Summer-stock is like joining a temporary cult. You work all day and all night together, and more often than not, everyone is housed together. Twenty-four hours a day with thespians can be overwhelming.
The King and I was the last show of a big summer season and everyone was tired. Two things happened before we even opened the show that would nearly break me.
At the last minute before dress rehearsal, the choreographer added four guys to the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sequence. Their job was holding four sticks to support a canopy. Action took place under the tent they created.
There was no time for the costume shop to build the men matching red satin costumes, so four plain, black ninja costumes were ordered over the telephone and shipped overnight.
My assistant and I opened the box in the costume shop and were quite surprised. The company didn’t send us four plain, black ninja costumes –they sent us four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes. The outfits were Halloween quality. Each came with a hard plastic shell to wear on your back and the trademark Zorro-like red mask. We laughed and laughed and wore them to finish our backstage paper work. Before we left the costume shop for the theater, we carefully put the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Costume in their original packaging for the costume shop manager to ship them back to the company for a refund.
Four black karate GIs were found locally by the costume designer and given to me for dress rehearsal. I tried them on the canopy guys and hung them in their dressing room.
I heard lots of giggling backstage when we finally reached the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sequence in tech/dress rehearsal. Something funny was going on, but I couldn’t tell what.
“Come look. Come look,” one of the King’s wives motioned to me.
I went to the wings and saw the four canopy guys doing The Small House of Uncle Thomas wearing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costumes. Espionage had occurred. Without my knowledge, the sealed box of turtle costumes was smuggled from the costume shop across town to the stage for the first rehearsal onstage.
I thought it was hilarious. The turtles were trying hard not to laugh, but their canopy was shaking. It only took a few minutes before the cast onstage had been infected with the giggles, too.
Harmless fun at the end of a long summer, no?
The door to the backstage area opened violently. It was Debbie, the production manager. She was ordinarily a fun-loving gal. Not tonight. Debbie was pissed.
“Where are those ninja assholes!” she screamed.
Rehearsal completely stopped and the four Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtles were hauled offstage to their execution in the dressing room. They were in serious trouble.
By this time, a whole pack of bloodthirsty folks were investigating the incident backstage: the costume designer, the company manager, the choreographer, the director.
I was pulled aside by the costume designer.
“Did you do this?” she asked with a look on her face like I had killed a puppy.
“No. I packed the turtle costumes up like you asked.”
We were dirty communists at the McCarthy hearings. No one admitted responsibility for ninja night. I was certainly a strong suspect in the case, but never officially charged. I suspected a cutter in the costume shop snuck the evil turtles over to the actors but there was no proof.
Another travesty occurred during dress rehearsal of The King and I. Many of the King of Siam’s wives were played by leading ladies from other musicals we had already done that summer: Cinderella from Into the Woods, Sally Bowles from Cabaret, and Passionella from The Apple Tree among others.
Most of the wives had dark enough hair and just slicked it back into a bun. However, Passionella was a bleached blonde and the costume shop didn’t give her a wig. One of her fellow wives suggested she use black shoe polish to darken her hair to look more Siamese.
“It works great and it will wash right out with shampoo,” she was assured.
The day after first dress of The King and I was not good. Still reeling from the ninja turtle scandal, word spread around the company housing the next morning that the black shoe polish didn’t wash out of Passionella’s bleached blond hair. Her hair had turned green.
“This should never happen to a leading lady,” the producer kept saying to anyone who would listen.
Leading Lady/Wife # 4 was rushed to a salon on the theatre’s dime. By the next evening’s rehearsal, her hair was blonde again and she covered it with a hideous black wig that made her look like a Klingon.
Despite not being a hair person, Passionella’s green hair was blamed on me, too.
“You should have known better,” I was told.
Perhaps I should have. For the rest of the summer, I kept a low profile. But a little bit of personal redemption came my way.
The actor who played Buddha at the end of Act One didn’t show up for an important King and I photo call. Buddha didn’t really do anything except sit high on his pedestal and accept praise. It was just a photo call, not a performance, so the stage manager asked me to stand in.
I was more than happy to put on his gold metallic costume and black eyeliner. I must admit, I got a little heady being praised on a pedestal after all I had been through that summer.
That production of The King and I would be the last summer stock show I would ever work on.
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is the fifth in a series of essays for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.