Flashback - 1973: Romeo and Juliet, 1976: ‘Doc’ Berger & Shakespeare in the Park

Went to a BBQ in Laurel Canyon Sunday, started telling tales and connected these dots, so I thought I'd post them before I forgot them again.


1973: Romeo and Juliet In 1968 Franco Zeffirelli directed and co-wrote the screenplay for Romeo and Juliet,which wanted to be a great film but with a weak performance by Leonard Whiting as Romeo, turned to be not a bad movie.  Aside from Academy Awards for cinematography and costume design, its primary claim to fame was the nude wedding bed scene with teenage actors Whiting and Olivia Hussey.  It was re-released in 1973 and during my short lived affair with the cute young divorcee from Idaho; I took her to a Saturday night showing at the River Oaks Theater.  As we were walking down the aisle looking for open seats with a view of the center of the screen, I felt someone touch my right hand.  I looked down to see Sandy Lee, the blue eyed, blonde pixie girl from homeroom at Sam Rayburn High School who broke my heart in the summer of 1967.


I have to admit I felt a flutter in my chest and though we said nothing, my date took note of our brief exchange.  When we found our seats she had to ask, “And just who was that?”

I grinned and replied, “An old flame from high school, she broke my heart but that’s a long story.”

The divorcee giggled and said, “I’d like to meet the girl who broke your heart.”

I said, “Well, if I remember correctly there’s an intermission in this movie, so we might have a chance to make that happen.”

Sure enough during the intermission we ran into Sandy and her date in the lobby.  She and I did the introductions and I met her husband, who was a really nice guy who worked at a bicycle shop in Montrose.  We all had a polite chat and a few chuckles and then we returned to the theater.  The divorcee sat down and said, “She’s really sweet.  I can’t imagine how she could break your heart.”

I chuckled and said, “We were both virgins and it just didn’t work out – more my fault than hers.”

We sat back and enjoyed the rest of the movie and I realized that it was iconic of two women who had broken my heart.  When I first saw it in 1968, my date was Annika Lood, the 16 year old Swedish girl whose mother decided that I was the spawn of Satan and exiled her young daughter back to Stockholm.  How Shakespearean was that?  In 1968 I identified with the virginal Romeo and now, feeling Sandy’s presence behind me, I connected with the character of the ill fated libertine cynic Mercutio.  After Sir Laurence Olivier delivered the epilogue and the final credits began, we got up and started to walk up the aisle to the lobby.  As we passed Sandy I reached out to touch her hand and paused for a brief moment to say good-bye.


“Doc” Berger and Shakespeare in the Park Since 1975, the Houston Shakespeare Festival has entertained nearly a half million theatergoers with free performances in Hermann Park's Miller Outdoor Theatre.  The brainchild of Dr. Sidney Berger, who served as president of HSF from 1975-2006, the University of Houston and the Miller Outdoor Theater Advisory Council support a two-production season of Shakespeare's works played in repertory on Miller Theater's bill.  The 1975 season included The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night's Dream which were met with critical acclaim and audiences that exceeding projections.  The local big wig citizens decided that this was a good thing and started throwing money into the pot.

It was probably my old buddy Roger Gaines who turned me onto the auditions for the 1976 HSF season where “Doc” Berger would be directing Romeo and Juliet.  He’d done some kind of educational/festival waiver deal with Actor’s Equity so that all cast members got paid $800 a month for the two month performance season.  It wasn’t much money but since I was for the most part unemployed and I really didn’t want to go back to waiting tables or tending bar, I picked up a paperback copy of the play at a used book store.  Since I’d long lost the naive passion to play the role of Romeo, I played around with the dialogue of the character Mercutio, friend to Romeo and Benvolio and a blood relative to Prince Escalus and Count Paris.  Rather than predictably choose his death scene curse, “…a pox on both your houses…” I put together a monologue from the dialogue with Benvolio from Act II Scene I, where Mercutio playfully taunts Romeo as the young lover hides behind the orchard wall beneath Juliet’s balcony.

Like Sidney Berger I loved the poetry of Shakespeare’s plays, but I really hated the melodramatic performances of marginal actors who portrayed his legendary characters in iambic pentameter with marginal British accents.  Though I knew that Berger would not allow that kind of stomp foot acting on his stage, I was thoroughly prepared to endure that crap when I arrived at the auditions.  ‘Doc’ spotted me while I was signing in, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Good to see you’re here.  Which role do you want?”

I grinned and said, “I’m too old for Romeo, and too young to play Lord Capulet, so I suppose it’ll be either Tybalt or Mercutio.”

Berger chuckled and said, “Perfect, if things work out maybe we can pair you up opposite another actor and have the two of you switch off.”

“Sounds good to me, Doc,” I said.  Sidney shook my hand and said something like, Looking forward to your audition.  As usual I found a seat in the back row as far from the stage as I could manage and prepared to endure an hour or so of five minute scenes from a bunch of amateurs who didn’t know what they were doing.  There were a few older actors from local community theaters who were at best mediocre and at worst pretentiously incompetent; but most were very nervous, very earnest young graduates fresh out of college and looking to get their first paying job as an actor.  Many of them had talent, particularly the women who were auditioning for the coveted role of Juliet.

What surprised me was how many of them came from out of state, some from as far away as the east coast.  What also impressed me was how well rehearsed they were and how many of them were also prepared to take risks. 


The actors who stood out in this respect were five young men from a college in Missouri who collectively auditioned by combining their time and performing the fight and duels from: Act 3, Scene 1.  Dressed in blue jeans and black and white wife beater t-shirts, they used bokken (wooden Samurai swords) and instead of projecting with bad Elizabethan accents, they used the guttural speech patterns of Japanese actors trying to speak English in the macho verbal exchanges from Samurai movies.  It was a hoot and they got a well deserved standing ovation!

Finally someone called out my name so I walked up with my paperback copy of the play and made my entrance, stage left.  I played Mercutio under the influence… not staggering drunk but definitely in his cups.  As I slowly walked across the stage and did my cold reading, I made no effort to look up from the script or play to the audience until the end when I looked upstage, waved the pocketbook and said in a hushed inebriated voice , “Romeo, good night: I’ll to my truckle-bed; for this field-bed is too cold for me to sleep and ‘tis in vain to seek him here that means not to be found.”

Then I turned to the audience and tossed them this improvised line with a wink and a nod as I stepped off stage right, “Let us pray Romeo finds his way to a warm bed as well.”

This got a laugh from Berger who improvised thus, “Beware Mercutio, at the liberties you make with the words of the Bard, lest he take umbrage and end your performance at the point of a sword.”

Everybody cracked up at that and then I walked over to where he sat, leaned in so I was close to his ear and said in a very low voice, “Listen up ‘Doc,’ if it’s okay with you, lets make believe I never showed up this afternoon.  These kids are busting their asses trying to get their first job as an actor and I just waltzed in with a cold reading.  To tell you the truth I’m feeling a bit embarrassed, because they really want this.  And while I want it too, I don’t need it; but they do.”

Except for attributed photos and text, all content is copyrighted © 2015 JKM (an apparently ineffectual boilerplate joke?)

Views: 643

Comment by koshersalaami on June 2, 2015 at 9:17am

Nice of you

Comment by Claudia Darling on June 2, 2015 at 9:31am
I always liked the Burton-Taylor version of The Taming of the Shrew too.
Comment by JMac1949 Memories on June 2, 2015 at 9:42am

Kosh, to speak truly, though I enjoyed the work, I had lost the fire in the belly and no other choice but to step aside.

Claudia, both Burton and Taylor had a great deal of fun 1967 with "The Shrew" but they got to rehearse with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1966.

Comment by Jerry DeNuccio on June 2, 2015 at 9:44am

I admire your generosity in withdrawing from consideration.  Your first part reminds me of Harold Bloom's assertion that Shakespeare taught us what being human means.  Specifically, your point about identifying with certain characters.  It seems Shakespeare's plays cover the gamut of ways of being and doing, such that just about everyone, at just about any point in their lives, undergoing just about any kind of experience, can identify with a Shakespearean character.

Comment by Kenneth Sibbett on June 2, 2015 at 9:49am

I would love to see you onstage. I couldn't act my way through the 'Bard with a script in my hand~ 

Comment by Rosigami on June 2, 2015 at 12:06pm

What a fun recollection! I remember the R&J movie well, as it was a Big Deal in 1973 when i graduated from HS. I enjoy Shakespeare's works, when they are performed well. Scenery-chewing is not my thing. 

Comment by M. C. Sears on June 2, 2015 at 5:57pm
Dang I enjoy your posts. I too would have liked to see you on stage.
Comment by Abrawang on June 2, 2015 at 9:14pm

You're a little hard on Zeffirelli's R&J jmac.  Whiting wasn't that bad, more like forgettable or undistinguished.  Bad acting sticks with you a long while.  Hussey was pretty good and McEnery as Mercutio (my favorite character in the play) and Michael York as Tybalt were great.  Nice of you to bow out in favor of the younger ones desperate to get their start.  Please keep it coming.

Comment by Theodora L'Engle Knight on June 2, 2015 at 9:58pm

another great piece of writing. where are the pics of you onstage? did i miss something. in my usual way.

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on June 3, 2015 at 3:59am

Smiling here. :)   R/L


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