The Gray Geezer and a Fine How-D-You-Do! Sequel
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A Fine How-Do-You-Do! Sequel

“The attorney’s steely gaze transfixed me. ‘Why did you do it, Mr. Bechtel?’ he said. I confessed, ‘Because I had nothing better to do.’”

“That burst their bubble, the stenographer told me,” said Rollie Ronk. “That and your tirade about how pathetically empty your life is.”

I said: “I had a bad year, all right? And what do you mean—burst what bubble?”

Lionel Mason said: “You don’t know? It was obvious in my deposition that the Vannucchis’ lawyer was trying to claim you were a co-producer of ‘Murder Well Done.’ To spread the liability, of course. I told him, ‘Hey, no way, counselor! Bechtel was nothing more than the Vannucchis’ mule—their gopher—tool—stooge—butt boy . . .’ My very words.”

“Nice of you to say,” I said.

“Although in fairness to the Vannucchis,” Lionel said, “the lawyer was representing their insurance company, not them. The Vannucchis are free and clear of damages up to an amount of $20 million.”

“Jesus! What kind of policy would insure a restaurant against a toy gun causing a customer to punch out a dinner theater actress?” Rollie said. “And cause the same customer—a decorated woman firefighter--to wring the neck of the actress’s actual grandmother? And cause the same customer to be KO’d when the actress’s grandfather smashed a plate over her head?”

Lionel shrugged.  “I’m told the Vannucchis come from a family of New Jersey restauranteurs who are cheap in all things except insurance. Apparently there’s no telling what can happen in an Italian-owned steakhouse.”

No argument came from those present, which was most of the “Murder Well Done” cast assembled at Lionel’s home. They included Lionel, who had directed the dinner theater murder mystery and played private eye Johnny Diamond; Rollie, who had played international playboy Drift Marlowe; Debbie Wigley, who had played  Senator Uma Van Dyke; Molly O’Flynn, who had played Muffy Montclaire, the mother of femme fatale Priscilla and ex-wife of the murdered man Donald Montclaire;  Chuck “Chuckwagon” Wagner, who had played gangster Big Eddie; Vernon Plumstead, who had played the femme fatale’s husband, Raoul  de la Vega; and me, who had played Donald and his corpse.

“So why are we here, Lionel?” Debbie Wigley asked in her characteristic undiplomatic way

Lionel said: “As I mentioned, the Vannucchi’s won’t be taking a financial hit—well, not until their insurance company drops them.  Obviously their premiums will shoot up with a new company. The Vannucchis are convinced they can offset this expense by staging ‘Murder Well Done’ at Dino’s Steakhouse four more times if not more.”

Vernon voiced what everyone had to be thinking: “What’s wrong with these people? Are they deranged?”

Asking this question seemed particularly apropos to Vernon, perhaps because he was a leading example of our mystery theater having been pathetically but necessarily miscast. Vernon played the romantic Raoul de la Vega only because a Hispanic actor had dropped out at the last minute and Vernon was the only substitute I could find (almost) younger than 40. Although Vernon’s physic was probably average, its dimensions were distorted by a huge noggin that made Vernon seem like he belonged in a Mardi Gras parade. A terrible observation, I admit, but one that comes from having been the troupe’s casting director.

Lionel replied buoyantly: “Because of all the publicity our premiere received, the Vannucchis believe ‘Murder Well Done’ will be a hot ticket. You’ve got to admit that we were the talk of the town. I mean, how often is a named partner of Sacramento’s largest accounting firm handcuffed and hauled off to jail for smashing a plate over a woman’s head?”

“It helped that the woman’s name was Katie Perry,” Chuckwagon said. “The media loved that. People picturing Katy Perry wringing a granny’s neck and getting popped by a plate.”

Rollie said: “I learned on Twitter that the firefighters who work with Katie Perry refer to her as Mongo.”

“Amen to that!” Molly said.

Lionel enthused: “My point is, our show was a hit! Everyone that night—well, everyone except those hauled off by ambulance or police car—everyone was thoroughly entertained! I know I was!”

Debbie said: “You do realize, Lionel, everything entertaining about that night was unscripted violence. Not that it was Randy’s fault. He told us we should script dialogue. But no!  Everyone said all they needed was a scenario script. We can adlib our dialogue, they said. And adlib they did—to the point that no one would shut up. Not even Altdorfer—or whatever his name is—Big Eddie’s goon—who kept grunting and smacking his gum. I felt sorry for the audience. If I hadn’t read the script, I never would have followed the plot!”

“A good point and I agree, Debbie—we need scripted dialogue,” Lionel said. “The thing is, when I said the Vannucchis want at least four more performances, I didn’t strictly mean performances of our script. What they want is our opening night reenacted beginning to finish. Now, scripting dialogue is a change they can’t object to as long as the plot remains the same. It’s the ending—the unscripted one—they want reenacted as accurately as possible.”

Everyone looked at me. I said: “Don’t look at me.” Everyone kept looking at me.  I said: “Listen, it was a miracle that I found Matisse to play the femme fatale. The runner-up was a mother of eight. Now you’re asking for a beautiful twenty-something not only to replace Matisse, but at the finale be punched coo-coo by a Mongo’s right cross, be handcuffed by police and then dragged to her feet with her nose gushing blood. But that’s just the beginning. You also want to cast a Mongo—”

“Hold it!” Lionel interrupted. “The Vannucchis are thinking about offering Katie Perry the role of playing herself as part of her settlement agreement.”

“Why would she do that?” Molly asked.

Lionel shrugged and said: “Fame? Dino’s already arranged for Channel 13 to interview some of the cast at the restaurant the day of the next performance. The real Mongo would obviously be front and center.  And Sacramento Magazine might do a feature.”

“I don’t know about everyone else,” Debbie said, “but one night with a rampaging Mongo was enough for me!”

A majority of heads nodded.

Lionel said: “I suggested as much to the Vannucchis. In which case, they would prefer the next Katie Perry be more like Katy Perry than Mongo.”

“I know of someone who could replace Matisse!” Rollie exclaimed so enthusiastically that people started.

“To hell with could,” I said. “What about would?

“Oh, she’ll do it! She’s my twin sister, Ruthann!” Rollie chortled.

Everyone looked at me. I said: “Don’t look at me!”

“Rollie, doesn’t your playboy character hit on Priscilla in three scenes?” Molly said. “You could do that with your sister?”

“It’s called acting,” Rollie said. “And it’s not like anyone would guess we’re related. We don’t look that much alike. For one thing, she’s four inches shorter than I am.”

“Perfect—a femme fatale midget!” Chuckwagon said.

“She’s not a midget!” Rollie snapped.

“Little person,” Molly corrected.

““She’s  5-foot 1 ½!”  Rollie said.

“I’m  personally fond of petite women,” Vernon said. “And it’s me you should be asking since I’m the one who has the kissing scene with Priscilla. Rollie's sister can’t be any worse than Matisse. Matisse and I didn’t have much chemistry.”

“Maybe your chemistry would be better if you didn’t tell a young woman the instant you meet her that you’re an undertaker,” Debbie said.

“What’s wrong with being an undertaker?” Vernon gasped. “It’s an honest profession!”

“Too honest. That’s my point. Zip it,” Debbie said.

“Midget or not, Ronk’s sister can’t play Priscilla because she’s Filipino,” Chuckwagon said.

Ronk sprang to his feet as his face ballooned like a blowfish’s. “Tell me what’s wrong with being Filipino!” he hissed.

“As soon as you tell me how your sister can pass for the daughter of a 5’10” redheaded Irishwoman like Molly and an Iowa Arian like Bechtel,” Chuckwagon said.

“I’m out of this!” I interjected. “You’ll need someone else to play Donald.”

“Great! My Uncle Rudy can do it!” Rollie crowed.

“Uh-huh, and who’s going to play Ruthann’s real grandparents?” Chuckwagon said. “Don’t forget those roles need to be cast now.”

“Ruthann’s real grandparents! How about that?” Rollie said. “And my two brothers can play the cops!”

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” Lionel said. “We appreciate your enthusiasm, Rollie. However, even though I can’t speak for the Vannucchis, it’s my sense they will want a cap on Filipinos.”

Rollie puffed again and hissed: “The Vannucchis or you?”

“Believe me,” Lionel said, “I can hear Dino now: ‘When people think detective murder mystery, they don’t think Filipinos.’”

“That’s just what Dino would say,” I said.

Debbie said: “Then let’s talk about the Vannucchis, why don’t we? Obviously Randy wants nothing more to do with them. Why should the rest of us? The profits from this so-called ‘hot ticket’ will go straight into the Vannucchis’ pockets and nowhere else. And I’m not drinking the Vannucchi’s Kool-Aid about fame. I act in community theater only because I like to entertain.”

“Remember that the Vannucchis not only give us the venue of Dino’s Steakhouse,” Lionel said. “They also own rights to ‘Murder Well Done.’ True, Randy rewrote much of the script. Even so, Vinnie Vannucchi paid Clint Bodine for the original.”

“The problem I have is with the Vannucchis’ concept,” Chuckwagon said. “If they’re right about this reenactment being a hot ticket, then the actors in ‘Our American Cousin’ missed a huge opportunity by not restaging the play in Ford’s Theater and interrupting Act 2 to reenact Lincoln’s assassination. Maybe that would have been a big moneymaker. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve seen the assassination reenacted in movies and T.V., and to this day  I don’t know what ‘Our American Cousin’ was about, what any of its characters were, or the name of any actor who played one.”

Not long following that note did the troupe resolve to change its name from the Vannucchi Players to the Whodunit Dinner Theater Company. The Vannucchis were out. Lionel volunteered to head a committee to find us a new venue, and selected Molly and Rollie to join him. Not until Rollie agreed did Lionel then propose Debbie, Chuckwagon and Vernon form a committee to recruit more cast members. Of course, neither committee will be necessary if we heed Rollie’s suggestion and select as our venue the I Shall Return, a Roseville restaurant owned by Rollie’s great uncle.

Me—I’m charged with authoring an original script. I couldn’t say no because I couldn’t say I had something better to do. My only idea so far is that the script should include a character who is an undertaker.

Copyright © 2020 by Randy Bechtel

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Email Randy Bechtel at rbechtel@rkbechtel.com