Saturday, December 29, 2012

Anniversary Cat

When discussing marriage, nearly as important as the question of children is the question of pets. Suppose one of you is a "cat person" and the other a "dog person"—worse yet, suppose one of you is an animal lover and the other can't stand the thought of having any sort of creature in the house. Fortunately, Loretta and I were in complete agreement on the subject. Dogs and cats had been an important part of both our lives. We both knew we wanted at least one pet. The only question was, would it be a cat or a dog?

Both of us work, and we both like to travel. Most cats have no problem with being left alone for hours or even a day or two. But dogs, the moment you are out of their sight, become convinced that they will never, ever see you again. At least, this was how it seemed with Christie, the Scottish terrier we pet sat shortly after we were married. She was sweet-tempered, intelligent, and seemingly well behaved. However, one evening while we were out, she apparently became filled with angst at the idea that we would never return—or possibly she just became bored. At any rate, she completely destroyed her dog bed and, when she was finished with that, proceeded to tear up the kitchen linoleum.

We decided to get a cat.

He was our "anniversary cat"—about a year old when he came into our lives, about a year after we were married.  He'd been rescued from beneath a porch in Buffalo, where some cruel children had driven him into hiding by pelting him with rocks. We were afraid the experience might have toughened him or made him mean, but at our first meeting we found him to be perfectly docile, if somewhat reserved. He was a beautiful cat, with golden eyes and thick, white fur, just like "the neighbor's polar cat" in Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales or Cleveland Amory's Cat Who Came for Christmas. I suggested a literary name: "Mycroft," the brother of Sherlock Holmes. It seemed well-suited to such a dignified and regal animal.

Here's a picture of him a day or two after we brought him home to our Niagara Falls apartment:

As you can see, once he made himself at home he was anything but dignified and regal. He turned out to be quite sociable and—though not particularly affectionate himself—happy to sit on anyone's lap and accept affection from them. At times he could be mischievous. At times, as we discovered years later when we acquired a second cat, he could be downright ornery. And so the dignified and regal "Mycroft" became just plain "Mike" (or, occasionally, "The Little Bastard").

I shut him out of our bedroom his first night with us—or tried to. He scratched at the door until I was forced to let him in. He jumped up on the bed, went to Loretta to have his head rubbed (he loved having his head rubbed), then quietly settled down at our feet. From then on, this was his nightly routine.

Life on the mean streets of Buffalo had made him an excellent hunter, as we discovered when we moved into our first house. He quickly dispatched the few mice inside the house then moved on to the garage, where he caught them as quickly as they came in under the door. Usually he would leave the bodies—not a mark on them—neatly lined up in front of the kitchen door for us to find (or, if we weren't careful, step on). Once, however, he came in from a garage expedition with a small tail hanging from the corner of his mouth.

"MIKE!" I screamed. He dashed past me and dropped the mouse in the living room, where it quickly disappeared behind a bookshelf. He wanted to go back to the garage to find another one, but I grabbed him and thrust him behind the bookshelf, insisting that he take care of this one first. He soon emerged, the mouse's tail once more dangling from his mouth. He trotted into the kitchen and again deposited his little playmate on the floor. By now, the mouse was furious. It stood on its hind legs and waved its front paws in the air, as if challenging Mike to fisticuffs. I put a bucket over it, slid a piece of cardboard underneath, carried it out the front door, and dumped it in the yard.

Mike was six years old when we moved to California, and still a formidable hunter. Unfortunately, the mice were few and far between. He only encountered one, shortly after we moved into our townhouse, and it escaped. However, he soon found other small game in our tiny, walled-in garden. He preferred hummingbirds. He probably thought they were flying mice—they were roughly the same size. He also occasionally caught a lizard. Once, he came into the house proudly carrying something in his mouth—an alive something—just as he had carried the mouse in years before. This time, instead of a tail, a tiny webbed foot protruded from his mouth.

"WHAT the HELL is THAT?" I yelled. I gingerly pried it from his mouth—a small, pale-green tree frog. It immediately sprang out of my hand, hit the wall with a splat, and stuck there like a frog-shaped wad of snot. I quickly peeled it off the wall and threw it outside. I assume it escaped, because Mike never caught it—or any other frog—again.

Most of the time, we were able to rescue his prey or scare it away before he caught it. The one or two times I was unable to prevent him from killing a hummingbird, I was furious with him. He, of course, could not understand why. "I'm a cat," he seemed to say. "What do you expect?"

When we moved into our current house with its huge (by California standards) back yard, Mike was in heaven. By that time, he was fifteen and beginning to show his age. The day we moved in, he took off after a small flock of birds under the citrus trees. He didn't catch any of them; in fact, he never caught anything again. But he still enjoyed watching—and stalking—the wildlife in our yard. At his age, we didn't need to worry about him getting over the fence; we installed a cat door so that he could come and go as he pleased. I believe those were the happiest days of his life. It's the way I like to remember him—the fierce jungle cat slinking through the undergrowth, stalking its prey.

I often think of him this time of year. It was just after the holidays eight years ago that we took him to the veterinarian for the very last time. Later, we bought a small memorial stone for the garden. On it, there was only room for his name and lifespan, plus one or two additional words. After much deliberation, we settled on "Lovable Bastard."

It seemed appropriate.

Lovable Bastard

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas, 1961

"One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."—Dylan Thomas, A Child's Christmas in Wales

Like Dylan Thomas, I find the Christmases of my childhood tend to blend together. I can't recall how old I was when my new Vac-U-Form burst into flames on Christmas morning, or what year I got the chemistry set that allowed me to create gelatinous pink goo that exploded out of the test tube and stuck to the ceiling. However, the Christmas of 1961 stands apart from the others. It was the only Christmas without my father.

1961 was the year the Berlin Wall went up. Things were getting very tense with the Communists, and my father, along with many other reservists, was deployed to Europe. My mother, my sister, and I spent that Christmas with my grandmother and aunts in Fort Wayne.

I wasn't really expecting a call from him. We got regular letters on thin, translucent airmail paper, and once or twice we received a spool of audio tape, but never a phone call. Back then, it was unheard of to get a telephone call from Europe; it was much too expensive.

But Christmas was special, and on Christmas morning when the telephone rang at my grandmother's house, I knew it had to be him, and I raced to be the first to answer it.

"Merry Christmas!" I said, breathlessly.

"Merry Christmas!" said a man's voice. "Do you know who this is?"


"No, it's not your dad. It's your uncle."

"Oh... Hi."

I'm sure my uncle could hear the disappointment in my voice, and years later I felt badly about that, but at the time, all I could feel was the disappointment. I missed my father so much; I needed so much to hear the sound of his voice.

A few months later, he came home. Since then, there hasn't been a Christmas that I haven't heard his voice—until this year.

This will be the first Christmas since 1961 without my father. It will be the first Christmas ever without my mother.

But they will always live on in my memories—especially during the holidays, when so many of those memories come flooding back.

Like the memory of my mother sitting at the old piano at my grandmother's house, playing and singing Sleigh Ride while the rest of us try to keep up—all of us breaking down in laughter when we stumble over the nearly impossible phrase, "These wonderful things are the things we'll remember all through our lives."

So true.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pictures that Pop

I must have been only four or five years old when my grandparents gave me my first View-Master viewer, an old Bakelite "Model E." With it came a packet of picture reels from "Beautiful Rock City Gardens" in Tennessee—a souvenir from one of their vacations. Unfortunately, the viewer broke long ago (Bakelite is brittle and easily shattered), but I still have two of the picture reels, with photos of scenic mountain views, people with 1950's clothing and hairstyles, and weird statues of gnomes and fairytale characters. Nothing special.

Except that they're 3D.

I acquired more picture reels—most of them Easter or Christmas gifts from my parents—and, eventually, a lighted Model H viewer to replace my old broken Model E. Back then we didn't have DVDs or VCRs. The only way to re-experience a favorite movie or TV show was to purchase the paperback, comic book, or View-Master version. My chosen medium was View-Master, of course.

Because it was 3D.

Model H and Some Favorite Picture Reels

I loved 3D pictures. It didn't matter what the subject of the picture was. Some of my picture reels were pretty lame (Why do I even have a packet of pictures from Greece?), but I still loved to look at them, simply because they were 3D.

It never occurred to me that I could create my own 3D photos. I thought it must require special (not to mention incredibly expensive) equipment. Then, several years ago, we took a cruise to Alaska with Garrison Keillor and the cast and crew of A Prairie Home Companion. Aside from the many sightseeing excursions on land, there were plenty of activities to keep us entertained on board the ship: daily performances by the musicians and cast, lectures by naturalists, choir practice and story-telling sessions with Garrison, radio acting lessons from actors Sue Scott and Tim Russell—

And a class in 3D photography taught by Fred Newman, the show's "touring SFX guy."

It turns out that Fred, aside from being a master of funny voices and sound effects, is also a very good amateur 3D photographer. And he taught me that anyone can be a 3D photographer. No special equipment is needed. All you need is a digital camera. Take a picture, take a step to the left (or right), and take another picture.

I took my first 3D photos when we got to Glacier Bay. I didn't need to take a step to the left or right—I simply let the motion of the ship move my point of view. The great thing about digital cameras is that you don't have to worry about wasting film. With a high capacity memory card, you can afford to take lots of pictures, and I did.

When we got back from the trip, I found a company on the Internet (PokeScope) that sells software that makes it easy to line up pairs of 3D photos, as well as a viewer to make it easier to view them. (It's possible to "free view" them without a viewer; if you're good at those "Magic Eye" pictures, you may be able to do it.)

Of course, many of my experiments in 3D photography didn't turn out well at all. I found that anything moving—birds, waves, falling chunks of ice, etc.—ruins the 3D effect. I posted some of the best ones in a set on Flickr, and I've added several more since then. If you'd like to take a look at them, here's the link.

Now if I could just figure out how to get them into View-Master reels...

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Who's a Hoosier?

Last week, in honor of the Tony Award-winning production of Anything Goes currently playing at the Ahmanson (which we're seeing tomorrow), the L.A. Times ran a quiz about Cole Porter. I like to flatter myself that I know something about the man. After all, we both came from Indiana.

It turns out the only thing I knew about Cole Porter was that he came from Indiana.

If there's one thing we Hoosiers know, it's who else is a Hoosier. (If there's one thing we don't know, it's where the word "Hoosier" comes from. There are many and widely-divergent theories, including: a corruption of the word "hussar," a corruption of the French word for "bailiff," and—strangest of all considering there are few hills in Indiana—a corruption of an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "hill people." The only thing everyone can agree on is that it's a corruption of something.)

Besides songwriter Cole Porter, there have been many other talented Hoosiers, including fellow songwriters Hoagy Carmichael and John Mellencamp, writers Rex Stout and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and actors James Dean and Carole Lombard.

Comedian Red Skelton was a Hoosier, as was David Letterman, who was born in Indianapolis and went to college in Muncie, at Ball State. (Go ahead and laugh.)

Michael Jackson's entire family were Hoosiers, but Wilbur was the only Hoosier Wright Brother. (Orville was born in Ohio.) Abraham Lincoln grew up in Indiana, but he doesn't qualify; he was born in Kentucky.

Clothing designer Bill Blass was from Fort Wayne. He went to the same high school as my parents, uncles, and aunts.

Basketball star Larry Bird was from French Lick. (Go ahead and laugh.)

James Whitcomb Riley, from Greenfield, Indiana, was known as "The Hoosier Poet." He wrote:
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence...
I have no idea what a "kyouck" or "hallylooyer" is, but this, supposedly, is the way Hoosiers used to talk.

Which could explain the word "Hoosier."

Saturday, December 1, 2012

One Year Later

It's been just over a year since I started this blog. I thought this might be a good time to pause, reflect, and ask myself a few questions...

1. Why do I do it?

Why, on my day off, do I stumble out of bed an hour before Loretta, rack my brain for something to write about, contort my body to reach the keyboard over the cat in my lap (Excuse me, Zorra!)—all to produce a few miserable paragraphs that practically no one is interested in reading?

Because I need to write.

Both of Loretta's brothers build things—beautiful things—out of wood. They take great pleasure in finding just the right kind of wood, cutting it into pieces, and assembling those pieces into whatever objects they have pictured in their minds. In much the same way, I derive pleasure from finding the right words and assembling them into the sentences and paragraphs that will best convey my thoughts.

2. Yes, but why a blog?

Like most writers, I once dreamed of writing the "Great American Novel." (It was to have been set in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and to have featured the French and Indian war hero after whom the city is named, General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, who, finding himself mysteriously transported into the present day, takes a job impersonating himself in historical re-enactments.) I have written short stories and plays—even a few poems—but I don't think I could ever write a novel. In the words of one of my favorite writers, Ray Bradbury, "I'm a sprinter, not a marathon runner."

Another dream I once had was to follow in the footsteps of my favorite newspaper humorists: Mike Royko, Erma Bombeck, Dave Barry, Dr. Gott. (What do you mean, Dr. Gott isn't a humorist? Have you read his columns on constipation?) As newspaper columnists—and newspapers—seem to be going the way of the dodo, a blog would seem to be the next best thing. The question was, did I have the discipline to write a weekly blog?

Apparently I did. However, the question now is...

2. How long can I keep it up?

Watch it! This isn't that kind of blog. I mean, of course, how long can I keep writing this blog?

I don't know. The Internet is littered with hundreds of thousands of abandoned blogs whose readers—and writers—simply lost interest. Don't be surprised if my regular weekly ramblings become increasingly irregular (as Dr. Gott might say) until they dwindle away to nothing. For now, I'll keep trying to come up with something new to write about each week.

Now if you'll excuse me, Zorra. I need to hit the Enter key.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Food and Family

For Loretta and me, Thanksgiving has always been about food and family (not necessarily in that order). It's a special holiday for us—we were married on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This makes it easy to remember the approximate date of our anniversary, if not the exact date. The exact date is November 26th, which coincidentally also fell on the Saturday after Thanksgiving last year, when our nephew Mark and his bride Rhonda were also married on that date. That was a memorable Thanksgiving. Because Rhonda has two sets of parents, last year we attended two Thanksgiving dinners and acquired two more families. Lots of food, lots of ohana.

When we lived in Buffalo, Thanksgivings were always spent with Loretta's family. Before we were married, they met at her cousins' restaurant, the Taiwan. It was a huge gathering, encompassing all of the cousins and their families. (In the Chinese community, a "cousin" is anyone who comes from the same village in China. Quite a few people from Loretta's father's village had settled in the Buffalo area.)

I had the honor to be present at the last Thanksgiving at the Taiwan, before the restaurant was sold and the celebration moved to the home of one of the cousins. All of the tables in the dining room were shoved together to make one huge table, which was covered with all of the traditional American fare, plus countless Chinese dishes. After dinner, members of the older generation settled in for an evening of Mah Jongg, while the young people (which at the time included Loretta and me) went out into the parking lot to work off some calories playing touch football, then returned to the warmth of the restaurant (remember, this was Buffalo) for a game of Trivial Pursuit.

My childhood Thanksgivings weren't much different from Loretta's, except that they weren't at a Chinese restaurant and there were not nearly as many people. Also, instead of games, dinner was usually followed by naps. The Thanksgivings I remember best were the ones at the home of my grandmother and aunts. My Grandma Shorter loved to cook. Most of my memories of her are in the kitchen: peeling potatoes, rolling out dough, cutting noodles, kneading together the ingredients of a meat loaf. She made everything from scratch: mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, pies—even the whipped cream to go on them, hand-whipped in an ancient stoneware crock. Then, one year, my mother and aunts convinced her to try a relatively new labor-saving product: whipped cream in an aerosol can.

It was a wonderful dinner, as all of my grandmother's holiday dinners were. When the main course was finished, dishes were cleared, the pies were brought in, and my grandmother prepared to serve dessert. She cut a slice of pumpkin, mincemeat (or, as was more often the case, a "sliver of each") for each person as requested, carefully laying the slices on dessert plates. She then picked up the can of whipped cream and—following the directions on the can—shook it vigorously, then pressed the nozzle.

Unfortunately, she neglected to aim the nozzle at the pie.

Some of the whipped cream hit the ceiling. Most of it hit my grandmother in the face. In some families, I suppose, such an event would be considered a disaster. In my mother's family, it was considered hilarious. No one laughed harder than my grandmother.

Loretta and I miss our East Coast families during the holidays, but, as someone once said, "Friends are the family we choose for ourselves." This year, we are looking forward to spending another Thanksgiving with members of our West Coast family: our good friends Ron and Judie and Judie's daughter Beth. As usual, there will be plenty of good food and drink, and dinner will be followed by the traditional Thanksgiving Pictionary Tournament. Ron will put on some classic rock, or maybe even some Christmas music. In short, it will be a wonderful Thanksgiving.

I wish all of you just as wonderful a Thanksgiving, spent with the ones you love.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Planes, Babies, and Paperwork

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm afraid I have some bad news..."

Not the sort of words you want to hear from your pilot, but it could have been worse. At least we were on the ground.

We had just boarded the United shuttle that was to take us to San Francisco—the first leg of a cross-country trip to Virginia for my mother's memorial service. I was not looking forward to it. I hate flying. I'm not afraid of it, mind you, I just hate it. I hate taking off my shoes to go through TSA, I hate being herded like cattle, and I especially hate the cramped, uncomfortable seats. And this plane, being a shuttle, was more cramped and uncomfortable than usual.

At least it was going to be a short flight, with a long layover in San Francisco. We were looking forward to a leisurely breakfast with a round or two of Bloody Marys. I find that, if there's anything that can take the sting out of flying, it's a little alcohol (or maybe a lot).

"Just a minor mechanical problem," announced the pilot. "The mechanic is on his way. Once he gets here, it shouldn't take long."

We hadn't been able to get seats together. Loretta was one row behind me and across the aisle, seated next to a man who was quietly reading a book. I was seated next to a young woman holding a baby named "Jude" on her lap.

"Hey Jude," I thought. "Don't let me down."

Several minutes went by. "The mechanic is here," announced the pilot. "With any luck we'll be out of here quickly, with no missed connections."

Jude began to fuss. "Sorry," said his mother, when a tiny foot connected with my stomach. "He wants to be with the boys."

"No problem," I said.

She tried to hand Jude off to her husband, who was sitting across the aisle with their other little boy. The flight attendant stopped her. "I'm afraid he has to stay in this row," she said. "This row has three oxygen masks. That one only has two."

"Hey Jude, don't make it bad."

The mother and father switched places, so that he could hold the baby. Unfortunately, he was no better at controlling the kicking than the mother had been. "Sorry," he said. "No problem," I said. Jude began to cry.

"Hey Jude, don't be afraid."

I looked around and noted that there were quite a few children on the plane, and that they were all getting restless. A woman across the aisle was telling her son to settle down and stop bouncing up and down in his seat. A father paced up and down the aisle with a baby in his arms, trying to keep it quiet. Jude's older brother, across the aisle, began to whine. Several of the adults also began to whine, once they realized they were going to miss their connections.

After being fed and changed, Jude settled down and went to sleep, his head resting against my arm. The pilot announced that the mechanic was just about done. All that was left was the paperwork.

The paperwork took another thirty minutes.

I wasn't worried. We still had time. We would make our connection, although we would not have time for Bloody Marys. (Damn paperwork!)

Finally, after we had sat at the gate for ninety minutes, the pilot started the engines—and immediately shut them down.

"I'm afraid we have another problem," he announced. "This one is going to take some time to fix, so we're going to have to ask you all to deplane."

We got off the plane and booked seats on a shuttle leaving that afternoon, connecting to a red eye out of San Francisco. We went home and returned to the airport six hours later.

The same plane was sitting at the gate.

The mechanic was still working on it, but he was just about done. All that was left was the paperwork.

An hour later we were on our way.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Veterans Day

Monday morning I will be at Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia with my brother and sister for our mother's memorial service. It is a fitting place to be on the Monday following Veterans Day—surrounded by the graves of thousands of veterans, decorated with thousands of American flags to remind us of their service.

I have tremendous respect for the brave men and women who have fought in our wars. I don't believe it's something I could have done. The Vietnam War was still going strong when my father took me to Chicago on my sixteenth birthday to register for the draft. I was terrified. I don't know what I would have done if my number had come up. Fortunately, the war—and the draft—ended before that happened.

My father served twenty-eight years in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. He was deployed to Europe at the peak of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall was built. (I remember how much it meant to him when I took him to the Reagan Library to see the section of the wall that's displayed there.) Dad was very modest about his service and never considered himself to be a "real" veteran. I do, though—and so did the government. They gave him a military funeral with honors when he passed away earlier this year.

Both of my uncles and my father-in-law were veterans of the Second World War: my father's brother, Hollis Logue, Jr., was stationed on Bougainville Island in the Pacific; my mother's brother, Richard Shorter, served in India; Loretta's father, Young Wong, served in North Africa and Italy.

I have slightly older friends who served in the Vietnam War and much younger friends who served in Iraq.

On Monday morning, I will be thinking of my mother, of course. But I will also be thinking of them—my father, my uncles, my father-in-law, my friends, and all of the others who served and still serve. And if I could, I would say just two words to all of them—

Thank you.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Caves of Doom

"DOOMED!" wailed our ghostly guide, as he led us toward the entrance of the cave. "YOU'RE ALL DOOMED!" An hour or so later, I began to suspect that he was right.

I should have known better than to enter another cave, after what happened twenty years ago. As a child, I was obsessed with them. I suppose my obsession came from reading books like The Arabian Nights and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where caves were used by thieves as a hiding place for treasure. I must have thought all caves held hidden treasure. Twenty years ago, when Loretta and I were vacationing in Virginia, I discovered that the only thing you're likely to find hidden in a cave is danger.

We were driving through the Shenandoah Valley when I saw the sign for Luray Caverns. After reading the brochure, my obsession took over. I had to see this cave. Here's the description from the web site:
Enormous chambers are filled with towering columns, shimmering draperies and crystal-clear pools. Also in this subterranean wonderland, "Hear Rocks Sing" as you experience the haunting sounds of the world’s largest musical instrument, The Great Stalacpipe Organ.
There were about a dozen other people on our tour, including an Asian family consisting of a mother and father, two children, and a grandmother in a wheelchair. Before I continue, it might be helpful to again quote from the Luray Caverns web site:
There is a chairlift for manual wheelchair users. However, the paved walkways on the tour are 1.25 miles in length with some areas having steep grades that may require wheelchair assistance by one or more persons. Since the need for assistance is necessary, Luray Caverns is not listed as handicapped accessible.
Granted, Luray Caverns probably didn't have a web site twenty years ago—I'm not sure anyone did—but there should have been a warning to this effect posted in the ticket office. If there wasn't, I bet anything they posted one after our tour.

Everything went smoothly for the first half of the tour—aside from the fact that our tour guide had to continually remind the Asian family that we needed to keep moving, as they wanted to stop and take pictures every few feet. We reached the deepest part of the cave, where we heard a concert by "The Great Stalacpipe Organ"—hammers striking stalactites of varying sizes to produce a tune. Then it was time to begin our ascent to the surface.

"You should probably go first," our guide suggested to the father pushing the wheelchair. "It's pretty steep, so it's best if you keep moving at a steady pace and not stop." He may have been genuinely concerned about their ability to make it to the top, but I'm pretty sure he just wanted to make sure they didn't stop to take more pictures.

Unfortunately, the father interpreted the words "keep moving at a steady pace" to mean "go as fast as you possibly can." He took off at a brisk pace, determined to prove Newton's first law: "Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it." The external force was the bottom of the incline, which effectively stopped the motion of the wheelchair. The old lady, however, remained in a state of motion—until she hit the floor several seconds later.

Fortunately, she was not seriously hurt. There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.

Last Saturday, while visiting Sequoia National Park, we took the Crystal Cave Halloween tour. The regular tour is well-lit, but this is a flashlight tour. Actors in costume and ghostly makeup appear along the way, portraying characters from the cave's history. For example, "George," the ghostly guide who met us outside the cave, was an unfortunate hiker who had perished sixty years ago from a rattlesnake bite. "DOOMED!" he said, leading us toward the entrance of the cave. "YOU'RE ALL DOOMED!"

He was nearly right. Inside the cave, one member of our group stumbled and fell to his knee, and I bruised my shoulder going through a narrow passage. But the worst part was the hike back to the parking lot. According to the web site, "The hike from the parking lot to the cave entrance is a strenuous 1/2 mile hike." That's a lie. The hike from the parking lot to the cave is downhill. It's a piece of cake. It's the hike back up that will kill you. Less than halfway up the trail, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to make it. George was right—I was doomed. Next year, an actor would be portraying my ghost on the Halloween tour.

Obviously, I did make it, and the experience taught me a lesson. I am rapidly approaching the age of that unfortunate lady in the wheelchair, twenty years ago.

If I want to live to be any older, I would do well to stay out of caves.

Ghosts of Crystal Cave

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Thanks for the Laughter, Thanks for the Love

When our mother passed away this week, I was touched by the memorials my sister and brother posted on Facebook. Susan spoke of Mom's selflessness and generosity, and David mentioned her love of music. The one thing they both remarked on was Mom's wonderful sense of humor.

She came by it honestly. I'm told that her father, my Grandpa Shorter, who died when I was too young to remember, had a famously dry wit. My Grandma Shorter, who I remember well, had a wonderful, infectious laugh. As I recall, she was nearly always laughing—usually at something one of her children said. They were all funny, my mother and her siblings. When the whole family got together, the laughter would just about shake the rafters.

In my mother's family, sharing laughter was a way of sharing love.

My mother could always make me laugh. Once, when I was a kid, we were eating at a drive-in. She was in the driver's seat, and I was sitting in the passenger seat, drinking a cup of hot chocolate. I don't remember what she said, but I remember that it made me laugh, and hot chocolate came out of my nose. Have you ever had hot chocolate come out of your nose? Let me tell you, it burns. But no matter how much my sinuses were burning, I could not stop laughing.

Whatever my mother said to make me spray scalding, chocolate-flavored milk out of my nose, I'm sure it wasn't a joke. My mother did not tell jokes. With practice, anyone can be good at telling a joke. (My father, like his father before him, was a skilled joke-teller, although the jokes themselves were generally pretty corny.) The sort of spontaneous, observational humor practiced by my mother and her family can only be inherited.

For example, several years ago, when my parents were still in their house, I was trying to convince them to get someone to come in and help with the chores, especially the laundry. "Those basement stairs are dangerous," I said. "I don't think Dad should be going down there."

"Don't worry," my mother said, without missing a beat. "He hardly ever goes down there when he's been drinking."

I like to think I inherited some of that Shorter sense of humor. I have always enjoyed making people laugh, and I think I'm pretty good at it. Making my mother laugh always gave me a special joy. It made me feel like I was repaying her in some way for all of the laughter and all of the love she gave me over the years.

As if I ever could.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Who Killed Eddie Munster and Fester Addams?

This month, I've been posting excerpts from my Addams Family Mystery. If you haven't read my last two posts, I suggest you start here. Last week's installment ended with FBI agent Marilyn Munster's interrogation of the suspects. At the end of the interrogation scene, the audience are given several minutes to fill out their resolution forms. Typically, all of the actors leave the room during this time, so the audience can't badger them with more questions. When the resolution forms have been completed and collected, the actors return for the resolution scene.
As I explained in last week's post, it is the custom for victims in our mysteries to "die" near an exit, so that the "body" may be easily removed. At Dakota's Steakhouse, where An Addams Family Mystery was first performed twelve years ago, the séance table was on a raised platform on the opposite end of the dining room from the exit. Because of the logistics involved in getting a body (a heavy body) down off the platform and through the dining room to the exit, it was decided to just cover Fester with a tablecloth and leave him "onstage" for the rest of the show. This worked so well that we kept it in for future productions of the show. Director John Diesel also came up with the brilliant idea of having Wednesday give Fester a new face during the interrogation scene:

I think the biggest challenge I have ever had to face as an actor was to sit perfectly still and play a corpse for what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality about half an hour. It was particularly difficult when the other actors were out of the room, and the audience were filling out their resolution forms. (We always announced that they would be given five minutes, but it usually ended up being closer to ten or fifteen.) Audience members would come up and examine the corpse, saying things like, "He's breathing!" (What did they expect!?) Some of them even poked me. It was sheer torture, and I couldn't wait for the rest of the actors to return for the resolution scene, because then I knew that the show was almost over...

MARILYN:  Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to solve this mystery. Who killed Eddie Munster and Fester Addams? Members of the family, as I call out your names, please take the same seat you had during the séance: Gomez Addams, Morticia Addams, Grandmama Addams, Wednesday Addams. I was sitting here, on Fester's right. The seats were marked with place cards. Morticia, who was responsible for our seat assignments?

MORTICIA:  Grandmama.

MARILYN:  Grandmama, was there any reason that you put us in these particular seats?

GRANDMAMA:  Not really. I usually make it boy-girl-boy-girl, but there were too many girls. Why?

MARILYN:  Well, it seems to me that who was seated where is sort of important.

MORTICIA:  Oh? And why is that?

MARILYN:  First of all, neither Wednesday nor I could have done it. We were both seated next to Fester; the trajectory would be wrong.

GOMEZ:  That's true.

MARILYN:  That leaves three people: Morticia, Gomez and Grandmama. Now, Gomez says that something tickled his nose, causing him to sneeze. Is that correct?

GOMEZ:  Yes.

MARILYN:  There's one thing that hasn't been explained: the sound Wednesday heard before Gomez sneezed. "FFFT." Morticia, you didn't hear it, did you?


MARILYN:  Grandmama, you were sitting next to Wednesday. Perhaps you can enlighten us?

GRANDMAMA:  What? All right, so I have a gas problem. That's what happens when you get old.

MARILYN:  I don't think what Wednesday heard was a gas problem. What she heard was the sound of you puffing something in Gomez's face—probably pepper.

GRANDMAMA:  That's ridiculous!

MARILYN:  I would guess the pepper was packed in a small tube of paper, which you concealed in the left corner of your mouth. After blowing it at Gomez to initiate his sneeze, you swallowed it, waited for the sneeze to give you your diversion, shot Fester, then dropped the gun.

GRANDMAMA:  You're crazy! The peroxide has affected your brain!

MARILYN:  Why don't we take a look in Gomez's mustache? I'm sure we'll find a few flakes of pepper. But only on the right side—the side you were sitting on.


GOMEZ:  Mama!

GRANDMAMA:  I'm sorry, Gomez. The bitch is right.

MARILYN:  You killed Eddie to stop him from marrying Wednesday. That much I can understand. But to kill your own son…

GOMEZ:  That wasn't very motherly of you, Mama.

GRANDMAMA:  I know, Gomez, I know. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I loved Fester. But I had to do it.

MARILYN:  Because he was about to reveal that you were Eddie's murderer?

GRANDMAMA:  You think you have all the answers, don't you, Blondie? Well, you're wrong! I would never have killed Fester to protect myself. I did it to protect him—and you.

MARILYN:  Protect me? From what?

GRANDMAMA:  From the curse!

MARILYN:  What do you mean?

GRANDMAMA:  I saw the way he was looking at you, mooning over you. I'd seen him that way before, you see—when he was in love with Lily Munster!

MARILYN:  Fester and Aunt Lily?

GRANDMAMA:  That's right. It was twenty-one years ago. Fester was young and foolish, and your Aunt Lily…

GOMEZ:  Was a fox!


GOMEZ:  Well, she was.

MARILYN:  Aunt Lily? A fox?

GRANDMAMA:  More accurately, a wolf. Lily had werewolf blood, and so naturally she was drawn to Fester, who carried the same curse.

GOMEZ:  Fester was a werewolf?

GRANDMAMA:  Not full-blooded, but he had enough of the wolf in him to be a problem when the moon was full—and during mating season.

MORTICIA:  That explains that one magical night.

GOMEZ:  What one magical night?

MORTICIA:  It's time I told you, darling. It happened about ten years ago. There was a gorgeous full moon, and I decided to go for a walk in the cemetery. I came upon Fester by the old mausoleum. The smell of deadly nightshade was in the air, and there was a strange light in Fester's eyes. Our passions ignited—we couldn't control ourselves!

GOMEZ:  Tish! How could you?

MORTICIA:  I don't know. I'm sorry darling. At that moment, there was just something about Fester that I couldn't resist. Je ne sais quoi, mais oh-la-la!

GOMEZ:  French!

MORTICIA:  Later, mon cher.

MARILYN:  Of course! Pheromones!


MARILYN:  Pheromones.

GOMEZ:  Is that French?

MARILYN:  Pheromones are chemical substances given off by an animal to attract the opposite sex. We humans have all but lost them—or covered them up with cologne, deodorants and aftershave. But in werewolves they must be much stronger. That explains why I was attracted to Fester.

GRANDMAMA:  Well, whatever you call it, no mortal can resist it. It was what drew me to Fester's father.

GOMEZ:  Papa was a werewolf?

GRANDMAMA:  Not your father, Gomez. I never told you, but you and Fester are half-brothers.

GOMEZ:  Mama, this all comes as something of a shock. Is there anything else you haven't told us?

GRANDMAMA:  There's one more thing, but I think everyone's figured it out.

GOMEZ:  I haven't. What is it?

MARILYN:  Eddie was Fester's son.

GOMEZ:  Caramba! Did Fester know?

GRANDMAMA:  Please! You know how naïve Fester was. He believed babies were delivered by the stork until he was thirty. But he had an instinctive liking for Eddie; he was always defending him. And I'm sure Eddie was a good boy. But he was a werewolf, and I couldn't allow him to marry Wednesday—not after the hell I went through with Fester's father.

MARILYN:  Did you kill him, too?

GRANDMAMA:  He begged me to. It was the only way to end the curse. He wanted me to kill Fester, too, but I couldn't do it.

MARILYN:  Until now.

GRANDMAMA:  Until now. And now the curse is finally ended.

MARILYN:  I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I'll have to take you in, Mrs. Addams.

GRANDMAMA:  You do what you gotta do, Blondie. Can I speak to Wednesday first?

MARILYN:  Of course.

GRANDMAMA:  Wednesday, I'm sorry about all of this. Someday, you'll forgive me, and you'll find someone else. But please make sure he's not a werewolf.

MORTICIA:  Or an insurance salesman.

GOMEZ:  A lawyer would be good. Your grandmama could use one of those right now.

MARILYN:  Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes the Addams Family Mystery!

At this point, Fester would stiffly "rise from the dead" for bows, and the winner—the person who came closest to the correct solution—would be announced.

How close did you come to solving the mystery?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Death at a Séance

Last week, I posted the first part of my Addams Family Mystery. This week, I'll continue the story...

Scene 3 opens with Fester attempting to comfort Wednesday over the loss of her boyfriend, Eddie Munster. Fester confides that he, too, has experienced true love, but it didn't work out, as she "loved someone else."

Wednesday has become a little loopy on the pills prescribed by Dr. Crane. ("The blue ones are for when I'm sad, the yellow ones for when I'm anxious, and… I forget what these little pink ones are for, but they're pretty, aren't they?") Concerned that Wednesday may accidentally overdose, Marilyn confiscates her pills.

Fester tells the family that, for Wednesday's sake, they should be trying to help Marilyn solve the mystery. Grandmama suggests the best way to help might be to contact Eddie through a séance. It seems that Fester is a professional medium, although his results can be unpredictable. (At the family's last séance, he accidentally channeled Jack the Ripper, and "it took days to clean up the mess.")

Dessert is served during the scene break. If it's your birthday or anniversary, the family will sing you their special birthday/anniversary song. Please sing along if you know it, and don't forget to snap your fingers—
Da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum.

A happy, happy birthday (anniversary).
A happy, happy birthday (anniversary).
A happy, happy birthday (anniversary).
From the Addams Family.

Da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum.
Also at this time, audience members are encouraged to bribe their favorite character for an additional clue using play money. The bribe clues are as follows:

GOMEZ:  Our family credo is: "We gladly feast on those who would subdue us."
MORTICIA:  An Addams marry a Munster—never!
WEDNESDAY:  Wednesday's inner child is full of woe.
FESTER:  I don't know anything about genetics, but Eddie seemed like a nice kid.
GRANDMAMA:  I can no longer protect my son!
MARILYN:  Doesn't Fester have the most soulful eyes you've ever seen?

At the beginning of the séance scene, the actors take their seats at a small table for six. Because the seating arrangement is somewhat important to the plot, here's a diagram:

In most of our mysteries, the victim "dies" in front of the audience (preferably next to an exit, to make it easier to remove the body), but the shots come from offstage, with all of the suspects out of the room. This time, I wanted the murder to take place with all of the suspects in the room. Of course, the only way to achieve this was to have the scene take place in the dark...

FESTER:  Quiet everyone! Would someone dim the lights, please?

MARILYN:  Should we hold hands?

FESTER:  That won't be necessary. Just place your hands lightly on top of the table. (Fester begins to make an eerie moaning sound, then says, in a memorable voice…) Eenie Meenie Chili Beanie! The spirits are about to speak!

MARILYN:  What's happening?

GRANDMAMA:  Fester is getting in touch with his spirit guide.

MARILYN:  His spirit guide is Bullwinkle?

MORTICIA:  Don't be silly! Bullwinkle was a cartoon character. Fester's spirit guide is Bill Scott.


GOMEZ:  Bill Scott. The voice of Bullwinkle.

MARILYN:  I see.

MORTICIA:  But he prefers to be addressed as Bullwinkle.


GOMEZ:  It was his greatest role.

MARILYN:  Of course.

MORTICIA:  Bullwinkle? Can you hear me, Bullwinkle?

FESTER:  Yes, I hear you.

MORTICIA:  How are you, Darling?

FESTER:  Dead.

MORTICIA:  Of course you are, dear. But your spirit will always live on.

GOMEZ:  We always look forward to your appearance in the Thanksgiving Day Parade, old boy.

FESTER:  Thank you.

MORTICIA:  Bullwinkle, darling, we're looking for a recent arrival…

GOMEZ:  He should have come in today. The name's Eddie…

FESTER:  Hold on… Is there an Eddie here?… Eddie?… (his voice changes) That's a lovely dress you're wearing, Mrs. Cleaver.

MORTICIA:  Not Eddie Haskell! Eddie Munster!

FESTER:  (Bullwinkle again) Oh. Hold on a minute… (different voice) Hello?

WEDNESDAY:  Eddie? Is that you?

FESTER:  Hi, Wednesday.

WEDNESDAY:  What's it like, Eddie?

FESTER:  I see dead people.

GOMEZ:  You are dead people.

WEDNESDAY:  I miss you, sweetiepateetie.

FESTER:  I miss you, too, cutiepatootie.

MORTICIA:  Ugh! I think I'm going to be sick.

GOMEZ:  This is worse than Jack the Ripper.

MARILYN:  Eddie, do you know who this is?

FESTER:  Sure! Hi, Marilyn!

MARILYN:  Eddie, what's my middle name?

FESTER:  Grizelda.

ALL:  Grizelda?

MARILYN:  It's true. It must really be Eddie. Eddie, are you still there?


MARILYN:  Do you remember being shot?

FESTER:  I'd prefer to forget it, but yes, I remember.

MARILYN:  Did you see who shot you?


MARILYN:  Who was it?

FESTER:  It was…

(Gomez sneezes loudly.)

FESTER:  Gezundheit.

(A shot is fired; Wednesday screams.)

MARILYN:  Fester! Lights! Somebody turn on the lights!

(The lights come up, revealing Fester slumped over the table. Marilyn is standing over him, checking for a pulse. Wednesday's hands are covering her mouth. Gomez holds a napkin to his face. Morticia is clutching Gomez's arm. Grandmama's hands are on the table, and she is halfway out of her chair.)

MARILYN:  Nobody move!

GRANDMAMA:  Fester! Is he…dead?

MARILYN:  I'm afraid so, Mrs. Addams. (She removes something from the back of the chair.) A silver bullet! (She quickly scans the table, then gets down on her hands and knees and looks beneath it. When she gets to her feet, she is holding a gun wrapped in a napkin. She unwraps it, examines it and sniffs the barrel.) The murder weapon—no doubt the same gun used to kill Eddie Munster. And one of you four is the killer!

(Gomez, Morticia and Grandmama begin protesting. Wednesday repeats "poor Uncle Fester, poor Uncle Fester…" Marilyn sits Fester up and covers him with the tablecloth. Wednesday becomes occupied with the cloth covering Fester. The audience can't see what she is doing.)

MARILYN:  Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention, please? I regret to announce that Fester Addams is dead. Like my cousin Eddie, he was shot with a silver bullet from a 22-caliber handgun—obviously by someone sitting at this table. I will now conduct my interrogation, and, when I have finished with each suspect, you will have an opportunity to ask your own questions. First, Gomez Addams.

GOMEZ:  At your service.

MARILYN:  Did you object to Wednesday's relationship with Eddie?

GOMEZ:  Naturally.


GOMEZ:  Because Mama and Morticia told me to.

MARILYN:  Let's talk about the séance. Your sneeze seemed very well-timed.

GOMEZ:  What do you mean?

MARILYN:  It created the perfect distraction for the killer. Or perhaps you faked the sneeze and shot Fester yourself?

GOMEZ:  I most certainly did not!

MARILYN:  You just coincidentally had to sneeze at that particular moment?

GOMEZ:  Yes. Something tickled my nose.

MARILYN:  I see. Well, it's an impossible shot, anyway, I suppose.

GOMEZ:  What do you mean?

MARILYN:  To fire under the table like that—without even aiming—and put the bullet straight through Fester's heart? Come on! Nobody could do that except by pure luck.

GOMEZ:  On the contrary. I could make that shot ten times in a row, without deviating a millimeter from the target.


GOMEZ:  Well, I could. It's simply a matter of feeling the relative positions of your weapon and the target. The same theory applies to blindfolded knife-throwing, a skill at which I also excel.

MARILYN:  What about Morticia? Could she do it?

GOMEZ:  She's a better shot than I am.


GOMEZ:  Now don't be modest, Querida.

MARILYN:  Wednesday?

GOMEZ:  Not quite as accurate, but I'll wager she could hit it four times out of five.


GOMEZ:  All right, maybe nine times out of ten.

MARILYN:  And what about your mother?

GOMEZ:  Are you kidding? Mama could outshoot anybody in the room.

GRANDMAMA:  Gomez, will you shut up!

GOMEZ:  I was just trying to be helpful.

GRANDMAMA:  Well don't!

MARILYN:  Are there any other questions for Gomez? (She fields questions from audience.) Thank you, Mr. Addams. Morticia Addams?


MARILYN:  You objected to Wednesday's relationship with my cousin, didn't you?

MORTICIA:  I certainly did.

MARILYN:  On what grounds?

MORTICIA:  On every possible grounds.

MARILYN:  Could you be a bit more specific?

MORTICIA:  Well, let's just say he wasn't really Addams material—no offense.

MARILYN:  None taken. I consider it a compliment.

MORTICIA:  What do you mean by that?

MARILYN:  Oh, nothing. It's just that I'd rather be a poor, working-class stiff than a spoiled, idle snob with a stick up my ass, that's all—no offense.

MORTICIA:  (through gritted teeth) None taken.

MARILYN:  Would you describe what happened during the séance, just before Fester was killed?

MORTICIA:  Gomez sneezed. I handed him a napkin.

MARILYN:  Did you hear anything else before the shot was fired?


MARILYN:  Thank you. Are there any other questions for Morticia? (Marilyn fields questions from the audience.) Thank you, Morticia. Mrs. Addams—what is your first name, by the way?

GRANDMAMA:  Babette.

MARILYN:  Babette? Do you mind if I call you Grandmama?

GRANDMAMA:  Whatever floats your boat, Blondie.

MARILYN:  Did you object to Wednesday's relationship with Eddie?

GRANDMAMA:  Of course I did.


GRANDMAMA:  He was a werewolf. Werewolves are bad news.

MARILYN:  You sound as though you speak from personal experience.


MARILYN:  What sort of experience?

GRANDMAMA:  Personal.

MARILYN:  Would you tell us what you heard before Fester was shot.

GRANDMAMA:  I heard Gomez sneeze, and I heard a shot.

MARILYN:  Anything else?


MARILYN:  Thank you. Any other questions for Grandmama? (She fields questions from the audience.) Wednesday Addams?

(No response. Wednesday is in her own world.)

MARILYN: Wednesday? What are you doing?

(Wednesday moves the cloth covering Fester, revealing a smiley face she has drawn on it over Fester's face.)

MARILYN:  Wednesday, could you answer a few questions for me?

WEDNESDAY: Sure, Marilyn. How are you Marilyn?

MARILYN:  I'm fine, Wednesday.

WEDNESDAY:  Are you sure? I know how you felt about Uncle Fester. You shouldn't keep your feelings inside, you know. Feelings are like butterflies, (beginning to sing) and butterflies are free to fly, fly away, high away…

MARILYN:  Honestly, Wednesday, I'm okay.

WEDNESDAY:  How about a pill?

MARILYN:  We took your pills away from you, remember?

WEDNESDAY:  (pulling out another pill box) Oh, I still have some herbals from Dr. Wong. (conspiratorially) Don't tell Dr. Crane; he doesn't believe in them.

MARILYN:  Give me the pills, Wednesday.

WEDNESDAY:  Let's see… (she begins handing out pills to guests, in a parody of Ophelia's mad scene in Hamlet) There's ginkgo, that's for remembrance—pray you, love, remember. And there is St. John's Wort, that's for thoughts.

MARILYN:  Give me the pills.

WEDNESDAY:  Oh, all right. (She hands the pills to Marilyn.)

MARILYN:  (patiently, as though talking to a small child) Now, Wednesday, I want you to think back to the séance.

WEDNESDAY:  What séance?

MARILYN:  The séance we just had—when Uncle Fester was killed.

WEDNESDAY:  Oh, yeah. That was so sad.

MARILYN:  Yes, it was. Now, do you remember what happened, just before Fester was shot?

WEDNESDAY:  You were talking to Eddie. Eddie's dead. That's so sad.

MARILYN:  Yes, it is. Then what happened?

WEDNESDAY:  Someone sneezed. I think it was Father.

MARILYN:  Yes. Then what?

WEDNESDAY:  There was a shot.

MARILYN:  Do you remember anything else unusual before the shot?

WEDNESDAY:  No….yes. There was a sound.

MARILYN:  What kind of sound?

WEDNESDAY:  (imitating the sound) FFFT!

MARILYN:  Was this before or after the sneeze?


MARILYN:  Are there any other questions for Wednesday? (Marilyn fields questions from the audience.) Thank you Wednesday. You've been very helpful. Ladies and gentlemen, I now know who the killer is. Do you? You have five minutes to fill out your resolution forms. Good luck, and may the best detective win!

Have you figured out who killed Eddie Munster and Fester Addams and the motives for their murders? Next week, I'll present the solution to An Addams Family Mystery!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Fall of Fester

This time of year, I always feel like shaving my head, donning a long black robe with a fur collar, and sticking a light bulb in my mouth.

My Fester fetish can be traced back to the spring of 2000. Several members of the Gypsy Players were hanging out in the bar at Dakota's Steakhouse in Simi Valley, trying to come up with an idea for a fall mystery dinner theater script. We were having a fairly successful run with The Last Cruise of the S.S. Minnow—a mash-up of Gilligan's Island, The Love Boat, Speed, and Titanic. "How about something with the Munsters or the Addams Family?" the bartender suggested.

An Addams Family Mystery premiered at Dakota's that fall. The show was directed by John Diesel and starred Ron Kewish as Gomez, Judie Kewish as Morticia, Roxanne Diesel as Grandmama, Mikisha Harrison as Wednesday, Tiel Kinsner as Marilyn Munster, and yours truly as Fester. I loved playing Fester, and was happy to reprise the role when the Gypsies revived the show at the Grand Vista Hotel in the fall of 2004, with Gabriel Vega as Gomez, Deborah Parsons as Morticia, Pat Newbert as Grandmama, Mallory Jordan and Kelly Murkey as Wednesday, and Lola McKenna and Marilyn Zaslow as Marilyn. The Gypsies produced the show once more at Paul's Italian Villa in 2007, with Gabriel Vega, Deborah Parsons, Pat Newbert, and I reprising our roles, and Veronica Morrow and Renee Smith as Wednesday and Marilyn.

A year ago, Comedy Tonight Productions revived the show at Yolanda's Mexican Restaurant in Ventura. Gabriel Vega, Renee Smith, and I reprised our roles; Kathryn Dippong Lawson and Veronica Scheyving alternated as Morticia, Heather Byhoffer was Grandmama, and Courtney Licata was Wednesday.

There have been other productions of An Addams Family Mystery all over the country. Unfortunately, for reasons I won't go into here (but which you may be able to deduce if you read last week's post), it may no longer be performed. However, I don't see why I shouldn't be able to post excerpts as "fan fiction." Do you?

Scene 2 ("Werewolf Genetics"), is my favorite scene. It follows, as is frequently the case, Scene 1, which I will first briefly summarize:

Imagine that you are a member of the Addams family. You arrive at a family reunion, to be greeted and seated by Gomez, Morticia, Grandmama, and Fester. Lurch and Thing are away at a funeral (primarily because it's extremely difficult to cast a seven foot cadaverous butler and a disembodied hand). Pugsley, who is studying to be a forensic pathologist, is in the midst of his finals at Harvard medical school. Wednesday is expected at any minute.

When Wednesday arrives, her mood is uncharacteristically cheerful. Much to the horror of her parents, she announces that she has been undergoing analysis with a certain "Dr. Crane," and is finally learning to enjoy life. Oh, and there's one more thing. She is engaged—to her boyfriend, Eddie Munster. The family—particularly Morticia and Grandmama—do not approve of the match. Not only is Eddie Munster "not Addams material," he is a werewolf. "He promised to get help," wails Wednesday. "He's going to check himself into the Lon Chaney center!"

"I don't care if he's made an appointment to be neutered," replies Morticia.

The family's objections become moot when, just before the end of the scene, FBI agent Marilyn Munster arrives to announce that her cousin, Eddie, has been murdered. Members of the Addams family—including, possibly, you—are prime suspects.

During the dinner break, Marilyn is torn between questioning the guests and pursuing Fester, for whom she seems to have developed a strange infatuation. She loses sight of him for a moment and then sees him across the room…

MARILYN:  Fester! (crosses to him) There you are! I was afraid you'd left.

FESTER:  No, I'm still here. How's the investigation going?

MARILYN:  Okay, I guess.

FESTER:  Do you really think someone in our family did it?

MARILYN:  It sure looks that way. I'm sorry.

FESTER:  You don't suspect me, do you?

MARILYN:  Of course not! Why, anyone could see that you're just a big ol' teddy bear who wouldn't hurt a fly! But the rest of your family…(looks pointedly at Morticia).

FESTER:  Oh, they're not so bad, once you get to know them. I'm sorry about Eddie. I didn't know him very well, but he seemed like a good kid. How did he become a werewolf?

MARILYN:  Oh, he was born that way.

MORTICIA:  Don't be ridiculous. There's no such thing as a born werewolf. You can only become a werewolf if you're bitten by a werewolf.

MARILYN:  Well Eddie was never bitten. Aunt Lily always said it was genetic. She said Eddie inherited it from her.

MORTICIA:  Is Lily a werewolf?

MARILYN:  Well, no…

MORTICIA:  Then I'm sorry, but your theory just doesn't make sense.

MARILYN:  Are you calling my aunt a liar?

MORTICIA:  Perhaps she had a reason for not telling you the truth.

MARILYN:  What makes you such an authority on the subject, anyway? Have you ever known a werewolf?

MORTICIA:  Heavens no! Horrible, hairy creatures!

MARILYN:  Like your cousin Itt?

MORTICIA:  Itt is not a werewolf!

MARILYN:  Well, then what is it—a dust mop?

MORTICIA:  Listen, you blonde freak of nature…

FESTER:  Morticia, please!

GOMEZ:  Perhaps you two should settle this outside—with appropriate weapons.

MARILYN:  That won't be necessary, Mr. Addams. (takes out her cell phone and begins to place a call) I have a friend at the bureau who can settle this… (to phone) Mulder? Marilyn Munster. I'm working on a case, and—listen, what do you know about lycanthropy?… Yes, I know… Yes, I know that, too… (beginning to lose patience, she does a "yak-yak" hand gesture) Yes, yes, yes—look, all I want to know is, is it hereditary?… Thanks. (to others) He's talking to his partner—she's a doctor… (back to phone) Scully? Wassup, girlfriend?… Yeah, I know you're a skeptic, but try to keep an open mind, okay?… Well, he claimed to have inherited the condition from his mother, but she's never shown any symptoms… What's that?… congenital?… recessive gene?… Okay… Yes… I think I understand. Thanks, Dana. Later.


MARILYN:  She says the gene could be recessive, which means someone could carry the disease without showing any of the symptoms. A child could inherit the disease, but only if both parents carried the recessive gene.

GOMEZ:  Then your Uncle Herman is a werewolf?

MARILYN:  No—but he doesn't have to be. He just has to carry the gene.

MORTICIA:  Or else…

MARILYN:  Or else what?

MORTICIA:  Never mind.

MARILYN:  No, what were you going to say?

MORTICIA:  I have no desire to cast aspersions on your aunt's character, but…

MARILYN:  But what?

MORTICIA:  Well…are you quite sure that Herman is Eddie's father?

MARILYN:  How dare you!

MORTICIA:  Well he certainly didn't look anything like Herman.

GOMEZ:  No one looks anything like Herman.

MARILYN:  (seething) I am going to make some more phone calls. When I get back, I will get to the bottom of this… and I will have justice for my cousin's murder!

(Wednesday enters. She is wearing her customary black dress and carrying a gun.)

MORTICIA:  Wednesday? What are you doing with that gun?

WEDNESDAY:  I was playing Russian roulette. I lost.

GOMEZ:  That's my girl! Good to see you're your old self again, Wednesday!

WEDNESDAY:  (not hearing him, in her own world) One bullet. Just one bullet. Do you think I could kill all three of us with one bullet?

GOMEZ:  If you did, it would be one hell of a shot.

(She points the gun at Gomez, Morticia and herself, in turn, and pulls the trigger. The gun does not fire.)

GOMEZ:  (pulling out a gun) My turn!

MORTICIA:  Gomez, Wednesday—remember my rule about guns in the house.

GOMEZ:  (putting gun away) Sorry, Tish—I forgot. What'll it be, Wednesday—knives or sabers?

WEDNESDAY:  You see? This is exactly what Dr. Crane was talking about! What kind of family duels with each other? (She bursts into tears.)

FESTER:  Poor kid!

GRANDMAMA:  I'll talk to her.

FESTER:  Please, Mama—be sympathetic.

GRANDMAMA:  You don't think I can be sympathetic? I can be sympathetic. (She crosses to Wednesday.) Put a sock in it, Wednesday! (Wednesday stops crying.) Still moping over wolf boy?

WEDNESDAY:  Oh, Grandmama! I miss him so much!

GRANDMAMA:  Sure you do. But it would never have worked out between you two, believe me. Oh, yes, it's wonderful at first—werewolves are wild, passionate creatures, and they make fantastic lovers. But then come the drains clogged with fur, the claw marks on the furniture—and forget about trying to housebreak them.

WEDNESDAY:  How do you know so much about it?

GRANDMAMA:  I was in love with a werewolf once.


GRANDMAMA:  It was a long time ago. He was beautiful—thick silver fur, soulful brown eyes—and that tongue…!

WEDNESDAY:  What happened?

GRANDMAMA:  Well, it's a long story, but trust me on this—werewolves are bad news.

WEDNESDAY:  Not my Eddie! (She begins crying again.)

GOMEZ:  Say, I know what will cheer Wednesday up! Cha-cha?… Mambo?… Tango! Hit it, Fester!

The scene ends with Fester singing a tango, as Gomez dances first with Wednesday, then with Morticia. My preference was The Masochism Tango, by Tom Lehrer
I ache for the touch of your lips, dear,
But much more for the touch of your whips, dear.
You can raise welts
Like nobody else,
As we dance to the masochism tango... 
Want to know what happens next? Stay tuned for next week's episode, "Death at a Séance!"

My final appearance as Fester with the Gypsy Players,
Acton Lions Club, February 16, 2008.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Confessions of a Sitcom Killer

For the past thirteen years, I have been leading a double life: by day, a mild-mannered researcher/editor/business writer; by night (and the occasional weekend), a cold-blooded killer—

a killer of sitcom characters.

It began in 1999. For the past couple of years, I had been performing in mystery dinner theater productions with a group of friends in Simi Valley, California. At the time, we had two scripts in our repertory, both of which followed the same simple formula: a couple of murders (with as many gunshots as possible), a liberal dose of comedy sprinkled with a few clues, a little audience participation, and a prize to the audience member who came closest to solving the mystery.

"I bet I could write one of these," I thought.

So I did.

My first mystery script began with a simple idea: what if none of the characters on Gilligan's Island were what they appeared to be? I threw in elements of The Love Boat, Speed, and Titanic, and set it on the Skipper's brand new (and much larger) ship, the Millennium Minnow.

The Last Cruise of the S.S. Minnow premiered in the spring of 2000. I was afraid some of the younger audience members wouldn't get the references. However, thanks to cable channels like Nickelodeon and TV Land, the sitcom characters of my childhood had become immortal—at least until I murdered them. In The Last Cruise of the S.S. Minnow, I killed off nearly half of the castaways.

And yet my thirst for the blood of innocent victims remained unslaked.

In the years to come, I would go on to gleefully slaughter beloved characters from The Addams Family, The Golden Girls, I Love Lucy, Bewitched, and The Beverly Hillbillies. Why? Because it was fun, and because I could. Want to know why I could? Two words—


That's right, the law couldn't touch me—or so I thought.

Friends helped me market my scripts, and soon theatrical troupes around the country were performing them. I began to make money from the royalties—not enough to even think about giving up my day job, but at least I could say, "I'm a professional writer." I, along with several of my fellow sitcom killers, was even mentioned in an article in the Wall Street Journal. People began to sit up and take notice.

Unfortunately, some of the people who began to sit up and take notice were people who held copyrights to the characters I was killing.

Now, before I go any further, I want to make it clear that the copyright holders I'm referring to were not the people who created these characters. I could understand the creator of one of my victims being upset over the demise of a favorite character. However, the creators of these particular characters were, themselves, quite dead. (And before you jump to conclusions, I had nothing to do with their deaths; ironically, they died of natural causes.)

So these particular copyright holders had no particular sentimental attachment to my victims. What they did have was lots of money, which meant that they could afford lots of lawyers. How many lawyers could I afford? Exactly none.

So I gave up killing sitcom characters. Oh, I still write the occasional murder mystery script, but I make sure all of my victims are either my own creations or safely in the public domain. Somehow, it doesn't compare with the satisfaction of murdering an innocent sitcom character—for instance, a character like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.

Now, there's a guy who's just begging to be a victim.