Brief Stage Career
Miller October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.
by Dick Miller
a number of years my parents were active in amateur theater
productions, mostly at our church and in the local community center
dramatic group. Mom was the one who liked to be on stage and dad
worked behind the scenes. He designed and built sets, painted, acted
as stage manager, and did just about anything but step out onto the
a result of their involvement, I spent a lot of evenings during
rehearsal time sitting in the back of the theater doing homework,
reading books, and watching what was going on. I sometimes had the
opportunity to help out during performances as a call boy, which
meant running to the dressing rooms from the wings to call the actors
when it was time for them to make their entrances. On one special
occasion, the dramatic group was doing a performance of "Teahouse
of the August Moon," and my job was to tend the goat in a tent
behind the theater until it was time for the goat to make its
appearance. But mostly, I sat in the back and watched.
father was actually pretty creative when it came to set design on a
limited budget. We used to do musical and comedy reviews as
fundraisers for our church every year, and they were very popular and
well attended. There were a lot of talented people in our church who
were willing to strut their stuff, and we hired an old time
vaudevillian director with his long-time pianist accompanist to pull
the show together.
year, for a change of pace, we decided to do a classic melodrama,
complete with shining hero, a heroine named Nell, a dastardly villain
complete with mustache and cape, and the obligatory scene with the
heroine tied to the railroad tracks as a train approached out of the
tunnel. In order to simulate the oncoming train, dad had rented a
large photographic iris whose opening could be adjusted to simulate
the size of the oncoming locomotive’s headlamp. He built a
that looked like tracks leading into a tunnel and mounted the iris at
the far end of the black tunnel, placing a light source behind it.
During the performance, he stood behind the iris, gradually enlarging
it to simulate the oncoming train, simultaneously gradually
increasing the volume of the phonograph recording of locomotive
sounds he had next to him. And, to put the icing on the cake, he blew
smoke from the cigarette he was smoking out the iris opening from
time to time. Now, that's special effects on a budget!
was dad's comfort zone: being behind the scenes, making his
contribution where the audience couldn't see him. But there was one
time when someone persuaded him to do otherwise.
community center dramatic group was doing a production of "Detective
Story." The Oscar-nominated 1951 film starred Kirk Douglas and
William Bendix. Our director needed a number of authoritative-looking
men for roles in the play, and my dad, a 6'1" fireman, filled
the bill. The director cajoled and persuaded dad and finally got him
to take a small but important part as the Lieutenant in charge of the
precinct where the action takes place. Coincidentally, the actor in
the film and my father both had the first name Horace.
an on-stage role didn't keep dad from designing and building sets as
usual. Since his part was fairly small, he didn't have to participate
in many of the rehearsals. My mother didn't have a role in this play,
so I wasn't sitting in the back of the theater during rehearsals as
performance time was drawing near, and dress rehearsals were upon us.
Mom and I were invited. I was warned that this was a mature play, and
that some of the language and situations might be a little too
"grown-up" for my 10-year-old years. I was also reminded
that this was just pretend, and that dad was just doing and saying
what this script said for him to do and say, a concept that I well
and I settled into our seats, the house lights went down, the curtain
was drawn, and the performance began. Everything went smoothly until,
at one point, in a scene with the main detective character (played by
Kirk Douglas in the movie) and my father, the detective said
something about what he heard on the radio. The Lieutenant (played by
my dad) slammed his hand on the desk and roared, "20 years ago I
threw my radio the hell out the window!"
had never seen my father lose his temper!
had never heard my father curse!
guess I had gotten so caught up in the performance that the
distinction between my father and the character he was playing had
recovered fairly quickly, and figured out that that violent, cursing
man on the stage was not really my father. But I suspect he had been
hiding a talent all those years while working behind the scenes.
(Unless you type
line of the message
to send it.)
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