For a life that has had more than its share of ups and downs, 2010 was especially interesting.
The final months of last year saw me flush from successful performances of my then-new show, Canned Ham, yet without any future dates scheduled. I was also still saddled with my final flip-house project: Nearly two years before I had taken a dumpy little ranch and re-fashioned it into a sublime mid-century modern dream house. That it had gone on the market the week after Lehman Brothers collapsed proved to be bad timing par excellence. Fourteen months later my financial situation (always precariously balanced at best) had tipped irrevocably into the red.
Around Christmas I took pen to paper and calculated that even if I sold every single thing I owned I would not be able to pay off my debts. In desperation I sold my piano (for about a quarter of its worth.) I applied for food stamps. And after years of vowing “never again”, I took a waitering job.
All this in the year I would turn 50. Not a propitious start, thought I.
The piano paid off my overdue utility bills, the food stamps helped stock the pantry, and the waiter job, in addition to providing much-needed funds, made me feel less like the hopeless slug I was seeing myself as.
[A sidebar: in my twenties, when I had worked at pretty much every dive in the East Village, I was the waiter from hell. I was efficient, yes, but make one wrong move—like, ask for ketchup as I was reaching for the bottle—and you were dead meat. I was, simply, a nightmare. Because I wasn’t really a waiter. I was a composer/lyricist/actor/whatever. Dammit. When I started the job last January I couldn’t believe how nice I was. I wasn’t even trying; it simply came out that way. Mostly, I think, it was a result of perspective. Thirty years later I had done so many varied things and been through so much that this latest gig was just another of the endless experiences in my insane life. I had nothing to prove to anyone. Including myself. My current customers have no idea how fortunate they are.]
But those big debts (growing like The Blob, exponentially and unchecked, on my credit cards), the mortgage and renovation expenses on the flip house followed me around like storm clouds waiting to burst.
I did, of course, have Johnathan. After several fits and starts our relationship had settled down and seemed to be heading into something solid and enduring. He was the one bright spot in a muddied mass of uncertainty.
Shortly into the New Year I managed to score a three-week engagement of Canned Ham in Los Angeles. Not a heck of a lot of money, but it was a chance to perform and work on the show and, if nothing else, would give me a change of scenery. That would be followed by a two-week booking in San Francisco in August.
Maybe things were looking up?
In late-spring my director, Kevin Malony, called with a proposition: he had just had lunch with Varla Jean Merman, who had mentioned that she needed a piano player for her annual run in Provincetown that summer. Might I be interested?
I didn’t even have to consider it before answering yes. I had known Varla for years but we had never worked together. It had also been years since I had played the piano with any regularity. This would be a chance to combine working with someone whose artistry I respect with getting my piano chops back into shape with a summer in Provincetown (a place I had—amazingly--never been.) It did mean putting Canned Ham on the back burner for the time being (including the San Francisco run) and it would also mean being away from Johnathan for much longer than I would like. But, in balance, it really seemed like the right thing to do.
And then—oh, Fortuna!—the cards shuffled and it turned out that I could perform Canned Ham on alternate nights on the same stage as Varla’s show. Now there was no question that my summer would be spent on the Cape.
But none of this was answering the big financial question. I was so far in the hole that only a lottery win would have allowed me to climb out. The time had come to face the inevitable: I had to file for bankruptcy. This option had been lurking in the background for some time now, but like everyone who faces such a situation, I had tried to think of every conceivable solution before resorting to that. But no amount of juggling and reshuffling and restructuring could fend off the inevitable: I was screwed.
So I began that process just before heading off to Los Angeles.
The run of the show in L.A. was terrific. We did OK business, but more than anything I really had a chance to work on the show. I never did the same script two nights in a row the entire three weeks I was there. Every night changes both large and small went into the show. It was exhausting. I had expected to "The Socializer" during the trip but ended up spending most of my time in the apartment (generously loaned to me by Chi Chi LaRue) working on changes and conserving my energy. When I wasn’t at home I was usually at the theater going over new stuff on the stage, or rehearsing the music I had to learn for Varla’s show. Of which there was lots.
I had just under two weeks between returning from L.A. and leaving for Provincetown. During that time I not only had to get the house ready to be gone for the summer and decide what to bring for three months away, I had to write a revision of the script for the show, based on what I had learned during the L.A. run and incorporating the new material and visual elements that Kevin and were hoping to put in. There was also a final polish to be put on Varla’s music. Of which there was lots. I wanted to show up at the first rehearsal with a solid handle on the material. It had been a long time since I had served as accompanist and I wanted to make sure I would not be the weak link in the show. On top of that, upon arriving in Provincetown, I would be rehearsing Varla’s show and the new version of Canned Ham simultaneously; in fact, the two opening nights were within three days of one another.
The experience of Provincetown warrants an entire entry unto itself, so to summarize: professionally, it was a great success. Canned Ham was received very well and I had a wonderful time doing it. Again, the script underwent pretty major changes from the beginning of the summer straight through to the end. And I like to think my performance became more focused and relaxed. During the course of the summer I started to envision a major reworking of the show, mostly based on comments from audience members who would stop me on the street. The biggest change would be a lot more music. I started making notes for Canned Ham 2.0.
And Varla’s show? Well, after undergoing more changes than Spiderman will ever see, The Loose Chanteuse was a smash. And the chemistry between us was palpable. People commented on it. Varla, being truly one of the most generous performers I have ever worked with, began bringing me more and more into the show so I was not simply “the guy at the piano” but to a great extent, a character in the show. There was not a night during the summer that I did not look forward to doing the show. Indeed, of every show I have ever worked on (including my own) performing with Varla in The Loose Chanteuse was the most unadulterated fun I have ever had on stage.
My personal experience over the summer was mixed: I really didn’t know what to expect from the town. I was working seven days a week for most of the summer and so I might as well have been in Cincinnati for all the socializing I did. I think I went out to dinner exactly twice over the three months I was there. Most of the summer was hot as the Dickens and Johnathan was only able to come visit for a long weekend in August. So, it was challenging. I read a lot. I left the Cape just twice during the summer, and one of those times was a round-trip to Albany (ten hours, thank you) to make the court date for my bankruptcy hearing.
I returned home from Provincetown exhausted, very tan and with a teeny bit of savings. Oh, and with a reborn reputation as a musician. I guess expectations are pretty low when a former porn star sits down at the piano. “But when I started to play…!”
Then I got straight to work on the new version of Canned Ham which would have its premiere at Dixon Place in NYC on, of all days, my 50th birthday. Hence it would also be a party. I had a matter of weeks to prepare a completely new script, tons of musical additions to the show (including a grand total of 12 instruments I’d be playing on stage.)
I also returned to my waitering job. Happily, amazingly enough.
Two weeks before the one-nighter of Canned Ham I flew to New Orleans for three days to shoot a role in Varla’s feature film. She wrote the part for me. Honest! Three days turned into a week when one of the actors was seriously injured on his way to the set and things had to be rescheduled. I used the extra time away to really learn the new Canned Ham script.
The show on my birthday was tremendous. I was amazingly relaxed and focused (we had rehearsed right up until the time the doors opened so I had no time to get nervous) and the new version of the show proved to be a big step in the right direction. (We’re still not quite there, though. Hence even more rewrites.)
After that I put together a very silly Christmas cabaret with Trixie Starr, a local drag queen and entrepreneur. We played it up and down the Hudson Valley and—God knows why—the audiences seemed to enjoy it. We had fun.
That brings us pretty much to the present. It’s December 30th, Johnathan’s napping in the loft with the cat (I told him—Johnathan, not the cat--I needed the day to myself to get some stuff done) and I’m wrapping up this way-too-lengthy blog entry.
And how do things compare with a year ago?
Well, I have an upright piano where the Steinway grand once rested, I have a fridge full of food purchased without the help of food stamps and, thanks to the nice man at the bankruptcy court, I have no debts and no beautiful-yet-unsold houses dragging me down to the bottom of the financial ocean. (I also have no money to speak of, but when have I ever? That’s nothing new in my world.)
What I do have, though, is a calendar with a lot of dates saved: I leave on January 5 for three weeks in California to do The Loose Chanteuse in L.A. and San Diego. Then I’ll be in Key West the first two weeks of February (pity me!) with Canned Ham. Then back to NYC for the second half of the month with The Loose Chanteuse. Then it’s a run of the newest version of Canned Ham in New York back at Dixon Place for the month of March (punctuated by a weekend in New Orleans with The Loose Chanteuse).
And on top of all that I’m working on a new show for next summer in Provincetown. Not exactly sure at this point what it will be, but producer Mark Cortale made me an offer I couldn’t refuse so it’s back to the Cape for July and August. Ms. Merman and I will probably also rendezvous there for a rematch at some point.
Tomorrow night--New Year's Eve--I work my final shift at the restaurant and thus concludes another run-of-the-mill year in the life of Tom Judson.
And a year from now? Who knows? As they say…