"The Abracadabra Cadavers"
Blog of the Gray Geezer
"The Abracadabra Cadavers"

Even though I am classified as “high risk,” for me the coronavirus pandemic could not have come at a more convenient time. Just weeks before social distancing became the thing to do, I was being ostracized by many of the people I thought I knew.The reasons why I have already described and see no reason to repeat here other than to stress none were my fault. The one happy note at the time was that I remained part of a troupe of dinner mystery theater actors which survived even though its first and only performance in December incited audience members to riot. A riot, by the way, that was no fault of my own.

Called the Vannucchi Players before the riot, the post-riot troupe dropped Vannucchi and his name, then recast itself as The Whodunit Dinner Theater Company. This moniker was later changed to the Blade Hathaway Players, not that any of us is named Blade Hathaway, but because the name was thought to have theatrical flair with a pacifistic undertone. What’s more, should any future performance incite a riot, everyone in the troupe could answer “No!” if the police or news media asked, “Are you Blade Hathaway?”

At a troupe meeting just before the pandemic, I was charged with authoring an original dinner mystery theater script. My only qualification for this job was that I had rewritten parts of our first script. Still, I thought I could succeed if my script was an homage to the mystery writer Raymond Chandler. Homage I defined in the Hollywood sense, namely that I would steal Chandler’s ideas and, should anyone notice, explain, “It’s an homage!” Of course, dinner theater requires multiple murders, so my homage to Chandler would be homages to several of his novels. However, I did envision characters less hardboiled and more humorous than Chandler’s—a sort of “The Big Sleep” meets “A Shot in the Dark.” This mix would be conveyed by my title: “The Big Snooze.”  

Sad to say, I rejected this idea following the epiphany that subconsciously I had liked the title because it could serve as a disclaimer to the audience not to expect too much. Truth be told, before our first performance was interrupted by a riot, its entertainment value had rated a half star less than a Japanese monster movie starring Nick Adams.

Worse yet, I found I lacked the time to read multiple Raymond Chandler novels. And reading plot summaries in Wikipedia was, even for a plagiarist, uninspiring. (Which I should have known having received a C- 48 years ago for a college paper on Jane Eyre that was based solely on CliffsNotes.)  Unfortunately, I had advised members of the troupe to postpone recruiting more actors until I delivered a plot outline. My thinking, applauded by all, was that the troupe could then decide who wanted to play what, after which it could recruit actors who fit the unfilled roles. And knowing who was playing what would make my writing dialogue for the characters much easier.

Luckily (if that’s the word) my deadline was postponed by the pandemic. Director/actor Lionel Mason sent an email canceling our meeting at his home, but said he would arrange an online meeting via Zoom the following week. Lionel added that he was actually optimistic about our future. Although the pandemic had “stalled” our effort to find dinner theater venues, restaurants and banquet rooms were expressing interest in eventually engaging us as a way of resuscitating business after the pandemic.

Replying to Lionel’s email, Rollie Ronk reminded us that his uncle’s Filipino restaurant, I Shall Return, would be pleased to be our venue. This was not the first time Rollie had made this offer and last January Lionel visited I Shall Return to survey its layout. Lionel later told me the restaurant was “a diner so small our cast would outnumber the customers. And the only backstage is a cramped kitchen steaming with big metal pots full of soups made with cow bones and Ox tail.” Lionel later confided that, tired of Rollie's lobbying, he hoped the pandemic would spell no return for I Shall Return.

Rollie’s email was followed by one from Debbie Wigley: “I hope, Randy, we will have a plot by our Zoom meeting! Otherwise, what’s the point of our meeting?” 

“Expect an outline by Wednesday,” I emailed back with confidence that came from knowing that if I failed I could claim I had the flu. Still, I was determined to make good and quickly adopted a new plan: binge watch television mysteries and create a plot that was homages to multiple shows. After all, the best television mysteries are usually homages to mystery novels and movies, so what better way to create a script of multiple homages than to make it an homage to homages?

The next day I received an email from Rollie urging me to feel free to include a young woman in my plot because his twin sister Ruthann wanted to join our group. Included in his email was a picture of Ruthann, who looked like Rollie wearing a wig.  

During the next week I received either a telephone call or email from the other troupe members (even Debbie!) saying so-and-so wanted to join our group and touting that person’s acting chops. None of the names registered with me, although listening to their resumes may have influenced my plot. Who knows? What I do know is that on Wednesday I emailed everyone an outline that paid homage to episodes of  “Midsomer Murders,” “Monk,”  “Endeavor,” “Columbo,” “Perry Mason,” “Death in Paradise,” “Poirot,” “Miss Marple” and “Scooby-Doo.” Oh yes—and the movie “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island.”

“Thanks to Randy,” Lionel began our Zoom meeting, “we have a very original plot that should test all our theatrical abilities. Our main purpose today is to decide who will be playing what, and because Debbie will head our effort to find actors for unfilled roles, I’ll turn the meeting over to her. First, though, a quick update on venues. As I may have mentioned, we are attracting interest from venues of every size. However, it’s obvious that Randy’s plot is very robust—five murders and three different murderers. This coupled with social distancing guidelines that will govern the reopening of restaurants leads to the inescapable conclusion that we are restricted to big venues. Which isn’t bad news! Our talks with places like the Delta King and Thunder Valley Casino have been very encouraging. But regrettably we must eliminate smaller venues such as Rollie’s uncle’s restaurant. Given the cast size and social distancing guidelines, I estimate that an audience at I Shall Return would be limited to three people.”

“My uncle plans to expand,” Rollie said.

Lionel nodded and replied: “Really? What a fresh approach for a restaurant during the pandemic. How so?”

“Last Thursday my uncle made an offer on a vacant bowling alley on Madison Avenue,” Rollie said. “I haven’t seen its inside, but I estimate its parking lot will hold 150 cars.”

“Converting a bowling alley into a Filipino restaurant—interesting,” Lionel said. “Well—yes—by all means, keep us informed, Rollie.”

“The one snag is that my uncle may go in a completely different direction,” Rollie said. “He’s been talking about following the dream that brought him to this country as a young man—owning America’s first all-Filipino strip club.”

“Can we move on?” Debbie snapped in a tone that announced she knew and did not appreciate Rollie’s brand of humor.

Rollie gestured as if zipping his mouth.

“Thank you.” Debbie said. “Keep in mind we have only 45 minutes on Zoom—at least 15 of which we needed to round everybody up--so let’s get to it. We’ll try to cast the main characters first beginning with the one where the choice is obvious—the undertaker.”

Vernon Plumstead threw up his hands and groused: “That’s just fine! Look, I moonlight as an actor because performing before an audience is an exhilarating change from my embalming room. I doubt playing myself will deliver the same experience.”

“Playing yourself, Vernon? Are you a murderer?” Debbie said.

Vernon tilted back his head and looked at us down his nose.

Debbie moved on: “We now go from playing to type to a type no one can play. I speak of the super model, Tiffany. The maddening thing is that she is so well woven into the plot. But Randy—after all we went through trying to find a young and beautiful woman for our first program—why did you create a part for another?”

Rollie trumpeted: “Because he knew my sister Ruthann is available to play the role!”

“Ruthann again!” groaned Chuck “Chuckwagon” Wagner. “Rollie, there isn’t a super model alive who is only five feet tall.”

“Five-three!” Rollie snapped.

A discussion ensued between Chuckwagon and Rollie that was similar to one they had during our last meeting in which Rollie proposed Ruthann be cast as a femme fatale. One variation from last time was that Ruthann had grown from 5’2” to 5’3”.

“Boys! Boys!” Molly O’Flynn finally intervened. “May I suggest an alternative?”

The faces of Rollie and Chuckwagon retreated back in their frames. 

Molly said simply: “Leslie Wood.”

Chuckwagon whistled and boomed: “Not the hot blonde who co-hosted ‘Good Morning Sacramento’?”

Lionel enthused: “She’s a game-changer if she’s serious! My God, she’ll give us star power! The venues will lick their chops!”

Debbie said dispassionately: “I thought Wood left town after marrying some Silicon Valley money man?”

“She did—but she’s back—to stay—without him,” Molly said. “I met her at my niece’s. They were sorority sisters.”

“But is she serious about doing this?” Debbie said.

“Oh yes!” Molly gushed. “She’s looking for something fun—out-of-the-box—to do. Doesn’t need to work anymore. I told her all about us. Showed her Randy’s plot. She loved it! Especially the scene where Tiffany tells off her husband Rick. She liked the line: ‘I wish you’d lie to me rather than apologize. If you really loved me you’d know you never have to say you’re sorry.’ Although she did want other lines that will—when telling off Rick—make her character more forceful. Don’t remember exactly her examples. Well, except one: ‘Rick, you’d pimp your own mother if the money was right!’ Of course—she’d had a few glasses of wine by then."

“Randy, I thought you hadn’t written any dialogue yet?” Debbie said.

“Huh?” I said with a blank expression. “Oh, I was just brainstorming with Molly when she called.”

“You know this line about being sorry is from a ‘70s movie?” Lionel said.

“’Love Story!’” Debbie said.

No wonder it had sounded familiar to me! I thought. I replied: “Of course. It’s an homage.”

Everyone nodded.

Debbie broke the silence: “Obviously the part is Leslie’s if the wine wasn’t talking when she said she wanted it. I’d like to get a verbal commitment.”

“Not a problem,” Molly said. “One thing though. Leslie insists that her girlfriend be cast as Lady Bristol.”

“What? But—I was thinking of taking that part,” Debbie said.

Molly shrugged.

Lionel said: “Does her friend have any acting experience?”

“Actually, she does—beginning with college—at Cambridge. She’s appeared in plays—two at Covet Garden—and even had a speaking role in ‘Midsomer Murders’ I streamed it—on Britbox. She’s good.”

“I take it she’s English?” Lionel said.

“Isn’t that good? Isn’t Lady Bristol English?” Molly said.

Debbie smiled resignedly. “I know what Lionel is thinking because I’ve heard him say it. No American actor is believable faking an English accent. Fine. What’s-her-name will be our Lady Bristol. ”

“Her name is Jane Owens,” Molly peeped.

“Moving on . . .” Debbie said huffily. Slowly her clenched lips relaxed into a smug smile. “It would appear we’re on a roll because I’ve found the perfect Detective Horace Smoot.”

Lionel’s spine straightened. He and everyone save Debbie had assumed he would play the detective as he had in our first program.

“My neighbor—Rex Wright—found the pandemic an excellent time to retire from Sac P.D. as a captain of detectives,” Debbie said. “He’s agreed to play Smoot. And yes—I asked about his acting experience. He said he’d never been an actor per se. However, he told me cops act all the time before juries.”

“Tough audiences—juries,” Chuckwagon said.

There was silence except for the click and hiss of Chuckwagon opening a beer can.

“Moving on,” Debbie said. “We come now to the magician.”

Chuckwagon and Rollie spoke up simultaneously.

Chuckwagon then sneered: “When did you ever see a five-four magician?”

Rollie sneered back: “When did you ever see a beer-bellied bald magician?”

Lionel intervened: “Speaking as a director, I can tell you this role requires more than height and hair follicles. The plot’s magic act will be a real grabber, but only if it is performed flawlessly. And creating the illusion that the magician’s assistant disappears in a booth and instantly reappears across the room will require more than identical twins. The trick hinges on convincing the audience the person in the booth has disappeared. Then too, as a suspect, the magician will interact with the audience throughout our program. Knowing sleight of hand will be critical to that interaction. Which is why I talked to a professional magician—the Fantastic Fritz.”

“Did Fritz recommend someone?” I asked.

“Yes. Himself,” Lionel said. “Fritz says his circuit—San Francisco, Reno, Vegas, L.A.—still isn’t booking dates. He’s tired of the road anyway and wants to open a magic shop when coronavirus blows over. This will let him market the shop to magic fans sure to be attracted by our title ‘The Abracadabra Cadavers’ and our promotional flyers. He said the key to pulling off the disappearing trick—when you don’t have stage trap doors, which we won’t have—is a  booth that can create the illusion that someone inside has disappeared. Fritz will supply the booth. It could be he’ll only be with us a few shows—but long enough to where he can teach someone the trick. Of course, then we would have to rent or buy his booth.”

“That’s all fine and good, Lionel,” Debbie said, “except for the small detail of casting twins.”

“Yes, the twins,” Lionel said. “Rosco and Bosco are arguably the most important roles of the program. Now, the plot calls for each brother to commit two murders while his twin establishes an alibi with the audience. But because they are identical, one twin—and Fritz agrees with me on this—one twin should have all the stage time while the other twin need only appear during the magic act and at the finale when it’s revealed that Rosco has a twin brother. Which means Bosco doesn’t need to speak a single line. Now, under these circumstances—”

“No, goddamn it!” a woman’s voice screeched, it’s owner nowhere to be seen.

Lionel cleared his throat and continued slowly: “With a little make-up—wardrobe—wig—elevator shoes—”

Rollie’s head bounced right to the force of a hand slapping its temple. Half a face then appeared in the frame beside his. It’s addition would have equaled 1 ½  Rollies but for its long hair.

 “I’m not going to play a goddamn man!” the half face screeched.

“Ah, you must be Ruthann,” Lionel said conciliatorily. “Now, don’t be hasty here. Listen, this is an opportunity—”

“Shit!” Ruthann hissed as her face rose from the frame. When her torso passed behind Rollie, his head shot forward with the sound of a slap.

Everyone stared at their screens as if mesmerized. That is, everyone except Rollie, who rubbed the back of his head grimacing. What a wonderful murderer Ruthann would have made! I thought.

“Now what?” Debbie said.

“My cousin Ollie and I look a lot alike,” Vernon said.

Silence.

“Here’s my Plan B,” Lionel said. “Fritz knows twins he thinks would and could do the job. It seems many magicians are chummy with twins in case they want to stage a trick like ours. Of course, I can’t attest to either twin’s acting ability. But they clearly have stage experience and they’re young. The thing is, Randy will have to tweak the plot because they’re female.”

“Look out!” Chuckwagon enthused. “Think of the marketing juice! Flyers picturing Leslie in a low-cut mini, Fantastic Fritz in a tux and Fritz’s long-legged assistant in a skimpy tutu!”

A loud bang drew my eyes to Rollie, who had cringed apparently at the sound of a slammed door.

Molly said: “You know, Chuckwagon, sometimes you can be a real ass!”

It was a moment overshadowed by the next.

“Debbie, what’s wrong? Are you all right?” Lionel asked.

Debbie sat slumped forward with her face in her hands. She looked up with a pained expression and said: “The idea tonight was that we would dish out the choice roles to ourselves and throw the scraps to other actors. Instead, we’ve dished out the choice roles to other actors and left the scraps for ourselves.”

People looked sideway, down and up like the cast of “The Brady Bunch.”

Chuckwagon said: “Does this mean we suck as actors?”

On that note our Zoom session ended.

The void created by my blank screen begged Chuckwagon’s question. I could think of three possible answers. Answer A: Yes.  Answer B: The one who sucks is the writer whose script should have been tailored to the actors. C: All of the above. 

The meeting had not been a good one for the original Blade Hathaway Players. What few merits it had could be appreciated only by those of us who are asses.

Copyright © 2020 by Randy Bechtel

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Email Randy Bechtel at rbechtel@rkbechtel.com