Smoke--No Fire--Just Hot Air
Randy Bechtel, The Gray Geezer
Smoke—No Fire—Just Hot Air

I for one didn’t think that a troupe of amateur actors could also be a business.  

Although, thinking about it, I do recall Lionel Mason mentioning early on that the Blade Hathaway Players would need legal status to book venues and “insure against another Mongo.”  

“Mongo” referred to Katie “Mongo” Perry, a big-boned female firefighter who was in the audience at the Vannucchi Steakhouse during the only performance of a murder mystery by the Vannucchi Players. The negligence of producers Vinny and Dino Vannucchi caused Mongo to flatten the nose of our leading lady, wrench the neck of our leading lady’s mother, and be KOed by a dinnerplate smashed over said Mongo’s skull by the leading lady’s father. In sum, “insure against another Mongo” meant acquiring liability insurance.

Still, to my mind, the subject of troupe business consisted only of Lionel and Rollie Ronk updating us on venues they had booked. I did think we might actually make money after I learned we would be joined by Leslie Wood, a former local TV personality, and Fantastic Fritz, a popular professional magician. And indeed, shortly afterward Lionel and Rollie booked eleven different venues. But the money to be made, I assumed, would be made by the venues.

I had enough to think about trying to write a script. My greatest challenge was writing dialogue conveying a lesbian relationship between the characters played by Leslie and Ann Putnam. Their love affair would be a red herring motive for Leslie’s character murdering her husband. It would be suggested by coquettish exchanges between Leslie and Ann, then be made explicit by a love scene in which the two women finally French kiss. (This, by the way, was not my idea, but that of the two cohabitating actresses.)

My coquettish dialogue would be an homage to Hallmark Channel romances. Yes, these romances are between men and women, but their dialogues are so skewed to the feminine psyche that they seemed to translate well to lesbians. Because both women wanted “hot” dialogue for their love scene, I gave them an homage to the 1964 pornographic novel Flesh Hips. This paperback was among odds and ends (emphasis on odd) bequeathed to me in a shoebox by my Uncle Perry, who died two years ago from dementia. Leslie and Ann were mostly content with my Hallmark dialogue but thought the Flesh Hips dialogue needed dialing down.

I finished the script in mid-July and Lionel promptly scheduled two Zoom sessions for rehearsals. Although I doubted the pandemic resurgence would allow us to perform before audiences that fall, neither I nor anyone else in the troupe broached this possibility. We were all, you see, so desperate for something to do.

July 25, 2020

The day after the second Zoom rehearsal Lionel phoned me.

“Time we blocked this thing,” he said. “I’m scheduling a real rehearsal for 9 a.m. on Saturday. At Mira Loma High School’s soccer field.”

“For everyone?” I said.

“We’ll social distance and wear masks. But look, if you want to pass, I’ll understand. Molly thought it was too risky and she’s dropped out.”

“For good?”

“People are either in or out. I need to know now so we can recruit replacements.”

“I seriously doubt—no, I don’t even doubt. Lionel, I know performing our program anytime in September will be illegal. So what’s the rush?”

“Illegal under state and local law.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So the Roaring Bear Indian Casino isn’t subject to state and local law. Indian sovereignty, they call it. We open September 12. What’s more, the casino boss—"

“Wise guy Al Bullard!”

“Don’t laugh. Las Vegas owns the place. You know what they give the Indian tribe in exchange? Health insurance. That’s it. What Bullard wants, Bullard gets. And Bullard wants us. In fact, Ronk just called and told me Bullard is exercising his option for a third performance.”

“I take it he’s still not aware of Leslie and Ann’s big scene.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“Okay. So what happens if we renege?”

“Ronk says Bullard will sue in federal court. Apparently he loves suing people.”

“Sue whom? Blade Hathaway?”

“Sue The Blade Hathaway Players, LLP.”

“LLP as in Limited liability partnership? Just who are the partners?”

“Ronk and I. We needed to do it to contract with venues and buy insurance. The point is, Ronk and I are on the hook. But look, I’ll understand if you want to drop out. ”

I was no actor nor wanted to be. My character delivered four lines before he was murdered.

I said: “Yeah, I think I’ll pass.”

“I thought you might,” Lionel said. “Now, about your script. In exchange for the rights, how about we pay you $50 a performance?”

“Real money?”

“Of course.”

“Are the actors being paid?”

“No. But we’ll feel better about legally owning the rights to the script. That takes a contract, and a contract takes consideration.”

I may have been wrong. I probably was. But I thought: Even though I would not be a partner in The Blade Hathaway Players, LLP, the fact that I profited from the production could make me co-liable in a civil lawsuit should a performance result in a fiasco similar to the one that befell the Vannucchi Players. And unlike The Blade Hathaway Players, LLP partners, I would not be covered by Mongo insurance.

I said: “I don’t want to be the only one paid. How’s this:  I’ll sign over the rights in exchange for being billed as the script’s author?”

“You would have gotten that anyway.”

“Yeah, but who could prove it?”

August 16, 2020

An angry Chuck “Chuckwagon” Wagner called.

“I was fired!” he said.

Confused because Chuckwagon was a retiree, I said, “From what?”

“As casting director. By Ronk. Did you know he’s part owner of Blade Hathaway?”

“I didn’t know until Lionel told me the day I quit. It’s hard to believe that Lionel let Ronk do that.”

“Lionel left the group last week. Sold his partnership interest to Leslie Wood. She’s replaced him as director. Rollie Ronk is doing the casting.”

I had to laugh. “Let me guess—Ronk's sister Ruthann will play Molly’s part.”

“No! She took Lionel’s part! Jesus H. Christ!—a  Filipino woman who looks 16 and isn’t five feet tall in stilettos playing a Scotland Yard chief inspector! And that’s what she wears—stilettos! Everywhere. Came to a goddamn rehearsal at a soccer field wearing goddamn stilettos! ‘Oh, stilettos are her trademark,’ Rollie said. Jesus H. Christ!”

I let Chuckwagon huff and puff before asking: “Who did Rollie get for Molly’s part?”

“His cousin Esmeralda. And your part went to Ronk’s great uncle. That spelled adios muchachos for me. I quit yesterday and you know what Ronk said? His older brother Rudy would be perfect for my part.”

“Leslie Wood had no problem with that?”

“Not after Rollie cast the second and third victims with Leslie’s friends—Sapphire and Huggy Bear. That’s what they call themselves and jeez Louise, their names fit them to a T. I warned Ronk. I said: ‘You know what Lionel would say: ‘When people think detective murder mystery, they don’t think Filipinos and LGBT.”

I let that pass. I said: “So which one is playing the Episcopal bishop—Sapphire or Huggy Bear?”

“Huggy Bear, although his part has been changed to some kind of mystic. That’s another thing. There’s been beaucoup revisions to your script by about everybody—even Ronk’s great uncle. But don’t worry. You’ll get full credit. And your mystery plot hasn’t changed. They love that—especially with the addition of Jerry Baker to the cast. But there’s been a lot of changes to some characters and dialogue. To explain all the damn Filipino actors, Ronk wanted to change the setting from an English resort to a Philippines cruise. But then he found out Roaring Bear had already promoted the English setting on its website and in printed programs. And hell, who wants to go on a Philippines cruise anyway?  Besides Douglas MacArthur?”

“I’m sure there are popular cruises to the Philippines,” I said.

Ignoring this, Chuckwagon said: “Of all the changes, my favorite is what Leslie and Ann did to their dialogue. During the soccer field rehearsal they decided the dialogue leading to their love scene was too fluffy. So they spiced it up. Then they decided the love scene they rewrote was too tame. So they’re going with the original scene you wrote. It still blows my mind thinking you wrote that. Jesus H., how did you come up with that stuff?”

I heaved a sigh. “It wasn’t easy.”

September 13, 2020

An early riser, my wife awoke me at 9 a.m. by turning on our bedroom television.

“Your mystery theater people are in the news—again!” she said sternly.


“Just watch,” she said.

Following a series of commercials, KPBM news anchor Wanita Wong appeared and said: “The FBI, CHP and local police are coordinating a massive manhunt following a failed attempt last night to arrest the alleged mastermind behind a criminal gang that included the notorious Svensen brothers. The man, Fritz Schicklgruber, is a former Reno, Nevada resident now residing in Sacramento who is known throughout the West Coast as the professional magician Fantastic Fritz. The gang that Schicklgruber allegedly headed smuggled and trafficked narcotics and, beginning with the pandemic, hijacked and trafficked toilet paper. We take you now live to reporter Sharon Gillespie, who is awaiting a news conference on the manhunt at the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office.”

(Shot of Sharon wearing a mask as she stands in a hallway outside large open double doors.)

Sharon: “What we know so far, Wanda, is that while negotiating a plea deal, Olaf and Sven Svensen named Fritz Schicklgruber as the head of their criminal organization. Police then learned that Schicklgruber was appearing in a dinner theater murder mystery at the Roaring Bear Indian Casino near Rocklin. Held in the casino’s banquet room, the dinner theater attracted more than 200 people and was made possible by Indian casino sovereignty exempting it from state pandemic restrictions. That same sovereignty required an arrest at the casino be made by federal authorities—namely the FBI.”

(Shot of the casino exterior the night before.)

Sharon’s voice-over: “Fritz Schicklgruber, known as the magician Fantastic Fritz, appeared here as part of a mystery theater cast that was headlined by former KROA TV personality Leslie Wood. Schicklgruber’s botched arrest was the last—but certainly not the first nor, for some, not the least—surprise the audience experienced during this debut performance.”

(Shot of a middle-aged couple introduced by Sharon as Ollie and Mona Bulbhead of Roseville, who had been in the dinner theater audience.)

Sharon: “What happened tonight?”

Mona: “You go to what you think will be a wholesome murder mystery only to be shocked! Just shocked!” 

Sharon: “Were you frightened for your safety?”

Mona: “Frightened? No. Disgusted! Leslie Wood, someone you thought was a sweetie, talks sailor-mouthed to some English minx, then the two of them grope and paw each other until . . . Well! , , ,”

Ollie: “They locked lips and tongue wrestled. For a good thirty seconds!”

Mona: “I said: ‘Ollie, this is no place for us!’ Then a gray-haired man stormed up to the women telling them to skedaddle and acting like he’d drag them off if they didn’t. But they ran off. I thought at first the man was someone out of the audience, but then Razzle Dazzle Basil rushed up and seemed to know him.”

Sharon: “Basil being the character played by Schicklgruber—that is, by Fantastic Fritz.”

Ollie: “Basil was wearing this loose silk robe and a pointed dunce hat.” 

Mona: “The robe was dark purple silk with gold half-moons and silver stars.”

Ollie: “So was Basil’s dunce hat.”  

Mona: “Cone hat, Ollie. All dunce hats are cone hats, but not all cone hats are dunce hats. This was a cone hat.”

Ollie: “Anyways, Basil calmed down the gray-haired fella and finally asked him to pick a card. That’s when these other fellas came rushing in, the first holding up his ID and yelling, ‘FBI!’ Well, Basil twirled around—”

Sharon: “Fritz Schicklgruber twirled around.”

Ollie: “Right. He twirled around and then there was this pop and suddenly he and the gray-haired fella were covered by purple smoke.”

Mona: “Just like the witch in the ‘Wizard of Oz!’”

Ollie: “Well, the FBI boys stood there—”

Mona: “Probably gawking like the rest of us.” 

Ollie: “Then they rushed into the smoke. The smoke reached us just then and by gosh we’re up like everyone else trying to beat feet out.”

Mona: “The forest fire smoke outside wasn’t as bad as that purple muck.”

Ollie: “I did look back and from what I could see the FBI had Basil flat on his belly and were handcuffing him. But everyone was going crazy trying to get out of the smoke. Luckily for a few of us, this waiter led the way to another exit.”

(Shot of Sharon in front of the Roaring Bear Indian Casino.)

Sharon: “FBI agents would discover that the man they had handcuffed in the purple robe was incredibly not Fritz Schicklgruber, but the gray-haired man later identified as casino manager Al Bullard. In a flash, Fantastic Fritz had vanished.”

(Shot of a lectern with the seal of Sacramento County on the wall behind it.)

Sharon (voice subdued): “We’re back now live at the Sacramento County District Attorneys office where the District Attorney is about to begin a news conference on the manhunt for Fritz Schicklgruber.”

As Sharon spoke, the District Attorney walked to the lectern followed at a social distance by a man whom the D.A. would identify as FBI Special Agent Roy Carpenter. The D.A. removed her mask and related how plea bargaining induced the Svensen brothers to name Fritz Schicklgruber as their criminal organization’s leader.

D.A.: “We’re learning daily that the activities of the Schicklgruber Gang were far more extensive than first thought. These activities included felonies which brought about the arrest of the Svensen brothers, specifically the smuggling and trafficking of narcotics, as well as the hijacking and trafficking of toilet paper. We now know the gang was also involved in human trafficking, Internet fraud, money laundering and pornography. At present pornography appears to be their only legitimate enterprise, although we are now checking films to identify any women in the FBI’s data bank of missing persons who may have been victims of human trafficking.”

Reporter 1: “Weren’t the Svensen brothers once arrested for child pornography?”

D.A. “Those charges were dropped by L.A. County when it was determined that Olaf and Sven Svensen, men quite diminutive in stature, played the film’s minors.”

Reporter 2: “Wasn’t that film ‘Preschoolers Play Hide the Weanie’?”

D.A.: “Next question!”

The next question dealt with the FBI botching Schicklgruber’s arrest. The D.A. traded places with Carpenter, who removed his mask and first touched on current efforts to apprehend Fritz Schicklgruber before turning to the subject of the botched arrest.

Carpenter: “. . . The magician’s gown which Schicklgruber wore appeared to be one-piece but was actually a quick-change prop with a Velcro seam that tore away completely in the back. Mr. Bullard described how, when he was enveloped by smoke, the gown was thrust over his head, then wrapped around him. When he struggled, his arms easily penetrated the broad sleeves, at which point Schicklgruber sealed the back and shoved Bullard forward into charging agents. By the time agents realized their mistake, Schicklgruber had joined the exiting audience—we suspect in the guise of a waiter.”

Reporter 3: “Given the extraordinary gymnastics involved, are you exploring the possibility that Al Bullard was Fantastic Fritz’s accomplice? Also, after interviewing several audience members, most thought it odd that the cast of a mystery set on the English coast would be half Filipino. Ordinarily I’d dismiss ethnic observations, but given that Asia is the source of the gang’s narcotics, are you looking into possible links that cast members may have to the Schicklgruber gang?”

Carpenter deferred to the District Attorney, who replaced him at the lectern.

D.A.: “In light of the  many tentacles of the Schicklgruber gang, everyone—not only those involved with the dinner theater presentation, but everyone who has been associated in recent months with Fritz Schicklgruber—shall be under close scrutiny.”

Reporter 4: “Does that include former TV personality Leslie Wood? You must be aware that audience members complained about a lewd scene which Ms. Woods had with another actress.”

D.A.: “I spoke briefly with Ms. Woods this morning and will do so at length this afternoon. Apparently the uproar involved a scene with rather suggestive language that ended with Ms. Woods kissing a Ms. Ann Putnam. Ms. Wood contends this scene was not obscene, but a love scene in which she and Ms. Putnam would—not only for the audience but for the world at large—come out of the closet. It’s a fair interpretation, I think, that in coming out of the closet, both women unfortunately painted themselves red and climbed a flagpole. On the other hand, a full text of the script is being acquired to gauge not only the appropriateness of the love scene, but whether conduct of the women in subsequent scenes could be considered obscene. That said, no matter how indecent their conduct, the two women would not have been subject to state law because of the casino’s Indian sovereignty. Federal law, on the other hand, does not cover consensual adult entertainment. If Al Bullard, manager of the Roaring Bear Indian Casino, wishes to stage explicit lesbian sexuality as entertainment, he is free to do so. The behavior alleged last night only raises the question, now being investigated, of whether Mr. Bullard, Ms. Wood or any other person involved with the dinner theater was an accessory to pornographic activities of the Schicklgruber gang that benefited from human trafficking.”  ,

Reporter 2: “If the dinner theater was obscene, that obscenity obviously began with the scriptwriter, Mr. Randy Bechtel. The name rang a bell and we have confirmed that Mr. Bechtel was the so-called media guru for the supervisorial campaign of Ted Bundy—a pediatrist not to be confused with the serial killer. You may recall, Madame District Attorney, that Mr. Bundy campaigned last year on the need for Sacramento County to spearhead a movement to colonize Mars.”

D.A.: “We’re very aware of Mr. Bechtel. More important to us is the fact that Mr. Bechtel was the scriptwriter of another dinner theater mystery staged in December. It’s debut performance was interrupted as well by a violent disturbance that resulted in two arrests and three hospitalized.”

Reporter1: “Are you referring to the rampage at the Vannucchi Steakhouse?”

D.A.: “That’s correct. Mr. Bechtel has authored two dinner theater mysteries, both of their debut performances having been interrupted by a police presence and arrests. It’s an unusual—or even a unique—pattern.”

Reporter 3: “And a pattern that would fit the uncredited scriptwriter of ‘Preschoolers Play Hide the Weanie!’”

My wife turned off the television and tossed the remote control on the bed beside me. Casually she said: “I think I’ll go online and check home prices in Nome, Alaska.”

Then both of our cell phones received calls and our doorbell rang.


Copyright © 2020 by Randy Bechtel

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