Of late my blogs have been on the subject of Bearcreek Farms
, and the fond memories I have of performing there in my youth...and even recently. I promised that I'd post some clips of the gang (Buddy Graf, Ken Renner, and myself) from the shows we did "back in the day". Alas, I am a man of my word.
With the help of Brent & Stacey Gardiner (who were in the band back then, and put the VHS video on DVD for me), and David Champe (great friend, who's always there to back me up, and edited the clips from the DVD) I am now able to share some wonderful memories with you.
First, let's look at a couple of routines with Buddy Graf and Ken Renner. Buddy (as you know from my previous entries) is the veteran vaudeville comic, and my mentor in the arena of all things funny. Buddy taught me SO much about comedy and audience interaction, that I can never be thankful enough. Although Buddy passed away in 2000, part of him lives on in every show I perform...he affected me that much.
So, without further ado...Let's go back to the summer of 1989, during the show "Grin 'n Bear It". I give you Rick Delaney, Buddy Graf, and Ken Renner in the classic vaudeville sketch..."Niagara Falls."
Notice the perfect timing executed by the three? That's what makes something silly, funny.
Okay, next let's look at a musical number by Buddy & Ken. This is an original song called "I'm so Lonesome in the Saddle (since my Horse Died)". One thing you need to know...during the black-out between the last act and this one, the audience members feel spritzes of water on their face. When the lights come on, they see these two "cowboys" shooting water pistols over the crowd. Other than that, enjoy the song:
Now...on to something a little more personal, faithful reader...ME!
I had three sets during the 90 minute show. My last one (near the end of the show) was my longest. Here is my version of an old comedy magic trick. FYI...some of the help I'm getting on-stage is by Brent Gardiner (the one jumping off the stage to get the girl) and his wife (although not at the time of this performance) Stacey (who is holding the scarfs for me). Take special notice, too, of the band leader sitting at the keyboards during a few shots. That's "Mr. Magic Fingers" Mark McGee. I'll tell you more about Mark in a bit. For now, enjoy a twenty year old Rusty, loving every second of his job!
Wow! How about that?
I haven't watched this is more than ten years and--I must say--that doing so now makes me giddy. I had SUCH a great time that summer with these wonderful people. It was--as I've said before--like college for me.
I noticed that we used several little techniques there. One, is that Brent went out to get the girl, not me. The truth is...we knew who was going to be the "bra girl" before the show even started. The girl didn't, but we sure did. We, the cast and band, would seat the audience as they entered. The tickets were assigned to specific seats, and we would escort them to their row. Stacey--who at the time was a deaf education major at Ball State) taught us some sign language for the basic colors. She would stand at the back of the house, and take their tickets. The tickets were color coded, and she would then give us the sign for that color, and we immediately knew the section that they needed to go to. It was great.
She also taught us other signs, like "Pretty Girl". When a possible candidate for "The Bra Trick" would enter, she would let us know. We guys (Brent, Kurt, and I) would decide on who to pick. It wasn't just looks...I swear. We would also judge them by how friendly they were when we were seating them. We wanted a girl would would not only look
good on stage, but be
good too. So, the three of us would make our choice, and that's where Brent would go. We decided to use Brent (I think this was Buddy's idea) to take the heat off of me. In the twenty plus years I've done this trick, I've never had a girl get up set. They have always--and I mean ALWAYS--loved the routine, and been great. But, as an added buffer, we let Brent get the girl, so I could be the good guy. I was the one feeling sorry for her. Get it? It worked brilliantly.
Remember I said to pay attention to the man behind the keyboards? That's Mark McGee. Mark was--for years--the musical director for every show at The Good Times Theater at Bearcreek Farms. Although he graduated from Ball State University with a degree in languages (he spoke fluent Spanish, French, Russian, and German I know for sure), he was also a musical genius. He played several instruments, and was a wizard at the keyboards, thus the nick name "Mr. Magic Fingers". Mark was also blessed with an ability called perfect pitch. Now, a lot of people use that term loosely to mean the ability to know if something's in tune. That's not what it means though.
Perfect Pitch is the ability hear a note (or notes) and identify them by name (e.g. A#, B, C). It's estimated that about one in three thousand people have this ability. It can't be learned, only cultivated.
Mark used to do this little trick...he'd turn his back to the piano and someone would walk up and strike ten keys at once. Almost always the sound created was ugly. Mark, however (having the ability to recognize tones as clearly as you and I do color) would name off the ten keys, completely correctly! It was amazing.
He could listen to a song and "see" each note from every instrument. He could immediately tell you in what key it was being played. This made borrowing songs and doing his own arrangements an easier task.
We would also--during some shows--play a little game with Mark. Before the show he would ask someone for their favorite move, musical, band...whatever. Their answer would inspire him for traveling music. Traveling music is what is played by the band as things are moved on stage, especially during black-outs between acts. It's used to fill a little time. Anyway, Mark would integrate music from the choice into these interludes...but so subtlety that--unless you knew what to listen for--you likely never make the connection. I once gave him the challenge to use Gilligan's Island, and his adaptation of the theme was brilliant. He was extraordinary.
Well, I lost touch with Mark around 1994 or so. I knew that he was in Florida playing for a dinner theater in Wildwood. I was in the area performing, and we met up for lunch. Thai food. I remember that he was impressed that I could speak Thai (which I learned from being in so many Thai restaurants). I haven't seen him since.
Flash forward to last Wednesday...one week ago today. As you remember, faithful reader, I was back at Bearcreek Farms doing my bit in another variety show. In the process of catching up with so many familiar faces, Mark's name--of course--came up. I heard, from a few cast members, a disturbing story about him. Mark's mother died about a year ago, and he took it really hard. It seems (this is what I hear) that to cope with her loss he sought comfort in a bottle. Mark was no stranger to alcohol to begin with, but I guess that he really went wild after her death. So much so that--after about three months of solid drinking--he ended up in a hospital for a while.
They told me that he was now living in a nursing home in Anderson, Indiana. I couldn't believe it. I'm in Anderson several times a week. That's where Good's Candy Shop
is where I do close-up almost every weekend. I've been so close to him for so long and not known it. I decided that I was going to find him, and quickly.
So, on Friday of last week (two days after I learned where he was) I initiated my search. I got a couple of hits on the 'net, but the phone numbers were all out of service. I tried throughout Friday and Saturday (thinking that I might be able to see him after my show at Good's), but kept ruining into dead-ends.
I decided that I'd contact the gang at Bearcreek Farms this week to get more info, to complete my quest.
On Tuesday (yesterday) I sent an email to Ken. The subject was inquiring about future shows at Bearcreek Farms, and to get more info on Mark. Not two minutes after I sent it I got a call from Vickie--she was part of last week's show too, and in "Grin 'n Bear It" with me back in 1989. She called to tell me that this Sunday Mark died. I was in shock. How could that be? Only four days after I found out he was in Anderson, and two days after I started my search, he passed away. I was profoundly sad. I learned other things during that conversation with Vickie as well. Apparently Mark was not in Anderson, but--rather--Alexandria (a small town just north of Anderson). That detail alone could have made the difference between me seeing him before he left us. Mark was 54 years old.
The funeral was today.
There was no casket and, thus, no body. I didn't ask why, but I know that he's to be cremated, so maybe that has something to do with it. There were lots of people, though, and several pictures. It was nice to share stories about Mark, and see photos of him throughout his life, that was far too short. I talked to his sister, Donna, and she filled in some of the details. Over the past ten years Mark has been living in Alexandria with his mother. He substitute taught a little, and played music a bit...but that's about all. When his mother died a year ago, Mark tipped over the edge. Everything I heard from the gang at Bearcreek Farms was, essentially, accurate.
Mark did get out of the nursing home, though, and moved into an apartment in Anderson, but that only lasted for a short time. Mark had, apparently, decided to give up, and he made that clear to everyone. He purposely ignored the doctors' orders, stopped taking his medication, and drank a lot, eating almost nothing. He lost 80 pounds, I was told. Sometime in late May his body said, "enough..." and he devolved pneumonia, then became unconscious. He was able to breath only with the aid of a ventilator. He stayed in this comatose state until his death Sunday. So, even if I had found him, I still wouldn't have found him at all.
I kick myself, though, for not finding him earlier, like last year...or two years ago, or three years ago. It's for selfish reasons, for sure. I really enjoyed his company, his talent, and his brilliant sense of humor.
So, faithful reader, join me in watching that last clip again...seeing Mark McGee in the prime of his life, sharing his talent with the world. Let's see him laugh and be happy, a joy that only the stage could bring. Let's celebrate his life.
The moral here is to enjoy each other while we can, and don't procrastinate visiting with your friends.
Mark "Mr. Magic Fingers" McGee, I miss you.
What a day it has been, faithful reader. Let's begin with the good...