In a Technicolor world, Kurt Kleinmann prefers living in shades of gray. The founder, playwright and artistic director of Pegasus Theatre, and his cohorts have been delighting audiences with his signature brand of black-and-white, whodunit-style comedies for three decades. While the theater company has produced some non-black-and-white shows, they are renowned for their affectionate spoofs of 1930’s and 1940’s mystery-murder films, presented in Living Black and White—a descriptor that Kleinmann had trademarked.
As Pegasus Theatre kicks off its 31st season with his first new play in several years, Death Is a Bad Habit! at the Eisemann Center in Richardson, let’s take a look back at the road this award-winning theater company has traveled to become one of North Texas’ performing arts gems.
Why Black and White?
Kleinmann, who grew up in Oak Cliff, was a fan of old black-and-white films from an early age. At home he would constantly watch television and old movies, soaking them up.
“I think the thing I love about old black-and-white films is that I grew up with them so they are a part of my life, and second, how often do we get to witness the birth of a new medium?” Kleinmann says. “Black-and-white movies, and all old films, represent the infancy of that medium and contain its growing pains and triumphs. Even today you can still see directors finding new ways of using film to tell a story.”
In junior high and high school Kleinmann acted in plays and in the speech class he would deliver his speeches while in character. For instance, if he were going to recite the Gettysburg Address, he would deliver it as Abraham Lincoln. From there, he kept auditioning and acting in more and more plays. He did a good amount of early work in Fort Worth and then decided to spread his wings to Dallas.
“Everyone, when they’re young, is searching for what they want to do, what they can I do, and this sort of jumped out at me,” he admits. “The writing actually came hand-in-hand with that and I would write short stories. Then, in 1981, while I was studying theatre at UTA [University of Texas at Arlington], Mario Cabrera, a friend of mine and I decided to do some late night comedy, along the lines of Saturday Night Live, at a new wave lounge in Fort Worth.”
For the lounge act, he wrote new material each week. “I thought, these bars see the same people each week and if we are doing the same thing each week, it’s going to get old, so I wrote something new every week.”
It was training for what was to come.
Bronchitis, Harry Hunsacker and the Flying Horse
In 1978 he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, where he studied film, but his passion remained live theater. Kleinmann knew that as an actor he needed the proper training to fall back on because an actor can’t rely on inspiration every single night.
“I thought to myself, what do I need to do to achieve my goal? We referred to this as The Method. I like to refer to it as the Nike school of acting—you just do it.”
Then, while Kleinmann was still at the academy, he contracted bronchitis. As the disease lingered in his lungs he again turned to movies to keep himself occupied.
“I spent a lot of time in my apartment because there was nothing else to do. I watched television and found that there was a marathon of the old Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films,” he says. “As I watched they just annoyed the hell out of me after having read the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. I thought, ‘they’ve got the world’s biggest idiot as the world’s smartest guy’s assistant.’ And then I thought ‘what if I reverse that situation and make the world’s biggest idiot the detective and make the smartest guy the assistant’?”
And that’s where it all began.
Around that time he noticed that auditions had become very specific. “If they were looking for 35-year-old, bald Lithuanians they got 35-year-old, bald Lithuanians, so I thought I ‘d better write myself something so I know I’ll be right for it.”
In 1978, while in New York, Kleinmann wrote A Trifle Dead—the very first of the Harry Hunsacker Living Black and White plays.
“The black and white came along afterwards when I was faced with doing a production—a parody—with the same friend I had worked with at the comedy club. We talked on the phone and said the only thing that was stopping us from opening a theatre is to agree we were going to do it.”
So they agreed. When Kleinmann came back from New York, he and Cabrera found a space in Deep Elum and opened Main Street Theatre. Next, they produced Noel Coward’s Private Lives, their first and only production. Sadly, Cabrera became debilitated by the stress of running a theater and they decided to close. But when Kleinmann thought about all the effort he had already put into it, he decided to take it over and the theater was rechristened.
“When we were driving back to Dallas, one of the first things you would see was the red Pegasus horse on the horizon of the skyline, and it meant that you were home. There was also the artistic inspiration in Pegasus, so I’m going with that.”
The first show they staged as Pegasus Theatre in 1985 was The Coarse Acting Show, which was inspired by the book The Art of Coarse Acting by Michael Green. It’s a show based on things going wrong on stage, on purpose. The sequel to that show is in the lineup for the 30th anniversary season; a salute to where they’ve come from.
Enter: Barbara Weinberger
In 1986, corporate professional Barbara Weinberger wanted to add meaning to her life by seeing more theater. To accomplish that, she researched local theaters that needed volunteers and in exchange for seeing their shows, she helped out as needed. When she volunteered for the Dallas Theater Center or Theatre Three as an usher, she got to see the shows. And when she went to Undermain Theatre and poured sodas for them, she saw the plays.
But when she asked to help at Pegasus Theatre, she really got her money’s worth when they asked her to rebuild the theater’s seating area.
“I thought, this is sort of beyond pouring cokes, and ushering, but I like that.” Weinberger says with a smile.
So they pulled the seats out of the old Granada Theatre on Greenville Avenue and little by little scraped off the gum, pulled the seats apart, cleaned the cushions and repainted them then put them all back together again at Pegasus.
“Pegasus drew me in because I got to do a lot more, as much as I wanted to do.” But there was something—or someone—else she was drawn to.
“The first production I saw was Pass the Buck and at the time Kurt was there. When he came on stage, I realized he was someone I wanted to get to know,” she says.
“The first time I saw her was at the Granada when we had to remove the seats,” Kleinmann adds. “And then there was that moment when a friend of ours had fallen off a ladder and had injured himself quite severely. I was telling Barb about it and for some reason, I decided to kiss her.”
“Actually,” Weinberger confesses, “I was hugging him for comfort and I looked into his beautiful eyes and he just couldn’t resist me!” Now married 23 years, these two have worked side-by-side to make Pegasus the success it is today.
“Doing a little of everything has always been my thing,” she says. “And I now know there is a name for it—it’s called producing. Some producers have all kinds of people helping then, and we are blessed now that that is true, but in the early days it was just a little more than the two of us and Kurt’s parents, Erwin and Bette.”
When Kurt’s father passed away, Bette continued to help. “I would write grant proposals, help clean the rest rooms, write reports for the city about how we had spent the money, and then get on my hands and knees and pick up cups from under the seats. Erwin and Bette helped in the office and ran the box office. It wasn’t always glamorous.”
The Early Years
When Pegasus began producing plays, there was a pioneer aspect to it, Kleinmann says. Undermain Theatre had started the year before, and Matthew Posey’s Deep Ellum Theatre Garage came into being a year or so later, all within a few blocks of each other. Cora Cardona’s Teatro Dallas was new, too.
Pegasus was the first theater to present works by Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch, who have been influential on Kleinmann’s sense of comedy. When Pegasus staged Bluebeard (1986-‘87), Ludlam did bits of Bluebeard for Kleinmann over the phone.
“It was great, we were getting a private performance from the playwright,” Kleinmann fondly remembers.
The early years also brought them some important learning opportunities.
“You tend to judge crowds to come and see things and at the time we got a little spoiled by so much success with the black-and-white shows,” Weinberger says. “But when it didn’t go well, there was such huge drama, and as the years passed we realized there is no way to predict it (except for the black and white shows). But you’ll have a show you think is funny and worth doing, then it catches you by surprise. Catholic School Girls was one of those.”
“I guess the toughest part was just continuing,” Kleinmann admits. “Because you have these ideas and you say, ok we’re going to do a show. And you do a show and then you say, ok now what? We have to do another show, we have a theater.”
During their first season the company produced nine shows and the next year cut back to eight.
“We started to realize we’re going to chew through a lot of our material real fast,” Kleinmann says. “And actors who wanted to be in more than one show back-to-back had a hard time because we would have performances and then rehearse on the nights they were off, so there was a grind.”
“We got there by going from eight to six to five to four,” Weinberger adds. “Basically we made the runs longer and we had difference realizations. If a show was going to take off, it was going to take off on a Thursday, so there was no point having a four-week run because you didn’t get the benefit…so longer runs and splitting the runs apart so that rehearsals and runs weren’t happening at the same time made the most sense.”
These Little Town Blues are Melting Away
In 2002 when the new Main Street building owner tripled the rent, the doors had to close. At the same time, a window opened in the Big Apple.
“We had a set designer create an award-winning set for Death Express, and a New York producer, Cole Ferry with Step Lively Productions, came to see that set,” Kleinmann says. “But when he saw the set for It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Murder, he said that was the show he wanted, so we co-produced it.”
“We took it as a sign, maybe we were meant to go to New York,” Weinberger says. “To me, it was easier to close down the theater because it didn’t feel like an ending, it felt like a beginning.”
The show was classified off-Broadway and played at the DR2, a 99-seat house, next to the Darryl Roth Theatre, just off Union Square. It ran for three weeks. According to Weinberger, the play received a strong response from New York audiences.
After New York, Kleinmann and Weinberger took a couple of years off but during that time, Irving Community Theatre (now Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas) approached them about doing the Living Black and White show. Knowing the producer, Kleinmann trusted that she understood how it had to be done. He conducted a makeup session for them, and the show was a big hit.
“More important for us, it was proof that the show would work in a large house,” Kleinmann says of the Dupree Theatre in the Irving Arts Center. Mainstage produced Living Black and White for two years (2003-2004), and during that time the couple went to see them frequently. When they did, they would run into members of their audience who would ask when they were going to produce the show again.
“We did not know it yet, but the answer turned out to be: soon,” Kleinmann says.
Next, they targeted a couple of venues located within the geographic location of their Black and White fans. They discovered that the smaller theater in the Eisemann Center in Richardson fit the bill, and that they had a gap in their January schedule that fit their needs. So they gave it a shot and opened with Mind Over Murder in January 2006.
The show was a hit and Pegasus Theatre had a new home. In this decade, Pegasus also produced other shows under the banner of Churchmouse Productions, but in 2015 dropped that name entirely. The 2016 season will have several shows all under the Pegasus name.
Comedy is King
“It’s easier to send people a message when you make them laugh,” Kleinmann says. “My mother, who was an English teacher, knew that. She would use humor in her classroom to make her points and that stuck with me.
“Remember the TV show M*A*S*H?“ he asks. “You’re laughing you’re laughing and then you’re not laughing and then you’re laughing again, in the meantime they’ve slipped the message in and it’s painless. Comedy is really harder to do than drama. It’s easy to spill your guts, but it’s much harder to have the discipline and restraint that comedy places on you with the timing and accuracy of movement if you’re going to do it right—and I hope we do.”
Kleinmann and Weinberger admit that they’ve done shows where there was a lot of drama behind the scenes, so the process was unpleasant and yet it drew a lot of people, which by definition is a success. But those are not the ones they remember fondly.
“The ones we remember fondly are the ones where everything sort of came together, where the process was just as rewarding as the results, and that is important to us,” Weinberger says. “And so for that reason we’re really, really blessed to have people that we work with people year after year that enjoy how we work, we enjoy how they work … it’s a great collaboration.”
The old movie studios had a stable of actors that they used over and over and Kleinmann uses the same actors for the same reason: they get it.
“You develop a short hand with these people and it becomes even easier to work with them. For example, I might say, ‘ok I want you to cross this way as if you had just purchased a fish,’ and they’ll do it!”
Creating a Black and White Film on Stage
Kleinmann says it came about with the sense of parody.
“We were affectionately spoofing the old black-and-white films of the 1930’s and early 1940’s. I always use the example: if you were going to create a parody of Time Magazine, what color would you use on the cover? You would use a red border, because Time always uses a red border. So if we were going to do parodies of old black and whites, we would have to do them as if they are black and white movies.”
There was no manual to consult, no makeup technique to pull off the shelf, so they set about creating the effect. They took photographs of all kinds of objects and peoples faces, printed them in black-and-white to see what they looked like and then went to work to make it all happen. “It’s always been an ongoing process because we are always looking for ways to make it better and easier and faster and more durable,” he says. I don’t want to say we’ve maxed out, because what we are doing now is totally different than what we were doing 15 years ago.”
Kleinmann likes to allow two hours for the makeup to be applied. “I don’t like to be rushed; I like to put a little bit of the makeup on, and then I get a little bit into character.”
Something unique about the process is that when the gray makeup has been applied, facial definition is lost. So you have to go back in and recreate the details of a face: creating a new nose, cheeks and jawline.
Weinberger has also had the opportunity to experience wearing the makeup. Towards the end of a show, the team had quickly reworked the script when an actress became very ill and could not perform, killing her off at intermission. But the next day, which was closing night, and a sold-out show, the actress was still too ill to go on. So Weinberger went on playing an Egyptian princess.
“It was very interesting to apply the makeup. What I looked like was a photo of my mother at 17 because the makeup flattens everything out and takes away the details.”
Kleinmann says it takes about 30 minutes to remove the makeup. And at the Eisemann Center, fortunately there is a shower in each of the dressing rooms—a luxury they never had at the old space.
People tend to focus on the makeup, but it’s the lighting, the set, the costumes, the dialogue, and acting style that goes along with the dialogue—everything working together as a “living machine” to create the effect.
The audiences have been trained, so they love to find things that are not quite black or white or gray.
“They love it when they can tell us, ‘you know that jacket had a little bit of brown in it,’ and we take that very seriously.”
Sometimes it’s because of the jacket and sometimes it something with one of the lights. As Kurt will tell you, it really is about being meticulous.
“I feel very comfortable on stage,” Kleinmann admits. “It’s very gratifying as the writer, because even though I may not be delivering the line, I’m still getting the laugh.”
Much of the fun is Kurt (as Harry Hunsacker), Ben Bryant (as Nigel Grouse) and Chad Cline (as Lt. Foster).
“Our over-arching themes have to do with acceptance, tolerance and open-mindedness,” says Kleinmann. “Harry is an interesting character because he has this childlike quality and can blurt things out but he is still very lovable and always ends us solving the murder.”
All three of the main characters are flawed. Nigel is a recovering alcoholic, Harry is childlike and Lt. Foster needs anger management. “If you blend all three, you have one person,” he says. “I think that’s why it works I think it’s important that is it three because they play off of each other.”
“There are members of our audience who have not missed a show in 25 or 30 years and they are very proud of that fact,” says Weinberger. “They are the ones who remember that Nigel is an alcoholic and they remember that Foster is engaged because they remember him shopping for a ring in a previous show.
There is a certain trust that you build up with the audience.”
In each show, Kleinmann features one character a little more than the other, so that it’s not the same thing over and over. It’s important to be aware that they are creating a series, so they have to be gentle with the audience, revealing little bits here and there, and revealing growth in the characters. Another reveal comes at the end from Weinberger, who joins the curtain call wearing a red dress so that the audience's eyes can readjust.
“We have a great relationship in this trio,” Weinberger says. “I think that carries over into what the audience perceives. And that is really all we can hope for—that the audience has fun. Maybe they’ll walk away having learned something. Maybe we’ve helped ease their burden; maybe we’ve helped them understand something about themselves.”