There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute

by Bill Anschell
Seattle based jazz pianist, composer, producer and humorist

“Okay, go!” the stage manager would say, briskly tapping me on the shoulder.  She was a former cast member, a singer/dancer, the usual skinny and irritable diet pill freak.  “Pianist taking the stage,” she’d bark into her walkie talkie, and I would commence the charade that was my nightly torment.  Admittedly, I sometimes felt a small glow of self-importance—my whereabouts in time and space actually mattered to these theater professionals—but it was far outweighed by my sense of the ludicrous.

First there was my outfit, an oversized circus special bequeathed me by the various bloated alcoholic burnouts who were my predecessors.  The brightly-striped shirt billowed out around me and the broad-brimmed hat threatened to slide over my eyes and break my contact with reality.  My stroll across the stage was pure self-consciousness, one foot after another as an aspiring jazz pianist whose one wish was to be heard rather than seen tried not to stumble in the blinding spotlight.

I would clumsily thread my way through the set’s obstacle course, my sights set on the theater’s decaying embarrassment to Steinway and Sons.  The piano and bench were crowded onto on a metal platform immediately abutting the stage. The platform extended up about sixteen feet from the orchestra pit below, to which it would slowly descend while I played.  The back of the platform had a ridge about an inch high—the only barrier preventing the bench from toppling over backwards and sending me to a premature coda.

Reaching the piano, I’d grab its lid for balance and squeeze myself between the keys and the bench.  Then, using the back of my legs, I’d push the bench until it was flush against the ridge.  This would afford me just enough room to sit down and prop my feet against the pedals, the piano nearly in my lap.

It was from this position that I would tackle the Barnum Overture, an unpleasant work originally written for two pianos to be played by two classically trained pianists.  Both of these artists, of course, would be accustomed to playing written music, and they’d also have certain enviable amenities: a stationary stage, sensible clothing, a minimum of one inch between their elbows and their ribs, and reasonable lighting.  I had none of these advantages, but with the spotlight still blinding me and the hat threatening to surround me in complete darkness I’d await my cue to enter this ragtime nightmare.  Taking a deep breath, I’d position my hands for their initial assault and attempt to ignore images of a dangerous and humiliating backflip before 500 witnesses.

The offstage, on-mike announcer would dig deep into the wellspring of artificial enthusiasm that was the theater community’s collective unconscious.  Dripping excitement and insincerity, his voice would sound the dreaded fanfare: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Grrreatest Show On Earth: P......T......Barrrrrnumm!”

Reluctantly I’d strike the first chord and liberate an internal voice that would guide me through the turbulence to follow.  The ship’s rocking left, it would note, that low B flat’s gonna be a little closer than you think—might want to jab your elbow into your side a ways further.  Or, Okay, you hit some clams, but these fools don’t know Ragtime from Karaoke, just keep the rhythm going, it’s cool.  This incessant chatter was the flipside of internal concerti that were my perpetual distraction in everyday life.

About 30 seconds into the piece and accompanying banter, the metal platform would begin its motorized descent to the pit (You’ve never fallen off yet; keep your eye on the piano; remember this gig’s just a stepping stone, the future’s bright; you know I love you, baby).  The motor was operated from below by the drummer, who considered the scenario—particularly my obvious will to survive—wholly amusing. He never said anything about my trauma, and I in exchange never said anything about his own lesser moments, which tended to be alcohol-induced.

At some point near the end of the Overture I would feel the platform hit ground and know that my life had once again been spared.  This distraction, as often as not, would cause me to blow the ending, but at least I knew I was home free.  My piece would finish, the actors would take the stage, and the spotlight would find more welcoming targets.

Then I’d gratefully join the drummer and bassist in accompanying a prerecorded 20-piece orchestra for the rest of the show.  This orchestral illusion was initiated, as the audience filed in, by a tape of 20 musicians warming up, tuning, telling jokes, coughing, and laughing.  The passengers, not known for their piercing intellect, bought it without exception.  After the show three or four middle-aged couples in gaudy beachwear, faces still glowing red from the afternoon’s sunshine and poolside drinks, would corner me and ask, “Is the orchestra under the stage?” or “Is that one of those pianos with the special buttons?”

Cheap headsets fed our ears with the orchestra, a clicking metronome, and an ornery voice that would count out loud during the tempo changes.  Occasionally this taped voice would get passionate and start yelling “One, two, three, four” to the point of distortion, and we’d all simultaneously grab our headsets, yelping in pain.  In the drummer’s lesser moments, motor skills impaired, he’d lose track of the metronome and ignore the screaming man. Suddenly the orchestra and band would go their separate ways and on-stage choreography would turn to anarchy, diet pill addicts nervously flailing about.  These were, in retrospect, the show’s highlights.

That was the routine I’d come to know through three months of ship life, 13 laps around the Caribbean, and 78 dreaded performances, but this particular evening had its own special flavor.  Earlier in the day I’d ignored my usual regimen, going onshore to St. Thomas with some friends rather than warming up.  These friends were four of the ship’s 45 musicians, so alcohol was to play a central role. We quickly found our way to an island bar and they began throwing down B-52s, the sickly sweet and potent drink that was in favor at the time.  “Just along for the ride,” I explained, turning down round after round, settling into my frequent role of observer and voice of reason.

It was absolutely unthinkable for me to tell them the truth—that I was trying to stay sober for the show.  The high seas were the last refuge for hundreds of serious musicians with no viable way to make a living on land; the price they paid was the awful music they had to play.  This twisted world had its own hardened philosophy and corresponding rules of conduct. Rule Number One was that the gig must be shown no respect whatsoever; Rule Number Two dictated that alcohol be the prescribed buffer between artist and heartbreaking reality.  Here I was in violation on both counts, so I wisely kept my mouth shut.  If I was lucky, they might think enough of me to assume I was hung over from the night before.

Unfortunately, the drunker they got, the more insistent they became. Rich, the Top 40 band’s bassist, found my attitude completely reprehensible.  He was a 250-pound bearded Canadian who looked disturbingly like one of the overstated bad guys on Big Time Wrestling.  His objections and insults grew fiercer with each round I refused, until I finally succumbed.  I figured they were all so drunk that this had to be their last round; maybe I could salvage my reputation by leaving them with the memory of me joining in.  Not a bad tactic, but I had underestimated them considerably, and once I started there was no stopping.  I was laughing as we staggered back toward the ship, but I knew that troubled times lay ahead.


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