The Return of the Yumpin' Horny Toads
Randy Bechtel, The Gray Geezer
Return of Yumpin' Horny Toads

June 16, 2020

“Coming up on the news at six: The alleged kingpins of a hijacking ring—two  brothers who were once shot from cannons as a circus act known as the Albino Cannonballs—were denied bail today on grounds they are flight risks.”

Yuck, yuck, I thought. TV news wit.

Almost immediately I received a call from Chuck “Chuckwagon” Wagner, actor and also the new casting director for the Blade Hathaway Players.

“Did you hear the Svensen brothers were denied bail?” he said.

“Yeah. So?”

“So I thought you might want them in the cast if they made bail.”

I snorted. “A week ago I decided what the court decided today: If the Svensen brothers make bail, they’ll be out of here. It didn’t help that I already knew their Norwegian accents make them hard to understand. The only lines intelligible to audiences are ‘Yah, b’golly!’ and ‘Yumpin’ horny toads!’”

Chuckwagon reflected, then said: “So what are we going to do?”

It was a question I had struggled with all week. My plot for the dinner theater mystery “The Abracadabra Cadavers” began with a magician causing his assistant to disappear from a cabinet and instantly reappear across the room. The key to the trick is that the cabinet can conceal the hunkered down assistant while his or her identical twin makes an entrance. The secret of the twins would also be the secret of my mystery: while one twin committed murder, the other established an alibi. And the magician, Razzle Dazzle Basil, never reveals that the twins exist in order to protect his illusion’s secret. Five murders later, the secret is revealed and the twins face the audience together for the first time.

Cast as Basil is the veteran magician Fantastic Fritz Schicklgruber, who recommended two sets of twins—the Svensen brothers and his first choice, the LaFleur sisters. The LaFleurs—young, attractive and college theater arts students—were perfect for the parts except for one detail: they were African American. And everyone agreed—even me begrudgingly—that the only African American characters in our production could not be the murderers of five people. Unfortunately, we next learned that the Svensen brothers were wanted in five states for armed robbery, car theft, narcotics trafficking, forgery, burglary and indecent exposure.

“What we’ll do,” I answered Chuckwagon, “is keep the central plot just as it was through to the discovery of the twins. The LaFleurs will appear to be the murderers until our detective reveals they were framed.”

Chuckwagon reflected again, then said, “Sounds anticlimactic . . . I mean, the twins are fingered and everybody goes, ‘Wow!’ Then the audience is told, ‘Never mind.’ And who would—who could—frame the twins? It can’t be just one character. He or she would need phony alibis for five murders. Accomplices, on the other hand, will make the anticlimax more complicated. Definitely not good at the end of a dinner theater when half your audience is stinko.”

“Ah, but the murderer will be one person!” I said. “He won’t need alibis because no one will think he needs one. He’ll be someone everyone in the audience knows but no one notices—the maître d!”

“You mean a restaurant employee?”

“No, one of our people. But he will play a restaurant employee—and play it straight. He’ll greet and coordinate the seating of all the customers coming in. He’ll be seen giving directions to the waiters. He’ll ask each table if they’re enjoying their meals. He could even uncork and serve the wine at three or four tables. But he’ll have no contact with the cast. Not until the final scene when he is accused and arrested.”

“That should pop!” Chuckwagon enthused. His voice turned thoughtful: “But only if the actor is convincing. I’ll need to cast someone with restaurant experience.”

“Give the part to Vernon.”

“Vernon? Really? But isn’t he playing—”

“Vernon’s character is expendable. I made him the murderer of one person to divert attention from the twins. The maître d changes everything. Plus Vernon didn’t much care to be a funeral director cast as a funeral director. It occurred to me that funeral directors and maître ds share many skill sets. Of course, we won’t tell Vernon that. We’ll say this is a challenging role and he’s the only one among us who can stretch to make it believable. Everyone knows Vernon can’t stretch because he can’t act. Which gives us a funeral director playing a maître d—a pretty good fit, I think.”

June 18, 2020

Lili and Lulu LaFleur were introduced by director/actor Lionel Mason in a Zoom meeting that included me, Chuckwagon and Vernon Plumstead.

“Ladies, you don’t look like the murderers of five people,” Vernon greeted the twins.

Sharing a screen, Lulu and Lili looked at each other, then looked forward bug-eyed.

“Vernon--excuse me!” Lionel said. “Their characters won’t murder anyone. Nor will yours. There’s been a change in the plot.”

I said: “Vernon, I’m eliminating your funeral director character altogether. And his victim.”

“What a pity!” Vernon said wistfully.

“I thought you didn’t like being type cast as a funeral director,” Lionel said.

“I reconsidered,” Lionel snapped looking down his nose at his screen. “I deemed the role an opportunity to change people’s perceptions of my profession. I could give them an inside look at a funeral director and impress upon them that we are not ghouls, but rather people persons with a great appreciation of life. It takes a big heart to deal with the grieving—a devotion to serving the living when they are at their most fragile.”

“Jeez Louise, Vernon!” Chuckwagon said. “Your character kills an elderly woman with an ice pick!”

Vernon scratched his forehead below the hairline of his toupee. “Mm . . .there was that . . . But doesn’t she deserve it?”

“Gawd, what were you-all gonna have us do?” the twin on the left drawled in a Texas accent. “Fritz said nothin’ about our killin’ people.”

“Who’s killed and how will have nothing to do with you and your sister,” I said. I described the new central plot, then said: “I thought—and Lionel and Chuckwagon agreed—that having twins as the murderers might be predicted by too many in the audience. This ending gives us a twist no one should expect—assuming whoever plays the maître d gives a stellar performance.”

“You’re right about people figurin’ things out,” said the twin on the right. “We did your illusion with Fritz last summer and let me tell you, magic fans love to figure tricks out.”

“Blabbermouths,” said the other twin, “will be sayin’ there are two of us as soon as the trick is over.”

“Great! Let them!” I said.

Lionel now announced that we were booked for Saturday, September 12 and 19 at the banquet room of the Roaring Bear Indian Casino, and for September 26 at the Amador Hotel/Winery. We could rehearse scenes via Zoom, he said, but blocking required that our first face-to-face rehearsal occur within a month. Don’t be surprised, he added, if this timeline shortens because the pandemic dissipates, and we book earlier dates.”  

I said: “I suppose you’ll need a completed script sometime mid-July?”

“Is that a problem?” he asked.

“Not really.”

“Unless you can’t cast your maître d,” Vernon sneered.

Lionel leaned forward smiling. ”About that Vernon . . . We were thinking of casting you in the part.”

Vernon grimaced and jerked his head back as if confronted by the foul air of a bathroom.

“Vernon, I can’t think of anyone else with the chops to pull this off!” Lionel said. “The role requires perfecting an image every maître d of a five-star restaurant aspires to—elegance that is both aloof and approachable. I’m thinking Charles Boyer or . . . David Niven! My point is, to gain their cooperation, we need to assure these venues that the person who’ll impersonate their maître is someone of discretion and gravitas. I realize the role will demand coordinating with each venue and I’ll help with that. But only you have the range to transform from David Niven in the final scene to a homicidal maniac.”

Whew! Vernon Plumstead: the next David Niven and Gary Busey? I thought. Not to mention the Roaring Bear banquet room being five-star.

Vernon shrugged his shoulders and said: “It’s a temptation and believe me I’m flattered. But when you said you were eliminating my part, I psychologically closed the door on my participating. These are momentous times for my profession. Those who adapt will prosper greatly. My brother—my partner—and I agree that success we never imagined can be ours if we’re prepared to scale back ceremony and concentrate on delivering virus-infected departed safely and efficiently from hospital morgue to final resting place. Volume and safety over ceremony is our immediate future and meeting the demands of the future will take all the time I can afford.”

Chuckwagon groaned and said: “What are you telling us, Vernon? Are you saying you’ll be up to your ears in stiffs?”

“You can say that if you’re vulgar,” Vernon huffed.

“From everything I hear, Covid 19 will be under control nationally by the end of July,” Lionel said. “Florida, Arizona and Texas are already planning to open by July.”

“That’s true!” said the twin on the left.

“California is even poised to begin lifting restrictions,” Lionel said.

Vernon pointed like Uncle Sam and said: “The cumulative wisdom of my profession says the worst is yet to come. Much worse! We expect the pandemic to ravage the country at least into next year.”

“If it’s a maître d you want,” the twin on the left said, “near all of them are on unemployment now. That also goes for restaurant managers, waiters and bartenders.”

“And most won’t be going back,” the other twin said. "Their restaurants either closed for good or they decided to get out of the restaurant business. There has to be an actor or two in that bunch.”

Justifiably both women could have ended their remarks with “Duh.” Lionel shrugged his shoulders, I shrugged mine and Chuckwagon shrugged his. Vernon continued looking down his nose.

The twin on the right said: “Unless it’s an old guy you want for the part?”

“I beg your pardon!” Vernon snapped.

Lionel sputtered, “No . . .no . . . no!” as if the third “no” started his engine. “What we want is someone believable! That’s everything!” He paused, then said: “With that in mind, let’s take a moment now to say goodbye to Vernon. Since his time is money, I’m sure he’s anxious to leave.”

With that, Vernon’s rectangle disappeared.

Not skipping a beat, Lionel said: “Now, I think the younger the actor is, the better—provided, of course, that he’s believable as the maître d . . . Randy?”

“Huh? . . Yeah, absolutely,” I said. “Back story will require someone at least 30, but other than that, believability is everything. The other characters will refer to this man whom none has met and all assume is dead. There will be clues throughout that fit our maître d. But because he’ll have no interaction with the players, those who do see the similarities will be inclined to believe it’s a mere coincidence. Is he or isn’t he just a restaurant employee? It’s a nice little tension. And no one in the audience can complain that we left them clueless.”

“How about I play the maître d?” Chuckwagon said.

Lionel’s nose twitched. “Frankly, Chuckwagon, you playing the maître d of a five-star restaurant would be playing against type.”

July 2, 2020

Lionel called and asked me to meet him at Eastern Oak Park that afternoon to interview a candidate to play the maître d. Having heard nothing about casting since Vernon was jettisoned, I said:

“I hope this isn’t the first guy you’ve interviewed for the role.”

“Chuckwagon has referred several to me,” Lionel said. “Best among them were a laid off assistant manager at Bob’s Big Boy, a laid off cook at Applebee’s and Rollie Ronk’s uncle. The rest were bartenders.”

“Chuckwagon knows a lot of bartenders,” I said. “You would too if you worked thirty years for the sewer district.”

“The referral today came from Leslie and Ann,” Lionel said. “A Jonas Erikson. Early thirties. Former maître d at a posh Malibu restaurant. Enrolled now in UC Davis’ viticulture department.”

“Wow!”

“If he’s not too good to be true.”

“Meaning what?”

“I’m worried he’s gay.”

“What’s wrong with gay? Gay will work!”

“I’m not worried about the script. I’m worried about asking the venues to let someone obviously gay impersonate their maitre d. Above all, I’m worried about Al Bullard at Roaring Bear Indian Casino. These Indian casino bosses aren’t Native American chieftains. They’re hardboiled Vegas and Reno gaming boys. I wouldn’t ask Bullard even if I thought he might okay it. The sweet deal Rollie negotiated with Roaring Bear—two performances and an option for a third—resulted mainly because Bullard is sweet on Leslie Wood. Believe it or not, Bullard was a big fan of ‘Good Morning Sacramento’ back when Leslie was a co-host. I’m already losing sleep wondering how Bullard will react to the love scene where Leslie French kisses Ann. Add to that a gay maître d and I might end up food for the fishes.”

I met Lionel three hours later in the neighborhood park’s parking lot. We assumed the only male in the park older than ten must be Jonas Erikson. He was. Six-foot-three, lanky, blond, lantern-jawed and blue-eyed, his visage prompted Lionel to mutter, “Too good to be true.”

But if Jonas was gay, he did not show it.

“You’re Scandinavian,” I said after introductions.

“I’m from Sweden (Sveeedn), yes” he said. “Do you see that as a difficulty?”

“If you’re forced to leave the country,” Lionel said.

“Dual citizenship. My mother is native American,” Jonas replied.

I said: “I had wanted someone with a continental accent provided they could deliver dialogue easily understood. Which clearly you can. Your accent is a distinctive characteristic I can use as a clue to your character’s true identity.”

Responding to Jonas’ quizzical look, Lionel suggested that I relate in detail the plot.

This I did whereupon Jonas then schooled us in what the maître d character would need to do to prepare for the role at each venue. This he knew, he said, having worked his way up from a waiter to both maître d and wine steward at Aldo’s in Malibu, the first of two restaurants owned by celebrity chef Aldo di Savola. Jonas’ expertise even extended to tableside niceties such as flambéing Cherries Jubilee.

“Why are you interested in being an actor?” Lionel asked. “You realize your portrayal of a murderer in the final scene will require some skill and effort.”

“Ann and Leslie didn’t tell you?” Jonas said. “I went to L.A. to be an actor. Like most, I scraped by working as a waiter. I landed a few bit parts on TV series and commercials, and was runner-up for a soap. But I succeeded more in the restaurant business. And Aldo was very good to me financially. My ambition now is to eventually own a winery, but yes—I still have a passion and, I like to think, talent for acting.”

Lionel looked pensive for no reason I could imagine other than that he was being his manipulative directorial self. “Well, I think there’s no doubt you’re one of our leading candidates for this role,” he said. “Don’t you think so, Randy?”

With unbridled enthusiasm, I blurted, “Yah, b’ golly!”

“Yah, b’ golly?” Jonas said.

“Yah, b’ golly!” I said.

“What’s a b’ golly?” Jonas asked.

B’ golly is a contraction of by golly,” I said.

“What’s a golly?”

I felt my face redden. “Uh . . . I’m not certain. It could be a Norwegian word. I know that ‘Yah, b’ golly!’ is something frequently said by two Norwegian gangsters—Olaf and Sven Svensen.”

Jonas’ eyes flashed. “The Svensen brothers?”

I nodded.

“The Albino Cannonballs?”

I nodded.

“Yumpin’ horny toads!” Jonas said so loudly that mothers and children paused to stare at us.

Taken aback, I said while being taken, “Yumpin’ horny toads?” to which Jonas replied. “Yah, yumpin’ horny toads!” Lionel’s voice returned me to the moment:

“I’d say that Randy finds you convincing. The part is yours.”

“I still think I’d be better using a French accent,” Jonas said with all the continental accent of a baseball announcer.

“Take that up with him,” Lionel said, gesturing in my direction. “He’s the scriptwriter.”

“What is this?” I said.

“This was an audition,” Lionel said. “A very good one, clearly. Meet Jerry Baker. Much of what he told you is true. He was a waiter at Aldo’s, although not the maître d or wine steward. But a waiter at a five-star restaurant is obviously no ordinary waiter. Oh yeah—he’s not Swedish.”

“Born and raised in Adel, Iowa,” Jerry said.

When our meeting ended, our new cast member departed the park on a bicycle as Lionel and I walked back to our cars.

Lionel said: “Jerry didn’t sound at all like he might be gay, did he?”

“What's your problem, Lionel?” I snapped. “Are you that paranoid about Al Bullard?”

Lionel sighed. “I’m beginning to wonder why I’m doing this.”

“Because you have nothing better to do,” I said.

“You’re probably right . . . He is, you know?”

“He’s what?”

“Gay.”

Copyright © 2020 by Randy Bechtel

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