I first laid eyes on him during my first trip to the Ville way back in 1972. ALASKA was the melodrama with Ray as the villain. The place was packed to the rafters with a particularly rowdy group of patrons. Each time Ray as Rhinestone Fred entered, a single peanut sailed up from the crowd and struck him in the same spot every time, right on the chest. He'd follow the peanut's trajectory without flinching, remaining in character as he'd turn his attention to the offender to fire off a well-timed comeback to the audience such as: "This is what happens when cousins marry."
I think this was the show he and partner-in-crime Phil DeAngelo performed "The Italian Carpenter" sketch, a variation on "The Heckler" with Phil playing the straight man and Ray as the carpenter. It contained one of my favorite lines of all time.
RAY: You sing too loud! Stand back! Stand back!
PHIL: How far?
RAY: You gotta car?
A few years later, Ray directed the first melodrama script written by Ed Thorpe and myself, LARUE'S RETURN or HOW'S A BAYOU? He graciously allowed these two budding playwrights to sit in on rehearsals and provide input. After the mountain of notes we gave him each night, he probably regretted it. What did he expect from a couple of wise-asses in their early twenties?
Sometime later, I finally appeared onstage at the Ville myself and made my own directorial debut shortly after, falling right on my face. I thought I knew it all, but I didn't, It wasn't until Ray directed me in my first traditional old-school vaudeville show, HELLO, VAUDEVILLE, HELLO, that I understood what the hell Polardville and vaudeville itself was all about. I loved that show. It remains my favorite of the shows in which I appeared. It inspired me to direct once again with three back-to-back olios right after Ray's show.
Ray took a hiatus from his emcee duties and I was lucky enough to take over. There was no way I could fill his Capezios. Maybe it's because I didn't try to emulate his stage attire. That guy had the flashiest wardrobe this side of Liberace. We alternated stints every other month for a few shows until one glorious closing night performance when we co-hosted, one of the best nights of my life.
I got to write a couple of bits for Ray, particularly in my show IT'S SHOWTIME, FOLKS. Some of the dialogue of one piece went as such:
RAY: Ray Rustigian.
BOB: A rusty gun?
RAY: No. Rustigian. It's Armenian.
BOB: Oh, I'm sorry.
RAY: You're sorry?
Of course he wasn't. Ray was a proud Armenian American. Maybe that was the key to Ray. He took pride in himself, his heritage, his work and certainly the Palace Showboat, on and off the stage. He even stepped up to take over in its last few years until even he couldn't sustain it any longer. When we held our last reunion, the night Pollardville closed its doors for good, Ray donned a crushed velvet tuxedo from the Rustigian Collection and graced the stage as emcee for the very last time for our Grand Finale performance.
Ray loved being on stage and that love was returned by the audience. Maybe it was because he was the consummate salesman. He knew how to sell it and sell it he did. The crowd bought every single time.
As we remember the times when we were welcomed to Pollardville and recall the day of long ago, Ray Rustigian was there. His legacy spans almost the entire history of the theater right up until the final bow.
To paraphrase Ray's send-off at the end of each show:
No matter where you go, there he was.
Okay, Ray. Five minutes to curtain. Let's Hidey-Didey.
"Good evening, ladies and gentleman and welcome to the Palace Showboat. Here he is, your master of ceremonies for this evening, MR. RAY RUSTIGIAN!"