Columbus Days

Added on by Chris White.

My first job out of college was giving motivational talks to schoolchildren—wearing a Christopher Columbus costume.

Pining for SNL. Columbus days in Dallas, 1992.

Pining for SNL. Columbus days in Dallas, 1992.

It was 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering America, and a good five or six years before he was run out of history on a rail for embodying nearly everything bad about European colonialism. But. It was 1992! A Big Mac eating redneck was about to be elected president, CDs were just starting to out-sell cassette tapes, and Conan O’Brien, this completely unknown Simpsons writer, got David Letterman’s talk show when he bounced to CBS. Anything was possible!

As a recently graduated drama major who didn’t quite make the cut for Actors Theatre of Louisville’s prestigious intern program, giving kiddie TED Talks as Christopher Columbus made for a decent Plan B. Better than my friends who were applying to grad schools or working at Blockbuster or grinding it out in summer stock musicals. The living history job was acting—and I was being paid for it.

I would be working for an old, family friend. My boss, the guy who hired me, was Skip Smith, my youth minister from high school.

The Crucible,  Furman University, 1991.

The Crucible, Furman University, 1991.

Look, working for my high school youth minister, giving preachy lectures while wearing a long sack dress made out of sofa fabric, wasn't my dream job. For the love of Mike, I’d played John Proctor! My improv troupe, Idiom Savant, had opened for Dennis Miller. And we’d been to Saturday Night Live for a taping! I was going places. Real actor places. Plus, I didn’t want to move to Texas—a requirement of the job.

And honestly... This living history actor program thing was a loss leader for a series of animated educational videos about American history. This wasn’t art. It was commerce, marketing; selling video tapes to families and schools. I wasn’t even 30 yet—way too early for an honest-to-God theatre artist to sell out.

But when Actor’s Theatre called and said close but no cigar, I panicked. I had to move out of my apartment by Labor Day. I needed a plan. So I called Skip back and I took the job. I figured there’d be live theatre and improv comedy in Dallas...hell; Skip told me Walker Texas Ranger was shooting just down the street from where I’d be working. It was a step in the right direction.

A word about Skip, pre-living history days. He was an evangelical force of nature.

He’d been a pastor and a traveling evangelist—a Christian hype man of various stripes for ages. He worked at my church for about two years before basically being fired for gross mismanagement. But man-oh-man...what an amazing two years that was for my friends and me!

ED: THE MOVIE Premier, 1986 (I'm wearing the red bow tie, John Riser is in blue.)

ED: THE MOVIE Premier, 1986 (I'm wearing the red bow tie, John Riser is in blue.)

I’d never met a pure entrepreneur like Skip Smith—and have only met a couple since. Anything my friends and I cooked up to do...anything, Skip supported. We wanted to make a funny sci-fi horror spoof. Skip insisted that our ED: THE MOVIE premier at church camp that summer. (We wore tuxedos and everything!)

My friends and I heard that a retired, semi-professional wrestler went to our church. (We were Southern Baptists, not Presbyterians, okay?) So we cornered him one day and talked him into making a a Wednesday night youth event—at church. Hundreds of teenagers showed up—and these were not typical church kids. It was wild! And just as hilariously circusy as it sounds. During the match, the pro wrestler guy threw out his back. So two Brooklyn-Cayce High School football players became bona fide champs that night.

I wasn’t even 30 yet—way too early for an honest-to-God theatre artist to sell out.

Skip talked the local Christian television station into letting us run a full Saturday afternoon of live, in-studio programming. Imagine nerdy high school kids doing David Letterman: Stupid Human Tricks, goofball pranks, weird costumes. We ran live for two-and-a-half hours that Saturday before the sheer volume of outraged and confused calls forced them to ask us to leave. It was amazing!

When I got to Texas, I realized my new boss/old youth minister hadn’t changed a bit. He was still open to whatever I came up with. He totally trusted my artistic instincts and put the company’s money behind them. When I told him putting historical re-enactors in Six Flags parks was a bad idea, he asked for an alternative. And when I gave it, he said, “Perfect! Let’s do it!”

Can you imagine that kind of situation? It was thrilling. It ruined me forever on bosses. I’ve never had a boss like that since. Which is so maddening. Because I’m actually good at stuff, now! I was just some kid then.

It is so hard to find people who actually get behind artists and their ideas. We love to tout our inspirational values on social media while living the most fearful, wary, inartistic lives imaginable. But not Skip Smith. He’d look at you with that cock-eyed, crooked smile of his. He never blinked. He just believed.

Within a week or two of my arrival, Skip and I flew to Philadelphia so I could study with the living history master, William Sommerfield of the “American Historical Theatre.”

William Sommerfield at Mount Vernon

William Sommerfield at Mount Vernon

Mr. Sommerfield was the official George Washington of Mount Vernon and a veteran stage actor. He was an incredible man and a brilliant actor. He was the spitting image of George Washington, and among the many brilliant things he taught me, one thing I like a lot is that while you’re in costume as a historical figure, you must never drop character. Never. Bill said that if you’re in costume and some dumb kid asks you if you’re friends with Batman, you’re are supposed to be confounded: “Theese es a man who es a bat? Eh...thees man is hero? It maka no sense to Chreestopher Colummbus. I tell you about Queen Isabella. She wasa, so beautiful!”

One time a woman spotted Sommerfield, full George Washington attire, in a hotel lobby. She goes up to him, “My! You look just like George Washington.” Sommerfield doesn’t miss a beat. He huffily replies: “Why dear lady, I AM George Washington!”

In Philly, I received a week of training with the master. But unbeknownst to any of us, Skip was grooming me to run the entire living history program for our company.

Skip wanted a national network of living history actors who would go around the country teaching children about positive American values—all of it funded by corporate donations, and in the name of selling living history cartoons. Mr. Sommerfield wanted way too much money to do this, and really only cared about historical authenticity—the art of the act, not the Tony Robbins twist. I, on the other hand, wanted to be Mike Meyers and make movies. I was too dumb to realize that I had no clue how run a national network of William Bradfords and Pocahontases. William Sommerfield was a genius. He could raise an eyebrow, clear his throat, stand, sniff...and make grown men weep. Me, I couldn't get SNL to return my calls. (I really did have Dennis Miller's SNL phone number. And I did actually call it a couple of times. My deepest apologies to the confused NBC pages I interacted with.)

On the plane back to Dallas, Skip told me he thought I could run the whole she-bang without William Sommerfield. And I agreed. Because...he believed it. So I believed it, too. And so my first job was not just playing Christopher Columbus; I became the sole producer, writer, and director of the largest historical reenactment road show in American history.

Such was Skip Smith’s genius and his curse. He dreamed up so many cool, amazing, exciting things—and he enthused for other people’s cool, amazing, exciting things. Plus, he could find ways to get into the right boardrooms, in front of the right people, to get booked in the seat next to the guy who could make everything go. And how he sold! He was Kevin Costner-handsome, but had this wiry, street preacher fury when he pitched you. And he could pull back on a dime, disarming you with a wink. Skip loved to laugh. I can still hear his laugh. It was glorious, infectious...often to tears. The man’s laugh brought a room together. It gave people permission to say yes. Skip laughed, and everything came true.

Until, of course, it didn’t. Skip’s charisma, his charm, his ability to champion and win ran, on average, 12-14 months. Just enough time to audit the books, to check the receipts...for the bosses to hear tell of some newer, better plan he’d dreamed up that would make all the difference.

Skip once asked if I could pick up the rental car and hotel charges for an upcoming business trip. He said something about how he wanted me to learn how to properly submit a corporate expense report. I think it was because his personal credit cards were maxed out. In fact, I know it was. Still, it was helpful to learn how to fill out a corporate expense report. And on a good day, I give him the benefit of the doubt. Paper trails had always done him in. He didn’t want that to happen to me.

But even on a bad day, I just can’t bring myself to think of the guy as crook. I know some people who do—who insist on it. At best, people say Skip was just not a details guy. At worst, they say he was deceitful; creating just enough fire and shine to distract you while he took your money and ran. Lived to grift another day.

I was the fire and shine with Skip. I never got taken. Eventually he left the company and my living history actor program was terminated. I was laid off on a Tuesday morning, early 1994. I cleared out my desk and drove to Irving Mall. I got a job at a Dillard’s. I was selling neckties by Wednesday.

About a month into my second job, a friend from living history spotted me at the store, folding ties. We started talking about the actor program. He said I should’ve put in for a more traditional marketing position at the company. Said they liked me, didn’t hold anything against me. Nah, I told him. I still wanted to make movies and be on Saturday Night Live. The guy told me he’d heard that Skip Smith was moving to Atlanta. Some big company hired him to run a real “out-of-the-box” promotional program for them. I had to smile. Of course they did.

Skip never asked me to join him in Atlanta. He never called me again. But eventually we crossed paths in the late 90s—a youth group reunion at my old church. All of us grown up youth group kids were there. Everyone was so excited to see him. The laugh was back. And it was infectious. We all still adored him, and he absolutely believed in every last one of us.

I tried to talk with him, catch up. I’d not see him since the living history gig died. But there was a different feeling between us...something dull, something nagging. Like when you can’t remember if you fed the dogs or not and you’re almost to the airport.

I think he was afraid I was on to him. That maybe I had his number, you know? Thing is, I felt exactly the same about him as I always did. He was a hero to me. First as this wide-open youth minister who helped me find my voice creatively, and then as my very first boss—the man who put me in charge of some insanely ambitious theatrical undertaking when I was 22 years old.

That job took me all over the country. I met real actors and real agents and real, professional theatre people who taught me so much. I learned how to run business meetings and organize massive projects and how to travel for business—how to get around in an unfamiliar city, how to file an immaculate expense report.

I mentioned earlier, the Six Flags thing. Our company had this big meeting scheduled with Time Warner. Bob Pittman, who’d founded MTV, and would eventually go on to run Clear Channel, was at this meeting. He ran Time Warner’s theme parks at the time and everyone at the office was kind of nervous and hyped up about the pitch.

I’d convinced Skip that instead of George Washington and Florence Nightingale giving soap box speeches under roller coasters all summer, we should have improv actors performing a Colonial-themed trunk show; something fast and funny and interactive with crazy props, goofy hats...theme park silliness, you know? I called the show the “Historically Hysterical Colonial Troubadours.” And so that’s what we walked into the meeting with. Well that, and an elaborate plan to have Benjamin Franklin show up via a steam-punk time machine—which involved a hazer. Er, smoke. Halfway through our presentation, the smoke machine set off the fire alarm and sprinklers at the Six Flags corporate office.

As Skip and I crouched under the conference table, alarms blaring, red lights flashing, sprinklers raining, he looked at me with that cock-eyed, crooked smile of his. I was almost in tears, hyperventilating...but he was a rock. He yelled above the din: this was fantastic! Chaos, yes. A disaster of epic proportions, pretty much. But, he said. “These guys are never gonna forget us.”

He was right. We got the gig. It wasn’t even close. Pittman called us the guys who burned his building down. So in the spring of 1993, I embedded my Colonial Troubadours in all seven Six Flags theme parks.

I think that’s when I finally understood my first boss, and by extension, my first job. Skip’s whole life was a rolling disaster of epic proportions. Chaos in slow motion. A gut-churning crawl beneath boardroom tables—a sneak, a trick, a dodge and then an opening! A last minute escape!

I think that’s what turned Skip on to the Gospel back in the day: the grace, the redemption, the hope. But I also think he loved the fact that people remember. That there were people watching his life unfold, and we were all on the edge of our seats, marveling at the glorious chaos. Cheering when he’d weasel out of a tight spot again.

I think that’s pretty much what we’re all doing, isn’t it? Each of us, in one way or another, are trying to get away with lives that defy explanation, that unfold in fascinating ways...that other people remember and tell stories about.

We’re all creators of chaos—even the cautious and kept among us. We know that people are watching: family, friends, co-workers and bosses. And we want them to remember us like I remember Skip. 25 years have passed since I trod the boards as Christopher Columbus, and I honestly couldn't tell you a thing about him. But I’m still telling stories about Skip Smith.

So I figure that’s why he hired me. He knew that someday he’d be living history. And he wanted the youth group kid who wanted to make films and be on SNL to tell his story.

Written and performed for "Truth Is Presents: Jobs" at Gala Desserts, Charleston SC USA, 18 April 2017. Chris makes movies now...and writes about Saturday Night Live for Paste Magazine.