Hogan was the man everywhere else. But in the Bay Area, Ric Flair and WCW had a hardcore fan base, and so the crowd at the Coliseum that night was split pretty much 50/50 between families with little Hulkamaniacs in tow, and Ric Flair fans ready to root on their favorite. It's worth noting that, at least to my eye, there was a fairly substantial racial breakdown to this split, with Flair having most of the African-American fans on his side. They all had their old Ric Flair posters and stuff, and they kept waving four fingers in the air (Flair being part of the Four Horsemen in his WCW days). Oh, and they all went "WOOOOOO!" on a regular basis, that being the Nature Boy's most popular catchphrase.
The result, in our section if nowhere else, was funny and ugly at the same time. You had these kids shouting WOOOOOO and waving the fingers and getting in people's faces ... in a fun sort of way, it must be added, that's what you do at rassling shows ... and then you had these Hulkamaniac tykes and their parents, none of whom seemed to know who Ric Flair was. The best/worst was this guy, I don't know, he was in his 40s I guess, who loved Hogan, hated Flair, and hated Flair's followers as well. He was a truly vile man ... he'd shout out "FUCK RIC FLAIR!" and "RIC FLAIR'S A FAGGOT!", and at one point I said hey man, there's kids here, which isn't something I'd usually worry about, but this guy was too much even for me. He made this terrible face and gave me another "FUCK RIC FLAIR!" Meanwhile, the Flair fans were laughing at him and holding up four fingers in his face.
Ah, the memories. You can imagine how bat-shit crazy the Flair supporters went when he "won" the title (yes, that includes me). Then we had to put up with the payback from the Hulkster's crowd once the decision was overturned. Didn't matter ... like cult fans in every endeavor, we knew our guy was the best, no matter who was more popular or owned the title.
Years later, after Flair had returned to WCW, Vince McMahon bought the company, leading to this, Flair's final promo for WCW:
Twenty-five years ago today, a bunch of us went to a small club to see a new comedian named Pee-wee Herman. Paul Reubens had been playing the Pee-wee character for a couple of years by that point. There was an HBO special in 1981 that was a recording of the stage show (called The Pee-wee Herman Show). To be honest, I don't remember if there were other cast members when we saw him ... the HBO special had plenty of them, including Phil Hartman and John Paragon as Jambi (I don't think Lawrence Fishburne had joined the cast yet), but my memories of our show are that it was just Pee-wee (someone will read this who was at the show and will correct me on this). The HBO special got a lot of attention, after which Reubens made several popular appearances on David Letterman, leading to a national tour, which is when we saw him.
The show was about as you'd expect, full of dopey boy humor and lots of kid fantasies. It had more overt sex stuff than the later Pee-wee's Playhouse, although by "overt" I mean "what a ten-year-old boy would find amusing." Here's a clip from the HBO special:
And one of his appearances on Letterman:
I'm not sure I really thought about how the title of the play we saw last night comes across, until I used it as the title of this blog post. So, to get the obvious stuff out of the way, Ching Chong Chinaman is the name of the play we saw last night. I didn't choose the name, and the truth is, it's the perfect title for what ensues onstage.
This was the latest in our Arthur Keng Fan Club tour of local theater productions, and I'd say it was one of the best. There's always something I can pick at when talking about these plays, but about the only complaint I have about Ching Chong Chinaman is that it ran a bit longer than necessary (not that I could point to anything particular that should be cut). It's a comedy about identity politics as seen through the eyes of a fully assimilated Chinese-American family where no one speaks Chinese or even knows how to use chopsticks. The barbs were pointed, the comedy was funny, and the Don't Let People Leave Without a Lesson Learned ending wasn't nearly as bad as I feared.
The cast was uniformly terrific. Oftentimes in tiny productions like these, you'll get an actor or two that exhibits more heart than talent, but this was a very talented bunch. And, of course, our friend Arthur was right on target as a teenager with a serious World of Warcraft addiction (hearing his speeches about how the game impinges on your life felt very close to home, considering that I'd only just begun playing my first-ever MMOG earlier that same day). It's always fun to see someone you know onstage ... it's even better when they're good, and Arthur is good. Plus, he's not playing the same character in every play ... in fact, I don't think he's been anywhere near the same in any of the shows we've seen him in. It's also nice to say hi after the performance ... brushing with fame, and all of that.
The play was performed in the basement of a pizza parlor, and the budget looked to be about four cents, but really, once the play began, you didn't notice. It's a real pleasure to watch Arthur show his stuff, and the whole cast was wonderful.
As usual, we went to one of the last performances ... not sure why this happens, but it always seems to. What few are left are already sold out, so I fear this isn't going to work as an advertisement. But we had a great time. Thanks, Arthur!
It had opened off-Broadway the previous fall, and, after changes, had its Broadway premiere on April 29, 1968. The cast included such names as Melba Moore and Diane Keaton. It was a smash hit that ran for 1,750 performances in its initial Broadway run, played in cities across the U.S. (in San Francisco, one of the actors was Philip Michael Thomas), and in London ran for almost 2000 shows (Moore starred there as well, as did Tim Curry and Richard O'Brien). It was a musical, and several songs from the production became hits for various pop singers. A film version in the late-70s starred Treat Williams, Beverly D'Angelo, John Savage, and Ellen Foley. It was, of course, Hair, responsible for all those "rock" musicals to come (like Jesus Christ, Superstar, Grease, The Wiz, and Evita). Before Hair, the closest thing to a rock musical on Broadway was Bye Bye Birdie. Hair was the first one made from the point of view of the rock generation.
Was it rock, and does it matter? Most people would say no to the latter question ... I'd say no to the first, and while I suppose I can't blame the creators of Hair, I don't know that the aesthetics of rock and roll are a good match for those of Broadway. I'd argue that Hair was more important in theater than in rock ... the "rock musical" is an accepted form now, but how many rock musicians would cite Hair as a primary influence? Suffice to say that the title song was a popular hit in 1969 for the Cowsills.
Today I got to continue my education into the theatrical arts, as our friend artfan is in a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I guess I should say was in a production, since tonight was the final performance. I had to go alone, as Robin was too sick to attend.
I confess I don't "get" Shakespeare's comedies, so I'm not the best judge of how good the show was. I can say that the convoluted plot was easier to follow than usual. Whether that was because the production foregrounded clarity, or because at this point I'm familiar enough with Midsummer that even I understand the plot, the result was the same. The art direction was a delight ... probably goes without saying that they made the most of a small budget, but it was indeed atmospheric and clever. As for the actors, I liked the woman who played Helena ... I should look up her name, Elise Youssef ... early on she was almost dippy in a teenage girlish sort of way, but she grew into maturity as she stood up for herself against the taunts she thought were being inflicted upon her. Puck is NOT a favorite character of mine, and I'm not sure I'd like anyone in the role, so the fact I didn't want to strangle the sucker probably means Mick Mize did a good job. Early on, I wanted to dislike Bottom, but the entire Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play was so well done, and such an audience pleaser, that I found myself laughing along with everyone else. It was this that really brought home the pleasures of live theater ... watching Bottom in movie versions has never done much for me, but it was fun to be a part of an audience enjoying the "stoopid" humor.
As for artfan, who played Flute/Thisbe, he struck just the right note in his death scene over the body of Pyramus. You felt the character's pain, and you knew it was funny ... hard to convey both at the same time, but artfan did it with panache.
Overall, this was much more fun than I expected. A very professional production, resulting in my liking the play more than usual.
And Arthur, are you ready for this? When I got to my car, there was indeed a ticket ... it had been written FOUR minutes before. Boo hoo.
See you at artfan's next play!
Robin and I were off to the theater again this afternoon to watch our friend Artfan in something called Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge! As always, it was fun watching Arthur, this time in five different roles. And when I say different, I mean it. First he was the assistant to Ken Lay, then he was a "matrimonially available" daughter, then a Dutchman in a brief scene that took O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi" several steps beyond the original (and earned Arthur and acting partner Megan Smith an ovation), then George "It's a Wonderful Life" Bailey, and finally a housemaid named Serena ... Arthur's website says she was Romanian, I thought she was Hispanic ... Arthur's Jimmy Stewart imitation is a bit better than his Romanian, I guess. It was fun seeing him in multiple parts, and yes, I laughed pretty hard for his first female role ... he was a very flirtatious daughter, flirtatious and hilarious.
Of the other cast members, I'd single out Keith Burkland as Bob Cratchit, and Lizzie Calogero as Tiny Tim. I mention Calogero because I had no idea she was an adult woman ... watching the play, I was positive she was a young boy. Even after the show, when she walked right past me, I thought she was a child actor. (Robin knew she a woman from the start, so you'll know this was mostly me being dumb.)
The play is a hodgepodge, if you can't tell from the above, mixing various Dickens' stories with those of other authors, and making a leap into the 1970s near the end. It was here that I felt the play missed a chance at something. Mrs. Cratchit was a wonderful character ... in this version, she's had enough of being poor and being stuck at home with a zillion kids, so she keeps running off to the pub to get drunk, threatening all the while to jump off the London Bridge. I'm not sure where I got the idea ... maybe from the program ... but I sensed that Mrs. Cratchit was meant to be a burgeoning feminist (1970s version, not 19th century), and I expected this to come to fruition when the play moved to the 1970s. Instead, Mrs. Cratchit became Leona Helmsley, full of greed and mean-spiritedness. It was funny (she got to fire Arthur-as-Serena, which led to a funny scene of Arthur trying to lift the floor from its root so he could dust underneath it), but I felt it was a bit off that she became Leona.
Still, we had a great time. This was probably the most fun of all the "Arthur plays" we've seen ... I mean, the last one was King Lear, whatever we saw next was going to rank higher on the fun level. It was also great seeing Arthur have so much fun. In his earlier roles, he was either serious or relatively unhappy. He seemed to be having a blast in this one, and it showed.
He was also kind enough to show us around backstage after the show. It was pretty tiny ... two small dressing rooms, a green room about the size of the dressing rooms combined, and one other room we didn't check out. They put on a fine show with limited means (the play itself, by Christopher Durang, works a meta-commentary on low-budget staging throughout).
At many times, I was reminded of the Firesign Theater, in the way the play bounced around between time frames, with plenty of cultural references to keep the audience on its toes. The Firesign boys were a lot more complicated ... they were riffing off of Joyce, not Dickens ... but it was a similar feel.
Thanks again to Arthur for getting us out to the theater. It's fun watching his career grow, and he is proving to be a very versatile actor.
One last thing. When I mentioned the Firesign Theater to Arthur, he hadn't heard of them. So I'll try a Rhapsody experiment. What follows should allow you to listen to "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger." It's nowhere near the most complex Firesign work, but it is far and away the most accessible and without doubt the funniest. If this works and you can listen to it, be sure you have a bit of time ... it runs for just over 28 minutes. If you haven't used Rhapsody Online before, you'll be asked to install a player for your web browser. You won't have to subscribe to a paying service, though ... Rhapsody allows you to listen to 25 tracks a month for free, and even a 28-minute track only counts as one.
Robin and I went to a Shakespeare play together for the first time this afternoon. Our friend Artfan was in it: King Lear. He wasn't Lear, sorry … he played Burgundy, who has a few lines at the beginning of the play, and then did a few other small parts, one of which had a few more lines (he surprised us on that one by emerging from the wings right in front of our seats). He was good … let's face it, I can't say much because he had a small part, but he carried it off! Afterwards they had a "meet the actors" thingie, and we stuck around for a bit, but it was cold (it was an outdoor theater) so we left before we got a chance to say hi. So if you're reading this, hi Arthur!
For this production, they set Lear in America in the 30s, for no reason I could figure. It didn't get in the way, just seemed pointless. It was fun to see it on stage … I've seen several filmed versions, and of course then they can have real rain and they can do a pro job on Gloucester's eyes, but for this, it was big long sheets of something that they rattled for thunder, and the eye-gouge scenes were gross in a fun way, but not as emotional as they could have been because we were all thinking "whoa, look at that fake eye!"
King Lear rises and/or falls on the performance of the title character. Jeffrey DeMunn did a good job … I can't compare it to Olivier, because the latter was on film, this was live, and oddly enough I prefer filmed versions, all else being equal. He was up to the task, to be sure, and was one of the reasons this was a decent production overall. I don't want to sound like I am damning with faint praise … just noting that this very professional, well-made production didn't take me to the heights too often. We had a good time … keep getting into plays, Arthur!