Playwright and actor Preston Jones, late uncle of actor, writer, teacher Trey Birkhead.

My Uncle, Preston Jones

CTD produces another "Texas Trilogy" play. Here, a remembrance of the writer.

published Thursday, August 13, 2009

When I was growing up in South Texas, every summer my family and I used to stop and visit my aunt and uncle, Preston and Mary Sue Jones, in Dallas on our way to my grandparents’ place in Missouri. In the summer of 1979, when I was 13, I remember sitting in on one of my uncle’s play rehearsals at Dallas Theater Center. It was for the last play he wrote, entitled Remember. I guess up until that time, I never really knew exactly what he or my aunt did nor did I show much interest. Sure, I had his Broadway show poster for A Texas Trilogy hanging on my bedroom wall in the mid-’70s, but I had never had a tangible experience with his work until that night at the rehearsal.

Remember is substantially different from Preston's better known Texas Trilogy plays, and even more autobiographical, with very strong characters. In it, a second-rate actor, Adrian, returns to his home in a "western state" on his 40th birthday (it's New Mexico, Preston's home state) for a visit after 20 years. He reunites with old friends who force him to examine his past. The language in this play is so poetic at times: "Old friends, old places, old memories fade away like breath on a glass." Of course, you can count on Preston's humor to poke through, too, like when Adrian talks about "Frankology, based on the teachings of Jesus' older brother, Frank Christ."

The 1979 Dallas Theater Center production of Remember was so successful and got such good reviews that everyone said Preston was back on the right track and they all looked forward to where this writing style was going to lead him. Unfortunately, he died soon after.

That 1979 rehearsal was the last time I ever saw Uncle Preston. Aunt Mary Sue found him in the bathroom in their little house at the end of Beverly Drive after he had collapsed just before he was to go into the hospital for surgery for a bleeding ulcer. He never came home again. He had died at age 43. It was a shock to the entire family and to so many others.

Preston and Mary Sue had been scheduled to do Robert Bolt’s historical drama A Man for All Seasons together at the Theater Center, where my aunt, a distinguished actress and designer, was Associate Artistic Director under Paul Baker, the famed founding director. I still can’t imagine how my aunt was able to go on and direct that show without Preston in the role of Norfolk (taken over by actor Michael Scudday). That took a whole lot. She did it with the help of Mr. Baker.

The next year, I remember the whole family gathering to watch one of Preston’s plays acted in a live performance on NBC television. It was The Oldest Living Graduate, broadcast from SMU’s Bob Hope Theatre, starring Henry Fonda, George Grizzard, Cloris Leachman, Harry Dean Stanton, David Ogden Stiers, John Lithgow and Timothy Hutton. It was an all-star cast, and I remember when Jane Fonda came on the set to talk about my uncle during the show, I think I finally started to understand what that poster on my bedroom wall represented. NBC aired the play on the first anniversary of my uncle’s death, and my Aunt Mary Sue was sitting on the front row during the telecast. That must have been so hard for her.

The following year, I became interested in the theater myself, having won Best Actor in the U.I.L. one-act play competition in junior high. My aunt got the notion that someone in the family might actually follow her lead and pursue a life in the theater, so she invited me up to Dallas to live with her for three consecutive summers and to study under Synthia Rogers at the Teen/Children’s Theater program at Dallas Theater Center.

I had the time of my life learning all about Preston and Mary Sue Jones and getting to see her act on the Kalita Humphreys stage. I was very impressionable. Living with my aunt, I got to see my uncle’s wood sculptures every day, his teddy bear collection, Billy Budd (their cat who never did like me much), and I got to peruse through all of his and my aunt’s old theater books. There were hundreds.

There are so many stories I could tell you about my aunt and uncle. Back when Uncle Preston worked in the box office at DTC in the early 1970s, Mr. Baker had also put him in charge of the Down Center Stage, the experimental smaller theater in the basement of the Kalita. Mr. Baker wanted him to find new plays about Texas life. Preston had the darnedest time finding any, so finally he just decided to write his own. Yes, while he was in the box office selling tickets and taking phone orders, as some of his old colleagues like Linda Blase, a long-time DTC photographer and lighting designer remember, he was writing away in longhand while he was on duty. On one occasion, he was working on a scene from The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, trying to come up with a name for a guy in the play. He just looked at the Stempco brand clipboard he was writing on and decided, “That’s it. I’ll call this guy Stempco!”

I'm happy to say, I am now the proud owner of that Stempco clipboard.

Preston’s most famous plays, sometimes called the Bradleyville Trilogy, have been revived over the past two seasons by Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. After seeing their excellent 2007 production of Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander (the second play in the series), I decided to support that theater. When CTD did The Oldest Living Graduate in the summer of 2008, I rounded up many of the original Dallas Theater Center cast members to come see it on one special night.

I also invited Uncle Preston's two children, Sam and Mary Alice, from his first marriage (who sadly did not have a relationship with him). The son, Sam Houston (he was adopted by his step-dad), was running for the Texas Supreme Court that summer. Preston would have gotten a real kick out of that. Sam and Mary Alice never really knew their natural father, so I got Preston and Mary Sue's old buddies together and we took time to pass around favorite stories of him so they could learn about Preston. It was truly an experience to remember. Randy Moore, who played Col. J.C. Kinkaid (the oldest living graduate) in the original productions of the trilogy, is one good storyteller.

I was also proud to bring Kevin Moriarty, Dallas Theater Center's current artistic director, to opening night of Graduate at CTD. That to me was such a victory since Preston's name hadn't really been uttered at DTC since the early 1980s. I've always been a peace maker, so it was very gratifying for me to have the feeling of everything coming around full-circle.

Kevin was very kind to make arrangements soon after that for Hillary Hart, DTC's General Manager, to open up the Kalita Humphreys Theater one Saturday morning for me and a group of former Baker/Jones company members to visit the place they had held so sacred as a place to work and create from 1959 to the early 1980s. Most of them had not set foot there since they were let go after Mr. Baker left the theater. It was very emotional, as you can imagine.

And the overlapping circles of relationships with A Texas Trilogy now include me. Director René Moreno has cast me as Lonnie Roy McNeil in Contemporary Theatre’s production of The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia (running August 14-September 6). It’s a great cast, with John S. Davies returning as Col. Kinkaid.

I’m so proud to be part of this show. I play the character who gets to say “Stempco, Stempco, Stempco.” I think Uncle Preston would like that.

Trey Birkhead is a kindergarten teacher in Plano, Texas. His aunt, Mary Sue Birkhead Fridge Jones, succeeded Paul Baker as artistic director at Dallas Theater Center for one season, then went on to teach on the faculty of the College of Santa Fe. She died in 1992, at age 61.
To read more about Preston and Mary Sue Jones, you can explore their papers at the archives of the Southwest Writers Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos. Many of the papers, including correspondence and articles about them, are available online.
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My Uncle, Preston Jones
CTD produces another "Texas Trilogy" play. Here, a remembrance of the writer.
by Trey Birkhead

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