“You Better Work!”

My book, Candid Talk: The World According to Cliff Townsend, turned out to have a two-fold premise. In addition to being an autobiography of my life so far, it also includes a philosophical treatise of how I regard the world and my opinion on just about everything. Those of you who have kept up with my blog articles have seen my opinion discussions but not so much about me specifically. As you will see, I have enjoyed an interesting and exciting career, and I’d like to share the highlights (and some lowlights) with you.

Although most of my life’s employment has been music-related, I have participated in a bunch of other work endeavors as well, as I expect you all have at some time or another. My work history was somewhat difficult to sort, as much of it overlaps between more than one article. So this is what I’ve done. My blog, School Days covers my scholastic history, with a detailed emphasis on my college years, My Combatless Tour-of-Duty deals with the two years I spent in the Army, and my concert tours, cruise adventures and other work that involves travel are recounted in On the Road with Cliff.

That leaves this article, which covers everything else I have done while situated in one place, including my résumé of acting in plays, musicals, operas, radio, TV and movie appearances, recordings and other jobs that don’t involve performing. You can take the articles in any order, as the events in each one are pretty much chronological with some cross-references. There is one additional blog entitled More Name-Dropping, which covers my celebrity encounters and sightings that are incidental to my other work-related articles.

I suppose that my first position of responsibility was while I was at Linden Elementary School (I was there from 1952-’59), when I served for a time (not for pay) as the scorekeeper for our school’s basketball games. The coach was my math teacher, Mr. Algie Oldham, who picked me for the job because of my apparent fondness for numbers. I also served as a school crossing guard at Linden. The first paying job I had was the summer that I was trying to graduate from high school (in 1965), when I worked for the South Bend Street Department, for minimum wage, as a street cleaner and paver. I even got to lay hot asphalt. # Hated it! #

During the four months after I left Bloomington for good, before I was drafted into the Army, again when I got out, and for six months prior to moving to NYC, I served as a substitute teacher for the South Bend public school system. Since I had once considered a career in teaching–the college degree I was going for initially was a Bachelor of Music Education–I applied for the job on a whim. As you will learn, if you don‘t know already, I have no college degree and not even a teaching certificate. But they desperately needed subs, apparently, and I guess they figured that since I did graduate from high school and had had four years of college, I must know at least as much as those still in grade school. I was kept pretty busy, based on my availability. I got to go around to different schools all over town and was assigned to various classes and subjects. I had 31 engagements in all.

My students, for the most part, seemed to like me. In fact, the last assignment I had before my induction–it was a music class–my kids came to me to tell me that they were going to start a petition to get me to replace their regular teacher, Mrs. Clifford. I apparently had won them all over with my charm, wit and musical knowledge. Although I did appreciate the compliment, I had to convince them not to do that, as I was not going to be available after today. ‘Uncle Sam has me for the next two years,’ I told them.

At about the time of my release from the Army, as I loved it over there and did not want to leave, I had considered staying in Okinawa when I got out and getting a teacher’s job at the American high school. But as I would have to separate stateside, I just couldn’t see making that 18-hour trip two more times. What else helped me to decide what to do was that for the first time in years, I got very sick the night I flew back from there. I don’t know what I had, but I really felt like shit during the entire flight. All I wanted to do was go home and get into bed. It took me a week to recuperate as it was.

When I was a student at Central High School, my classmates, for the most part, were well-behaved. Teachers were always able to maintain order and I don’t remember classes ever getting out-of-hand. In my day most kids came to school to learn. I had the opportunity to go back to Central one day to sub. I couldn’t believe how things had changed in only 7 years. I didn’t have any trouble with any of my other classes at the other schools in town. The students were always respectful of me. But that day at Central, I thought I had stumbled into Romper Room by mistake. Those delinquents were running around the room, throwing things and yelling at the top of their voices. I sat there in bewildered disbelief. My repeated attempts to restore order were all in vain. They acted as if I were not even there. I wondered, What could have happened in such a short time? They must have been part of the new generation of undisciplined youth who have no respect for their elders. Those same kids are now probably the parents (or even grandparents) of the ones who are wreaking havoc in our schools today.

So this brief stint did satisfy my aspirations as a teacher. Although I did enjoy it at the time, it let me know that I didn’t want to do it for a living. But as my life seems to go in cycles, I was again some years ago offered a teaching job. The Jonas Bronck Academy, a public middle school in the Bronx, was looking to incorporate a music program in their curriculum, as they had never had one. So I was given two classes of 7th-graders one day a week. But after only three weeks I was given the sack. It seems that things were not progressing fast enough to suit the administration. I began in November with only a few days’ notice. I was not provided with any music materials with which to work, not even a piano. Yet they expected a major choral presentation by Christmas time.

Nobody, however, bothered to relate that little fact to me when I took the job, not that it would have mattered. That wasn’t enough time to do anything, let alone get a whole show together in five weeks. It really would have been only five hours, since I had them for only one hour a week! The professional choruses that I work with get more rehearsal time than that to prepare music that we already know very well. These kids had no musical training or experience whatsoever. What did they want from me, magic and miracles? They couldn’t have been too serious anyway, with that one hour a week stipulation. I needed to see the kids every day in order to get anything done. (“What we have heah is a failyuh to communicate!”) What I resent is their not telling me what they wanted from me and then complaining (not even to me but to my boss) that I was not fulfilling their wishes. Tell me what you want and I will let you know what is involved and whether it’s doable or not.

It’s like the time when my quartet, Quatraine, got the chance to sing for minimalist composer Philip Glass. He had written a choral piece and wanted to hear how it sounds. We took a stab at it, sight-reading the best we could, but Glass was not satisfied with our interpretation. But then he failed to articulate to us what he wanted. We are all consummate, adaptable musicians. Just tell us what the hell you want, and we will try to accomplish it! What I think it was, he didn’t even know himself what he wanted, so he couldn’t very well tell us anything. Actually, I don’t think that we were the ones at fault. I blame the music itself. Glass didn’t like it because it was a piece of shit in the first place, and rather than acknowledge that fact, he chose to blame us for how it sounded. “Don’t blame us for how it sounds. You wrote it!” I don’t care for his style of music anyway. It’s monotonous and tedious. Someone once said, “Listening to minimalist music is like looking for a change in the wallpaper.”

Actually, at this point in my life, I wouldn’t mind teaching again. I have a lot of knowledge to impart on young minds, even older minds. When I was a little boy, I thought for a while that I wanted to be a doctor, but later on I realized that I didn’t want to spend that much time in school. I also once thought that I would be married some day with a whole bunch of kids. Well, you see how that turned out! Oh, the naivety and frivolity of youth, huh? The other odd jobs or non-paying responsibilities I had before moving to NYC, are babysitter, summer vacation Bible School instructor, flute instructor, youth choir treasurer, church usher, janitor, banquet pianist, house cleaner and painter.

During the summer after my freshman year of college, I served as a counselor for my neighborhood youth center in South Bend. I just needed to be there to chaperone the kids during daytime activities and at their nightly dance socials. The following summer I had a job, briefly, on a factory assembly line for Bendix aviation parts, another incidence of mindless labor. # Hated it! # One of my co-workers had such a limited vocabulary, as the only adjective that he seemed to know was “fuckin’.” I used to hide in the restroom during most of my shift, reading Valley of the Dolls. I subsequently got “laid off.” Thank you!

I became a part-time, professional freelance performer when I moved to NYC in December 1972. Since that time I have worked as a singer, dancer, actor, supernumerary/extra, choral conductor, accompanist and instrumentalist. I have dabbled in many odd jobs as well during my years in NYC, not all for pay, some music-related, some not. I have been a music arranger, transcriber, theatrical producer/director, record producer, vocal coach, choral contractor, collator, courier, copyist, composer, caterer, coat checker, carpenter’s assistant, pipe organ maintenance apprentice (lugging tools, holding down keys for tuning and making repairs on the pipes and console), mover, juror (I was even the foreman the first time I served), Broadway theater usher, voting polls registrar volunteer, envelope addresser/stuffer, human guinea pig for pain research experiments at Bellevue Hospital (Don’t ask!), model, houseboy, prostitute (Yes; although I never asked for money for sex, when it was offered, I took it. I’m not ashamed!), and participant in a homemade porno film. I wouldn’t call what I did “acting,” exactly, but I was paid for my performance. I once helped move and assemble a large, modern sculpture for public display on the lawn in front of City Hall in Manhattan.

The creation of this book and blog site, in addition to the other literary works I’ve done, makes me an author as well. I’ve tried my hand at poetry, plays, lyric-writing and some short stories as a youth. I have compiled a list of celebrities’ real names, which could become a reference book if I ever decide to try to get it published. I have come to the conclusion that I truly enjoy writing, and I continue to get literary inspiration.  I have written a murder-mystery screenplay, which was originally intended for a cable TV series, but I have since rewritten it as a novella. You can find it here on my blog site as, The Return of the Zodiac Killer. Everything that I do always has an element of humor attached to it. This is indicated in all of my blog articles, even the serious ones, which those of you who have kept up with them know.  I can’t help myself.  Even my murder scenario, about a diabolical serial killer, contains much very dark humor.

So maybe I will tell you about those pain experiments that I subjected myself to. During my first few years in New York, not having a regular full-time job, I would take almost anything that I could find, so when I saw an ad in the paper asking for volunteers for some pain research experiments, out of curiosity and the fact that I would be paid, I decided to check it out. I had two or three sessions at Bellevue Hospital, where I was hooked up to electrodes of some kind to various parts of my body, and they shot me with electrical charges to determine how much I would be able to withstand.

I found that I apparently do have a higher-than-usual tolerance for pain, and it appeared that my administer was rather enjoying testing my tolerance, by turning the juice up more and more when I did not readily respond. Is this some kind of S&M scene? Why are they even doing this, and for what purpose? They did pay me, as promised. It wasn’t very much, I don’t think, but it was not a too unpleasant experience, as it turned out. This was the first and only time that I got to try acupuncture, too. I suppose that the research staffers needed people to practice on. That, I had no problem with either.

I also participated in a medical study that was testing for a certain gene which causes kidney problems. All I had to do was give blood and answer a series of survey questions. This led to a follow-up focus group seminar to discuss our experience with the study. I was paid with several gift cards from Best Buy, which had enough money on them for me to buy a blender, stereo headphones, a telephone/answering machine unit and an mp3 music player. So I consider it worth my while to have done that. I also submitted to a sex research survey, where I was required to relate my sexual history and activities. I’m not sure why they needed such information, but they were not judgmental at all, which made me feel at ease and forthcoming. These three sessions paid me cash each time for my participation.

I must have been born to sing and entertain. None of the odd jobs that I have had in my life I would want to do as a career, expect for performing and making music. That is something that I never tire of. I don’t know how this all came about. Maybe she heard me singing in class or somewhere. But in 1952, when I was only 5-years-old and just in kindergarten, I was somehow encouraged by my teacher, Miss Toosey, in cahoots with my mother, probably, to perform “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” at Christmastime for the local PTA, or some invited audience. I don’t remember now who they were. I learned the song by listening to Bing Crosby’s recording of it. I was dressed in those cute little kid’s pajamas with the attached feet and the buttoned butt flap, and I was carrying a lighted candle in its holder.

There used to be a popular camp expression among black gay men (I don’t hear it used anymore), when a performer did an exceptionally-fantastic job, they were said to have “peed.” “I went to Leontyne’s recital last night, and honey, Miss Girl peed!” Well, that’s what I did on this occasion—but literally! I managed to get through the song all right, but due to intense stage fright, I urinated and made a puddle right there on the stage! I was too freaked out to be humiliated. If anybody was aware of my unfortunate incontinence and laughed, that didn’t bother me either. I love to make people laugh, by whatever means. (An epithet given me when I was in college is “Tifford Clownsend”) In that the thunderous applause I received undoubtedly had something to do with it, the experience must have struck something in me (despite my initial trauma), because I have been performing ever since, the end of 2018 marking 66 years in show business!

I recently learned, after reading her autobiography, that singer-actor Doris Day had a similar experience. She also made her stage debut in kindergarten at the age of five, but in her case–she was doing a recitation which she deemed to be more serious than the audience did–she believes it was their laughter that caused her to wet herself, and she ran off the stage in humiliation.

I have since gotten over any stage fright or nervousness that I may have harbored in those early years, but I do remember a few times that I “lost it” in performance. My church’s Sunday School used to assign us kiddies short verses at Easter, which we were required to memorize and then recite at the Easter Sunday service. One year I had quite an ambitious poem of several stanzas long to learn—I remember only the first two lines now, “When the stone was rolled away / On the dawn of Easter Day…”

Well, I memorized the whole thing, had it down! knew it forwards and backwards, and got up there on Sunday morning to recite it. I was doing pretty good, too, until I happened to catch someone’s eye in the congregation, and I lost all concentration. The thing went completely out of my head! I was so mortified, I don’t even remember if I ever regained my bearings. It was a while before I was able to look at any audience directly. Of course now, I love checking out specific people in the audience and playing to them when I am performing.

At my second student piano recital, I was to play “Deep River,” a lovely arrangement that my teacher, Miss Feiwell, had given me to learn, and I could play it well, too. I even had it memorized. I still play it today. When my turn came that day, I sat down at the piano, and I sat there, and sat there. I had no idea what piece I was supposed to be playing! My mind was a complete blank. Miss Feiwell finally came over and prompted me. ‘Oh!’ Once I got into it, I was fine. But that terrible moment of uncertain silence seemed an eternity.

The only time that I was physically unnerved was in high school when two schoolmates of mine (Terri Cephus and Leo Warbington, both now deceased) and I performed a wind trio for a musical talent program held at the South Bend Unitarian Church. I had arranged “Lift Thine Eyes to the Mountains” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah for oboe, clarinet and French horn. I wasn’t emotionally nervous, at least I don’t think I was. It wasn’t the first time I had played in public. But when we got ready to play, my body began shaking all over, like I was having convulsions or something. I couldn’t understand it. Try playing a wind instrument (I was on the oboe) when you can’t keep your head or hands steady. I’m sure that I spoiled our big moment for the other guys.

Of course, it’s perfectly normal for performers to be subjected to inadvertent “brain farts” from time to time. We all have them. It happens to the best of us. For a long time now, I have overcome any performance anxiety or nervousness. I think that those feelings come primarily from insecurity and not being prepared. If one has their shit together, why should they be nervous?

Singing has been my main function in life, and not a single week has ever gone by, since I started, that I didn’t have the occasion to sing somewhere for something. Even during Basic Training, I got to sing while we were marching along to the rifle ranges and training areas. I feel I need to sing every day, even if it’s just a TV jingle or theme song. I often awaken with a song on my lips. Some people equate singing with self-contentment. They sing or whistle or hum only when they are happy. I’ve been caught singing to myself in a public place, and somebody will comment, “Well, you seem happy.” ‘Do I? I’m just singing.’ I don’t need a reason to sing. That’s what I do. I can feel like shit some days, with no voice, and will still be trying to vocalize. People have been known to sing when they are deeply depressed. Haven’t they heard anyone sing the blues? I feel so fortunate to have had constant outlets for musical expression during my entire life.

You may have heard certain people claim that they have a special musical skill called “perfect pitch,” which means that they are able to discern or identify any sound frequency without any external help or reference. Well, as I tell anyone who makes such a claim, ‘Nobody’s perfect, all things being relative.’ This particular skill, and most good musicians have it, including myself, I call, more appropriately, “acute pitch memory.” When one repeatedly hears the same 12 pitches over and over, they are bound to stick in your mind at some point. I’ve been hearing them for 71 years, so I think that by now I should know what middle C sounds like. And then once a pitch has been established, you now have a reference to find any other in the tonal spectrum. I’ll be singing in a chorus and I’ll give the pitch to the next song. So the person next to me will ask, “Oh, do you have perfect pitch?” I’ll tell them, ‘No, the piece we just finished ended in D. So D is going to be the same in this piece. The pitch doesn’t change from one song to the next, you know.’ My pitch sense certainly is not perfect, by any means, but I know an A from an E, for example. When I am required to pick a pitch out of the air or guess at one, I usually don’t miss by more than a half-step.

I don’t remember the exact moment that I realized that I could actually read music, but it must have occurred sometime during my high school years, when we rehearsed from actual sheet music. I’m the type of person who learns by repetition. With music especially, I can hear a piece only a couple of times, and I know it already. I can’t do the same things over and over again without retaining knowledge of what I am doing. That’s why I can’t understand professional musicians who have entire careers without ever learning how to read music. That’s like someone deciding to become a surgeon and not bothering to study anatomy. “Oh, I’ll figure out what everything is and where as I go along.”

Singers, especially opera singers, are notorious music illiterates. And some of them will brag about it, like it’s some great accomplishment. Country picker Roy Clark announced on TV once that he couldn’t read a note and seemed proud of that fact. I thought, Well, that ain’t nothing to brag about! Hie thee to a conservatory! Prolific songwriter Irving Berlin never learned how to read music, and it’s reported that Jerry Herman and Paul McCartney still haven’t learned, after all those hit musical shows, songs and compositions that they have “written.” I can’t understand why these people can’t learn just by doing repeatedly.

My exceptional sight-reading ability, and that includes rhythmic proficiency, as well as diction, language and interpretational skills, are the reasons why I have been able to maintain constant work. Many choral jobs give a minimum of rehearsal time, so the best readers and musicians are the ones who get the gigs. Most chorus directors don’t have the time or inclination to be teaching notes to people. And for my part, I don’t have the patience. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of singing is to be able to pick up a piece of music I’ve never seen before and perform it at sight. It has gotten back to me, when someone has inquired about my sight-reading ability—”Can he read?! That Cliff can read fly shit! Get up there on the music stand and he’ll read you!” I very seldom anymore encounter music that presents any kind of serious reading challenge.

Well, yeah, I’m good, but as I said, nobody’s perfect, and I did meet my waterloo once during a live performance of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, in front of New York’s City Hall, soon after I moved here. My friend Donna Brown, who was at the time a conducting student at Juilliard, hired me as a “ringer” for the gig. She had been working with a group of young amateurs who knew the piece quite well, I thought, but Donna thought that they needed some professional help. That’s what a ringer is. We help out amateur groups who may be deficient in certain sections. I have done many ringer jobs as part of my freelance activities, because I can just come right in and sight-read the concert, if need be.

But Ms. Brown had too much confidence in me on this particular occasion. One does not just sight-read Stravinsky on no rehearsal, I don’t care how good you think you are! I had never seen, sung or even heard the piece before that day. It’s very tricky, rhythmically, with mixed meter throughout, typical Stravinsky. I got down there to the job, Donna handed me a score, and on no rehearsal, we launched right into the piece. I thought the kids were fantastic. They had obviously worked on the thing a lot and had it down pat. I’m already thinking, These kids are doing just fine. Donna doesn’t need me here. Being totally unfamiliar with the music, I promptly got lost. I’m standing there watching the notes go by—lost back! In a too-loud whisper, I asked the person next to me, ‘Where the fuck are we?!’ I hate being unprepared like that. Donna still paid me, nonetheless, and if I hadn’t needed the money so badly, I would have felt a little guilty about taking it.

A few years later Donna again hired me for a ringer job. By this time she was serving as the music director at Reverend Ike’s church in Harlem. Rev. Ike was a popular, flamboyant, though charismatic, evangelist. I learned that he just died recently, but I had not heard anything about him in a long time anyway. On this occasion he was having some big to-do one Sunday afternoon at his church, and Donna asked me to come help out her choir. This place looked more like an auditorium, as it had a curtained stage at one end. I don’t remember what they sang that day (although the music was not difficult this time), because I was rather “detached” during the singing. You see, Donna neglected to tell me what to wear to the gig, if she even knew herself.

Church choirs usually don robes or other vestments, and I had come there directly from my regular church job earlier that day, so I didn’t get to go home to change. I was not wearing a tie, which is apparently what was required. So since I was “out of uniform,” instead of standing with the choir, I was asked (not by Donna but by some other person there) to do my singing from behind the curtain, where I would not be seen! Have you ever heard of anything so idiotic? They didn’t give a hoot about my vocal contribution—I just had to be dressed properly! I felt utterly humiliated and even more, rather ticked off. That time I was glad to take the money! I think I learned my lesson that day about these impromptu, Donna Brown ringer jobs.

When people ask me what do I do and I tell them that I am a singer primarily, they will then ask, “What (or where) do you sing?” My reply is, ‘Wha’daya got?’ or, ‘wherever they’ll have me.’ I’ll sing anything, and I don’t limit myself to any one type of music or to one vocal category, therefore, giving me more work opportunities. I am considered a bass-baritone by classification, but having been blessed with a very large vocal range (Bb below the bass staff to top-line F on the treble staff, on good days; that’s three-and-a-half octaves), I have, on occasion, been required to sing all the other voice parts as well.

I know some musical snobs who will tell me, “I am a soloist. I don’t do chorus.” Yeah, and you don’t work much either, do you? Singers who tell me that, I am inclined to question their musicianship, because more often than not, the reason that they don’t “do” chorus is because they can’t or find it to be too difficult. They probably can’t read or count or they haven’t learned how to sing with other people or blend for an ensemble sound. Good choral singing is not as easy as some people might think. It requires teamwork, everyone working toward a common goal. The word ensemble itself means “together,” and singing in unison (meaning, “one sound”) is especially not an easy feat. Everyone has to do the same thing at exactly the same time. Doing your own thing does not work in a chorus.

I love ensemble singing, especially acappella—that is, singing without any instrumental accompaniment. I like to rehearse, when I’m learning new music, but some conductors tend to over-rehearse, and that’s when I get annoyed. Okay, we’ve done it several times now, it sounds fabulous, let’s move on to something else…please!

My interest in acting was instilled in me at the same time as my growing passion for singing. I appeared in my first stage show when I was in first or second grade, playing a forest squirrel in a musical version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I actually wrote and starred in a little playlet as a class assignment while in 5th grade. I wasn’t so retentive about saving things in those days, so I have no tangible evidence of it. I don’t remember what the assignment was or what the play was about, I only remember having done it and that it had a “traditional family” setting.

I got to participate in practically every school show produced during my elementary and high school years. One of my favorites was The Trial of Billy Scott, a play with a court setting and an English language theme. The title character was on trial for using improper grammar. The witnesses represented the parts of speech and had such names as Addie Adjective and Adam Adverb. I enjoyed playing the Judge, at which I got to bang my gavel a lot and tell everybody to shut up.

In addition, my church operated a Theater Guild group that put on plays several times a year: Christmas and Easter pageants and a play for the summer months. I had a part in all of them as well. Some titles that I remember are: Appointment in Galilee, Barabbas, The First Supper, Simon Called Peter, Sarah and the Sax, Sure As You’re Born (in which I played a father whose teenage son turns into a girl overnight!), They Put on a Play, and one that I don’t remember the name of, in which I played a mischievous, Dennis the Menace-type character named Oswald Carpenter. I appeared in a junior-high production of Tom Sawyer, which I discuss in my blog, Racism via Show Business.

There was an adult community amateur theatrical organization called the H.T. Burleigh Company (named for the Afro-American composer) and directed by James Lewis Casady, who was also Central’s drama teacher, and Ms. Josephine Curtis, which put on occasional operas and operettas. One year, when I was about 12, they did Bizet’s Carmen (in English), and I, as well as a bunch of my homies, were cast as boy (pretend) soldiers in the children’s chorus of Act I. Carmen was my first opera, it was the first one I ever listened to on record, and it is the opera that I have performed the most times—so far, 58 performances, not counting the numerous run-through rehearsals I’ve had of it.

The other shows I did with Central’s chorus and drama club, the Barnstormers, were Carousel, The Hither and Thither of Danny Dither (a fun show), The King and I and The Mouse That Roared. I rehearsed Leave It to Jane but ultimately didn’t get to do it, because on the night of the performance, I was attending Spanish Contest in Bloomington. Poe was a production of the author’s stories and poems dramatized and/or set to music. (# Helen, thy beauty is to me like those Nicaean barks of yore… #)—and we once did a summertime revue which featured the music of Rudolf Friml.

While attending Indiana University in Bloomington, I participated in seven musicals, four of them being performed in campus banquet halls, in which we used the entire space, sort of like “theater-in-the-surround.” In addition to doing chorus in two separate productions of Camelot , I had the bit part of one of two of Morgan Le Fey’s flunky entourage, referred to collectively as her “Court.” The two of us were dressed in black leotards, and when our mistress would enter and yell “Court!” we had to scurry down ladders from the balcony at the back of the hall and then back up again when she exited the scene. One of our Morgans was played by future professional opera diva Pamela Hebert.

The choreographer for Finian’s Rainbow was Steven Gelfer (now deceased), who was in the original cast of Cats when it opened on Broadway. One of my fellow choristers in that same show was Gary Tomlin, who with me played the two Geologists. Gary went on to become a successful TV producer, director and writer for such daytime dramas as “All My Children,” “Days of Our Lives,” “General Hospital,” “One Life to Live,” “Passions” and  “Sunset Beach.”

I enjoyed doing 110 in the Shade, which is the musical version of The Rainmaker, because it had a picnic scene in which we actually got to eat real food (catered sandwiches, potato salad and other stuff) at rehearsals and every performance. I love free food wherever I can get it! I must have worked behind the scenes for The Boys from Syracuse, because although I remember the production of the show very well–the songs and all–I don’t remember actually performing in it.

The music department, employing students and faculty members, performed a major opera every single weekend of the school year. As Wagner’s Parsifal was an annual occurrence, most music students got to participate in it at least once while there. I, myself, was in the chorus one year, as well as in a summer session production of his Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.

During my last year there I ventured out of the Music School to do the I.U. Theater production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, a Theatre-of-the-Absurd piece. This was my biggest role to date in a major dramatic work. I played The Governor, a pompous, character part, and I got to do an extensive monologue and even a mock dying scene! We did six performances in November-December 1968. My mother and sister made a special trip down to Bloomington to see me in it.

Partial Cast of I.U.’s production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” (left to right: Don Saine, Thursa Crittenden, me, William Ferguson

My several jobs while I was stationed in Okinawa for 17 months (October ‘70-March ‘72), at different times, were a gate guard at a missile site, playing oboe and clarinet in the 29th Army Band and serving as the company mail clerk. My other extra curricular music activities consisted of singing (and conducting for a while) with the local Sukiran Choir and with the Okinawa Choral Society, which were made up of military personnel, resident American civilians and their spouses. For specific details, see My Combatless Tour-of-Duty.

You’ve heard of beginner’s luck. For the very first show audition I ever attended in NYC, I got hired. It was for a New Jersey dinner theater production of Man of La Mancha (March-April 1973), in which I played one of the singing Muleteers. The show opens in a Spanish prison with me strumming a guitar (I did my own playing, thank you) and chanting to accompany an exotic dancer. (# Ahhh, ahhh, esta fuego, esta fuego, ahh! #) One night during the overture, while we were waiting for the curtain to go up, one of the cast members, Jim Ackerson, gave me this mock introduction. “Now appearing on the Club Bené stage, let’s give a warm New Jersey welcome to that lovely, new Flamenco singing sensation, Señorita Esta Fuego!”

I also was called upon to accompany the Muleteers with my own guitar on “Little Bird, Little Bird.” I was just learning how to play the thing and I foolhardily volunteered when the director asked if anyone played the guitar. I did, however, learn the few chords required for the song, so cast, crew and audience were none the wiser about my convincingly-deceiving beginnership.

I had so wanted to do the part of the Innkeeper. His scene includes some dialogue and a good song, during which he dubs Don Quixote “Knight of the Woeful Countenance.” But alas, somebody else got the part. This was a quite physical show for me. There were a couple of choreographed fight scenes, where I was required to do some falling and tumbling across the stage. I was young and spry in those days, so it was rather fun. Appearing in that same production with me was Nancy Lane, who went on from there to star on Broadway in the original cast of A Chorus Line. She later had a recurring role on TV‘s “Rhoda.”

The very next year and at the same place and time, I did another Finian’s Rainbow. This time I had to “jump diva” with the producers about my salary. On the day before we opened, I discovered that there were two pay scales: $50 a week for the three principles and $40 for the chorus and dancers. Isn’t that pitiful, even for then? I was being offered only $40, although I was doing chorus plus four other minor but important roles. I even had three featured solo numbers. I thought that I deserved the higher pay, as I was doing more in the show than even the one-role principles. They resisted until I threatened to quit. I told them that if they could find somebody to replace me by tomorrow night, go ahead and do it.

Of course, they couldn’t, so they realized that I had them over a barrel, and they had to pay me what I asked for. It was the principle of the thing. I knew that $10 was not going to break them, and I refused to sell myself short. One of my costars, as the other “Passion Pilgrim Gospeleer,” who performed “The Begat” with me and Senator Rawkins as a trio (it’s supposed to be a quartet), was the then-unknown Armelia McQueen, who went on to star on Broadway in the original cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’, and from there to Hollywood to work in motion pictures (Sparkle, Ghost, Bulworth) and commercials.

I have starred in two summer stock productions of Show Boat, portraying Joe (who else?). The first one, the following August 1974, was at Surflight Summer Theater in Beach Haven, New Jersey, where I received the best review of my career. Reporter Knight Cragin (whom I don’t even know and have never met) wrote in The Beachcomber, “The highest accolade of the evening must go to Cliff Townsend as Joe. What can be more beautiful than a silhouetted figure whose every muscle is engaged in producing pure, perfect sound? Mr. Townsend’s rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River,’ backed up by a surprisingly-powerful male chorus, is evidence of one of the most professional voices we have heard at the Surflight in many a year.” How about that? Surflight was owned by the same people who produced the shows at Club Bené, and as they did ask me directly to do Joe for them, I guess they hadn’t held our prior salary dispute against me.

The second time I did the show was 1982 at Genetti Dinner Playhouse in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Although it was August, I caught a terrible cold from being assigned to lodge in a cold, damp room, which caused me to lose my voice two days before the show opened. I can usually sing with a head or chest cold without it affecting my voice, as long as it doesn’t settle on my vocal cords. But that’s just what happened this time. The management did move me to a another room, but the damage had already been done. I didn’t completely get my voice back until about the second night, but I must have been good enough to merit some favorable reviews from the local papers.

“Show Boat” Cast at Genetti Playhouse in Hazelton, Pa., 1982

This time the producers of the show gave me a special “And” billing in the printed programs. You know, when they list all the cast members and then at the end, you get “…and Cliff Townsend as Joe.” I consider that quite an honor. Another actor in the cast of this production was Michael Gargiulo, who currently works as a TV news anchor on NBC. Now 35 years later with the New York Vagabonds, I was still receiving rave reviews from the masses for my rendering of “Ol’ Man River.” Of course, now that I am older, the song has more meaning for me and I can give it the proper emotional justice.

In the fall of 1974 I played in the pit orchestra for an Equity showcase musical called For the Love of Suzanne, where I quadrupled on clarinet, flute, oboe and recorder. Then a few months later (March 1975) I was the woodwind section again for a Brooklyn prep school for boys production of Damn Yankees, in which I played alto sax, clarinet, flute and recorder.

The following September I had the good fortune of being involved in a show with folksinger Oscar Brand, John Raitt (Bonnie’s dad), Jean Ritchie and Gil Robbins (Tim’s dad, who used to sing with the folk group The Highwaymen). Sing, America, Sing was a musical history of American song. It was a grand production with singing, dancing and skits, and it played for two weeks at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Among my character portrayals in the show were John Henry and Muhammad Ali. To capitalize on the upcoming Bicentennial recognition, the show was subsequently taped to be shown on PBS, and it did air several times during the next few years.

I was originally offered $500 for the broadcast, which was the fee for the dancers and ensemble, but I exerted my clout again and held out for more money when I learned that the featured players were getting $750. I was originally hired to do just ensemble, but as the show developed, and since Oscar liked my work, I was given more to do, several solos and featured spots. Again I was doing more in the show than some of the major headliners. After watching the run-through of the show for the taping, the TV folks agreed with me and decided that indeed I was entitled to the larger amount. I didn’t even mind that I didn’t receive better billing, as long as they paid me! Just show me the money! That $750 paycheck was the largest I had ever received at that time.

My own Bicentennial contribution was to be an all-black version of 1776, which I co-produced and directed with my friend Leo Warbington, as well as acted in (as Secretary Charles Thomson) and did the choral arrangements. We thought it would be a novel and revolutionary approach to have the members of the Second Continental Congress and creators of the Declaration of Independence to be played by Afro-American actors. Observing black men discussing and arguing about slavery and British tyranny really put a new perspective on freedom and our American civilization. It certainly would have made people realize the absurdity and the hypocrisy of it all.

We did put on a one-night showcase performance in June 1976, which was intended as a backers’ audition, but that’s as far as it went. It’s not that the show wasn’t any good. I think that it is a brilliant piece of work, and we had the talent and the know-how. It was that there were conflicts of interest, a lack of commitment by some and no money to pay people to do what needed to be done. But I enjoyed the experience, nonetheless. If I had the financial means, I would love to attempt it again, and do it right next time.

In September 1976 I was back at the Kennedy Center in a show produced by the U.S. Labor Department and billed as a “Bicentennial salute to the American worker in words and music.” The show was called Something To Do, and it starred Pearl Bailey, with music by Morton Gould and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh. I was in the ensemble chorus again (with Robert DeCormier at the helm), but I had some featured solo bits as well. The songs were great.

One night after rehearsal, “Pearlie Mae” invited a few of the male choristers, me included, to have a snack with her and her daughter, Dee Dee Bellson, at the Howard Johnson’s across the street from the Center. She apparently preferred the company of gay men to the women of the chorus (an apparent fag hag). We had such a grand time camping and laughing with her that night.

Alas, Pearl and Morton and Bob and Carolyn are all gone now. My major disappointment is that the show (as far as I know) was not formally recorded. I so wish we had done an “Original Cast Album” for posterity. I don’t understand why it wasn’t done. I mean, these were major composers and a major entertainer. Were they not thinking? It’s an artistic event that may be lost forever.

The Wiz (which is, of course, a reworking of The Wizard of Oz) was my first Actors’ Equity show, performed in-the-round at Westbury (Jericho, Long Island) and Valley Forge (in Devon, Pennsylvania) Music Fairs for two weeks in June 1979. That show really kept me busy. In addition to my speaking roles as Dorothy’s Uncle Henry, the Royal Gatekeeper and the Lord High Underling, I also played a Maniacal Laughing Stranger, a Quadling (one of Glinda’s escorts), a Winkie (one of Evilene’s flunkies), sang in the pit chorus (quartet, actually), turned the house during the tornado scene and served as Understudy for the Cowardly Lion! They had me running from beginning of the show until the end. I had to do eight quick costume changes.

What a fabulous show! I had so much fun playing multiple characters, allowing me to stretch my acting chops. Fortunately, I did not have to go on as the Lion during our run, as I had only one rehearsal and I was in no way prepared to do it. I wish that they had filmed the piece like it is instead of completely changing it for that abysmal 1978 movie version that Diana Ross ruined. Our Glinda was played by Ann Duquesnay, who won a Tony Award in 1996 for Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk and fellow cast members Richard Allen, Neisha Folkes, Ira Hawkins and Edward Love went on to do movie and television work. Although Westbury is still in operation, the Valley Forge venue closed its doors in 1996.

When I got the call in the late spring of 1989 to portray Daddy Warbucks in an elementary school production of Annie, I readily jumped at it. Every couple of years I feel the need to do a play. New York City Opera had satisfied my “stagelust” for the last 5 years, but that was all choral work, and I had not yet joined The Flirtations, so a chance to do a character part where I get to sing solo (and even dance somewhat!), too, was appealing to me. I didn’t know that I would be working with such rank amateurs, though—I mean the other adults involved. I don’t fault the children. Of course, they were all amateurs. But most of them behaved more professionally than some of the grownups. Principal players would come to rehearsals only when they felt like it, and even when they did deign to show up, they would be unprepared. I made every rehearsal and always had my shit together. So I stuck it out for the two performances in June, and I was pleased with my own performance. I never received a cent for all my hard work, although I initially had been promised some kind of compensation.

And, in case you are wondering, no, I did not shave my head. Why should I? I didn’t make myself white either, did I? I once attended replacement auditions for the Broadway production of Ain’t Misbehavin’. I must have somewhat impressed the producers with my audition, because they asked me afterwards if I would be willing to gain some weight in order to look more like the corpulent Ken Page, whom I would be replacing. I didn’t protest to them at the time but I thought later, Why do I have to look like Ken Page, just because he was the first one to play the part? I realized later on that Page’s characterization was supposed to be Fats Waller, who was fat. So they had wanted me to emulate Waller, not necessarily Ken Page. Now my gaining more weight would not even be an issue, as I am already there! But as it turned out, it didn’t matter anyway, because I did not get a callback.

Here is a life-imitating-art scenario. An episode of “Boston Legal” (one of my favorite TV series), had a court case where a little grade-school girl is being denied the role of Annie in her school production because she is black. Her lawyer, Alan Shore (played by James Spader), argued, “Why can’t a black child play Annie or anything else?”, especially since this girl is much better than the little white girl who is up for the same part? So now years later there really is a movie featuring a black Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) and with Jamie Foxx playing the “Warbucks” character, whose name and position have been changed to reflect modern times. I take satisfaction in that I got to do it first.

In January 1996 I did an Off-Off-Broadway, 12-performance run of Thomas Bogdan’s L’Amour Bleu, which is described as a “musical masque on gay themes.” I was one of a five-man vocal ensemble. In December 1997 I did a 12-performance run of Bob Kindred and Anne Phillips’ Bending Towards the Light—A Jazz Nativity, which has been an annual Christmas presentation since 1985. I was merely a member of the chorus this time, performing with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Tito Puente, Lew Soloff (of Blood, Sweat & Tears), Grady Tate and Clark Terry, at the Lamb’s Theater on Broadway. In December 2003 I was again hired to participate, but this time as part of the solo jazz quartet used in the show. We did it in Trenton, New Jersey that time.

My next recurring solo stage project (December 1999) was a modern, one-act Christmas opera entitled Elijah’s Angel and written by Robert Kapilow and Jim Friedland. In this I portrayed Elijah, a woodcarver who makes a wooden angel as a Christmas gift for his young Jewish apprentice, much to the chagrin of the boy’s orthodox grandfather. When I was first offered the part I had just one week to learn the thing (22 pages of music), but I did and, by all accounts, did an exceptional job with the role. I was even asked back the next three years to do it again. I wish I had a recording of this performance as well. But thankfully, all of these jobs were for pay at least.

My friend and New York Vagabond colleague, Gabriel Raphael DeAngelo (do you think that he might be Italian-Catholic?), taught music at a high school in Westchester County, NY, and every year he would put on a musical for the community, using his school kids. In 1999 the production was The Music Man, and he asked me to participate with the show. He wanted a few professional voices to “enhance” the student chorus, and since I do like the show, I agreed to do it for him—three performances plus a dress rehearsal.

In the show are four roles for a barbershop quartet that get to do three featured numbers, and quite difficult ones at that. The first song that they do, “Sincere,” went so badly at the dress rehearsal, that Gabe was about to cut it from the show, but I talked him into letting me work with the boys before the next night’s first performance. After only a minimum amount of musical coaching from me, not only did we get the song up to performance level, but it turned out to be one of the best-received highlights of the show. They then became my personal responsibility during the run of the show. It was I that the boys came to when they had a musical question and when they wanted to rehearse their numbers. To give you some idea of the difficulty involved, here is my own Clifftones rendition of “Ice Cream / Sincere.”

In addition to singing along on the chorus numbers, I conducted the orchestra at the times when their regular conductor would be playing trombone (we were in another room, out of view of the audience). I also helped Gabe move furniture and stage props and even held the backstage curtain open for mass exits and entrances. I didn’t mind at all remaining behind the scenes on this occasion. This was their show, but they apparently appreciated my assistance and encouragement. And Gabe did pay me for my time and effort.

A few years later Gabe asked me and a few other singers to help him out with his high school production of Anything Goes. All I had to do this time was sing the little bit of chorus there is in the show. It was actually a waste of my time and their money, in my opinion, because I believe that our contribution did not add all that much. I don’t think that their performances (four this time) would have suffered at all without our input. I feel that way about many of the ringer jobs that I am called upon to do. It’s really cheating, or false advertising, if you will, when an amateur group boasts its competence and then hires professionals to augment them in performance. That says that the director does not trust his people to do an adequate, quality job by themselves. If I were these choristers, I probably would resent it. But since these ringer jobs provide a major portion of employment for me, I can’t be against them too much. When they want me, I always comply. I just take the money and run!

In August 2010 Gabe elicited my help again for a summer children’s theater production of the Arlen-Harburg The Wizard of Oz, put on by him and his choreographer wife, Francesca, and held in a high school in White Plains, NY. This time Gabe hired some friends and me to work behind the scenes as the stage crew for the show. We had to move sets and props, raise and lower backdrops, and then strike everything when it was over. The cast was made up of teens and tweens, all girls, except for one boy who played the Wizard and Professor Marvel. The kids all did a good job. They danced well and knew their lines.

In February and March of 2001 I was involved with a different kind of theatrical production. It is called Wayang Esther: A Javanese Purimspiel, which is an operetta by Barbara Benary that uses shadow puppets and gamelan music to retell the Book of Esther, which recounts the basis of the Jewish holiday of Purim. The format of wayang kulit is an ancient theater tradition of Java, in which ornately carved, flat leather puppets are used to tell stories as well as to entertain. Gamelans, by the way, are exotic-sounding, makeshift metallic percussion instruments, which are played with mallets. This time I got to play the evil villain of the piece, Haman, who, as the King’s (Ahasueros) Prime Minister, went behind the King’s back and ordered the elimination of all the Jews in the empire, not knowing or caring that Queen Esther was also a Jewess herself. So Hitler was not the first with a similar mission. But unlike Hitler, Haman’s genocide plot was thwarted before he was able to carry it out.

In addition to Haman, I also did the character part of one of two Conspirators who plots to murder the King, and I was part of the solo quartet that performed all the chorus numbers. It was not required that we memorize the play, as we merely provided the voices for the puppets. But I still had to act and use different voices for my characters. We did eight performances at a tiny theater in Tribeca (a neighborhood in lower Manhattan) and one more in Rockland County.

One year later, in late January 2002, I inadvertently became involved with a semi-professional, Mystery Dinner Theatre production of The Reunion at Bonnell High, a musical play put on by the Theatre Fellowship of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. In the play, Bonnell High School’s beloved music teacher, Norman Conway, has recently fallen to his death from the campus bell tower. Was it suicide, or was he pushed? The many suspects are all gathered at the school’s alumni reunion, where over dinner the audience members discern clues by which to solve the mystery, the winners receiving a prize. The reunion dinner serves as a tribute to the dear, departed Norman, at which his colleagues and students perform musical numbers while they discuss among themselves what might have happened to him.

The playwright and director, Beth Kuhn, with whom I have worked in the past, asked me to arrange the song “(You Gotta Have) Heart” from Damn Yankees for acappella quartet, to be sung in the show. I did a rush (but quite adequate) job on the arrangement, but it turned out that they didn’t have a bass to sing the bottom part. So I agreed to come in at the last minute to sing the part myself. There were three performances of the show, but I could not do the last one because of a prior (for pay) engagement in Connecticut.

In December 1986 I got involved with a for-fun jazz chorus, directed by composer-arranger Ned Paul Ginsberg. We met once a week to read through Ned’s vocal jazz charts. That is where I met Michael Callen, my Flirtations colleague, for the first time. One whole year later we finally got to perform, as the New York Singers’ Orchestra. The group disbanded immediately after, which is just as well, because I was quitting anyway. I decided that a year of my time for no pay was all they were going to get from me.

But Ned and I did not lose contact over the years. He once hired me to record a demo for a song that he wrote, and in August 2007 he called me again to see if I would be interested to work on his new project, a musical entitled Boynton Beach Club, which is based on the 2006 movie of the same name (lyrics by Michael Colby). It’s about a senior citizens community in South Florida and deals with love, dating, sex, loss and friendship. The show contains some decent, tuneful songs. Ned had us audition some numbers for Susan Seidelman, the writer and director of the film, who was interested in directing the musical version as well. Even a demo recording was made of some of the songs, and one of them, “Dirty Old Men,” features five male characters, all in their sixties, who speak of themselves in lecherous terms as they ogle a young, female nude model whom the men are sketching during a weekly art class.

Some months later I ran into Ned at the grocery store (he lives in my neighborhood) and he asked me if I had ever done any acting (well, duh!) and would I be interested in repeating the part of Milton (one of the lead character’s wise-cracking, card-playing buddies) in his show, as the project was still on and progressing. I told him, ’Yeah, sure!’ and he said that I would be hearing from him about it.

Well, when I received an e-mail from Ned with the cast breakdown, I was totally floored! Among the names on the list were Robert Cuccioli (who starred on Broadway in Jekyll & Hyde and Les Miserables), Ernestine Jackson (Guys and Dolls and Raisin), Donna McKechnie (Promises, Promises and A Chorus Line) and Karen Ziemba (Steel Pier and Curtains). By going after reputable veterans of Broadway musicals, they must be serious about this thing!

In June 2008 we did a semi-staged reading of the entire show for an invited audience of prospective producers, backers and other interested parties. I had very few spoken lines but I had several solo bits in six of the songs. Alas, Karen Ziemba, who had a leading part in the play, got sick just before the performance and had to be replaced. Among those who attended the reading were Len Cariou, who starred in the film version and Merle Louise, the original Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd on Broadway. During rehearsals I got to chat with Ms. McKechnie at length. She looked fabulous and still sounded good.

The next year I got a call from Ned that they were doing another showcase of the show and he was hoping I would repeat my role. But first I must audition for the new director for his approval. Alas, Gabriel Barre decided to go with somebody else instead of me. His lame excuse was that I don’t have enough acting experience. What, he doesn’t consider 57 years enough?! If he didn’t want me, why didn’t he just say that? Why do people have to make up stuff, thinking that they are sparing my feelings? Just be honest. Ned, at least, was disappointed that he didn’t use me, when it turned out that my replacement was not so good. I did attend the performance and I quite agree. This guy was not as good as I am, and I would admit it if he had been. I don’t regret it that much, though, because at least I got to be in the original production with all those Broadway stars.

But it wasn’t over yet. Ned contacted me again at the first of 2011 to hire me for another reading of the show (with revisions) and a trimmed down cast, which required us to play multiple parts. We did the reading in February, in a rented rehearsal studio with an invited audience of prospective backers. And a year later we did the show yet again, but in Florida! We were flown there and back and did four performances in a real theatre in Lake Worth. This time out I got to work with Alan Campbell (who starred in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway with Glenn Close, Betty Buckley and Elaine Page), Heather MacRae (daughter of Gordon and Sheila), and Nora Mae Lyng and Barbara Walsh (from Forbidden Broadway). I was paid each time, too. We’re still hoping for a staged production some day on Broadway, perhaps, or even Off-.

In 2010 I was pleased to be offered the lead role in a non-theatrical but semi-staged production of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars, which is a musical version of Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. I played a South African preacher who discovers that his errant son has shot and killed a white man, who happens to be the son of an acquaintance of his. I had four solo songs to sing in the show and we included enough of the dialogue to tell the story and to set up the musical numbers. This one-performance event took place on Father‘s Day in June 2010 in a church, with piano accompaniment and their amateur Community Chorus to provide the choral ensemble. This role was an appropriate fit for me. I was even the right age for the character, and the songs I got to do showed off my baritone voice. The pay was pretty good, too, for the minimum amount of rehearsals I was asked to attend.

The same ensemble decided to do the same show again in June 2013, but I wasn’t asked back to do it again. They had money to hire an orchestra this time. I attended the performance out of curiosity about my replacement. This guy, too, was not as good as I think I was, and several people connected with the prior production told me as much and told me how much they missed me. It was explained to me that politics was involved, and the people who were funding the project wanted Gregory Sheppard specifically to do the part. I didn’t mind all that much. I got to do it before, and I was spared the extra work required, as the dialogue scenes this time had to be memorized.

I got to act in a few straight plays, too, here in the City (and I do mean “straight”!). The first was a set of three original one-act plays (all dealing with death) with an all-male cast by T.J. Camp III, collectively called Habitués. The first play, Shark, consists of six characters, and I had a starring role as a golf caddy at a restricted country club. The play ends with the murder of one of us–not me. But I wasn’t the killer either.

In the second, The Return of Captain D.B. Amatucci, I had to play a corpse. I was really serving as a human prop, and that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do on stage. The 30-minute play is set in an Army morgue in Vietnam. Every night I had to lie on a table, butt naked (although the director had the good taste to cover me, except my head, with a sheet), in full view of the audience for the entire duration of the play, while the action went on around me. I had to keep my breathing indiscernible, and I couldn’t cough or scratch or anything. It was sheer agony. I have the greatest admiration for those people who can play living statues.

The third play, Fit for Consumption, is about three men trapped in a coal mine and contemplating eventual cannibalism in order to stay alive, while the rest of the cast members, me included, served as the wall of the mine. Dressed all in black, all we had to do was stand there on a dark stage. You know, it’s harder not doing something than it is to do something. I was in two productions of Habitués (for no pay) in two different Manhattan theaters (November 1973 and March 1974).

I did not get paid either for The Left-Hand Mirror by William McQueen, my first Broadway show, which played only four performances in 1977 at the now-demolished Bijou Theater. In this piece I was required to seduce and make out with a sexy woman at a party. That was really a stretch for me!

I got into the opera chorus scene in 1976, where I have been introduced to new and obscure works as well as the old standards. To date, I have performed 63 different operas from A to Z (Abelard and Heloise to Die Zauberflöte) with 31 different opera and dance companies. For those interested in which ones, I have listed them all at the end of this article. I did 7 seasons with the New York City Opera Associate Chorus (at Lincoln Center), 7 seasons with the New Jersey State Opera (in Newark) and 8 seasons with the New York Grand Opera, which performed in Central Park in the summertime. Other companies operated out of Hackensack, NJ and Stamford, Conn.

The operas in which I have had solo bits are Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, in which I played the Page twice and understudied King Balthazar another time. I did Parson Alltalk in a concert performance of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha in Morristown, NJ. I got to do both the Customhouse Sergeant and the Customhouse Officer in two productions of Puccini’s La Boheme in Central Park. In La Contessa dei Vampiri by David Clenny (a schoolmate of mine at I.U.), I sang the role of an Italian vampire! I did a semi-staged, concert performance of Puccini’s rarely-produced second opera, Edgar, in which I sang the small role of Gualtiero plus soli chorus.

I first appeared on the Metropolitan Opera stage on Christmas Eve 1975, when, due to a shortage of supers (non-vocal extras), I was asked to fill in at that night’s performance of…wouldn’t you know it!—Carmen. All I was required to do was to walk across the stage during the parade scene in the last act, but I was given shoes that didn’t fit, and they wouldn’t stay on my feet. I pretty much hobbled out on the stage, dragging my shoes across with me.

I didn’t make my official singing debut at the Met until July 1984, when I appeared there with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, performing (in the chorus) their most popular work, Revelations, which is a set of traditional spirituals set to dance, and that I got to do for many years. That same weekend I also debuted at NY City Opera in The Magic Flute.

The production that I enjoyed doing the most at NYCO was Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which we did in two separate seasons. It was quite a physical show for the chorus, which I liked. There was choreography for us, dancing, fighting, cavorting in a brothel, and a great auction scene where we all took on characters and actually got to act. The sets and costumes were fabulous and very stylized. I had to wear whiteface makeup, with black or red lips, and a picture taken of me in my getup appeared with a review in New York magazine.

Appearing in The Rake's Progress at NYCO
Appearing in The Rake’s Progress at NYCO

I once did, what I call an “instant Aida” because it was a major production with large chorus and orchestra, the works, performed with no rehearsal whatsoever, at least for our part! I was called on the phone, told the when and where, and we all showed up at the theater on the night of the performance and did it. We were fitted for our costumes right there on the spot. The director gathered us all on stage just before the curtain arose on each act and gave us our blocking. I was amazed at how well it all turned out.

Another scheduled big production of Aida in New Jersey never happened. It was to be done in a stadium with a “cast of thousands,” live animals (even elephants) and everything. But before we even began rehearsals, I was contacted that the show had been cancelled, and since we had committed ourselves to this production, turning down other work that may have come along at the same time, our union insisted that we be paid anyway. It was the biggest check I ever received for doing absolutely nothing! I did feel justified, however, because that money made up for some of the professional singing jobs I have done over the years that I didn’t get paid for but should have (like the aforementioned Annie, for instance!).

Another time that some people wasted some money (well, I didn’t waste it!) was when I was hired as a ringer for a minor opera company out of New Jersey to sing chorus and a bit solo part in La Boheme. There were two separate productions in different places, but under the same auspices. I was offered a fee of $300 for 3 rehearsals and a staged performance, which I accepted, although I believe that their amateur chorus would have done just as well without me. Four trips to Harrison, NY was not so bad, and I got a ride each time. When it was time for the second show, two weeks later, in Bayville, South Jersey, I was paid an extra $50 to sing just one word in the third act! I didn’t have to do chorus or anything else.

There are three bit solo parts for bass in the 3rd Act (six short lines altogether) of a Tollgate Official, a Customs Officer and a Sergeant, which, if necessary for economy’s sake, all can easily be done by one person, as I have done myself on earlier occasions. So they hired another guy, probably for the same fee, with which to share these few lines. Darren Stokes, the other singer, got the larger share, and I was left with a single one-word line (#Vuoto.#–Empty). This was a waste of money, in my opinion, as he or I alone could have done it all, if not me, then he. But, hey! If they want to spend their money unnecessarily, I will just take it, and run. However, since it took 9 hours out of my life to do that one word, with the travel and the waiting around, I think my time is worth more than fifty dollars. On numerous occasions I have certainly made more money in a shorter length of time.

But then I sometimes get conned into doing more work for less money. In 2017 I got asked by a colleague to sing bass in the small chorus of a semi-staged, abridged, summer production of Treemonisha. As I wasn’t doing anything else at the time, I agreed to be a part of it. The fee offered was $300, which already seemed ridiculously low for the time and work involved. The four trips I had to make to Newark, NJ were for three rehearsals and a performance, transportation costs not included. But then they tacked on another show, Nat Turner to be done a couple of weeks later, which required several more rehearsals and trips out to New Jersey. I then learned that the $300 fee was for the whole shebang, not just for the Treemonisha. That means that the first opera paid only $150 by itself. I considered it an insult that they would even ask me to work for mere peanuts, and I only went through with it because I had made the commitment. I was not obligated to do Nat Turner, however, so I gracefully did bow out before rehearsals began.

I sometimes rationalize that any amount of money is better than none, but I also have to draw the line and not sell myself too cheaply. I figured out that the time and commitment that I put in for Treemonisha came to just $5.47 an hour. I have set my absolute minimum wage at $10 an hour, and if you can’t manage even that, then don’t call me. I would rather not work at all than be disrespected like that. I have more than earned my dues, and I should be paid accordingly for my time, expertise, experience and worth.

My most recent singing gig was in August 2018, when I was asked to participate in a world premiere choral experience. The piece is called In the Name of the Earth and was composed by John Luther Adams. The acappella chorus comprised of four separate choirs, about 600 singers in all, and the text was to celebrate North America with geographical place names. The work also employs sound effects of wind, waves, tinkling bells and the tapping of rocks. The piece was intended to be performed in Central Park in the great outdoors, but it rained on the day of the performance and had to be moved inside to St. John the “Unfinished” (the Divine). From what I could tell, the singing was glorious, but the music itself left something to be desired. It was redundant and repetitious. A friend of mine who attended, later told me that he had finally discovered a form of music that he hates even more than rap. I was in no position to disagree with him.

Although I did audition for the Met opera chorus several times, I never got in. I was so sure that Porgy and Bess would be my way into the Company, and I think I did a good audition, too, but they still didn’t hire me. David Stivender, the chorus master at the time, just didn’t like me, for some reason.  I realize now that life had other plans for me.  If I had gotten into the Met chorus back then, I might still be there. That job is a commitment. It’s like being in a Broadway show.  It doesn’t allow any time to do anything else but that.  It pays so well that people don’t want to leave, and it’s good employment security.  So while I’m tied down to the Met, I would not have been available for the New York Vagabonds, for one thing, when it came along, and I would have missed out on all those fabulous cruises that I got to go on, which was a new experience for me, versus something that I had been doing for many years before, that is, opera chorus. So you see, things happen for a reason.  It’s like when Jennifer Hudson got eliminated early from the “American Idol” competition.  If she had won, her career would have taken a different path and she probably would have missed out on Dreamgirls, which earned her an Oscar.  

All during my 15 years doing opera chorus, I was very conscientious about learning my parts. I would write out all my lyrics and memorize them (most of them were in foreign languages), and then make a practice audio cassette tape to sing along with. But about the same time I was beginning to get busy with The Flirtations (in 1990), I found that I wasn’t enjoying the grind so much anymore.

The last show I did at NYCO was Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which was very difficult to learn and quite tedious. Then soon after, I agreed to do Verdi’s I Lombardi at New Jersey State Opera, which had a lot of chorus, was very wordy, and I did not completely learn it either. And although I loved the music, I was not enjoying the experience. So it was then that I decided it was time to hang up my jock. I no longer have the inclination or patience to learn new operas. Besides, even before I quit, my opera assignments were getting to be more and more scarce. For my second season there I was given 6 shows and 45 performances. For my last season I was given only two shows and 14 performances.

When I do operas now, they are usually concert versions, which I don’t have to memorize, or one that I already know so well and requires a minimum amount of preparation, like Carmen or Aida, for example. So The Flirtations had come along just at the right time. When that job was over, people asked me if I would be going back to City Opera. I told them, ‘No, I’ve had it with that whole scene. Been there, done that.’ As it turned out, it would have been only temporary anyway, as the company did not survive subsequent new management.

My Steamboat Gothic colleagues, Leo and Phil, often would amuse ourselves when we were together by reading through vocal trios of various styles and periods. Several we committed to memory and would perform them extemporaneously at parties and other social gatherings. We had a campy parting song that we loved to do whenever the three of us were in the same place and ready to leave together. It’s the Three Ladies’ Trio from Act I of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It proved to be quite the crowd pleaser every time that we did it. Now that both Leo and Phil are dead, I thought I would never hear it again. But since one monkey (and not even two) don’t stop the show, I realized that I don’t need those guys. I can do it myself. And did! So here it is. Have a listen.

Several years after my meeting Joan Rivers at Town Hall when I was with The Flirtations, I got to spend some time with her again in March 1999, at her NYC triplex apartment, no less! Joan was throwing a birthday dinner party for a large group of her non-celebrity friends, on the night before she was to leave for a trip to Alaska, and she requested a male quartet to entertain her guests. How did I get the job? I have connections and know the right people. Actually, it was through Gabe DeAngelo. He is the one with the right connections, apparently.

We were not yet officially the New York Vagabonds, but we all eventually became so years later. The four of us (Gabe, Joseph DeVaughn, Mark Wolff and I) dressed as “lumberjacks,” and in addition to “Happy Birthday,” we sang three snowy, winter-related songs: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” “Winter Wonderland” and my arrangement of “The Sleigh.” Joan was very gracious to us, and she looked “mahvelous”! Joan is one of those who looked better in person than on TV. She took a picture with all of us, signed my copy of her book, Enter Laughing, and I gave her my solo CD as a gift.

Pre-Vagabonds with the late Joan Rivers

During my career I have performed with 193 vocal ensembles to date, amateur and professional, many being for no pay or just for fun. During my early years in NYC, I sang with a mixed acappella madrigal quartet called Sweet Harmony. Mary Ann Fleming Bleeker was our soprano, Rae Anderson, alto, Leo on tenor and me on bass. We used to sing on the streets in Greenwich Village during the days before “buskering” became fashionable, and would often be reprimanded or even run off by the local cops on the beat, but it was great fun. The acappella West Side Singers used to meet once a week at each other’s places to read through pop standard arrangements that members of the group would contribute.

Me with Sweet Harmony (left to right: Leo Warbington, Rae Anderson and Mary Ann Fleming Bleeker)
Me with Sweet Harmony (left to right: Leo Warbington, Rae Anderson and Mary Ann Fleming Bleeker)

In more recent years I was involved with a similar situation, only this semi-amateur group (they still don’t have an official name) is hosted by Jacques Rizzo, who arranges vocal jazz charts to read through, once a month when they meet. All-in-a-Chord, another mixed reading group, never got around to performing in public, but tried to meet almost every week, when it was convenient for us. I sang with the New York Vocal Jazz Ensemble (aka Vocal Jazz Incorporated), which was once auctioned off as part of a Public Broadcasting station’s (NY’s Channel 13) fundraiser. We were used to entertain at Lucy Townsend’s (some white child) birthday party in Rye, NY.

I sang with the Triad Chorale (I still refer to it as the “Tired Chorale”) for several years until its eventual demise. I have performed with New York’s Ensemble for Early Music, the acappella male quintet constituency. I’ve sung with various “Choral Societies” around the City as a ringer mostly, and as an adult, with the Boys Choir of Harlem, the Brooklyn Boys Chorus and the Newark Boys Chorus. I’ve helped out friends with their own groups, too, over the years for no pay (but sometimes I got paid). These include Leo’s New World Singers (which became the Whitney Chorale, later changed to NY Vocal Repertory Association to NY Vocal Spectrum), Susan Glass’ Glass Menagerie, Patricia Rogers’ Classical Productions and Joseph DeVaughn’s Fifth Avenue Gospel Singers (or FAGS, for short).

One aspect of my vocal career that has remained consistent is singing in church choirs. Ever since my high school years until the present day, there has always been a “church job” available to me. I sang for years, for no pay, in the Pilgrim Baptist Church Senior and Youth Choirs in South Bend until I went away to college. My mother and grandfather, Mark Amos, were also members of the Senior Choir, so it was sort of a family affair with us. Mama even directed the youth choir for a while! As a young man, Papa Mark sang with his own male quartet, The Harmony Four, for several years.

My first paying (church) job was a solo position in a local Protestant church in Bloomington. I also soloed at various base chapels on Okinawa, which were basically non-denominational, in addition to my regular Sukiran Choir gig. Fortunately, with NYC having so many places of worship and the financial means to pay for musicians, I have been able to supplement my income in this way even when there was nothing else going on for me. As a regular or as a sub, I have experienced services of all sorts of denominations—Protestant (a Baptist church in Harlem, Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian), Roman Catholic and Jewish. I even did a Greek Orthodox service in Passaic, New Jersey once, which was conducted entirely in Greek. I found the music to be quite tedious.

I held my choir position at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea (a High Episcopal parish) the longest, about 25 years altogether. I first went there in 1982 when my friend Frank Santo became the choirmaster and stayed until he died in 1992. I didn’t care for his successor, Donald Joyce, so I quit for several years. But when Donald died in 1998 and my friend David Hurd took over, I went back again and remained there until May 2013 when the church music budget was depleted and the professional choir was discontinued. David is a first-rate musician, and the choir was quite exceptional, even though half of the 14-member ensemble were volunteers and didn’t get paid. They all were fine readers, and the music we did was quite varied and often challenging. Since David is an accomplished and quite prolific composer himself, he got the chance to showcase his own works often.

During the same weekend one year, I got to play both Radio City Music Hall and the Main Assembly Hall of the United Nations Building. The occasion was working with Italian film composer/conductor, Ennio Morricone. He needed a chorus to sing some of his vocal compositions, and I got the gig.

I have done solo turns in major choral works, sometimes with full orchestra, including several Bach Cantatas, Brahms and Fauré Requiems, Dvorak Mass in D, Dubois’ The Seven Last Words of Christ, many Messiahs, the Saint-Saëns Christmas Oratorio, and I have performed several different musical settings (including Bach’s) of the St. John Passion, portraying Jesus. On Good Friday of 2003 (and it was a good one, for I sang four services, at three different churches, and earned $480 in one day!) I had the honor to perform “Were You There” acappella at St. Patrick’s Cathedral before a packed audience. Although it is never done, due to the solemnity of the service, I received an enthusiastic applause anyway, when I had finished. It was even taped and televised, and I was called back the very next year to do it again.

During the Jewish High Holy Days in 1981, I was hired to serve as Cantor at the Yom Kippur service for the Jewish community of Fire Island! A friend of mine got me the job, and I accepted without really thinking about it. In those days I couldn’t afford to turn down any work. But in the midst of the service, I became very self-conscious and felt so out-of-place. The people there were nice enough, and I did a good job. They even complimented me on my “impeccable Hebrew.” But I remember thinking, What am I doing here?! You mean that they couldn’t find anybody else to do this service besides me?! And then they didn’t pay me right away. I didn’t even have enough money to get home. My return train ticket on the Long Island Railroad took me only partway, so I hid in the restroom from the conductor until we got to Jamaica, Queens, where, with my one token, I got the subway for the rest of the way.

Of all the jobs that I have had, I have never had to yell to my boss, ‘I quit!’ and none of them has ever told me to my face, “You’re fired!” I guess I or they have not done anything that terrible to demand it. However, I have been let go, laid off, terminated, transferred or reassigned from one job to the next, and some positions I did leave on my own. Okay, so I suppose I was fired from the Flirtations, but they didn‘t really say the words. But it has worked out all my life that every job that I have ever lost, I didn’t regret it because they always led to something better or at least as good. Under normal circumstances, if you quit or get fired from a job, it only means that someone is not entirely happy with your performance. No need to fret, this just frees you to pursue other interests. To me, no job is worth enduring just because it pays well, if I don’t like what I’m doing. My sanity and peace of mind are much more important to me.

Since I have lived in NYC, I have been fortunate enough always to maintain freelance employment. That means not being tied down to one particular job or employer, but rather free to take many jobs as they occur. In the case of freelancers, employers don’t have to fire you. If they don’t like your work or no longer require your services, they just don’t ask you back or call you again. I try not to take it personally when that happens. They must have their reasons, and I don’t question them. I don’t have to plan “vacation time,” for I can take off whenever I want to, as long as it doesn’t interfere with current gig obligations. After so long a time now, I would not have it any other way. I love the variety of being able to do many things, instead of the drudgery of a routine everyday job. And I have done it all without the services of a personal agent or manager.

Amazingly, I have never had to resort to a regular “9 to 5”-type office job, for example. I came mighty close several times, when things got so bad I thought I would finally have to go out and get myself a “real job,” but then a tour or show would come along just in time and get me over the slump. Like the time I applied for a job at ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) as a song monitor. That’s where I would have listened to the radio all day and make note of the music played so that each composer can receive royalties for the airplay of their songs.

For the job, I was tested for my musical knowledge by playing “Name That Tune.” I had to listen to an instrumental tape and identify the songs on it. There must have been 100 songs on there. I missed only a couple. I didn’t get them wrong, I just didn’t know them. They must have been impressed that I knew the titles of that many songs, and they were about to hire me for that position until they found out that I was an errant actor/musician still making the rounds. I understood that they wanted somebody full time who was going to be around indefinitely, and they knew that when I got a show or a tour, I’d be out of there. As it turned out, I did get a tour very soon after that. Since music monitoring has changed so drastically now, with the advent of YouTube, i-tunes and the like, I doubt if that particular job still exists.

In addition to the organ maintenance work I did occasionally, I also worked for a short while as a carpenter’s assistant. Two of Fintan Connolly’s regular clients were singer Paul Simon and his manager, whose name I don’t remember. When the manager guy bought an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Fintan and his crew were hired to fix up the place for habitation. I must not have had any pressing engagements at the time, so Fintan gave me a job working with him. I plastered and painted walls, laid floor tiles, swept and cleaned. I don’t mind good, hard work for short periods. In fact, I rather enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t like to do it as a life’s career.

I was once asked (in July 1983) by the then rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles, where I was employed at the time, to go clean the Chelsea apartment of one of their elderly parishioners (an old white lady) whose daughter had been neglecting her for some time. Why am I so nice? I agreed to do it as a favor to Randy, and he did offer to pay me. I soon found out why he asked me—because he and none of his staff wanted to do it, not even her own daughter! Chile, that was the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest place I had ever been in! The old woman was sick, probably senile, and could no longer take care of herself, so nothing had been done in there for many weeks, maybe months.

First of all, the roaches had taken over the place! There was discarded trash and garbage everywhere. There were unwashed dishes and pots in the sink. The old lady was literally lying around in the squalor. Where were Kim and Aggie (the two English clean queens from “How Clean Is Your House?”) when I needed them? With much disgust I tried to do as much as I could. I, at least, got rid of the trash and straightened the place up a bit. When I left there, I made it quite clear to Randy that I would be forever unavailable for any similar requests in the future. I don’t mind doing my own housework. In fact, I prefer it, and I never let things get that bad.  But I don’t like to clean up after other folks.  A charwoman for hire I am not!

It was during this same period that I found myself often wallowing in self-pity, telling myself that I was doomed to be poor all my life and would never have enough money to live comfortably. But my friend, Eilif Dagfinn, helped to remind me of the power of positive (and even negative) thinking. If I had kept telling myself that I would never amount to anything in life, then of course, I never would have. I used to have a sick, secret fantasy to spend some time in prison where I would be gangbanged by a bunch of brutish men. But Eilif wisely advised me to put that thought out of my head once and for all, because if I dwelled on it long enough, I somehow would make it come about.  Conversely, if I set positive goals for myself, I could make those come to pass as well.  Of course, he was right on both counts.

I was receiving other cosmic messages about the same time. I randomly picked a particular fortune cookie one day, after a Chinese meal, that rendered this prophetic message: “Your problem lies not in a lack of ability but in a lack of ambition.”  Ooh, a fortune cookie throwing shade!  It was then and there that I decided to clean up my act and get my shit together.

My whole life turned around for the better when I auditioned and became gainfully employed at City Opera in 1984.  It was the first job since I moved here that garnered a regular weekly paycheck, which allowed me to build a savings account.  That led to my five-and-a-half-years association with The Flirtations.  I did not have any more serious financial worries until some years ago when work became scarce for a while and I had depleted most of my savings.

To date, there are at least 170 commercial recordings, that I know about (long-playing records, cassette tapes and compact discs, some on the market and some out-of-circulation), as well as self-produced, homemade recordings on which my voice appears.  You can find me on Bette Midler’s 1976 release, Songs for the New Depression, singing backup on the “Tragedy” cut.  I’m singing (in the chorus) with Grace Bumbry and Placido Domingo on Eve Queler’s recording of Massenet’s Le Cid and on the 1981 remake of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s opera, Four Saints in Three Acts (I even have a few solo lines as St. Jan—# …Saint Settlement aroused by the recall of Amsterdam…Saint Genevieve meant with it all… #).  Don’t try to make any sense of that.  It’s Stein after all.  i doubt if she even knew what it means.  Actually, I was in two separate productions of the opera.  The recording we did was the result of the concert performance at Carnegie Hall, but then a couple of years later I did a staged production at a public school auditorium on the East Side.

I am on the well-received Missa Gaia/Earth Mass with the Paul Winter Consort and the Berlioz “Tedium” (aka Te Deum) with the Voices of Ascension (both of which were recorded live in concert at the Cathedral of St. John “the Unfinished”). I’m doing chorus on Johannes Somary’s ’Tedium’ for the Millennium, James Adler’s Memento Mori: An AIDS Requiem and Andrew Imbrie’s Requiem with the Riverside Symphony. I am on an album of cat songs with Garrison Keillor and Fredericka von Stade (which did not sell too well and is already out-of-print), as well as four others with the Robert DeCormier Singers.

I participated on a new recording of Revelations for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and did backup chorus on Roberto Sierra’s Bayoan. Arthur Sjogren’s Pro Arte Singers concerts are all recorded as are those of The Glass Menagerie, and I appear on five and 27 of them, respectively, to date. I am also in the chorus of tenor Peter Buchi’s An American Voice, an album of Americana and patriotic songs.

I have made independently-produced recordings as well, including two with the Singing Hoosiers, one with the Choral Society of Okinawa, two with The Flirtations, as well as six various compilation albums on which the Flirts appear, including a children’s album on which we perform “The Three Little Pigs.” I was the Wolf. (# “…Now listen here, you House of Ham, I’m gonna turn you into Spam!…” #)

Stars of the Streets is an album featuring NYC street musicians, on which Steamboat Gothic does one song (“Vive l’Amour,” our theme song). It was recorded under the arch in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. The New York Vagabonds have one album of our own, plus appearances on a couple of others. Avant garde composers/musicians Lisa Karrer and David Simons’ used me on their chamber opera recording of The Birth of George, and I participated on a fundraiser CD for the Sinai Free Synagogue, at which I sang for five years in a row for their High Holy Day services.

I have also participated, in a solo capacity, in recording sessions of whose results I am not entirely sure about.  I’ve worked with Tom Chapin (Harry’s brother) on a children’s album, with the Tom Limbaugh Band, with Phillip Johnston on his The Dream Detective demo, on which I am featured on eight out of the twelve tracks, a demo recording for Barbara Benary’s Wayang Esther, and several sessions with the Gregg Smith Singers, some of which made it onto discs, including live concerts and the world premiere of Dmitri Tymoczko’s (a composition professor at Princeton University) The Agony of Modern Music.

Composer-pianist Paul Bogaev’s setting of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for chorus was recorded by a group of professional studio singers, and we were hoping that the song would be included as an extra bonus feature on the DVD of Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), but I have no knowledge that it is. In 2004 I was hired by Dan Goggin, the composer of the smash musical Nunsense, to record a Traditional Latin Mass that he had written, with a small chorus. Recently Ned Ginsberg hired me again to record some songs that he had arranged for solo male singer and chorus. The 12 songs were based on Biblical characters. (# …Ruth made a choice to stand loyal and true… #)

I was one of a solo quartet who recorded a song {“Rebecca”) for Dominican composer/guitarist, Ricardo Gautreau.  Several of the Collegiate Chorale’s Verbier concerts are out on CD release, as well as the Bach/Bloch performance we did in Israel. Plus, there are at least 80 other music videos (including YouTube), tapes, radio and TV broadcasts and recorded concerts on which I have appeared.

But my proudest vocal achievement are my self-produced solo albums. The first one, entitled Out Here On My Own, was released on December 15, 1994, 22 years to the day that I moved to NYC. It was Michael Callen who inspired me in the first place. We were in Provincetown, August 1993, when Michael approached me with the suggestion, “Cliff, why don’t you do a solo album!” He was doing one of his own at the time. It immediately got me to thinking, Why don’t I? What’s stopping me? It’s certainly about time that I did one! Exactly one year later, August 1994, I was in the recording studio, although I had finished the arrangements of all 19 songs by early February, in five months’ time. I think that’s pretty remarkable, considering the fact that I was on the road during most of that time, and the sequencing of the backing tracks had to be done at home via my computer.

August was the first break of any real length that we had in our schedule that year. I am also quite proud of the fact that I paid for the entire project myself. It cost me $12,600 in cash, and I didn’t ask for a single penny from anybody! I don’t like to owe anybody anything, and this way, all proceeds are my own. I actually got off pretty cheaply, by today’s standards. The biggest expense was the recording studio itself, more than half of the total amount. Manufacturing was only $6000. I would have spent a lot more than I did had I not done most of the work myself, that is, the preparations and overseeing the entire production. I needed an engineer in the studio and a photographer to take my cover photos. Otherwise, I did everything else myself.

Since all of the musical accompaniment was synthesized, I didn’t have to hire any live musicians. I even did my own backup where it was required. Because of my vocal versatility, I was able to provide all the voices needed for some of the arrangements, including tenor, alto and even soprano! That was the most fun for me, singing with myself. I used to play at that as a kid, using two cheap tape recorders, but of course, the sound quality that way was something to be desired. I was glad finally to be able to do it in a real studio with top-rate equipment. Ray Charles had his Raelets, and Ike and Tina Turner had The Ikettes. I call my backup group (me) on the album, appropriately, “The Clifftones.” I wrote my own liner notes as well (“Cliff-Notes”) and typed and copied a lyric sheet for all of the songs.

What kind of music is on my album? You name it, it’s probably on there. I have pop covers, show tunes, ballads, jazz, rhythm ‘n’ blues, rap (well, it’s a dramatic poem, really), barbershop, spirituals, soft rock, novelty numbers, patter songs and opera, and the accompaniments range from acappella to full orchestra. I like variety in everything that I do, and my own versatility allows me to indulge my eclecticism. I had expected to get most of my investment back eventually, but I didn’t do it as a moneymaking venture. If it makes money, that’s all well and good. If it doesn’t, that’s okay, too. I did it because I wanted to, and it was time. Just like this blog site, I consider it a gift to my family, friends and fans. It’s also my stab at immortality, if you will.

I have now joined the ranks of the ever-increasing number of independent record producers. In selecting a name for my record label, my first choice was “Euterpe” (the Greek Muse of music), but it was apparently already taken by someone, as was “Cliff,” so I had to settle for “Risco” (which is Spanish for “cliff”), my third choice. Risco Records. It has a certain rring to it, don’t you think? So I’m rather self-indulgent.

At Linden I had a wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Vera Johnson, who took a special interest in me. She would sometimes give me extra assignments, I suppose to keep my mind occupied, so that I would not get bored. One of these projects was to memorize a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar entitled “Li’l Brown Baby.” The poem was written in a Southern black dialect, as much of Dunbar’s poetry is, but at the time I was studying it, I didn’t much like speaking that broken tongue, having learned to speak “proper” English, you see. But I learned the poem and reluctantly agreed to recite it for a special school assembly.

So now let’s cut to the summer of 1993. I am in Dayton, Ohio (Dunbar’s hometown) riding in the car with my then boyfriend John Z., as we passed the street that Dunbar’s house was on. When informed of this little historical fact, I was reminded of the Dunbar poem I had learned those many years ago and proceeded to recite it right then and there. I was surprised that I still remembered it all after so long. Well, John was absolutely enthralled. He just happened to be putting together a cultural arts program in town in a few weeks and asked me to be a part of it, to sing a song and perform the Dunbar poem. Well, I did, and it was a big hit with the audience. Being older now, I can appreciate Dunbar’s dialectic poetry, and I now understand where he’s coming from. The poem is now part of my basic repertoire, and as a tribute to Mrs. Johnson, who introduced it to me in the first place, I decided to include it on my album. That was a wise choice, as it has been praised and enjoyed by my fans.

I subsequently revised the poem to reflect the modern occurrence of same-sex parenting, by changing the narrator’s spouse Mariah to Jeremiah. I didn’t think that Mr. Dunbar would mind, being dead and all. Also, I wisely procured the backing tracks to most of my songs so that they can be performed live, karaoke-style, when I am asked to sing solo. I’ve even had the chance to use them a few times already. Now, give a listen to my revised rendition of “Li’l Brown Baby.”

I have since done a follow-up recording to Out Here On My Own, and it’s entitled, Cliff Townsend Still Going Strong. I have many more songs in my repertoire that I wanted to do arrangements of and record. This new installment contains 45 songs on two discs, a various mix like the first one.  Due to my love of overdubbing, I have included some of my acappella arrangements that I used to do with Steamboat Gothic and the Flirtations.  For this set, I make my own copies at home as needed, instead of going the factory duplication route.  Throughout this posting, and others as well, you will be treated to a few selections from these recordings.

As an instrumentalist, I have performed with at least 10 bands, orchestras and ensembles, and the instruments on which I have performed in public are the alto saxophone, bass fiddle, bassoon, celesta, cello, clarinet, drums, English horn, flute, French horn, guitar, harmonica, jingle bells, kazoo, marimba, melodica, oboe, organ, piano, recorders (soprano, alto and tenor), slide whistle, snare drum, tambourine, trumpet and violin.

I began taking piano lessons in March 1963 with Miss Dorothy Feiwell, when I was 15-years-old. As we didn’t have a piano in the house, I was allowed to use the ones at Pilgrim Church on which to practice. In fact, I never had my own piano all the while I was taking lessons and all the years that I needed one. I eventually obtained an electronic keyboard-synthesizer that I used for all my pianistic needs. That unit has since been replaced with a better grade of electric piano.

My very first musical instrument, of an autodidactic nature, was the harmonica. I had one when I was quite young, and I used to make up tunes on it, my first attempts at any kind of composition. The next instrument I took up after the piano, at the beginning of my senior year of high school, was the oboe. I got a fingering chart and basically taught myself how to play the thing…in only three days’ time! I was the only oboist in Central’s band that year so I also got to play in the orchestra. During the semester, I entered Band Contest as well as competition in two ensembles—a woodwind trio and quintet—and received a superior rating in all three divisions. I also made Solo First Chair Oboe in the All-City Orchestra that year.

At I.U. I played with both the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Varsity-Civic Band and played recorder with an early music group called Collegium Musicum, each with which we even went out on brief tours occasionally. While I was in Okinawa in 1971, I had my biggest solo moment on the oboe, when I played the Haydn Oboe Concerto (accompanied on piano by Bob Howell from the Army Band) before a large audience for the annual Ryukyu Music Festival. When I got to NYC, I played second oboe in the New Symphony Orchestra for a while.

I picked up the clarinet on my own, and under college instruction added flute and bassoon to my repertoire. I learned that concert bassoonist and I.U. faculty member Leonard Sharrow was to be on my bassoon jury, so for my final exam I worked up and played a Vivaldi Concerto that Mr. Sharrow himself had previously recorded. I did a good job with it, and he seemed impressed and quite honored.

My BME degree program required that I take String (violin, cello and doublebass [I missed out on learning the viola because there was a limited number of them and they were all taken]), Brass (I chose trumpet and French horn) and Percussion Techniques. The courses required that we actually learn how to play these instruments, and we were tested in order to get a passing grade. Fortunately, I did well on all of them at the time, but have not touched any of those instruments since.

I bought an acoustic guitar and an alto sax while I was in the Army and worked on them on my own. Saxophones have the same fingering pattern as the oboe, so I got the hang of it right away. The guitar proved to be more challenging, and I would have stayed with it had it not been stolen. I never replaced it, however. I also had a little, cheaply-made bamboo flute that I probably won at a local carnival or something. With that I had to figure out the fingerings myself, as it appeared to be makeshift and no instructions or fingering chart came with it. The wind instruments that I still have in my possession are an oboe, a reconditioned flute, a soprano recorder, a tin whistle and a kazoo, if you consider that an instrument.

I made my formal conducting debut of an instrumental ensemble in the summer of 1995 in Elkhart, Indiana. I was in town (South Bend, that is) to attend my first high school class reunion that is held every five years. It took me 30 years to finally get there. A few days later, while my friend Bradley Pfaller and I were attending Your Elkhart Municipal Band concert, the band’s director, Arthur J. Singleton, who was my high school band director, and without any prior preparation, called me up from the audience to conduct his band in a concert march. By all public accounts, I must have risen to the occasion admirably.

Thanks to Bill Chapman, I was quite fortunate to have studied music theory in high school, which, in turn, got me into arranging and orchestration. This one-term course, Harmony, as it was called, taught us about intervals, modes, cadences, form and analysis, and we learned how to take dictation. That’s being able to notate a musical example just by hearing it. Leo’s being a horn player, I used to write out orchestral horn parts for him and his colleagues to practice. This introduced me to the concept of transposition before I completely understood how it worked. At least it gave me notation practice. I soon branched out to woodwind ensembles and other chamber music, then naturally, to choral arranging.

To date, I have done vocal arrangements of 177 songs, 162 instrumental works and 10 original compositions, including a five-movement symphony for full orchestra, which I finished in 1993, a woodwind quartet, a piece for percussion instruments and a piano etude, which were college music course assignments.

I told you that I was required to take Percussion Techniques at I.U., and one of our assignments for the course was to write a piece for percussion instruments and have our efforts played in class. I came up with The Woody Woodpecker Song (or Woody‘s Tune) and scored it for marimba, 4 timpani, cowbell, maracas, bongo drums, cymbals, temple blocks, snare drum and gong. Although only one minute long, it earned me an A, and I passed the course besides. It is one of my favorite works. Let’s have a listen.

So far I have done only three original choral works. My friend and colleague Lloyd once commissioned me to write an Easter anthem for his church choir, which I did, and Alleluia, Christ Is Risen has become part of his amateur choir’s repertoire. To celebrate the new millennium, I suppose, I finally did something that I had put off for 35 years—that is, setting Max Ehrmann’s inspirational poem, Desiderata, for acappella chorus. Ever since I discovered the work back in college, I had told myself that someday I would set it to music. Being the great procrastinator that I am, however, I only finally got around actually to doing it in the year 2000. After shopping it around to several choral conductors whom I work with, I eventually got a taker. My choir director, David Hurd, put my piece on our annual concert program. It got its world premiere performance on March 29, 2006, and although we could have used much more rehearsal, the piece went fairly well, all things considered, and I believe it was favorably received by the audience.

In 1930 German composer Ernst Toch wrote a very popular piece for four-part spoken chorus entitled The Geographical Fugue. It employs only a few place names that are repeated over and over. I got the idea in 2016 to write my own expanded Geographical Fugue, based rhythmically on the original but using all different words and giving it six parts, each part pertaining to a different part of the world: the United States (mentioning all 50), Eurasia (all the countries of Europe and Asia), Africa (and surrounding islands), Canada (all the provinces and some cities), the Caribbean (island nations in the Atlantic regions, including Central and South America), and Oceania (Pacific regions and other island locales of the world). I have entitled my piece Another Geographical Fugue.

How my symphony came about was, back in 1987 Lloyd made a musical proposal to me, to both of us, really. He said, “Why don’t we each try to write a symphony?” As it was with the solo album suggestion, I thought, Why don’t we? And I immediately took up the challenge. Lloyd got discouraged after only a few days and never pursued it any further, although he did manage to compose a suite of quite inventive orchestral pieces. I love arranging, but I think that writing that symphony was the most fun I ever had. I wrote two of the movements practically right away and had started on a third when I got sidetracked with internet trivia games, which took up a lot of my spare time, so I put it away for about five years. But because I don’t like to leave things unfinished, I eventually went back to work on it and didn’t let up again until it was all done. I wrote two whole movements while I was on tour with the Flirts. I was composing in my hotel rooms and even on the plane during flight!

My symphony, too, is made up of diverse elements. It is written in standard sonata form, and it is tonal, for the most part, although there are sections that may sound atonal to the untrained ear. Each movement is totally different in style and content. The first movement is a Fanfare for brass and percussion, the second is a March for full orchestra, the third is an Intermezzo for strings alone (written in 5/4 time), the fourth is a Waltz for everybody again (the main theme is dodecaphonic, that is, twelve-tone), and the last movement is a Galop and Polacca for woodwinds, strings and timpani.

It was this experience more than anything else I have done that gave me the idea that I might be a genius. All the while I was composing, I was constantly being inspired and not knowing where it was coming from. The music seemed to be writing itself, all I was doing was guiding the pencil along, as well as my hand on the piano. I got to thinking, Is that what genius is—transcendent, creative inspiration? That’s what the dictionary says it is. I don’t mean to brag on myself, I’m just trying to understand this thing! I am so proud of this achievement. I really love my Neoclassical Symphony, even if I did write it. I don’t think that’s being immodest. What, am I supposed to tell people that I don’t like it? Whether it’s great music or not is subjective, as all art is, but I have to like it myself, don’t I?

Being the composer, and as with all my musical works, I have complete control of how it sounds, so if I am not satisfied with something, I just change it until it’s the way I want it. So, of course, I have to like the finished product. It’s been reported that some of the masters, like Dvorak and others, too, would decide that they did not like something that they wrote, and would just destroy it–burn it up or throw it away! I don’t understand that. If you don’t like it, then fix it! There must be some part of it that is worth saving. I am always revising the things that I do. I am hardly ever completely satisfied. But I never discard anything as being worthless.

Actually, I did spend time in a real prison once (other than the time that I was an overnight inmate myself). Leo served as conductor of the New York Housing Authority Orchestra for a while, and the week before Christmas 1974 the group went to Ossining, New York to entertain the inmates at Sing Sing Prison. I just went along for the ride, as I like to experience new things. But I’d rather see the inside of a prison as a visitor than as an inmate. The orchestra performed before a captive audience that day! That is how and when I met Janet Wolf.

In early 1975 the orchestra’s manager, Janet Wolf (who claimed to have been a mistress of Arturo Toscanini!), commissioned me to arrange a medley of Irish songs for their upcoming St. Patrick’s Day concert in March. I took up the task, but Ms. Wolf imposed an impossible deadline that I failed to meet, so I didn’t finish it in time for them to perform it. I am a perfectionist and I don’t like to be rushed when I’m working on something. I have to do things in my own time. So I abandoned the project and put it aside for the next 22 years!  I eventually went back to work on it in 1997 and got it done.  I re-scored From Ireland With Love for small orchestra with the hopes of a better chance of having it performed somewhere.  But this like my symphony has yet to receive a live performance.

There is one piece of mine that has and does receive repeated live performances, but it is not an original composition but rather an adaptation. Of my several woodwind quintet transcriptions I have done over the years, one of my favorites and the most popular is Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. I tried to get Boosey and Hawkes (who handles all of Bernstein’s music) to publish my arrangement, but they pooh-poohed it and turned me down, telling me that they had too many arrangements of it already, which is a lie. I checked. My transcription is one of a kind. An oboist friend of mine got his quintet to perform it, and then the horn player from that group showed it to another quintet that she played with, and they wanted to do it as well. So Boosey and Hawkes didn’t want to make some more money off of me? Then to hell with them! I can lease out the piece myself. And do! I even sold one to a quintet in Honolulu! When Quintet of the Americas added my chart to their standard repertoire, they chose to include it on the album that they recorded in 1992. They do a really good job, and it’s not easy either! Give a listen.

With my computer setup—plus Cakewalk music-sequencing program, Korg 8 synthesizer keyboard, Mackie mixer and Proteus2 orchestral sound emulator module—I have been able to make MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) recordings of many of my works, including my symphony, so I can listen to them anytime I want to. And do. I had originally thought about producing a live performance of the work myself, as I did with the album, but the financial economics would not allow it. I figured out that if I put the required orchestra together to do the piece, it would cost me a few thousand dollars more for only one performance than it cost to produce my entire album. What I would like is for an existing orchestra to perform it, whereas someone else would be footing the bill. But I have been really remiss in soliciting an ensemble to do it. I am always hoping that it will happen someday.

I did a transcription of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks for concert band that I finished in 1972, but that still has not been performed either. That was a tremendous amount of work, as you can imagine. I also have done an orchestra reduction of the work for piano, which at least I can listen to whenever I want to, having recorded it. In 1983 I prepared Purcell’s opera Dioclesian for Leo so that it could be performed, which involved writing out all of the orchestral and choral parts from the full score by hand. This was years before I had a computer and a music-writing program. This did receive a public performance.

Music copying and transcribing must be labors of love with me. With all of these major works—the symphony, the Strauss and the Purcell—as well as most of my other arrangements, I wrote out everything (scores and parts) by hand, and I have never received a penny for my efforts. I have, however, done arrangements for other people, on commission, for which I did get paid. Most people I know just can’t be bothered with music writing, but I love it. The actual task of manuscript and music calligraphy is what I really enjoy. That being said, and with the welcome advent of computerized music notation programs, like Finale, Sibelius and the others, I no longer need to present handwritten scores. I like the look and legibility of printed music.

I have also had the pleasure in past years to put musical programs together. While I was in high school, I produced several musicales for Pilgrim Church and for several years I planned Christmas concerts (and provided a vocal quartet) for a Catholic Church in Tenafly, NJ. In 1985, I put up a notice on the Juilliard bulletin board, asking for student players for some reading sessions I was setting up. I offered money in the ad and got a response. I had several woodwind quintet arrangements lying around that I wanted to hear. So I got a group together, and we played them. I even audiotaped the sessions for posterity. Any of my arrangements that I want to hear, I can now sequence them myself. I have found that some of them are too difficult for amateur execution anyway.

With my Kawai digital piano I have started sequencing/arranging some four-hand piano transcriptions and orchestral score reductions, like The Nutcracker Suite, Beethoven’s 3rd and 5th symphonies, movements from the 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies, one of his string quartets, the Fifth Symphonies of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky (also his 4th and one movement of the 6th), Capriccio Italien, Romeo and Juliet, Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony, and various other works for said medium. It requires many, many hours of exacting work, but the finished result for me is well worth the time and effort.

I have appeared on television too many times to keep track. Since mostly everything is taped and by traveling so much and because of repeated showings, I am not always in the place where I am being shown and I have not always known when I was on. But the very first time was the mid-’50s when I was a little boy; I don’t remember how old I was exactly (7 or 8 maybe?), but I actually starred in a commercial! I was with my mother and brother in the studio audience of a local kiddie cartoon show hosted by Cooksey the Clown. This was the days of live TV and when they often did their own commercials. I was selected out of the audience to demonstrate a portable TV set, a newfangled notion at the time. All I had to do was hold the model set, stand there and smile at the camera. “See, it’s light enough even for a child to carry!” Cooksey assured his viewers, as I shamelessly mugged.

During my high school years there was a local TV studio dance show for teenagers called “Hoosier Favorite,” sort of the South Bend version of “Soul Train.” I went on that show several times with friends. That is the same studio where the Central Glee Club performed every Christmas (so that was four times for me) and where my Deluxe Barbershop Quartet (consisting of, besides myself, Bradley Pfaller, Freeman Smith and Leo Warbington) made two TV appearances.

I appeared on Okinawan television, as well, in a special holiday program, “Christmas Eve with the Sukiran Chapel Choir,” for which I wrote the narration. Sweet Harmony was interviewed on the NYC local news a couple of times, I appeared on Canadian TV with Harry Belafonte, and on a local morning show in Washington, DC to promote Sing, America, Sing. That was the same day that my nephew Jeffery was born, on my birthday, and the first time that I rode in a limousine.

I have appeared twice on PBS’s “Great Performances,” in a concert of spirituals with Kathleen Battle[axe] and Jessye Norman [aka “Jes’ Enormous”] (which was released on videotape and CD format as well) and for the gala opening of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark (October 1997). I was on “Live from Lincoln Center” (in NY City Opera’s Carmen) and “Entertainment Tonight.” I was twice in the chorus for the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center that “E.T.” reported on. I appeared on “48 Hours” (December 2005) singing Christmas carols with an amateur chorus. I also once appeared as a guest on “Damn Right,” a New York-based cable call-in discussion show.

I made New York radio appearances with the Robert DeCormier Singers, the Gregg Smith Singers and Steamboat Gothic. The Flirts made local radio appearances in Berkeley, Bern (Switzerland), Buffalo and Oswego (NY), Halifax (NS), Hilo (Hawaii), Houston, Kansas City, Karlsruhe (Germany), Kentwood (Michigan), Philadelphia, Provincetown and Waltham (Mass.), Seattle, all across Canada and on National Public Radio. We did both TV and radio spots in Austin, New York, Tampa and Vancouver. I alone was interviewed on Bert Wylen’s radio show in Philadelphia, “Gay Dreams,” to promote my solo album after its initial release.

I always try to do something major for myself to celebrate my birthday every year. In 2003 I got to fulfill my longtime dream of going on a TV game show and winning some money. During the first season when the New York-produced “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was hosted by Regis Philbin, I found it next to impossible to get an audition for the show. One had to phone a certain number and answer confusing questions, that is, if you got through to them at all. After several failed attempts, I eventually gave up.

The show later went into syndication with Meredith Vieira as the new host. Now interested parties could inquire about an audition by visiting their website and applying right online. This method proved to be much more conducive. I was given an audition date, took and successfully passed the preliminary quiz and interview at the ABC studio, which then qualified me to be a contestant on the show. Fortunately, all the questions on the qualifying test that they gave us had been used before on earlier broadcasts of the show, and since I watched it on a regular basis, I remembered the correct answers to several questions that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I’m sure that is why I did so well. I was elated when my name was called as one of the few high scorers.

My taping date was September 17th. I arrived at the studio at 0900 and was there until 1900 that evening. It was like being on a movie set as an extra, just waiting around for hours to do your scene. I didn’t even get to go on. There were nine other contestants there that day, and I was the ninth to be picked. They tape four shows a day. I was just about to go on for the last show of the day when the time’s-up horn sounded. So I had to return the very next day, a Thursday, to finish what I had almost started. I teased my production assistants with, ‘Since you all made me sit around here all day yesterday, you’d better pay me something for my time!’ Being the first contestant for the show that day, I got to make my entrance with Meredith. I used my show biz shtick and stage decorum during my appearance, and the crew there all found me to be an entertaining contestant. They all were very nice to me and ever encouraging.

The format of the game changes from time to time, but when I was on, there were three money amount levels to aspire to: $1,000, $32,000 and the ultimate, one million dollars. The dollar amounts were divided into 15 multiple-choice questions. Of course, everybody wants to win the million, including myself, but I had decided before I went on, to make my goal at least $32,000, which is the 10th level. The way the game is set up, with each dollar amount, you have the option of quitting with the money you have already won or going for the next question. As long as you answer correctly, you get to move up to the next level. But if you get it wrong, you end up with $32,000, $1,000 or $0, depending on where you are.

I successfully made it up to the $64,000 level and was going for $125,000. I did not quit then because I was sure that I knew the right answer to the question. The question: “The Spanish phrase, ‘Oro y plata’ is the state motto of which state?” The multiple choice answers given were: Colorado, Montana, Nevada and Texas. I reasoned that since the phrase means “gold and silver” and I remembered that Nevada is nicknamed the Silver State, I chose Nevada as my answer. It was a guess, I didn’t know for sure. Alas, I was wrong. The correct answer is Montana (which I verified when I got home). If I had quit the game then instead of answering, I would have left jubilantly with $64,000. But missing it knocked me back down to $32,000, which was my original goal anyway, so I am grateful just the same. So I gambled and lost. But that’s often the case, isn’t it?—which is why I don’t do it, as a rule.

I don’t even regret my decision to go for it instead of quitting. I would rather lose by at least making the attempt to answer than to bow out when I just might have the correct answer. That would have upset me more. I didn’t have any money until I actually had it, so I didn’t really lose anything. Besides, the audience don’t much care if a contestant misses a hard question. They don’t know the answer themselves. But it’s more exciting when someone goes for it and gets it right. I mean, we are there to play, aren’t we? No guts, no glory.

I had intended to send out a major e-mail announcement and reminder and phone people a few days before the scheduled airing date, which I was told would be October 31, Halloween. Instead, my episode was shown two weeks prior to that date on Oct. 17, giving me no advance warning. I just happened to be watching the show that day and had a videotape in the machine ready to go. Since the show airs earlier in the day in NYC than it does in South Bend, I was able to call my mother ahead of time, who then alerted my siblings and town locals so that they could catch me on the tube later that day. Unfortunately, I had no chance to let anybody else know about my impromptu TV appearance.

I have been part of the studio audience a few times for a couple of shows taped here in NYC. Jon Arterton and I attended one particular “Geraldo” (Rivera) show, because Michael Callen was one of the guests. I got to sit on the inner aisle and I appeared on camera whenever Geraldo came out to talk with the audience.

For my birthday one year, my friend Joseph DeVaughn got us tickets to attend “The View.” Although I am a fan of the show, it’s not the one that I would have chosen to see live. Joseph didn’t consult me about it beforehand. I would have preferred to do Rosie O’Donnell’s show. The difference being that Rosie’s show was more fun and she gave out lots of gifts to her studio audiences every day. I love getting free stuff, whatever it is. We didn’t get shit at “The View,” at least, not that particular day. I watch the show on a regular basis, and they are always giving stuff to the audience–books, movies, CDs, whatever the guests are promoting that day. The guests on the day we were there were Tom Bergeron and Andie MacDowell, neither of whom were hawking anything. They were quite blasé guests besides.

A common thing at live studio audience shows is to have an aspiring comic or some as-of-yet undiscovered actor to work the crowd and get them revved up for the show. We had a young woman this time. I don’t remember her name, but she was likable. My anonymity was thwarted again, however, when the woman asked us if there was anyone there having a birthday and Joseph raised his hand and pointed to me. Oh, Lord, here we go! She asked me my name and what I did and made everybody sing “Happy Birthday” to me. Then she made me go down front to where she was and had me sing something for the audience! With all their whooping and hollering and egging me on, and being the shameless ham that I am, of course I had to comply. I mean, I couldn’t let down my adoring public, now could I? I did a snippet of “Feeling Good” to more cheers and ovations. I thought to myself later, Damn! I can’t go anywhere and stay quietly in the background. I am always outed.

Ten years to the month that I appeared on “…Millionaire” I got to go back as part of the studio audience. I went there with Lloyd and our friend Connie. Cedric the Entertainer was the host at this time. My enthusiasm and excitement about some things certainly have diminished over the years. The experience neither impressed me nor delighted me and turned out to be a tremendous waste of my time. Five-and-a-half hours for what? Being a live audience member for a TV game show is the same way I feel about attending an opera performance. I’d much rather be up there performing myself than watching as a sideline spectator. At least the last time on the show as a contestant, I came away with a shitload of money. This time all I got for my time and effort was a commemorative T-shirt and a pencil!

In 2008 I got to participate in the development of a new TV game show. I received an e-mail one day asking for contestants for “Paycheck,” a show being pitched by the Bravo cable network. I registered my interest, was sent a survey questionnaire to fill out, I did two interviews—one on the phone and the other in person—and was then invited to do a practice run-through of the game on three more occasions and was even paid each time for my participation. During these rehearsals, the other contestants and I were allowed and encouraged to offer suggestions about the game. One of the casting directors, Kevin (cute), previously had worked for “…Millionaire” and he apparently got my name from their past contestants database, which is how and why I was contacted.

The format of the game involved answering trivia questions along with observation skills and personal impressions. Part of it was trying to determine the other players’ yearly salaries, based on their appearance and from facts revealed about each other during the course of the game. The staff and crew were all very nice and laid-back, creating a very pleasant and informal atmosphere, and the meeting venues were all conveniently-located, the second one being right across the street from where I live! It was fun to be in on the early development stages of a real TV game show, whether it gets picked up by the network or not.

About 20 years ago I went to an audition for a new TV pilot that I found in one of the weekly trade papers. Auditioners were required to prepare a short monologue, so I decided to do a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (not the more famous “To be or not to be” speech, but another one). While I was sitting in the waiting area before my audition, a large woman passed by, regarded me for a moment, then she spoke to me. “Excuse me, but are you an actor?” ‘Yes, I dabble occasionally.’ “Have you done any commercials?” ‘Well, not lately. None to speak of.’ “Well, I like your looks. My name is Sue King and I work for a casting agency for commercials. Here, take my card and call me at your earliest convenience so that we can set up an appointment. I think I may have some work for you.”

Well! I felt like Lana Turner must have felt when she was allegedly discovered at Schwab’s Soda Fountain in Hollywood. Oh, I didn’t get a callback from the audition, by the way. But I did call Ms. King and went to her office to see her, and she interviewed me and was impressed with my talent credentials. She told me that I was a “certain type” that casting directors frequently ask for. So I signed up with the J. Michael Bloom Agency that day. I didn’t have to pay them a fee or anything, and they called me several times to send me on casting calls.

When I did eventually get a callback from one of my auditions in January 1997, I was hired for a two-day commercial shoot for Mastercard. I appreciate the work but I wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis. Too boring! The first day was indoors at a midtown antique bric-a-brac shop. I was a mere extra, serving as a background browser. We put in a full eight-hour day with an hour break for lunch (catered), and the work consisted of doing take after take after take of the same commercial. Since a standard TV commercial is only 30 seconds in length, you can do a whole lot of takes in seven hours’ time. And we certainly did!

The featured players were a couple shopping who found a particular item that they didn’t have the cash for, so they whipped out their Mastercard to pay for it. All I had to do was walk from here to there checking out the various tacky items lying about. I’m not even sure if I was picked up on camera during the shots, but I still had to do the same thing every time. Movie shoots can be tedious and monotonous, too, but with a film there are many scenes to shoot, and they can’t spend too much time on one thing, because of deadlines and budget restrictions. I wondered just how many takes did they think they needed, since they all seemed, to me, to be virtually the same, each one no better nor worse than the last one. But, I guess, with only one commercial to work on all day, they had to fill the time by doing it over and over again ad nauseum. It seemed like an awful waste of time and money.

But at least we were indoors that time. The very next day, the shoot, also for Mastercard, was held outside, in the Wall Street area of Manhattan on one of the coldest days of the winter season. Besides the cold and the sheer boredom, just like the day before, I literally had stayed up all night, so I was a virtual zombie all day. I had to report to work before sunup and they kept us until 1600, doing the same 30-second scenario numerous times. Some guy, probably a tourist, had had his wallet stolen, and he was chasing the thief down the street to try to get his credit card back. This time I was cast as a street construction worker, serving only as background to the scene. I was coupled with another male actor, so at least I had someone to talk to between takes and try to keep me awake. They did provide a delicious lunch for us, though, and I was paid well. I don’t know how much money they spent those two days, but as far as I know, neither commercial ever aired, at least not locally.

At least I have had the good fortune to appear in a few major motion pictures. I was an extra in the films Times Square (1979) with Tim Curry and the TV movie Dream House (1981) with John Schneider and Marilu Henner. For those appearances as an extra, I employed a useful little tip that I learned from Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo. Remember the “I Love Lucy” episode when Lucy was in Hollywood and got to work on a movie where she was a showgirl descending the stairs with a huge, heavy headdress on her head? Well, she kept screwing up until the director “killed her off” and had her carried out of the scene on a stretcher, with her face covered. But in order for her friends back home to recognize her, she painted her name in big, white letters on the bottoms of her shoes for the camera to pick up.

I have a personalized jacket that was custom-made for me while I was in Okinawa. On the front is my name “Cliff” and the Japanese equivalent right under it. On the sleeves are a “VIRGO” patch, an “INDIANA” patch and one of Mr. Zigzag, the logo guy for that brand of rolling papers. Across the back is stitched in big white letters “OKINAWA, ’70-’72” with a map of the island and a big red torii gateway in the middle. For Times Square we were allowed to wear whatever we wanted for our scenes, so I wore my special jacket. I was required to walk down the block on 42nd Street (where it was filmed), and right at the beginning of the movie when the title is flashed on the screen, I can be seen walking away with my back to the camera. The picture is purposely out of focus, and I would never have recognized myself if it hadn’t been for that telltale jacket with that unmistakable red torii as big as life! Thanks for the tip, Lucy. I don’t wear the jacket anymore, as I have outgrown the thing, but I will always keep it as a souvenir. I have one other very brief appearance later on in the film (just a few seconds), leaning up against the outside of a movie theater.

"Lucy, you've got some 'splainin' to do!"
“Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!”

 

"Hey, there he is!"
“Hey, there he is!”

 

Similarly, in Dream House I can be seen at the very end of the film, in a freeze frame over the credits, the only one in the crowd wearing a bright, red bandanna around my head. ‘Look, there I am!’ For Times Square I answered a casting call that I found in one of the trade papers (Backstage or Show Business), and for Dream House I knew the casting director, who offered me the job. Times Square did not fare well critically or at the box office. I don’t see it even shown on TV. And although Dream House is a TV movie with major stars, they haven’t shown that anymore either since the first time it aired.

I was not actually hired for Taxi Driver (1974), as I was all the others, but I have it on my résumé just the same. I was only passing by the day they were filming at Columbus Circle and I happened to get into a shot for only a quick second.

I can be heard singing on the soundtrack of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Director Woody Allen selected the Church of the Transfiguration (aka “The Church Around the Corner”) in Manhattan for a scene in the movie and for which he needed a choir. I just happened to be a member of that particular church choir at the time (singing alto!), so we were hired to take part in Woody’s award-winning movie. There is one shot of the choir for about a second, but I don’t see myself. I must be behind that big pillar that is in the way. I was well-paid, so I don’t care much that nobody saw me. Woody himself would agree—“Take the money and run.”

My screen appearance as a member of an all-black gospel choir (singing in Hebrew in a Jewish synagogue!) in Keeping the Faith (2000) provided me a romp with some prominent actors, starfucker that I am. I was on call for three whole days in July 1999, the longest I have ever worked on any film. After the gospel choir had done our scene on Day One, I was retained to serve as an extra, first as part of a congregational crowd, then later on as more specialized background.

As it was getting late that first day, and we were just sitting around doing nothing, Edward Norton, who was starring in the film as well as making his directing debut, passed near me at some point. I wanted to know how much longer he planned on keeping us there. I couldn’t resist yelling out to him, ala Ralph Kramden, ‘Hey, Norton!’ Of course, he got the joke, even if he hadn’t heard it many times before, I’m sure.

On the third day I was used as background for a scene at which some of the principal players were in attendance. The scene where Ben Stiller is talking to Rena Sofer and Holland Taylor, I can plainly be seen standing directly behind them in the shot. Besides Edward and Ben, the actors on hand whom I got to meet and even chat with during my three-day stint are Jenna Elfman, Ron Rifkin and Eli Wallach. I missed speaking to Anne Bancroft, who is also in the film, and porn publisher Larry Flynt when he visited the set, but I did get to meet singer Luther Vandross, also visiting. The film receives frequent TV airings.

Due to a friend’s referral, I got a call in June 2002 from an independent film producer, who asked me to audition for a movie she was casting. I was sent a script and asked to prepare a scene for a screen test. I felt like a working movie actor, being wooed to star in a major film! The working title of the film was Adverse Possession, and the part for which I was being considered was an important supporting role of an aging, classical and jazz musician, a flautist, who is suffering from psychosomatic Parkinson’s Disease because of his anger and guilt over his perceived responsibility for the death of his wife and child forty years earlier. The scene was about four pages of dialogue, but with my character doing most of the talking. I was just going to go in and read it, but while I was looking it over the day of the audition, I found it easy enough for me to memorize, which seemed to impress the director and producer a lot when I performed the scene off-book.

I left there thinking that I had a good chance of getting the part. But when the producer called back a few days later, she told me that I did not look old enough, that the character should be much older than I appeared to be. How lame of an excuse is that? Haven’t they heard of makeup?  Cicely Tyson was not a hundred and something when she portrayed Miss Jane Pittman!  This woman did, however, tell me that they might need a singer for a wedding scene and would I be interested in doing that?  ‘Hell, yeah!’ I told her.  But she never called back, and if the film ever did get made, it was done without my contribution.  It felt nice to be considered anyway. Another missed chance for movie stardom.  Oh, well!  Next!

My “next” turned out to be an opportunity actually to work as an extra on a film. A friend of mine who gets extra work on a regular basis told me of a non-union open call at the office of Central Casting one day. They were looking for ordinary city people who have “musical rhythm.“ I went to audition on a whim, filled out some forms, which apparently registered me for future casting consideration, and did a little dance for them. They thanked me, and I left.

About a week later I got a callback from them, offering me a day’s work the following weekend on a new film, entitled Friends With Benefits, and starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. I say that this was really work because the job required that all 600 of us (they refer to it as a “flash mob”) had to learn an elaborate, choreographed dance routine to be done with music, and the filming took place in the atrium of Grand Central Station! We are all supposed to be train commuters, you see.

Although we were told to report at 12:30 on Saturday, July 31, 2010, we were not called to the set to film until 12 hours later, when the trains stopped running and they could close up the station. After taking the first couple of hours to learn the two-minute dance routine, we just sat around the holding area until time to start filming which started so late that most everyone was tired by the time we had to do it. What we had to do was quite energetic, too. There was jumping and bending and turns involved, and we did about ten takes of the thing.

We finished at 0330 on Sunday morning, and I, for one, was pretty much exhausted. Being non-union, the pay was not very much. So I got paid the least for the most actual work I ever did on a film. At my previous experiences, all I did was serve as background and got paid more money for it. This time I was placed front row center of the mob, so I was able to find myself when I saw the finished product in the theater and later on TV. It’s right at the end of the movie, practically the last scene. I did not get to speak with Justin, but he did pass right by me during the shot. This is another box-office flop which has become a TV regular. The details having to do with my appearance in Philadelphia (1993) can be found in my blog, On the Road With Cliff.

Of course, nothing compares with my big money win on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, but I have received other achievements and awards over the years. Way back in elementary school I was awarded certificates for “Outstanding Achievement” in reading, art, the Honor Roll and for “Meritorious Service” on the school safety patrol. Upon completion of the 6th grade, Linden would bestow the titles of “Outstanding Boy and Girl” (sort of like elementary valedictorians), and I was sure that I would get it, as I consistently had the highest grade-point average of any student there. But my homeroom teacher, Edward Myers, who was the basketball coach and later became school principal and who made the choices for Outstanding Boy and Girl that year, picked the less-worthy Gerry Hudson, who happened to be one of his team players. Gerry himself knew that he did not deserve the honor. He had often asked me for help with his lessons. For the graduation and awards ceremony I was the one asked to deliver the address to the class. Uh, why me? I wondered. Shouldn’t that be Gerry’s job as so-called top student? But I did it instead. I recited, from memory, Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem, If.

One of my disappointments of not being chosen Outstanding Boy was that the winner’s name was added to a plaque, which hung on the wall in the front entranceway of the school. For years after, I hated seeing Gerry Hudson’s name up there in embossed bronze instead of my own. Jean Walker was our Outstanding Girl that year, and I had no problem with her eligibility. It’s all for naught now, however, because the names and plaque are no longer there, since the school was demolished years ago.

I have even forgiven Myers for passing me over. In an article published in the South Bend Tribune some years ago, I learned that Ed Myers was a World War II Army veteran who was stationed in Okinawa when the war ended. And like me, he served as the mail clerk for his unit. He soon discovered that many of the men to whom he delivered letters were illiterate. So he would read the letters to the soldiers who couldn’t read and would even pen a reply to them. That’s when he decided to be a teacher. I can’t help but wonder if he had known that someday I would follow in his footsteps as I did, maybe he would have been more respectful of me, and I of him had I known those things about him. As he is dead now, I can’t even talk with him about it.

In my junior year of high school, due to my excellence in Spanish, I was selected to represent my school in the state Spanish Contest, held at Indiana University in Bloomington. I didn’t win anything, as it turned out, but it was my first time that I got to stay overnight out of town. I would practice the language by translating poems and song lyrics into Spanish. I did A Visit from St. Nicholas and several songs from Hair and Messiah, for example. But I think that my most gratifying assignment that I ever did for second-year Spanish was when I translated Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” into Spanish, memorized it and then recited it for the class. I had quite the retentive mind in those days. My teacher, Mr. Aguirre, as well as the whole class, all were quite impressed, that is, once they figured out what the hell I was doing!

In February 1978 The News World newspaper sponsored the “Abe Lincoln Memorial Clean Limerick Contest.” I submitted a couple, which they published, and I won the First Place cash prize of $20.75! Hey, I wouldn’t have paid that much for them! My winning entries are included in another post.

I received a 3-page feature “Spotlight” in Will Grega and Randy Jones’ Out Sounds Gay Music Guide after the release Out Here On My Own. It included a 4-star review, interview, pictures, and I made the Top 25 list of Best New Albums for the year. Along with the other Flirts, I am mentioned individually on the Thanks page of Michael Callen’s book Surviving AIDS.

I met a French independent filmmaker, Olivier Kossa-Dos Reis, some years ago and upon hearing my solo CD, he decided to use my recording of “If We Only Have Love” for part of the soundtrack of his short film, A Lost Man. The 7-minute color video was premiered at the L.A. Gay Film Festival in July 1998.

I have yet to win a Games (magazine) T-shirt as a consolation prize for their many contests that I have entered over the years—not that I need another T-shirt, mind you. It’s just the principle of the thing, sort of a status symbol, I suppose. But I did finally get my name mentioned in the November 2003 issue of World of Puzzles, Games’ sister publication. One of their puzzles in an earlier issue, “Alpha Bet,” required solvers to think up same initial first and last names of famous real people for each letter of the alphabet. Examples: Alvin Ailey, Betty Buckley, Charlie Chaplin, etc. The added challenge, the “bet” part, was for anybody to beat the game editor’s list of 21 names. Well, I not only beat their list with 25 names (I never did come up with a name for “U.U.”), I created a theme list to submit to them. All but three of my names were composers! The editors must have been impressed enough with my list to mention my name with regard to this accomplishment in their Editor’s Message.

There is a clever parlor game that cropped up some years ago, although I don’t hear much about it anymore, that is known as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” (an obvious parody on the play and movie Six Degrees of Separation [1993]). The game—or challenge, if you will—is based on the notion that one can connect Kevin Bacon with virtually any movie actor, by way of their films, in no more than six links of the chain. For example, let’s try to connect Kevin with Bette Davis. Kevin starred in Diner (1982) with Mickey Rourke, who was in Rumble Fish (1983) with Dennis Hopper, who appeared in Giant (1956) with Elizabeth Taylor, who was in National Velvet (1944) with Angela Lansbury, who co-starred in Death on the Nile (1978) with Bette Davis. We did that in five steps. I also have a 4- and even 3-step connection. Kevin was in Footloose (1984) with Dianne Wiest, who starred in Edward Scissorhands (1990) with Vincent Price, who appeared in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Whales of August (1987) with Bette Davis!

A while ago I responded to a contest in Instinct magazine who asked readers to make a Kevin Bacon movie connection with one of the stars of Hollywoodland (2006)—either Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins or Robin Tunney. I submitted a two-step connection for each actor, which apparently made me a winner. I was sent a DVD copy of the film as my prize. A friend of mine one day alerted me to the fact that I, too, have a cinematic connection to Kevin Bacon, and he did it in only two steps. You see, Kevin was in Apollo 13 (1995) with Tom Hanks, who starred in Philadelphia (1994) with Cliff Townsend!

You know, I find it amazing that I have accomplished so much in my lifetime. I am not always aware of it when it’s happening, but when I see it all laid out in print, I am compelled to ask myself, ‘When did I do all this stuff? When did I have the time?’ But apparently I did. That’s why I am never bored. There is always something to do, and I always manage to find the time to do what needs to be done. I certainly appreciate the life I have had, and I hope to have many more years to enjoy it.

These are the operas in which I have performed: Abelard and Heloise / Aida / Amahl and the Night Visitors / Attila / Un Ballo in Maschera / Il Barbiere di Siviglia / La Boheme / I Capuleti e i Montecchi / Carmen / Cavalleria Rusticana / La Cenerentola / Le Cid / The Civil Wars / La Contessa dei Vampiri / Il Corsaro / Dido and Aeneas / Dioclesian / Dom Sebastien, Roi du Portugal / Don Carlos / Don Giovanni / Il Duca d’Alba / I Due Foscari / The Duenna / Edgar / L’Elisir d’Amore / Faust / Die Fledermaus / Four Saints in Three Acts / Frankentata / Il Furioso All’ Isola di San Domingo / La Gioconda / Il Giuramento / Herodiade / Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk / I Lombardi / Lucia di Lammermoor / Lucrezia Borgia / The Magic Flute / Manon / I Masnadieri / Medea / Mefistofele / Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg / The Mighty Casey / Moses und Aron / Nabucco / Norma / Otello / I Pagliacci / Parsifal / Porgy and Bess / The Rake’s Progress / Rigoletto / La Rondine / Samson et Dalila / Simon Boccanegra / Tosca / La Traviata / Treemonisha / Tristan und Isolde / Il Trovatore / Turandot / La Wally.

[Related articles: More Name-Dropping; My Combatless Tour-of-Duty; On the Road with Cliff; School Days]

19,633 thoughts on ““You Better Work!””

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