7, AIDS: The Musical!
My first professional theatrical experience was in something burdened by the unfortunate title AIDS: The Musical!
Like most musicals based on life-threatening viruses, AIDS: The Musical! was a charming little ditty of skits, vignettes, and musical production numbers meant to serve as both public health service and toe-tapping entertainment.
While the show took place at the "Theater Gemini," it was actually not performed in a theater at all, but a makeshift stage set in the back storage room of the Dallas AIDS Resource Center. Each week we would present our theatrical razzle-dazzle to sold-out audiences of thirty tenderhearted souls. Propped up on rickety and wobbly folding wooden chairs which had the nasty habit of snapping and breaking during the most inopportune dramatic moments, the mostly gay and lesbian patrons would sit attentively each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night as we infused top-notch Dallas theater with a heavy dose of thought-provoking messages on tolerance and safe sex. AIDS: The Musical! aimed to be the kind of socio-political theatrical experience the NEA Four would have been proud of.
Propelled by musical numbers with self-explanatory titles such as "Safe Living in Dangerous Times" and "Rimming at the Baths," we were the epitome of cutting-edge, underground, local community theater.
Dallas is not particularly known for it major contributions to the advancement of theater arts. It is not a city like, lets say, Chicago or New York or even San Diego. But one must pay ones dues somewhere and I paid mine on the storage room "stages" of Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.
I had no idea that there even was a theater community in Dallas when I went home after a disastrous two-year jaunt in New York City. The only theater I had experienced in Texas was a family trip to a dinner theater located in a barn in Mesquite, a suburb of Dallas, to see a comedy that was passing through town, Love Letters. There, my parents, my sister, and I feasted not only on the delicious chicken-fried steak afforded us, but also on the brilliant and masterful performance by the star of the show, Bill Daily, who starred in TVs I Dream of Jeannie.
"That Bill Dailey is just as funny now as when he was on Bewitched!" My mother said in the car on our way home. "We should see more theater!"
"Where?" I asked. "We live in Texasnot New York City!"
I was still smarting from my familys trip to New York City when I was twelve. That year, in 1978, my parents and I had the opportunity to see some amazing Broadway showsAnnie, A Chorus Line, and Peter Pan, among others. Instead, my parents insisted we see a not-very-good revival of Oklahoma!
"But were from Texas! I dont want to see Oklahoma! I live in Oklahoma!" I cried as we entered the theater.
My introduction to the Dallas theatrical community began, oddly enough, in a Dallas gay disco called Babys. I have always been amused by the names of gay bars, especially in smaller metropolitan areas: Throckmorton Mining Company, Pieces, Kolorz, The Male Slot, Pink Socks, Trix, BJs, The Big Top, Bottoms Up, The Giggle Pin, Hot Pants, Skid Marx, Beer Goggles, The One Trick Pony, Midnight Marys, Jacks off First, The Chicken Hawk, Twigs and Berries, Old Joes, Grinders, Cherry Harvest, Piccolos, Uptown Lady, Whiskers, Percys, The Chopper, Broncos, The Pacific Rim, Choices, Scandals, Attitudes, Hide and Seek Complex, Options, Persuasions, Insinuations, Tribulations, The White Swallow, Members, Fudgeys, Hunkys, Magnolia Station, The Village Station. (Why so many gay bar names have "station" in them has always perplexed me. As if it were a depot, a train station of gays going to and fro, arms outstretched from railroad-car windows, hankies bidding adieu to the "trix" theyre leaving behind.)
While dancing at Babys to "Venus" by Bananarama, I was in particularly good form that night. I had just gotten a great new short bowl-cut at the mall and was tossing my Dorothy Hamill hairdo on the dance floor. Sporting a blousy midriff white shirt that said CHOOSE LIFE in big WHAM!-esque letters and pajama bottoms with paint strategically flecked on them by the manufacturers, I energetically practiced some newly acquired dance steps I had studied from a Taylor Dayne music video.
After my imaginary audition for Solid Gold, I ran to the bar for my third Cape Cod. I went to Babys for their famous fifty-cent Cape Cod nights on Tuesdays. While ordering my drink and deflecting passes made at me as only a twenty-one-year-old can, something suddenly caught the corner of my eye. Something very familiar.
Upon closer examination I realized that it was a pink ascot. Certainly there couldnt be more than one pink ascot in circulation in Dallas. And I was rightunderneath that ascot was the first openly gay person I had ever metPaco Butte.
Paco had not seen me in several years, not since my facial reconstruction.
"Hi!" I said as I bounced over to him.
Paco looked at me as if I was some groupie fan. He had been recently doing a one-"woman" show at a run-down gay piano bar called "Auntie Mames" where he nightly interpreted a musical repertoire of "People," "Its Raining Men," "Feelings," and several TV theme songs.
"No autographs, please. Im a civilian tonight."
"Its Craig. Craig Chester." I smiled. I had gotten used to those kinds of reactions being that I had had complete maxillofacial reconstruction and looked nothing like my former self.
Pacos own face morphed upon the realization.
"Oh my god! Youre not ugly anymore! Oops. Sorry."
Pacos attitude towards me, like everyones, had completely changed right along with my face. I had grown accustomed to the very people who had been rude and callous when I was deformed suddenly flirting with me and treating me like a prince.
"I have an audition tomorrow! You should come with me!" he said as he looked lustily at my crotch.
"Yeah, for a musicalabout AIDS," Paco said as if giving me top secret insider information.
"Wow, neat! I didnt know they had musicals about AIDS in Dallas!"
Paco and I went to IHOP for a 4 a.m. fix of chocolate-chip pancakes and the next day, extremely hung over, I returned to my hated place of employmenta time-share real-estate company called "Piney Shores."
Piney Shores was basically a bunch of run-down condos on a swamp in the humid woods of East Texas. Every week, our company would mail out letters that would proclaim to the recipient that they had been selected out of the blue for a treasure trove of riches. Having committed no crime other than to have a mailing address, a wave of joy would sweep the recipient into some internal casino fantasy as they read in big, bold letters: "YOUVE WON A NEW CAR! or YOU ARE A WINNER (insert name here)! COME TO PINEY SHORES TO PICK UP YOUR NEW MITSUBISHI TV!" The fine print on the back, however, informed the winner that indeed they had not won a damn thing but would be placed in a "drawing" for their very un-won prizes. But no one ever, ever read the fine print and week after week, these optimists would load up in the pickup truck, some driving six hours each way, to the dumpy Piney Shores where their new car or TV awaited them. Once there, they would be accosted by a high-pressure salesperson trying to get them to sign a time-share contract. When asked where their cars were, or TVs, the seemingly fearless salespeople would hand them a toy car or a photo of a television set as tempers flared and marriages broke up.
My job as a telemarketer was to book the appointments for this scam of an operation. People would often call, hysterical upon receiving notice of their good fortune, like a game-show contestant without the show.
"I won! I won!" they would exclaim into my headset. "Ive never won anything in my life and sweet Jesus, Ive won!"
"Yes, you have, Mrs. Garcia! You are a winner! When would you like to visit Piney Shores to pick up your new car?!"
Knowing that I was consciously sending Mrs. Garcia to a rendezvous with a Matchbox Hot Wheel did bother me, but I was desperate for a paycheck. Daily and I manipulated people into making appointments at Piney Shores so that I could pay my rent and keep the lights on in my ramshackle apartment.
Every once in a while, I would get a call from a disgruntled "winner" who had gone to the resort, been handed a photo of a TV set, and held me personally responsible for lying to them which, as matter of fact, I had.
"I got me a sawed off shotgun! Im gonna come and blow you away!" was a battle cry I became oh-too-familiar with during my telemarketing tenure at Piney Shores. The entire six months I worked at Piney Shores, I was truly shocked that no employee had been killed, both in our downtown Dallas office and especially at the actual resort. How a salesperson cold hand over a toy car to someone that drove five hours to pick up the real thing and not get shot or stabbed is beyond me. Any court in the country would have found it justifiable homicide.
It was common for me to put people on hold so that I could look up information on my computer. Often, I would forgo the HOLD button for my MUTE button so that I could hear the person even though they could not hear me.
During these muted phone calls, I recognized a phenomenon that I had hitherto been unaware of that is sweeping the nation. When I would put a person on MUTE, ninety percent of the people I would be eavesdropping on would mumble, "Whatcha doin?" in baby talk.
"Whatcha doin?," I surmised, is what people at home say to their dog, cat, boyfriend, or baby when they believe that they have been put on hold and cannot be heard.
"Ill have to put you on hold for a moment, Ms. Durken."
"Well, you better get a supervisor cause Ive had it with you people! You have worked my very last nerve and I will not rest until you are all dead and six feet under!"
Then, with one click of the MUTE button, I would hear the evil Ms. Durken drop her ball-busting threats and coo to a nearby dog or baby or who-knew-what.
"Awww. Whatcha doin?"
Even today, I find myself doing this very thing. If a telemarketer sends me into that temporary land of "Please hold," I cannot help myself. I stand there, phone pushed to ear, gazing at my cat and cooing, "Whatcha doin? WHATCHA DOIN! Awwww!"
Id like to say that I quit this immoral and unethical job because my conscience had gotten the best of me, but Im afraid no such moral convictions occurred.
One day, while sipping my usual three oclock coffee, a news crew burst into the telemarketing office. Bright lights attached to cameras and a boom mike swept past the cubicles like a shark looking for a baby seal. My supervisor yelled, threatened the reporter, but the camera crew persisted, eventually winding up in front of me. A microphone was shoved into my face. I was a seal in the headlights.
"Do you coerce people into driving hours and hours by lying about phony prizes?"
Once my eyes had adjusted to the lights, I realized who I was standing before me, holding the microphone. It was Rowena Krokidasthe same newswoman who, during high school, had been a belching and drunken homophobe while my high-school drama department performed at her news departments Christmas party . . .
Reprinted with permission, from CRAIG CHESTERs new book, Why the Long Face? (St. Martins Press, 2003). Aside from writing hysterical memoirs and a screenplay now and then, Craig is an actor who has starred in Swoon, Grief, Frisk, Kiss Me, Guido, and I Shot Andy Warhol. He lives in New York City, where he continues to act.