As the Longest Continually Operating Melodrama Theatre in the World, The Bird Cage Theatre had, in 42 years, presented the public with thousands upon thousands of live performances. As proficient and professional as the Bird Cage performers were, not every show could be flawless. Further, when one does a show day after day, one must find ways to avoid boredom or the show quality will eventually suffer. (That's a good excuse. Yeah, they'll buy that) So, here for your perusal, is a fairly incomplete historical archive of things that happened...
or were made to happen.
Memories from the Actors
Flip Your Whig
In 1966 Walter Knott built a replica of Independence Hall across the street from his amusement park where the ghosts of the founding fathers whispered in the corners of the signing room. In 1986 The Bird Cage Theatre was called upon to give flesh to the spirits and a leg up to the fledgling educational department. My costume came with hair! A novelty since I have none of my own, there was even a ponytail, upon which this tale pivots. John Rutledge (Scott Martin) Alexander Hamilton (Mike Cook) Ben Franklin (Don Forney?) and James Madison (yours truly) were embroiled in fierce political conflict. Mr. Rutledge had the floor and as he pontificated and paced behind my seated form, I felt a tug on my aforementioned ponytail. Slowly like the twisting of a bottle cap my wig turned on my head till my ítail was over my left ear (and I don't even do yoga). Then, upon the next instant, the errant hairpiece leaped from my bald pate. Mr. Rutledge, being deep in the heat of debate, was unaware that my fleeing follicles had stowed away on the huge cuff of his 18th century couture. But, upon raising his arm to visually emphasize a point to Mr. Hamilton, he noticed what appeared, at first, to be a beaver pelt dangling from his sleeve. Catching the glare of my dome out of the corner of his eye he realized, with relief, that he had not taken to trapping in his sleep and politely returned the prodigal rug. The oddest is yet to come. There were 90+ elementary school children witnessing the entire debacle and not so much as a peep from even one of them.
One theory: It is said that wigged politicos of the 17th and 18th centuries would get so agitated and animated that their coifs would fly off. Hence the term "Flip your wig". Perhaps the children thought we were merely providing them with one more facet of history. Trust the Bird Cagers to go the extra mile.
Dean Carter '86 to '97
There are certain cliches one never really expects to encounter on stage. The dropping of trousers is one of them. And one could never even conceive of the plummeting of a founding fathers knickers, especially not in the sacred signing room of the hallowed Independence Hall. Such a wardrobe malfunction would make Janet Jackson look like a piker! But... One fine day, while Alexander Hamilton (Mark Ryzynski) and John Rutledge (Pat Hanrahan) were engaged in some verbal roughhouse and James Madison (tis I) was between them as referee, laughter became evident in the august chamber. It was coming from the elementary school children watching the historical dust up. Why? My first instinct, as a man, was to check my fly. Wait, I was wearing colonial couture, I had no fly (how could these men be called brilliant when they had no flies?). Check Mr. Hamilton, he was wearing what we called the electric suit, a bright blue velvet with silver stitching that often drew giggles from the students upon his entrance. But that was some time ago and by now the last titter would have long faded. Well, it's not me and it's not Mr. Hamilton, is it Mr. Rut... OH MY GOD!!! By the intensity of his pontification I could tell that Mr. Rutledge was unaware of gravity's cruel jest. Indeed, his knickers were down at his knees held there by their very design. His trousers waistband Velcro had failed miserably and he had been kept ignorant of their decent by the tights he wore (but it's a good thing he wore them, for if Mr. Rutledge had stood there in boxers with hearts all would have been lost! ). As I also played the part of John Rutledge on occasion, I was aware that the luckless legislator was about to become enlightened in regard to his liberated state (and I don't mean Massachusetts). He would attempt to cross to his right at the end of this speech. With his knees effectively tied together, how far would he get? One step? The floor? Here it comes. "...will or will not be a part of the Union of the United States of America!" Ooopps!! Thank goodness, no splat! He kept his feet, if not his pants. But in retaining his balance, the flailing of his arms rather resembled the Charleston. However, as Mr. Rutledge was the delegate from South Carolina, this seemed appropriate, though 130 odd years premature. All eyes are upon you Mr. Rutledge, hoist your trousers and say something. "Gentlemen, I beg your pardon. My tailor shall hear of this!" (Mr. Rutledge, everybody shall hear of this!) My line is next. What do I do? Try and pretend it never happened? Yeah, right! "Are you saying, sir, that you would abandon the confederation... just as your pants have abandoned you?" Well, that's that! The play may now proceed as written and come to a graceful conclusion with all the pomp and dignity of a Hippo in spandex!
Dean Carter '86 to '97
Present the Unexpected
1986 saw The Bird Cage Players growing beyond the walls of the Bird Cage Theatre and even reaching outside the style of melodrama. In the next few years, we took melodramas to schools and those school children who came to us were treated to a fly on the wall look at the founding fathers, in the signing room at Independence Hall across the street from the park. Not to mention a visit with westwardly mobile pioneers of the 19th century at the Cage herself. But in my distinctly biased opinion, the greatest and most lasting achievement of our "Golden Age" was at the start, 1986, the opening, on the stage of the Bird Cage Theatre, of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Dark brooding Dickens fare a thunderous success on an amusement park stage! How?! Why?! Only just recently was it explained to me. We gave them something they didn't expect.
"It won't work, it's too grim!" and like phrases were used by the park's management upon the submission of Scrooge's story for their Christmas fair. But, Tim Mills (instigator and author not only of Carol but the Indy Hall shows as well) pointed out that this was the last minute so it was Dickens or nothing. Last minute also meant that the cast for Carol was a bit thin to run the show in every time slot 7 days a week. We needed some breathing room. So one of our current melodramas, The Wreck of the Bluebell Express, was given a red bow, some Christmas jokes, cut and patched (much like Frankenstein's monster, only not as pretty) into the Wreck of the Yuletide Express. I won't jump on the "I knew all along" band wagon. I'll admit it, as much as I love Christmas Carol, I had doubts. But they were squashed by the excitement of doing the show. And then blown away by the response of the audience, which was immediate, positive and powerful. Surprise all round! The Yuletide Express ran the first season and was then derailed post-haste. The audience returned that wreck to the store, though it was just the type of show they were expecting. It was their surprise gift that they kept. Kept, cherished and passed down to their children. It had no flash or bright color, just emotional value and a sturdy warmth. Instead of a show that just tickled around the ribs, it reached in and touched the heart.
At an amusement park! Who knew!?
I just love surprises, don't you?
Dean Carter '86 to '97
That Time of Year
I think my fondest Bird Cage memories are of the holiday season. Probably having to do with my great love of Dickens' A Christmas Carol and for our rendition of it. I loved walking through the audience at the end of the show and seeing balled up tissues in the hands of people who had been crying their eyes out. It shows that we touched them, which in my opinion, is the whole point. To touch as many as we can.
For those who might think that classical literature is a bit dry for children, here's another Carol moment. Scrooge (myself) was kneeling before his own tombstone, his torrent of repentance had dwindled to a trickle of sobs. Fadeout. The house was quiet, dead quiet. No babies crying, no trucks backing up, no bottles being tossed into an empty dumpster behind the back wall. Silence. Rare. From this pin-drop blackness comes a child's plaintiff voice, "He's crying." 200 people loose a single Ahhh. We had reached them all. Rare.
Not so rare at this joyous time of year were actors pushing brooms to keep the water flooding the green room from getting onto the stage. It was '88 or '89, Ed Bell (a former Bird Cager who returned just to do Christmas Carol) and I were thus engaged. To make the task an occasion, we burst into song. "Sweep the water step in time, sweep the water step in time..." (wrong theme park for that song). Trust a pair of actors to turn a flood into a musical. Hold on! There's an idea! We could call it "No Noah Nannette" or "Ark-lahoma". Wait a minute, this one's really great...
Dean Carter '86 to '97
Delay the Oncoming Mass
For those of you who never worked with or met the legendary Don Forney, he was, visually, an impressive man. 6 feet 3 inches and a bit over 300 pounds. He was also a man of great momentum. If he went up on a line, stopping was not an option, as the following tale makes ticklishly clear.
T'was the Christmas of '90. Onstage, Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Don as an imposing Spirit of Christmas, myself as Scrooge. Earlier in the show Scrooge had growled the phrase "If they be like to die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Well, now came time for the Spirit to throw it back in his face with regard to Tiny Tim. "If he be like to die, he had better do it!" (ok) and "DELAY" (what?)"THE ONCOMING" (how's he getting out of this?) "MASS!!" (I guess he's not!). Scrooge turns away in shame (and no small amount of tittering) hoping to find solace and support from his fellow actors. No such luck!! I could hear Mr. & Mrs. Cratchit, Cliff Senior and Kathy Byrd (carrying her first child), beat a hasty retreat. And though they slammed the greenroom door behind them, their laughter still accosted me on stage. Cliff: "I never saw a pregnant women move so fast in my life!" At the same time I saw Dana Van Diver who was sitting house, slap her hand over her mouth and run for cover behind the gate partition. I was being deserted! Hurry! Where's the next scene? Scrooge's nephew Fred, Mike Cook, enters the party scene. Finally, someone else to take focus while I recover. Well, Fred was having such a good time at the party that no one could understand a word he was saying. No help there. The somber death of Tiny Tim is next and Kathy is a rock, nothing affects her onstage, she can be my anchor. My "anchor" enters sobbing and sobbing some more and pretty much sobs between each line. Mr. Cratchit enters... sobbing. Boy! Fred was delirious, the Cratchits were devastated!
It then became clear, there would be no full recovery until curtain. I managed to get through the show without meeting Don's eyes (which would have spelled disaster). Delay the Oncoming Mass, Don never forgot it.
We wouldn't let him!
Dean Carter '86 to '97
To free up the piano player so he/she could play the calliope at pitch, our seating music was on tape. We had no Foley artist so our sound effects were on tape. Tape, much more efficient... If you pushed the right button.
Riverboat Revenge, the villain drops a stick of dynamite down the boiler of the Cordelia K. The roll drop pulses and spasms to the sound of an explosion. Except once, when the drop pulsed and spasmed to the sound of the seating music. The hero rushes on to check for damage. "Captain Harmony! Are you all right sir?" I stagger on as Capt. Harmony, "Shucks son, I'm fine. But the Cordelia K is takin' on water... and a band!"
At the end of The Wreck of the Bluebell Express, the ominous rumble of an approaching train precedes the rushing gray bulk of "...number 87 coming full steam ahead!" Well, on this occasion, it was the ominous rumble of calliope music. I (portraying Willie Muldoon) cried out "Saints in heaven! Fred look out! It's... a circus train coming full steam ahead!"
That's the way it happened. Well, that's what I heard...
Dean Carter '86 to '97
At the end of Riverboat Revenge, the audience was treated to the spectacular effect of a moving river! (a painted drop rotating on a drycleaners rack). Capt. Harmony gives the cue to start 'er up, "Here we go!" Nothing. "Here... We... Go!" Dead in the water. The Capt. turns to the audience, "Well we're really rolling now." The crowd roars. And wouldn't you know it, that same cue was missed in every show there after. A slip becomes a bit.
In an earlier portion of the show, the Cordelia K is in peril of sinking. To convey this, a strip of plywood, painted blue with a "wave" shape cut, slides back and forth at the bottom of the roll drop's door opening. For any who have missed it's meaning, the hero clues them in subtly, "That's water!" To further reinforce the illusion of H2o, fish were soon sighted, leaping playfully about the plywood puddle. Still, we felt that some audience member might not get it.
More extreme measures were needed (and taken). The next time the water reached the threshold, Capt. Harmony (Mike Cook) was adrift in it, executing a desperate back stroke. To our credit, we did stop short of using a submarine periscope.
No fish were harmed in the writing of this anecdote.
Dean Carter '86 to '97
This site was last updated 12/10/04
Mary and Dean Carter