You’ve got to love a guy who can do a drop-dead imitation of Buffalo, New York.
I was getting a handle on his life story, when Jim Giancarlo, the managing artistic director of Ashland’s Oregon Cabaret Theatre, slumped in his seat and dropped his head into his hands. With eyes glazing over, he shed the following words with the zest of a slug buried under ten feet of lake-effect snow: “What are you going to do?”
With that, Jim told me all I needed to know about why, in the flower-power days of yore, he’d split for San Francisco, even without flowers in his hair.
A welfare case worker for a year after graduating with a degree in art, he’d hit a wall. “I was dying,” he said. “And I wanted to go where things were cool.”
As for his destination?
“It was like I finally landed on the right planet. I felt this was where I belonged, not dreary downer Buffalo.”
For the record, Jim, who’s 64, has been in Ashland now for decades, working at the Cabaret while teaching classes on musical theatre as a full-time instructor at Southern Oregon University. The dinner theatre’s latest production, “Song and Dance,” co-created by Jim, opens Sept. 7 and runs through Nov. 4.
As for Jim’s escape to San Francisco, it’s a sweet story: He arrived there as a twenty-something with a theatrical resume that totaled one short stint at Miss Betty’s School of the Dance, which he’d attended at age 7. “Barely getting by,” he shared an eight-room flat, scrounging his 40-buck-a-month rent from dishwashing and other menial gigs.
“But I didn’t care,” said Jim, who took whatever free dance class was offered, and there were a lot of them in those days, modern, Afro-modern, Afro-Haitian, Martha Graham…etc.
“And the next thing I know, I was in a show.” It was called The Very, Very Vaudeville Show, a campy variety show “typical of the San Francisco crazies.”
“I did a tap number because I kind of could tap,” Jim said. “Everybody could kind of do things.”
“There was a dancer called QP Dahl who did a number called “The Turtle Strip. She stepped out of a turtle shell. We were the lounge lizards in the back.” Complementing that act was the unforgettable “girl in a giant chicken costume singing, ‘It’s tough being a chick in San Francisco,’ and an archer, Adam, Son of Ra who shot arrows off people’s heads. That was weird and creepy.”
After a while, Jim caught on with a street-troupe called the Trenchmouth Theatre Company. “We wrote all our own shows and dug up set pieces and costumes from the dumpsters. I didn’t know any better then; I didn’t know there was a regular way of doing plays.”
The company performed free around the Bay Area. “Remember, this was the 70s. Money was a bad word.”
Jim, in fact, didn’t make a living as a performer until he was hired in 1976 by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to dance in the Green Shows.
In his mid-30s, Jim began second-guessing his career. “I thought to myself, ‘You really blew it. Why not pick something and get really good at it.’ I could dance, but I wasn’t the greatest dancer; I could do art but…I could write but…”
The soul-searching led to a one-day reconnaissance mission to CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) in L.A. County to investigate the possibility of a degree in directing. There, he spent the day hanging out with direction students. “I’d been choreographing shows and I’d worked with great directors; now I wanted to be the one with the vision; I thought, ‘Who’s going to let me direct unless I have DIRECTOR stamped on my forehead.’”
Not long after that, Jim was named choreographer for what would be OSF’s first musical, “The Threepenny Opera.” That was the good news. The bad news was his reception by the director.
“When I met him on the first day of rehearsal, he said, ‘Why did they give me a choreographer? This isn’t a musical. This is Brecht.’”
Deflated by the director’s attitude, Jim recalls running into one of the directing students he’d met at CalArts; the fellow was serving as assistant director. “We went out to lunch and I was picking his brain when he looked at me and said, ‘Why do you want to be in the directing program; you’re already where I went to school to be.”
That’s when it dawned on Jim that the guy was right. “I was working at one of the biggest repertory theatres in the country. Maybe I didn’t have to go to grad school.”
In fact, Jim’s timing couldn’t have been better. It was 1985 and Craig Hudson, a set designer, had been meticulously renovating an old Ashland church and was close to realizing his dream to open an elegant dinner theatre. A year later, Jim was choreographing the Cabaret’s first production, “Dames at Sea.”
“There had been such a push to get the building finished and the show open,” Jim said, that plans hadn’t been made for the company’s future. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Now what will we do?’” Needing someone to manage the nascent business, Jim raised his hand. Agreeing to a minimal salary, his course was set.
For the latest show, an original celebration of American show business, Jim has been working with two of the company’s most talented performers, Christopher George Patterson and Kymberli Colbourne. Since Jim had been a dancer himself, I wondered aloud if, at age 64, he missed being on the other side of the footlights.
Jim’s reply was preceded by a warm smile and a chuckle. “I’d rather be where I am,” he said. “I enjoyed being a performer, but this is what I do. When I was an artist in school, what I did most were collages; that’s the essence of what I’m good at, identifying the elements and seeing how they come together, making something cool by juxtaposing them.
“Theatre, any theatre is collage.”
By the way, to set the record straight—and save both Jim and me from the wrath of the Buffalo chamber of commerce and other natives of the “Wing State”—Jim learned to be a collagist in his snowl old hometown!
(Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg is a Realtor with Real Estate Depot in Ashland. You can reach him at 541-778-8949 or at email@example.com