By Bob Fitch
From the March 1999 issue of The Linking Ring, reprinted with permission.
Looking back on the incident, circa mid-July ‘82, I reflect that the Gods of Magic smiled on me that day. Or was it just a clean Karma? At the very least it was a rich gift fom the gleaming silvered smiles of 2 JFK’s and an Ike. But I’m losing you.
Let’s flashback to a hot sunny day among the slow rolling, evergreen mountains of the Poconos; a great vacation area in eastern Pennsylvania. It was also home to the Pocono Playhouse, a professional Equity Summer Theatre. It was a proscenium house that hosted a summer season of musical theatre packages; most of which have all but vanished from the landscape. Each show lasted a week or two and played 8 shows a week. The packages then moved on to another stock house and alternated between proscenium style and in-the-round.
Our show, “Pajama Game”, was in for two weeks. It starred John Raitt, the original lead in both the original Broadway production and in the movie version, both of which were directed by George Abbott, the famed Broadway director. I played Heinsey, the second male comic lead, originated by Eddie Foy Jr. It was a song and dance man role that also involved a drunken knife-throwing routine which was left for me to figure out. It was tricky, especially the challenge of doing it in “theatres in the round”, that is, being totally surrounded by the audience.
The show was successful and everyone looked forward to their first day off, which was Monday. The cast decided to throw a picnic party poolside at one of the farm houses where a number of our company was renting. A family affair, everyones’ spouses, kids and friends were invited to join in and bring food, drinks, games, etc. My wife and I brought soft drinks and chips and two of our kids. We also had one of the two cars in the group. Most of the actors had been bussed in from New York City following the rehearsal period and vans from the theatre carried everyone back and forth. Pauline had driven in with the kids for a vacation week, which was one of the pluses of such a job, as days were free and we could all enjoy it together.
The beautiful summer day; the farm yard perched atop one of the low rolling hills, from which the valley could be viewed was much like the view of Hollywood from the dining room of the Magic Castle; the happy screams of splashing todlers and toddling adults all set a contrasting tone to the event that was about to take place.
I had been doing coin tricks around the pool for the kids (and just about anyone I could get to watch)., when Marge Beddow, my counterpart in the show, came over and asked me if I would go to the local bar and pick up some 6-packs, since I had a car.
I said, “Sure, its only over the next hill. Be right back!”: Remember we were in the Pocono mountains, i.e., little pockets of shops, farms and motels, hidden among the hills and trees. It was also home to an isolated group, we quietly labeled “red necks”.
So with the enthusiasm born of ignorance, a day off and perhaps a beer or two, I drove the mile and a half to the local roadside pub. As I pulled up, I spotted several pickups scattered around the yard. One had a rifle prominently visible in the rear window. As I got out, I spotted another rifle and a double-barrel shotgun in two others. A sudden ah...shortness of breath alerted me to imminent...something? Possibilities, maybe? I cautiously entered the darkened bar, a long railed front with two shorter sides. Knotty pine and deer heads all around. The take out was along the right side. I stepped over to the takeout trying to adjust my eyes to the change in light. Waiting for the bartender to get to me...I spotted two beefy, or more accurately...mountainous locals, with cowboy hats, looking my way, laughing and obviously hatching a plot. As they started to rise, my temples started to throb...“Argh...what’s keeping that bartender?” It seemed that all the mountainous men were watching this “get the new guy game” that was about to start. Just as the bartender surfaced, the two locals surrounded me; bellying up to the bar and to me. The craftier one, on my left, slammed a quarter down on the bar and hissed “heads or tails." The one on my right, in like manner, slammed a dollar down, timed with, “For a buck!” It felt well practiced.
The bartender was now opposite me, seemingly unaware that anything was wrong. Trying to control my adrenalin rush, I stammered out a...”ah, OK guys, but let me place my order before I forget it...Let’s see, a 6 pack of Bud, Amstel Light, Coors and ah...Millers”. At the same time the misdirecting side of my brain was frantically searching for a way out and the fingers were trying to remember which pocket had which coins. From my left came the hiss, more emphatic this time, “I said heads or tails”...and the thick fleshy belly was pressing harder...From my right, “For a Buck!”
Taking out my own “buck”, I laid it on the bar, having palmed one of the halves...”OK, OK fellas, but that’s not fair, I I didn’t watch you toss it. Do it again...for a buck!” “Aw for...geez” came the grunt...Comes the toss, the slam... “Heads!”, I hoped. Lifting his hand, ‘heads’ was uppermost. He pushed the dollar over to me with, “All right...again!” plus “For another buck! Heads or Tails!” “Hey, fellas, I don’t want to take all your money. THanks anyway.”...”I said bet” he roared. “OK, but its my turn to toss”, I quickly added. Judging their hesitancy as a yes, I darted for their quarter, flipped it and slammed down on the counter, switching it for the JFK. “Heads”, I said as I lifted my hand from the bar.
They both stared at the half, not believing what they saw...”Jes_s Ch__t!” the crafty one yelled. “Did you see that?” From his buddy, “Yeah, Hey Sh_t! How’d you do that? Who are upi? Hey, We could take him to the card game tonight. He could deal for us!” “Ah boy, what have I done”, I thought. Figuring that I might not get out of this day in one piece, I blurted out, “That could be a lot of fun, but I'm working the show at the playhouse. I have to be there tonight, but let me show you something.” The following span of time must have been that l5 minutes of fame everyone talks about. I’d call it l5 minutes of grace; while one half split to two, then apparently to four, then vanished, transposed, penetrated, changed to a silver dollar, appeared from within the bill that was sitting on the counter, spit out a quarter, which then found its way into one’s hand and under the other’s watch.
Finally I said, “Well thanks guys, I’ve got to get this beer over to the party. Here’s your buck back,” as I slid it back to my new buddy on my left. “Hey, no, no! You keep it,” sliding it back to me, “ you earned it - fair and square!” Confronted with this all to obvious irony and caught between a huge sigh, a larger laugh and suppressing the wise-guy urge to utter an old fashioned heckler stopper, I said simply, “Yeah, yeah, I did!”
As I entered the light once more and started to breathe deep fresh mountain air again, I vowed silently to always keep at least two JFK’s and an Ike in my pocket. As yet they’ve been there for l6 years waiting for any opportunity that might change bullies into children and children into smiley faces. I also learned a valuable lesson, in that the wondrous power of magic can never be underestimated. It has the power to excite the mind; to lighten the heart and to open a pathway to the soul.