[This is the final installment of my “Berlin Memoir,” my account of the quarter-decade I spent as an intelligence officer in West Berlin in the early ’70s. (Parts 1 through 7 were published on 16 and 31 December 2016, 20 January 2017, 9 and 19 February 2017, and 6 and 29 March 2017.) In this segment, I’ll mostly be covering the theater activities in which I participated, including an amateur theater troupe I helped launch, and some experiences that grew out of those. As always, I recommend that new readers of “Berlin Memoir” go back and catch up with the earlier parts because the background informs much of what I recount here, plus a lot of the terms, abbreviations, and events I use and allude to have been explained and defined in the preceding sections.]
I said earlier (see Part 6, posted on 11 March) that some of the amateur actors in Berlin Brigade decided to form a theater group so we could do stuff together on a more continuous basis—workshops, little classes, camaraderie with the British group, and such. (The wife of one of our founders, an Air Force sergeant, was a Brit herself and she knew some of those folks. Their group was called BATS: the British Amateur Theatrical Society.) We formed our group sometime in September or early October 1972 and the Air Force guy got us sponsored by the Skyrider Service Club, Tempelhof’s NCO club, of which he was a member. We called ourselves TAT: the Tempelhof American Theatre. (Some had wanted to model our name after the Brits’ group, but amateur has a more derogatory connotation in American than it does in British.) We even designed a logo in which the two T’s in TAT were stylized Greek masks, one of comedy and one of tragedy. We put ads and announcements on AFRTS—I was the publicity director—and got stories planted in Stars and Stripes.
That last had an odd consequence for me: I ended up the “model” for a posed photo to illustrate an article—me standing by a lighting instrument on a floor stand. (It wasn’t even really a stage instrument.) When the article came out in July ’73—and I still have a copy somewhere—it appeared in the S&S all over the world, including Asmara, Ethiopia. One of my W&L roommates, who had enlisted in the Air Force after we graduated, was stationed there and he saw the photo and article and called me! (Remember, all USAREUR and USAFE facilities are interconnected by the same telephone system.)
TAT’s first show (December 1972) was a children’s play, The Wonderful Tang by Beaumont Bruestle, which was a fairy tale set in China. It had a character, The Chorus, who's like a children’s version of Our Town’s Stage Manager, and I did that role in yellow-face. (Today, no one would dare do that—but what did we know?) I channeled Mickey Rooney from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (yes, I know—his character was Japanese; again: what did we know?) As un-PC as it would be today, it was a big hit then. We were invited to do a cut-down version of the play—maybe it was the whole thing; it wasn’t very long—on a children’s show on AFTV.
Well, I’d never done anything like that before, so this was an experience. First off, AFTV was still black and white in the ’70s, so all our fancy make-up had to be redesigned for the gray-scale. (Yellow-face didn’t read on b&w TV, so I didn’t need that, but everything else had to be rethought.) No one knew anything about this, so we just experimented in front of the cameras during rehearsal until we got something acceptable. Then, in one scene, one of us—maybe it was me, I don’t remember anymore—was supposed to appear out of nowhere. On stage, we just did it conventionally—the actor just jumped out from behind curtains to the accompaniment of a lot of Oooh’s and Aaah’s from the other characters—but I suggested, Why not try to do it with some trick photography? Again, no one knew how to do this—the AFRTS staff were just airmen and –women with some basic TV training, not pros—so we winged it. It came out a little jumpy, but it worked—at least for “local” TV. (We did this all on tape, of course—not live. I think they aired it a couple of times. The AFTV show, a local children’s program, also included some interviews—children’s style—if I recall, about who we were and what TAT did and what the play was about and so on.)
Then we mounted A Hatful of Rain by Michael V. Gazzo. I was the dope dealer, Mother—played on stage and in the movie by Henry Silva, one of the all-time great screen villains—and I was one nasty sum’bitch. One day, out near the commissary or something, some Air Force NCO stopped me, and in really angry tones, explained that I was a real bastard and he’d like to take care of me some night in a dark alley—or something like that. Talk about suspending disbelief! I had to point out I was a commissioned officer—I wore civvies, remember—and he needed to back off. (Aaahh, stardom. Has its burdens, don’t it?)
Well, Hatful was a big success, too. (Remember, we had a very culturally deprived audience. Many GI’s didn’t get out much!) So the NCO club invited us to do the play for a dinner theater. Our usual performance space was a large room at Tempelhof with a moveable, blue-carpeted platform that had a red curtain backdrop—intended for lectures, small concerts, and meetings—for our stage (unless we built something more elaborate; one of our actors discovered a talent for scene design and set building after I gave him some pointers—from my vast experience in that field!). But the NCO club got an actual auditorium with a proscenium stage for their dinner-theater event, and we moved in there for one night. Now, what no one really considered was that Hatful is not really dinner-theater fare—it’s pretty grotty and stomach-churning melodrama, what with all the shooting up, drug withdrawal, and thuggery. Not terribly conducive to digesting food. Nevertheless, we were a hit.
Hatful was also entered in 1973’s Third Annual USAFE Play Contest and we actually won for Best Play. That prize included a December command performance at Ramstein AB, the USAFE HQ in Germany. So we had to dismantle our set—the first really elaborate one we’d done, with walls and everything, not really designed for touring—and get it and us to Ramstein. We got the set booked on an Air Force cargo flight, and we would take the Duty Train to Frankfurt where someone from Ramstein would meet us and drive us to the AB, about 85 miles away. But guess what. At the very last minute, the set was bumped for a helicopter tail section. Well, we scrambled and made dozens of phone calls and somehow managed to get the set onto the train with us and arranged for a truck to meet us in Frankfurt to haul it to Ramstein.
Of course, it was raining, and the set got to the theater banged up and scarred from the train ride and the open deuce-and-a-half. We were able to fix most things by ingenuity and luck—it was now maybe 7 or 8 p.m. the day before the contest festival (which included presentation of the awards for Best Actor and Best Actress, and so on—a big megillah)—but parts of the walls had been marred so that the paint had come off. (The flats weren’t muslin-covered frames, but solid constructions of something like homosote.) We didn’t have any of the paint, and no one could locate any at that hour—even if we could match the wall color. Then someone—me, I think—noted that the walls were pea-green. Why not run to the commissary or deli—something was actually still open—and get some pea soup? By God, that’s what we did, and it worked! We touched up the damaged set with Campbell’s condensed pea soup! (As Ken Barnes, the TD at W&L’s Troubs, said: Necessity is a mother.)
So, we finished repairing and mounting the set, and I guess we must have done a quick run-through or something for the cues—but we had no time for a full rehearsal. So we went on the next day in an unfamiliar theater, not exactly cold, but luke warm. Everything was going well enough—Dave Hickey, our Johnny Pope, had caught a little cold or stomach flu or something and he was a bit weak so when I pushed him in one scene, he kind of went flying a little, but no harm and no one but us noticed. However, in one scene I smoke a cigarette which I drop on the floor and stamp out with my shoe. Except that this theater had a raked stage with some kind of woven-rope floor covering. Not having rehearsed here, it never occurred to me, and certainly not in the heat of the scene, that when I dropped the butt on the floor, it was going to roll down toward the proscenium. And that’s what it did—heading straight for the front row of seats. And I’m trying to “casually” reach my foot farther and farther down the stage to stop it and put it out. I know that lit butt is going to start the rope floor cover ablaze and the performance and the theater will go up in flames and smoke, sending Brig. Gen. Robert Thompson, the USAFE Chief of Staff who hosted the ceremony, fleeing out into the late-December night (and I’d have a new senior officer with my name on his shit list!). In the end, I just had to let the butt roll, and nothing happened—except I had a small heart attack up there that night.
(I posted a version of the Hatful anecdote on ROT as “Short Takes: Theater War Stories” on 6 December 2010, and on 20 November 2014, the AF NCO who designed the set, David Rogers, stumbled on it. He wrote me and filled in some information which I either hadn’t known or had forgotten. So, here’s more of the story:
(When Dave met the train on which the set came back to Berlin. he said he knew something was wrong when they opened the boxcar door. He could smell it! The set had stayed in Ramstein about three days after we left and Dave figured they’d left it outside the theater. When he arrived to pick it up at the train station in Berlin, there was stuff growing out of it. My suggestion to paint it with green pea soup did the trick for the performance, but it also was organic enough to sprout mold and mildew over the entire set. Dave told the folks at the station just to throw the whole set out.
(Dave told me that the reason the actor playing Johnny was so sick—and so was most of the cast and crew—was that Ramstein’s troops recently had gotten their flu shots. The bugs, Dave said, were everywhere. During the command performance, Mike, the young man who played Mother’s henchman, Apples, got terribly ill, and the director, Bruce Limpus, tapped Dave to play the part. So he spent a while in the afternoon going through Apple’s lines with me and the cast. As it turned out, Mike was the real trouper and he went on in his role. Meanwhile, Dave was up in the light booth, almost falling asleep, running lights for the show.
(Back stage, the green room was a mess, Dave recalled. Many of the cast members were so sick with the flu that, between stage entrances, they’d go back to the green room and lie down on coats and clothes and anything that would afford a comfortable sick bed. It looked like a wartime hospital back there, Dave said.
(Then there was the Technical Director for the theater who insisted we put green foliage on the set above the “street entrance” (where Apples and I entered) because it was stark and unappealing. It was supposed to be stark and unappealing, Dave observed. It was a seedy part of New York City! The set dressing made the set look like a garden apartment that was below ground. Dave recalled that the TD outranked him, because he didn’t fight her on this.)
By the way—one of the judges for the USAFE contest was Dennis Cole, that renowned actor of refinement and distinction. Well, Cole arrived in Berlin without enough warm clothing, so they had to take him off to the ’X to shop. I don’t know what else he bought—he sported a black leather jacket, but I think that came with him—but he did purchase a pair of Corcoran paratroop boots. Man, he thought those were cool! He wore them everywhere the whole time he was in Berlin. What a honcho!
TAT was mostly fun—we had meetings and did scenes and improvs, the Brits came over and did some light pieces, we went to their shop and schmoozed, we mounted a bill of one-acts (I did the father in Chekhov’s Marriage Proposal; the other shows on the bill were Edward Albee’s The American Dream and The Feast by Dan Wright) and Peter Ustinov’s Halfway Up the Tree (I assistant-directed). But one thing was not fun. One of our actresses was the daughter of an Army colonel, a medical officer at the hospital. Her name was Nancy and she was married at the time we started TAT. It was already her second marriage—she was the same age as I or a little younger—and she had a 7- or 8-year-old daughter from her first; within a month or so, her second marriage broke up.
The word at the time was that her husband, whom I met once or twice, just up and left, but after I got to know Nancy, I had to wonder. She and I became friendly and then started to move toward romance. I got to know her father some; Nancy and her daughter were living with him in the senior-officer housing, and he seemed to approve. I admit, her track record bothered me a little and the fact that she came with instant family worried me, too—I wasn’t at all sure I was ready at around 27 to become a father to an 8-year-old all of a sudden. Then, little by little, Nancy started to get possessive and slightly obsessive. She’d call me at all times of the day and often wouldn’t get off the phone. She’d call and ask if we could go somewhere right then—and I started to see that she was always leaving her daughter at home, even blowing off things like parent-teacher meetings and such. I decided to back off any relationship—she was scaring me, frankly—but she kept calling and “running into me” as if she had been waiting for me. (The term stalking didn’t really exist yet, but looking back, that’s what it was.)
One time Nancy disappeared from home—her father called to see if she was with me—and was later found walking along the railroad tracks in Berlin. That’s when I learned that Nancy was a paranoid schizophrenic and had been hospitalized at least once before and had been on medication which she’d apparently stopped taking. (This is when my original judgment of her husband began to alter.) Her behavior was all manifestations of her illness, I learned—especially the tendency to latch onto someone about whom the paranoid schizophrenic forms a fantasy relationship based on the flimsiest evidence. (Believe it or not, this happened to me once again, when I was at the American Academy a few years later.) Later the day she disappeared, Nancy called me from the hospital. (I was home on comp time for some extended duty.) She’d walked off the psych ward and was calling from the ER; she wanted me to come and get her. I told her I couldn’t do that, trying to be as calm and supportive as I could (acting again), and tried to hang up the phone so I could call her father. But Nancy wouldn’t hang up and the peculiarity of the German phone system was that if the calling party keeps the line open, you can’t break the connection. I finally ran down the hall to a neighbor—thank goodness it was the temporary quarters of a married officer and his wife was home—and used that phone to get through to Nancy's father at his clinic in the hospital. He thanked me for informing him—he was always strangely calm during all this—and sent someone to retrieve Nancy from the ER.
I don’t remember how long Nancy stayed in the hospital, but she was eventually remedicated and released. She was supposed to be an outpatient, of course, but basically she went back to her previous life, including TAT. I tried not to be cruel, but I did everything I could to separate from her—I stayed away from TAT stuff a lot—and Nancy started to latch onto another member of the group. (I never understood why the guy, an EM and a little younger than Nancy, would get involved with her after all that had happened—none of this had been secret—but I figured it was none of my business.) Then one evening, I came home from work and Nancy was waiting for me outside my BOQ with a bag of groceries. It turned out that the bag was all stuff she’d liberated from home; she said she wanted to come up to my apartment so we could “taste things.” I told her to go home and that I wasn’t going to let her in. I was both scared and angry, and I didn’t want to get involved in this. There was no lock on the outside door of the building, so Nancy followed me up to my apartment on the second floor, but I wouldn’t let her in. I figured she’d go home soon, but she stayed outside my apartment, sitting on the corridor floor and talking to me through the closed door. I stopped telling her to go and didn’t respond, hoping that she’d give up and go home. I suppose it was stupid, but I’d never encountered anything like this and I had no idea what to do. I don’t know why I didn’t just call her father, and I’m ashamed now that I didn’t. I finally called him and he sent someone to bring her home or back to the hospital.
I can’t say I handled any of this well; I was all of 27 or so and had never met a crazy person before, so what did I know? I know I was scared, though, and I was angry at Nancy’s parents because they never even hinted that there had been anything wrong until it all exploded more or less in my face. Not only didn’t her father ever tell me anything about his daughter’s illness, he was a doctor and didn’t give me any instructions on how to handle situations once her condition was revealed. This time, of course, Nancy stayed hospitalized for some time, but she stayed in Berlin and when she was released, she returned to TAT. I thought that was a bad idea, since it seemed to me that this was the environment that either triggered her schizophrenia or exacerbated it. Why she would be encouraged to go back into it was a mystery to me. Nancy and I remained apart after this, though, so I don’t know what happened later. She eventually went back to the States, I think, and, of course, I never had much to do with her father anymore so I was out of the loop. Less than a year later, I left Berlin and the army. It’s not one of my pleasanter life experiences—and, as I hinted, it repeated itself on a much smaller scale a few years later. (Some guys are babe magnets? I was a kook magnet.)
When I was visiting D.C. in April 2004, I went to “my” museum—the International Spy Museum (see “Spook Museum,” 25 March 2010). Now, that was really a walk down memory lane. I had expected something of a joke—all James Bond and Maxwell Smart or something—or a superficial whitewash, full of gimmicks and mock-ups. It’s not. It’s actually a serious museum—entertainment more than edification, to be sure, but not a joke and not all that superficial. I mean, it’s cleaned up a bit for general consumption—the biggest group of visitors, at least when I was there, is teen and pre-teen boys—but it’s only romanticized a little, and it covers pretty much the whole business. It was skewed toward the Cold War era when I visited, perhaps understandably; this was before the global terror campaign had really taken hold. The museum also doesn’t show much of the philosophically nastier, morally compromising aspects of the field—as I’ve noted, we used to remind each other that what spies do is fundamentally illegal—but it’s pretty accurate in what it does show. There were James Bond and the Avengers about—a replica of one of the Bond cars was on display—but for the most part, these were just what we used to call “eyewash”—dressing to keep things lively. On the other hand, there was a mock-up of a car showing how several people could be hidden in it—just like the exfiltrators used to do. The real exhibits are actual artifacts of spycraft (including an Enigma machine). The museum is something of a rabbit warren inside and when we left one exhibit area and followed a corridor to another, we emerged into a space with a large sign on the opposite wall that read: “BERLIN – City of Spies”! It was a little stage set—a café table, walls with maps of Berlin, photos of street scenes with Soviet soldiers, and things of that sort—all from the ‘60s. That’s only a few years before my time there, and little had changed in appearance between then and my day. Talk about déjà vu!!
The advertising slogan for Berlin tourism used to be “Berlin ist eine Reise wert”—Berlin is worth a trip. Has it been?