Is that seat taken?

It might seem like a little overkill, but Sue and I scheduled four musicals over a three-day weekend at the Post Playhouse in Ft. Robinson, Nebraska last week. We try to make it every summer since it was the site of our first date back in May of 1981.

The term “starving actor” is accurate with the players in these high-quality productions, they don’t earn very much money, it’s one of those “think of the experience” positions.  Originally the productions were all melodramas, with a lot of hissing and booing of the villain, and cheers for the hero, but that has changed, and the production quality of these plays is incredible when you consider where the stage is located on the arid plains of the Nebraska Sand Hills.

The theater is a bit antiquated, which adds to the overall charm and ambiance of the performances. Stiff, high-back movie theater-style seats with a sloping auditorium floor bring thoughts of old Los Angeles or maybe even 1880s Tombstone, Arizona.

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All four plays sold out. In one performance there was a little kid in front of me, but his dad sat in front of Sue. That was an easy solution we just switched seats, I had no problem seeing the stage, and after moving she didn’t either.

On Friday night, we were seated near the back. The audience is primarily tourists, with tour buses stopping with 40 or so elderly passengers taking cruises across the west.

I overheard a lady saying she couldn’t see behind me. I glanced back and a nice grandmotherly woman with hair so white it had a bluish tint was directly behind my seat. She might have been five feet tall in high heels. I slumped, leaned forward, and did my best to not impede her view.

At intermission, I switched seats with Sue. The lady knew what I had done in the opening half of the play and thanked me for “slouching” as she called it. She had a better view in the second half of the performance, and I was able to sit normally.

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These two sequences took me back to my college days and a similar incident at the now defunct Wyo Theater in Laramie.

It was late in the fall semester of 1976, and a movie my knuckle-dragging friends and I had eagerly anticipated finally arrived in the Gem City.

Many people don’t care for the Rocky series, but the original, with its grainy, dark, depressing quality is the best in the widely popular series in my opinion, and we packed the theatre, well almost packed it.

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There were two seats left right in front of me as the lights began to dim.

I remember commenting to a friend sitting next to me, “Watch, some seven-foot clown is going to sit down right there at the last minute.”

Well, he wasn’t quite seven feet tall, and he wasn’t a clown, he was my friend Alphonse Eaford III, from some little town outside Trenton, New Jersey.

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His nickname was “Big Al” and at 6-7, he was a tall kid. It was the 70s, Al had an Oscar Gamble-style Afro that must have been eight inches deep all around his head. Al was one of coach Don Devoe’s basketball players, and he lived on the far end of the hall on the second floor of the Crane Hall Dormitory.

As Al started to take his seat, he grinned at me and said, “Hey, Tuck, can’t wait to see this.”

I knew what was about to happen, Al, already a tall guy, was about to cover the entire screen with his huge head of hair.

“Wait up Al, I won’t be able to see, switch with me,” I said.

“No problem, man,” Al replied and we quickly swapped seats. The guy behind me wasn’t so thrilled, he complained, but he wasn’t one of us, so we just let him suffer through the show.

Fitting in when you’re that tall, with even taller hair must have been a challenge for Al.

He was a great guy, played sparingly for the Cowboys, and was terrified of the outdoors. Living in a dorm filled with hunters and fishermen presented a little culture shock for Big Al.

He was in love with some girl back home in New Jersey and used to make epic phone calls to her on those old black, wall-mounted, rotary dial phones that our dorm was populated with.

It was the dawn of “phone phreaking” as the process of cheating the phone company on long-distance charges was called. There were a couple of ways to do that. The first was simple enough, there were calling cards in those days with a long series of numbers you read to an operator when making a call and it was charged back to your parent’s home phone or to a credit card. The other was more sophisticated, it involved using a tape recorder to play a series of tones that bypassed the operator and let you directly dial the number, bypassing all charges.

As you might imagine, the phone company hated it and they started to monitor the lines coming out of the dorms on the UW campus much more closely.

Al used the fake calling card system every night for at least an hour to call his girl back home.

Jump ahead to the spring of 1977 and our intramural softball team is in the semi-finals. It was all the guys from our floor with Al (naturally) playing first base and me pitching.

Somewhere around the third inning, we took the field, and I noticed a couple of Albany County deputies approaching the diamond. With the guys on our floor, it could have been anything. One of them had a habit of stealing fresh bread out of the back of a downtown bakery and a couple of others were always getting in fistfights.

One of the deputies looked at me, and raised his hand, letting me know not to pitch to the batter.

The other one pulled out a piece of paper and said, “Alphonse Eaford the third, we have a warrant for your arrest for phone fraud.”

They didn’t know who Alphonse Eaford III was until they read the warrant. Al was no poker player, and his face quickly gave him away. They handcuffed him, and as he walked away, he yelled over his shoulder, “Call coach Devoe!”

We did call Coach Devoe after the game was over. Al’s parents paid the $300 plus he’d run up in illegal calls, and he was able to stay in school no doubt thanks to some strings being pulled by the basketball office.

Al graduated later that month and we never saw him again. I like to think he married that girl and is now enjoying life as a grandpa like so many of us.

It’s funny how something can trigger a memory decades after it happened. Ft. Robinson will always be a special place to me and my blushing bride.

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