There's No Business Like Show Business
Randy Bechtel
There's No Business Like Show Business

Newspaper reporter was my most interesting job. Of course, the reporter’s job is to discover something every day that readers will find interesting. If your job isn’t interesting, you’re not doing your job.

The experience made me confident, even now years later, that I could write good dialogue. The key, I assumed, is being a good listener. And as a reporter I had, whenever possible, tape recorded my interviews and transcribed verbatim what my subjects said. At first, I would listen to a tape and often groan and say aloud, “Shut up, Randy!” because I had interrupted my subject with a question just as he was about to say something important. A subject’s free train of thought, I discovered, will take you places that stop-and-go will not. Which led to one simple rule: Never interrupt a subject’s answer unless absolutely necessary. This rule became so second nature to me that I would meet strangers socially and within minutes be told such intimate details as, “I caught herpes after a one-night stand with Don Ho.” I kid you not.

Needless to say, I was jazzed during a Zoom meeting when the Blade Hathaway Players approved my plot for “The Abracadabra Cadavers” and gave me the green light to write its dialogue. Although my plot was an amalgamation of homages to television mysteries too numerous to remember, I was determined that my dialogue would be original and creative. Moreover, I was inspired by the casting of my main characters, namely super model Tiffany to be played by Leslie Wood, a gorgeous former cohost of TV’s “Good Morning Sacramento;” Lady Bristol to be played by Ann Putnam, an Englishwoman whose credits included British stage and TV; Detective Horace Smoot, to be played by Larry Wright, a retired police captain; and the magician Razzle Dazzle Basil, to be played by The Fantastic Fritz, a veteran stage magician.

Fortuitous of all was that Fritz volunteered to recruit identical twins to assist him in the dinner theater’s opening magic trick and then play the who in our whodunnit. The trick involves one twin appearing to have vanished from a cabinet just as the other appears across the room. Identical twins were also the secret behind my mystery; while one twin commits murder the other provides an alibi.

Two days after our Zoom meeting, troupe director Lionel Mason forwarded to everyone this text from Fritz: “Meet Lulu and Lili LaFleur. Sac State theater majors. Excited about gig!” Fritz’s text included a short video of the twins, who were identical, young, tall, cute, well spoken and, as Chuck “Chuckwagon” Wagner expressed in his reply, worth thirty smiling emojis. So pumped was I that I sent out a text promising, even though there was no rush, an amazing script in three weeks. Those who replied expressed confidence that I could. They would learn that I am dumber than I look.

I began by writing dialogue for the lesser characters (those who would be murdered) inspired by the idea: What if three characters each spoke in idioms and slang of different time periods, that is 1) 1940s-50s,  2) 1960s-70s and 3) 1980s-90s? For example:

1: I’m sore at Frank ‘cause he played me for a sap.

3: Like, duh! Just chill, bro.

2: Frank socked it to me a week ago. What’s that Clyde’s bag?

1: Getting people into jams, then scramming.

3: He’s all: I didn’t beat feet. He had my back—not!

1: You said it! It’s a cinch everybody he knows has a beef.

2: Not his old lady. He abides ‘cause she’s out of sight. What a gas!

I showed three pages of creative dialogue to my friend Eddie Mars. Every Friday Eddie and I socially distance by my swimming pool and each drink our own bottle of wine from our own wine glasses. Eddie read the pages through and said:

“Sorry, but I think most people won’t get it. Plus, I find the dialogue hard to follow, especially when I’m unfamiliar with some slang. Like ‘a case of the ass.’ What does that mean?”

“Someone with a case of the ass is angry—pissed off,” I said. I reflected and said, “Could be a case of the ass is not popular slang, but just Army slang. No word has more versatility in the Army than ass.”

So much for inspiration.

The following day I was to meet via Zoom with Lionel, Fantastic Fritz and the LaFleur twins. Lionel wanted to discuss blocking for the magic trick and I sleight-of-hand tricks Fritz might perform when exchanging dialogue with other characters. I also wanted to get a feel for the speech patterns of Fritz and the twins. However, I was surprised when Debbie Wigley, in charge of casting, was included in the meeting and the twins were not.

After Lionel made the introductions, Debbie entered the conversation in her customary fashion of an eighteen-wheeler with no brakes. “Let’s get down to cases, all right?” she said. “Fritz, glad to have you, of course. But here’s the deal: We can’t use the LaFleur sisters. Sorry if this disappoints you.”

I looked at Lionel and he looked straight back, which meant he wasn’t looking at me or anyone on his laptop screen, but at the camera lens above it. He dithered: “Now Debbie, let’s not write this in stone.”

Fritz meanwhile seemed unconcerned as he swigged from a tumbler containing apple juice, iced tea or whiskey. Judging by his picture on his Internet website, Fritz was in his prime with a swept-back main that was black on top and gray at the temples and included the magician’s obligatory widow’s peak. His piercing black eyes were framed by lush lashes and topped by thick but trimmed black eyebrows. On Zoom, Fritz was a flushed-faced geezer whose hair resembled an artillery explosion, whose lashes were imperceptible and whose eyebrows looked like two black hairy caterpillars.   

I snapped: “Why can’t we use the LaFleur sisters?”

Debbie’s face filled her rectangle. “Because they’re African American! Think! The only two African Americans in our cast can’t be the murderers of five people. Especially after the George Floyd thing last week.”

“You’re saying we have to discriminate not to discriminate?” I said.

Debbie sneered: “You want the LaFleurs, Randy, then you’ll need to change your plot.”

That shut me up.

“So Fritz, are there any other twins you can pull out of your hat?” Lionel asked.

Fritz’s train of thought seemed to travel down one eyebrow and up the other, then back again like waves. “I believe the Albino Cannonballs are available,” he said finally.

For a moment it seemed everyone’s audio was shut off.

Then Fritz said: “The Albino Cannonballs is a name that attached to the Svensen brothers early in their careers when they worked in a circus. Back then the two were mainly shot from canons. Sven and Olaf Svensen—that’s their names. They’ve been on the magic circuit for some time now and occasionally work as extras in Hollywood.”

“Do we even have circuses anymore?” Debbie asked.

“I suppose somewhere.” Fritz replied dreamily, then refocused. “Of course, the Svensens worked for a European circus. And that, I believe, was back in the Seventies. They’re Norwegian, you see. And yes, a bit long in the tooth. But you won’t find nicer little people in the business.”

“It’s the little people in the business who make the Blade Hathaway Players go,” Lionel said.

“Ah—yes—well, that’s probably true of every theatrical company,” Fritz said. “But I was thinking physically. You can’t be Shaquille O’Neal and be shot from a canon. Which is why you might rethink the scenario where a woman is strangled walking through the parking lot. If your actress is more than five-four, neither of the Svensens could reach her neck even if one stood on the other’s shoulders. Frankly, the biggest parts of the Svensen twins is their snowball heads. But other than the strangler killing—yes—I think Olaf and Sven can fill the bill. Although I wouldn’t give them many lines. They’ve lived in this country more than a decade and have learned some English. But their damn Norwegian accents make them harder than hell to understand. I wouldn’t give them more than four or five lines.”

Hoarsely I asked: “I wonder what lines those could be?”

It was a sarcastic and rhetorical question, but Fritz answered:

“Audiences seem to appreciate things like: ‘Yah b’golly!’ and ‘Yumpin’ horny toads!’”

A fine how-do-you-do! Two of my mystery’s most important characters —the who in my whodunnit—characters, either one or the other, who would be in every scene and need to engage the other characters and the audience. And with what? “Yah b’golly!” and “Yumpin’ horny toads!.”

Lionel ended the meeting by proposing that I have a week to choose between the LaFleurs and the Svensens. Of course, should I choose the LaFleurs, I would need to change my plot. Unsaid was that if I changed my plot, I would not need twins. Instead, Lionel dropped the unhelpful hint that the LaFleurs would give diversity to our troupe, its only non-white member now being Rollie Ronk of Filipino descent. Either agreeing, disagreeing or neither (it was hard to tell which), Fritz observed: “No two bodies of flesh are whiter than the Albino Cannonballs.”

I didn’t think about any of this afterward. No need. I wasn’t certain I had a plot to write dialogue for, and today had taught me that I wouldn’t know until after tomorrow when Lionel had scheduled a Zoom meeting with Leslie Wood, Ann Putnam and Larry Wright. Also in the meeting would be Molly O’Flynn, who had recruited Leslie and Ann. Mercifully Debbie Wigley would not participate even though she recruited Larry. I suggested to Lionel that Rollie Ronk be included, but Lionel thought it better to draw Leslie into the fold before she learned that her husband would be played by a man who was five inches shorter than she and weighed twice as much.

Even on Zoom, the camera loved Leslie Wood. Justice would require a Lord Byron to describe her. I will only say that she is every guy’s type. According to Molly, Leslie wasn’t yet 30 when she left local TV four years ago to marry the Silicon Valley hedge fund manager she was now divorcing. Her BFF Ann was a brunette with a page boy hairdo that framed a complexion so pale that her big eyes and small mouth looked painted. Ann’s foremost attribute was the musicality of an aristocratic English accent. Larry Wright had a bloodhound’s forlorn eyes set above pronounced bags and a small chin bookended by jowls. His unchanging expression spoke of constipation.

Only when Molly corrected Leslie by saying, “His name is Randy not Riley,” did I not only eyeball Leslie, but listen to her as well.  

“I’m sorry. Yes, Randy,” Leslie said.

“Otherwise known as the Gray Geezer,” I blurted.

“How sweet!” she said, beaming a smile that would have brought sunshine to Seattle. “As I said, your plot—Randy—is amazing! I can offer only one small suggestion. A suggestion that Annie absolutely agrees with. I think everyone here will agree too when they consider that the best mysteries on TV are British. And why?”

“Sexual tension!” Ann chimed in.

“Exactly! Sexual tension!” Leslie said. “Which is about hanky-panky or jealousy or scorn adding up to a motive for murder.”

Ann said: “I appeared in a ‘Midsomer Murders’—just one episode!—in which there was adultery, incest, pedophilia and rape!”

Not only my face, but those of Lionel and Molly were moving closer and closer to their screens.

 Leslie said: “Molly may have mentioned that I liked the scenario where my character has a fight with her husband. Given my recent experience with a lying—cheating—cocaine-snorting—ass-wipe—dickwad . . .” She paused to clear her throat.“It occurred to me that I might help Randy script the marital spat down-and-dirty enough to make my chareacter a prime suspect in my husband’s murder.”

“What a wonderful idea!” Lionel enthused as if Leslie had volunteered to bring homemade sticky buns to a brunch.

Leslie beamed and said: “Randy, I’ll email you some dialogue taken from real life. But that’s only half of it.” Her eyes rounded. “Here’s the exciting part! Now watch!”

Leslie disappeared and seconds later joined Ann in her rectangle.

“You’re together!” Molly said.

“Because we’re roomies!” Leslie said as she and Ann snuggled against each other side-by-side. “Are you ready?” Leslie asked looking forward.

Not certain whom she was addressing, I merely shrugged.

The two women then embraced and passionately kissed longer than it took Molly to mutter three choruses of, “. . .Oh . . . my . . . God! . . .” When their heads finally parted, Ann and Leslie smiled face-to-face, then turned their smiles on us.

“How’s that for a motive to kill a husband!” Leslie chirped, then disappeared to return to her own rectangle.

I lifted my jaw from the floor and mused: “Won’t have to worry about our program lacking action.”

Leslie settled in, swept back a blonde lock and said: “Write us a love scene, Randy. It’ll be amazing—not only for our mystery—but for me personally. To my Sacramento fans, this production will not only announce I’ve come back, but that I’ve come out!”

“Oh . . . my . . . God!” Molly said in a full voice, her face so close to her screen we could see only her eyes and nose.

“Do you know how big this will be?” Lionel gushed. “Venues I’m talking to believe Leslie’s name alone will lead to multiple sellouts. But this! This could see us booked every Friday and Saturday for six months. We won’t need to invest in marketing. Word-of-mouth will put butts in the seats. One performance—two at the most—and word-of-mouth will give us TV news coverage!”

Leslie now answered a phone call and left her rectangle. Ann asked me for my contact information prompting Lionel to interject that he would compile everyone’s contact information following our meeting and email it to one and all. Molly then asked when we might have a Zoom meeting with the entire cast and suggested that should be as soon as I had scripted enough scenes to have dialogue for everyone.  

Back and beaming, Leslie said: “Sounds super! Now Annie and I have to dash. Sorry, really! But our Realtor called and wants to show us a house—one she’s sure won’t be on the market long. If it’s all she says, we can have our rehearsals there! Later everyone!” Her rectangle went blank.

“Ciao!” Ann said. Her rectangle went blank.

Lionel, Molly and I faced Larry Wright’s sour puss.

I said: “Larry, don’t you know there’s no people like show people. They smile when they are low.”

Larry’s jowls ballooned a bit, but that was it. “I don’t get it,” he said.

“Never mind him, Larry,” Lionel said. “First, congratulations on your retirement and thank you for your service. You don’t know how excited we were to learn that a man of your stature in law enforcement had volunteered to play our detective. The credibility you will bring--”

“Listen, I’ve had enough kissing for one day,” Larry interrupted. “Let me tell you why I’m here . . . or at . . . or rather in . . . this meeting. Last December Debbie Wigley, a good friend and neighbor, came to me because she was upset after your first performance incited its audience to violence. I recommended then that she pursue a different hobby. However, in February she said your group had reorganized and expelled its bad apples—men who were defendants in a lawsuit arising from the melee. I was skeptical all was squeaky clean, but Debbie’s passion for acting overrode that. After I retired, she asked if I would play your detective. I needed something to occupy my time, she argued, but I sensed she really wanted me on board to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. Yesterday she called and said she was a bit concerned about new members of the group, so I called an old colleague at Sac P.D. to run a check. This morning he called back and informed me there were at least twelve outstanding warrants in seven states for Olaf and Sven Svensen, alias Poncho and Jose Svensen, alias Sinbad and Abdul Svensen, alias Wang and Woo Svensen, alias Cochise and Hiawatha Svensen. The warrants charge burglary, kiting checks, sale of narcotics and indecent exposure. The Svensen’s police records include arrests for auto theft, forgery, possession of narcotics and child pornography.”

“Child pornography!” Molly gasped.

“Admittedly that charge did not stick,” Larry said. “It was found that the pre-schoolers in the film were not children, but the film’s producers, Sven and Olaf Svensen. But L.A. P.D. attached a note to the film’s DVD that read: ‘No greater filth has ever been recorded on film.’”

“I don’t understand the aliases,” I said. “Who would be so stupid as to assume aliases with different first names but the same last name of Svensen?”

“No one,” Larry said. “Or so investigator after investigator concluded before pursuing other lines of inquiry. Diabolical are these Svensens!  But their rampage of villainy is about to end! Even as we speak detectives should be questioning this magician, Fritz Schicklgruber, to ascertain the Svensen’s whereabouts. If that fails, I’m told a sting operation should nail the brothers for toilet paper hijackings. All this I will reveal to Debbie tonight as well as the fact that you intend to include in your murder mystery an exhibition of lesbian sexuality. I trust that she will respond as I am now and sever all ties to you.”

Larry’s rectangle went blank.

Again it was if everyone’s audio went off. Then Lionel said: “I think—on the whole—today went well.”

“You would,” Molly said. “Now you get to play the detective, which you wanted to play in the first place. Unfortunately, we probably need to recast Debbie’s part. And yours, Lionel.”

“People!” I said. “There are no parts to cast because we have no plot!”

Not that it mattered, but to be exact, I did have two elements of plot that together equaled one motive for Leslie’s character killing her husband, not that she murdered her husband when I had a plot. I mention this only because any future plot will need to include these elements to please our star. The first is a pissing contest for which Leslie emailed me dialogue the next day. Its content was nothing I couldn’t have imagined except for assorted sailor-mouth lines utterly inappropriate for dinner theater. The other element was the love scene with Ann’s character for which I would have enthusiastically welcomed dialogue. As it is, my dialogue will need to be an homage to one or more lesbian porn films, although my recollection is that the dialogue in these films is brief and usually soon includes a male character en route to a ménage à trois.

I must not be a show person because I’m sure as shit not smiling!

Copyright © 2020 by Randy Bechtel

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