Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Day for Remembering Dale Wasserman

by Kaye Fissinger

It began as any normal day with the usual morning routine. Before any other activity my four-legged people had to be fed. For all the gifts they've given over the years, it is only appropriate that their needs must first be met.

After the morning coffee is poured, the newspapers are retrieved from the front porch and the Times-Call is perused for the latest Longmont events. But Saturday was different. I stared for some time at the article at the bottom of Page B6. I knew this day would come soon. "Dale Wasserman, 94, wrote book for musical 'Man of La Mancha'." Dale was gone.

I worked with Dale in 1978 and 1979. It was the type of honor with which few people are blessed. I was his research and production assistant, sounding board and 'girl Friday' and, most of all, his friend.

I met Dale in 1976 while studying for my Masters in musical theatre. Of all the musicals ever written, none had moved me more than "Man of La Mancha." While working on a research paper, I dared to reach out to him for his insight. After some inventive investigative work on my part, it finally happened. From Los Angeles' west San Fernando Valley to Palm Springs our first contacts were, as is fitting, through writing.

Shortly thereafter Dale purchased Trident Ranch in Moorpark, northwest of Los Angeles, and soon I had the joy of being part of the work of a gifted, insightful individual who gave more to the world than he would ever realize.

The ranch was a wonderful environment. In a part of the country where it is often impossible to determine where one city ends and another begins, this was open space. It wasn't a ranch as Coloradans experience. Located in southern California it was a citrus ranch, later to enjoy new acres of young avocado trees. At the top of the hill were Dale's home and a separate studio for his work.

Often at our sides was a marvelous German shepherd named Lady, later to be joined by Banjo. I had always been leery of shepherds--until Lady. I remember times when Dale was out of town and Lady was my partner as well as my companion. I would lie on the floor with my head resting on her mid-section reflecting on the proper presentation of material I had just read, works just analyzed, I remember Dale and I laughing at Lady and Banjo enjoying the pool. I remember Lady providing a blood transfusion so that Banjo might live.

I remember our visit to San Francisco and northern California. What a treat it was to witness San Francisco through Dale's eyes, stay at the original St. Francis Hotel and experience Chinatown at one of Dale's favorite restaurants. And there was property well north of the city that Dale anticipated purchasing that took us on an entrancing drive through the Redwoods.

A new play with a double entendre title "Play with Fire" was scheduled for its world premier production at the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles. Discussions were proceeding with its director who was working in San Francisco at that time.

I remember the excitement of being part of a premier production. It's an experience quite different from staging an established work. Are the words as effective as they might be? Yes? No? New pages replace old. Old pages returned. Nervous cast members who are the first to portray their characters worried that their work might not be good enough. I remember the anticipation of the previews and opening night. What will the critics think? The audience?

Now thirty years later some of those artists are no longer with us. Telly Savalas. Carrie Snodgress. And sadly, now Dale. But the work lives on. Many years later it was rewritten and re-titled "Players in the Game." Dale was never really satisfied. Every time he reread his material or prepared for a new production, he would seek to make it better, more moving, more meaningful.

I remember the front row seats at the revival of "Man of La Mancha" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A. Dale eschewed religion and was always amazed when he was told that the 'La Mancha' experience was for many religious in nature. He was often frustrated when people didn't understand that the operative word of "The Impossible Dream" was impossible. He found it necessary to remind people that this was the story of Cervantes not of Don Quixote. In my humble conclusion, it is the story of them all -- Cervantes, Don Quixote, and Dale Wasserman.

Much has been written about "Man of La Mancha" and much more will be. But after all is said and done, it's the story of a man's journey, his quest, to reach the unreachable, to right the unrightable. These arms most certainly lie peaceful and calm as he's laid to his rest. And the world is better for this man who strove with his last ounce of courage to reach that unreachable star.

The tears fell on Saturday. Tears of joy that I had the honor to know and love him. Tears of sadness that this earthly life will never again be shared. Tears shed for courage as I reach for my own impossible dream. And tears of expectation that one day I will see him again when "my destiny calls and I go."

December 28, 2008

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