By Alison Hastings
This year we celebrate Dad’s Garage 25th Anniversary. As part of that celebration, we are releasing a book called Dad’s Garage: The First 25 Years. It chronicles some of the insane stories and fascinating people that make up our unique history. This is just one of the many stories you’ll find in the book.
“You’re taking a risk, you know,” I warned the man in a black suit who was aiming his flashlight down the toilet in the old Top Shelf bathroom.
“Secret Service. I’ll get out of your way, ma’am.”
“Is that a getaway car?” I asked, referencing the vehicle parked on the landing outside the theatre. He never answered. The only other cars I’d ever seen on our landing were driven by confused or drunk patrons who ultimately drove their cars down a flight of stairs by our dumpsters. But this car… this car was a chariot for a homegrown hero. In 2002, the very week he won the Nobel Peace Prize, President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalyn Carter came to see a play at our humble little theatre. And not just any play… 43 Plays for 43 Presidents! It was about HIM! Well, him and the 42 other men to hold the office.
The Top Shelf bathroom was notoriously smelly but that night I’d never seen it so sparkling. Our shared dressing room where guys offered the sincere warning “Nuts Out!” to everyone in the room when their pants were coming off, was spotless. A pleasant modesty curtain appeared overnight; one that remained for many years to follow. Somehow, that night, our theatre smelled more like a theatre and less like a bar for the very first time.
The play, written by former members of the Neo-Futurists of Chicago, is an ever-evolving text with short plays devoted to each POTUS. Some pieces are hilarious, like the Bollywood dance number for Bush Sr., or beautiful and sentimental like the tribute to Teddy Roosevelt. A few scenes are chilling, like the Andrew Johnson and LBJ pieces about men who took office after a presidential assisination. Many of the short plays illuminated aspects of former presidents that were obscure, vicious, embarrassing, and even ridiculous. Knowing that a real live president, one whom the entire company admired, would be sitting in the front row of our show that took some serious jabs at the presidency, made us all wide-eyed, giddy, and completely humbled. And honored.
There were five of us in the cast and before curtain we were instructed to step directly off stage at the end of the show and shake President and Mrs. Carter’s hands. As we gathered to wrap our minds around the enormity of the evening ahead, Secret Service men would occasionally breeze through the room. Ten minutes before places, I said, “What do you think the audience is going to do…” And then suddenly we heard applause. The Carters had entered the building. The sold-out audience just found out they’d be watching a show about the presidents with an ACTUAL president. It was then that a few of us got choked up. President Carter was the good guy of our childhood. A soft-spoken southern hero and the candidate many of our parents endorsed. He was here in our scrappy artistic home and we wanted to get this right.
Our charming little punk rock political play charged energetically through the night. The cast allowed the stories to tell themselves and we had a blast. As the Gerald Ford piece came to a farcical conclusion and the light shift brought us all to the 39th President of the United States, the theatre buzzed. Front of House, the bartender, actors, crew, and yes, Secret Service men peeped through the curtains to watch.
President Carter’s piece ends with him stating, “I’ll help all of you.” It shined a light on the very reason he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize: “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts.” The scene was met with raucous cheers and a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. It was an audience unified in celebrating the very good human beings who sat in the front row. I honestly wasn’t sure we’d be able to continue. The audience would not sit down. Would it be so bad if time stopped and we lingered indefinitely in a Carter Presidency? Jimmy and Rosalyn responded with simple grateful smiles. I was in the lobby, standing next to a Secret Service man, literally in my underwear (my Bill Clinton costume), peeping through the curtain, when the audience relented and the play continued. As instructed at the end of the show we went right to the Carters and received warm hugs and handshakes. Rosalyn pulled me close and said in her sweet Georgia lilt, “Thank you for being so kind to Jimmy… You were kinda hard on the others.”
Something shifted for us that night. Not just as individuals or as a cast, but as a community. Throughout the run of this show Dad’s Garage began hosting weekly panels where politics were discussed. Marketing material for the show posed questions like, “Which president started the NEA?” (It’s Nixon BTW). Our audience expanded, and so did we. By doing this show, we chose to step out of our comfort zone. Of course, we still sold buckets of beer, smoked pot behind the building, and offered Wrestlemania/Improv hybrids… but the impression the President’s show and The President left on our communal DNA is undeniable. A bunch of rough-around-the-edges Gen Xers wanted to be part of a bigger conversation. A conversation about civics and community and forward momentum.
In 2002 our theatre was young. Our building was old. Our toilets were smelly. And our resources, thin. But that never mattered. To quote another presidential giant, Teddy Roosevelt, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” And we did. For us and for Jimmy.