On Thursday, October 18 I returned to my hometown of Miami, Oklahoma to sell and sign my book Open: A Memoir of Faith, Family, and Sexuality in the Heartland. For the first time I was doing a public event in my hometown as an out gay man.
I pulled up to the back entrance of Chapters, the local bookstore on Main Street. Long ago public parking lots were built behind the stores on Main Street and those stores created back entrances. When I was a kid this was the primary way most people visited the stores. Of course that was an era when we had J C Penney, Montgomery Ward, Woolworth’s, and more. I’m still a creature of long habit and parked out back.
When I pulled up a woman was getting out of her car and she called my name. I quickly ran through the old Rolodex files in my head and came up with her name–Lee Dell Mustain. A now retired dance teacher my mother’s age, she and I had been in The King and I together back in 1990. She informed me that in retirement she is the Assistant Manager of the store, and so we headed in to set things up.
After I had my display ready, Lee Dell came over to purchase her copy and we chatted about family, her experience of being a widow, and our time in little theatre together. That 1990 production of The King and I was the first in the Coleman Theatre Beautiful, the grand vaudeville house and cinema on Main Street, after it had ceased operation as a movie theatre and been given to the city to run. The cast, crew, and family members of that first show spent hours cleaning up the theatre. We had no running water, no real amenities, and all the original 1929 electrical equipment. Amazing that we pulled off a large production! Now it’s a beautifully restored gem.
Lee Dell talked about how emotional the show was. I played Prince Chululongkorn whose father dies in the final scene. That spring my father had died and many who attended the show knew. They cried as they watched me in the scene.
I reminded Lee Dell that Don Nichols, the local theatre professor who was playing the king, had a method approach to acting, so he had instructed me to use the emotion of Dad’s death. Every night before I went on stage I relived the night Dad had died of a heart attack and was on the verge of tears before my cue. Lee Dell and I discussed how therapeutic that had been for me.
Ah, the Coleman Theatre. It had graced my hometown Main Street since 1929. Grandma Jones told stories of her first date in a car when the young man drove her to town and the bright lights of the theatre made her feel as if she was in the big city.
Mom made her stage debut dancing at the Coleman as a little girl.
My sister’s wedding was the first one ever on the stage.
And walking that length of memory lane all occurred only during set up for my book event. More in Part Two.