What Ever Became of Fields Fest?


Note: we retain the post below for archival purposes. As it happens, Fields Fest IS coming to pass in November-December 2016. Details about it are here. 

Amusingly, after a year and a half of hearing me freak out about having too much to do, I am now starting to freak out about having nothing to do. It feels like I am about to fall off the face of the earth. This was not my original intention for this phase of the 2015 calendar. Those few of you who pay attention may recall that we had done some early announcing of something called Fields Fest. 

We were deep into the planning stages of it. I headed a committee of some pretty heavy hitters, including three of W.C. Fields grandchildren, Ron, Allen and Harriet, and some of the folks who represent them. Events were planned around the centennials of Field’s first silent film and his debut with the Ziegfeld Follies, a re-creation of Fields’ famous Canary Trial, readings of Poppy and a new work by Ron Fields called W.C. Fields: The Musical, a collaboration with the Ziegfeld Society, and discussions were on with prominent venues in NYC and other cities for screenings, talks, walking tours and other events. The bulk of it was to happen in June, with several other events scattered throughout the year.

Sounds pretty perfect, eh? The next big activity after MarxfestI’ll Say She Is, the Halloween show at Coney Island USA, and Horseplayand it tied in as well with it being the 20th anniversary of the launch of my company Mountebanks (Fields being the archetypal American mountebank).

But I very deliberately pulled the plug on it. It was an agonizing decision, and one I crowd-sourced. I kept it vague, but the overwhelming feedback was “yes, withdraw”. I wonder if people would have advised me that if they’d known what it was. And I admire Fields so much, he deserves tribute, and what a thrill to meet and know his grandchildren. So why the hell would I do that?

Well, another way to examine that question is “Why WOULDN’T I do that?” And that’s how I began to look at it. No matter what you do in life, there is always a danger of mission creep. This is frequently a pitfall in the arts, where the lures of funding, publicity, and various other carrots can easily pull you away from the thing you set out to do, the thing you really WANT to do.

One sterling example from my distant past: In around 1999 or 2000 I had a vaudeville show at Todo Con Nada, and my publicists asked, “Can you add a kid’s version of the show on weekend matinees? We think we can get you some added publicity that way.” And I said “Sure!” And you know what happened? The kid’s show got TONS of publicity in the New York Times, the Daily News, Newsday, etc etc etc, and we had lines around the block for the KID’S shows, which weren’t my bag, weren’t what I wanted. And the publicists were non-plussed. “What are you grumbling about? We got you all this publicity!” And my response was, “Yeah! But not for what I wanted!”

So this happens to me a lot. I don’t want to be a hermit. I want to be heard, loud, alive, here, public. While the thought of writing alone in a cabin gives me enormous pleasure, the thought that no one would read or hear what I wrote afterwards gives me the horrors. So you go where opportunities are, and sometimes it’s an unexpected direction, and so you explore.

The reality is that, while I really love history, what I really love is the aesthetics of it. I love old, tried and true, traditional forms…as a medium of expression. I like to make people laugh or cry or get scared or (probably most often) confused, and I like to do it in a pictorial and verbal way that has always spoken to me. So I do vaudeville shows, and revues, and melodramas, and camp, and stump speeches, and silent movies. That’s how I make art.

It just so happened that a book offer fell into my lap, and overnight I was a non-fiction author. In support of the ensuing book(s) I also became a blogger (my blogposts are really only commercials for the books, in case you didn’t notice the big sales pitch at the end of most of them). And I also became a public speaker – – I’ve given a hundred talks by now. My justification for all this (besides the obvious money and attention) was that it helps educate people to appreciate the aesthetic in which I prefer to communicate. I have sometimes heard from people that the stuff I am doing is COMPLETELY alien to them, despite the fact that I have virtually STOLEN all of it from an army of very famous forbears. So it makes sense to make potential audiences aware of those forbears. It really doesn’t go any further than that.

But you can see the danger up ahead, don’t you? It’s that people mistake you for JUST the vaudeville expert. When not only do I not want to be JUST the vaudeville expert, I don’t want to be one at all! If you have been non-plussed by my hostility when you cheerfully reach out with a question for me about vaudeville, or refer to me as a “historian”, that is where it’s coming from. And if you are frightened at my downright savagery when you reach out to correct me on facts, that too is why. I’ve blocked over 200 people on Facebook, mostly strangers, who’ve annoyed me with factual corrections. I don’t give a CRAP about facts. I don’t care what year anything was. I am primarily interested in storytelling and entertainment; if there is an apocryphal anecdote that tickles me more than “what really happened” I’ll gleefully perpetuate it rather than bore myself with the facts. Not only do I not give a crap, I do not give a FUCK. It’s taken me a long time to realize “How can you blame them for thinking you’re a non-fiction writer and show biz expert? It’s what you seem to be DOING!”

So it came to a head on Fields Fest, I’m afraid. The choice couldn’t have been any starker. With the pre-eminent Fields scholar in the room (Ron Fields),  any expertise I had on Fields was redundant anyway, so basically what I had become was an unpaid administrator in a field I was uninterested in pursuing, festival management. This at the same time when I was FINALLY getting to stretch my legs as a director, playwright and actor on all these exciting projects…and THAT is what I set out to do, what I really want to do. And what I am going to continue to do.

So when I say “I have nothing to do” now, as I did in the first sentence, that’s not quite true. These next few glorious months will be spent writing (scripts and proposals and maybe a book), applying for grants and residencies and the like, meeting with potential collaborators, and, um, getting married to the love of my life.

I’m afraid I left the Fieldses rather abruptly and mysteriously, though, and for that I am very sorry. The good news is that many of the planned activities are still in the works (the Ziegfeld Society program for example) without my involvement. So I’ll do my bit by supporting them and promoting them, and possibly writing some tributes. They’re very nice people. For their latest doings, go to wcfields.com. 

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