Orchestra Pit Memories

William Wayne Weems

2016 by William Wayne Weems

Photo of a school safety patrol badge.
Jon Keller has asked me to share my memories as a Theater Nashville player in the early 1960's at the Belcourt Theater.  There aren't too many.  I was on stage during only one of their productions. Today often called the Belcourt Cinema, at that time the subject building retained many of those antique features also seen in the downtown Lowe's "Vendome" theater (since destroyed by fire). Full stage equipment for live plays could be hidden by a drop-down movie screen at need, a common feature of depression era theaters that had to be able to switch between live "vaudeville" acts and the latest Hollywood offerings....whatever bought in the crowds.

During the referenced period there were only three continuing live theatrical troops in Nashville, Tennessee; the Circle Players in what is now the Bluebird Cafe, Theater Nashville at the Belcourt, and those who mounted surprisingly sophisticated plays targeted toward a pre-teen audience and presented next to the old Children's Museum in the building on the Howard School grounds they still occupy.  There was a real problem for a callow youth like myself who hoped to gain acting experience in the pair of "adult" venues....each had a oversized stable of excellent adult actors who would vie for the few roles available each year.  But on occasion economic necessity dictated Theater Nashville mounting an impressive production of classic material that many teens would be encouraged or even required by their schools to attend....sometimes the student ticket holders were driven to the theater in school buses.  Depending on the play there could be a significant  number of walk-on and minor line parts, and teen audiences would not be put off by teen actors.  I squeezed myself into the oversize cast of a production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth".

The production crew were attempting spectacle, and ready to build to attain it.  As I recall there were permanent audience box seats set in an elevated position on both sides of the wall fanning out from the proscenium arch.  These were covered over by sets; a noble's dining table was on the left, castle battlements on the right...these "wings" were well lit when in use, darkened when eyes were to be  directed elsewhere on stage.  The honest to goodness orchestra pit was neatly boarded over, so that actors could saunter over to and upon the additional stage "wings" without breaking stride.  Yet if any now from prior audiences recall that production of "Macbeth" it will probably be because of the OTHER modification made to the orchestra pit.

The three witches in that play had a sizable paper-mache cauldron on the orchestra pit cover, whose lip could be lowered flush to the stage when not in use.  A large square opening in the orchestra pit cover to their left was invisible to the audience, but the actresses on stage could see two large mattresses covering the concrete floor immediately below it.  While they were doing their routine with the elevated cauldron two small ladies in the pit below below raised hand puppets through the cauldron's open base to represent the witches' visions. Other actors and extras crawled over and crowded around the two slight females, blowing copious amounts of cigarette smoke upward and through the cauldron. The clouds of tobacco smoke looked impressive in the overhead lighting, since the dimmable bulbs that ringed the margin of the orchestra pit had all been removed from their sockets.  In their place were screwed in household fuses whose tops had been broken into so they could be modified and FILLED WITH GUNPOWDER.

After the "witches" had finished their business the switch to the orchestra pit lights were thrown and the darkened auditorium was splashed with a brilliant white flash, followed by a huge rising cloud of smoke. The three actresses dropped feet first through the cutout and onto the waiting mattresses below, while the smokers and puppeteers quickly lowered the cauldron.  When the audience members rubbed the spots from their eyes it seemed to them the "witches" and their gear had simply vanished.  On occasion some without immediate calls would crawl onto the "witches" mattresses, look up through the wide opening in the orchestra pit cover, and enjoy the play from a different perspective. Thereby hangs the remainder of my tale.

The male dressing room was increasingly raucous as the play's run neared its end. The lead actors grew convivial to all the supporting cast, and the banter became especially intense when the opposite sex was under discussion. Our "Macbeth" actor had apparently a great reputation at one time as a ladies man. When a handsome young jock who had a minor role refused to be impressed, our "Macbeth" teased him ruthlessly, pointing out his lack of progress with a tall and beautiful female extra he had apparently been pursuing. Suddenly inspiration struck me, and I announced that that blonde and I would be lying together before the evening was through. Howls of scorn and derision echoed through the room, for I was nearly as homely then as I am today. Our "Macbeth" told me he would watch for my mussed stage makeup after she gave me the back of her hand, and the young jock vowed to turn and bare his ass at curtain call if anything that unlikely should occur. Yet I knew something they apparently did not.

Our blonde beauty had been quietly watching the acting in the more intense scenes from the wings when she was not required on stage, and I suggested to her that a marvelous view of Macbeth's dagger soliloquy could be had from the mattresses used by the "witches", as it lay almost beside the right wing of the "stage" (the "castle rampart").  She had always been put off by the frantic activity in that area, but I assured her this was over for the duration of that performance and I, being a member of the cigarette smoking team, could easily lead the way. So it was that our "Macbeth", in the middle of his histrionics, happened to glance down and see we two lying prone together, gazing up at him.  Due to the central sag of the battered mattresses we were actually touching each other, and I gave our "Macbeth" a little wave.  He all but choked with laughter. He turned and faced the painted castle wall and stood there, his shoulders heaving and tears of mirth coursing down his cheeks. Our "Macbeth" remained in this position long enough to draw a worried buzz from the audience, but when he heard them he turned around and concluded his oration with great power. I doubt my lovely companion ever figured out why such an interruption occurred during a otherwise stellar performance, but I have to say it remains one of my favorite memories of my teen years..

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