Troubadours & Tyrants

It’s been my joy, usually, to share the stage or help host a variety of entertainers and they have ranged from the friendly, easygoing guitar pickers to demanding divas to whom I’ve felt like I should bow and scrape when they entered the room. Most have been swell.

The Playhouse on the Square recently hosted a performance by Mark Twain, played wonderfully by Bob Anton of Peoria. Bob’s been doing his Twain show for nearly 40 years and there’s hardly a venue he hasn’t seen. When I asked him if he’d come to Jacksonville to give us a bit of our nation’s most esteemed author, he said, “Sure. Is there a place I can change my shoes?” I assured him that although the backstage area at the Playhouse is small, there was plenty of comfortable seating, but I had to ask … a place to change your shoes? Bob told me that since he performs in the full, white-suited Mark Twain regalia that he needs a place to change into his costume. “There’s this one place I perform,” he said, “where I’ve got to sit on a toilet stool to change my shoes. I’m getting too old to bend down and do that.” That’s all the guy wanted … a place to sit down. Easily done.

On the other end of the temperament spectrum stands a lady I’ll call Ginny. Ginny is also a historical interpreter, as her Mary Todd Lincoln has taken her all over the country. Perhaps it’s because she’s spent too many years playing a character who’s sanity was questioned, but in my life I’ve never seen an actress who in actuality was so much like the character she portrayed. Abraham Lincoln’s wife was famous for driving the White House servants crazy with her demands that everything be just perfect. Ginny is cut from the same cloth. In a recent performance, she asked that her table be 29 inches high. Not 28, not 30. “I’m not tall,” she said, “so I need a 29-inch table.” I was lucky to simply find a period table that someone would loan for her show, so I brought that. “It seems tall,” she said. “It’s the lighting,” I responded. Fortunately she didn’t have a tape measure with her and the show went on, tall table and all. We once performed together at Grant’s Homestead in St. Louis and before she went onstage Ginny said, “You need to go out and move some of the audience.” Do what? “It’s crowded in the back and there are three empty seats in the front row. Go ask some people to move.” I told her I’d check into it then did nothing. I don’t dote on divas.

I have a friend who used to work at the Convention Center in Springfield. She told me that it was her job to host the various performers and fulfill the needs stipulated in their contracts. A few years ago, the venue hosted the Cirque du Soleil show and among the things specified in their contracts were bottled water at room temperature, fresh fruit to be delivered at exactly 3 p.m., a variety of cheeses and non-lactose crackers, an exact temperature of 68 degrees in the dressing rooms and that Lysol could not be used in the building during the 24-hour period prior to their arrival. She said that she was able to make them happy on everything but the room temperature. “It was zero degrees outside and they kept opening the door,” she said.

But thankfully the overwhelming majority of performers have been less demanding. I think particularly of two of the Midwest’s finest singer-songwriters, my friends Barry Cloyd and Chris Vallilo. Both of these guys are not only good, but they’ve been good for a long, managing to carve out careers in entertainment while both being based in Central Illinois … a good trick. I’ve seen both of these fellows perform in venues that would drive less-steeled entertainers right up the wall … hot courthouse lawns in hundred-degree heat, smoky barrooms where getting out alive was the object of the evening, comatose audiences whose blinking pacemakers were the only sign of life, rowdy elementary school assemblies and on moving boats during high winds. Of course most of their audiences are appreciative since these guys are the best at what they do, but both approach each gig with a smile and shrug that I’ve never been able to muster when things seem out of whack. I saw them perform together one night at Dixon Mounds Museum when the lights went out. They both grinned and turned the evening into an all-acoustic delight.

The early troubadours would travel the countryside, find a suitable platform, get out their lutes and lyres and have at it. Their incentive was simple: if they didn’t perform well, the king would have them killed … and they didn’t ask for lactose-free crackers.

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