“witch doctors,” do you believe?

With Halloween just around the corner, I’m reminded of something that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I’m in the midst of reading Orson Welles-A Biography” by Barbara Leaming. Written with his complete cooperation, it really is “a dazzling, intimate portrait of a legend.” Never one of my favorite actors, I must admit that I’ve altered my opinion after reading 396 pages of the 630 page book. Welles was really the genius he was touted to be! Unfortunately his diverse talents overextended him physically and mentally, so that his failures were as huge as his successes, both personally and professionally. But I’ll leave that for another post.

Through a series of fortuitous events, 20-year-old, recently married Orson Welles made his New York directorial debut in the midst of this country’s Great Depression. In 1935, Hallie Flanagan, head of Vassar College’s Experimental Theatre Workshop, was appointed as national director of the Federal Theatre  project. As part of FDR’s Works Progress Administration, the FT was charged with providing work for the nation’s unemployed theatrical professionals. Because Flanagan “was not a member of the Broadway commercial establishment, but an academic with a taste for experimental and regional theater,” and because, by rule, 10% of actors, musicians, playwrights and technicians “could consist of theater people who had not been receiving relief, thereby ensuring the presence of expert professional talent to counterbalance the inevitable amateurs who found working in the theater more appealing than a government construction project,” Orson found himself among this elite class of professionals.

Charged with mounting a classical production, Welles, upon his wife Virginia’s suggestion, chose to stage   “an all-black Macbeth by transposing its action from Scotland to Haiti, a startlingly new setting with important artistic advantages, not the least of them the rich possibilities for music and decor. … Preferring not to anchor the action too firmly in Haiti he had in mind a mythic island more like the fantasy setting of The Tempest than any actual place. But as Orson saw it, there was a significant gain in realism as well: by alluding to Haitian voodooism the production could make credible the role of the witches that modern audiences of Macbeth often have trouble accepting.”

At Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre,  Orson’s Macbeth opened to a mixture of  gang members, respectable black bourgeoisie, and Manhattan’s chic downtown crowd. When the curtain rose on “the intricate jungle settings, piquant costumes, and sensuous lighting,” the audience broke into “wild applause and gasps of pleasure.” And the critics’ reviews were just as ebullient. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times wrote with enthusiasm  ” ‘As an experiment in Afro-American showmanship the Macbeth fairly rocked the Lafayette Theatre, …If it is witches you want, Harlem knows how to overwhelm you with their fury and phantom splendor.’ ” The New York Daily News’ Burns Mantle hailed Macbeth as ” ‘a spectacular theatre experience. …the most colorful, certainly the most startling, of any performance that gory tragedy has ever been given on this continent.’ ”

In contrast, Percy Hammond of the Herald Tribune wrote ” ‘What surprised me last night was the inability of so melodious a race to sing the music of Shakespeare,…The actors sounded the notes with a muffled timidity that was often unintelligible. They seemed to be afraid of the Bard, though they were playing him on their home grounds.’ ” One of the African drummers, who accompanied the ranting of the three witches, made a voodoo doll in the critic’s likeness, hanging it in effigy and sticking it with pins. When told by the lighting director that Hammond was entitled to his opinion, the African replied ” ‘He’s bad man.’ ” Humoring the man over beer and pretzels at a local bar, Orson agreed to his drinking companion’s decision to put a curse on the critic.

“The African made one stipulation: the responsibility for Hammond’s death would be Orson’s alone. As a pretzel disappeared into his mouth, Orson nodded agreement. The rest of the company, Orson among them, watched with amusement as the voodoo practitioners blessed their drums before pounding on them backstage for several days. He barely gave it another thought until, shortly thereafter, he gasped to learn that Percy Hammond had just died.”

One of these times I’ll tell you about my “big-aunt,” who was a “Kahuna,” a Hawaiian witch doctor.

makes you wonder…hugmamma.

fathers cast “long shadows”

Never knowing my father, has surely influenced the course of my life, for better or worse. Not that I grew up dwelling on my loss, because I knew no better. Life with my mom was, what it was. However years of observing father-child relationships, including my husband’s and daughter’s, and being privy to others telling or writing, of their own experiences,  made me realize that being fatherless probably impacted my life in a major way. I’m certain I sought a replacement in every relationship thereafter, looking for the security and safe haven every father is thought to inherently possess. I’m positive I looked for him in every male I encountered. But I would have been just as happy, perhaps, if a woman filled the bill since my mom was preoccupied on so many fronts. My older siblings knew my father as children. So I can’t identify with their loss when he died, although I’m sure it was devastating. What we had in common, was being emotionally bereft of both parents.

As society’s traditional head of the household, a father seems to define a child’s psyche. If he’s present and a positive influence, the child flourishes. If he’s present and a negative influence, the child diminishes. If he’s “missing in action,” the child flounders, and “crashes,” or picks himself up by the proverbial “bootstraps,” and becomes a better man for having suffered. If a child is fatherless, he searches far and wide for his identity. These scenarios don’t preclude a child’s own life experiences with its accompanying peaks and valleys. However, how he celebrates or copes is affected by the presence or absence, positivism or negativism, of his father.

Does a father know the power he has over his children? Too concerned with providing material sustenance, I don’t think he ponders the question. If he did, he might run for the nearest “exit.” What man in his right mind would want the responsibility of playing God? Having to walk the fine line between “His Benevolence” and sergeant-major, while allowing his children the luxury of exercising their own free will in all matters. In my estimation, a man walks into fatherhood “blindfolded.” What he does when the blinders come off, determines whether he’s a good father, or one who sucks, on a scale from 1 to 10. I don’t think I know any 10’s. Even my fabulous husband, probably comes in at a 9 1/2, but my daughter might override me with a resounding “10!”She’d win; after all, he’s her father.       

So much has been said about Michael Jackson’s father who abused his sons, mentally and physically,  in attempting to garner a better life for his family. One oft told anecdote involved Tito playing his father’s guitar, something forbidden by Joseph.

…one day Tito broke a string on the guitar. ‘I knew I was in trouble,’ Tito recalled. ‘We were all in trouble. Our father was strict and we were scared of him. So I put the guitar back in the closet and hoped he wouldn’t figure out what had happened. But he did, and he whooped me. Even though my mother lied and said she had given me permission to play the guitar, he tore me up.’ When Tito tells the story, his words tumble out and he gets tongue-tied. So many years later, one can still sense his anxiety about it. ‘She just didn’t want to see me get whipped,’ he said, sadly. ‘Not again.

J. Randy Taraborelli also writes the following in his biography Michael Jackson – The Magic, the Madness, The Whole Story.

Joseph believed in the value and impact of brute force as a disciplinary tool. ‘Either you’re a winner in this life, or a loser,’ he liked to say. ‘And none of my kids are gonna be losers.’ To be sure of that, he would smack his kids without giving it a second thought in order to keep them on the right track to being ‘winners’. Shoving them into walls was not unusual behaviour for him, especially the boys. Michael, however, was the one boy in the family who would attempt to fight back when provoked by his father. Once, when he was just three, Joseph spanked him for something he had done. Crying, Michael then took off one of his shoes and hurled it at his father. Joseph ducked; the shoe missed him.

‘Are you crazy?’ Joseph screamed at him. ‘Boy you just signed your own death warrant. Get over here.’

Infuriated, Joseph grabbed Michael and, according to Marlon, held him upside down by one leg, and pummelled him over and over again with his hand, hitting him on his back and buttocks. Soon, Michael was crying and screaming so loudly it seemed as if he was trying to summon the entire neighborhood to his aid.

‘Put him down, Joseph,’ Katherine hollered. ‘You’re gonna kill him! You’re gonna kill him!

When Joseph released the boy, he ran to his room, sobbing, ‘I hate you.’ Those were fighting words for Joseph. He followed Michael into the bedroom, slammed the door and then let him have it.

‘Joseph once locked Michael in a closet for hours,’ said a friend of the Jackson family’s. ‘That was traumatizing, horrible for him.’

 Suzanne Finstad’s Child Bride – The Untold Story of Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, reveals that she  inadvertently discovered her mother’s closely guarded secret of Priscilla’s real father’s identity.   

Priscilla nearly collapsed under the strain of her sacred pact of silence with her mother. Ann Beaulieu had placed an enormous burden on a thirteen-year-old child by asking her daughter to keep her paternity a secret, even from her siblings and from the man she now knew was not her real father. 

…She  told no one about the discovery of her true identity, not even Pam. As time passed, she became conflicted about wearing the locket containing the picture of her real father. ‘I felt guilty, because I felt now that I was betraying my stepfather, who was so good to me. Because now it’s like I was hiding something from him.’

The trauma of her mother’s betrayal and her own suppression of the truth affected Priscilla’s behavior. Her grades dropped, eliminating her from eigth-grade cheerleading tryouts, ‘and it was a big blow to her,’ …’She went through a real change of personality,’…

Knowing nothing about him, Priscilla fantasized that her long-lost father died a great war hero. ‘In times of emotional pain and loneliness,’ she said, ‘he would become my guardian angel.’

Finstad’s book also sheds light upon the father-daughter relationship between Elvis and his daughter with Priscilla, Lisa Marie Presley.

Lisa’s self-image as the princess of rock, spoiled utterly by a superstar father, with a staff at Graceland at her command at the age of six, continued even after Elvis died. She was imperious even with Dana, the one close friend she had. ‘It was always very clear that whatever Lisa wanted to do,…she had to have her way.’ In later years, Dana attributed this trait to Lisa’s unexpressed anger over losing her father.

Lisa’s marriage to Michael Jackson, continues the author, may have been deeply rooted in the unconditional love she and Elvis shared.  His sudden death left her feeling helpless, since at age 6, Lisa was incapable of saving him from a self-destructive lifestyle.

Lisa had wed, by an obvious Freudian motive, the nineties equivalent of her staggeringly successful superstar father. Elvis was the King of Rock; Michael was the King of Pop. Both singers, oddly, had pet chimpanzees at one time; both shared an interest in UFOs. Elvis lived in semiseclusion at an estate called Graceland. Michael lived a reclusive life at Neverland. Elvis often rented amusement parks, one of his favorite forms of entertainment; Michael had re-created Disneyland on the grounds of his estate and took Lisa, incognito, to the California theme park on their honeymoon. Both men had married to avoid scandal in their careers: Elvis to erase the stigma of his live-in relationship with a seventeen-year-old girl, or to avoid the Beaulieus’ revelation of their illicit arrangement for Priscilla; Michael to rehabilitate his shattered image following the molestation charges. Michael and Elvis entertained small groups of fourteen-year-olds in their bedrooms for slumber parties. The two music legends were notorious eccentrics trapped in an arrested adolescence, existing on unorthodox diets.

Lisa, some of her friends surmised, had married Michael–on a subconscious level at least–to ‘save’ the father she had loved and lost. By restoring Michael to his former position of glory, by elevating him from the ruin of his molestation scandal, she might, in her mind, redeem and perhaps resurrect her father.

I’m currently reading In My Father’s Shadow – A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles by Chris Welles Feder. A third of the way into it, I’ve felt a pervasive sadness throughout. Despite her unquenchable longing to always be with her father, Christopher, the name chosen by her dad, joyously celebrated what precious little time she shared with him. And in her own words, she explained that while her new stepfather successfully brainwashed her mother in behavior becoming the proper wife of a British Major, Orson Welles’ daughter would never succumb.

During our first year in South Africa, my mother changed from the open-minded American woman who had treated African-Americans as her equals, the woman who had loudly cheered and danced around the living room with Charlie Lederer (her second husband) when we heard on the radio that Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected to a fourth term. She became a female clone of Jack Pringle, and the two of them teamed up against me, because I refused to change my essential self and blend in seamlessly with my surroundings. I was not a chameleon like my mother. And, strangely, the absence of my father made me realize how much he had already shaped me and that his power did not depend on his presence. I was Orson’s kid–not Virginia’s and certainly not Jackie’s–now and forever.

Thinking that Orson had forgotten her twelfth birthday, Chrissie, aka Christopher, complained to her mother, who responded ‘Instead of sitting there feeling so sorry for yourself, why don’t you think about all the birthdays he did remember?’ After a brief pout, Chrissie contemplated what her mother had said “Then, as though she had flung open the doors of an old toy cupboard, I suddenly saw the doll my father had given me on my fifth birthday–the most beautiful doll…pretty blue eyes that opened and closed when I rocked her in my arms. …the stack of Land of Oz books; the recordings of Peter and the Wolf and The Nutcracker Suite,…the fluffy, pink bedroom slippers… One by one, they came back in a joyful parade, all the birthday gifts from my father. Gifts that were always exactly what I wanted.” But the gift that left its greatest impression upon Orson’s daughter was the one he bestowed on her seventh birthday. During his half-hour radio evening program, This Is My Best series, he announced ” ‘Good evening, this is Orson Welles. …My eldest daughter, Christopher, is seven years old today, and like most ladies and gentlemen of her age, Christopher likes her father to tell her a story. Well, I don’t know of a better one than ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ …” Orson’s 7-year-old was overjoyed that Orson remembered her favorite story. Reflecting back, Chrissie speaks of that special occasion.

For a long time after the program ended, I had sat by the radio, lost in a magic world of poisoned apples and happy endings. Five years had elapsed since then, but no one–not even Jack Pringle–could take that memory away from me.

So now I knew what I had to do. Whenever being without my father began to hurt too much,  I would come and sit quietly in my room, close my eyes and remember.

My daughter remembers that in the very early years of her childhood, she wished she could have seen more of my husband. He commuted to work in NYC from Connecticut, a 4 hour round trip which he gladly made, so that we could raise our only child in the idyllic town of Redding. The only concession he asked was that her curfew be 9:30 p.m. He wanted time to play with our daughter each evening, and read her a bedtime story. This was a small request for the sacrifice of time and energy my husband made, so she could be nurtured in the small town environment which we favored.

The better part of our daughter’s memory is filled with wonderful remembrances of a father who was actively present in her life. Unlike childhood friends whose fathers only exacted discipline, or were absent from mealtimes, or dancer friends whose fathers are never seen at performances. My husband has allowed his toddler daughter to dress him in hat, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings and fur boa when they played her favorite game, “Pretty, Pretty Princess.” Against his natural instincts that she attend college, he allowed his 16-year-old aspiring ballerina to move to another state in pursuit of a dance career. And after a summer caring for her cat while our daughter was away dancing, her father escorted Misha back to his “mom” en route to a business trip in a nearby state. It was a supreme act of love, since my husband has been on meds for years, as an asthmatic with allergies. Going through airport security, he wore gloves when removing the cat from his crate which went through the scanner, while Misha and “grampy” walked through the screening gate.

All fathers are human, bringing personal “baggage” to the job. Most intend to do well by their offspring, whether they have a plan or “fly by the seat of their pants.” Gazing upon the innocent faces in the pediatric ward, new dads quickly pledge the “moon” to these tiny infants. They never question their ability to “deliver.” That comes later, as reality and responsibility seep into their overtaxed brains. Some walk away; some commit long-term; others remain undecided, going through the motions, until something triggers a decision one way or the other.

A parent is expected to multi-task. Raising children is added to the “to do” list of chores, walk the dog, empty the trash, gas and wash the car, mow the lawn, clean the gutters, power-wash the driveway and roof, refill the bird feeders. Of course children should be top priority, but sometimes life can overwhelm, especially when an unexpected glitch occurs disrupting the fine balance. A parent loses a job, is diagnosed with cancer, is divorced, must care for a parent with Alzheimer’s, suffers the irreparable loss of a child. Where does a parent seek relief? It’s not inconceivable that duty to one’s child slips, eventually occupying the lowermost rung on life’s ladder. In that eventuality, I don’t know a parent who wouldn’t feel like shit. Sorry, but I know that’s exactly how I’d feel. 

Parents don’t get a reprieve. We don’t get to pick and choose which jobs we want to relinquish to someonelse, while we tend to our children. We’re expected to do it all simultaneously. We should show ourselves compassion for trying to do it all, remembering, however, that children are not a commodity, but rather smaller versions of ourselves. They deserve the same respect we desire for ourselves.

Fathers cast “long shadows” over the lives of their children. Their influence is long-lasting, if not permanent. Dads are imbued with the power of “life and death,” physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They are the kings of their castles. Succession to their “thrones” is dependent upon how thoughtfully they rule over the lives of their children.

for all fathers, huge hugs…hugmamma.