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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Kenyon Revue

by Douglas W. Downey ’51

During the spring semester of 1949, when I was a sophomore, I roomed with C. Ray Smith ’51, who was active in Kenyon’s drama group. I had recently written a little closet drama called “Modern Disc Jockey Technique in This, the Atomic Age” and had submitted it to The New Yorker. Ray, who had better taste than The New Yorker, which had sent me one of their snooty little rejection slips, thought it was hilarious. When he learned that Paul Newman ’49, who was then a senior, was seeking collaborators for a show he wanted to write, he recommended me.

I attended a brief meeting with Paul and several other potential collaborators, but I was the only one who would be able to remain at the College over spring break and get the show written. I was living in a small building that was part of a complex of temporary buildings (“the Barracks”) constructed to house returning war veterans. (In actual fact, they housed anyone who couldn’t be squeezed into the regular dormitories, whether they were veterans or not.) The smaller buildings were to be closed over spring break, but the largest one--the T-Barracks (named for the shape of its floor plan)--was to remain open. This is where Newman lived; bringing my Royal portable typewriter and a ream of paper, I moved in with him on the Saturday that spring break began. Our first order of business was to drive into Mount Vernon to purchase necessary supplies at the state liquor store: a fifth of Dixie Belle gin and a tiny bottle of dry vermouth.

The show was to be titled The Kenyon Revue. In the first act, the dean of a fictitious college called Kenyon was to take a prospective freshman on a tour of the campus. The second act, set in the local tavern, would be a sort of talent show, with various students doing vaudeville-like acts to entertain the prospective freshmen. The second act would more or less take care of itself; it was the first act we had to write.

The show was to be a musical. We’d pick tunes that everybody already knew, and Paul would write lyrics to fit. I’d write the dialogue. In practice, I did some of the lyrics and he wrote some of the dialogue, especially catch phrases and punch lines. We sat in his room, me at his desk in front of my typewriter, he on the lower bunk, and the words just flowed. We were very impressed with our cleverness and spent a great deal of time laughing at our own stuff. At five o’clock, we’d break out the Dixie Belle gin and sip our room-temperature martinis until it was time to go to the Village Inn for a bite. After dinner, we’d work some more, and at 10:00 p.m. we’d retire to Dorothy’s, the local tavern, for a couple of bottles of Old Dutch, a brand of beer that was to be lauded in one of the show’s concluding songs.

The principal characters were to be the college dean, whom we named Bailey (coincidentally the name of Kenyon’s actual dean at the time), and a prospective freshman tentatively named Doe. (Doe eventually became Dilly, the nickname of the student who played the role.) The original plan was for Paul to direct the show but not to act in it; I was to be the dean and I gave him the best lines. Paul then decided that the role needed an actor with more experience than I could offer and decided to take it himself.

We began writing on Saturday, and by Thursday’s martini-time we had completed our script. On Friday, Paul drove me in his Model A Ford into Mount Vernon, where I boarded the evening train--known to students as the Night Crawler--to Chicago. I arrived home the next morning and immediately began typing mimeograph stencils so we could duplicate the script. (The mimeograph was a Stone Age duplicating machine widely used by offices, schools, and churches--and by my father, who had obtained one when he set up a home office for his freelance advertising business.) The script for Act I filled twenty legal-size pages. There was no script for Act II.

I returned to Kenyon on Sunday with about fifty copies. Classes resumed the next day, and Paul immediately began assembling a cast. He picked a few of the usual suspects--fellows with acting experience--but also recruited jocks, boozers, intellectuals, and aesthetes. (These various groups were not necessarily mutually exclusive). We were not able to get access to Hill Theater in Shaffer Speech Building for our rehearsals--faculty members were putting on their own musical and had first dibs--so we used Rosse Hall instead.

Reading the script some sixty years later, I see much of the humor as being sophomoric (appropriately so, since I was a sophomore at the time), very much like what is found in the sitcoms of today. (Perhaps I missed my calling.) The lyrics, written almost entirely by Newman, are much better.

On May 3, 1949, we were finally able to get access to Hill Theater and held our dress rehearsal. The show ran on May 4 and 5. I have no memory of the actual performances, but I do have a copy of the program with notes I made at the time. The show was apparently a hit, but I was critical of many of the participants. In the “Cast” section, I noted that the actor who played Dilly (Dilly himself) was “was excellent for the job,” but after Newman’s name I wrote, “Miscast, but good job.” In the section where he was listed as the show’s director, I noted, without explanation, “Should never have directed.” Part of the problem was that he considered it to be his show--which it most assuredly was--while I considered it to be my show.

In the summer of 1949 I wrote a sequel: The Kenyon Preview. It took place in the distant future--1990, I believe. Unlike The Kenyon Revue, with its episodic first act and its amateur-show second act, the Preview was an actual drama. (Or so I thought.) It, too, was a musical, but I stole the music from classier sources than Paul had used. (One of the Revue’s tunes, for example, was from a radio commercial for bananas, another from a drinking song called “Fie on You Medical Bastards.” For the Preview, I used such material as Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” and Paul Dresser’s “On the Banks of the Wabash.”)

I was working that summer for an advertising agency in Chicago, filling in for vacationing women in the checking department. We leafed through newspapers and magazines to make sure the ads the agency had placed were actually running. I was able to do a day’s worth of checking in several hours, but I was ordered by the supervisor to slow down or I’d spoil it for the full-time employees. By carefully arranging the day’s work materials on my desk, I was able to camouflage what I was actually doing--writing a play.

I returned to Kenyon in the fall with my completed script and asked Jim Michael, chairman of the drama department, how I should proceed.

“When you’ve assembled a cast,” he told me, “we can talk about finding time for you to use the theater.”

Assemble a cast?

Clearly, I was no Paul Newman and the Preview went no further. It was an excellent piece of work, I’m sure. But the script has disappeared, so I don’t have to face the disillusionment that might occur if I were to read it today.

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