by Willard Manus
the molasses, please.
The request shocked the hell out of everyone at the table. Just an hour
earlier, Jerry Mondale had been sounding off about the dangers of sugar
consumption, yet here he was, smearing his chunk of fried chicken with
large blobs of molasses.
they had retired to the front porch, Jerry came up with an explanation
for his unexpected behavior.
When Im home and sticking to a normal regime, I stay clear
of all things sugary. But when I take a break and come up to Fishkill,
I indulge myself in a few things that are bad for me. Its naughty
of me, but what the hell, Im only human.
What about the people who read your magazine? How would they feel
about your relapse?
Ive got a loyal bunch of subscribers, he said. I
think theyd cut me a little slack.
The magazine in question was Prevent-The Natural Way to Good Health.
It was packed with articles preaching the philosophy that an ounce of
prevention was worth a pound of cure. Or, to put it another way, a diet
comprised of organic food plus vitamins and supplements would ensure a
long, healthy life.
Thats also the message of my play, Jerry explained when
Lance Hinton and Kurt Burkle joined them. Think of it as a drama
But not a comedy?
Theres some humor in it, but no, it definitely is not a comedy.
with displeasure. He had been tapped to direct Jerrys play, which
was called Mister Mother Goose and cried out for satirical treatment.
But Lance had to defer to Jerry, if only because the latter was the financier
in the partnership that had leased the Cecilwood Summer Playhouse. Lance
and Kurt, who were both actors and directors, supplied the creative energy;
Jerry the cash. As part of his deal with them, they had to produce one
of Jerrys original plays.
After much discussion about casting, costumes and set design, Lance and
Kurt departed the meeting, citing a long list of things to do. It was
left for Gus Wellins, the Playhouses publicity director, to finish
conferring with Jerry.
Over glasses of Dragon Herb tea-itll do wonders for
your nervous system, promised Jerry-they sat on the porch
together, gazing out over the grounds of the Playhouse, a solid brick
building that had once served as Fishkills only movie theater. It
was a hot July day, bright with sunshine, alive with music: specifically
the tinkle of a piano coming from a nearby room where a musical called
The Boy Friend was being rehearsed. A 17-year old Brooklyn girl named
Barbra Streisand was making her stage debut in it.
Gus made notes as he began to interview Jerry; the information he gleaned
would go into his Mister Mother Goose press release. Jerry, a stocky,
bespectacled man with a salt and pepper goatee, was pleased to answer
his questions. Im a Gemini and like to gab, he explained.
How had he
got into the good-health business? Well, after I got out of the
navy in WW II, I started an electronics business in rural Pennsylvania,
came the reply. I made a few bucks but was never really happy churning
out radio and tv components, largely because of my unhealthy life-style:
working long hours, drinking and smoking up a storm. After suffering not
one but two heart-attacks, I finally wised up and began to change my habits.
My research into healthy foods and vitamins saved my life, made me a new
Thats when I decided to sell my factory and start Prevent
-the first magazine of its kind. Its nutritional message caught
on with millions of people, all of whom were looking for new, unconventional
ways to extend and enhance their lives.
If your message has been so well received, why bother with writing
a play like Mister Mother Goose?
To begin with, Ive always loved theater and had a yen to be
a playwright, another Clifford Odets. But more importantly, I wanted to
reach a whole new audience with my nutritional message.
But Cecilwood is a summer stock theater. How much of an audience
can you reach in Fishkill, New York?
Fishkill is just a stepping-stone, Jerry said earnestly. My
sights are set on New York, having a huge theatrical success there, getting
the national media in my corner.
him for a brief description of Mister Mother Goose.
The play is set in a Brooklyn slum, where a poor family is struggling
to survive. The wifes anemic, the fathers depressed, they
have a son whos a juvenile delinquent, a daughter whos hooked
Just your typical American family, Gus said wryly.
Jerry ignored that. Into the picture comes a beautiful young social
worker. But shes a special kind of social worker, bringing a nutritional
message. She persuades the family to give up unhealthy things like fast
food and sweet drinks.
Sugar is the main enemy, right?
Exactly! Miraculous things happen when the family finally gets the
message and eliminates all carbohydrates from its diet, eating things
like hard-boiled eggs and sunflower seeds instead. The mothers anemia
is cured, the fathers depression lifts, and the kids manage to turn
over a new leaf in life.
Cutting out sugar helps the daughter get off drugs?
Absolutely. Theres a correlation between sugar and heroin,
you know. Junkies call it the munchies.
Sounds a bit far-fetched, but please continue.
word of the familys rehabilitation spreads through the hood,
things begin to change in a significant way. People quit slurping Coke
and Pepsi and scarfing cheeseburgers. That gives them the energy to get
off welfare, find good jobs, clean up the slums, and become model citizens.
Its a miracle, a revolution!
Then what happens?
The sugar industry begins to suffer. Profits go way down. So they
send a secret agentcode name, Mister Goose-- to try and infiltrate
the hood, stop the revolution in its tracks, persuade people to
start guzzling Coca-Cola again?
You got it! Jerry cried. That conflict is what gives
the play its dramatic thrust, its power and suspense! Now go and write
that up, will you-put together a press release thatll
help pack the house for every night of its two-week run!
* * *
As publicity director, Gus could attend any rehearsal he liked, but he
rarely took advantage of that perk. Most of his mornings were spent driving
around Dutchess County and placing Cecilwood posters in the windows of
shops and bars. Afternoons were spent on his own writing, with time off
for a quick swim at a local pond with his wife Maria, the Playhouses
Thus he had
little opportunity to track the progress of Mister Mother Goose. His only
gauge was the behavior of Lance Hinton and Jerry Mondale when they met
over dinner, which was taken in communal fashion in Cecilwoods main
house, a large, two-story wooden building with a wrap-around porch. All
of the actors and crew lived here, with the exception of Kurt Burkle,
who preferred the privacy of the battered Silverstream trailer he had
rented for the summer.
Gus found it hard to read Lance Hintons emotions; he was from rural
Missouri and had an ingrown, guarded personality-except when he
stepped on stage and suddenly came alive as an actor, exuding vitality
and energy. As for Jerry Mondale, it was all too obvious what he was feeling.
Normally cheerful and gregarious, he now sat at table in glum silence,
chomping away on his molasses-covered fried chicken. Neither man so much
as even looked at the other.
Were having big problems, Jerry confided later. Lance
refuses to take my play seriously, keeps wanting to turn it into a comedy.
Lance is a good director. Maybe you should listen to his advice.
Im not disputing his gifts, just the way hes treating
my play. I wrote it as a serious drama, a major attack on mans greatest
enemy, the sugar industry. It should hit with the destructive power of
an atom bomb, blow that powerful institution to bits!
outburst motivated Gus to start attending the rehearsals of Mister Mother
Goose. It was not a happy experience. Even under the best of circumstances,
rehearsals at Cecilwood were fraught with tension and angst. The actors,
many of whom were appearing nightly in the newly-opened production of
The Boy Friend, were struggling to learn a second plays lines in
a short space of time. To make things worse, they had to cope with Lances
dislike of Mister Mother Goose. Not that he would ever cop to it; Jerry
was, after all, his boss, the man whose largesse was making everything
possible: the eight-play season, the generous paychecks. But try as he
might, Lance could not hide his impatience with Jerrys drama of
Now that the play was up on its feet, with its dialogue being spoken by
professional actors, Lance could see all too clearly how flawed it was,
loaded with two-dimensional characters, burdened by a dubious, maybe even
Being unable to speak honestly to the cast took its toll on Lance, put
him into a depression. His conscience kept nagging at him, making him
feel artistically and morally compromised. But what was he supposed to
do, commit hara-kiri here on the stage of the Cecilwood Playhouse by telling
Jerry Mondale that his play was a great big pile of horse manure?
* * *
decided on a new course of action. Not only would he treat Mister Mother
Goose as a comedy, he would turn it into a complete farce by putting the
actors-all of them-on roller-skates. Thats right: roller-skates!
By going madcapthe Marx brothers on wheelsis how
he put it--he hoped to disguise the plays weaknesses, its shallowness,
its didacticism. With a little luck, maybe the audience would be gulled
into thinking that the preposterous play they were watching was preposterous
in a good way, a funny and entertaining way.
Problem was, Jerry Mondale hated Lances new strategy. Hated it!
His play was not a comedy, not a farce, goddammit! And he wanted everyone
in the rehearsal room to know it.
That night Jerry, Lance and Kurt met after dinner in the latters
trailer and tried to thrash things out. Gus and his wife, who were sitting
on the main houses front porch, could hear Jerry shouting no
no no to everything being said.
The next morning, Jerry came to breakfast looking as if he had just fallen
out of bed. His eyes were red and watery, his mouth a tight, resentful
line. Ordinarily a lusty eater, he ordered nothing from the kitchen, just
sat tapping out pills from a collection of plastic bottles. He explained
what they were: vitamins, blood-thinners, cholesterol-killers, pills meant
to boost his energy, shrink his prostate, regulate his heart-beat, improve
his digestion, strengthen his eyesight and kick-start his sex drive.
oblong pills, tiny pills, white pills, pink pills, multi-colored gels-Jerry
popped them all down, one after another, helped by gulps of mineral water.
It took him longer to work his way through those pills than it did for
the entire company to finish breakfast, and he was still at it when Gus
and Maria left the dining room, repeating his motions like a mechanical
man in a penny arcade.
* * *
Jerry stopped attending rehearsals after that, just took long walks in
the nearby woods, munching on handfuls of
sunflower seeds as he went. Sometimes he was joined by his wife Donna,
who had come up from Pennsylvania to be with him, but mostly he wandered
around by himself, brooding. Gus fully expected him to return to the Playhouse,
gather everyone around him, and announce that he was withdrawing his financial
support, not just of the production of Mister Mother Goose but of the
theater company in general.
Jerry surprised him, though. Disappointed and angry as he was, he did
not give vent to his feelings. He not only allowed Mister Mother Goose
to open, but sat through every performance of the play over the next two
weeks, watching from the back of the theater as the actors whirled around
the stage on wheels, decked out in circus-like costumes, shouting out
their lines, making a mockery of everything he had written.
* * *
like Jerrys play? Well, yes and no. At first they laughed at the
play, at its cartoon-like characters and bizarre actions, but as the performance
continued the laughs began to dry up. By the end of Gooses run,
attendance had dropped way off, sinking beneath the fifty per cent minimum
needed just to cover expenses.
Fortunately, though, the next production of Orpheus Descending was well
received. The full houses more than made up for the lost revenue on Mister
Mother Goose, thereby enabling the Playhouse to finish its season in the
black, no mean feat for such a large company.
Thus Lance, Kurt, Gus and Maria were able to return to Manhattan with
their heads held high, feeling that all the work and hassle had been worth
This was not the case, however, with Jerry Mondale. He went back to Pennsylvania
in a bleak mood that no amount of Dragon Herb tea could alleviate. He
was still determined, though, to make his mark as a playwright. To prove
it, he went out and bought a shuttered building in Greenwich Village and
turned it into a 150-seat theater, one whose design and equipment were
state-of-the-art. He called it the Mondale Center for the Healing
Arts and soon mounted his first production of, you guessed it, Mister
though, he hired a director who would do his bidding. The play was performed
as a drama, a tragedy really, thanks to the way the sugar lobby ultimately
crushed the social worker under its iron heel.
A few reviewers showed up but unfortunately they didnt like what
they saw and proceeded to trash the play in print. Ticket sales plummeted,
but the indefatigable Jerry Mondale refused to give up. He decided on
a new course of action. He would offer his play free of charge to the
Thats when he called Gus Wellins and asked for his help in publicizing
the fact that New Yorks newest off-Broadway theater would no longer
charge admission. How could people stay away if they know that?
Jerry asked. Where in the world can you see live professional theater
for nothing? Not only that, audiences will get a sample copy of Prevent
Magazine with every performance they attend.
Gus regretfully turned Jerry down. Much as he admired the man for his
grit, courage and idealism, he couldnt see anything but more failure
and humiliation in store for him. He did offer him a bit of advice, though.
Change the name of your theater. Call it the Manhattan Free Theater
and see if that will do the trick.
it over and decided the idea might work. The change of name didnt
help, though. Audiences still refused to come see his plays, all of which
had a nutritional message, of course. That was all Jerry cared about,
helping people to enjoy a happy, healthy life. That was what drove him,
inspired him, filled him with courage and fire.
Thats why it came as a shock when Gus learned of Jerrys demise
a year later. By then the Manhattan Free Theater had closed and Jerry
was no longer trying to use the stage to alert mankind to the dangers
of fizzy drinks and fatty cheeseburgers. He put all of his passion and
energy into his magazine and its brand-new book-publishing wing.
One title after another was issued by Mondale Press and many of them found
their way to the top of the best-seller lists. As much as theatergoers
had hated Jerrys nutritional dramas, readers loved what he had to
say in his books. They also eagerly bought the vitamins and supplements
that he now offered for sale via mail-order.
The 57-year-old Jerry Mondale not only became hugely successful but famous-the
man you associated with good health, organic food, and long life. He was
often interviewed in the mainstream press, even on prime-time television.
It was on one of those network showsThe Johnny Carson Show, to be
exactthat Jerry met his end. Right in the middle of a speech about
how a healthy diet and lifestyle had saved his life, Jerrys head
jerked back, his eyes bulged out, and he passed out right on camera, in
front of the nation.
revealed the cause of death: Mister Mother Goose had suffered a sudden
and massive heart-attack.