In 1983, I was traveling with a tiny theater company doing vaudeville-type shows in
community centers and bars—anywhere we could earn $25 each plus enough gas money to get to the next small town in our ramshackle yellow bus.
As we passed through Bozeman, Montana, in early February, a heavy snow slowed us down. The radio crackled warnings about black ice and poor visibility, so we opted to impose on friends who were doing a production of Fiddler on the Roof at Montana State University. See a show, hit a few bars, sleep on a sofa: This is as close to prudence as it gets when you’re an itinerant 20-something troubadour.
After the show, well-wishers and stagehands milled behind the curtain. I hugged my coat around me, humming that “If I Were a Rich Man” riff from the show, aching for sunrise and sunset, missing my sisters. What a wonderful show that was—and is.
A heavy metal door swung open, allowing in a blast of frigid air, and clanged shut behind two men who stomped snow from their boots. One was big and bearlike in an Irish wool sweater and gaiters; the other was as tall and skinny as a chimney sweep in a peacoat.
“… but I’m just saying, it would be nice to see some serious theater,” one of them said. “Chekhov, Ibsen, anything but this musical comedy shtick.”
“Excuse me?” I huffed, hackles raised. “Anyone who doesn’t think comedy is an art form certainly hasn’t read much Shakespeare, have they?”
I informed them that I was a “professional shticktress” and went on to deliver a tart, pedantic lecture on the French neoclassics, the cultural impact of Punch and Judy as an I Love Lucy prototype, and the importance of Fiddler on the Roof as both artistic and oral history. The shrill diatribe left a puff of frozen breath in the air. I felt my snootiness showing like a stray bra strap as the sweep in the peacoat rolled his eyes and walked away.
The bear stood there for a moment, an easy smile in his brown eyes. Then he put his arms around me and...