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WALTER, THE SPITTER

22 October 2004

Moon Rattled says,

I'm going to see Martin Short of Ed Grimley, and more recently, Jiminy Glick fame. LIVE tonight! He's here as part of the international comedy festival. The seats are just shy of the stage so I should feel his spit right?

I was immediately transported back many, many years to the now-defunct Old Spaghetti Factory in San Francisco.

The Old Spaghetti Factory was an early home of Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera, now in its 28th season.

Pippin.jpg (22880 bytes)Donald Pippin is a real character.  Very definitely a one of a kind.   He's an immensely talented musician, a painfully shy person, with a wicked sense of humor.  I got to know him very slightly when he was commissioned to write a translation of The Merry Widow for The Lamplighters and was around the theatre a lot during rehearsals.

It was Pippin who de-mystified grand opera by writing his own English translations for the most popular operas (and especially the more obscure ones). 

All the music is there, but the lyrics are in understandable English.  Here's an example from the finale of Cosi fan Tutti:

At last, all contented,
We share our delight.
From a day at odds, tormented,
Full of follies and caprices,
Love at last unites the pieces
Putting former woes to flight.

Sing out, Hosannah!
Be happy, be merry!
And a toast, a joyful toast to those that marry.
Figaro and his Susanna
Let us celebrate tonight.
All in chorus, Let us celebrate tonight!

Pippin explains, "The goal of the translator, as I see it, is not so much to translate as to illuminate, to convey as much as possible with the fewest words: words that are simple but not banal, words that resonate without sounding hollow, that float without sounding inflated, words that somehow get into the bloodstream of the music, words that aim for the heart of the matter.

"How is it done? Alas, I have no answer. I can only compare it to fishing: you hold a line in the water long enough and eventually something bites."

Pippin2.jpg (43114 bytes)People do go to Pocket Opera for the music and the lyrics, but I suspect far more of them go to hear Pippin himself, who stands up between scenes and describes what is going to be going on in the upcoming scene.  His characteristic stooped posture with hands he doesn't quite know what to do with, the way he twitches his lips before speaking, as if he has to rev them up before words will come out, and then this dry, dry wit which pokes fun at the most beloved operas, showing how ludicrous some of the situations are.

Nowadays, the shows are performed on real stages.  They have costumes.  They have the "pocket orchestra," which consists of a six different instruments (lead by our friend Diana Dorman, on clarinet).   They have blocking (movement around the stage).  They memorize their lines.  But in the early days there were no costumes, very little movement, only piano accompaniment (with Pippin at the keyboard), and more often than not at least half the cast was reading out of a libretto when they stood to sing.

And The Old Spaghetti Factory could hardly be called "a real theatre."   People were shuttled past the diners in the dining room in this tiny North Beach Italian restaurant to this dark back room, where they were seated on folding chairs up close to the stage.  (In fact, one of Pippin's biggest laughs came when he was setting the scene for the upcoming production of Cinderella, when he said something to the effect of "Imagine yourself in a dimly lit, shabby room."   Since we were in a dimly lit, shabby room, the whole place burst into laughter.

Many performers from The Lamplighters also performed with Pocket Opera, and many still do.

One of those performers was the imposing basso, Walter Matthes (who died some years ago).

Walter did all the big Gilbert and Sullivan parts.  He was the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance and Pooh Bah in The Mikado and those sorts of roles.    He had a booming voice which filled any theatre.

I think it was at Cinderella where this happened.  We didn't go to a lot of Pocket Opera productions, so it's kind of easy to guess which one we might have been seeing.  If it was Cinderella, Walter would have been playing the father.

It was a thrust stage, which meant that the audience wrapped around the stage itself.   Walt and I were seated in the third row on one side of the stage and so we saw most of the action from the side rather than front on.

That meant that we became aware that every time Walter hit a forceful note, he sent a bit of spittle flying out into the audience.  We could see it glisten as it flew out of his mouth, arched up into the lights and then gradually descended on someone in the audience.  I began to wonder how the people in the front row felt, since there were only inches between the front of the stage and the first row of the audience.  I was thinking that rain gear might have been appropriate attire for this production.

And then the action shifted.  Walter turned to face our side of the audience.   Walt and I were back far enough in the rows that we weren't terribly worried, but a woman in the front row looked horrified, took her program, held it up to her face, hunched her shoulders, and slunk down in her seat.  One of the funniest audience moments I've seen.

I suspect we all went home and washed our clothes that night--just in case.

Later, when we were talking with some of Walter's co-stars from The Lamplighters, we learned that he was known by all of his fellow actors as "Walter, the Spitter."

Maybe that experience with Pocket Opera is one reason why I don't like seeing a show from too close to the stage.  It spoils the illusion for me to see people sweating profusely (if Walter was "the spitter," then Robert Wood was "the sweat-er.")  And I especially don't like knowing that I might be in the line of fire for someone who is known as "the spitter."


Website of the Day

This is such a weird election.  Check out Bush relatives for Kerry.

Please, please, please read this article by a former Republican Senator voting for Kerry.

PHOTO OF THE DAY

WalterMatthes.jpg (78928 bytes)

"Walter, the Spitter"
(photo from The Lamplighters, 25 Years of Gilbert & Sullivan in San Francisco)


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