A Passionate Career
An Autobiography by Lonn Pressnall
Church, family and school provided me with many opportunities to "show off" as a young child. I played school with my two older brothers and two older sisters as soon as I was at all able. They drilled me with memorizing of the alphabet, counting to 100, and playing the Old Witch Game which involved running to a home base after the father shopped at a store and tried to guess what item of a category such as makes of cars you were. The parts were: father, any number of children, and the witch. Father began his part with : "I'm going downtown to smoke my pipe and won't be back 'til broad daylight, don't let the old witch gitcha." The game could go on for hours with any age children and countless categories such as cigarette brands to Campbell's Soup types. Also, an early game was Ice Cream and Lemonade: Guess My Charade. This playground game was a combination of charades and running back to the safe line without being captured. We made up our own games and played everything else including: Go to the Head of the Class. These games and more continued after the twins were born; and then I had a brother and sister younger than I and had to relinquish the cute mascot role.
I held the "T" in Christmas in front of the congregation of the First Methodist Church in Wymore, Nebraska and successfully delivered my speech at the age of five. The sweet little old ladies patted me on the head and told me: "You were great..because we could understand you. You were loud and clear." That first review was never forgotten. My brother Wayne organized a Christmas show for the family and friends, sometimes for the admission price of a nickel. I was the least reluctant actor of my siblings. I eventually graduated into the narrator role who had the big job of reading the scripture from St. Luke. Sunday School and Summer Bible School provided many more opportunities to be in short plays and skits.
Later, I employed my tumbling skills such as they were to a church sponsored community wide play which was a Miracle Play where the statue of the Virgin Mary was to come alive if and when someone offered a worthy gift. The early offerings of gold, silver, etc. did not inspire the miracle. However, my tumbling and subsequent pile driving my head into the H.S. gymnasium floor with a loud thump following the walking on my hands and tucking into a forward roll that went awry worked the miracle prematurely. Although embarrassed, I had, in fact, brought the statue to life albeit a couple of pages early as the Holy statue tried to suppress her giggling. The audience cheerfully accepted the early miracle.
Another Methodist Youth Fellowship effort turned into a big production, The Cross of Challenge, a Passion Play by Ben Sweet. A big community effort combined other churches even the Roman Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans et al and enlisted the fantastic costumes from the secret vault of the local Masonic Hall. Caiaphas and the temple crowd were stunning. A large organ emanated beautiful loud music from the balcony. I played Pontius Pilate, the bad guy. My big scene ended the play just before the denouement with the immortal line: "Then take him; but, I wash my hands of this!" Thunderous organ crashed from the Heavens and I was moved by the silence of the packed crowd and felt a power surge through my entire being unlike anything I had ever experienced before. At age 16, I then knew one way or another I would be back on stage.
Back on stage turned out to be a silly H.S. drama called No Room for the Groom. I played an Ivy League son of well-to-do parents ( a situation I knew nothing whatsoever about.) The memorable part for me was doing the matinee before a entire school audience after barely rallying from a horrible bout of gastronomical distress. The day before I was a sick as a dog and couldn't hold anything down; not even toast or dead man's stew ( bread and milk.) My girl friend's mother rescued me by suggesting my mom try giving me a teaspoon of Coca Cola syrup. Finally it stayed down and I went on that afternoon. At my first entrance I approached my parents who were seated at breakfast. And before I got close to them, I caught a whiff of fresh eggs and bacon in front of them. I almost lost it; swirled around and improvised some blocking to stay leaning on the fireplace mantle and delivered all my lines from across the room. I was better by the evening show.
Senior year was The Egg and I by Betty McDonald, a much better play with at least a semblance of a literary bone in it. I was the father and had a lot lines. The only stage directions I recall in those two H.S. plays were: don't turn your back on the audience ever, speak loudly enough to be heard, and don't block out your fellow actors. I guess if one is to be under-directed, those are as good as any basics.
All during my teens, I developed skits, sketch comedy for various places, stand-up routines, mimicry of comics such as Morey Amsterdam and Shelly Berman. I was most often compared to Herb Shriner, the Indiana Hoosier. I emceed at Athletic banquets, proms, and dinners. Gave a sermon in our church and got big laughs. The last comic appearance at an alumni banquet caused a bit of a stir in Wymore and warranted a letter to the editor complaining of my poor job and questionable material. I didn't hear of it until much later as I was in Wyoming rough-necking in the oil fields and then in the state of Washington working in a metal works factory. I had rejoined my new bride, Evelyn Jane Currier, having gotten married five days after High School graduation. We spent the summer under the shadow of Mt. Rainier which was oddly familiar as it was the The Egg and I setting in real life. Saving as well as I could we embarked on a long Continental Trailways bus ride back to Nebraska where my mother had enrolled me at Peru State College. Virtually no money, no lodging, and a pregnant wife, I started four wonderful years with the best stage director I would ever work with, Professor R.D. Moore.
At the big annual fall variety show I did a comedy routine sandwiched between piano solos, singing, and the usual fare. I had now a chance to use my more adult material. I was absolutely killing them..It was intoxicating! I noticed a couple of minutes before I was finished that I was getting jabbed from behind through the main drape. I plowed through to my finish and was met with Mr. Levitt who most unhappy with some of my jokes. The one that triggered the attempted censorship was in the string of nudist colony jokes I had "borrowed" from a joke book that my famous uncle , Clark the Senator Crandall, a big time night club magician, had sent me earlier. It went something like this: They have very strict rules in the nudist colony: no dressing on your salads; you have to strip your gears upon entering the compound; and when playing LEAPFROG, no stopping between jumps. HUGE laugh and applause and pokes from behind the curtain. The funny part was I had never taken the time to think about the leapfrog joke or the imagery. This was the closest to blue material I used in 1961.
Crushed when I didn't get a part in the first play of the year at Peru State which was Blithe Spirit. Mr. Moore did appoint me Assistant Director and I learned a lot. I missed dress rehearsal as I was at the hospital awaiting the birth of my son, Lonn Anthony. The spring show was a provocative play called Between Two Thieves which introduced me to a piece that employed actors pretending to be audience members and speaking their lines from the house. Even though many of us had roles on stage in the first act, the effect of the direct address was startling and very dramatic and had an effect on the audience. The next fall, the 1962 Homecoming Play was Dirty Work at the Crossroads or Tempted Tried and True. I was thrilled to be cast as the villain, Monroe Murgatroyd and enjoyed the delicious hissing and booing.
That spring was a giant step for me in role preparation as I was cast in a production of the stage version of the movie of 1984. Mr. Moore told us we were the first college in America to mount this production and I played Winston Smith. I poured all my concentrated effort into the rehearsal process and read and reread the Orwell novel. It was the only college production that my parents saw. My mother liked it but thought as did most that it was disturbing especially against the 1962 backdrop of current affairs such as the Cuban Missile crisis. The Homecoming plays of 1962 were Hello Out There by William Saroyan and The Zoo Story by Edward Albee. I didn't realize until years later, I was among the very first to play Jerry in a non-commercial production of this powerful play. The lines and the emotional impact were challenging and exhilarating. The Zoo Story and my love of Edward Albee's writing would follow me for life.
Some other plays followed, and more stand-up at county fairs, variety shows, and coffee houses, and old opera house in Brownville, NE would earn some extra cash. My jobs ranged from busboy at 70 cents an hour to short order cook at $1.25 an hour to house painting for a flat fee or $2.50 an hour. So, $10.00 or $25.00 a night as M.C. for the Ethnics, a very talented folk group, was good training and helped. I also fished the local ponds for bluegill and gigged frogs to put some meat on the table.
Against all advice and still somewhat in debt even after summer jobs, I applied for theatre fellowships and teaching assistantships at various universities, took the GRE and landed a teaching assistantship at the University of Illinois in Champaign- Urbana. It paid full tuition, $2,250 for nine months and help with books and other expenses while living at the Student Staff Apartments. My wife, Jane, worked hard at local restaurants to help us get by. The summer before starting this big adventure, I had hitched a ride to the Big Apple having never been to N.Y.C and I wanted to see a Broadway show or at least walk down the Great White Way. The big problem was as usual no money. I stayed at the Y.M.C.A.; retraced the route referenced in The Zoo Story and down Columbus Ave.; and walked down Broadway, stepped in dog poop in front the theatre showing Pippin; and dreamed of Moss Hart and Act One. I sneaked into the Music Box where Any Wednesday was playing with Nebraskan Sandy Dennis starring; was discovered and asked to vacate the premises. I sneaked into The Helen Hayes Theatre and made it to the mezzanine and crouched down and listened to an intense rehearsal of The Subject was Roses. Trying not to breathe too loudly, I soaked in the rehearsal process featuring Martha Stewart, Jack Albertson , and Martin Sheen. That's the closest I came to seeing a Broadway production. The thrilling rehearsal was ringing in my ears as I stealthily crept away once I had a chance.
I made my way to Worcester, Mass to crash with college chums and try to find a job. I did stand-up at a club called the Y not on an open mike night. Later I worked a couple of weeks at Brown Shoe Company. When I picked up my first paycheck the sweet young Jewish office worker read my name aloud and said: " Lonn Pressnall...with a name like that you ought to be an actor." I chuckled to myself in agreement.
The University of Illinois experience was as close to a small town fish moving from a little farm pond to a big city lake as one can get I was in love with the teaching, the theatre, the bar scene, the classes, the cultural opportunities...everything was newer, bigger, and stimulating.
I didn't land a role on the main stage until the spring semester; but was in a dozen acting scenes; directed A World of Carl Sandburg at the Know Where Players at the McKinley Foundation and majored in playwriting and directing. Dore Schary of Hollywood fame visited our class in playwriting a cast me in a staged reading of Look Away , Look Away which later appeared to be the foundation of Mississippi Burning. I read the Klansman Deputy sheriff and got very favorable reactions from the audience. I seem to do well as bad guys. That Spring Joel Friedman came as guest director for A Midsummer Night's Dream and cast me as Peter Quince and unofficially made me captain of the clowns. Later found out it was partly because I had put "stand-up" experience on my tryout form. The company played 20 plus performances and we absolutely slayed them every time. We rustics had to learn how to bottle laughs and share or the first laugh in a scene would rob the next one. It was the most meaningful learning experience in comic timing I ever had.
The next year I began taking classes toward a doctorate degree; but it was really a ruse to have more opportunities to get on the big stage of Lincoln Hall which I did in the 1966-67 season. I tried to refuse the part of Rev. Tooker because I wanted to play Gooper. Prof. Clara Behrenger wouldn't have it and flattered me into believing Tooker was the best part in the play..the one she would like if she were a man; plus she wanted my son to be one the no-neck monsters. I played Reverend Tooker in the opening show, The Cat on the Hot Tin Roof and my young son, Lonn Anthony, was the smallest of the children. Somehow, mostly with the masterful direction of Clara Behringer, I squeezed 14 laughs out of my 12 lines one night and received applause as I exited stage-left after uncomfortably listening to Big Daddy and Big Mama argue and saying after a tiny cough and pause: "I think I'd better slip away at this point." Clara was happy; I was happy; and I learned more from that small role than I ever had with earlier larger ones. I got the lead in One-way pendulum by N.F. Simpson. The role of Arthur GroomKirby was challenging. I loved it. People laughed and then the audiences quit coming. Reviewers said they didn't get it. The tickets were given out as promotion for a Spring Fine Arts Festival to students for free. Many read the review and had nothing to lose by not showing up. The big spring show was Under the Gaslight by Augustin Daly directed by John Ahart and was a big hit. I played Snorky, the one-armed Civil War veteran. I got to be a good guy and tied to the railway tracks by the villain portrayed by the gifted actor, Steve Vinovich. The last production I was in was a show: The Emperor's New Clothes directed by my mentor, Roman Tymchyshyn. Then on to my first full-time job at Illinois State University in Normal.
Serving as Director of Theatre for the Child Audience and Creative Drama instructor, I began the most wonderful and turbulent five years of my life under the watchful eyes of John W. Kirk and Calvin Pritner. These two offered me many wonderful opportunities to grow as a playwright and teacher. I didn't do a lot of acting at I.S.U.; mostly directing and teaching. I did appear in a lab production of The Lesson by Ionesco directed by Joe Mattis and The Feast directed by Frank Hobbs.
At Richland Community College and Theatre 7 in Decatur Illinois I appeared in many plays. At Theatre 7 I played Antipholus in Comedy of Errors directed by Joe Straka, and You Can't take It With You directed by Sam Straka. Also Noises off, The Death Trap, Dearly Beloved, School for Scandal , and The Foreigner . I reprised the role of Owen Musser in 2012 at the new Phoenix Theatre in Monticello, Illinois. I had earlier played Paravincini in The Mouse Trap in the previous Monticello Camp Creek Playhouse.
I have participated as a reader at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska in four different years.
Now I present first person Abraham Lincoln.