In the spirit of healthy debate, today's guest blog comes from author, playwright and Stage 32 member Jack Fitzgerland. After seeing the overwhelming response to last week's blog from Shaun O'Banion, How I Got Started, Part 1 and Part 2, Jack was inspired to share with us a different but equally interesting story about how he got his start in the industry and, in the process, takes not only Shaun to task for how he punched his ticket to the promised land, but the community's response to Shaun's story.
Jack is the author of many plays and several screenplays. He is a member of the WGA, West, has written over 30 screenplays and is currently writing his sixth book.
I thank Jack for his contribution to the Stage 32 Blog, and I invite all of you to express your opinions in the Comments section below.
I read all the Stage 32 member comments that Shaun O'banion’s two blogs How I Got Started Part 1 and Part 2 generated and much to my surprise, you’d think they were cheering for a super formula for success. I had the feeling I was reading about the “Irrepressible Ricky” of the Ozzie and Harriet Show of many eons past. At that point in time, we had a “ballsy young lad” whose dreams of success were just one stratagem or ruse away from being the artful dodger who cons his folks out of the car keys or you name it. But now, at this point in time, when How I Got Started appeared on the blog, I was really reading the pitch for a new series called “Shaun Puts One Over On Universal”.
It all reminds me of a friend of mine whose son racked up dozens of parking tickets and who went before a judge once who demanded he turn over his license. The young man had to tell him sheepishly that another judge had already taken his license. Well, you get the picture. What does this guy do today? He’s a cop. Maybe he would like to fascinate us with his life story of “How I became A Policeman” in two parts.
Now enough of beating up on Shaun's approach. My real bone to pick here is with this show business industry of ours, which is such a closed shop. There is no avenue of access readily available to young people of talent. I’ve no doubt that Shaun is talented. He just had no way to get through the front door in show business so he felt forced to use the San Quentin method. AND readers are cheering him. We’ve got the handle and the brush mixed up here. These people are cheering him because he slipped through the bars and they haven’t.
Okay, I can hear you saying: “Who are you to pontificate on all of this?” ANSWER: I am a writer and actor who used the front door—but I come from another era when studios, producers, agents and directors would give you a chance if you had talent. You could write them a letter and with reasonable hope expect to get a message back. At least one in ten in those days would respond with some appreciation of your talent. Today, just try writing a letter to any of these people. It will be returned to you stamped UNREAD AND UNACCEPTED so fast it will make your head spin. So, you start thinking of other ways to circumvent the situation.
Shaun's blogs got me to thinking of my own situation—another of those hundreds of stories floating around about “making it in Hollywood.” I can safely say that my story is quite different from the young producer’s story, which only proves the old expression, “There are many roads to Rome.”
I’m a screenwriter, playwright and novelist and have made my livelihood over the years as a writer. So, how did I make it?
My narrative didn’t begin in Hollywood but in Paris, France. I grew up in Mississippi and knew at an early age that I wanted to write. I had a cousin who was a writer and she told me that before I could actually begin to think of writing, I had to live so I’d have something to write about. What did I know about life from that small town? Human inter-working, yes, but nothing really adventurous.
As soon as I graduated from high school, I went to Mexico City to study Spanish at the University of Mexico. While there I managed to be an extra in some films and I thought I had finally arrived in show business heaven. I soon found out that I wasn’t really in show business. In fact, I was about as marginal as you could get.
I left Mexico and hitchhiked to Los Angeles, thinking I’d scale the walls of Hollywood with a frontal attack. I was in for a shock because I was a nobody and that is the very worst thing you can be in Hollywood.
I decided that if I were going to be a writer, I should go to Paris, France, the place most people considered the writing center of the world. In fact, many consider Paris as the address the writing muse calls home. Certainly many of our literary gods have hung out there.
A group of writers in the early 1920s flocked to Paris and make it the Mecca of writing. Among them were Ernest Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, that other Fitzgerald, F. Scott, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, Kay Boyle and Ford Maddox Ford.The group’s popularity firmly established Paris as the fountain of new thought as far as writing went. The “Lost Generation” authors became god-like for mobs of aspiring writers in the coming years. They ventured to Paris to walk in the footsteps of their writing heroes. I was part of that mob.
In order to keep a roof over my head, I turned to teaching English as a Foreign Language. Even though I was in Paris and searched and searched, I couldn’t find that elusive muse—that is, until I bumped into her quite by accident.
One day as I was killing time between my English classes, I went out strolling. (Paris is such a great strolling city.) I passed a small café-théâtre. I noticed a group of English-speaking people waiting in a line outside. My curiosity got the best of me and I wandered over and asked what was going on. A young British lady with clipboard in hand told me they were auditioning for a play in English to be performed at that very venue. She asked me if I wanted to read and being that I didn’t have anything else planned for the afternoon, I said yes.
I waited, finally read and, after being told to wait around, was informed that I had the part if I wanted it. I found out that the production was a British, avant-garde, three-character one act. It was being mounted by a Canadian lady who thought there might be money to be had presenting English theater in Paris. I accepted to play the role, not realizing that my life was going to change drastically as of that afternoon.
We rehearsed the play and presented it for 5 performances. The drama critic from the International Herald Tribune newspaper came and gave us a tepid review. We had a few people who attended but not enough to convince the Canadian lady that she should continue her endeavors to present English-language theater in Paris.
The young people who ran the café-théâtre were very disappointed, as they had never sold so much wine and beer. The Canadian impresario in the meantime had already split. They asked me if I wanted to put on a play at their café-théâtre. I of course said yes. (In my opinion, saying “yes” is the first law to getting anywhere in the world of show business.)
The café-théâtre people at Le Poteau (meaning “The Pole” because it had one right in the middle of its small stage) were very nice and let me have a free hand at their facility. The only thing that mattered with them was possible booze sales.
I had a one-act I had nurtured for years called Killing Time. I brought it out of retirement and we quickly went into production. This time the play was not avant-garde. The café-théâtre people were happy because they thought we might get larger audiences, hence bigger wine and beer sales.
My play had two-characters. It was a turgid thing about loneliness and sadness. I am of the opinion that most would-be authors are keen on writing solemn material. They believe, like I did at the time, that being ponderous is exactly what will get the muse’s attention.
All seemed to be progressing just fine until the night before we were to open. The leading lady dropped out with absolutely no previous notice. She not only left the show but she left town.
Unthinkable, we thought, but it happened. We were desperate. Trying to find a replacement in one day was impossible. The husband of the young woman playing the other character said he had watched all the rehearsals and could do it in drag if it would save the show. I knew that we would be laughed out of the place if we tried presenting all my turgid dialogue via drag. So, I quickly re-wrote and re-directed the play as a camp piece of ersatz high-drama.
We opened the next night, got a great review and instead of running for just one week as originally planned, we ran for six weeks and made money. A producer of one of the nicest café-théâtres in Paris caught me after a performance one night and asked me if I had a play for him. He had had a cancellation and needed something to fill the spot. The dilemma was that the production had to open in two weeks. In spite of my not having a play, I said yes.
I went home and wondered what I had gotten myself into. That day I had received my cousin’s yearly Christmas newsletter. I read it and all of a sudden thought of using it as the basis for a play. I’d have the lead character tell the audience what happened each month and then the spectators would see what actually took place. Of course the two would be quite different from one another and be quite comical in the process—a far cry from all that turgid and avant-garde stuff.
That night I wrote the first two months. The next day I put a casting notice in the International Herald Tribune and three days later I had finished over half the play and we were deep into rehearsals.
We opened on time in two weeks and the play, News From Freida, became so popular that we had to have two different casts in two different venues.
From that I went on to found the Paris English Theatre where 8 more of my plays had their original productions. I eventually got offered a contract to go to Los Angeles to write a screenplay. My muse in Paris had treated me well. One of my plays at the same time was adapted into a film.
I remained in Los Angeles where I joined the Writers Guild of America, West and went on to work as a writer for hire on more than 30 screenplays. I then moved to where I now live, Palm Springs, California, and I write books. My sixth book, Murder Impossible, will be published next month.
So there you have it. Just one more story on how someone got into show business. I’m sure you have a story of your own—or if not, you’re working on one. Keep plugging. There is an avenue with your name written on it. Don't forget to say, "Yes".
Cheers and best to you.
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