Requiem

“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

 – Deathbed quote, famed character actor Edmund Gwenn

The world is a little less jovial than it was a few days ago. I learned today of the Saturday passing of an old high school friend, Dave McGrew.  As so much does these days, the news reached me stealthily via a Facebook messagefrom a woman I never had the pleasure of meeting, his new wife.

Dave and I shared a rather off-kilter sense of humor and a love for old comedians: The Marx Brothers (both of us) and W.C. Fields (mostly Dave).  We also shared an affinity for the more contemporary antics of Johnny Carson, McGrew 1Johnathan Winters, Henny Youngman and Don Rickles.

What can I say? It was the 70’s and we had a good ear for things funny.

I came to know Dave because of his friendship with another Denver South friend, Randy Hill. While I knew them both for a while, we really didn’t our stride as friends until midway through our junior year, when we found ourselves in the same afternoon drama class, headed by the illustrious J. Joe Craft.  Randy, Dave and I were enthusiastic in our theatrical endeavors, though our depth and range as thespians was not extensive.  J. Joe appreciated our efforts, though the finished products were probably more than a little uneven.McGrew 2

Still, in a drama class producing one-act plays our little cadre stood out due to the sheer volume of productions we performed. In one semester we pulled off three one-acts, dave mostly a behind-the-scenes guy. Most of the other groups spent their semester honing a singular production.  With the added participation of one of my locker partner and good friend Kirke Fox, plus whoever else we could drag in for a given show, we had quite the gallant little troupe.

Room 204, our drama classroom, had a small rehearsal stage, and we gave it quite a workout.  For both Randy and Dave, it was their first time performing. We had a blast.

It didn’t hurt that we would spend a lot of lunch hours and much after school time honing our comedic timing with/on one another – Dave and I alternately utilizing Randy as the straight man/verbal punching bag.  It was never a competition, though Dave had impeccable timing and recall of Youngman one-liners, while I excelled at the Rickelesque insult shot.  We each had a good ear for voices and were reasonably proficient at impersonations, although we never had the confidence to ‘go live’ in a public setting with that. Ironically, we never did a stand-up routine together on a true stage, though we both did comedy bits in a talent show our senior year; Dave and Randy did a bit, and I teamed with pal Rick Hunter for an esoteric set didn’t get near the laughs of Dave and Randy.

As our senior year approached, we learned that our beloved Mr. Craft was going to be leaving us to take on teaching duties at Denver’s brand-spanking-new Career Education Center – a facility that was geared for students who wanted to learn everything from drama and dance to auto mechanics and retail business. It was a huge facility with performance areas, a store, restaurant, auto shop – all staffed by students in a true learning environment.

Somehow, perhaps through pity if nothing else, Dave, Randy and I all applied and were accepted into J. Joe’s inaugural class at the CEC: Children’s Theatre.  The idea was to create and perform small-scale productions (much like the one-acts we had done at South) that we could take on the road to various elementary schools. Now there is childish, and childlike – we were more the latter, but could devolve into the former, so performing for children was a double-edged sword – a tough crowd, and we had to know our limits. The CEC experience was fantastic; along with students from three other area schools, ten of us wrote, produced and executed an eclectic mix of traveling shows including Little Red Riding Hood and the Tropical Talk Show, a parody featuring Dave as a pseudo-Johnny Carson, me as Alley Oop the caveman, the evening’s featured guest.

Even our bus rides to-and-from South and the CEC were a hoot, as we were joined by Kip Craft (J. Joe’s son, a good friend, who was in the CEC dance program) and another good friend and locker partner of mine, Johnny Wilkins one of our BMOC’s, who was training to be a paramedic. Johnny and Kip laughed easily, making for a great, easy to please and captive audience.

But our crowning children’s theatre triumph was in the spring; we appeared in a producMcGrew 3tion called The Wise Men of Chelm, from the stories of Sholem Aleichem – tales from the same group of stories which formed the basis of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ What made the show so special was not just the material, but the venue – the main stage of the Schwayder Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. It was big time, and thanks to J. Joe we managed to pull it off.

Dave told me many years later that it was his one and only appearance on a main stage, and he loved every minute of it. I never really realized until tonight what a privilege it was for me to share in something like that. In the nearly forty years since, I have done a lot of theatre, spent twelve years in radio, and appeared in all sorts of stuff and a lot of unique places, but that Schwayder Theatre experience was, indeed, something special, for a lot of reasons.  It is even more of a singular experience now: not only is Dave gone, but so is Randy. He died about ten years ago.  Kip, he of the bus-backseat audience was our technical director for the Wise Men of Chelm, died tragically just a few years after graduating from high school. Same for Johnny; member of our practice audience, tireless encourager and real audience member when it counted.

I can’t help but think that all four of them are somewhere, riding on a rickety old school bus somewhere – the other three laughing their fool heads off at something Dave has said. Probably at my expense.

The last twenty years or so were not easy for Dave; a bad motorcycle accident cost him big chunks of his life due to a severe head injury, among others. I only found out about the accident because he contacted me out of the blue after finding me on a genealogy bulletin board somewhere. He would pop in and out of my life via email (and later, Facebook) sometimes going two years between contacts.  The first few times, he was plying me for information, trying to recover bits and pieces. His messages were at times rambling, and filled with medical minutiae.  Then, as time went on, more of the old Dave emerged: emailed jokes, reminiscences, comments on current affairs. Sometimes he had been looking through old yearbooks, and he would ask me about certain people and events. Sometimes, quite tentatively.

In later years, the emails were few and far between, but more of the ‘before’ Dave (his words) would shine through. Even the chronic pain and other issues provided fodder for humor.  I only wish there had been more emails, more Facebook posts. But, unlike one-act plays in drama class, sometimes there is something to be said for quality over quantity. Good friendships are like that.

David, my friend, may you rest in peace.  I have no doubt that you brought joy and happiness into a lot of lives through the years, whether you ever stepped on another stage or not.  Thanks for being there, and letting me be there with you – bad Yiddish dialects, obnoxious kids, groan-inducing punchlines and all. You done good, kid.fields2 Rest well.

I know as I type this there is only one thing Dave could or would possibly say to me in response to this salute, and in his best W.C. Fields voice, I can hear him just as plain as day:

“Well, Mark, on the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

And the rest of the guys are cackling madly, as the bus drives slowly away.

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In Memoriam: Kevin Kirke Fox, 1959 – 2010

Kirke was the first new kid I met at South High School, Denver, Colorado. It was thirty-six years ago, day one of high school. I was sitting in the first row of folding chairs in front of the small stage of room 204; the drama department. Drama was the class I was looking forward to the most in starting high school, but little did I know I was getting three decades of drama, comedy, and pathos…all wrapped up in the guise of a six-foot, one-inch cowboy – with matching drawl and quirky sense of humor perfectly matching mine.

I was hunched over in my folding chair, reading my schedule when all of a sudden I hear a booming voice; “Anybody sitting here?”
I look up, and looming above me is…a really big dude. “Nope,” I reply. He reached out his hand. “Names Fox…Kirke Fox.”

James Bond meets John Wayne; It’s how I’ll always remember Kirke.

For the next three years, we took every drama class that South offered together, participated in most every production, got into our fair share of mischief and drove a lot of people crazy.

I cherish every moment.

####

J. Joe Craft was our drama teacher; one of the most influential that we ever had. I know that because Kirke and I talked about that and him numerous times; he was a huge influence on our student and adult lives. A great teacher, and one that didn’t fall into the one-size-fits-all-behavior mode, J. Joe must have seen something in us that we didn’t because he rode us pretty hard at times – but also cut us a lot of slack along the way.

One of J. Joe’s rules was that if you were late to class, you had to get up on stage and act out a ‘death scene’ based on a scenario cooked up by the class. Kirke and I were both very punctual, and well into the quarter neither of us had yet to do a death scene. One day I got to class plenty early, and was talking to Mr. Craft. Kirke showed up in the doorway, motioning me to come out in the hallway. I did, and he proceeded to regale me with some goofy, pointless tale that I have long since forgotten. When I tried to get into class on time, he would grab my arm, keeping me in the hall to finish his story. Of course the bell rang, Kirke stops talking, we walk in to class, and immediately we get called on to do a death scene.

Afterwards I asked Kirke what his unfinished story was all about. “Nothin’” he said, “I just wanted to see you die on stage.” He punctuated the escapade with his trademark cackle.

Junior year drama class, we were all instructed to break up into groups and produce a complete one-act play; of course, the pairing of Kirke and I was a given. The other groups did their one act plays; our group completed two complete productions, one he directed, one I directed. Kirke’s directorial debut was a British farce called “The Still Alarm,” starring me, Tom Twining and Randy Hill. Kirke’s stage l instructions were all prefaced with playful, continual use of the affectionate nickname we had come up with for each other: ‘Jerk’.

This got to be confusing when it was more than just the two of us around, and others were drawn into our orbit.

Typical example of Kirke giving directorial instruction; “Hey, Jerk! You were supposed to pick up that book and then move to the other end of the table.” “Hey, Jerk! Why did you walk over there?” “What did you do that for – JERK?!” You get the idea.

One day after school we were rehearsing. Mr. Craft walked in, observed for a few minutes then told Kirke that his actors might be more responsive (and less confused) if he called them something other than ‘jerk’ all the time. Kirke pondered this for a moment, said “Okay” then turned back toward the stage and barked, “Hill – you’re jerk number one, and Twining, you’re jerk number two!” I was off stage awaiting my entrance, so I poked my head out and asked the logical question; “What about me?”

Without missing a beat, Kirke looked at me and said “You’re the biggest jerk of all, so we’ll call you ‘Big Jerk’!”

J. Joe just shook his head and walked away.

The one act play I directed was ‘From Paradise to Butte’ in which I cast Kirke as a lovesick cowboy from the small town of Paradise, Montana who decides to head to the ‘big city’ of Butte, Montana to find fame, fortune and love. The play was twenty years old when we did it, but it sure felt like it was written for him – which is I why I chose it.

Some years later, I was one of the few not so surprised to hear that Kirke was leaving metropolitan Denver, and moving to the western slope of the Rockies. Life imitates art, so to speak – in reverse.

####

Junior year found us doing a children’s theatre production that had us all as characters from Sesame Street – including Kirke as Big Bird. Picture that for a moment; it fits, right? Height, gangly presence. He had the voice down pretty good, and worked hard at his mannerisms – he nailed the part.

But in full costume, with his arm fully extended up the neck into the head so he could operate the beak, his mobility was…a work in progress. This wasn’t helped by the massive feet; big, floppy foam feet that had been attached to an old pair of his already large tennis shoes.

Small groups of us were traveling to elementary schools in the area to promote the show; for our group, Kirke was to be in costume, I was his non-costumed escort. At some old school over by Washington Park, we arrived and were sent to the boy’s restroom to get Kirke into costume. The process was just about complete, when a group of second grade boys burst into the restroom, and stop dead in their tracks at the sight of Big Bird standing in front of a urinal having his head adjusted. Having been drilled by J. Joe about the importance of not breaking character in children’s theatre, a startled Kirke began talking like a startled Big Bird; “Whoa! Hi kids! You gotta go back out…I have to go potttttttttty before coming to your classes!” as I am trying to shoo the kids back out into the hall.

The initial shock of seeing Big Bird in their john having worn off, seven or eight kids rush Kirke with delight and start hugging him, which knocks him backwards – which was a problem as the urinals were the old style, level with the floor type – which caused one of his big floppy feet to plunge into the urinal, splashing water all over. Struggling to keep his balance, and squawking and yelling ‘help’ (in character, of course) his now very wet foot is slopping urinal water all over the floor, all over the kids, me and up on the crepe paper yellow feathers at the bottom of his homemade-in-class costume.

By the time we got to our presentation, yellow feather dye was running down Big Bird’s orange-tights leg, and many of the feathers were matted and drooping. In the hugging fracas, he had also banged his hip and leg against the urinal, which caused Kirke to exaggerate his already loopy, natural and costumed gait. To top it off, the big, wet orange foot that plunged into the urinal was soaking wet, and the shoe and foam foot slapped at the floor with a ‘whap’with every step on the marble floors, while also squeaking like crazy everyplace we walked.

It was our last public road appearance as Big Bird and friend.

####

Halloween week our junior year, Kirke and I roomed together on the drama club trip to the statewide high school drama convention in Greeley. Our escapades of that weekend were many and varied, but there were a couple that stand out.

Arriving at our room in the Greeley Ramada Inn, Kirke popped open the door, said “I want this bed!” and proceeded to pull back the covers on it, only to discover a big, dead cockroach on his pillow, causing him to yell and fling pillow and dead bug across the room, and me to laugh. After retrieving the pillow and disposing of the bug, Kirke cautiously inspected the rest of the bedding, and finding nothing, flopped down on it – for about a second. Yelling another expletive he jumped to his feet and pointed at the plastic covering over the fluorescent light above the bed: it was ringed with dead bugs – hundreds of them.

We demanded and got a new room.

A bit later, we were at the hallway ice machine filling our ice bucket with a scoop, each chewing on an ice cube, when classmate Laure Glass walked up to us. Laure said “I’ve reading that chewing ice is a sign of sexual frustration.” Good thespians that we were, we knew a cue when we heard it; I immediately grabbed a couple of handfuls of ice, Kirke poured what ice was in the scoop into his pants, crammed ice cubes into his pockets, grabbed our bucket full of ice, and we raced back to our room – leaving Laure doubled over in laughter at the ice machine.

Back in our room, both laughing hysterically, Kirke realized he was a bit…chilled. Shaking wildly to get the ice out of his pants and emptying his pockets, ice cubes were flying everywhere; big dude, big pants, big pockets. The carpet in the entryway stayed damp all weekend.

Hotel ice machines still make me smile.

####

Shortly after returning from the convention, we decided to test out our new found prowess in stage fighting; something we took pride in learning in one of the classes Kirke and I attended at Greeley. We were at Shakey’s Pizza with a bunch of classmates, and as we were leaving, I stage whispered to Kirke to take a fake punch at me.

No sooner had we hit the sidewalk, I turned and Kirke lets loose with a (fake but convincing) roundhouse right, and I fall backwards onto the hood of his car. A couple of classmates got the idea, joined in on my fake beat down, and suddenly we realize a number of Shakey’s customers are at the window, staring in disbelief; somebody said that one of the customers had called the cops. To break the tension, Kirke decides to demonstrate to the pizza eaters that the whole thing was a gag – by jumping onto the roof of his car and tap dancing. In the meantime, I’m getting fake-punched, and we suddenly hear the wail of a police siren.

We all quickly scrambled into Kirke’s car and got out of there before being booked.

####

Kirke was also a romantic; an ‘old soul’ with a heart of gold. During our high school years, he became acquainted with some guy who sold flowers on the street corner. Whenever we were in the midst of a production at South, Kirke would stop to see this guy, buy a bunch of flowers, and then he and I would pass them out to all the girls we knew. It became ‘our’ tradition, though he rarely let me chip in on the flowers. Usually this meant a single carnation for each girl. One rainy night, during our run of Oklahoma!, the guy he knew had no desire to stand out in the rain, and sold Kirke his entire stock for $5. As we had no mob funeral to stock, that particular night, every girl we knew in the show got a small bouquet, a few got bigger bouquets.

By senior year, giving out the flowers occasionally got me a peck on the cheek from one of the girls. That, and the fact that he set up my senior prom date, means that Kirke somehow ersonally accounted for 93.2% of all the kisses I received during my high school life.

Oh that prom date thing was something else; Kirke was very concerned that I did not have a date to the prom, and kept begging – yes, begging me – to let him set me up with someone…anyone. It wasn’t all that big a deal to me, but it was to him. He knew I had asked someone to prom, and that it took a lot for me to ask her, but once she turned me down I had let it go. Not Kirke. The day before prom he found out about a mutual friend whose date had cancelled out, and insisted that we go to prom together. I’m glad he forced the issue.

One other note on Kirke’s sensitive side. At our senior year drama picnic at Mr. Craft’s cabin up in the mountains, we had a table where people could leave yearbooks, and anyone else could sign them. Late that afternoon Kirke came to me and said he saw Terry, the girl I had originally asked to prom, signing my yearbook, and thought I would want to see what she wrote.

When I read her inscription, I was very touched, and started getting a little teary-eyed. Kirke immediately grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, marched me out to his limo (yeah, his stretch limo) and threw me into the backseat, telling me to take a little time to put myself together. I don’t know if he thought I was going to say or do something that I would regret, or he just didn’t want me to embarrass myself or what – but I took some time to just lay there in the back seat of that limo just thinking.

It was a nice gesture, and I have no idea how long I stayed back there, but what I really remember was that I kept hearing Kirke’s voice outside the car; “Nah, he just ate something that made him sick – he’ll be out in a bit.” “Leave him alone! You touch that door and I’ll break your arm.” And a few other choice comments to people who were looking for me for whatever reason.

Keep in mind, we were seniors in high school. That tells you a lot about the kind of guy Kirke was.

####

That limousine; how his family came into possession of a 1972 stretch limo is a story in itself. Our high school friends probably remember that thing; it was quite a vehicle to tool around in. One Sunday afternoon of our senior year, Kirke calls me up and asks if I would like to go for a ride with he and two girls, one of whom was a junior I knew, the other girl I didn’t. “Sure” I said.

A short while later, Kirke and the girls pick me up and the four of us just start driving around. “Where are we going?” I ask. “I don’t know, I thought we’d just drive around” replies Kirke with a shrug. We drive and talk, and pretty soon we are on the outskirts of Denver; it seems like he has destination in mind, though Kirke says otherwise. All of a sudden, he starts engaging me in some ridiculous conversation about something, then tells me I’m crazy when I disagree with him. Without provocation he continues to call me ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ and suddenly we are pulling into a long driveway by a sign that reads ‘Ft. Logan Psychiatric Hospital’.

He pulls the limo up in the circular drive in front of the main office, puts it in park, and tells me to ‘get out’. “I’m not getting out” I reply. The girls are just looking incredulously at each other and us as the conversation continues back and forth along the same lines; “Get out! You’re crazy!” “I’m not getting out! You’re crazy!” Then, Kirke gets out of the limo, walks over to the passenger side, drags me out of the back seat, locks the door so I can’t get back in, runs back to the driver’s side and starts to leave – all in view of a couple of guys in white coats out having a smoke.

He spins quickly around the circular driveway, pulls up in front of me, pops the locks and the window and says “Will you get in here and quit messing around! We have to go!” all while laughing hysterically, which I joined in on as we roared on back down the driveway toward the highway. Even after twelve years in radio, I was never involved with a gag that required so much set up.

Oddly, neither girl went out with either of us again.

####

There are so many more stories to tell; road trips that Kirke took to visit me when I lived in rural Missouri; other road trips to both my weddings in Minnesota. There were late night phone calls made and received across the miles; letters, cards and photos that he sent with great regularity. The basic human decency and friendship of a couple of good friends.

To his family: Kirke left an indelible mark on those he came in contact with. Thank you for sharing him. He will always be a part of me.

####

As I finish writing this, the tears, the smiles and memories are all jockeying for prominence. Kirke, my friend, I never did tell you just how much our friendship meant to me. I hope along the way I showed it to you in some way – you gave me so much throughout the years.

All I can do now is say goodbye in the most appropriate way I can think of: Rest in peace…ya Big Jerk. ;-{)

Mark
11/13/10

From the Poetry Marchives: A Little Something in Honor of Veterans Day

Fading away

Buried an old soldier last week.

A small, occasionally mowed,
northern Minnesota church cemetery;
rainy, gray day off a gravel, township
road where the local VFW can only
muster an honor guard of three guys
with trembling hands, wrinkled khaki,
and the dignified poignancy of a
simple, nine-gun salute.

A local high-school girl in blue
letter jacket, fluffy, white ‘C’ over
her heart (excused from social studies,
hitting most of the notes) gets extra
credit for coming out, playing Taps.

Told the story of the soldier to a friend
who told of his grandfather – Navy man –
and the two young guys in snappy,
dress blues who came with a boom-box
and a CD to that interment.

They pushed a few buttons, played Taps
flawlessly, left a flag with his grandma,
saluted, then left for good.