It’s not too often that I find myself wandering downtown Peoria on a Sunday evening in late September. (I wander downtown Peoria as much as anyone I guess, it’s the Sunday evening and late September parts that are harder to come by).
Lately I’ve had a hankering to spend some time down these stairs at Richards—I think maybe it’s because lately we’ve been binge-watching a lot of Cheers every night before bed.
Richards is by far my favorite bar around that I almost never visit...and sure enough, I went in but nobody knew my name.
A visit to Richards however was not my reason for the aforementioned wandering downtown Peoria on the aforesaid Sunday evening in said late September. Truth be told, tonight a small group of friends and I are planning to take in a show at the Apollo.
Ever since I started contributing to this blog I’ve wanted to cover something at the Apollo—it’s one of my favorite places in town. The building’s character, its location, and its history are all just so perfect to me. They often still show classic films on the weekends and present other shows here, but it’s a bit difficult to keep track of the schedule of what’s going on there unless you have the time to walk by and peek in the windows. (Someone should get on that!) But this is finally the night! I’m here and on the bill tonight is a very special engagement.
“A Twist of Lemmon” is a live one-man show about the life, times and memories of actor and Hollywood royalty Jack Lemmon as told by his son, actor and musician Chris Lemmon. And we had tickets for the final performance in its two week run! Because this was an unusually long engagement for a market like Peoria, and perhaps due to the odd performance time (Sunday evenings are typically uncommon for theatre), seats were actually readily available, and we had great ones right in the center and very close to the front.
The show began its life as a memoir in book form, and its success inspired Chris to adapt the concept into a one-man show. Billed as “A True Father Son Story From the Golden Age of Hollywood” he channels his famous father for ninety minutes of memories and music.
Ninety minutes might not be very long, but it’s long enough that I should probably use the bathroom before it starts. I was highly amused by the tile work in the Apollo’s bathroom, because if you look closely...it’s all fake! It’s an elaborate stamp painting onto the walls! So I decided to capture it and even managed one of those infamous MBIP obligatory mirror shots in the process.
Finally we are in the theatre, done up quite elegantly with just a baby grand, a single chair, a few easels and a screen which would help illustrate the story with old photos and clips. Once the announcements come on, the show will soon begin, so it’s time to put away the phone/camera, of course.
And then for the next hour and a half or so, we all sat transfixed. Chris Lemmon came onstage to enthusiastic applause, gave a personable introduction setting the show up, and the next thing we knew, he assumed the more familiar persona of his father. That's when this show really started and I swear, Jack Lemmon returned and was standing right there in front of us, and just for us, at the Apollo Theatre on that Sunday evening in late September.
We heard him tell stories of working with legends such as James Cagney, Gregory Peck, Walter Matthau of course, and yes, even Marilyn Monroe. It’s important to note however, as Chris often does in his press for the show, that HE does not impersonate these people or tell the stories of these legends—it’s him as his father telling these tales in their voice.
From the show it was revealed that Jack’s career came first and he was a relatively absentee father while Chris was growing up; they did not become close until many years later. Yet, despite their differences and bumps along the way, music was one thing they shared and always connected Chris and Jack and it played a big part in the show—the songs Chris played felt like familiar friends, because indeed many of them were-classics and standards pulled from films and that proverbial “Great American Song Book”.
Chris’s parents divorced when he was quite young, and by the end of the show it was clear that Jack always carried a torch for Chris’s mother and never stopped loving her. It was also quite evident that he had little love for his stepmother, Jack’s second wife, whom he blames for a large part of their complicated relationship.
Of course, with the show having been written by Chris, one can expect that it’s all skewed a bit to favor his perspective, but as an artist that is his prerogative to give things the angle he wants. It’s important to note however that the show is NOT a dirty laundry, tell-all airing of grievances, and while it does touch upon the bumps their relationship had, it’s a very positive premise that focuses less on Jack’s absenteeism and most of all on the friendship they shared as adults.
It was great to hear the stories and recall many of the roles I’ve seen Jack Lemmon play, and learn a bit about some of the other ones I’ve yet to discover.
The Apollo provided just the right intimacy for a show such as this, and the modestly sized but mighty audience helped create the special ambience. I can’t think of another venue in town where I would have rather seen this show, full of so many vaudeville, film and other entertainment “ghosts”.
After the show we were invited to the Apollo’s green room, where Chris was to give a meet and greet with the audience. Once he entered the room we were treated to more anecdotes, he answered questions, and was very patient and gracious the entire time.
Not only that, but this additional 30 or so minutes practically served as an additional act to the show. A lot of it had to do with golf, and the time Jack and Chris spent golfing at Pebble Beach, which was a big part of their lives. To be honest I seem to shut down at the very mention of golf, but those stories got much more interesting once he started dropping names like Clint Eastwood and his good friend Andy Garcia into them. I really enjoyed hearing about his days growing up in Hollywood when he could claim people such as Marilyn Monroe and Peter Lawford as neighbors.
Chris informed those that weren’t already aware about his strong ties to Peoria: his mother Cynthia Stone (also an actress, and Jack’s first wife) was a native of Peoria who grew up in the Pettengill-Morron House on Moss Avenue. In fact, Jack and Cynthia were even married there in 1950, after meeting at the Actors Studio in New York. Chris spent many summers as a child visiting here.
Chris said he also learned greatly from his father’s “mistakes”, particularly in his marriage to Cynthia, and as such Chris has been happily married (only once) for 27 years and has three grown children, all raised at home in Connecticut, far away from Hollywood.
He kept claiming to be pretty exhausted after this run (this had been a two show day) and he’d soon be traveling back home as well, but it wasn’t evident in his dynamic way of storytelling. At one point, his energy was so great he leapt out of his seat to finish telling some chestnut, and his posture and mannerisms totally reminded me from this moment in The Apartment. Their likeness was at times, surreal. His parting words to everyone as the meeting wrapped up was “Go to the people you love, and tell them you love them, because you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”.
And then I got to meet him. We (very) briefly chatted about acting and grabbed a photo together but I was pretty much the last one to leave and I didn’t want to take up too much time. I then left still thinking about the show as I wandered back through downtown Peoria on that Sunday evening in late September.
I have heard that “A Twist of Lemmon” may make a return to Peoria sometime in 2016, and if it does, I can not suggest it strongly enough. I will definitely be there again if it does.