Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My Blue Jacket

I miss Blue Jacket.

Blue Jacket, the Epic Outdoor Drama ran for over 25 seasons and closed "temporarily"after the 2007 season, and has since had First Frontier, the producing company declare bancrupcy, essentially rendering the show dead for at least the time being. New DNA testing showing that Blue Jacket himself wasn't blah blah blah basically renders the show dated. Of course, the money and the legitimacy of blood or whatever completely misses the point and the message, and does nothing to diminish the memories.

In the Spring of 2001, as a Drama Major at Thomas More College, I found myself looking for an acting gig for the Summer to come. I'd auditioned already at the place where I'd worked the year prior, and I would have been content to go back there, but due to some upheaval with the organization, they were slow in getting contracts out, and I didn't want to risk not working. So, I drove to Xenia, Ohio with my best friend at the time, Melissa Depenbrock (now Dortch... She met David while at Blue Jacket) who was returning to Blue Jacket for her 2nd Summer and first as the Head Equestrian. I auditioned in a small office, and was offered the role of Captain Arbuckle later that week. I'd still not heard from the other theater, so I accepted.

I mean... I was a chubby, nerdy dude who was going far, far out of his comfort zone to do an outdoor drama where I'd have to, among other things, ride horses bareback, learn stage combat, roll around in the dirt (my sworn enemy), and not be able to rely on my one true strength at the time as a performer, my singing.

I'd done outdoor drama, but there's a big difference in difficulty level between trying not to swallow a mosquito in the middle of singing a high A and doing everything you can to squeeze with your knees to a horse that suddenly doesn't recognize a puddle and let's be honest, I wasn't the best rider that ever walked down the pike. That run-on sentence doesn't convey even half of the anxiety I felt about this new endeavor. This was truly guerrilla theatre. Like..the crawling through the woods on your belly with a gun....LITERALLY...type of theatre.

If you'd have told me after my first day, when it poured rain the whole time, and Johnny Mac (from Chicago), who was doing the fight direction that year (the one year when Rat didn't do it, I guess), had us doing pushups on stage and running and soaking and gasping for life.... If you'd have told me then that I'd be writing a blog now about how it was my favorite time I've ever spent in theater, I'd have slapped you square in the face. Looking back, I wish I had more of those days.

In many ways, it was the best Summer of my life. Certainly the free-est. Definitely not the purest. But let me tell you... the people I met there have been with me perpetually since.

I'm terrible about keeping in touch, with even my closest friends, but I know that Mike Mangione would greet me with a hug and a hearty "SHAWNEE!!" if I ran into him on the street.

In fact, that very idea was shown to be true a couple of weeks ago when I ran into my old friends Tanner and Samantha Thompson at a Bengals game. Tanner and Samantha met at Blue Jacket too. I'm welling up now, but I'm hard pressed to think of a single moment where I was greeted as warmly as I was when I told Tanner to take off that fucking Colts jersey. In true Tanner fashion, he just laughed and smiled and they both gave me big 'ol hugs.

The thing is... I know that would be true for anyone I worked with that Summer (and the next when I went back as a mid-season replacement). I've never had a working experience where I felt like I was part of a family as I did trodding the sand at Ceasar's Ford. And I actually worked FOR family for 4 years.

That first Summer I was there was historically wet at Blue Jacket. We had several rain outs. The creek overflowed for a week once and the horses could barely get across from the pasture. It rained for so many days in rehearsals that for the brief moments when it was dry, you could sense the entire place just sucking in the sunlight. Our Blue Jacket cast shirts that season featured a drenched horse (Bucky). I bought 2.

So anyway... the other day I was on Facebook and I saw that another Blue Jacket alumnus, Spencer Burton (who was 12! that first Summer) had been up to the site and took some photos, posting them on his page. I'll admit they hit me pretty hard... not all at once, but slowly. The images creeping into my thoughts at the oddest times.

The Tofu Muchacha and I had planned on going antique shopping anyway for a show that I'm doing props for, so I suggested we drive up to Yellow Springs and make a day. Thinking that we could stop at the site for ourselves to see that old place I loved so much. I just felt like I needed to see it.

Appropriately, it was raining when we got there.

I can't tell you how remarkably sad the whole experience made me. Sad for a lot of reasons.

I think back to those Summers. To the times that made me laugh (just about all of them) and the times that made me cry (the others).

I think about getting a riding lesson from Keith Conway, who basically summed up his technique by.... ahem... humping the withers (of Jack or Bud, I'm sure) and saying "ya just gotta goooo with it."

I think about learning about a culture much older and storied than ours, and being inspired by the simple beauty of the Shawnee. What little I had the capacity to truly understand. A 3 day pow-wow just isn't enough is all I'm saying.

I think about spending the Summer being killed at centerstage by Black Fish (Cliff Jenkins) (and subsequently being peed on by Willow more than a few times) outside the burning fort at the end of Act 1.

I remember the deep sadness we all felt when the surprise foal we were so amazed to find in the pasture one day died the next..

I made friends with a horse named Ace, who to this day is still probably my favorite living creature. The one with the gentlest soul. If I had the money and the resource, I would have bought him in a heartbeat. I wonder where he is now, seeing as horses don't have Facebook... or do they?

And then, with all of those things in mind.... With the nights at Sure Shots and the days in the tennis courts at Stone Bridge learning to fight with Rat and Mike Mangione, and the many, many backstage tours I did with Tom Small, and the seeming hours it took to clean those damned guns every week. Thinking about all of those things, I hopped the low rise fence at the main gate (the actor's entrance is so overgrown that aside from the indent in the road, it's hard to tell anything was ever there) and I made my way toward the theater.

The parking lot, and all of that land that once housed our torch throwing practices is a wild field again. The space next to the picnic area, where there once were tables, was now waist high grass. The screens enclosing the meal building are torn and falling.

The theater itself reminded me of one of those movies like "I am Legend" or "28 Days Later" where a bustling place had been abandoned quickly, with it's inhabitants thinking they'd be back soon. The concession stand sign was still mostly intact, with items and prices still listed. The old, familiar tours sign still shows that the next tour starts at 5:00. Everything is boarded up, but for the most part, it looks like aside from some extra debris and weeds, that it could be cleaned up in a particularly taxing rehearsal tech week.

I walked into the theater from the top on the stage left, audience right side. The cry room still labeled. I felt like I wanted to go in there for a minute.
The stage itself is basically unchanged. There's definitely grass growing where no self-respecting A.T. would have allowed it to grow. Clearwater's rock is obscured and hard to see. The buildings, especially building B were looking the worse for wear, but if I squinted real hard, I could see Death Rider at center stage. I could hear that familiar voice over... "This Sacred ground..."I could detail the whole time I spent there (only about an hour) and the things I showed Tofu Muchacha. The 5 million places I pointed out to her...

"That's where I died every night...oh and there...and there."

"Here's where Ceasar fell at the end of Act 1"

"The acoustics here are amazing....listen!"

"There used to be a bat that lived down there in the tunnel. He was our friend."

"Here's where I fell off of Morgan during riding call."

The saddest moment for me came toward the end when I decided to walk to the pasture. The bridge probably wasn't safe anymore, but I did anyway. The path so clear that we could navigate it in the dark was gone...just a hint of a direction...a familiar footstep or two to guide the way. I'd wanted to go in and visit Clyde the horse by the medicine wheel. I'd wanted to go pat Ace's old post.

I'm not a religious person, but the spirit of that place has always hit me more than anywhere I've ever been. I can honestly say that through my first 22 years, the place I'd felt the most at peace, and the most at home was picking the hooves of those horses in that pasture. I readily admit that I have no horse knowledge aside from what I picked up there 2nd hand. I readily admit I may have been the worst rider in the history of the world, but I loved that pasture.

Sadly, the pasture was unreachable. I made it to the gate, which was totally covered in weeds and high grass, and I managed to snap a photo or two, just so I could remember it again later. It would have been no use to climb... the growth was more than I could manage.

We made our way back to the front... I was this close to crying the whole time. I felt unfinished. I felt restless. Then I spied something that gave me a slight bit of comfort as I left, and I felt compelled to take one last photo...It's hard for me to acknowledge any belief in fate and spirits and guides, but I can't help but feel like that path I took (of the many I could have taken) and that sideways glance (of the many I could have taken) was meant to lead me to that seat. To say goodbye to Ace one last time, and to take with me a small piece of his spirit.

As I sit typing this in the middle of the night, waiting for some dumb work issue to resolve before I can go to bed, I am crying.

The funniest thing is that I likely wasn't all that memorable to that place full of memorable characters. I certainly didn't have the same impact of Petey Fitzkee who spent more time playing Blue Jacket himself than any other person, and who still has ghost pains of performing around 8 on a Summer's night... (I read the article in the Dayton Daily News) . I didn't meet the person I love there like Tanner and Sammy, or Mel and David, or Pete and Tara, (or a thousand others).

I likely barely made a dent in that place, and yet when I really allow myself to admit it, it's possible that those 2 seasons dented me more than almost any other experiences I've had. (Not counting the actual dent in my shin from when Pancho kicked me while I was riding Ace). Certainly I had some memorable, treasured times there.

I'm writing this post as a catharsis, so please excuse the ramble. I've left it largely unedited, which likely makes it largely unreadable for most. I hope someone "Googling" Blue Jacket will come across this and smile knowing that a minor cog like me was, over a Summer and some change, so greatly impacted. I hope some of the people who have more history than I do there will know how much their contribution to Blue Jacket meant to me, and to know how much the loss of the institution grieves me.

I called this post "My Blue Jacket", because this is just my own personal take on a the tragic loss of a friend... of a family... something bigger than any of the single people who spent their Summers in the mist of the evening.

I hope it comes back one day. I hope that one day is soon. In any case, I'll never forget it. Not ever.

I leave you with the words of Rusty Mundell, the playwright:

This sacred ground, which you call your land, never belonged to you, fellow-man. It has always belonged to the Great Creator.

Look at the earth around you. Do you think it has anything to say?

Look at the forest and at the stone. What stories do they have?

Listen to the stream nearby... singing lost songs to lost children. Do you hear the earth?

It tells you that the Great Creator put it here in order to offer his children all that grows upon it. The Great Creator put it here...and from its womb...he made man.

...You killed us, and we fled before your numbers and your power, until we came to this sacred ground.

Do you hear it? Do you not hear the ground say that this is so?


Cliff Jenkins said...

Oushi cat-a-we.

- Chiungala (Black Fish)

Gregg Fraley said...

Nice piece Danny.

I like that it was long, it felt like a New Yorker piece in that way.

I really like it when you are totally honest and there was a lot of it here.

I like the details too. Like, picking at horse shoes.

Keep writing... please.

JafaBrit's Art said...

I remember the first year in America and seeing Blue Jacket and it was mesmerizing. I had goosebumps the size of grapefruits watching it. Saw it three or four times over the years. Your post made me want to cry, so sad to see it gone. It was interesting too to hear about it from your perspective.
Great blog entry.

Ed Cohen said...

Pretty cool Dan, and very moving; those things that stick with us are almost always unexpected and never seem as such when they're happening....Like Gregg said, keep writing...

Abbey said...

So I didn't work there...but I saw it many times, so I understand where you're coming from. (Plus, you know, the sentimental horse stuff just about made me bawl at my desk.) My question to you is: do you still have Death Rider's opening speech memorized? Or did you have to look some of that up?

(Also...MY most vivid memory of Blue Jacket is showing up early for a performance and going for a secret ride with Melissa. Her horse tripped, she fell off, and was trampled. I remember the horseshoe print on her ribcage. Probably top 5 scariest moments of my life ;) )

Pat Wanzer said...

Despite what you say Dan, you left a very large imprint on that place. People like myself will always remember the times we had for so limited of a time. I can't wait to bore my son Casten with tales of his Cooky Uncle Jed who every night died valiantly with his brother Clem at his side...and Sam Speer "running" us both down on Bucky. Love you and miss you man!

Joel said...


I've been putting off reading this for several days now, mostly because I knew I'd get teared up whenever I did.

I was correct.

I feel a lot like you. I'm just a guy that worked there a couple of summers. A name on a lot of bigger fishes checklist as "folks I kinda remember." I wasn't a star, I met no great love, etc. etc. But "Blue Jacket" was a transformational experience to me. One that I'm so thankful for and can never forget.

All the people I met were and are wonderful. Some I still keep in touch with through Facebook, email, phone calls etc. But the place, the spirit. That's the most important part of it.

I was able to take my wife back in the summer of 2005. My wife who refuses to believe that land-locked states are worth visiting, let alone living in. We saw the show (and the talent show after hours) spent an afternoon in Yellow Springs and traveled on to Pittsburgh to see some other friends. She got it too. whatever "it" is. That feeling of peace. The tremendous weight of experience and history and...pleasantness...freedom...for lack of a better way to describe it.

Thanks for the post, Dan. Thanks for the pictures, thanks for the reminder.

"Blue Jacket", thanks for the memories.

Commonwealth said...

Wow..great blog. You had me crying too! LOL

I found it by doing just as you said you hoped someone googling "Blue Jacket".

I only saw Blue Jacked once and that was in 2003. But I was saddened to see it come to an end. Not only that one, but "Daniel Boone The Man & The Legend" here in Kentucky also closed a couple of years before BJ.

What is even sadder is that places where you and others busted their butts night after night to entertain thousands, are now just left to decay and fade away; taking with them decades of memories. And most don't even care.

Thanks for your contributions to Blue Jacket! And like you I hope it comes back!

God Bless!
Joe Clark

Beefy Muchacho said...

Thank you for commenting. I've refrained from responding to the comments on this post for a long time, because I didn't know exactly how to feel after writing it.

I just want to thank you all for taking the time to read this. Blue Jacket made a lasting, life-long impression on a lot of people, audience members or performers. It continues to make me sad that there will be a hole in the Summer, where Blue Jacket should be.

My hope is to go back again this Summer and visit and pay my respects to the place I miss so much when the weather gets warmer.

Take care.

Commonwealth Paranormal said...

Update: In case you haven't heard, a group has formed and is hoping to bring outdoor drama back to this location. The group, Caesar's Ford Theatre, Inc has done lots of restoration to the amphitheater and grounds and is hosting various fundraisers to help with their efforts. Their website is:

Elise said...

Hey Dan,

I had not read this until now, and having just been to the theater this past summer, this was hard to read. Sadly, vandals have broken in numerous times, and it is not as peaceful and undisturbed as you described. It was very, very difficult to see it like that.

Those were magical summers, weren't they? As Pat said, you did make a great imprint on the place. I was very grateful for your friendship. It was a better place during 2001 and 2002 because you were there, for me and for many others. Hugs from afar, nekana!

Ernie Rowland said...

Thanks for writing this, and like you I spend two Summers here that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Great Pictures.

Bob said...

I hope someone "Googling" Blue Jacket will come across this and smile knowing that a minor cog like me was, over a Summer and some change, so greatly impacted.

Two years after you wrote this, it's still happening. I spent several summers in outdoor drama (Horn in the West, in Boone, NC) and, like your experiences at Blue Jacket, my days at Horn are just about the best memories of my life.

I saw Blue Jacket several times in the 90s, along with your 'competition' Tecumseh, always looking forward to driving up to Ohio after Horn closed for the year. (don't tell my friends who were in Tecumseh, but I liked Blue Jacket better) I was very sad when I learned that Blue Jacket had permanently gone dark.

Your piece was very, very powerful and... well, there's not much else to say.

Katie @ Domestic Debacle said...

I absolutely loved what you wrote. I was house staff for 4 seasons ('99-'02), and loved it so much. I'm so sad that Blue Jacket is no longer around to share with my daughter. She really would love it. Thank you for the photos, and for bringing back all those great memories. ~KC

Anonymous said...

Just beautiful. I was just a child when my class went to the production, and I think back to how neat and fun this was,and how much I wish I could have been part of it! Then reading this makes me so sad and miss it.I wish my generation would have payed more attention to keeping this part of, maybe a yearly, tradition to attend. I would have LOVED to have taken my daughter and let her get the "backstage" tours we use to get.

Bluebubbles172 said...

Beautiful. My friend and my nieces and I spent so much time there. The girls grew up there essentially. We loved the actors we came to know so well, the staff, the horses, the land and the story that was told. It wasn't all about the man, Bluejacket, nor did it matter his DNA. It was a powerful story told in a powerful place. A beautiful place. We miss it still. We miss all of you and the story that was Bluejacket. I am so glad to run across this post. Thank you so very much.


P.S. I cry too when I go to Cesar's Ford and sit in my car and remember.

Bluebubbles172 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Jason Hatfield said...

I broke my foot after the horse stealing scene falling off a horse. When I was in the scene later as the captive shot in the leg (God, I can't remember the character's name), I just had my broken foot leg the one that was shot, and let the pain dictate the character that night.

It's good not to have your understudy ever ready. Ever.