There’s a lot to see in Texas. Hell, there ought to be, big as it is. Lot of sizable cities – Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, El Paso, Austin, San Antonio, a bunch of others. I’ve driven this way or that across Texas close to a dozen times now (or maybe it just feels that way), and I’ve been to most of the major cities. You might know this – it’s a bit of doggerel someone once wrote about driving across the state: “The sun is riz, the sun is set, and here I is, in Texas yet.”
But for all of Texas’ considerable charms, the place I think of first is usually Abilene. Abilene? Where in the H-E-double toothpicks is Abilene? Well, if you take I-20 west out of Ft. Worth and drive like a lunatic, you might get there in 2 hours. We rolled into Abilene at a more moderate pace, and we stayed for 3 days.
Let’s back the rig out of Abilene for a moment so I can tell you how I-20 and me got to be so chummy. Some years back, I spent almost 9 months on the road with a touring company of The Wizard of Oz. I played Uncle Henry, the Wizard, and a munchkin. We’ll talk another time about how six-foot-two-inch me was able to convincingly portray a singing and dancing munchkin. For now, let’s just say, “Acting!”
This tour would never have been confused with the Les Miz tour. We had a total company of 13 – ten actors, two musicians, and a stage manager. We drove the vehicles, unpacked the truck, set up the show, ran it, tore it down, repacked the truck, and drove to the next town. 250 shows in 9 months. Do the math.
So a little over halfway through the tour, there we were, rolling into Abilene, and none too happy about it. For you see, we weren’t performing until our final day there, but our booking agent in New York, who was neither a Rhodes Scholar nor a road scholar, had booked our motel in Abilene for those two extra days, rather than sending us to one of those aforementioned big Texas cities where there are actually things to do on one’s days off.
I did what I usually do in such situations – I walked around the town and looked for a local library where I might read the day away. Along the way, I passed the theater where we were to perform. It was an old ex-Vaudeville movie palace that had seen better days, but it was the only theater I saw downtown that could have properly hosted our show. Later in the day, I came to the other major theater – the brand new Civic Center on the edge of town. The marquee read, “TONIGHT – PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.” I stopped in my tracks and began to wonder.
Let’s back up again. At about the same time I was leaving Detroit to begin the Oz tour, my friend David DuChene was leaving on a tour of Phantom. Now at that time, there were various companies doing various versions of that show around the country. The big one was, of course, the Andrew Lloyd Webber version, which was pretty much sticking to cities that were, well, bigger than Abilene. Then there was a version some other guy wrote, which was also touring the country. It was referred to in some circles as the “other Phantom.” Then there was the version that my friend David was in. It had a considerably smaller budget and played in considerably smaller venues than the other two tours. I actually heard it referred to as the “other, other Phantom.” No disrespect to David; when you’re an actor, you go where the work is.
So there I stood, reading the marquee of the Abilene Civic Center. What were the chances, I wondered, that this was David’s tour? It was mid-afternoon at that point, and whoever was doing the show that night had to be in there setting up. I walked in the front door as if I belonged there and figured I’d keep walking until someone stopped me. No one did, and in 2 minutes, I was backstage amidst a clutter of set pieces and props.
I approached a likely-looking stagehand. “Excuse me, is there a David DuChene in your company?”
“Can you tell me where I might find him?”
“He’s probably at the motel right now.”
It wasn’t far, and off I went, exhilarated. Understand, David and I weren’t all that close. But after months on the road, the idea of running into a face from back home in the middle of Abilene (I almost said the middle of nowhere), well, that’s an unexpected treat. But don’tcha know it, I got to the motel and David wasn’t there. I told his roommate who I was and what I was doing there, gave him the phone number for my room, and headed back to my motel.
Well, those 20 minutes it took for me to walk back were mighty eventful. It seems that the Phantom company was having a crisis just then – they were supposed to be getting a new pianist beginning that night and he hadn’t shown up. And that very much constituted a crisis for them, as there was no orchestra – the pianist provided all their instrumentation. Apparently, when I came by and identified myself, they quickly figured out that we had something they needed – a competent accompanist with nothing to do that night. By the time I got back to my motel, they had already hired our keyboard man, Craig, to play for them in that night's performance. He quickly rushed off to the Civic Center and spent a few feverish hours going over the score. Craig played that night to an audience that included the Wizard of Oz cast, which had been comped in. And although it wasn’t much of a show, it was probably the most interesting thing to do in Abilene that evening.
I didn’t actually catch up with David until after the show. We put our respective itineraries side-by-side, and came to realize that this day in Abilene was the only time we were anywhere near one another for the duration of our tours. There was one other oddity. David told me that he’d actually thought of me while eating lunch that day. He’d been sitting in a restaurant downtown, gazing idly out the window, when he saw someone who he thought looked like me. Of course, he immediately put the thought out of his mind, for “what would Chuck be doing here?” I asked him what time that had been and what street he’d been on. Of course it was me he’d seen.
As for the lucky stroke of running into David on that day in that town – surely you’ve heard of the notion that we make our own luck. We do it by putting ourselves Out There, by playing the cards we’re dealt, then looking up our sleeves to see if there are any more in hiding, waiting to be played. Here at my day job, we’d call that the Key Takeaway.
There are a lot more stories I could tell about that tour, but that would have to be one of the strangest, and one of the cleanest!