A career is an interesting thing in comparison with a life. The career is temporary, but the life is both temporal, and temporary. The other day, for some reason, Ezra Stone was bothering my mind, as I tried to remember why he had contacted me so many years ago. I did a quick search of my Google Docs and his name popped up in a document titled — “David Boles’ Personal History” — dated December 13, 1994. That file turned out to be a wowser!
I am not sure why that document was originally written. I was three years out of my MFA at Columbia University in the City of New York. Oftentimes, these personal histories are written for grants, but this file was too personal, and specific for a grant committee — the file reads as if I were forcing myself to remember what happened for some existential reason.
One thing I noticed about the file is that it is filled with names — and that still astonishes me, that so much effort and time for what I was trying to do was not really ever about the actual work, but it was more about the personalities involved. I’m an INTJ, not really a people person, so it makes sense I had more ongoing success working alone in Nebraska than I ever did working with the creative gangs in New York City. On your own, you’re on your own to live or die; I always thrived. In the City, you a play a limited role by design, and you have to hope others are as dedicated to you, and to your idea, as you are — but it never turns out that way.
Nobody wants to pay for anything; they want every idea for free; and you always hope it’s about the work — but as you’ll see — it’s never about the work. It’s only about — the money!
This document may have been a tipping point or a turning point — two years later I started Go Inside Magazine — and began writing and publishing on my own. I could serve only the Master I knew, and no longer the talents I did not understand.
Here is the text from the original file. Mistakes in spelling, and punctuation, and, perhaps, memory, have been preserved — no clarifications or extra explanations, or annotations, are provided in retrospect — the context appears now, as it was written, then, though some names have been redacted to protect the living from the dying.
December 13, 1994
1. I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. My father, Bruce Isherwood (Christopher Isherwood is in our family tree), told my mother 1 month before my birth that he was leaving her for another woman. The divorce Judge required him to stay with us for 10 days after my birth. He did. Then he was gone. I have seen him perhaps 4 times since then. My play THE STRAIGHT ARROW FROM BROKEN BOW is about this issue.
2. My mother taught school to support us and lived as a divorcee when it was unpopular to be a single parent. She married again when I was 5 and divorced him when I was 7. I remember waking up at night hearing her scream as she was hit. Her cry that sticks with me to this day is: “Ow, my eye!”
3. I made my stage debut in THE KING AND I at the University of Nebraska’s Kimball Hall at age nine. I escaped into the theatre. There isn’t much professional theatre in Nebraska, so most of my work was done at the University and the Community Playhouse. I won several awards for my acting and toured the mid-west as a paid actor in the children’s musical ROVER FLIES OVER at age 10.
4. At 14 I created my own radio talk show called UNIQUE YOUTH. It was a weekly show where I would interview who were doing good things in the community. It lasted 5 years and aired on KFOR 1240 AM and KFRX 102.3 FM. I worked in radio for several stations as an on air personality in Lincoln until I was 20. I still yearn to return to radio today.
5. At 15 I was hired to be on-air talent for KIDDING AROUND. It was a children’s show that aired on KOLN-TV Lincoln and KGIN-TV Grand Island: Those 2 stations blanketed all of Nebraska and most of Kansas. I was given 7 minutes each week to review a current movie. My segment was called A BOWL FULL and I would rate the movies on bowls filled with fruit. An empty bowl was a bad movie, a half-bowl was okay and a full bowl meant it was a great movie. I was fired from that job at 18 because I was “too old” and would be “going to the University.” Paul Jensen was the station manager of KOLN and he introduced me to Lew Hunter. Lew was a Nebraskan who was in charge of the Screenwriting department at UCLA. Lew and I met several times and urged me to attend USC as an undergraduate and then go to his program at UCLA for Graduate School. Lew wrote for CHiPs and wrote several TV movies like DESPERATE LIVES
6. At 15 I gave up acting and met my writing mentor Marshall Jamison. Marshall used to be a Broadway director (BY THE BEAUTIFUL SEA, etc.) and was Leland Hayward’s casting director. He also acted in MISTER ROBERTS. Marshall was a Senior Programming executive at the Nebraska ETV Network and had produced the ANYONE FOR TENNYSON series and was the Executive Producer for the Mark Twain series on PBS. Ron Hull (then head of NETV and later Chief of CPB Programming in D.C.) sent me to Marshall for a critique of my first screenplay TO BE STEURLING. Marshall was hard on me and honest with me and from that moment on, he’s been my best friend and greatest supporter and defender. He still reads every script I write and he currently lives a retired life in Florida. We talk weekly.
7. At 17, I wrote 8 episodes of an original TV series I created about life in High School called THE WESTBOROUGH CRUSADERS. I sent the scripts to Tony Bill and he called me back and told me he liked the writing a lot but wasn’t getting into television at that time. Using his positive reaction as my guidepost, I decided to shoot the first 2 episodes for Cablevision in Lincoln. They gave me the equipment and editing time for free. I paid the raw materials costs. I cast the show and produced it and directed the episodes myself. Jamie Kuntz wrote an original score for the shows. The episodes were entered by Cablevision in the ACE Awards.
8. After I graduated High School I had 2 offers for college. I wanted to be admitted as a Freshman to the USC Film School and follow Lew Hunter’s plan for me. USC admitted me only as a general student. They offered no scholarship. I chose to stay at home and attend the University of Nebraska. When I contacted Lew Hunter and told him of my decision, he was disappointed. We wouldn’t speak again for over 10 years.
9. At 18, I won First Prize in the S.U.N.Y. Purchase Playwriting contest as a Freshman at UNL for my one-act play CRACKED STAINED GLASS. Howard Stein was head of the Purchase Theatre program and I won $300.
9. At 19, I had my first original play produced. A STONE’S THROW was selected as part of the University of Nebraska’s Theatre season. The lead actress and Lighting Designer used their work on the show as their M.F.A. thesis project. The show was directed by Dr. Rex McGraw, Chairman of the UNL Department of Theatre, (who is now at Ohio State, I believe) and the show was a big success. It was entered in the American College Theatre Festival. We didn’t make it out of state because of 2 reasons: The Judges. One was a woman from the University of Nebraska-Omaha whose theatre department had been cut and re-focused in Lincoln and she voted to kill our show the same way her program had been killed in Omaha. The other judge was from the University of Iowa and his own show was in the same region as mine. That judge killed my show and voted for his instead. My play was the only original play in the region (and what the ACTF was supposed to be about) and it wasn’t moving on due to petty politics. Ezra Stone (he was a bigwig with the ACTF at that time) called me and told me he’d heard about this injustice and planned to bring my show to D.C. anyway, but the politics of economics didn’t allow it to happen. I was crushed.
10. At 20, The Nebraska Director’s Theatre chose two of my one act plays, CRACKED STAINED GLASS and MURDER IN ERNEST for production. The runs were very successful.
11. At 21, I wrote a one-act play called THE WEEPING WATER CAFE. I directed this play at the Lincoln Community Playhouse. The show was picked to represent LCP at AACT-Fest. We were beat by a regional production of CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD. Once again, we lost for 2 reasons: The Judges. One was an old friend of our competitor and the other judge had known our competing director for over 30 years and his son was interning as a stage manager with the theatre company that beat us. I was a young kid with an original show (the purpose of the contest was to promote new works) and we were beat up by the old-boy network who chose an old show over a new one. The only good thing that came out of that experience was that I met my wife Janna. She was the lead in CHILDREN.
12. I then got some money together and immediately shot THE WEEPING WATER CAFE for television in stereo BetaCam using the original cast. We borrowed the cameras and shot the entire show in 36 hours. It was aired on KPTM channel 42 in Omaha. I wrote, produced and directed the television version.
13. I was an English major at UNL and, as a Junior, the department awarded me THE VREELAND AWARD for excellence in creativity and writing. The prize carried a cash award of $3,000.
14. During my last 2 years at UNL I was an Associate Editor at THE PRAIRIE SCHOONER literary quarterly.
15. At 22, I wrote, produced and directed a 10-minute 16mm color negative film called WATERSHED for the University as a student project. It was premiered at the Sheldon Art Gallery.
16. Upon graduation from UNL, I got an offer from Howard Stein (he awarded me the Purchase Playwriting award, remember? He was now at Columbia running the M.F.A. Theatre Program) to attend the School of the Arts at Columbia University in New York. There was no scholarship offer, so I deferred the acceptance for a year and moved to Washington, D.C. with Janna.
17. I met the Artistic Director at Ford’s Theatre and he’d also taught at UNL before my time there. He invited me to be his Assistant Director at Ford’s for his first production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I accepted the job.
18. Bonnie Nelson Schwartz hired me to work on The Victory Awards at the Kennedy Center. I had the honor of walking James Brady on stage after his shooting. It was the first and the last time he walked in public and the standing ovation he got was incredible.
19. Jerry Manning hired me to read scripts for him at Arena Stage. Lloyd Rose was the literary manager at the time (I believe Cathy Madison now has that job and she was my classmate at Columbia. I asked Craver to send her BOY BLUE but don’t know if he did or not).
20. Howard Stein at Columbia offered me a Presidential Scholarship. Jerry Manning told me I had to go to NYC and getting my M.F.A. while there would be a great way to get to the city.
21. After a year in D.C., Janna and I moved to NYC in 1988. She became one of the first Deaf students to enter Lehman College’s new Deaf Students Program. Janna graduated at the top of her class. Marshall Jamison hired me to co-write THE MAGNIFICENT LOSER with him for NETV. It was a docu-drama about the life of William Jennings Bryan.
22. During my first week of study at Columbia, I wrote a segment of a theatre-dance piece for pay for The David Gordon Pick Up Company entitled FADE AWAY. I believe the entire production was called UNITED STATES. The show toured to 16 states and 27 cities including BAM and the Kennedy Center.
23. My play THE BITTERNESS OF ASH (about living in a shared townhouse in Washington, D.C.) was given a staged reading at the Columbia FIRST STAGES FESTIVAL and was directed by Jerry Mofokeng.
24. For over 6 years I’d wanted to take Leo Tolstoy’s novel RESURRECTION and make it into a musical. A composer I knew from Nebraska (who was studying at the Stanford Musical School) wanted to do the show with me. His name was Tom Boellstorff. I’d write Book and Lyrics. Howard Stein wanted to start a musical theatre program at Columbia and he hooked me up with Al Carmines to mentor the project. Al decided that Tom couldn’t cut the job musically and Al decided to write the music himself. Al and I worked on MASLOVA for a year and Columbia paid us both to write the show (first time in the School’s history that a faculty member and a graduate student were paid to write a musical). Bob Seaver from Union Theological Seminary was asked to direct. Carmines was a student of Bob’s long ago at Union. Jamie Hammerstein gave Columbia the money for a workshop. Howard Rogut from Jujamcyn came to see the workshop.
25. My play SISYZECK (I used Buchner’s WOYZECK and Camus’ SISYPHUS as inspiration) was given a staged reading at CU’s FIRST STAGES and was directed by Christina Kirk.
26. My play THE STRAIGHT ARROW FROM BROKEN BOW was selected for production at CU, but was canceled by Romulus Linney when Howard Stein retired and left the department.
27. Professors who supported my work at CU are as follows: Howard Stein (called me the most naturally talented writer he’s ever taught and that includes Wasserstein, Durang and Innaurato — Howard used to run the Yale Playwriting program when they were his students there.) Glenn Young (owner of Applause Theatre books), Lavonne Mueller, Bill Coco, Maxine Klein, Robin Wagner, Grafton Nunes (Assistant Dean of the CU School of the Arts and producer of the film THE LOVELESS that gave Willem DaFoe his first starring role), Liviu Ciulei, George Ferencz, Patton Campbell, Janusz Glowacki, Gerry Schoenfeld and Bernie Jacobs.
28. Grafton was my faculty advisor for TOUCH THE HORIZON, a screenplay I wrote while at CU. He thought the screenplay was one of the best he’d ever read. A few years later I took his comments to improve the story and re-crafted the screenplay into ISCHIA IS BURNING.
29. I was accepted into the BMI LEHMAN ENGEL program taught by Susan Schulman. Liked her a lot, but could not bear the others in the class who would sit there and pontificate about how to make hit musicals when they hadn’t even written one. I left the workshop after 5 sessions.
30. I wrote my M.F.A. research thesis about the death of a young boy in Nebraska. This paper became the basis of my play: THE UNKNOWABLE KILLING OF LITTLE BOY BLUE.
31. I read scripts for Helen Merrill for free in order to begin an informal relationship with her an agent. I was also Arthur Kopit’s assistant on a reading of ROAD TO NIRVANA (starring Sigourney Weaver) at Circle Rep and I then assisted director Jim Simpson on the BACA Downtown production of Mac Wellman’s SINCERITY FOREVER starring Zach Grenier, Patrick Kern, Dan Moran, Jan Hardy and Amy Brenneman.
32. Peter Stone hired me to be his Associate on THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES in order to fulfill my desire to be a Book writer and to complete my professional internship period for my Masters degree. Peter was a great inspiration to me for a year and then, for some reason, we drifted apart and we haven’t spoken for a couple of years now. Seth Gelblum tells me this is actually preferable, especially if Stone isn’t mad at me. He isn’t as far as I know.
33. During WILL ROGERS rehearsals, I spoke with Stone about adaptation and he gave me 2 projects that he said I’d be perfect for as Book writer. One of them was RAISING ARIZONA. He wouldn’t make calls on my behalf, but he did say he’d advise me as I tried to get the stage rights to the movie.
34. I asked Helen Merrill to help me get the rights. She refused.
35. Stone then had me contact Dana Singer at the Guild. Dana was very helpful and supportive and told me to contact attorney G. Robert Gage, Jr. for assistance in obtaining the AZ rights. He advised me that I needed to find a musician to be part of the “Rights pitch package” and that’s when I invited Eric Stern (whom I’d met while working on WILL ROGERS) to join me in bringing AZ to the stage. Gage then contacted Charlie Shays. The Coens decided to give us the rights for a $100 option for the first year: They wanted to cut me the same break that Ben Barenholtz gave them on their first movie. A second year option would demand $2,500 and a promise of a production from a producer.
36. Gage also had a client named Peter Loewy. He owned a theatre in Metuchen, NJ and wanted to get into producing shows. Peter asked me to be part of a rights package pitch with musician Marc Shaiman (he scored CITY SLICKERS, ADDAMS FAMILY, etc) and I agreed. The show was to be a musical adaptation of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. The project made it all the way up to Joe Roth at Fox who greenlighted the project because he really the liked the teaming of Marc Shaiman and me. Then, at the last moment, Joe decided he should, out of courtesy, contact Tim Burton to see if the musicalization was all right with him. Tim Burton loved the idea and told Joe Roth he wanted to do the musical adaptation himself! Our project was dead. I still haven’t met Marc Shaiman, but I love his music. He’d be a great collaborator. And SCISSORHANDS is still a musical I would kill for in order to write Book and Lyrics.
37. I was then asked to re-write AIN’T BROADWAY GRAND. I read the script and realized that, even though they offered me money to re-write, I couldn’t get involved because the entire show would have to be re-thought and the current state of the script they really wanted to do (with minor changes by me) would’ve ended my career before it began if I’d joined the show at that time.
38. Peter Loewy wasn’t finished with me. He wanted me to come in on his revival of the musical JOLEY as Book writer and Lyricist. I was told Mike Ockrent wanted to direct and that the show would star Bruce Adler. The musical had been done long ago and had starred Larry Kert. Music was by Milton DeLugg and Book and Lyrics were by Herb Hartig. The project was killed when the widow Hartig refused to give me a share of the Book writer’s cut for the full re-write of the show.
39. Peter Loewy then wanted me to re-write Book and Lyrics for an old Cole Porter musical called SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS. The Porter estate said YES to my changes. I then said no when there was no up front money to do the rewrite. I was told I had to write a full script before I was paid. If I write for free, I write my own stuff.
40. I met Max Weitzenhoffer on WILL ROGERS. Max wanted to do a revival of THE BANDWAGON. I did an outline for Max and his partner Don Black with the understanding that if they liked what I’d done, they’d pay me a fair price for the outline and hire me to do a full re-write. Max loved what I’d done and Don called me from London to tell me I gave the show a great “snap” and that the project had become exciting again. Max then asked me to write a first act for free since I was still an unknown writer and “we’d talk” about getting paid after I’d done that for him. I walked away. I don’t write for free. Max never paid me for the outline. It’s ironic that Seth Gelblum is and was Max’s attorney.
41. Eric and I finished a full first draft of AZ in 6 months. Stone told me to send the script to the National Alliance of Musical Theatre Producers. I did. 15 hours later we had a call they were producing the show. I needed an agent and Stone told me to call Michael Bennahum who’d just started working at APA 2 weeks before.
42. Bennahum was very good to me. Loved my work. Ana Maria Allessi handled theatre at APA. It’s ironic that when it came time to do the AZ deal, APA couldn’t do it because they’d never done a musical contract before! So Bennahum called his good friend Mike Frankfurt and asked for help. Bennahum told me that “Seth Gelblum would do the AZ deal for me pro bono and that I’d ‘owe’ Seth by hiring him on my next paying job.” I agreed. Seth then called me and asked how he was getting paid: He doesn’t work for free. I told him what Bennahum told me and he said that isn’t happening: He doesn’t work for free. I told him I had no money, but that I’d cut him in on 5% of my earnings if he’d represent me on ALL projects, not just AZ. Seth agreed. We’ve been together ever since.
43. We did a reading of AZ at Musical Theatre Works for NAMTP starring Peter Frechette and Liz Larson and it was rough. No one bit to produce the show. Back to re-writing the show.
44. Gladys Nederlander then asked for a one page idea pitch on how I’d fix LADY IN THE DARK. I wrote my vision of the show and she and Bennahum loved what I did. Bennahum wanted her to pay me for a draft. Gladys was excited to move the project forward, but Kitty Carlisle Hart said “the Book cannot be changed” and the project died.
45. Bennahum then hooked me up with The Poster Boys. They’re a modern day mix between the 3 Stooges and the Marx Brothers. They hosted a wacky show at the Public Theatre each weekend and did some good promotional work for Nickelodeon. Albie Hecht of Chauncey Street Productions was their manager. I had an idea for a stage comedy called SORORITY BOYS and I pitched writing that show especially for The Poster Boys. They liked my idea and changed the title to SORORITY SAPS. We were all committed. We only needed money to write a script. Gladys Nederlander had used the Poster Boys in the past. Bennahum called her in to produce. We pitched her. She liked the idea, (and wanted a private meeting with me about other projects) but she passed because the Poster Boys refused to commit to anything longer than a 6 month run with the play since they were hoping to get a pilot called AMBULANCE CHASERS on the Fox TV schedule.
46. I always wanted to do the children’s novel THE WILD HEART as a TV series. I sent my proposal to Albie Hecht and he turned it down. I think it might’ve been a little too esoteric for him, but I know the story about children learning to live with and love animals is timeless and important. I will do that series someday.
47. A Chicago producer contacted Bennahum about me writing Book and Lyrics for his new musical. Bennahum wouldn’t let me go unless I was protected: if I was not used on the show, I would be paid $4,000 if the show was produced. I went to Chicago and my meeting was incredible and the show was on, but the contract was terrible! The producer had a share of the author’s rights and had complete control over the future of the show. I was to be paid $10,000 as an advance fee. I was to sign the contract as is or I was fired. Seth and Bennahum told me I would not sign the contract and I was fired off the project. It was heartbreaking. I really wanted to do that show! And the money was good.
48. I wrote a spec script for ROSEANNE at Bennahum’s insistence. Ana Maria and Bennahum both told me I’d “hit a homerun out of the box” but no work came from them for my effort. Bennahum told me Sherry Lansing and Marcy Carsey both read BOY BLUE. Lansing loved it and gave me a standing invitation to send her anything I write: She’ll read it herself. Carsey liked the script, but not the ending or the lead female character (both now fixed). Bennahum also sent my scripts to Peter Tolan (Bennahum helped Tolan get started in writing and Peter was producing MURPHY BROWN and THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW at that time). Bennahum was then abruptly fired from APA.
49. THE UNKNOWABLE KILLING OF LITTLE BOY BLUE was done as a staged reading by the Maxwell Anderson Playwrights Series. Great experience. Vernon Hinkle directed and did a great job.
50. We did another reading of AZ for the NAMTP starring Susan Egan, Marcia Lewis and Greg Germann. It was a smash! We signed an APC with Livent.
51. The Chicago area show was opening. I was supposed to be paid $4,000. The producer told Seth that he wouldn’t pay: I’d have to sue him. I offered to settle for $2,000. The producer agreed to the settlement and then 3 months later refused to pay or return Seth’s calls. At Seth’s direction, I called Richard Garmise at the Guild and Richard called the producer’s NY lawyer and told him that I needed to be paid since I was already settling for half of what was owed me. The producer’s NY lawyer told Richard that “this isn’t a Guild issue” and Richard replied, “When a playwright is owed money by a theatre producer, it’s a Guild issue.” I had my $2,000 less than 3 days later!
52. I then signed with Bill Craver. AZ was done in workshop form in Toronto starring Jim Fyfe and Tracey Moore. Big success. Bigger disappointment. On the way home from Canada, I saw Lew Hunter’s SCREENWRITING 434 book at Coliseum Books. I took this as a sign that, even though we’d lost touch 10 years ago, that I should call him again. I did. We had a great discussion and he invited me to get another M.F.A. at UCLA with him. I wrote 2 screenplays in 2 months: I did a total re-write of ISCHIA IS BURNING and wrote DEEP KILL from scratch. Based upon the strength of those screenplays, Lew wanted me to teach at UCLA. I’ll find out soon what kind of offer UCLA will make and if it’s worth pursuing or not.
53. Craver quit after 4 months. Met with Mary and Bret again.
And that’s all I wrote back then!
So many more things to add.
So many more cruelties, unfinished.
We’ll end today with this — an important, retroactive, step that I should’ve taken 40 years ago when I was a teenaged performer in Lincoln, Nebraska — as described in this recent, Human Meme podcast: