ON THE PASSING OF JACK KLUGMAN: And (yet another) ‘Secrets of the Centaur’ (part6)

Posted on Dec 28, 2012

Was anyone else surprised to read in the Jack Klugman obit this week that his famed “Odd Couple” TV show was never a hit on ABC  during its early-’70s run? That the show reached icon status only after it got to syndication?

As to why exactly Jack Klugman and “The Odd Couple” have made it into a CENTAUR SEASONS post, I can draw a straight line from one to the other and back again, easy.

Jerry Wilkinson, senior co-captain with Tony Mazeo my sophomore year and our 8-and-8 half-good, half-bad Centaur Season, loved “The Odd Couple.” I see him sitting in the TV lounge watching the latest episode.

But that’s not the straight line.

The straight line is that one year a bunch of us tried to mount the actual Neil Simon play, “The Odd Couple,” starring Jerry Wilkinson as Tony Randall/Felix Ungar, Wayne Rizzo as Jack Klugman/Oscar Madison and Tony Mazzeo, Walt Pfiel, Kevin Duffy, Jerry Fleming and yours truly as the card-playing buddies. We rehearsed a couple of times in a Billera classroom.

Never mind that Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, even then in its first few years, already boasted a very-good, getting-better theater & speech department **. (It was the T&Sers – and not us Centaurs, we noted with chagrin – who were the first to get a successful DeSales name out there beyond the cornfields.)  And never mind that we didn’t actually get “The Odd Couple” off the ground either. That we even thought we could says it all.

It had started with a “Dating Game” contest, followed by an amateur-hour talent show. Both had been Wilk’s idea. That begat “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “L’il Abner” (starring Wilk as Abner) and then that stab at “The Odd Couple.”

“We had to organize it ourselves,” Wilk says, speaking of everything we did, “because no one else was going to do it for us.” And to the heart of our college experience we have now arrived.

I have said this before, and here I go again. One of the goals of CENTAUR SEASONS is to try to find that certain something that made going to Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales right then/right there unlike going anywhere else. “Secrets of the Centaur,” I call these explorations, and this is another.

We Allentowners of the getting-started vintage received a singular education, if only because in the absence of most of the usual collegiate accoutrement, so much of what we learned we learned from each other. It was a priceless opportunity.

“The experience was so important to everyone, so developmental, you couldn’t buy it again,” Wilk says. And what college these days would try to sell it anyway?  Come to our school. We have nothing.

The ringleader of the musicals was a student named Buddy Martin (who along with Wilk and Rizzo formed the “Warmer Bros. Production Company”). “Birdie” was sort of a slapped-together effort down at Billera (Rizzo, as the Elvis-like character, entered riding a motorcycle down the gym floor). But “Forum” and “Abner” were something like the real thing, staged in the school auditorium, 200-plus, fully half the student body in raucous attendance.

They were mom-and-pop productions, to be sure, played for laughs and cheap gags, with a few faculty members making is-that-really-him? cameos. There was even one by the president of the college himself, gamely getting WAY outside his comfort zone.

And yet for all that these plays weren’t just yuk fests. Buddy worked us. He yelled at us. He made us do it over. Not to get too carried away, but in retrospect I see now that there was something of the Oblates educational philosophy of Christian Humanism at work here, even in these dumb and stupid plays. Buddy Martin*** made us be as good as we could be. A quickie definition of Christian Humanism (I heard it said once, and for me it still rings true), even if it would never get you a passing grade on a test.

Part of the genius of the Oblates in those days – and virtually every Centaur I’ve talked with has mentioned this in some fashion — was that they rarely said no when some student came to them with yet another bit of half-baked ingenuity. Concert? Carnival? Full-blown student-directed musical that will monopolize the school auditorium for a week? Go for it.

Seriously: You have to figure the Oblates didn’t really know what they were getting into or what was going to happen once they opened the doors to their brand new school. How could they have? So they held on and took the ride.

“It was the frontier days of the university – go West, you man,” says Jim Naccarato, an Oblate seminarian and junior on the team when I was a freshman (and, with thick beard, perfectly cast as Hairless Joe in “Abner”). “You did what you had to do to survive. You used all your creativity and ingenuity to get it done, because you had to survive.”

Wait. Survive is too strong a word. Or … maybe not. “I think the reason the place was so special to us was that we were in some sort of a survival mode,” Walt Pfiel said in an email. Walt was a Centaur his sophomore year – and unabashed ham in every Warmer Bros. effort. “The school provided very little beyond intramural and team sports. Four buildings. The game room would have been laughed off any boardwalk in the country. There were six TVs on campus and they each got six channels. There were no frat houses to hang out in. (Sounds like a rocking place my parents sent me to!) For anyone who made up his or her mind to survive four years in that environment, there was a need to get very creative. The need to create our own diversions, fun, whatever you want to call it, was an important motivator in those early days of A.C. Fortunately, the administration and faculty did not stand in our way, and in many cases they even helped foster it.”

It was clear, says Jim Naccarato now, thinking of then, that the community itself understood that there were large chunks of the normal college experience missing at Allentown. “So what does the community do?” he asks. “It creates its own fun. The talent came out. People had talents we didn’t even know they had. I didn’t know they could do that!” Except they could.

And there’s your straight line from Jack Klugman to CENTAUR SEASONS.

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**Today at DeSales University the school’s Theater and Speech Department is as good as it gets.  And not because the head of the department, Dennis Razze,  is a friend from the CENTAUR SEASONS days. No wait, it is because of Dennis, surely. He also usually directs the musical for the college’s professional theater arm, The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. (With some very cool videos here.) This summer’s offering is “Oklahoma!”

***Frank “Bud” Martin is now a New York Off-Broadway director, most recently of  “The Outgoing Tide” (“[d]irected with a firm hand by Bud Martin” — AP), starring Peter “Rich Man, Poor Man” Strauss and Michael “The Waltons” Learned. Bud is a Broadway producer as well (“9 to 5,” among other credits), and he is the executive director of the Delaware Theater Company in Wilmington. It cracks me up no end (but in a good way) to think that in some measure Bud cut his teeth directing schmoes like me, once upon a time.

 

 

On December 28th, 2012 at 12:32 pm, bob devine said:

Steve, Paul Milcetich and myself were in charge of getting you and others to come to the school. You can imagine, becuase you met us, how creative we had to be to get people to come to the school. One parent asked me “How many of your grads have been accepted to med school?” Since we did not have a graduating class at that point, I simply said all those who applied have been accepted. Maybe I was leaning also. Love your emails and the names you mention bring back many good memories.
Keep up the goog work.

Bob Devine


On December 29th, 2012 at 9:02 am, Walt Pfeil said:

Steve
Warmer Bros. was unbelievable. WHo would have thought that those attempts at theatre would actually sell out and that we would have to add a second night.
My parents came up to see “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum”. Buddy casted me a the sexy Roman Courtesan Gymnasia and he encouraged me to stick out my ever growing beer belly in playing the role. My mother had brought a goodie box of food up with her for my dorm room. After seeing the show, she took the food back to Philadelphia with her.
Buddy was either a genius or the most patient man that has ever lived.
Walt Pfeil


On December 29th, 2012 at 10:35 am, Nick Nardo said:

Steve,
You guys were killing me with the 25 cent admission fee that was embolded on the ad work just outside of the auditorium.
No one got in for 25 cents. Rumor has it that even the venerable Fr. Bernie Donahue paid $5.00 for his admission fee.
After all, the first production paid for the second, etc, etc and the balance went to the orphans … right?
Anyway, since there were no parts for me on stage, I had my own little show going on at the admissions table. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Also, hope you talk to Riz and Gene Oreszak about the weekly football encounters brought to us on tape recordings as AC matched up against the likes of Archie Peyton (Ole’ Miss) and Sonny Sixkiller (Stanford) and being undefeated going into the ND game at the end of the year. Talk about some hearty laughs.
Great time to be a Centaur … for sure.
Nick


On December 30th, 2012 at 9:53 am, Wayne Rizzo said:

Steve- In honor of Bob Devine’s Alma Mater playing in the championship game, one quick story following up on Nick bringing up the weekly taped football game. We were undefeated going into to play Notre Dame. When Gene and I sat down to tape the game. I asked Gene “How much do you want to beat Notre Dame by?”Gene looked at me with the most serious face and said “What do you mean Beat” there went the undefeated season

Wayne


On December 30th, 2012 at 7:21 pm, Wilk said:

Steve,

Excellent retrospective. I would say that “survive” is a strong term for our days at AC. Each of us showed up there for different reasons but the statement that there was little of the normal college experience made it our “challenge” to make one. I believe that what we did to make one would never have been done at another school. We had no Homecoming etc (although we did make one up that you may not have known about). Many students, even the ones we begged to be in our shows (read Coeds) found the challenge to be defining and loved the College. Those that did not went home on weekends.

Notes: I do not see a big leap from Klugman to Rizzo. I see a reunion on this with Walt as the guest speaker (Bucky Doyle has passed). Nice to see Bob Devine involved but I do not believe he ever came to the games prior to ’72-73. He was waiting for some decent ball.



 
     

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS.

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