ArtsATL > Theater > Essay: Academy Theatre, Julia Roberts’ parents laid foundation for blossoming of theater in Atlanta

Essay: Academy Theatre, Julia Roberts’ parents laid foundation for blossoming of theater in Atlanta

The Academy Theatre took over the space of the Peachtree Art Theatre.
The Academy Theatre took over the space of the Peachtree Art Theatre.

I kissed a girl, and 10 yards away a Buick exploded. I was on the back of a flatbed truck that had been converted into a swamp. I was a fox. The girl was a terrapin. We were in Atlanta, it was a very nice summer day in 1965, and I was 15 years old. The girl was Yolanda King, daughter of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. I was primarily Caucasian and Yolanda wasn’t. That’s what the trouble was about. I don’t know who owned the Buick, but I know who blew it up.

A man, a tangential member of the Ku Klux Klan, had seen me kiss Yolanda the day before in the same parking lot. She and I were members of a theatrical group called the Actors and Writers Workshop. It was run by Walter and Betty Roberts, the parents of Eric and Julia Roberts. Rob, as Walter was sometimes called, had written his theatrical version of a Joel Chandler Harris story, thanks in part to a Guggenheim grant for children’s theater. That’s why Yolanda and I were standing in a makeshift swamp on the back of a flatbed truck, dressed as a fox and a terrapin.

The Klansman had come around the day before the explosion in order to make trouble. The workshop was offering a free show in the Carver Homes housing project, an exclusively African-American wonderland filled with hammered lives and children with nothing to do. The guy only heckled us the first day, said words that everyone had heard a million times before, finished his case of PBR, and was about to leave when I kissed Yolanda.

Phillip DePoy
Phillip DePoy

Maybe I haven’t painted the picture properly. I was a fox. I had red fuzzy ears and a tail, lots of facial makeup, and I wore a battered tux. Yolanda was green and encased in a cardboard shell. She was wearing slightly altered swim flippers on her feet. No one in his right mind would have assumed we were striking a blow for any sort of human dignity or rights.

But this man was not in his right mind. He came back the next day with a box, the kind his spiritual brothers had used two years earlier to kill children in a church in Birmingham. Maybe his intention was to put it under the flatbed truck, but there were too many kids and parents and dogs and drunks and cops, so the closest he could get was the Buick. I don’t know what kind of Buick it was. I know it was a Buick only because somebody later said, “They sure did blow up that Buick.”

Yolanda and I had kissed before. We had to rehearse, of course, to get the scene the way Rob wanted it. And just in case, we occasionally went to the costume room by ourselves to make sure we were getting that particular moment just right. It takes a lot of rehearsal to get a stage kiss just right. And, as it turned out, kissing was, at that time, the most important aspect of the theater, at least for me.

But no amount of rehearsal could have prepared us for an exploding Buick. Here’s how it happened. The Terrapin had told me something that I could use against the Bear. I thanked her with a kiss, which surprised her, and she did a little dance. It always got a laugh from the kids, and it did that day. Then the car exploded.

All right, it wasn’t much of an explosion, and the most startling thing about it was the fact that most of the people in the parking lot responded very mildly. The car belched, then started to burn, and most people glanced that way and then back to the stage. So a car was on fire. It wasn’t a first for that particular parking lot. In fact, if the Klansman hadn’t been an idiot, and drunk, he might have gotten away without being identified.

The King Family
The King family: Yolanda is next to her father.

Instead, he chose to start screaming things toward the stage. Then he threw his beer bottle at the car to help it burn better. The cops who had been watching the show just wandered over, talked to him, put him in handcuffs and took him away with very little energy.

Yolanda and I stared at each other. Rob came to the side of the stage and said something to the crowd. I couldn’t hear what it was, but almost everyone laughed and some applauded. Then he turned to us and said, “And the next line is?”

Yolanda blinked and said, “Gosh.” And then she did her funny little dance again. Children laughed again. The car was already starting to burn out. Filthy smoke blew away from the project, toward the highway.

The show was over by the time the fire truck arrived.

That autumn I was sitting in the gym at my high school in southwest Atlanta. The gym had been converted into a kind of auditorium, and a nice little play about proper school behavior had just started. I’d taken a seat close to the stage at one end of the gym, partly to be near the actors, partly to sit next to Linda Davis.

The play had been running for only a minute or two when the heckling started from the back rows. Everyone could hear some loudmouthed cracker shout out, “What a load of crap!”

Teachers jumped up.

“This is the stupidest thing I ever saw!”

The principal began to prowl the gym trying to identify the offender.

On the stage, an actor named Page Lee broke down, looked out into the audience and said, “We’re just trying to put on a nice little play here.”

The troublemaker shouted back, “Well, do something better! Something that means something!”

That was my first clue that the heckler wasn’t from the school. It never would have occurred to boys at my high school to ask for better art.

But most of the audience and all the faculty were upset. Linda Davis turned to me and said, in great distress, “You’re in theater; can’t you do something?”

I told her to wait just one more second.

Sure enough, the heckler appeared, walking toward the stage. He was Chris Curran, another member of the cast, and he and Page Lee fell into a dialogue about the nature of meaningful theater. Teachers sat down. The principal stood in the back. Every student in the school was focused on what was happening at the stage end of the gymnasium.

Walter "Rob" Roberts
Walter “Rob” Roberts

When the show was over, the actors said they were going to do a few minutes of improvisational theater, and wondered if anyone in the audience wanted to help. I didn’t volunteer, but several teachers and a few of my so-called friends shoved me toward the cast. I spent the next half-hour in a kind of performance bliss.

When the show was entirely over and everyone else went back to class, I stayed to talk with the actors. Chris Curran asked me how I’d gotten interested in theater. I told him about the Actors and Writers Workshop, and all the actors started laughing.

“Rob used to work with us,” Page said.

The actors were from the Academy Theatre, the only avant-garde performance entity in the South at the time. They told me some fairly unbelievable stories about what Rob had done at the theater.

The best, whether or not it was true, was that he had talked the High Museum of Art into allowing several significant paintings to be exhibited in the lobby of the Academy Theatre. Then, as a publicity stunt, Rob had hidden the paintings, told the police they’d been stolen, and later “found” them stashed in a hiding place near the theater. It had been great publicity for the theater, with headlines in the Atlanta papers, and, for a short time, the talk of the town.

And Rob’s reward for such an enterprising stunt, something that was, in itself, a brilliant piece of meta-theater? He was immediately fired by Frank Wittow, the founder of the Academy. Thereafter, neither had a kind word to say about the other. (Every time Rob belched during rehearsal he would say, “Sorry, didn’t mean to give a Frank Wittow direction.”)

The conjunction of these events within such a relatively short time convinced me that theater was the greatest aspiration of the human spirit: it could make headlines, it could cause chaos in high school, and it could make a man so mad that he’d try to blow up a Buick. God, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

As it turned out, of course, I wasn’t the only person in Atlanta who felt that way because of Walter Roberts and Frank Wittow. Yolanda King spent the rest of her life involved in theater; my brother, Scott DePoy, who had joined the workshop before I had, continues to work all over the Southeast. Eric Roberts eventually went to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. I understand that even his younger sister got involved in acting.

Betty Roberts with daughter, Julia.
Betty Roberts with daughter Julia.

But as a result of the kind of theatrical work that was happening in Atlanta in the 1960s, a great flowering of the performance arts was taking root in the South.

The 1970s scene in Atlanta, for example, was especially vibrant, particularly in galleries and bars. The Catbird Gallery on Peachtree was practically the home base for the Atlanta Poetry Collective’s readings, events that often turned into something theatrical. Del Hamilton’s theater on Moreland Avenue, so close to the bar next door that you could hear the crack of pool balls during nearly every show, was frequently the scene of some Debbie Hiers poetry explosion, complete with clarinet playing and spraying ketchup. I performed theatrical poetry at the Little Five Points Pub all the time, and several times at the Excelsior Mill (now the Masquerade).

The Mill was a rangy space, a little like a miniature Goat Farm, owned by Mike Reeves. One night close to Halloween, he allowed a group of us to create a performance, called “Messages From Beyond,” with George Ellis and a gaggle of musicians and troublemakers hidden in the audience. Ellis had been, in the early 1960s, the host of Atlanta’s Friday night scary movie television show, playing a character named Bestoink Dooley. Later, George owned Atlanta’s first art movie house. Our performance of “Messages From Beyond” included moments of crazed invention, spontaneous music and maniacal laughter — everything Antonin Artaud would want in a piece of theater.

George Ellis as Bestoink Dooley
George Ellis as Bestoink Dooley

That night George told me that, although he’d made some hilariously bad movies, his favorite performance experience had been years before at the Atlanta Arts Festival. As Bestoink Dooley, he’d played Romeo to Miss Boo’s Juliet in a bizarre version of the balcony scene. Miss Boo was an Atlanta daytime children’s television character played by Rosie Clark, and I’d been in love with her when I was 10 years old. I told George that by way of saying how odd it must have been to play that scene. He said it had been made easier by Frank Wittow, who had directed it. Then, believe it or not, he belched and said that was Frank’s greatest direction.

At that time, my brother Scott and I were playing in a relatively popular band (called “Nick’s Flamingo Grill”), and because of that I was often given access to performance space in bars. I was unaware that a good number of theatrical types liked the band and would come to see us when we played at the Downtown Café or the Little Five Points Pub. In the early 1980s, I was very surprised to be asked to be musical director for a show at the Academy Theatre.

Frank had unfortunately had a heart attack, and my friend Barbara Lebow, pitching in during Frank’s recuperation, had decided to direct “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road,” with Brenda Bynum. I put a band together, incidentally featuring a 17-year-old Kelly Hogan, and we played the show, despite the fact that Kelly and I were living on the Foxfire property in North Georgia at the time. It seemed a uniquely insane experience, but it led to my being, for the rest of the decade, the composer-in-residence at the Academy Theatre.

Also at the Academy in those days were Kenny Leon, Carol Mitchell, Rosemary Newcott, Chris Kayser, Jody Feldman and a host of other remarkable people (Jeff and Lisa Adler had just left, Mira Hirsch was just starting) who have gone on to provide a good deal of the foundation of the current professional theater scene in Atlanta.

The Academy Theatre was housed, then, in a former movie house on Peachtree Street across from the Women’s Community Center, close to 14th Street. It was the theater where Margaret Mitchell was headed to see a movie when she was fatally struck by a car as she crossed Peachtree Street. It later became an “art” cinema house, where I’d seen “A Man and a Woman” as a teenager, but then degenerated into a seedier home for less artful “adult” entertainment before closing entirely as a place to see films.

It was a fantastic, cold, drafty, damp derelict with an impossible stage. Frank’s office was up in the rafters over the lobby, literally an attic crawl space with one tiny window that faced downtown. The dressing rooms were equally frightening, two stone-walled changing rooms up rickety stairs on either side of the stage.

It was also home to some of the most inventive theatrical work I’d ever seen. Eddie Lee created a version of “Mandragola” there that was one of the funniest experiences of my life — and I got to be onstage every night, playing music I’d written. Barbara Lebow wrote “A Shayna Maidel” for that building, a production that went on to New York and to the movies.

Frank even allowed me to continue with my admittedly twisted performance pieces, one of which was a seasonal production called “Christmas From Other Worlds.” It was actually just an excuse to expose short pieces that were only tangentially associated with the holiday. Donna Persons, practically naked and wrapped in Christmas lights, danced in the dark to then-husband Michael Catalano’s trumpet playing. Beth Heidelberg performed a Huron Indian carol. And I somehow persuaded Betty Smith, a beautiful Appalachian psaltery player, to perform several songs, including the ever-popular “Christmas Pig.”

At the end of the performance, Frank called me aside and said, “Betty’s the show. That’s your show.” And with very little additional encouragement, I agreed. I’ve been creating versions of “Appalachian Christmas” and Appalachian everything else (including seven Fever Devilin novels) ever since.

That, I think many would agree, was Frank’s genius: he could spot what worked, spot it a mile off. Barbara used to say that he created the best stage pictures she’d ever seen. It was his general method, in fact — one that had been radical in the 1950s when he’d started, and had become tried and true. He would encourage the performers to begin in chaos, moving around the stage any way they wanted to, making any kind of noise or music they could, and when something would arise out of the madness, he’d know it and he’d use it. He hadn’t invented that method, of course, but he employed it better than anyone else. I certainly went on to use it to great effect as a university professor in a variety of theater courses, but it took me awhile to remember that when I was 15, kissing girls and making Klansmen mad, Walter Roberts had also used some of those same ideas at the Actors and Writers Workshop.

In 1676, in a letter to his friend Robert Hooke, Sir Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” The quote is no less applicable to any artist, but theater is especially fond of simultaneously standing on the giant’s shoulders and kicking him in his big head.

At the Moscow Art Theatre, Konstantin Stanislavski wouldn’t have been so interested in realistic or natural theater if the melodrama that preceded it hadn’t seemed so ridiculous to him. Several decades later in France, Artaud wouldn’t have been so interested in destroying realistic theater for more or less the same reason.

So while it’s the way of the theatrical arts to rebel, to recoil at what has gone before, that’s a process available only to artists who know what has gone before. Otherwise, we’re doomed to foolishly think we’ve invented something that we’re really only re-creating in new and, we hope, interesting ways. We ought to know more about what has gone before.

We could start by taking a look down at the giants.

Phillip DePoy is an Atlanta playwright and author. A former artistic director of the Theatrical Outfit, he was the recipient of the Edgar Award in 2002 for best mystery play.

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