Lately, it seems that more and more I am the recipient and then the bearer of sad news. Particularly regarding people who were personally inspiring and influential in my enthusiastic and futile search to find out what this life is all about. So it is that I recently learned that one of those people, Niko Farkouf, was lost earlier this year. Enveloping the tragedy of this loss is the horrific irony that he was killed in a bombing raid that exterminated a village in Afghanistan where he was working with a humanitarian aid organization. The bombs were American, Niko was Greek, the villagers were Afghan, and yes, there may have been some Taliban hanging around. It is all very apropos to the climate and tenor, the lies and deceptions and meaness of the present election circus in the U.S. and the final vomiting out of the idiocy and malevolence that has occupied the White House and corporate board rooms for the past eight years.
I wrote the following column, some years ago, as an ode to young dreams and happy times and in small part to capture the image of the young and happy Niko. I offer it again in his memory.
I don’t celebrate most holidays. I create my own. Call me misguided, call me a misanthrope, I call me… mis en scène.
My latest has become a tradition. Each year, around this time, I become aware of an apparition of one of my earliest, most embracing experiences. It’s not nostalgia. I don’t live in the past, I live in the moment and the next moment yet to come. Rather, it is a breathless feeling, a sensuous image of a time and a place that hangs in my disembodied vision as if it were a private painting on the wall. I wrote it about once and now, each year, I celebrate it by presenting it again. This is what I celebrate.
Summer in the Northern Hemisphere of this odd planet of ours− the sun lingers high in the blue mirror, then slowly glides down along the horizon. It’s a warm time, a lovers’ time, with the feint feel of a distant ending. Not like the rising heat of late Spring with its moist laughter and the intoxication of old and new perfumes. It begins with childish joy and drifts with a quiet sadness as the light and heat begin to fade.
Summer is a time of dreams, at the sea, in the mountains, on the balcony, on the rooftop. For those lucky enough to have awakened in a dream of show, of theatre, there was summer stock: an idyll, a holiday, a reckless exhilarating place to dream and love and spend years trying to remember if it was all true. There still is summer stock but not like the way it was... before media and television and wireless phones, before chat rooms and internet dating. The movies were right; Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were right; Marjorie Morningstar was right. Summer stock was a world that existed for itself for that short period of summertime in which there was some good to be seen in all performances, in which audiences were deliciously forgiving, in which critics were small people with white spindly legs who couldn’t get a tan no matter how long they sat drunk by the pool chain-smoking.
I was lucky. I did three years of summer stock -- three years of sweeping the hell out of stage floors, acting with every ounce of training and talent, and recycling every cc of raging hormones with a lack of sleep, a lack of nutrition, and no lack of energy. I even stepped on stage with a few celebrity actors of the time; the “famous-artists system” in which the resident company rehearsed the play and the “famous artist” came in a few days before opening to “star” in the production.
The experiences were priceless. They filled my wine-jars of memory and stuffed my bag of tricks. They costumed my sense of good fortune. Let me share with you a tale of one of them.
It was the first professional theatre gig for a 17 year old boy – me! I landed a job as an apprentice in a premier summer theatre at Lake George, New York. I’d been acting in high school and around town for ages – three years. I was a veteran and happy to hit the big time. There was no pay, which was okay, because in many summer theatres then (and even now) “gophers” paid for the privilege of running coffee, sweeping stages, and sleeping with the costumer.
So I had to get a job because rich I wasn’t and thrilled about my summer adventure my parents weren’t. But when you’ve got it, you’ve got it. I snared a terrific job at a nearby resort... as a waiter. The tips were said to be great, they fed you off the menu (who ever heard of that!), and the staff got clean sheets once a week. It was a class operation. The problem was --- I’d never done this before; I didn’t even know on which arm to drape the towel.
Didn’t I tell you... my muse was watching?. In my first confused minutes on the floor, she presented me with mentors, two grand Greek guys, who were the slickest, smoothest, most stylish waiters I had ever seen – Stalios and Niko. They took me under their wings and fashioned me into a blaze of silk. I was a “star” in that dining room and never looked back.
Stalios had been a captain in the Greek cavalry during WWII. He had fought the Nazis with blood and horror. Immediately after, he was forced to turn around and fight the communists in a civil war. But this time, the blood was exclusively Greek and he no longer could tolerate the ashes in his mouth. So he split to the States. He was a handsome devil, who spoke a number of languages including English, fluently. And he could talk his way in and out of a sealed box.
Then there was Niko... oh what a Niko, tall, beautiful, with a smile that wrapped twice around his head and fanned his huge brown eyes. His 100% solution to the meaning of life was women... he loved women, tall, short, fat, thin, young old, he loved them. And they loved him, because he smelled good, felt good and he was kind. He had one problem though... he got into the States by jumping ship in New York harbor. He was an illegal and that made him a little paranoid, not much, but enough to keep his opportunistic edge. Stalios watched over him.
Back to the summer theatre. We had opened a new comedy, called “To Dream and the Sword” by a writer named (I think) Andreev. It was an awful play and that was disastrous in the vibrant summer stock venue of the Northeast because word-of-mouth was everything to the box office. Nevertheless, I was outstanding... I carried my spear beautifully, flashed my sword with élan and delivered my 7 words of dialogue with deep, motivated carefully wrought impulse. I was an actor!
A disastrous play courts disaster, and it struck the day after we opened. Two actors who played a kind of “Rosencrantz-Guildenstern” duo in the play had been arrested early in the morning. They were French-Canadian and they were caught trying to smuggle vodka across the Canadian border. At that time, The province of Quebec was under the iron rule of the Duplessis regime who along with its ally the archdiocese ran its own neat revenue producer, selling its own “vodka” called “Alcol”. It was a big non-non to parade Smirnoff or Stolichnaya in downtown Montreal. The provincial police were not about to release the actors.
The director was frantic. He called everywhere for stand-ins but it was the height of the summer season, not a journeyman actor in sight. The play itself had such a large cast that even crew and staff were in costume. He could get away with cutting out some of the characters’ early, non-essential dialogue, but there was a pivotal scene in the third act that couldn’t be cut. I boldly jumped up and suggested that the characters be combined and I would play the role. The director’s silence was ice cold. I thought about that. He spent the rest of the morning trying to reconfigure the cast, reedit the play, do something. Just as the clouds were at their darkest, this gangly apprentice boldly jumped again and told the dire director that I knew of two former European actors who happened to be at the nearby resort. I figured I was fabricating an event that would fabricate an opportunity to get me further on the inside with a director who after all was a known Broadway persona. The silence was no longer cold. I raced to the hotel to find... Stalios and Niko.
They thought I was nuts! But I had already learned how to talk faster than they did and how to drop names and buzz words like “young actresses”, “cognac”, “applause”, “bonuses”, “champagne!” They decided to give it a shot. And ignorantly fearless as I was, they surprised the hell out of me. We rehearsed all afternoon... they learned the lines and the blocking... added some flair of their own... took over the roles. They were okay. Everyone was thrilled and relieved. The best was yet to come.
This play was set in 17th century England and France. The costumer (who I hadn’t slept with yet) was a stickler for authenticity. Her costumes were elaborate and detailed.
That evening’s performance was a little better. My two discoveries stepped on the stage like troupers and sailed through the first two acts. It was still a lousy play and the house had only half an audience after the prior night’s opening full house. The pivotal scene came – my Greek friends lunged into it, flourished a bit of swordplay and squared up downstage center in front of their General and the audience to deliver their key dialogue. At that precise moment, as if by cue, their codpieces fell off and their dingles dangled. You know what I mean?... their “things”, what the Greeks politely call, “poulaki” fell out. Neither one of them flinched... they continued through their speeches with their sizable array adding visual punctuation. The audience went crazy! Laughing, screaming, applauding. And the two continued through the rest of the act, undaunted, giving the performances of their lives despite the frenzied efforts of other cast members to block the view. Who would have believed that they went on stage without underwear? I told you they were troupers!
The next day, the director got them each a jockstrap. And the costumer repaired their costumes, sewed the codpieces on with heavy thread, reinforced with glue. That night, the performance sold out, the old word-of-mouth... and every performance after that. No one was disappointed that the unwarranted flesh was covered. They just came to see if it would happen again. It didn’t.
That was the quick beginning and quick ending to two Greek acting careers. Stalios went back to New York City, gathered a bunch of money, and opened a string of knock-down-drag-out bars along Manhattan’s westside waterfront. He went on to become quite a businessman. Niko lapped up his momentary fame and decided he could become a star. His brief notoriety brought him into the life of a young, rich divorcee from Montreal who took him home with her to support his newly found acting career. Unfortunately, Canadian immigration caught up with him and he was deported. The last I heard, he had jumped ship again in Spain and was searching for a way back to the States.
With all of my theatre experiences, I’ve always tried to distill a lesson. What did I learn from this one? I learned to believe in Katherine Hepburn who said – success in acting is 50% talent and 50% luck. And my Adler Aunt who said that luck became luck depending on what you made of it. This not so bizarre experience endeared me to the director who several years later took one of the last State Department-supported theatre companies to Europe, the American Players Abroad, and took me with him. I went as an actor and came back as a director and a more evolved artist. I learned that the wicked stage isn’t so wicked after all. And I learned to love the theatre and life... a little more, especially during the magic of summer.