Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A Guy Named Lou

Lou Nardi was the closest thing I ever had to a mentor in my life.

I've said that so often since I heard of his passing that it's becoming a combination of a mantra, catch phrase and sound byte. That doesn't make it any less true. It's just that I didn't wanted to trivialize Lou or how I felt about him in any way.This is why I feel compelled to write my own tribute to a man who I respected as a teacher, admired as a director and loved as a person.

Back in 1975, I returned to Stockton after a year in the San Francisco Bay Area where I was lucky enough to be cast in my very first professional production, an abomination entitled ADAM KING. I lasted all of two months in this show before I was unceremoniously let go and spent the next eight months in vain attempting to nab another gig. My naivete eventually got the best of me, so I regrouped-or retreated-back home to enter Delta College for some much needed stage training before I ventured out again. (Yes...definitely bass-ackwards...)

Delta turned out to be a mixed bag for me and ultimately unsatisfying, though the chip on my shoulder that I brought back with me from SF didn't help matters a bit. Couldn't teach me nothin', no sir...'specially if I din't wanna learn...

That is, of course, until I met Lou Nardi.

Lou was the only teacher in the Delta theater department that talked to me straight. More of a guidance counselor than a teacher (I actually only had one class with him: Film Appreciation), Lou disarmed me immediately with easy going charm and seemingly unflappable nature. He made me face the harsh reality of my time at Delta, to not have that be the be all and end all of my expectations and that the chip on my shoulder was easily removed, even if my other teachers kept picking it up and putting it back. Just like rehearsal, I had to do it myself until I got it right.

These lessons didn't occur in the classroom, but rather in the Delta cafeteria when my friend, Glen Chin, brought me along to spend some quality time with Lou over many coffees and cigarettes. It was there that I listened to my newfound hero pontificate about school, theater, show business and even life itself. On one particular day, we talked about childhood friend, San Francisco mayor George Moscone, right after he was shot and killed along with Harvey Milk by the psychotic Dan White. Along the way, I felt comfortable enough to go to Lou with my own problems and he would listen with quiet grace, then dispense some sage wisdom that I soaked up like a thirsty sponge.

While I never worked on any of his Delta shows, I did produce a 5 part radio series for KUOP-FM news about the making of his production of THE MUSIC MAN, following it from auditions all the way to opening night. As I stumbled and bumbled my way with microphone in hand, trying to figure out which end was up, Lou was patient and helped me through my process at the same time he was facing the over whelming task of directing and chroegraphing a very large musical production. THE MUSIC MAN DIARY was the best thing I ever turned out during my time at the radio station and I had Lou to thank.

Our paths crossed a few times over the years, Stockton being a small world after all as I had become a full-fledged Palace Showboat Player. He was the very first person in the Stockton theater community to not sneer at the very mention of Pollardville. Lou was always supportive of whatever theatrical venture anyone took on, regardless of the stage because he knew it was all THEATER.

In the mid '80s, Lou even turned up at the Palace Showboat to choreograph the second half of one of our shows called ROCK'N VAUDEVILLE. It was a blast to work with him at long last and his style fit the Ville like a glove. In fact, he brought out the best in all of us because he made want to be that much better.

About a year later, Lou called on Thanksgiving to ask me if I wanted to collaborate with him on a new Ville show. He said he had a revue already put together featuring highlights from various musicals called BROADWAY MELODIES and how well it might fit into the Pollardville vaudeville format. He wanted me to write and direct some comedy sketches to fill in the gaps. It absolutely floored me that this man that I admired so much would even consider me to assist him on any theatrical endeavour, even one on my home turf. I have never been so honored in my life.

BROADWAY MELODIES showed the Palace Showboat Players in a different light, one where we could crossover into the "legitimate" theater world and hold our own against the best in the entire area. Lou thought so too. He knew what kind of talent pool we had at the Ville and utilized us to the best of our abilities.

This was the show where he convinced that I could carry off a straight solo. I had a stigma about singing ever since high school...a bad DAMN YANKEES rehearsal croaking through "You've Gotta Have Heart" and getting an assholish response from the musical director. Lou just assuaged my fears with a shrug. "I've heard you sing," he said simply. "You can pull it off." The number was "Try to Remember" from one of my least favorite musicals THE FANTASTICKS. Opening night, I went up at end of the second verse.

"Try to remember, the...bluh..muh...nuh..wuhwuh...and follow..."

Yes, I forgot the lyrics to "Try to Remember".

The following show we
collaborated again, from scratch this time called BACK TO THE THIRTIES. In this show, Lou had another number in mind for me to sing: "Thanks for the Memories". I think he was trying to tell me something.

The years following BACK TO THE THIRTIES, I didn't see very much of Lou at all, probably not until the first Pollardville reunion we had in the early '90s. After that, I lost contact altogether and I eventually moved out of the area altogether and made my way north to Oregon.

At the last Pollardville grand finale reunion in 2007 before a demolition crew flattened the place into just another parking lot, I was so happy that Lou and his incredible wife Nancy were able to attend. That night was so magical. People I never expected to see were there and the Nardis were just the icing of that fantastic nostalgic cake. But somehow I knew in my heart that there were several people there I would never see again. It was true of Goldie Pollard. It was true of Dennis Landingham. And it was certainly true of Lou Nardi. I seized the opportunity that night to tell Lou how I really felt about him and what he's meant in my life. I feel so fortunate to have been able to do so. It wasn't that I was tyring to preemptively bring closure to our relationship. I just felt it needed to be said because the opportunity would never arise again. And for the last time I would say, "Thank you, Lou, for being part of my life."

As I think back on the years that I knew Lou Nardi, the one memory I have that stands out in my mind occurred during the aftershow following what I guess was the closing night of THE MUSIC MAN. Lou had his own number, a little softshoe arrangement where danced his way across the Delta College stage with the style and class that he was known for. He had a look of total bliss on his face, tripping his own light fantastic in the spotlight he deserved his place in.

Dance on, my friend. The stage is all yours.
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