Brother Orchid Wasn’t Up for Tonys or Oscars

Yesterday I had reason to visit my old St. Thomas High School on other research business that took me enjoyably through all of our old “Eagle” newspapers from the time I was there, 1952 to 1956. Neither the material for this story, nor any of my personal misadventures from back then, had anything to do with the reasons that fellow 1956 classmate Ed Szymczak and I were there to meet with STHS curator Anna Henderson, but I simply could not pass on this copy and a few others I digitally photographed for today’s story in The Pecan Park Eagle. It was “funnest” thing I ever did back in the day.

For our Senior Class play in November 1955, Father Walter Scott, CSB, had decided to stage a production of Brother Orchid, an early 1940’s B Grade movie that had starred Edward G. Robinson in the dual personality role as the title character Brother Orchid and his pre-transformational personna, Little John Sarto.

Brother Orchid was a no-brainer for St. Thomas as a good play choice: (1) As an all male school, it eliminated the need for recruiting female actors from Incarnate Word Academy or St. Agnes; and (2) It rode on a Catholic theme. – a bad guy reforms by falling into the healing hands of a Catholic religious order after he’s almost killed running from his old crum-bum companions in crime and is found dying in the woods by one of the flower-breeding brothers.

Long story short: I tried out for the play and got the lead role as Brother Orchid/Little John Sarto. t age 17, I suddenly had more lines to learn in Brother Orchid than I would ever see again. It would prove to be, with cause, my only rodeo as a leading man on stage, but I loved every minute of it, as I think did everyone else who took the ride as actors and stage hands. I can’t see Sam Sacco to this day without getting into the first performance night in which Sam forgot his lines and was simply making things up to say to me.

“&$%@##*&, Sam,” I would say between scenes, “give me the right lines. Everything I’m saying out there sounds stupid because you can’t remember what you’re supposed to say.”

“A good actor doesn’t need lines,” Sam Sacco would shoot back. “A good actor just needs to feel his part and speak from those feelings.

In case you never saw any other plays or movies from Sam Sacco or yours truly, there’s reason enough right there in the Sacco pronouncements.

Delbert Stewart as The Gimp (right above in photo) and I also had our moments with the dialogue. Even in 1955, we thought the dialogue was often a little too corny to say, but we still accepted Director Scott’s will – and tried to say our lines, anyway. In the scene above, I’m supposed to turn around and confront The Gimp, who does have the drop on me. I’m supposed to interrupt The Gimp’s stream of vitriol toward me with this brilliant little dirge of dialogue: “Can it cluck-brain! You’re the one who got us all in the hot water!”

In our final rehearsal, I reached a point in which I could not say that line without breaking into laughter. That break would then get Delbert Stewart started on the same hilarity kick. It got worse from there. Pretty soon, all I had to do was turn around and make eye contact with The Gimp and we both would crack up. Thank God for the patience of Father Scott. We worked it out in rehearsal and delivered on stage – with no further fumbles in this area, anyway.

Something did happen shortly before the play that effected the rest of my life, but you need to hear this part in context. It was a very different era and none of our Basilian order mentors would ever have given us advice that was designed to harm our health in any way. Father Scott was just trying to help make up the visage gap that apparently existed between the way the grizzled Edward G. Robinson appeared in this role on-screen and the way I looked as a soap-behind-my-ears 17-year old in a high school play version of the same story.

“Say, Bill,” Father Scott asked me after rehearsal one day, near opening night, “do you smoke?”

“No, I don’t Father.”

“Well, why don’t you think about taking up cigars for the play? It would help you look the part,” Father Scott said. “You can always quit again once the play is finished.”

Made sense to me. I bought some cheap cigars on the way home. And I did quit after the play was finished – but it was fifty years later.

My love affair/addiction with/to tobacco was firmly launched with Brother Orchid. I loved the little kicky rearrangement of my brain cells that came from smoking – and I also learned on stage that I could use the smoke to enhance the attention people paid to my character. In fact, we had a whole scene that was virtually a throw-away until I figured out it all could change with one puff of smoke.

In this early scene, my old gang is on stage discussing my imminent return from prison and fearing the changes it may bring. They pretty well paint me for the audience as a cigar-smoking meanie who could punish those who had horned in on his territories while he was locked up. I’m supposed to enter the scene from the right after one gangster/actor expresses the vain hope that i won’t show. But, after listening to the scene off stage with my lighted cigar in hand, I pick what I think is a better route of entry. – I stay out of sight, but first blow this big cloud of blue smoke on stage  as the announcement that I’m coming.

The audience roars. Then I walk on the stage for the first time to applause. And I’m hooked. If not on the stage, a hundred per cent on smoking.

That one’s on me. I don’t blame Father Scott. And I did finally pull up from cigarettes fifty years later in better shape than I deserved to be.

In the final scene of Brother Orchid, I get shot by a character named Dum-Dum, but I live long enough to deliver one more cornball line: “I go to my God with a good heart because the Florentines have been preserved to do His Work!”

The trouble is – Dum-Dum’s gun doesn’t go off as scheduled. The blank bullet doesn’t fire.

In the interest of time, I fall to the ground, anyway. – Then the gun goes off. And I say my final lines to the titter of murmuring laughter. Then I stand up and we all take a bow for the mercy applause of our supportive audience. Stage careers end for all of us that night. Exiting left and right.

The cast for our play beyond my humbling “Bill McCurdy as Brother Orchid/Little John Sarto” role included; Sam Sacco as Fat Duchy; Delbert Stewart as The Gimp; Marcus Saha as Freckles; Michael Storey as Dum-Dum; Ralph Marek as Solomon; Buddy Negrotto as Dominic Battista; Kenneth Hogan as Brother Nasturtium; Joe Carlotta as Brother Geranium; Marshall Seavey as Brother Hollyhock; and Tom Withey as Abbot Jonquil.

The 1940 movie version of Brother Orchid pops up on Turner Classic Movies every now and then and it is also available from TCM on DVD.

No, I do not have a copy of the film.

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3 Responses to “Brother Orchid Wasn’t Up for Tonys or Oscars”

  1. ron pawlik Says:

    What ever happened to Buddy Negrotto?

  2. Brother Orchid Says:

    […] Brother Orchid Wasn't Up for Tonys or Oscars Brother Orchid was a no-brainer for St. Thomas as a good play choice: (1) As an all male school, it eliminated the need for recruiting female actors from Incarnate Word Academy or St. Agnes; and (2) It rode on a Catholic theme. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response , or trackback your own site. […]

  3. Investigator in Oakville Says:

    Easy to check out, readable…heck I had formed to leave a commment!

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