A Master Storyteller's Final Chapter

Alan Dumas had a big heart.
Coincidentally, that's what killed him Saturday.
But not before he gave Denver two decades of wonderful memories, energizing the town with his ebullience, his wit, his imagination, his generous spirit and, above all, his stories.

Some of the best never made it to print.
Since his death, people have been swapping Dumas stories the way collectors share precious items. The time he argued with a usually dead-serious writer over whether The A-Team or Star Trek represented the "apotheosis" of civilization. (A clue to Dumas's position: What do you think the "A" in A-Team stands for?) The time he told us about his date with John Wayne's daughter, which ended with the Duke himself coming out to chaperone. The time he became an ordained minister, just so he could conduct the marriage ceremony for a friend who tap-danced down the aisle. ("All the stories I remember are funny or nice," that friend marvels. "He didn't have a mean bone in his body.") The time he became a member of Maria Shriver's "posse" of wacky reporters--necessitating the purchase of a safari jacket--for a short-lived NBC show. The time he reprised his high school Henry Higgins for the Westword Christmas play, My Fair Sales Rep, and bellowed out, "The pantyhose goes mainly on the toes." The time he told us that he was descended from a very aristocratic French family, and the way you could tell was because all male members had three testicles. (You should have seen the coroner's face when I asked about that.) The time he turned down a morning drive-time gig at a rock station for a full-time job at Westword that paid about one-tenth as much. It was principle, he said. (He'd later leave us to follow another love, talk radio, before landing at the Rocky Mountain News a decade ago.)

I've been collecting Dumas stories since September 1, 1977, when he wrote for the debut issue of Westword. He was our first theater critic--netting us our first libel suit when he wrote that a certain dinner theater served up "theater by and for morons." But although he loved the theater and acted some himself--Dumas's local performances, particularly a lengthy pukefest at the start of Macbeth, are understandably the stuff of legend--he didn't limit himself to such esoteric fare. He tackled topics ranging from why he hated summer--among other reasons, "overweight girls clad in hooter bags and cutoffs," a comment that earned us our first angry-letters campaign--to James Bond to UFOs to Blinky the Clown. He even did some investigative reporting. Or so he told us.

But Alan Dumas was at his best when he was telling a story. And he rarely let the truth get in the way of a good one, particularly if he was the central character.

Feeling in the holiday spirit in December 1983, he decided to go undercover as Santa. So he contacted a local Rent-a-Santa program, which surely had no idea what it was agreeing to, and began brushing up on his acting exercises: testing out his transference, searching for subtext, retrieving "sense memory." The result was "I Was a Method Santa":

Like many other young men, when I was 18 years old I wanted to be an actor. In pursuit of that dream I was fortunate to be accepted as a member of the Actor's Studio West in Los Angeles. I would probably still be there if [Lee] Strasberg himself hadn't taken me out one night for a cup of coffee and advised me to look for another line of work. I was young and impressionable, so I took his advice. I have always regretted it, although there's not a whole lot you can do when the head of the Actor's Studio tells you to take a hike. Nevertheless, in the years since my brief career on the stage ended, I have always said I would return if I found a role I felt worthy of my misjudged abilities.

Enter Santa.
The moment of truth arrives. I take my chair and a little boy climbs on my lap, his mother beaming at us and snapping pictures with her Instamatic.

"Hello, Santa," says the boy, smiling. I am silent. A feeling of panic has overtaken me. The boy looks disconcerted.

"My name is Billy," says the child. "Aren't you going to say anything?"
"I just don't understand my motivation," I say, shocked to realize I've spoken aloud.

"What's motivation?" asks the boy.
"Well, son, motivation is the subconscious drive of a character that an actor must understand before he can give a believable performance."

Billy is getting suspicious. "Are you really Santa Claus?" he asks.
"Of course I'm Santa Claus. Ho Ho Ho," I reply. The show must go on. "What do you want for Christmas, Billy?"

"A GI Joe set," he answers promptly.
At last a break. I played with a GI Joe when I was a kid, at least until my mother caught me having Joe make time with my sister's Barbie. This was a memory. I could hear Strasberg whispering in my ear: "It's a memory. Use it."

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