October 10, 2009

Here begins a list, in no particular order, of the top ten Kentuckians who deserve a play - a great play, I mean - written about them. The second half of the list will appear here next week.

1. Hunter S. Thompson - Even people who've never read a word of Hunter's works are at least semi-familiar with Johnny Depp's portrayal of him in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (and next year, he'll reprise the role in a film adaptation of The Rum Diary). But it's the circumstances surrounding his last days and mysterious death that would truly make for some moving theatre.

Thompson allegedly took his own life with a handgun in his Aspen, CO home on February 20, 2005. He left the single word "counselor" typed haphazardly in the center of a sheet of paper in his typewriter.

He had been in a phone conversation with his wife, asking her to come home from the gym to help him on a column he was writing. Suddenly, his wife says, he went silent on the other end of the phone. He didn't hang up the phone, he simply stopped talking. She heard no shot. I repeat: she heard no shot.

Shortly before his "suicide," Thompson had been an increasingly outspoken critic of how the U.S. Government's handled the 9-11 attacks, and was said to be working on a massive exposť regarding the Bush administration's incompetence and political opportunism regarding the disaster. As Mack White says:

"Thompson's family says he was not depressed, nor was he in enough pain to kill himself. In fact, by all reports, he was quite happy. He was talking on the phone to his wife, getting ready to work on his column, when he decided it would be wise to kill himself, so that he could go out (we are told) while still at the top of his form, even though this would mean not finishing his column or his expose on 9/11 (potentially the most important thing he would ever write)?..."

2. Ron Whitehead - Ron Whitehead is one of the greatest living poets of all time, and the true heir apparent to the voice of The Beat Generation. I know this, because I receive frequent email press releases from him which tell me so, over and over and over. Ultimately, Ron's biggest talent that he's remembered for may be that of self-promotion and chutzpah rather than being a man of letters in the strictest sense. And that's OK. From one huckster to another, I tip my hat to Ron (and to his Walt Whitman-esque beard, which I regard as a separate entity).

A play about Ron does exist - Marathon by Todd Autry. Ron put the script in my hands a couple years ago, urging my company to stage it. It's a faithful adaptation of Ron's book Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon - perhaps a little too faithful. The play is more than a little self-indulgent as a vehicle for Ron as a character (referred to as "Bone" in the script) to talk about his opinions on everything from soup to nuts, and recites some Ron poetry along the way. It's also an excessively long show, making the whole affair indeed a marathon for the audience.

No, what's needed here is a Ron Whitehead play that Ron himself had nothing to do with. A play that tells the real Ron story, foibles and all, from the outside looking in, not from Ron's point of view looking out. All ribbing aside, Ron truly is a shining example of that species peculiar to Kentucky, Wildmanicus Undomesticus, a voice speaking all things rural, determined to be a thorn in the side of all things urban, from here to eternity, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.

3. Tom Cruise - Although Thomas Cruise Mapother IV was born in Syracuse, he spent the largest chunk of his chaotic childhood living in Louisville, and was a Courier-Journal paper boy. Cruise, known for films such as Magnolia, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Interview with a Vampire, and fellow Kentuckian Walter Tevis' The Color of Money, currently devotes much of his time to activities with that spooky space-age religion but still finds time to visit Kentucky occasionally, visiting relatives and associates and, of course, attending the Derby. He'll always be one of the finest actors in Hollywood, for my money, regardless of what controversial hi-jinks he gets up to next.

The Tom Cruise story is still writing itself, of course - he's still a relatively young man and has miles to go before he sleeps. But even his life story thus far would be a fascinating one.

4. Walter Tevis - And hey, speaking of Walter Tevis, what about him? He was a good Madison County boy who authored three blockbuster novels: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and the Science Fiction classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, all three of which were also made into equally blockbuster Hollywood films.

Walter's two biggest passions were playing pool and writing, and he somehow managed to juggle the two well enough to earn his Masters degree. Tevis spent a great deal of time in the smoky, dirty pool rooms of Richmond, even after becoming a schoolteacher in small towns like Science Hill, Irvine, and Carlisle. Later, he went on to become a professor at UK, and then Ohio University. His pool shark's life of drinking and smoking caught up with him in the end, however, and in his final years he battled alcoholism and lung cancer. He died in New York in 1984.

5. Stringbean - David "Stringbean" Akeman, star of the Grand Ole Opry and the Hee-Haw television show, was born in Annville, KY in 1916.

Like many who grew up during the Great Depression, Stringbean had a great distrust of banks, and walked around with several thousand dollars on his person, in the front zip-pouch of his ubiquitous overalls (The overalls, by the way, were not a pose or a affectation - that's what he wore pretty much 24-7, onstage and off). It was well known around Nashville that String had his life's savings stashed away somewhere at home.

Some writers have hinted broadly that certain Hee-Haw cast members may or may not have been indirectly responsible for Stringbean's murder because of their blabbing about his money to others; but the fact is, Stringbean himself made it no secret, and often flashed the fist-sized wad of bills. Not out of ostentatiousness or bragging, but perhaps merely out of an innocent naivete about the evil and corrupt nature of his fellow man.

On November 10, 1973, John A. Brown and Marvin Douglas Brown conspired to follow Stringbean to his home as he left the Ryman Auditorium, for the purpose of taking his life's savings at gunpoint. Just as with the Kansas robbery-turned-murder case popularized in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the men failed to find any money in their home invasion, and out of frustration and confusion, ended up killing Stringbean and his wife Estelle for no good reason.

23 years later, in 1996, the mystery of where Stringbean's money went was solved. Stringbean's lost treasure was accidentally discovered by a man who had moved into the house. A removable brick near the chimney revealed a hiding place in which over $20,000 in cash was found stashed, but the bills were decayed and partially eaten by rats. According to Wikipedia, $20,000 in 1973 was roughly equivalent to $98,565 today. Given String's income and his spartan, no-big-spending lifestyle, it's entirely possible that twice that amount could have originally been stashed, but ended up completely destroyed and lining some rat's nest.

Contact the author at jshpaint@gmail.com.

Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at jshla.com .