Down East 2013 ©
Why should we get a pass? Between the economic recession and the vacationing-in-a-moldy-pup-tent weather, the business climate in Maine this summer has been pretty dismal. In times like these, of course, I’m even more grateful than usual to be self-employed. The old line “I may not get a paycheck this week. But at least I still have a job.” has a particularly strong resonance lately. Fortunately, forty years without a “day job” has kept my survival instincts well honed. In 2009, as always when faced with hard times, Mainers still want (desperately need?) to get out and have a good laugh. So, with a healthy dose of Yankee pragmatism, some flexibility on my fees, and willingness to work creatively with arts organizations and nonprofits, I’m “getting by” just fine.
Interestingly, one new and rather bizarre business trend has emerged over the past eighteen months or so. There’s been an increasing number of absolutely, ridiculously last-minute booking inquiries. I’m talking really last minute! Normally, people contact us for bookings anywhere from three to twelve months in advance of the performance date. To book a show for the summer of 2010, for instance, they’d call in the spring of ’09, something like that.
Lately, however, any semblance of advance planning seems to have evaporated. Who knows why? I’m guessing this has less to do with folks actual checkbook balances than with the thick fog of “economic uncertainty” we’re all drifting through.
Last spring, the CEO of one of the largest companies in Maine called me on a Saturday afternoon and after a bit of dickering we arrived at a mutually acceptable fee and booked a show for the following Tuesday! I mean, come on! That’s barely seventy-two hours before the gig. I’m not complaining. I’m happy to have the work. So anyway, here’s what happened on a recent weekend.
I was booked (several months in advance) to do a Friday evening show at the Neighborhood House on Islesford, a.k.a. Little Cranberry Isle. CBS Sunday Morning Heads reading this will recall that island as the scene of one of the most popular and memorable “Postcards from Maine”. We called it Island Graduation and it aired sometime in the mid-1990’s during my first couple of years with the network. One of the great benefits of that job was that I basically received a personal master class in TV storytelling from the master himself, Charles Kuralt. One of Charles’ hard and fast rules was that if the network sent you out on location and the story you planned to shoot was no good you should forget about it and go find another story. “If you can’t find a good story there,” Kuralt advised, “pack it in and keep looking until you do.” World-class advice, that.
We arrived on Little Cranberry planning to do a story about the island postmistress, Joy Sprague. I’ve forgotten the exact details, something about selling more commemorative stamps than any other post office in the country. Whatever it was the powers that be at CBS deemed the story strong enough to commit a crew, several days of our time and tens of thousands of their dollars to film the story. We hadn’t been on the island more than a couple of hours when my producer Mary Lou Teel and I began to realize that the story just wasn’t a particularly strong one.
Among other things, our central character, postmistress Joy Sprague, seemed not very interested in telling the tale. In fact she was extremely distracted and more or less too preoccupied to pay much attention to us. When we asked her about it she admitted that she really wasn’t able to think about anything except the graduation that evening of her daughter Corey. Corey, as we soon learned was the only graduate of the island’s K-8 school and everybody, all 300 and something islanders, were complete wrapped up in the event. I won’t go into the details except to say that we used the “Kuralt Technique.” We dropped the original pre-approved story idea and shot the story that was there — with spectacular results.
So this recent return trip to Islesford was a reunion of sorts for me. Many of the islanders (including Joy Sprague) were in the audience at the show. I performed on the same stage in the same timeless little community hall where we’d filmed that CBS postcard nearly a decade and a half ago. In the magical way of Maine island life it was a bit of a warm, fuzzy, foggy, salty time machine ride and a splendid time was had by all.
So that was my first reunion of the weekend. In another last-possible-minute booking I’d received an inquiry from the Plummer clan in Trenton barely thirty-six hours prior to my Islesford show. Bill Plummer called the office to ask whether I might stop by the Plummer place the day after my show on the island. Since I was in the neighborhood I figured, why not? But, I was perplexed by the odd sum of money the family was offering. It was an unusual and very specific sum and Bill said that was exactly they dollar amount they had to spend. That was a bit weird. But, OK by me. There was no time for a contract so with a verbal handshake we sealed the deal. The day after the Isleford show I arrived at the Plummer house around 5 p.m. to set up my sound system.
It was a marvelous spot, right on the water overlooking the western shore of M.D.I. and Blue Hill Bay. As we were setting up the sound Bill pressed a thick wad of bills into my hand and thanked me for coming at the last minute. I figured that was a good a time as I was going to get to ask how the heck they’d arrived at the odd dollar amount.
According to Bill his family has been big fans of mine for years. When they saw that I had a show nearby during their annual reunion weekend they considered buying tickets and taking the ferry out to the show. With forty-three people the caravan started to seem a bit unwieldy, but they still liked the idea of the show. So, they sat down with a calculator and added up the cost of forty-three tickets plus forty-three round-trip ferry rides, dinner, etc. That all added up to a very specific dollar amount. That’s what it would cost for all of them to come see me on Islesford. Then Bill called and asked me if, for the same price, that exact dollar amount, I’d be willing to come and do a show for them. I had to chuckle at the best example of old fashioned Yankee ingenuity I’ve run across in a while.
The show for the Plummer reunion was a great success. I’ve resolved not to let another decade slip by before I return to Islesford and once again been reminded that, recession or no recession, I still have the most fun job of anyone I know.