I’d just turned 13, and was mad about acting. So much so that my career as a soon-to-be movie star was beginning to overshadow my career as a beloved bestselling author. After all, I’d been in a play and, with my lunchtime beatnik poet routine, had made an audience of highly-discerning junior high school students snort-laugh their prefabricated potatoes.
In other words, I was a professional!
And so, for my birthday, Mom of Mommandad fame had bought me season tickets for Melodyland (across the street from Disneyland), the largest theatre-in-the-round ever built!
Which sounds impressive—if you don’t know that theatres-in-the-round are supposed to be small. Or at least small enough that, with fewer rows on each side, everyone is near the stage. But at 3200 seats, Melodyland managed to keep most of the audience far away…and looking at the actors’ backs. Why do I say that? Because…
The big challenge with theatre-in-the-round is that, at any given moment only 1/4th of the audience is looking at the actors from the front; everyone else has back or side views. The solution is for the director to find reasons to keep moving the actors around, so that everyone in the audience can see at least someone from the front. It takes a skilled and seasoned director to do this. But in a giant theatre-in-the-round it’s basically a dramaturgical Kobayashi Maru test — a no-win scenario.
Add to that the fact that, in order to generate maximum moolah, Melodyland tended to cast aging movie stars in lead roles, and then throw their shows together with a handful of rehearsals. I saw the great character actor Joe E. Brown in Harvey, a play he’d made famous decades earlier. Less than a year from retirement, he shuffled around delivering punchlines like someone reciting a grocery list.
But my first and greatest lesson in How to do Bad Theatre was Heaven Can Wait, starring and directed by western movie bad guy Jack Palance, who was terribly miscast in the leading role, and had no clue how to direct a play—much less one in-the-round.
So it would have been bad theatre anyway. But the pièce de résistance came when two of the lead actors were replaced at the last minute by stand-ins who didn’t know their lines or blocking (where to go on that giant circular stage) or, apparently, what the show was about.
They carried their scripts, and even then got repeatedly lost, whispering, “What page are we on?” Finally, several of the more seasoned actors cursed colorfully, threw up their hands in disgust, and walked off-stage.
The lights were brought up for a quick, unscheduled “intermission,” and then, unbelievably, the never-ending train-wreck resumed! During which time, all but the most masochistic (or sadistic?) audience members went to the box office and demanded refunds.
Within a few years, Melodyland’s rep forced them to stop doing plays and become what they sounded like, a concert venue (I saw some great artists there). Not long after that, they sold the property to a church congregation, but still did concerts featuring artists I was friends with (my comedy act included). They even had a high school which my future sister-in-law attended. So I have lots of Melodyland memories. But mostly I remember it as the place that taught me…
How do bad theatre.