Murderous Rehearsals

Last week’s reminiscence about my experiences with alcoholism and recovery, and the previous week’s discussion of fair-play mysteries, reminded me of an anecdote that marked a real turning point for me, and then something happened this week that persuaded me that I should go ahead and tell it here.

I had my last drink in July of 1986. I didn’t go to a rehab or anything like that — no money, no insurance, barely even a subsistence-level job. But AA meetings were free, and since I was limited to places I could reach on foot (or by bus, if I was feeling extravagant, which was rare) I tended to rotate through the same seven each week, so I got to be a familiar face. I am reliably informed that bets were taken on whether or not I would make it sober, and also whether or not I would even be alive in a year.

I’m not surprised. I wouldn’t have bet on me either. Going cold turkey was a miserable experience. I looked like I’d been shot out of a cannon. Unkempt and twitchy and sweating pure grain alcohol, or at least it felt that way.

But the worst of it was the empty time between my crappy part-time job and the meetings. Quitting booze had opened up eight, ten hours a day that I had no idea what to do with. I went to a lot of meetings but it wasn’t nearly enough to bridge that gap. Sitting home and jittering wasn’t an option…. well, not a good one.

I kept grimly on, though. Sometimes all I had was the determination that I was never going to go through this withdrawal misery again ever, but I hung in. People in meetings would try to cheer me up with platitudes about taking it one day at a time and how God had a plan for everyone, and stuff like that. I’d nod and smile weakly just to be polite, but in my head I was thinking Yeah RIGHT, I’m sure they could make a nice AfterSchool Special out of YOUR story but I’m really BAD, I’m surrounded by WRECKAGE, my life is RUINED and I’ve got no one to blame but ME.

I did meet some cool people in meetings. One of them was Gus, a grizzled and crabby old guy who loudly proclaimed himself to be West Seattle AA’s resident atheist. He’d been through the mill; lost a leg in the car accident that finally bottomed him out. He took a shine to me, probably because I was as surly and snarky as he was.

One night he told me something that I’ve never forgotten. “Kid,” he said, “Everybody has something that’s their thing. And you don’t damage it with drugs and alcohol. It’s still there, waiting for you. Go get it.”

The reason this made such an impression on me, as opposed to all the other hang-in-there lectures I was getting, was twofold. First of all, it was very unlike Gus to be gentle and supportive; his usual forte was mockery and sarcasm. But even more importantly, he demonstrated that it wasn’t just another bumper-sticker platitude, because he did it himself.

For Gus, his thing had been the theatre. And literally three days after he told me that, he got cast in a play up in Edmonds, Rehearsal For Murder. He invited a bunch of us to come see the dress rehearsal, and it was terrific.

It’s a mystery, from the team of Levinson and Link– the creators of Columbo, Murder She Wrote, and a bunch of other stuff. Rehearsal For Murder is hugely popular as a stage play, it’s been done everywhere.

Mostly because the setup is so clever. It takes place IN a theatre and the staging uses the entire space, so the story unfolds all around the audience… and any theatre of most any size will accommodate it. So you don’t have to build anything, the set is already all there. You just need a few chairs.

As such, it’s a staple of community theater groups and high school drama departments.

This was a pretty good production, but I couldn’t get over Gus. He was terrific. Just a small part, Ernie the janitor, but he had a couple of bits that got a big laugh, and he was clearly having a great time.

But apart from all that I was hugely impressed that he was even doing it. The scarred old guy with the wooden leg, after decades of drunken fuckery, had sobered up and gone right back to being a drama geek. It was his thing and he had picked it up like he’d never left.

Well, if the fifty-something one-legged guy could do it… maybe I had a shot.

That same week I picked up a sketch pad for the first time in years, and discovered that I could indeed still draw. In another couple of months I’d leveraged the knowledge I’d retained from my brief and undistinguished time at the Art Institute into a paste-up job at a local printshop. A year or so after that I made my first magazine sale as a writer.

The journey from there to here was long and in no way a straight line, but I am still clean and sober today, thirty-two years later. Moreover, I can say that I am a working artist and writer, and one of the reasons that happened was seeing Gus set the example in Rehearsal for Murder.

Somehow, though, throughout those three decades and change, I managed to miss the fact that Rehearsal For Murder existed as a movie.

It was done for television in 1982 with an amazing cast.

We stumbled across the DVD in a dollar bin a few days ago and I snatched it up so quick I left a smoke trail. Julie had never seen it, and I had forgotten most of it except for the basic setup.

Robert Preston plays writer Alex Dennison, who is convinced his fiancee (Lynn Redgrave) was murdered by a fellow cast member of the play that premiered the night she died. He’s brought everyone back to the same theater on the pretext of rehearsing a new play, but it’s really an elaborate scheme to trap the killer.

The movie opens the action up a little here and there through flashbacks, but by and large it all still takes place in the theater, and it’s very much an ensemble acting vehicle that stands or falls on the strength of the cast.

Preston’s larger-than-life persona carries the thing, but everyone’s good. Patrick Macnee is fun as the aging blowhard leading man, and a young Jeff Goldblum is delightfully reptilian as the ambitious young actor who wants a turn in the spotlight. I have to admit Wallace Rooney isn’t as good as Gus was doing Ernie, though maybe I’m biased.

There are any number of cheap DVD versions of it out there; I have no idea why, unless it’s one of those oddities that fell into the public domain somehow. Anyway, I really recommend it. Especially for those of you out there who are fans of Columbo. It’s Levinson and Link at their sly twisty best. In any case, I’m delighted to have it here in the home library; finding it feels like a rediscovering little piece of my own history somehow.

I haven’t seen Gus in years, but every so often I notice his name in the theater section of the paper showing he’s been cast in a local production of something or other, and it always makes me smile. He’s still hanging in there, doing the thing that’s all his. I guess I am too.

Back next week with something cool.

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  1. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, count me as another Columbo fan who’s never even heard of this, and of course I want to see the movie now. Although, given your description of the way it’s staged when performed in a theater, I’d really like to see a live production as well.

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