30 Days, 30 Songs: Day 4 – Forget You

Welcome to my new musical series for 2021, “30 Days, 30 Songs.” Follow me this year as I blatantly steal this Instagram challenge all in the name of good music and good fun. Every other week, I’ll cover one or two or more topics from the list (see here for a refresher), allowing them to percolate over musical memories, nostalgia, and whatever else comes to mind in the moment. And now, gimme a beat boys to free my soul, I wanna get lost in this rock and roll!


Day 4: A song that reminds you of someone you would rather forget about.

That song would be the soundtrack to Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

So clearly I’m cheating by choosing a whole soundtrack. But, hear me out, as it will all make sense.

First off, I should make clear that I have no beef with any of the individual songs that make up this musical. The show itself is amazing, and all its Leiber & Stoller songs are top-notch. If you like live theatre and popular music, you really can’t go wrong with a viewing of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. The reason for me including it here is as follows.

In my past life in which I worked as a theatre costumer, Smokey Joe’s Cafe was the last show I worked on before I stepped into a different life, and it was hands-down the worst experience of my entire theatre-related career, thanks in part to not one but two actors in the show. What sucks even further is that of the cast, I really only remember those two terrible people …along with another actor who was also made miserable by one of those two terrible people. I couldn’t pick the rest of the cast out of an identified line-up. Granted, this was many years ago, but still, the fact that any mention of this show only brings to mid two awful people instead of the rest of the wonderful cast just burns. These two awful people would probably also remember the behind-the-scenes events of that show differently, but here’s my story.

In the theatre in which I worked, Smokey Joe’s Cafe was a summer show, and I was on its wardrobe crew with two or three other wardrobe folks. It was an intensive and stressful show for us, one with a large cast that sweated over singing and dancing every night and that required lots of quick changes and actor attention, and tons of costume maintenance. The fact that it was a summer show is key, because the costume shop – the staff who physically made all the show’s costumes – was off during the summer. So those of us in wardrobe were more responsible than usual for fixing costume problems. (i.e. we couldn’t just dash off repairs to someone in the shop.) As it went, each wardrobe person was assigned to different actors – the ones we’d help get ready pre-show, for whom we’d prep and do quick changes, and would (literally, sometime) clean-up after post-show. (I loved the job, but it was a thankless one at times.) When the show was in its beginning throes, I considered myself lucky, because one of the two soon-to-be awful people to whom I was assigned was someone with whom I had worked with on a previous show. And in that show, “Vee,” as I’ll call her, was fantastic. So I was really happy to be working with her in Smokey Joe’s Cafe. The other soon-to-be-awful person, I’ll call him “Dee,” was a new face, and he seemed nice enough at first.

Besides the costume shop being out for the summer, one other key point in this story is about Vee. When I first worked with her, it was in on ensemble musical, similar to that of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, only smaller and less rigorous. All the cast members had equal billing. In Smokey Joe’s Cafe, she was cast as the headliner. The star, if you will. And it came to be that everything in her world had to perfect.

[sigh]

The initial couple weeks of the show were okay, as I remember. Because I knew Vee, we got along pretty well. With Dee, our relationship was strictly that of actor and dresser, and that was fine, too. I can’t recall just how long the show ran, but it was long enough for everything and everyone to become strained. For one, and I almost hate to say it, but Vee developed an ego the size of her dressing room. Whatever you want to called “diva mode,” she eventually entered it, and it made life on the show difficult for me and at least a few other people around her, including the actor with whom she shared a dressing room. She started fussing over e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, especially her opening-scene dress. It was a lovely dress in red-sequined fabric with an invisible zipper up the back that had been made specially for her. The problem was that the sequins would always get stuck in that goddamn zipper. Not to get technical, but if you know seamstress-ing, you may know that invisible zippers give awesome final results but are hell to manage.

The turning point in my relationship with Vee came one evening when I was helping Vee pre-show with that dress. She had it on, and I went to pull up the zipper, and then…

RIIIIIIIIPPPPPP

I completely froze, and she asked, calmly, to her credit, what had happened. I told her only that the zipper had ripped. (Which it did, but it had also taken a small chunk of the dress with it.) And I remember clear as day as tears wells up in my eyes looking at her face in the mirror in front us as she quietly uttered “well, you had better fix it.” In that very moment, with the way she looked at me and the way I felt, I knew that the rest of the run of the show with Vee was going to be bad.

I did fix the zipper and the dress to the best of my ability that night, and the show went on as it did, but I knew the fix wasn’t going to last. (Zippers are my sewing nemesis.) I was dying to bring the dress to its original sewer, but with no costume shop folks, I was on my own. Only…not really.

As I said, there were several wardrobe people on the show (I think that show broke all of us in different ways), including my awesome talented wardrobe manager. With Vee putting up a constant stink about that goddamn dress and my seeming inability to fix it properly, one night my wardrobe manager took the dress home and put in a big ol’ almost-industrial zipper in it. Like literally, the kind you might see on a canvas bag or parka. It was hilarious. But did it work? You bet your ass it did, and Vee finished the damn show with that beautiful red-sequined dress and its ugly ol’ zipper. Thank god.

After the zipper incident, things between Vee and I became icy at best. There were so many other problems in the air with the show generally that we all just eventually accepted the backstage tension as “normal.” That actor with whom Vee had shared a room eventually requested to be moved. Interestingly, Vee actually became a little nicer after that, but it may only have been because she could then bad-mouth the show in peace. (Well, with me in the room, at times, but at that point, was was just a meaningless and inept dresser.)

At the end of a show’s run, it’s customary, but not totally expected, that actors give their dressers some sort of tip, small gift, or token of appreciation. At the end of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Vee gave me nothing. I don’t even think we said formal goodbyes. Good fucking riddance, as far as I was concerned.

And what of Cee, you may be wondering? Well, his initial niceness wore off into standoffish-ness, and by about the middle of the show’s run, I could tell that he only tolerated me because he had no other choice. I’d love to say that I just didn’t care, but he, and Vee for that matter, brought me to tears more than once, so I guess I did. Unlike Vee, Cee actually did leave me a “tip” at the end of the show: a bunch of pennies. Yeah, totally not kidding. I can still see clearly that pile of pennies on his dressing table. As I stare it it, I mumble “what an asshole,” and I move on with my tasks.

I didn’t take the pennies.

I did, however, move on to a new life outside of theatre. I don’t really like that the negativity of working on Smokey Joe’s Cafe resides as my final memory of my professional theatre career, but I hold no grudges. I would be cordial to Vee and Cee if I met them today, but I’d really rather not think about that.

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